Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road

Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road

Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road

Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road


In the contemporary world the meeting of Buddhism and Islam is most often imagined as one of violent confrontation. Indeed, the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 seemed not only to reenact the infamous Muslim destruction of Nalanda monastery in the thirteenth century but also to reaffirm the stereotypes of Buddhism as a peaceful, rational philosophy and Islam as an inherently violent and irrational religion. But if Buddhist-Muslim history was simply repeated instances of Muslim militants attacking representations of the Buddha, how had the Bamiyan Buddha statues survived thirteen hundred years of Muslim rule?

Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road demonstrates that the history of Buddhist-Muslim interaction is much richer and more complex than many assume. This groundbreaking book covers Inner Asia from the eighth century through the Mongol empire and to the end of the Qing dynasty in the late nineteenth century. By exploring the meetings between Buddhists and Muslims along the Silk Road from Iran to China over more than a millennium, Johan Elverskog reveals that this long encounter was actually one of profound cross-cultural exchange in which two religious traditions were not only enriched but transformed in many ways.


I was ordered to fight all men until they say “There is no god but Allah.”

—Prophet Muhammad’s farewell address

The ascetic Gotama roars his lion’s roar, in company and confidently,
they question him and he answers, he wins them over with his answers,
they find it pleasing and are satisfied.

Mahāsihanada Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya

THE BUDDHIST MONASTERY of Nalanda was founded in northeast India in the early fifth century. Over time it became the premier institution of higher learning in Asia and, much like leading universities today, Nalanda had a world-renowned faculty working on the cutting edge of the theoretical sciences and a student body drawn from across the Buddhist world. This prestige also brought with it ample gifts from the rich and powerful. Not only had local rulers in northeast India bequeathed entire villages to help finance the running of Nalanda, but the king of Sumatra had also offered villages for the monastery’s endowment, and a special fund had been created to support students specifically from China. At its peak Nalanda had an extensive faculty teaching a diverse student body of about three thousand on a beautiful campus composed of numerous cloisters with lofty spires that “resembled the snowy peaks of Mount Sumeru.” Then suddenly the serenity of this Buddhist institution was shattered. In the fall of 1202, Muslim soldiers on horses rode in and hacked down teachers and students where they stood. The once majestic buildings were left in ruins. The savagery was so great it signaled the end of the Dharma in India.

This powerful story has been told countless times. Today it is ubiquitous, being found in everything from scholarly monographs to travel bro-

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