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Reviewed by:
  • Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road
  • Yang Bin
Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. By Johan Elverskog. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010. 384 pp. $69.95 (cloth).

Religion constitutes a long-lasting and inspiring field in world history, let alone interactions among world religions. Religious tensions, conflicts, and tolerance such as those between Christianity and Islam or between Christianity and Confucianism have been well studied, but few scholars have paid attention to the interactions between Buddhism and Islam along the Silk Road. This book successfully fills in such a vacuum.

Following the introduction, chapter 1, "Contact," sets up the background of the two world religions. Popular images in the modern world contrast the two religions: Buddhism as peaceful, spiritual, and refrained, while Islam as aggressive, materialist, and pro-violence. This conventional wisdom, however, is unable to be tested either by history or reality. On the contrary, the two have shared surprising similarities of social background for their own formation, expansion, feature, and space, despite the temporal gap of about one millennium. Both emerged from a turbulent society respectively that witnessed the rise of an urban merchant class. Both captured the needs of the new commercial class whom had been despised by the existing power structure. Speaking for merchant elites, the two religions gained their power and extended their influence through the trading networks along the Silk Roads. When Muslim rulers expanded into Central Asia and India, Buddhists as well as other heresies were largely tolerated, mainly because of "the central role of Buddhists in the local economy" (p. 53). To some people's surprise, Buddhism survived two centuries longer under Muslim rule than in the Hindu spheres. Gradually, the Islamic international, however, replaced its Buddhist counterpart.

Chapter 2, "Understanding," discusses their conceptualizations of one another over time based on primary sources and illustrates Buddhist influences on Islam, such as astronomy, mathematics, medicine, literature, and so on. The accumulation of knowledge, nevertheless, did not advance smoothly. Indeed, a Buddhist-Muslim split emerged when a geographical divide was created by the formation of three religio-economic units: the Muslim world, the Tantric Block around Inner Asia, and the Buddhist Bengal Bay. Buddhists were no longer found under Muslim rule, such as in northwest India. In addition, the prosperity from maritime trade, while increasing material exchanges, did not correspondingly facilitate religious understandings. The reality might have been the reverse. [End Page 825]

Chapter 3, "Idolatry," examines cultural borrowings during the Mongol period. While the Muslim responses to the Mongols were ambivalent due to religious, economic, and political considerations, the Pax Mongolica provided the opportunity for many religions to interact. Il-Khanid Iran witnessed both Buddhist dynamics under Muslim rule and the advancement of Islamic knowledge of local and international Buddhism (Chinese, Tibet, and Uyghur). A typical case examined here is the use of visual culture by Muslims, particularly the representation of Muhammad, to propagate Islam. As such, Islam began to take up the practice of idolatry, which it had previously attacked.

Chapter 4, "Jihad," moves to the hostile period after the collapse of the Mongol Empire when the Muslims initiated holy war against Buddhists. Many socioeconomic reasons accounted for such a drastic change by Muslims. Six key movements and transformations, namely, the appearance of Jihad rhetoric, the Chinggisid principle, political fragmentation, Islamization, urbanization, and Naqshbandi revivalism, are raised and insightfully discussed. To be true, Buddhist-Muslim interactions before the early fifteenth century, when Chaghatai Ulus came to convert to Islam and expanded eastward, remained relatively peaceful. At the same time, Ming China saw the Mongols in "Inner Mongolia" as a strategic threat and allied with the Oriad in the Mongol plateau. Such a drastic political restructuring in the Eurasian landscape cut the economic lifeline of the Moghuls who saw the rise of the Naqshbandi revival. All these contributed to the new religio-geographical divide. In the east, the Oirad, originally a Muslim people, began to turn themselves into Buddhists, and the Mongols, who originally practiced all kinds of religions, came to be seen intertwined with Tibetan Lamaism, while the Uyghurs in Hami and Turfan, originally Buddhist, converted to Islam. The Inner Asian split between Turkic-speaking Muslims and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 825-828
Launched on MUSE
2011-11-25
Open Access
No
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