Role of Central Asian Peoples in
the Spread of World Religions*
University of Florida
For over a thousand years, up through the tenth century of
the Common Era, the prime actors in the transmission of the
worlds major religions from West to East were the people
of Transoxiana, roughly modern Uzbekistan. Situated halfway
between the Mediterranean and Chinese centers of civilization,
the natives of this region, Iranian-speakers known as Sogdians,
were ideally situated to be middlemen. Sogdian merchants were
for centuries among the most successful in Asia, and their
trading activities formed the major link connecting East and
The Sogdians were purveyors not only of goods, but of culture
in general, borrowing ideas and traditions from one civilization
and transmitting them to another. Buddhism took hold early
on amongst the Bactrians, another Iranian people living to
the northwest of India. Sogdians living or trading in Bactria
adopted Buddhism and carried its teachings throughout their
trading colonies all along the Silk Route as far as China.
Later Sogdians became enthusiastic converts to Manichaeism
or Nestorian Christianity, and became the representatives
of these faiths within their string of communities across
the Asian interior.
With their international connections Sogdians knew foreign
languages, and many were literate. They were often engaged
as interpreters and translators. It was Sogdian scribes who
translated most of the religious texts of Buddhism, Manichaeism,
and Christianity into the various languages of the Silk Route,
from Prakrit, Aramaic, or Parthian into Bactrian, Tokharian,
Khotanese, Turkish or Chinese, either via Sogdian or directly.
As Central Asia became Islamicized beginning in the eighth
century, the Sogdians gradually adopted the Persian language
and Iranian Islam. Within two centuries Transoxiana indeed
became the center of the Persian cultural world under the
Samanid dynasty. Rudaki, Farabi, Khwarazmi, and Avicenna are
just a few of the Central Asians who stand out in medieval
This paper will discuss how and why the Iranian-speaking peoples
of Central Asia played such a major role in the transmission
of religions from the Near East to the Far East throughout
the first millennium of the Common Era.
Archeological evidence suggests that urban-based political
structures in the Oxus region began to develop from the early
part of the first millennium BCE. To the north, within the
vast swath of steppelands reaching across the Asian continent
from above the Black Sea all the way to the frontiers of China,
the culture was mainly nomadic or semi-nomadic. As urbanization
developed, the pastoral peoples of the Eurasian steppe entered
into a long, rocky partnership with settled civilization which
lasted for well over two thousand five hundred years, a symbiotic
relationship often characterized as øthe steppe and the sownÓ.
According to this model, Central Asian history is defined
largely by the dynamics of nomadic-sedentary relations, often
hostile, even violent, but always mutually interdependent.
In most cases the dominant peoples of the Eurasian steppe
have belonged to either the Iranian or Turkic language families.
Although the Iranian tongues, being Indo-European, are distinct
from the Altaic Turkic dialects, the speakers themselves have
often been less easy to distinguish, since their shared history
has provided them with many shared traits, ideas, and ways
of life. This includes the Iranian and Turkic languages themselves,
as can be seen in the bilingualism which remains in some parts
of Central Asia to this day.
At some point in pre-history exactly when is not known
a prophet appeared among the Iranian pastoralists of Central
Asia. Zarathrushtra, or Zoroaster as he is more commonly known,
is believed by some to have lived as early as the thirteenth
century and by others as late as the sixth BCE. His home has
been placed as far west as Azerbaijan and as far east as Mongolia.1
Zoroaster was a preacher, perhaps of priestly family background,
who sought to reform the religious practices of his community.
He opposed certain tendencies common to various Indo-European
peoples, such as bull sacrifice and the ritual drinking of
haoma (Skt. soma), an intoxicating beverage,
which often led to drunken orgies.2
The prophet also singled out one god or ahura (Skt.
asura) from among the Iranian pantheon for exclusive
worship, and referred to this god as Ahura Mazda, or øLord
WisdomÓ. The other Iranian gods, the ahuras and the
daevas (Skt. deva), he demoted to demons: the
English word ødevilÓ is, like the concept itself, of Iranian
Thus Zoroaster, like Moses, who may have been his contemporary,
seems to have been among the earliest of the worlds prophets
to sow the seeds of monotheism. His vision differed from that
of the ancient Israelites, however, in that it accounted for
evil by positing an evil divinity, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman).
For this reason Zoroastrianism is often characterized as a
dualistic, rather than a monotheistic religion.
A general assumption is often made that the various
Iranian peoples of øgreater IranÓ a cultural area that stretched
from Mesopotamia and the Caucasus into Khwarazm, Transoxiana,
Bactria, and the Pamirs and included Persians, Medes, Parthians,
and Sogdians, among others were all øZoroastrianÓ in pre-Islamic
times. As one writer recently put it, øAfter the conversion
of King Vishtasp [by Zoroaster], all of Iran is thought to
have become Zoroastrian, and it continued to be so up to the
end of the Sassanian empire.Ó4
Other scholars continue to characterize virtually the entire
ancient Iranian world as Zoroastrian, a sweeping generalization
supported by little or no evidence.5
These blanket assertions must, therefore, be taken with caution.
Like Judaism, the Zoroastrian religion has ancient roots,
but is essentially a product of the Christian era. Zoroastrianism
was first codified only from the third century CE as the official
state religion of the Iranian Sasanian Empire, anywhere from
a thousand to fifteen hundred years after the life of Zoroaster.
We know relatively little about the religious beliefs and
practices of the Central Asian Iranian peoples of early times,
compared to the documentation available for Sasanian Zoroastrianism.
We can however speak of Iranian religion in a broad sense,
by identifying certain elements which clearly belong to an
Iranian religious øpoolÓ of myths, deities, symbols, and rituals.
Iranian religion can then be understood in its various local
contexts to be made up largely of elements drawn from this
pool. The mix varies depending on the time and locale, with
different elements having greater or lesser relative weight,
or none at all, and with diverse non-Iranian regional elements
By AchÚmenid times quite a few of the Iranian deities which
Zoroaster had attempted to demote to demons were creeping
back into the Iranian religious pantheon even in the central
Persian lands. It seems that the AchÚmenids attempted to impose
their calendar on their Central Asian subjects, but this does
not appear to have been a great success. The Sogdians substituted
names of their own for most of the months, and invented new
names for the intercalary days (the epagomenae), which,
in the words of one Iranologist, øshows little regard for
the Amesha Spenta¥Bounteous Immortals,
a class of divinities] and lack of familiarity with the Gathas.Ó6
Among the divinities popular in Central Asia was Baga
(cf. Skt. Bagha, Rus. Bog), a god associated
with wine and marriage.7
The Sogdian øAncient LettersÓ, documents from near Lou-lan
in Xinjiang which probably date to around 313 CE, before Buddhism,
Christianity, or Manichaeism took hold among the Sogdians,
mention only øthe lord of the templeÓ (Vgnpt) and not
the chief of the Magi (Mogrt), leading us to understand
that the former was more important in the Sogdian world even
in the early Sasanian period.8
The goddess Nanai is frequently mentioned. The figure of the
devil carries a distinctly Sogdian name, Shimnu, which is
derived independently of the Avestan Angra Mainyu.9
The Encounter of Iranian and Judean Religion
The book of II Kings states that following the Assyrian conqest
of Israel in 722 BCE the Ten Tribes of Israel were exiled
to øHalah and Habor by the River Gozan and in the cities of
the MedesÓ (18: 11). Since the former locations have been
situated in Khurasan, it has been suggested that Israelite
presence in Central Asia should be considered as originating
at that time.10 It has accordingly been proposed
that these earliest exiles may have engaged in long-distance
overland trade.11 Such hypotheses are not implausible, but solid
evidence is lacking.
In 559 BCE a Persian army under Cyrus the Great conquered
Babylon and freed the various enslaved peoples there, including
the Judeans. Given the option of returning home to Judah,
most Judeans chose instead to stay in Babylon as free citizens
of the new Persian empire, or elected to try their luck elsewhere
in the Persian-controlled lands. Many relocated eastward to
Iran proper and laid the foundations for Jewish communities
that have survived there to the present day, especially in
the cities of Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana) and Esfahan.
As Cyrus had also made conquests to the east, as far as Bactria
and Sogdiana, it is likely that some of the Babylonian Jews
relocated to those provinces as well. The book of Esther states
in several places (3:6, 8; 8:5, 12; and 9:20) that the Jews
lived øin all the provincesÓ of the Persian Empire. The modern-day
Jewish communities of Bukhara and Samarqand, in particular,
like to trace their history back to Assyrian times, and consider
themselves to be descended from the Ten Tribes.12
Though this origin is attested by Saadia Gaon of Fayyum in
the tenth century,13
there is no direct evidence for Jewish presence in Central
Asia earlier than the AchÚmenid period as described in the
book of Esther.
It seems likely that many of the post-exilic Judean settlers
in Persian lands took up commerce. It would have been consistent
with later patterns for them to set up trade networks with
relatives or other Judeans in other parts of the Persian empire
or elsewhere. Roman sources show that by Parthian times both
Palestinian and Babylonian Jews were involved in the silk
trade from China. Hebrew names appearing on pottery fragments
from Marv dating from the first to the third centuries CE
attest to the presence of Jews living along the Silk Road
at that time.14
Because Jews were spread across a wide geographical area spanning
both the Parthian and the Roman lands, they were ideally situated
to participate in trade between the two empires.15
Iranian Influences on Judaism
Influences picked up by Jewish communities in one cultural
environment could easily travel to connected communities in
another. Beginning in the Persian period and continuing through
Hellenistic and Parthian times, a number of Iranian beliefs
and concepts began to work their way into the religious outlook
of the Judeans, a tradition that would later evolve into Judaism.16
Eschatological ideas such as warnings of the ølast daysÓ and
belief in a messianic savior, a bodily resurrection, and a
last judgement, are just some of the notions that Judaism
(and subsequently Christianity and Islam) seems to have borrowed
from the Persians. The concepts of a heavenly paradise (Old
Pers. paira daeza) and a hell of punishment for the
wicked are also seen in ancient Iranian religion, but not
in Israelite sources prior to the Babylonian period. The Iranian
evil spirit Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, evolves into the Christian
and Muslim devil, who first appears in the book of Job as
ha-satan, øthe accuserÓ. The concept of angels and
demons, likewise, seems to derive from Iranian beliefs. Ancient
Iranian cosmology, with its numerology based on the number
seven, may be the precedent for later evolutions in Greek
philosophy and in Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism.17
Although firm evidence is lacking, it is not unlikely that
both Iranian and Jewish merchants were active along the Silk
Road from a very early time. Naturally their religious ideas
would have accompanied them on their travels, and therefore
would have become familiar to peoples encountered by these
merchants along the way. There is evidence that Iranian soothsayers
were employed by the Western Chou dynasty of China, that is,
prior to the eighth century BCE.18
So we can say that in ancient times certain religious ideas
may have spread geographically eastward, in the sense that
the possessors of those ideas physically went there;
this is not to say, however, that Iranian or Jewish religious
systems øgrewÓ or won converts. The great missionary religions
had not yet entered the stage of world history.
In traditional societies religions, like people, are generally
considered as being attached to a particular locality or region,
and by extension to their own local culture. From an Inner
Asian or Chinese point of view, whatever religion a foreign
merchant of Iranian or Israelite origin practiced was simply
the home religion of the Iranians or of the Israelites; one
would no more think of embracing such religion oneself than
of pretending to be from Iran or Palestine.
Still, as Turks, Chinese, and other East Asian peoples came
into contact with these merchants from the West and became
familiar with their ways of thinking, subtle influences must
have penetrated in both directions through everyday encounters
and conversation. For example, it has been suggested that
Taoists of the late Han period borrowed their term for øthe
highest heavenÓ, ta-lo, from the Iranian garo-dmana,
the øhouse of praiseÓ, the highest of the four heavens, associated
with Ahura Mazda who is referred to in parts of the Avesta
It has been argued by a Japanese scholar that the so-called
øghost festivalÓ, an annual ritual for øfeedingÓ untended
souls which became extremely popular during the Tang period,
actually had Iranian origins. The Chinese name for the festival,
y-lan-pen, may be derived from the Sogdian rwn
(øsoulÓ), and a popular tale associated with the festival
in which a monk, Mu-lien, descends into hell to retrieve his
mother, seems to be based on the Greek myth of Dionysos and
There is evidence for other such influences from the early
centuries of our era,21
but similar exchanges of ideas may have been going on much
earlier, and if Iranian soothsayers did serve the Chou, they
Buddhism and the Silk Road
According to a legend preserved in Pali, the language of the
Theravada canon, Buddhisms first contact with the Silk Road
took place during the life of the Buddha himself.22
This legend relates that two merchant brothers from Bactria
(medieval Balkh, in the north of Afghanistan), named Tapassu
and Bhallika, visited the Buddha in the eighth week after
his enlightenment and immediately became his disciples. According
to the story, the brothers then returned to Balkh and built
temples dedicated to the Buddha.
While there is no evidence to confirm the legend of Tapassu
and Bhallika, edicts inscribed on rock pillars set up by Emperor
Ashoka state that he sent missionaries into his northwestern
territories.23 Over the following centuries Bactria did become
a major Buddhist region, and remained so up to the Muslim
conquests. In the seventh century, on the eve of the Arab
invasions, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsan-tsang found
that Balkh had some one hundred Buddhist monasteries and three
Certain passages in the account of Hsan-tsangs travels have
led scholars to perceive a Central Asian Buddhism in decline
vis-ù-vis Sasanian-sponsored Zoroastrianism. For example Hsan-tsangs
biographer, Hui Li, who was one of his disciples, comments
sadly that in Samarqand, øThe king and people did not believe
in Buddhism but worshipped fire. There were two monastery
buildings but no monks lived in them. If a guest monk attempted
to stay in them, the native people would drive him out with
It seems the Sogdian king was impressed by Hsan-tsangs piety,
however. When two of Hsan-tsangs accompanying disciples
were chased from the temple by fire-worshipping priests, the
king ordered the priests to be punished. Hsan-tsang then
øturned the other cheekÓ by intervening on the priests behalf.
According to Hui Li, Hsan-tsang thereby won the respect of
the local people, and øthe king and people believed in Buddhism
and a great meeting was held to ordain some people, who afterwards
lived in the monasteries.Ó25
Since Hui Lis work is as much hagiography as biography, his
assertions about the success of Hsan-tsangs efforts should
be taken with a grain of salt. The Chinese traveler was certainly
a charismatic individual, and such figures are often able
to generate personal followings wherever they go. This account
does not in itself enable us to understand, however, that
the Sogdian population had converted from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism
and that Hsan-tsang had managed to set them once again on
the straight path.
Furthermore, even if Hui Lis assertions about his masters
successes in Sogdiana are true, the øconvertsÓ may have been
at least partly made up of individuals who were already Buddhists
(or at least to some degree øBuddhisticÓ), and who merely
saw in him an authority whose øcorrectiveÓ entreaties they
were willing to listen to. There were numerous schools of
Buddhism as well as variants in local belief and practice
spread out across Asia at that time, and if Buddhists existed
in Sogdiana, as it is not impossible that they did, it may
simply have been their local version of Buddhism that Hsan-tsang
saw as heretical.26
Hui Lis phrasing about øcorrecting evil customsÓ would seem
to be consistent with this interpretation.
Even more likely, perhaps, is that with the rise in Sasanian
influence from Iran, any existing local form of Buddhism,
which would probably have been colored by local Iranian religiosity
to begin with, had increasingly taken on aspects of the newly
institutionalized Sasanian Zoroastrianism. The eastern Iranian
world has provided documented examples of Zoroastrian influence
on the evolution of Buddhism there. One such case can be seen
in the layout of the circumabulatory corridor around Buddhist
stupas, which is modeled on that of fire temples.27
Again, we cannot assume that the population of Sogdiana was
ever in any uniform sense Zoroastrian or Buddhist as we understand
the terms. For one thing, they lived at some remove from the
centers of both Zoroastrian and Buddhist institutionalizing
forces. Furthermore, we have evidence of the persistence of
strictly local elements, such as the cult of the hero Siyavash
at Bukhara which included the sacrifice of a rooster every
Most probably, the local religiosity of Sogdiana was made
up of many elements drawn from the Iranian/Indo-Aryan pool
from which both major religions had evolved, and any attempt
to categorize them at any period as Zoroastrian or Buddhist
is bound to be misleading.
Christianity in Central Asia
In the Acts of the Apostles (2: 9) it is stated that Iranian
Jews from Parthia, Media, Elam and Mesopotamia were witness
to the miracle of the Pentecost. Since Christianity arose
within the Jewish world, it is only natural that its eastward
spread from Palestine would have been facilitated first and
foremost through existing contacts across the Jewish diaspora.29
Since these contacts were to a large degree commercial in
nature, it can safely be said that Christianitys first link
with the Silk Road was via the Babylonian Jews.
The earliest reference to Central Asian communities in a Christian
source is the comment of Bardaisan around 196 CE: øNor do
our sisters among the Gilanians and Bactrians have any intercourse
with strangers.Ó The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, written
around the same time, mentions the øland of the Kushans (baith
Sogdiana was, until the Samanid dynasty made it the most dynamic
center of the Muslim world in the tenth century, never a region
of religious orthodoxy. The region was at the fringes of both
east and west, equally removed from the centers of all the
great religious traditions. It had always been middle ground,
a transit point, a place where anything could and did pass
through sooner or later.
Sogdian merchants were the real masters of the Silk Road,
whoever the ephemeral powers of the time might be. Under the
rule of their fellow Iranian peoples the Parthian and the
Sasanians, Sogdian merchants moved easily in the Iranian lands
to the west, where some of them were won over to the Christian
message (especially in its Nestorian form), just as others
active in the former Kushan lands had embraced Buddhism.
There do not appear to have been any obstacles preventing
Sogdian converts to either tradition from importing their
new faith either to Sogdiana proper or conveying it further
east in the course of their business ventures. By the year
650 there was a Nestorian archibishopric at Samarqand in the
heart of Sogdiana, and another even further east at Kashgar;
in all over twenty Nestorian bishops had dioceses east of
the Oxus river.31
For centuries Sogdian was the lingua franca of the
Silk Road. Among the Nestorian texts which have been discovered
in the Tarim Basin since the beginning of the twentieth century,
a preponderance are in Sogdian or show evidence of having
been translated from Sogdian versions. Although Syriac was
the liturgical language of the Nestorian church, the language
in which Nestorian Christianity was disseminated across Asia
was principally Sogdian, as it was for Buddhism and Manichaeism
Most of the Christian texts found in the Tarim region were
discovered by four German expeditions to the Turfan oasis
from 1902-14. The bulk of these are manuscripts dating to
the ninth and tenth centuries from a Nestorian monastery at
Buyaliq, north of the oasis. They include hymns, Psalms, prayers,
lectionaries from the New Testament, and commentaries.33 Although most are translations from Syriac, some
of the Sogdian versions are older than their known Syriac
counterparts, and a few do not have known Syriac versions.34 The Christian texts in Sogdian, unknown before this century, have
substantially rounded out scholars' understanding of Nestorianism.
The Silk Road skirted the forbidding highlands of the Tibetan
plateau, but spur routes connected Tibet to the busier overland
tracks. Paintings and rock inscriptions along the upper Indus
river in Ladakh at the southwestern corner of the Tibetan
world indicate the passing of Christian and Manichaean Sogdian
merchants there. Sogdians of various faiths probably carried
their business into the Tibetan interior.35
Sogdian and Iranian merchants and missionaries brought Christianity
to China during the seventh century. In fact, the Chinese
originally thought the cradle of Christianity was Iran, and
referred to it as øthe Iranian religionÓ for over one hundred
years before correcting their records in the mid-eighth century.
An imperial Tang edict of 638 relates that an Iranian priest
named A-lo-pen (Abraham?) had arrived at court three years
earlier.36 Alopen had brought with him scriptures,
which were translated into Chinese so that the Emperor could
understand them. The Emperor approved, and gave the Nestorians
authority to propagate their faith throughout the empire.
This event is generally considered to mark the introduction
of Christianity into China.
A monument erected in the Tang capital of Chang-an (Xian)
in 781 contains a wealth of information about the local Nestorian
communitys first one hundred fifty years. Iranian and Central
Asian names occur throughout, indicating a continuous influx
of westerners along the Silk Road. One of the monuments most
interesting pieces of information concerns a monk by the name
of Adam, who assisted in the Chinese translation: he is said
to have collaborated on the translation of a Buddhist treatise
as well. Adam knew no Indian languages, so the Buddhist text
in question must have been in Sogdian, presumably his native
It would seem that for the most part the Nestorian community
in China consisted of foreigners, as was the case with Judaism
and Zoroastrianism. All three traditions were brought into
China as the faiths of traveling merchants, and their fates
were tied to those of the expatriate merchant communities
The Tang courts enthusiastic taste for foreign people, ideas
and things also allowed for the proliferation of religious
quackery. Many religious figures were engaged not for their
spiritual teachings but for their more worldly skills. Christians
and Manichaeans especially were valued for their knowledge
of astrology and medicine, inherited from the traditions of
Religious buildings often served as øcultural centersÓ where
foreign adherents as well as interested locals could gather.
Mazdaean temples in Lan-chow and Lo-yang, for example, regularly
hosted magic shows which drew large crowds. Though the emperor
Hsan-tsung actually encouraged such activities during his
reign, this kind of foreign influence could be perceived as
threatening by more xenophobic Chinese rulers.38
Manichaeism on the Silk Road
The syncretistic religion founded by the Mesopotamian
prophet Mani in the third century CE began to enjoy popularity
in the Mediterranean world within his own lifetime, although
even before the Roman Empire became officially Christian it
persecuted Manichaeans as adherents of a øforeignÓ, Persian
faith. To the east Manichaeism fared better, at least initially.
It enjoyed several decades of protection while Mani was alive,
during which time it had spread into Central Asia along the
Silk Road beyond the Oxus river. Once again, it was Sogdians
who played a major role in the transmission of the faith,
with their capital, Samarqand, becoming the center of an early
and active Manichaean community.
Using their linguistic skills, Sogdians translated Manichaean
texts from Syriac, Middle Persian and Parthian into Sogdian,
and thence into Turkish and eventually Chinese. By the end
of the sixth century the Sogdian Manichaeans were strong enough
to declare their independence from the archegos, the
head of the church in Baghdad, giving rise to a schism which
was to persist for over a century.39
An Iranian Manichaean missionary named Mihr-Ormazd traveled
to China sometime in the late seventh century.40 He was granted an audience with the Chou Empress Wu, and presented
her with a text entitled The Sutra of the Two Principles,
which would become the most popular Manichaean work in China.41
Manichaeism was considered suspiciously by the restored Tang
dynasty after 705, and in 732 the Emperor issued an edict
to the effect that the religion could only be propagated among
non-Chinese. The reasoning given for this restriction shows
that Buddhists were behind it:
The doctrine of Mar Mani is basically a perverse belief and
fraudulently assumes to be [a school of] Buddhism and will
therefore mislead the masses. It deserves to be strictly prohibited.
However, since it is the indigenous religion of the Western
Barbarians and other [foreigners], its followers will not
be punished if they practice it among themselves.42
It is clear that just as the Manichaeans in the West attempted
to present their religion as an esoteric form of Christianity,
in the East they tried to portray it as a type of Buddhism.
As the Sasanian government became increasingly bound up with
the Zoroastrian clergy, Manichaeans in Iran gradually moved
eastward to Sogdiana, beyond the reach of the State and the
magi. After the Arab Muslims conquered the Sasanian Empire
in the 640s many Manichaeans returned from Central Asia to
Iran and Mesopotamia. The Umayyad Arabs, based in Damascus,
were generally content to leave the religious matters of their
subject populations alone. But in 751 the Abbasid revolution
brought a wave of religious reform to the Muslim-controlled
During the second half of the eighth century many Persian
bureaucrats in the Abbasid administration began to exert a
form of cultural revival vis-ù-vis the Arab ruling class.
In literature this took the shape of the so-called shubiyya
movement, through which many Persian literary classics were
translated into Arabic. Within the same class of Persian intellectuals,
crypto-Manichaeism became a popular form of self-assertion.
Soon Manis faith acquired the dubious status it had possessed
in the Sasanian and Roman worlds, as the official religions
arch-enemy number one. Even those merely suspected of being
Manichaeans were ruthlessly persecuted, and many believers
chose to flee eastward once again.
Beginning in 755 the Tang Emperor in China was faced with
a rebellion led by a general of mixed Sogdian and Turkish
origin, Roshan (øthe bright oneÓ), sinicized to An Lu-shan.
The Emperor called upon the Uighurs to assist him in putting
down the rebellion. It was after re-taking the Tang city
of Lo-yang in 762 that the Uighur kaghan, or king,
known in Chinese sources as Mou-y, made the acquaintance
of some Sogdian Manichaeans living there. These Sogdians made
a great impression on the kaghan, and when he returned home
to his capital of Qara-Balasaghun north of the Tien-Shan mountains
he took four of them along. Within a few months they had persuaded
him to adopt Manichaeism. In 763 the kaghan made it the official
religion of the Uighur state, and it remained so into the
middle of the following century.
Muslim Rule and øReligiousÓ Rebellions in Central Asia
During the first half of the eighth century Muslim armies
repeatedly attempted to assert and maintain their authority
over the easternmost parts of the Iranian world, Sogdiana
and Bactria. Following the pattern of the Arab tribes at the
time of the Prophet, local rulers would øsubmitÓ when overwhelmed
and then øapostasizeÓ again as soon as they thought they could
get away with it. Some, like the Sogdian king Tughshada, did
this several times.
A major resistance movement took shape in Sogdiana in 777
around a figure known as Muqanna, or øthe Veiled OneÓ, a
self-declared prophet whose followers, like the Manichaeans,
wore white robes. According to a Narshakhi, a Sogdian Muslim
writing a century later, Muqanna said of himself:
Do you know who I am? I am your lord and lord of all the world...
I am the one who showed myself to people as Adam, then in
the form of Noah, also in the form of Abraham, Moses, then
in the guise of Jesus, Muhammad the prophet, in the guise
of Abu Muslim, and now in this guise which you see... I have
the power to be in any guise I wish to show.43
Narshakhi writes that in Sogdiana ømost of the villages accepted
the faith of MuqannaÓ, and that the Muslims were øimpotentÓ
before them. The movement was so successful in Central Asia,
he writes, that the Caliph in Baghdad øfeared that there was
a danger that Islam would be lost and the religion of Muqanna
would spread throughout the entire world.Ó44
Like many successful religious figures, Muqanna may have
been a master illusionist. When begged by a crowd to reveal
himself, he had assistants direct sunlight into the mob by
use of mirrors, in order to dazzle them. Many afterwards claimed
they had seen God. When after nine years of struggle the Muslim
armies finally cornered Muqanna in his fortress stronghold,
he told his followers that he would go up to heaven and bring
down angels to help them, then threw himself into a fire.
Narshakhi states that in his time Muqannas followers still
followed their faith in secret. øTheir religion is such,Ó
he says, øthat they neither pray nor fast, nor do they wash
after sexual intercourse.Ó He goes on to accuse them of promiscuity:
øThey say that a woman is like a flower; [no matter] who smells
it, nothing is detracted from it.Ó45
Islam and Trade in the Eastern Lands
As with any case of mass cultural conversion, the Islamization
of Central Asia was a complex process which occurred on more
than one level. The first, and most visible level, was the
spread of political power. It is worth noting that the spread
of a particular religions rule is not identical with the
spread of faith, although historians have sometimes written
as if it were.
Muslim rule over the western half of the Silk Road came fairly
early and was established, albeit through a period of false
starts and occasional reversals, by the mid-eighth century.
Muslims thereafter controlled much of trans-Asian trade, which
became the second major factor in the Islamization of Central
Asian culture. Gradually a third factor, the influence of
charismatic Muslim preachers, entered into the process.
As Sogdiana became administratively incorporated into the
dar al-islam, the Sogdians came to assimilate
themselves into the broader Persian cultural sphere, adopting
Persian in preference to their original tongue and becoming
increasingly identified as Persians. This øPersianizationÓ
included the adoption of Islam on a culture-wide scale, and
by the fifteenth century Transoxiana had become home to one
of the most uniformly Muslim societies in the world.
paper is adapted from Religions of the Silk Road: Overland
Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth
Century, New York: St.
Martins Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Richard C. Foltz.
the overview of these ongoing disagreements in Mary Boyce,
Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour,
Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1992, pp. 1-26.
hallucinatory substance from which this beverage was concocted,
a mystery for over two thousand years, has recently been identified
as the plant known as harmel (Peganum harmala). See
David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline:
The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen
øSomaÓ and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern
Folklore, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
in modern Persian div means ødemonÓ, the original positive
character of the daevas survives in later Iranian names,
such as the Sogdian Devashtic and the Persian Divdad.
Bekhradnia, øThe Tajik Case for a Zoroastrian Identity,Ó Religion,
State and Society 22/1 (1994), p. 109.
example, Jamsheed Choksy, Conflict and Cooperation: Muslim
Elites and Zoroastrian Subalterns in Medieval Iranian Society,
New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 4.
øA Sogdian God,Ó Bulletin of the School of Oriental and
African Studies 28/2 (1965), p. 251.
øA Sogdian God,Ó p. 247.
øA Sogdian God,Ó p. 251; Grenet and Sims-Williams, øThe Historical
Context of the Sogdian Ancient LettersÓ.
øReligion of AchÚmenian Iran,Ó p. 681; cf. Geo Widengren,
Les r¹ligions de lIran, Paris, 1968, p. 357.
H. Godbey, øFrom Persia to China,Ó in William C. White, ed.,
Chinese Jews, 2nd edition, New York: Paragon, 1966,
Franck, The Silk Road, New York, 1986, p. 63.
Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, Philadelphia:
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1957, p. 67; Julius
Brutzkus, øBukhara,Ó Encyclopaedia Judaica, Berlin,
1929, vol. 4, p. 1126.
Rabinowitz, Jewish Merchant Adventurers: A Study of the
Radanites, London: Goldston, 1948, p. 51.
Livshits and Z.I. Usmanova, øNew Parthian Inscriptions from
Old Merv,Ó in Irano-Judaica III, pp. 99-105.
Neusner, øJews in Iran,Ó in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., Cambridge
History of Iran, v. 3, The Seleucid, Parthian, and
Sasanian Periods, Cambridge, 1983, p. 912.
Shaul Shaked, øIranian Influence on Judaism: First Century
B.C.E. to Second Century C.E.,Ó in W.D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein,
eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism, v. 1, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 308-325; David Winston,
øThe Iranian Component in the Bible, Apocrypha, and Qumran:
A Review of the Evidence,Ó History of Religions 6 (1966),
for example Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, øA Zoroastrian Origin to
the Sefirot?Ó in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Metzer,
eds., Irano Judaica III, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 1994,
Mair, øOld Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Magus, and English ¥Magician,Ó
Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.
H. Dubs, øTaoism,Ó in H.F. MacNair, ed., Philosophy and
Religion, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1946, pp. 286-7.
Yutaka, Bukkyo setsuwa kenkyu, v. 4: Jigoku meguri no bungaku,
Tokyo: Kaimei shoten, 1979, pp. 184-99; cited in Stephen F.
Teiser, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 24.
for example, Tsun-yan Liu, øTraces of Zoroastrian and Manichaean
Activities in pre-Tang China,Ó in Selected papers from
the Hall of Harmonious Winds, Leiden: Brill, 1976, pp.
Records of the Western Countries (Ta Tang Si Yu
Ki), in Samuel Beal, tr., Buddhist Records of the Western
World, New Delhi: Oriental Reprints, 1969 , vol.
1, pp. 47-8.
J. Harmatta, øSino-Indica,Ó Acta Asiatica 12/1-2 (1964),
p. 4. The inscriptions speak of spreading the dharma,
however, not Buddhism per se.
Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, tr. Yung-hsi Li, Peking: The
Chinese Buddhist Association, 1959, p. 46.
Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, p. 47.
incontrovertibly Buddhist remains have been unearthed in Sogdiana
proper, in contrast to areas to the south of the Hissar Mountains
where they abound.
Litvinsky, øBuddhism in Central Asia,Ó p. 50.
Tarikh-i Bukhara, p. 23.
Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia
and the Far East: A New Document, Manchester: Manchester
University Press, 1925, pp. 7-8.
Early Spread of Christianity, p. 74.
Benveniste, øLe Vocabulaire Chr¹tien dans les Langues dAsie
Central,Ó LOriente Cristiano nella Storia della Civiltù,
Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1964, pp. 85-91.
Sims-Williams, øSyro-Sogdica I: An Anonymous Homily on the
Three Periods of Solitary Life,Ó Orientalia Christiana
Periodica 47 (1981), p. 441.
øSyro-Sogdica,Ó p. 443.
Uray, øTibets Connections with Nestorianism and Manicheism
in the 8th-10th Centuries,Ó Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie
und Buddhismuskunde 10 (1983), pp. 407, 421. On the Ladakh
paintings see Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Manichaean Art and
Calligraphy, Leiden: Brill, 1982; on the inscriptions
see Nicholas Sims-Williams, Sogdian and other Iranian
Inscriptions of the Upper Indus, 2 vols., London, 1989-92.
Enoki, øNestorian Christianism in Medieval Times,Ó LOriente
Cristiano, Rome, 1964, pp. 72-3.
Pelliot, øLes influences iraniennes en Asie Central et en
ExtrÁme-Orient,Ó Revue dHistoire et de Litt¹rature R¹ligieuses
(1912), p. 108.
Golden Peaches, pp. 53-4.
Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, pp. 112-3, 220.
evidence has been derived from Daoist sources, however, of
even earlier Manichaean activity in China; see Liu, øTraces
of Zoroastrian and Manichaean Activities in pre-Tang China.Ó
Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, p. 230.
Chavannes and P. Pelliot, Un trait¹ Manich¹en retrouv¹
en Chine, Paris: Imprim¹rie Nationale, 1913, p. 154.
History of Bukhara, p. 66.
History of Bukhara, p. 67-8.
History of Bukhara, pp. 74-5.
Copyright: © 2001 by the American Historical
Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle. Format by Chris Hale.