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The Role of Central Asian Peoples in
the Spread of World Religions*

Richard C. Foltz
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 worlds 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 West.

            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 Islam.

            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 origin.3

            Thus Zoroaster, like Moses, who may have been his contemporary, seems to have been among the earliest of the worlds 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 filtering in.

            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 Gathas6

            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 as Dadhvah.19

            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 Tang period, actually had Iranian origins. The Chinese name for the festival, y™-lan-pen, may be derived from the Sogdian rwn (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 Semele.20 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 probably were.

Buddhism and the Silk Road

            According to a legend preserved in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, Buddhisms 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 Hs™an-tsang found that Balkh had some one hundred Buddhist monasteries and three thousand priests.

            Certain passages in the account of Hs™an-tsangs travels have led scholars to perceive a Central Asian Buddhism in decline vis-ù-vis Sasanian-sponsored Zoroastrianism. For example Hs™an-tsangs 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 fire.Ó24

            It seems the Sogdian king was impressed by Hs™an-tsangs piety, however. When two of Hs™an-tsangs accompanying disciples were chased from the temple by fire-worshipping priests, the king ordered the priests to be punished. Hs™an-tsang then øturned the other cheekÓ by intervening on the priests behalf. According to Hui Li, Hs™an-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 Lis work is as much hagiography as biography, his assertions about the success of Hs™an-tsangs 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 Hs™an-tsang had managed to set them once again on the straight path.

            Furthermore, even if Hui Lis assertions about his masters 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 Hs™an-tsang saw as heretical.26 Hui Lis 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 New Year.28 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 Christianitys 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 kaishan).30

            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 as well.32

            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 Tang 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 Tang capital of Chang-an (Xian) in 781 contains a wealth of information about the local Nestorian communitys 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 monuments 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 language.37

            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 themselves.

            The Tang courts 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 Mesopotamia.

            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 Hs™an-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 Tang 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 640s 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 lands.

            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 shubiyya 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 Manis faith acquired the dubious status it had possessed in the Sasanian and Roman worlds, as the official religions 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 Tang 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 Tang 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 MuqannaÓ, 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 Muqannas 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 religions 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.


* This 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.

1 See the overview of these ongoing disagreements in Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1992, pp. 1-26.

2 The 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.

3 Although 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.

4 Shahin Bekhradnia, øThe Tajik Case for a Zoroastrian Identity,Ó Religion, State and Society 22/1 (1994), p. 109.

5 For example, Jamsheed Choksy, Conflict and Cooperation: Muslim Elites and Zoroastrian Subalterns in Medieval Iranian Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 4.

6 W.B.Henning, øA Sogdian God,Ó Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 28/2 (1965), p. 251.

7 Henning, øA Sogdian God,Ó p. 247.

8 Henning, øA Sogdian God,Ó p. 251; Grenet and Sims-Williams, øThe Historical Context of the Sogdian Ancient LettersÓ.

9 Schwartz, øReligion of AchÚmenian Iran,Ó p. 681; cf. Geo Widengren, Les r¹ligions de lIran, Paris, 1968, p. 357.

10 Allen H. Godbey, øFrom Persia to China,Ó in William C. White, ed., Chinese Jews, 2nd edition, New York: Paragon, 1966, pp. 136-7.

11 Irene Franck, The Silk Road, New York, 1986, p. 63.

12 Itzhak 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.

13 L. Rabinowitz, Jewish Merchant Adventurers: A Study of the Radanites, London: Goldston, 1948, p. 51.

14 V.A. Livshits and Z.I. Usmanova, øNew Parthian Inscriptions from Old Merv,Ó in Irano-Judaica III, pp. 99-105.

15 Jacob 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.

16 See 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), pp. 183-216.

17 See 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, pp. 17-33.

18 Victor Mair, øOld Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Magus, and English ¥Magician,Ó Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.

19 Homer H. Dubs, øTaoism,Ó in H.F. MacNair, ed., Philosophy and Religion, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1946, pp. 286-7.

20 Iwamoto 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.

21 See, for example, Tsun-yan Liu, øTraces of Zoroastrian and Manichaean Activities in pre-Tang China,Ó in Selected papers from the Hall of Harmonious Winds, Leiden: Brill, 1976, pp. 2-55.

22 Hs™an-tsang, Records of the Western Countries (Ta Tang Si Yu Ki), in Samuel Beal, tr., Buddhist Records of the Western World, New Delhi: Oriental Reprints, 1969 [1884], vol. 1, pp. 47-8.

23 See 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.

24 Hui Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, tr. Yung-hsi Li, Peking: The Chinese Buddhist Association, 1959, p. 46.

25 Hui Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, p. 47.

26 No incontrovertibly Buddhist remains have been unearthed in Sogdiana proper, in contrast to areas to the south of the Hissar Mountains where they abound.

27 B.A. Litvinsky, øBuddhism in Central Asia,Ó p. 50.

28 Narshakhi, Tarikh-i Bukhara, p. 23.

30 Alphonse Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East: A New Document, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1925, pp. 7-8.

31 Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity, p. 74.

32 Emile Benveniste, øLe Vocabulaire Chr¹tien dans les Langues dAsie Central,Ó LOriente Cristiano nella Storia della Civiltù, Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1964, pp. 85-91.

33 Nicholas Sims-Williams, øSyro-Sogdica I: An Anonymous Homily on the Three Periods of Solitary Life,Ó Orientalia Christiana Periodica 47 (1981), p. 441.

34 Sims-Williams, øSyro-Sogdica,Ó p. 443.

35 G. Uray, øTibets 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.

36 Kazuo Enoki, øNestorian Christianism in Medieval Times,Ó LOriente Cristiano, Rome, 1964, pp. 72-3.

37 Paul Pelliot, øLes influences iraniennes en Asie Central et en ExtrÁme-Orient,Ó Revue dHistoire et de Litt¹rature R¹ligieuses (1912), p. 108.

38 Schafer, Golden Peaches, pp. 53-4.

39 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, pp. 112-3, 220.

40 Some 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-Tang China.Ó

41 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, p. 230.

42 E. Chavannes and P. Pelliot, Un trait¹ Manich¹en retrouv¹ en Chine, Paris: Imprim¹rie Nationale, 1913, p. 154.

43 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, p. 66.

44 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, p. 67-8.

45 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, pp. 74-5.

Copyright Statement

Copyright: © 2001 by the American Historical Association. Compiled by Debbie Ann Doyle. Format by Chris Hale.

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