Buddhism and Islam - Zvi Aziz Ben-Dor

Edited from
Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia
1st Edition (31 Oct. 2005)
by Josef W. Meri (Editor)

The infamous destruction of the giant Buddha images at Bamyan, Afghanistan, by the radical Islamic Taliban regime serves as a potent symbol of the culmination of the centuries-long coexistence and contact between Islam and Buddhism. The destruction of the statues not only eclipses that history but also underscores a tone of intolerance toward Buddhism on the part of some Muslim thinkers today. A new book bearing the title Islam and Buddhism by Harun Yahya, perhaps the only contemporary work specifically dedicated to the question of the Islamic-Buddhist relationship, provides a characteristically hostile depiction of Buddhism as an idolatrous religion and the quintessential example of ‘‘falsehood,’’ as it is defined by the Qur’an and Islamic thought more generally. Thus, Buddhism, with its ‘‘deification’’ of human beings, a cult of idols, a massive iconography, and its pessimism toward the material world and consequent extreme asceticism, seems to be worlds apart from Islam.

However, the mere fact that an important Buddhist monument might exist in what is now known as an Islamic country indicates that Buddhism, in its varieties, existed in territories to which Islam also extended its reach during its advent to East and Southeast Asia. Many of the people who converted to Islam in these territories were originally Buddhists, and for long periods there was in these regions some sort of coexistence between the two realms, one far more varied and peaceful than certain events and publications might lead us to believe.

The encounter between Islam and Buddhism can be documented from as early as the late seventh century (or first Islamic century). Buddhist converts, like many other converts to Islam, enriched Islam with troves of cultural expression of all sorts, and imported into the religion their own distinctive practices and theological interpretations. Perhaps the best concrete example of such Buddhist converts is the Barmaki lineage during the early days of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. The father of the family was a Persian-Buddhist priest from Balkh, whose descendants rose to power and glory as grand viziers and are often associated with the golden age of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. It was probably during that period, when the ‘Abbasid caliphs sponsored huge translation projects of Eastern and Western texts, that the most fruitful connections between Islam and Buddhism occurred.

However, we must be very cautious before attributing any specific practice or idea in Islam to Buddhism, even when we find similarities between the two religions, since in most cases one cannot really pinpoint any direct influence. It is more plausible to speak of general Central Asian or Indian practices and ideas in relation to Islam rather then specifically Buddhist ideas or practices and to conceive of this syncretism in generally cultural terms rather than specific one-toone correlative ones.

The most well-known attempt to draw a direct connection between Buddhist practices and Islam was undertaken by the great Hungarian–Jewish Orientalist Ignaz Goldziher. In a study titled A Buddhizmus Hata´sa az Iszla´mra (On the Impact of Buddhism on Islam), published in 1903, Goldziher demonstrated similarities between Sufism and Buddhism and claimed that the former sprung forth when Islam came in contact with the latter in India (he repeated a version of this claim in his Lectures on Islam.)

While Goldziher was basically right in drawing the attention of the debate toward the Indian connection to Sufism, one is hard-pressed to say that it was Buddhism per se rather than Indian practices such as Bhakti (devotionalism, in this context) that had some generalized impact on the early Sufi practitioners. (Of all dimensions of Islam, Sufism today is most readily compared to Buddhism, but then again, Sufism is indeed most inclusive and eclectic and thus most easily compared to strains within all religions). On the ideational level we find the unique case of a Chinese Sufi scholar, Wu Zixian, who translated the Mirsad al-‘ibad, a major Sufi compendium, into Chinese and stated freely in his preface to the book that he had consulted Buddhist texts to come up with the suitable Chinese vocabulary for Sufi terms. Wu is unique not because he was an East Asian Muslim inspired by Buddhism but rather because he was one who openly admitted this influence.

Buddhists and Muslims today coexist in significant numbers in virtually all Southeast and East Asian countries (and also Korea and Japan). There have been some serious scholarly and religious attempts to renew and open the dialogue between the two faiths. One such attempt worthy of mentioning is by the major Japanese Buddhist thinker and educator Daisaku Ikeda. For the most part, however, this remains an undeveloped field, and what has been written on the topic is largely polemical.


Further Reading

Azuma, Ryushin. Nihon no Bukkyo to Isuramu (Japanese Buddhism and Islam). Tokyo: Shunjusha, 2002.

Ben-Dor Benite, Zvi. The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, forthcoming.

Goldziher, Igna´c. A Buddhizmus Hata´sa az Iszla´mra. Budapest: Kiadja a Magyar Tudoma´nyos Akade´mia, 1903.

Harun, Yahya. Islam and Buddhism. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2003.

Ikeda, Daisaku. Global Civilization: A Buddhist–Islamic Dialogue (with Majid Tehranian). London and New York: British Academic Press, 2003.

Murata, Sachiko. Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Zu‘bi, Muhammad ‘Ali. al-Budhiya wa-ta’thiruha fi l-fikr wa-l-firaq al-Islamiya al-mutatarrifa. Beirut: Matba‘at al-Insaf, 1964.


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