Islam and Buddhism - Johan Elverskog

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Buddhism (21 Oct. 2003)
by Robert E. Buswell (Editor)

The historical meeting between the various powerful states that drew political legitimacy from either Islam or Buddhism was a violent one. The Arab conquest of Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) in 696 c.e., in which a mosque replaced a monastery, and the Turkic destruction of the important Buddhist monasteries of Nālandā and Vikramaśīla in India in 1202, are widely recognized as the end of Indian Buddhism. Similar devastation was glorified in a Turkic folksong recorded in Al-Kashgari's twelfth-century dictionary, which revels in the desecration of Buddhism during the tenth-century Karakhanid attack on the Uygur Buddhist kingdom of Turfan along the Silk Road. With the Inner Asian imperial revival of Buddhism in the twelfth century, however, the direction of religious violence was reversed. The Kara Khitais launched pogroms against Muslims, and Hülegü, a supporter of the Tibetan Phag mo gru pa, killed the 'Abbasid Caliph in 1256.

Of course there were exceptions to these norms of imperial violence. Kabūl Shāh converted to Islam only in 814. When BĀmiyĀn and Gandhāra were seized in 711, Buddhism and Islam coexisted. When Sind was conquered it was decreed that Buddhists, like Christians and Zoroastrians, should be taxed though not killed, as was the case during the reign of Zayn al-'abidīn in Kashmir (1420–1470). Early Arabic sources also note that sometimes Buddhists and Muslims were military allies. Tāranātha's Rgya gar chos 'byung (History of Buddhism in India, 1608), in accord with other Indian sources, notes that Buddhists rejoiced in the Muslim destruction of Hinduism and records that Buddhists even acted as agents and intermediaries for the Turkic assault on Magadha in central India. The Buddhist–Muslim encounter has manifested a full range of experiences and dialogues.

Arabic translations of Indian Buddhist works reflect the earliest engagement between Buddhism and Islam. These include the animal tales of the Kalīla wa-Dimna (Kalila and Dimna, ca. eighth century), based on the Pañcatantra (Five Treatises, ca. 300 c.e.), and the Kitāb Bilawhar wa-Yūdūsaf (The Book of Bilawhar and Yudasaf, ca. seventh–eighth century), a compilation from various sources of the Buddha biography that became the prototype for the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat. Although these translation projects ceased by the mid-ninth century, Muslim scholars continued to describe and interpret the Buddhist tradition. In the tenth century, Ibn al-Faqīh and Yāqut described in detail the Buddhist architecture, ritual, and doctrine as witnessed at Nowbahar in Afghanistan. Similarly, Jayhānī's description of Buddhism in his now lost gazetteer Kitāb al-masālik (The Book of Roads) provided material on Buddhist thought for both Maqdisī and Gardīzī in their brief descriptions of religion in India. More detailed descriptions of the dharma, as well as the standard categorization of Indian religions, are found in Ibn al-Nadīm's Fihrist (Catalogue, 987) and Shahrastānī's Kitāb al-milal wa-n niḥal (The Book of Religions and Faiths, 1125), works superseded only by Rashīd al-Dīn's Ta'rīkh al-Hind (History of India, ca. 1305/6), which explores at length the Buddha and Buddhist concepts of time as presented by the Kashmiri monk Kamalaśri (dates unknown).

Muslim engagement with Buddhism, however, was not limited to theological and historical works. Islamic architecture derived inspiration from and appropriated localized Buddhist forms across Asia. And in opposition to Islam's well-known iconoclasm, an extensive Muslim trade in Buddhist icons flourished through the tenth century. Indeed, over time the term bot (idol, presumably deriving from Buddha) lost its religious significance and became a clichéd metaphor of idealized beauty in Persian poetry.

Extant sources for the Buddhist interpretation of Islam are more limited. The main source is the KĀlacakra (Wheel of Time), a work composed in India during the early eleventh century at a time of increased Muslim migration, primarily Shi'ite groups fleeing persecution from the Sunni caliphate. The work outlines Muslim dietary laws, circumcision, marriage, the nature of god, and god's relationship to humanity. Why there are not more Buddhist interpretations of Islam is uncertain, though the retreat of Buddhism as a culturally dynamic force certainly played a role.

This retreat was premised on many factors—economics, politics, and most importantly, the growing fusion between Hindu and Buddhist thought, particularly among the laity. A syncretism fueled by Advaita Vedānta and tantric thought also played a role in South Asia's Islamization, as Sufi saints appropriated indigenous Indian religious discourses in transmitting and developing Islam in South Asia. Thus, for a time these traditions engaged one another, and holy sites came to share narratives of sacrality. The most famous of these narratives concerns the footprint on a mountain in Sri Lanka traditionally attributed to the Buddha. In the Akhbār al-Sīn wa-l-Hind (Stories about China and India, 851), this site was identified as the place where Adam descended after his expulsion from paradise. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Baṭūṭa noted that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists all regarded "Adam's Peak" as holy.

Yet amid this South Asian religious multiplicity, Buddhism became intellectually isolated, losing both royal and lay support. Chinese pilgrims to India witnessed this diminishing interest and recorded the concurrent disappearance of Buddhist temples and monasteries. Similarly, artistic remains from the period reflect a systematic shift of royal patronage from Buddhism to Hinduism. Although the Turkic destruction of two monasteries in 1202 is held up as the ultimate demise of Buddhism in India, seventy-eight Hindu temples were also destroyed in the creation of an Indo-Muslim state. Islam was a threat, but Buddhism's inevitable absorption into the amorphous doctrinal and ritual category of Hinduism was a greater one.

This transition occurred so seamlessly in Southeast Asia that when Islam finally arrived, the pre-Hindu layer of Buddhist religious history and culture was largely forgotten except in its famous monuments. In Java, Buddhism eventually merged into tantric Śaivism, only to be displaced by Islam after royal conversion in the fourteenth century, a trajectory also found in Kashmir. More often, Buddhist sources wrote of fearing Hinduization rather than defeat by Muslim forces. The nexus of Buddhism's imminent internal absorption into Hinduism and the external threat posed by Islam is most eloquently captured in the central eschatological myth of the Kālacakra. This narrative refashioned the Hindu myth of Viṣṇu's final avatar Kalkin Cakrin into a Buddhist apocalypse where Kalkin rides out of Shambhala, the mythical kingdom where the Buddha's final teachings are preserved, and kills the Muslims who have taken over the world, ushering in an age of pure dharma. This vision of Islamic perfidy has influenced Buddhist representations of Islam up to the present time.

In modern Buddhist states, these negative images are often framed in terms of such categories as ethnonational identity, politics, and demographics, with at times devastating consequences, as witnessed in Burma (Myanmar), where, in Arakan State, a predominantly Muslim area, the Burmese government has carried out policies of institutionalized discrimination including forced labor, restrictions on freedom of movement, and destruction of mosques. Elsewhere, however, dialogue between the traditions is again progressing as Muslim and Buddhist states and citizens grapple with the religious consequences of migration and conversion.


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Johan Elverskog


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