The religious beliefs of people along
the Silk Road at the beginning of the 1st century BCE were very different
from what they would later become. When China defeated the nomadic Xiongnu
confederation and pushed Chinese military control northwest as far as
the Tarim Basin (in the 2nd century BCE), Buddhism was known in Central
Asia but was not yet widespread in China nor had it reached elsewhere
in East Asia. Christianity was still more than a century in the future.
Daoism, in the strict sense of that term, connoting an organized religion
with an ordained clergy and an established body of doctrine, would not
appear in China for another three centuries. Islam would be more than
seven centuries in the future.
Coming at last to China on our west-to-east survey of the ancient faith of the Silk Road, we .nd that rulers worshiped their own ancestors in great ancestral temples; they were joined by commoners in also worshiping deities of the earth, the four directions, mountains and rivers, and many others. There was, as yet, in China no official state cult of Confucius, no Buddhism, and no organized religious Daoism. The beliefs of Korea and Japan at that early period are largely lost in an unrecorded past, but they appear to have been ancestral to the later Japanese religion of Shinto, a polytheistic belief system that emphasizes worship of local gods and goddesses, the importance of ritual purity, and rule by a king of divine descent.
That the religious beliefs of the
peoples of the Silk Road changed radically from what they had been when
trans-Eurasian trade began to take place on a regular basis was largely
due to the effects of travel and trade on the Silk Road itself. Over
the centuries for two thousand years the Silk Road was a network of
roads for the travel and dissemination of religious beliefs across Eurasia.
Religious belief is often one of the most important and deeply held
aspects of personal identity, and people are reluctant to go where they
cannot practice their own faith. Traders who used the Silk Road regularly
therefore built shrines and temples of their own faiths wherever they
went, in order to maintain their own beliefs and practices of worship
while they were far from home. Missionaries of many faiths accompanied
caravans on the Silk Road, consciously trying to expand the reach of
their own religious persuasion and make converts to their faith.
Buddhism was the first of the great
missionary faiths to take advantage of the mobility provided by the
Silk Road to extend its reach far beyond its native ground. From its
origins in northeastern India, Buddhism had already spread into the
lands that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan by the 1st century BCE.
Buddhist merchants from those areas built temples and shrines along
the Silk Road everywhere they went; the priests and monks who staffed
those religious establishments preached to local populations and passing
travelers, spreading the faith rapidly. Buddhisms essential message?athat
earthly life is impermanent and full of suffering, but that the painful
cycle of birth, death, and rebirth can be ended through Buddhist faith
and practice?ahad wide appeal, and its universalism enabled it to cross
boundaries of space, language, and ethnicity with ease.
Buddhism also interacted in China with religious Daoism, especially from the 3rd century CE. Religious Daoism, in the form of several competing sects, absorbed many of the local religious temples and doctrines of ancient China. It offered believers immortality or reincarnation in a celestial pantheon, and amassed a canon of sacred texts rivaling that of Buddhism. Daoism spread westward into Central Asia along the Silk Road, providing, just as Buddhism had done, religious facilities for traveling believers; many of the important Buddhist temple complexes of Central Asia show Daoist influence or incorporate Daoist chapels. The Chinese Chan tradition of Buddhism (called Zen in Japanese) owes a great deal to Buddhist-Daoist syncretism.
Meanwhile, in the western reaches
of the Silk Road, important changes were also taking place. Christianity
was transformed, in the century or so after 50 CE, from a local phenomenon
in the region now comprising Israel and Palestine to a rapidly expanding,
proselytizing religion through the efforts of the major Christian apostles.
Christianity thrived especially at the expense of classical paganism;
in Christianitys original homeland, Judaism remained the dominant but
non-proselytizing religion even as it also evolved new traditions of
study and practice.
Silk Road faiths from the Middle East to the northwestern reaches of China were challenged and, in time, displaced by the spread of Islam, which is at present the faith of the majority of people in the countries spanned by the old Silk Road.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was
born around 570 CE. At the age of 40, according to Muslim tradition,
he became the recipient of a series of revelations, recorded in the
Quran, which is for Muslims a faithful recording of the entire revelation
of God sent through Muhammad. The basic teachings of the Quran were
belief in One God, unique and compassionate; the necessity of faith,
compassion, and morality in human affairs; accountability of human actions;
and the recognition that the same God had sent Prophets and Revelations
to other societies, which Islam affirmed while regarding the Quran as
the .nal message and Muhammad as the last of the divine messengers.
In the Silk Road context, a good example of this process are the Sufis, devotees committed to spiritual life and unity among traditions, whose teachings of Islam exist in all the vernaculars and cultures of Silk Road peoples. The full diversity of Muslim traditions, schools of thought, and civilizing influences have flourished along the Silk Road. These include the development of philosophy and science; law and history; literature and the arts; and the expressions in music and dance of the devotional and creative spirit of Islam. That pluralism still de.nes the life of most Muslims living along the old Silk Road. At present, at least 560 million Muslims live in Asia, almost half of the total number of Muslims in the world.
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