The Silk Road was a collection of various trade routes connecting China Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Established around the 2nd Century, this network of routes was used to transport assorted commodities and precious merchandise. The constant movement of people from different backgrounds enabled a widespread exchange of knowledge, cultural ideas, and religious beliefs. Most of the cities along the Silk Road gradually developed into cultural and learning hubs. Literature, art, science, and technological ideas were constantly exchanged, influencing language, culture, and religion. Originating from India, Buddhism was among the first religion to gain huge popularity in most parts of China. Later on, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Manicheism, and Zoroastrianism spread in similar ways and drew a substantial following. People living along the Silk Road were instrumental in translating, transmitting, and modifying these religious beliefs as they interacted with different traders across generations. Many historical monuments and religious landmarks still exist along this ancient trade route, which marks the legacy of the interconnection of cultures, customs, language, and beliefs.
Historically, the Silk Road is one of the highly influential trade networks for business, religious, and cultural exchange. Two main aspects characterized the spread of Buddhism along this route. The first one is the support offered to missionary activities by political elites within and beyond the sub-continent of India (Strauch 2019). The second aspect is the economic influence brought about by merchants who were the most dominant social group in the Buddhist community. The manifestation of these two aspects is reflected by the different stages that took place in the transmission of Buddhism into an international religion. In the first case, the historic unity of the Mauryan Empire in most parts of India resulted into a coherent political and administrative structure that promoted missionary endeavors beyond the country (Strauch, 2019). Under the rule of Kusana dynasty, the Indian subcontinent became a major player in the economic activities along the Silk Road, thus, spreading their religion Eastward into China, Central Asia, and the west, through merchants and pilgrims.
During the Han dynasty that reigned between 206 BCE and 220 CE, the second Chinese Emperor, Ming, introduced and promoted Buddhism to China. Transmitted by traders and Buddhist monks, the religion was accepted complete with its “scriptural canon, moral directives, and doctrines” (Chowdhury 2018, 11). After the acceptance of Buddhism in China, the Indians migrated into the region in large numbers to facilitate the translation of Buddhist canons from Hindi and other languages of central Asia to Chinese. Although the religion was the first foreign introduction to China, it was widely accepted mainly because of its similarity to Chinese beliefs of Confucianism and Daoism. The text translation from Hindi can be traced back to the end of the second and the beginning of the third centuries.
Analyzing ancient currency used along the Silk Road can be used to form a pattern and artistic characterization of communities that interacted during that time. The foreign currencies unearthed along the Silk Road are “an intuitive reflection of the cultural influences” that existed between the east and the west (Henry 2017, 2). For instance, from the Arab currency, Islamic culture is represented while Persian or Iranian coinage carries the sign of Zoroastrianism. The head of a king, believed to be influenced by the Roman Empire was printed on the front part of the Persian currency, while on the back, a priestess holding an ancient artifact on a Zoroastrian altar can be seen. Historical literature concludes that the Persians were strict followers of Zoroastrianism, which began during the Cyrus and Darius rule and continued into the Sassanid dynasty (Henry 2017). The trade currency used by the Iranians was the main contributor to the spread of Persian religious beliefs and cultures.
One of the most influential Zoroastrian community in the Hexi Corridor or Sogdiana, an opening route between China and the Silk Road, the Hu people, is credited for spreading Zoroastrianist beliefs into Chinese territory. Travelling in the form of trade groups, people from Sogdiana engaged in organized businesses, transacting in precious commodities (Zhipeng and Gao 2020). Their leader, Sabao (a name derived from Zoroastrian religious activities) was a celebrated spiritual organizer. Apart from their trading activities, the Hu people were famous for holding religious ceremonies along the Silk Road. While Sogdiana’s were land traders, Persians who conducted business along the sea and mainly gathered in the coastal areas of Southeast China were responsible for spreading Zoroastrianism in those parts (Zhipeng and Gao 2020). Moreover, religion contributed to the commercial achievements of the Hu people located in the western regions because their beliefs were similar to occupants of Northern Pakistan.
Dunhuang, a province in China and one of the most famous cities along the Silk Road became quite prominent in recent history as a source of ancient Manichean texts and artifacts. Among the texts discovered is the Uighur prayer confessional based on Manichean beliefs. The region of central Asia has been the subject of numerous archaeological discoveries leading to the unearthing of various religious scrolls linked to the Manicheism religion (Lieu 2020). For instance, the latest finding, discovered in the past century, was of a well-preserved Sogdian script with the title, “to the great radian majesty of the Mozak”. Their leader, Mani, was a celebrated painter who was reputable in Arabic history during the Islamic period. With the advent of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and Confucianism, the religion faced staunch opposition, especially from Ephraim and Augustine (Lieu 2020). Later on, Augustine, who was a lay member of Manicheism, eventually converted to Roman Catholicism and begun writing prolifically against his former religion. The destruction of Manicheism was very thorough such that, before the discovery of ancient artifacts, the knowledge of Mani’s teachings heavily relied on Augustine’s writing.
During the first century AD, Hinduism was introduced to the Eastern world into China by merchants travelling along the Silk Road. Although it can be argued that Hinduism and Buddhism are similar, scholars suggest that the latter is a branch of the former religion (Yang 2019). Due to their similarities, the two faiths are said to have been spread simultaneously. Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism was introduced to China using four distinct routes: The Yunnan-Burma, Nepal-Tibet, Overland and maritime silk roads (Yang 2019). However, the two routes on the Silk Road are the most famous paths for the spread of this religion. Construction of Hindu temples and shrines in China was synonymous with the spread of Hinduism. The close proximity between India and Tibet resulted in a cultural exchange with a huge discovery of the status and murals of Hindu deities in the southern province of China.
Nestorianism is the most popular form of Christianity that was taught along the Silk Road. The doctrine suggests that Jesus existed in two distinct characters, as a man and a divine being. Taught by Nestorios in the 5th Century, he quickly “outraged the Romans and Byzanites with his doctrines”, which were considered unorthodox (Obrusánszky 2019, 1). Nestorian Christianity spread into China, forming a new language, the Syriac, a combination of various central Asian symbols and letters. From China, Christians travelled into Mongolia where they received a warm welcome. The religion quickly spread due to the miracles performed by missionaries and their advancement in medical and astronomical knowledge. Along with the spread of Buddhism, minority groups of Christianity, such as the Assyrian faith, commonly referred to as the church of the East, were among those that taught along the Silk Road (Nanji and Niyozov 2021). This minority branch was significant in the development of an intellectual center located at Jundishapur, where the study of medicine, astrology, and astronomy gained recognition. Apart from influencing Muslims via the teachings at Jundishapur, Assyrian Christianity was responsible for impelling the Sogdians who, at the time, where commercial masters on the silk road, into converting.
Previously referred to as the Arab religion, there are various diverse opinions as to when Islam was introduced to the Silk Road. While initially Muslims were not eager to gain followers, their thought process quickly changed around the eighteenth century when they started seeking converts. During the early stages of Islam, class and racial disparities were not given much priority (Hoshmand 2019). However, after moving beyond the Peninsula, this ideology was abandoned due to the appeal of creating a distinction between affluent Muslims and the rest of the population. The distinction made Islam seem privileged leading to mass conversion. Some of the factors that made Islam a more favored religion includes the basic principle of believing in one God who is described as merciful and unique, and the call to create a society that is ruled by compassion, justice for all, and charity.
The spread of Islam into central Asia was credited to trade, territorial expansion, and its influence on the region. By the beginning of the 8th Century, Islam was no longer considered a religion of Arabs, as it had spread into the Silk Road (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 2018). The high rates of conversions were attributed to financial benefits enjoyed by the Ummah. Islam spread into China via the Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, followed by the conquest of the Persian dynasty. By the 9th century, Islam had penetrated into the minority groups of Southeast Asia, such as the Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hui, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz (Michalopoulos, Naghavi, and Prarolo 2018). The established trade routes facilitated the spread of Islam into parts of Africa, especially along the east coast. This dispersal was majorly due to the trade of myrrh, frankincense, and spices between Persians and people occupying the island of Zanzibar.
For two thousand years, trade routes along the Silk Road created a network of roads used by travelers, tradesmen, and religious leaders to spread knowledge and information. Although the term, Silk Road, is primarily used to refer to land routes, it also includes sea ways used to connect Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, and East Africa. Established during the Han dynasty in China, the route derives its name from the highly profitable trade of silk. Before the 1st century, the communities living along the silk road lacked a specific religion; thus, they were easily influenced. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Manicheism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism were among the religions that were spread between central Asia, China, Africa, and western Europe. Apart from religion, this network of trade routes was significant in the development of civilization by opening up political and economic agreements between dynasties.
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