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Throughout the region we see religions, philosophies and world views arriving from outside, or originating within the region itself. Islam arrived in most of the area through conquest, but it also spread through instruction, trade and preaching, especially of the Sufis (we are reminded here of Thomas Arnold’s work on the spread of Islam in India). Certainly, as with other religions, patronage played its part as did the restrictions of the dhimma on non-Muslim communities. In our context, though, the astounding cities of central Asia, like Samarkand and Bukhara, already celebrated in the time of the Persian poet Hafiz, with their madrassas, mosques and mausoleums bear witness to a creativity which evokes undiluted admiration. As far as the Silk Road is concerned, the establishing of caravanserais, no more than a day’s journey from one another, shows not only the sophistication of medieval travel but also that which made so much trade possible.

As Professor Akbar Ahmad has noted in his Living Islam, the Marxist attempt, whether in central Asia or China, to uproot people from tribal, ethnic and religious identities to create “industrial man” has failed. People are either returning to their roots, be it Tengrism, or “natural religion” in some of the central Asian countries, Buddhism or Taoism in China, or Islam in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. At the same time, Evangelical and Catholic Christianity continues to grow in China, as well as in central Asia, and Eastern Orthodoxy remains important in the latter. New religious movements are also a feature of the landscape and sometimes attract unwanted government attention and restrictions.

One feature of the religious scene which must be mentioned is both the growth and the fear of Islamist radicalism in many countries in the region. This has resulted in civil war, terrorism, the persecution of minorities like the Christians, Jews, Baha’is and Hindus, as well as of heterodox Muslim groups. It has restricted the freedom of women and had a generally negative effect on creativity and freedom of expression. It is also true that in some states attempts to curb extremism have led to a draconian curtailing of fundamental liberties of belief, expression and association. As ever, religion provides an opportunity for growth, debate, creativity and freedom and the danger of violent extremism, theocracy and totalitarianism. The recent history of the region is full of the tyranny of secular ideology. Let us pray that religion will bring light, peace and love to this beautiful but troubled region.The Sino-Pakistan project of reviving at least one of the routes of the Silk Road is fraught with risk but also holds out the promise, which the Silk Road has always done, of opening up peoples, cultures and religions to one another. Again, let us pray that is what it does rather than being seen as an alliance against other powers or a hegemony of one over the others. The project does show how the Silk Road continues to have relevance today — culturally, commercially, politically and spiritually.

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