The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
IRANIAN PEOPLES & RELIGION
The Role of Central Asian Peoples in the
Spread of World Religions
By: Dr. Richard C. Foltz *
over a thousand years, up through the tenth century of the Common Era, the prime
actors in the transmission of the world's major religions from West to East were
the people of Transoxiana, roughly modern Uzbekistan. Situated halfway between
the Mediterranean and Chinese centers of civilization, the natives of this
region, Iranian-speakers known as Sogdians, were ideally situated to be
middlemen. Sogdian merchants were for centuries among the most successful in
Asia, and their trading activities formed the major link connecting East and
Sogdians were purveyors not only of goods, but of culture in general, borrowing
ideas and traditions from one civilization and transmitting them to another.
Buddhism took hold early on amongst the Bactrians, another Iranian people living
to the northwest of India. Sogdians living or trading in Bactria adopted
Buddhism and carried its teachings throughout their trading colonies all along
the Silk Route as far as China. Later Sogdians became enthusiastic converts to
Manichaeism or Nestorian Christianity, and became the representatives of these
faiths within their string of communities across the Asian interior.
their international connections Sogdians knew foreign languages, and many were
literate. They were often engaged as interpreters and translators. It was
Sogdian scribes who translated most of the religious texts of Buddhism,
Manichaeism, and Christianity into the various languages of the Silk Route, from
Prakrit, Aramaic, or Parthian into Bactrian, Tokharian, Khotanese, Turkish or
Chinese, either via Sogdian or directly. As Central Asia became
Islamicized beginning in the eighth century, the Sogdians gradually adopted the
Persian language and Iranian Islam. Within two centuries Transoxiana indeed
became the center of the Persian cultural world under the Samanid dynasty.
Rudaki, Farabi, Khwarazmi, and Avicenna are just a few of the Central Asians who
stand out in medieval Islam.
paper will discuss how and why the Iranian-speaking peoples of Central Asia
played such a major role in the transmission of religions from the Near East to
the Far East throughout the first millennium of the Common Era.
evidence suggests that urban-based political structures in the Oxus region began
to develop from the early part of the first millennium BCE. To the north, within
the vast swath of steppelands reaching across the Asian continent from above the
Black Sea all the way to the frontiers of China, the culture was mainly nomadic
or semi-nomadic. As urbanization developed, the pastoral peoples of the Eurasian
steppe entered into a long, rocky partnership with settled civilization which
lasted for well over two thousand five hundred years, a symbiotic relationship
often characterized as "the steppe and the sown". According to this
model, Central Asian history is defined largely by the dynamics of
nomadic-sedentary relations, often hostile, even violent, but always mutually
most cases the dominant peoples of the Eurasian steppe have belonged to either
the Iranian or Turkic language families. Although the Iranian tongues, being
Indo-European, are distinct from the Altaic Turkic dialects, the speakers
themselves have often been less easy to distinguish, since their shared history
has provided them with many shared traits, ideas, and ways of life. This
includes the Iranian and Turkic languages themselves, as can be seen in the
bilingualism which remains in some parts of Central Asia to this day.
some point in pre-history— exactly when is not known— a prophet appeared
among the Iranian pastoralists of Central Asia. Zarathrushtra, or Zoroaster as
he is more commonly known, is believed by some to have lived as early as the
eighteenth century and by others as late as the sixth BCE. His home has been
placed as far west as Azarbaijan and as far east as Mongolia.
was a preacher, perhaps of priestly family background, who sought to reform the
religious practices of his community. He opposed certain tendencies common to
various Indo-European peoples, such as bull sacrifice and the ritual drinking of
haoma (Skt. soma), an intoxicating beverage, which often led to
drunken orgies. The prophet also singled
out one god or ahura (Skt. asura) from among the Iranian pantheon
for exclusive worship, and referred to this god as Ahura Mazda, or "Lord
Wisdom". The other Iranian gods, the ahuras and the daevas
deva), he demoted to demons: the English word "devil" is, like
the concept itself, of Iranian origin.
Zoroaster, like Moses, who may have been his contemporary, seems to have been
among the earliest of the world's prophets to sow the seeds of monotheism. His
vision differed from that of the ancient Israelites, however, in that it
accounted for evil by positing an evil divinity, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman). For
this reason Zoroastrianism is often characterized as a dualistic, rather than a
general assumption is often made that the various Iranian peoples of
"greater Iran"— a cultural area that stretched from Mesopotamia and
the Caucasus into Khwarazm, Transoxiana, Bactria, and the Pamirs and included
Persians, Medes, Parthians, and Sogdians, among others— were all
"Zoroastrian" in pre-Islamic times. As one writer recently put it,
"After the conversion of King Vishtasp [by Zoroaster], all of Iran is
thought to have become Zoroastrian, and it continued to be so up to the end of
the Sassanian empire." Other scholars continue to
characterize virtually the entire ancient Iranian world as Zoroastrian, a
sweeping generalization supported by little or no evidence.
blanket assertions must, therefore, be taken with caution. Like Judaism, the
Zoroastrian religion has ancient roots, but is essentially a product of the
Christian era. Zoroastrianism was first codified only from the third century CE
as the official state religion of the Iranian Sasanian Empire, anywhere from a
thousand to fifteen hundred years after the life of Zoroaster. We know
relatively little about the religious beliefs and practices of the Central Asian
Iranian peoples of early times, compared to the documentation available for
can however speak of Iranian religion in a broad sense, by identifying certain
elements which clearly belong to an Iranian religious "pool" of myths,
deities, symbols, and rituals. Iranian religion can then be understood in its
various local contexts to be made up largely of elements drawn from this pool.
The mix varies depending on the time and locale, with different elements having
greater or lesser relative weight, or none at all, and with diverse non-Iranian
regional elements filtering in.
Achæmenid times quite a few of the Iranian deities which Zoroaster had
attempted to demote to demons were creeping back into the Iranian religious
pantheon even in the central Persian lands. It seems that the Achæmenids
attempted to impose their calendar on their Central Asian subjects, but this
does not appear to have been a great success. The Sogdians substituted names of
their own for most of the months, and invented new names for the intercalary
days (the epagomenae), which, in the words of one Iranologist,
"shows little regard for the Amesha Spenta 'Bounteous
Immortals', a class of divinities] and lack of familiarity with the Gathas."
the divinities popular in Central Asia was Baga (cf. Skt. Bagha,
Rus. Bog), a god associated with wine and marriage.
The Sogdian "Ancient Letters", documents from near Lou-lan in Xinjiang
which probably date to around 313 CE, before Buddhism, Christianity, or
Manichaeism took hold among the Sogdians, mention only "the lord of the
temple" (Vgnpt) and not the chief of the Magi (Mogrt),
leading us to understand that the former was more important in the Sogdian world
even in the early Sasanian period.
The goddess Nanai is frequently mentioned. The figure of the devil carries a
distinctly Sogdian name, Shimnu, which is derived independently of the Avestan
The Encounter of Iranian and Judean Religion
book of II Kings states that following the Assyrian conqest of Israel in 722 BCE
the Ten Tribes of Israel were exiled to "Halah and Habor by the River Gozan
and in the cities of the Medes" (18: 11). Since the former locations have
been situated in Khurasan, it has been suggested that Israelite presence in
Central Asia should be considered as originating at that time.
It has accordingly been proposed that these earliest exiles may have engaged in
long-distance overland trade.
Such hypotheses are not implausible, but solid evidence is lacking.
559 BCE a Persian army under Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and freed the
various enslaved peoples there, including the Judeans. Given the option of
returning home to Judah, most Judeans chose instead to stay in Babylon as free
citizens of the new Persian empire, or elected to try their luck elsewhere in
the Persian-controlled lands. Many relocated eastward to Iran proper and laid
the foundations for Jewish communities that have survived there to the present
day, especially in the cities of Hamadan (ancient Ecbatana) and Esfahan.
Cyrus had also made conquests to the east, as far as Bactria and Sogdiana, it is
likely that some of the Babylonian Jews relocated to those provinces as well.
The book of Esther states in several places (3:6, 8; 8:5, 12; and 9:20) that the
Jews lived "in all the provinces" of the Persian Empire. The
modern-day Jewish communities of Bukhara and Samarqand, in particular, like to
trace their history back to Assyrian times, and consider themselves to be
descended from the Ten Tribes. Though this origin is
attested by Saadia Gaon of Fayyum in the tenth century,
there is no direct evidence for Jewish presence in Central Asia earlier than the
Achæmenid period as described in the book of Esther.
seems likely that many of the post-exilic Judean settlers in Persian lands took
up commerce. It would have been consistent with later patterns for them to set
up trade networks with relatives or other Judeans in other parts of the Persian
Empire or elsewhere. Roman sources show that by Parthian times both Palestinian
and Babylonian Jews were involved in the silk trade from China. Hebrew names
appearing on pottery fragments from Marv dating from the first to the third
centuries CE attest to the presence of Jews living along the Silk Road at that
Because Jews were spread across a wide geographical area spanning both the
Parthian and the Roman lands, they were ideally situated to participate in trade
between the two empires.
Iranian Influences on Judaism
picked up by Jewish communities in one cultural environment could easily travel
to connected communities in another. Beginning in the Persian period and
continuing through Hellenistic and Parthian times, a number of Iranian beliefs
and concepts began to work their way into the religious outlook of the Judeans,
a tradition that would later evolve into Judaism.
ideas such as warnings of the "last days" and belief in a messianic
savior, a bodily resurrection, and a last judgement, are just some of the
notions that Judaism (and subsequently Christianity and Islam) seems to have
borrowed from the Persians. The concepts of a heavenly paradise (Old Pers. paira
daeza) and a hell of punishment for the wicked are also seen in ancient
Iranian religion, but not in Israelite sources prior to the Babylonian period.
The Iranian evil spirit Angra Mainyu, or Ahriman, evolves into the Christian and
Muslim devil, who first appears in the book of Job as ha-satan, "the
accuser". The concept of angels and demons, likewise, seems to derive from
Iranian beliefs. Ancient Iranian cosmology, with its numerology based on the
number seven, may be the precedent for later evolutions in Greek philosophy and
in Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticism.
firm evidence is lacking, it is not unlikely that both Iranian and Jewish
merchants were active along the Silk Road from a very early time. Naturally
their religious ideas would have accompanied them on their travels, and
therefore would have become familiar to peoples encountered by these merchants
along the way. There is evidence that Iranian soothsayers were employed by the
Western Chou dynasty of China, that is, prior to the eighth century BCE.
we can say that in ancient times certain religious ideas may have spread
geographically eastward, in the sense that the possessors of those ideas
physically went there; this is not to say, however, that Iranian or Jewish
religious systems "grew" or won converts. The great missionary
religions had not yet entered the stage of world history.
traditional societies religions, like people, are generally considered as being
attached to a particular locality or region, and by extension to their own local
culture. From an Inner Asian or Chinese point of view, whatever religion a
foreign merchant of Iranian or Israelite origin practiced was simply the home
religion of the Iranians or of the Israelites; one would no more think of
embracing such religion oneself than of pretending to be from Iran or Palestine.
as Turks, Chinese, and other East Asian peoples came into contact with these
merchants from the West and became familiar with their ways of thinking, subtle
influences must have penetrated in both directions through everyday encounters
and conversation. For example, it has been suggested that Taoists of the late
Han period borrowed their term for "the highest heaven", ta-lo,
from the Iranian garo-dmana, the "house of praise", the highest
of the four heavens, associated with Ahura Mazda who is referred to in parts of
the Avesta as Dadhvah.
has been argued by a Japanese scholar that the so-called "ghost
festival", an annual ritual for "feeding" untended souls which
became extremely popular during the T'ang period, actually had Iranian origins.
The Chinese name for the festival, yü-lan-p'en, may be derived from the
Sogdian rw'n ("soul"), and a popular tale associated with the
festival in which a monk, Mu-lien, descends into hell to retrieve his mother,
seems to be based on the Greek myth of Dionysos and Semele.
There is evidence for other such influences from the early centuries of our era,
but similar exchanges of ideas may have been going on much earlier, and if
Iranian soothsayers did serve the Chou, they probably were.
and the Silk Road
to a legend preserved in Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, Buddhism's
first contact with the Silk Road took place during the life of the Buddha
This legend relates that two merchant brothers from Bactria (medieval Balkh, in
the north of Afghanistan), named Tapassu and Bhallika, visited the Buddha in the
eighth week after his enlightenment and immediately became his disciples.
According to the story, the brothers then returned to Balkh and built temples
dedicated to the Buddha.
there is no evidence to confirm the legend of Tapassu and Bhallika, edicts
inscribed on rock pillars set up by Emperor Ashoka state that he sent
missionaries into his northwestern territories.
Over the following centuries Bactria did become a major Buddhist region, and
remained so up to the Muslim conquests. In the seventh century, on the eve of
the Arab invasions, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hsüan-tsang found that Balkh
had some one hundred Buddhist monasteries and three thousand priests.
passages in the account of Hsüan-tsang's travels have led scholars to
perceive a Central Asian Buddhism in decline vis-ù-vis Sasanian-sponsored
Zoroastrianism. For example Hsüan-tsang's biographer, Hui Li, who was one of
his disciples, comments sadly that in Samarqand, "The king and people did
not believe in Buddhism but worshipped fire. There were two monastery buildings
but no monks lived in them. If a guest monk attempted to stay in them, the
native people would drive him out with fire."
seems the Sogdian king was impressed by Hsüan-tsang's piety, however. When two
of Hsüan-tsang's accompanying disciples were chased from the temple by
fire-worshipping priests, the king ordered the priests to be punished. Hsüan-tsang
then "turned the other cheek" by intervening on the priests' behalf.
According to Hui Li, Hsüan-tsang thereby won the respect of the local people,
and "the king and people believed in Buddhism and a great meeting was held
to ordain some people, who afterwards lived in the monasteries."
Hui Li's work is as much hagiography as biography, his assertions about the
success of Hsüan-tsang's efforts should be taken with a grain of salt. The
Chinese traveler was certainly a charismatic individual, and such figures are
often able to generate personal followings wherever they go. This account does
not in itself enable us to understand, however, that the Sogdian population had
converted from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism and that Hsüan-tsang had managed to
set them once again on the straight path.
even if Hui Li's assertions about his master's successes in Sogdiana are true,
the "converts" may have been at least partly made up of individuals
who were already Buddhists (or at least to some degree "Buddhistic"),
and who merely saw in him an authority whose "corrective" entreaties
they were willing to listen to. There were numerous schools of Buddhism as well
as variants in local belief and practice spread out across Asia at that time,
and if Buddhists existed in Sogdiana, as it is not impossible that they did, it
may simply have been their local version of Buddhism that Hsüan-tsang saw as
heretical. Hui Li's phrasing about
"correcting evil customs" would seem to be consistent with this
more likely, perhaps, is that with the rise in Sasanian influence from Iran, any
existing local form of Buddhism, which would probably have been colored by local
Iranian religiosity to begin with, had increasingly taken on aspects of the
newly institutionalized Sasanian Zoroastrianism. The eastern Iranian world has
provided documented examples of Zoroastrian influence on the evolution of
Buddhism there. One such case can be seen in the layout of the circumabulatory
corridor around Buddhist stupas, which is modeled on that of fire temples.
we cannot assume that the population of Sogdiana was ever in any uniform sense
Zoroastrian or Buddhist as we understand the terms. For one thing, they lived at
some remove from the centers of both Zoroastrian and Buddhist institutionalizing
forces. Furthermore, we have evidence of the persistence of strictly local
elements, such as the cult of the hero Siyavash at Bukhara which included the
sacrifice of a rooster every New Year.
Most probably, the local religiosity of Sogdiana was made up of many elements
drawn from the Iranian/Indo-Aryan pool from which both major religions had
evolved, and any attempt to categorize them at any period as Zoroastrian or
Buddhist is bound to be misleading.
in Central Asia
the Acts of the Apostles (2: 9) it is stated that Iranian Jews from Parthia,
Media, Elam and Mesopotamia were witness to the miracle of the Pentecost. Since
Christianity arose within the Jewish world, it is only natural that its eastward
spread from Palestine would have been facilitated first and foremost through
existing contacts across the Jewish diaspora.
Since these contacts were to a large degree commercial in nature, it can safely
be said that Christianity's first link with the Silk Road was via the Babylonian
earliest reference to Central Asian communities in a Christian source is the
comment of Bardaisan around 196 CE: "Nor do our sisters among the Gilanians
and Bactrians have any intercourse with strangers." The apocryphal Acts
of Thomas, written around the same time, mentions the "land of the
Kushans (baith kaishan).
was, until the Samanid dynasty made it the most dynamic center of the Muslim
world in the tenth century, never a region of religious orthodoxy. The region
was at the fringes of both east and west, equally removed from the centers of
all the great religious traditions. It had always been middle ground, a transit
point, a place where anything could and did pass through sooner or later.
merchants were the real masters of the Silk Road, whoever the ephemeral powers
of the time might be. Under the rule of their fellow Iranian peoples the
Parthian and the Sasanians, Sogdian merchants moved easily in the Iranian lands
to the west, where some of them were won over to the Christian message
(especially in its Nestorian form), just as others active in the former Kushan
lands had embraced Buddhism.
do not appear to have been any obstacles preventing Sogdian converts to either
tradition from importing their new faith either to Sogdiana proper or conveying
it further east in the course of their business ventures. By the year 650 there
was a Nestorian archibishopric at Samarqand in the heart of Sogdiana, and
another even further east at Kashgar; in all over twenty Nestorian bishops had
dioceses east of the Oxus river.
centuries Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Among the
Nestorian texts which have been discovered in the Tarim Basin since the
beginning of the twentieth century, a preponderance are in Sogdian or show
evidence of having been translated from Sogdian versions. Although Syriac was
the liturgical language of the Nestorian church, the language in which Nestorian
Christianity was disseminated across Asia was principally Sogdian, as it was for
Buddhism and Manichaeism as well.
of the Christian texts found in the Tarim region were discovered by four German
expeditions to the Turfan oasis from 1902-14. The bulk of these are manuscripts
dating to the ninth and tenth centuries from a Nestorian monastery at Buyaliq,
north of the oasis. They include hymns, Psalms, prayers, lectionaries from the
New Testament, and commentaries.
Although most are translations from Syriac, some of the Sogdian versions are
older than their known Syriac counterparts, and a few do not have known Syriac
versions. The Christian texts in
Sogdian, unknown before this century, have substantially rounded out scholars'
understanding of Nestorianism.
Silk Road skirted the forbidding highlands of the Tibetan plateau, but spur
routes connected Tibet to the busier overland tracks. Paintings and rock
inscriptions along the upper Indus river in Ladakh at the southwestern corner of
the Tibetan world indicate the passing of Christian and Manichaean Sogdian
merchants there. Sogdians of various faiths probably carried their business into
the Tibetan interior.
and Iranian merchants and missionaries brought Christianity to China during the
seventh century. In fact, the Chinese originally thought the cradle of
Christianity was Iran, and referred to it as "the Iranian religion"
for over one hundred years before correcting their records in the mid-eighth
century. An imperial T'ang edict of 638 relates that an Iranian priest named
A-lo-pen (Abraham?) had arrived at court three years earlier.
Alopen had brought with him scriptures, which were translated into Chinese so
that the Emperor could understand them. The Emperor approved, and gave the
Nestorians authority to propagate their faith throughout the empire. This event
is generally considered to mark the introduction of Christianity into China.
monument erected in the T'ang capital of Ch'ang-an (Xian) in 781 contains a
wealth of information about the local Nestorian community's first one hundred
fifty years. Iranian and Central Asian names occur throughout, indicating a
continuous influx of westerners along the Silk Road. One of the monument's most
interesting pieces of information concerns a monk by the name of Adam, who
assisted in the Chinese translation: he is said to have collaborated on the
translation of a Buddhist treatise as well. Adam knew no Indian languages, so
the Buddhist text in question must have been in Sogdian, presumably his native
would seem that for the most part the Nestorian community in China consisted of
foreigners, as was the case with Judaism and Zoroastrianism. All three
traditions were brought into China as the faiths of traveling merchants, and
their fates were tied to those of the expatriate merchant communities
T'ang court's enthusiastic taste for foreign people, ideas and things also
allowed for the proliferation of religious quackery. Many religious figures were
engaged not for their spiritual teachings but for their more worldly skills.
Christians and Manichaeans especially were valued for their knowledge of
astrology and medicine, inherited from the traditions of Mesopotamia.
buildings often served as "cultural centers" where foreign adherents
as well as interested locals could gather. Mazdaean temples in Lan-chow and
Lo-yang, for example, regularly hosted magic shows which drew large crowds.
Though the emperor Hsüan-tsung actually encouraged such activities during his
reign, this kind of foreign influence could be perceived as threatening by more
xenophobic Chinese rulers.
on the Silk Road
syncretistic religion founded by the Mesopotamian prophet Mani in the third
century CE began to enjoy popularity in the Mediterranean world within his own
lifetime, although even before the Roman Empire became officially Christian it
persecuted Manichaeans as adherents of a "foreign", Persian faith. To
the east Manichaeism fared better, at least initially. It enjoyed several
decades of protection while Mani was alive, during which time it had spread into
Central Asia along the Silk Road beyond the Oxus river. Once again, it was
Sogdians who played a major role in the transmission of the faith, with their
capital, Samarqand, becoming the center of an early and active Manichaean
their linguistic skills, Sogdians translated Manichaean texts from Syriac,
Middle Persian and Parthian into Sogdian, and thence into Turkish and eventually
Chinese. By the end of the sixth century the Sogdian Manichaeans were strong
enough to declare their independence from the archegos, the head of the
church in Baghdad, giving rise to a schism which was to persist for over a
Iranian Manichaean missionary named Mihr-Ormazd traveled to China sometime in
the late seventh century. He was granted an
audience with the Chou Empress Wu, and presented her with a text entitled The
Sutra of the Two Principles, which would become the most popular Manichaean
work in China.
was considered suspiciously by the restored T'ang dynasty after 705, and in 732
the Emperor issued an edict to the effect that the religion could only be
propagated among non-Chinese. The reasoning given for this restriction shows
that Buddhists were behind it:
The doctrine of Mar Mani is basically a perverse belief
and fraudulently assumes to be [a school of] Buddhism and will therefore mislead
the masses. It deserves to be strictly prohibited. However, since it is the
indigenous religion of the Western Barbarians and other [foreigners], its
followers will not be punished if they practice it among themselves.
is clear that just as the Manichaeans in the West attempted to present their
religion as an esoteric form of Christianity, in the East they tried to portray
it as a type of Buddhism.
the Sasanian government became increasingly bound up with the Zoroastrian
clergy, Manichaeans in Iran gradually moved eastward to Sogdiana, beyond the
reach of the State and the magi. After the Arab Muslims conquered the Sasanian
Empire in the 640's many Manichaeans returned from Central Asia to Iran and
Mesopotamia. The Umayyad Arabs, based in Damascus, were generally content to
leave the religious matters of their subject populations alone. But in 751 the
Abbasid revolution brought a wave of religious reform to the Muslim-controlled
the second half of the eighth century many Persian bureaucrats in the Abbasid
administration began to exert a form of cultural revival vis-ù-vis the Arab
ruling class. In literature this took the shape of the so-called shu'biyya
movement, through which many Persian literary classics were translated into
Arabic. Within the same class of Persian intellectuals, crypto-Manichaeism
became a popular form of self-assertion. Soon Mani's faith acquired the dubious
status it had possessed in the Sasanian and Roman worlds, as the official
religion's arch-enemy number one. Even those merely suspected of being
Manichaeans were ruthlessly persecuted, and many believers chose to flee
eastward once again.
in 755 the T'ang Emperor in China was faced with a rebellion led by a general of
mixed Sogdian and Turkish origin, Roshan ("the bright one"), sinicized
to An Lu-shan. The Emperor called upon the Uighurs to assist him in putting down
the rebellion. It was after re-taking the T'ang city of Lo-yang in 762 that the
Uighur kaghan, or king, known in Chinese sources as Mou-yü, made the
acquaintance of some Sogdian Manichaeans living there. These Sogdians made a
great impression on the kaghan, and when he returned home to his capital of
Qara-Balasaghun north of the Tien-Shan mountains he took four of them along.
Within a few months they had persuaded him to adopt Manichaeism. In 763 the
kaghan made it the official religion of the Uighur state, and it remained so
into the middle of the following century.
Muslim Rule and "Religious" Rebellions in Central Asia
the first half of the eighth century Muslim armies repeatedly attempted to
assert and maintain their authority over the easternmost parts of the Iranian
world, Sogdiana and Bactria. Following the pattern of the Arab tribes at the
time of the Prophet, local rulers would "submit" when overwhelmed and
then "apostasize" again as soon as they thought they could get away
with it. Some, like the Sogdian king Tughshada, did this several times.
major resistance movement took shape in Sogdiana in 777 around a figure known as
Muqanna', or "the Veiled One", a self-declared prophet whose
followers, like the Manichaeans, wore white robes. According to a Narshakhi, a
Sogdian Muslim writing a century later, Muqanna' said of himself:
Do you know who I am? I am your lord and lord of all the
world... I am the one who showed myself to people as Adam, then in the form of
Noah, also in the form of Abraham, Moses, then in the guise of Jesus, Muhammad
the prophet, in the guise of Abu Muslim, and now in this guise which you see...
I have the power to be in any guise I wish to show.
writes that in Sogdiana "most of the villages accepted the faith of Muqanna'",
and that the Muslims were "impotent" before them. The movement was so
successful in Central Asia, he writes, that the Caliph in Baghdad "feared
that there was a danger that Islam would be lost and the religion of Muqanna'
would spread throughout the entire world."
many successful religious figures, Muqanna' may have been a master illusionist.
When begged by a crowd to reveal himself, he had assistants direct sunlight into
the mob by use of mirrors, in order to dazzle them. Many afterwards claimed they
had seen God. When after nine years of struggle the Muslim armies finally
cornered Muqanna' in his fortress stronghold, he told his followers that he
would go up to heaven and bring down angels to help them, then threw himself
into a fire. Narshakhi states that in his time Muqanna's followers still
followed their faith in secret. "Their religion is such," he says,
"that they neither pray nor fast, nor do they wash after sexual
intercourse." He goes on to accuse them of promiscuity: "They say that
a woman is like a flower; [no matter] who smells it, nothing is detracted from
Islam and Trade in the Eastern Lands
with any case of mass cultural conversion, the Islamization of Central Asia was
a complex process which occurred on more than one level. The first, and most
visible level, was the spread of political power. It is worth noting that the
spread of a particular religion's rule is not identical with the spread of
faith, although historians have sometimes written as if it were.
rule over the western half of the Silk Road came fairly early and was
established, albeit through a period of false starts and occasional reversals,
by the mid-eighth century. Muslims thereafter controlled much of trans-Asian
trade, which became the second major factor in the Islamization of Central Asian
culture. Gradually a third factor, the influence of charismatic Muslim
preachers, entered into the process.
Sogdiana became administratively incorporated into the dar al-islam,
the Sogdians came to assimilate themselves into the broader Persian cultural
sphere, adopting Persian in preference to their original tongue and becoming
increasingly identified as Persians. This "Persianization" included
the adoption of Islam on a culture-wide scale, and by the fifteenth century
Transoxiana had become home to one of the most uniformly Muslim societies in the
 See the overview of these ongoing disagreements in Mary Boyce, Zoroastrianism: Its Antiquity and Constant Vigour, Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1992, pp. 1-26.
 The hallucinatory substance from which this beverage was concocted, a mystery for over two thousand years, has recently been identified as the plant known as harmel (Peganum harmala). See David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen "Soma" and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
 Although in modern Persian div means "demon", the original positive character of the daevas survives in later Iranian names, such as the Sogdian Devashtic and the Persian Divdad.
 Shahin Bekhradnia, "The Tajik Case for a Zoroastrian Identity," Religion, State and Society 22/1 (1994), p. 109.
 For example, Jamsheed Choksy, Conflict and Cooperation: Muslim Elites and Zoroastrian Subalterns in Medieval Iranian Society, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p. 4.
 W.B.Henning, "A Sogdian God," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 28/2 (1965), p. 251.
 Henning, "A Sogdian God," p. 247.
 Henning, "A Sogdian God," p. 251; Grenet and Sims-Williams, "The Historical Context of the Sogdian Ancient Letters".
 Schwartz, "Religion of Achæmenian Iran," p. 681; cf. Geo Widengren, Les r¹ligions de l'Iran, Paris, 1968, p. 357.
 Allen H. Godbey, "From Persia to China," in William C. White, ed., Chinese Jews, 2nd edition, New York: Paragon, 1966, pp. 136-7.
 Irene Franck, The Silk Road, New York, 1986, p. 63.
 Itzhak Ben-Zvi, The Exiled and the Redeemed, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1957, p. 67; Julius Brutzkus, "Bukhara," Encyclopaedia Judaica, Berlin, 1929, vol. 4, p. 1126.
 L. Rabinowitz, Jewish Merchant Adventurers: A Study of the Radanites, London: Goldston, 1948, p. 51.
 V.A. Livshits and Z.I. Usmanova, "New Parthian Inscriptions from Old Merv," in Irano-Judaica III, pp. 99-105.
 Jacob Neusner, "Jews in Iran," in Ehsan Yarshater, ed., Cambridge History of Iran, v. 3, The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Periods, Cambridge, 1983, p. 912.
 See Shaul Shaked, "Iranian Influence on Judaism: First Century B.C.E. to Second Century C.E.," in W.D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism, v. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 308-325; David Winston, "The Iranian Component in the Bible, Apocrypha, and Qumran: A Review of the Evidence," History of Religions 6 (1966), pp. 183-216.
 See for example Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa, "A Zoroastrian Origin to the Sefirot?" in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Metzer, eds., Irano Judaica III, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 1994, pp. 17-33.
 Victor Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Magus, and English 'Magician'," Early China 15 (1990), pp. 27-47.
 Homer H. Dubs, "Taoism," in H.F. MacNair, ed., Philosophy and Religion, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1946, pp. 286-7.
 Iwamoto Yutaka, Bukkyo setsuwa kenkyu, v. 4: Jigoku meguri no bungaku, Tokyo: Kaimei shoten, 1979, pp. 184-99; cited in Stephen F. Teiser, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 24.
 See, for example, Ts'un-yan Liu, "Traces of Zoroastrian and Manichaean Activities in pre-T'ang China," in Selected papers from the Hall of Harmonious Winds, Leiden: Brill, 1976, pp. 2-55.
 Hsüan-tsang, Records of the Western Countries (Ta T'ang Si Yu Ki), in Samuel Beal, tr., Buddhist Records of the Western World, New Delhi: Oriental Reprints, 1969 , vol. 1, pp. 47-8.
 See J. Harmatta, "Sino-Indica," Acta Asiatica 12/1-2 (1964), p. 4. The inscriptions speak of spreading the dharma, however, not Buddhism per se.
 Hui Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, tr. Yung-hsi Li, Peking: The Chinese Buddhist Association, 1959, p. 46.
 Hui Li, Life of Hsuan-tsang, p. 47.
 No incontrovertibly Buddhist remains have been unearthed in Sogdiana proper, in contrast to areas to the south of the Hissar Mountains where they abound.
 B.A. Litvinsky, "Buddhism in Central Asia," p. 50.
 Narshakhi, Tarikh-i Bukhara, p. 23.
 Alphonse Mingana, The Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia and the Far East: A New Document, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1925, pp. 7-8.
 Mingana, Early Spread of Christianity, p. 74.
 Emile Benveniste, "Le Vocabulaire Chr¹tien dans les Langues d'Asie Central," L'Oriente Cristiano nella Storia della Civiltù, Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1964, pp. 85-91.
 Nicholas Sims-Williams, "Syro-Sogdica I: An Anonymous Homily on the Three Periods of Solitary Life," Orientalia Christiana Periodica 47 (1981), p. 441.
 Sims-Williams, "Syro-Sogdica," p. 443.
 G. Uray, "Tibet's Connections with Nestorianism and Manicheism in the 8th-10th Centuries," Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde 10 (1983), pp. 407, 421. On the Ladakh paintings see Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Manichaean Art and Calligraphy, Leiden: Brill, 1982; on the inscriptions see Nicholas Sims-Williams, Sogdian and other Iranian Inscriptions of the Upper Indus, 2 vols., London, 1989-92.
 Kazuo Enoki, "Nestorian Christianism in Medieval Times," L'Oriente Cristiano, Rome, 1964, pp. 72-3.
 Paul Pelliot, "Les influences iraniennes en Asie Central et en ExtrÁme-Orient," Revue d'Histoire et de Litt¹rature R¹ligieuses (1912), p. 108.
Schafer, Golden Peaches, pp. 53-4.
 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, pp. 112-3, 220.
 Some evidence has been derived from Daoist sources, however, of even earlier Manichaean activity in China; see Liu, "Traces of Zoroastrian and Manichaean Activities in pre-T'ang China."
 Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire, p. 230.
 E. Chavannes and P. Pelliot, Un trait¹ Manich¹en retrouv¹ en Chine, Paris: Imprim¹rie Nationale, 1913, p. 154.
 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, p. 66.
 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, p. 67-8.
 Narshakhi, History of Bukhara, pp. 74-5.
Dr. Richard C. Foltz is a historian of comparative religious traditions, with a special focus on the Iranian world. His books Religions of the Silk Road: Premodern Patterns of Globalization (revised 2nd edition, Palgrave, 2010) and L'Iran creuset de religions (Les Presses de l'Université Laval, 2007) and propose historical models for considering the emergence, development and transmission of the world's major religious traditions. He has also been active in helping shape a new subfield combining religious studies with environmental ethics, often referred to as "Religion and Ecology", having edited a popular course text titled Worldviews, Religion and the Environment: A Global Anthology (Wadsworth Thomson, 2002) and two seminal volumes exploring environmental values among Muslims, Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust (Harvard, 2003) and Environmentalism in the Muslim World (Nova Science, 2005). His book Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures (Oneworld, 2006) is the first scholarly survey of how Muslims have viewed the importance of non-human animals. Dr. Foltz's most recent journal articles are "Iranian Zoroastrians in Canada: Balancing Religious and Cultural Identities," Iranian Studies 42/3 (2009) and "Buddhism in the Iranian World," The Muslim World 100/2-3 (2010). In all Dr. Foltz has authored or edited eight books and some seventy journal articles and other scholarly publications. His work has appeared in Persian, French, Arabic, Turkish, Japanese, Indonesian, Spanish, German, and Bosnian.
(Source: Concordia University - Updated January 2011)
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