The Role of Central Asian Peoples in the Spread of World Religions
By Richard C. Foltz
Interactions: Regional Studies, Global Processes, and Historical Analysis (Conference: February 28 through March 3, 2001, at Library of Congress, Washington D.C.)
Introduction: For 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 West.
The 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.
With 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.
This 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.
Archeological 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 steppe lands 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 interdependent.
In 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.