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.