Buddhism in Central Asia before the Advent of the Arabs

Long before the Arabs brought Islam to Central Asia in the mid-seventh century CE, Buddhism had flourished there for hundreds of years. It was particularly prominent along the Silk Route, which carried trade between India and Han China, and led from both to Byzantium and to the Roman Empire. Let us briefly outline the early spread of Buddhism to this part of the world so that we might appreciate better the historical background that Islam encountered.


In terms of current geographic areas, ­the early Buddhist regions of Central Asia included at various times:

(1) Indian and Pakistani-administered Kashmir,

(2) the northern Pakistani mountain valleys such as Gilgit,

(3) Pakistani Punjab, including the Swat Valley, and ­eastern Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush Moun­tains,

(4) the Amu Darya River Valley to the north of the Hindu Kush, including both Afghani Turkistan to the south of the Amu Darya and southern West Turkistan (southeastern Uzbekistan and southern Tajikistan) to the north of the river,

(5) northeastern Iran and southern Turkmenistan,

(6) the area between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers, namely central West Turkistan (eastern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan),

(7) the area to the north of the Syr Darya, namely northern West Turkistan (Kyrgyzstan and eastern Kazakhstan),

(8) southern Xinjiang (Sinkiang) in ­the Peoples’ Republic of China, namely southern East Turkistan, both to the north and south of the Takla­makan Desert around the periphery of the Tarim Basin,

(9) northern Xinjiang, between the Tianshan (T’ian-shan) and Altai Mountains,

(10) the Tibetan Autonomous Region, Qinghai (Ch’ing-hai), southeastern Gansu (Kan-su), western Sichuan (Sze-ch’uan), and northwestern Yunnan (Yün-nan), all in the Peoples’ Republic of China,

(11) Inner Mongolia, in the Peoples’ Republic of China, the Republic of Mongolia (Outer Mongolia), and the Buryat Republic in Siberia, Russia.

Map 1: Modern Central Asia
Map 1: Modern Central Asia

The historical names for these areas were:

  • Kashmir, with its capital at Srinagar,
  • Gilgit,
  • Gandhara, with its major cities being Takshashila on the Pakistani Punjab side of the Khyber Pass and Kabul on the Afghani side, with Swat being called Oddiyana
  • Bactria, spanning the Oxus River Valley, with its center at Balkh, near modern-day Mazar-i-Sharif,
  • Parthia, later Khorasan, with its main city at Merv, and sometimes its portion in southern Turkmenistan referred to as Margiana,
  • Sogdia, later Ma Wara’an-Nahr, between the Oxus and the Jaxartes Rivers, with its main centers, going roughly from west to east, at Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, and Ferghana,
  • no specific name, but with its main center at Suyab to the south of Lake Issyk Kul,
  • no specific name, but with the main oasis city-states along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, going from west to east, being Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, and Niya, and along the northern rim, Kucha, Karashahr, and Turfan (Qocho), and with the two routes joining in the east at Dunhuang (Tun-huang),
  • Dzungaria, with the main city at its eastern gateway across the Tianshan Mountains from Turfan being Beshbaliq (Beiting, Pei-t’ing), near present-day Urumqi,
  • Tibet, with its capital at Lhasa,
  • Mongolia.

Map 2: Traditional Central Asia
Map 2: Traditional Central Asia

Although some of these names changed several times over the course of history, we shall limit ourselves to this one set to avoid confusion. We shall refer to the area of the Peoples’ Republic of China excluding Gansu, Inner Mongolia, the ethnic Tibetan regions, Manchuria, and the southern hill tribe areas as “Han China,” the homeland of the ethnic Han people. We shall use the term “ northern India” to refer primarily to the Gangetic Plain, not including within it Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Indian Punjab, Rajasthan, or any states of the Republic of India east of West Bengal. By “Iran,” we mean the areas currently within the borders of the Islamic Republic of Iran and, by “Arabs,” the people of the entire Arabian Peninsula and southern Iraq.

West and East Turkistan

Although there are several traditions concerning the dates of Shakyamuni Buddha, most Western scholars accept that he lived between 566 and 486 BCE. He originally taught in the central part of the Gangetic Plain of northern India. Slowly his followers spread his message to the surrounding areas, where monastic communities of monks and nuns soon arose. In this way, Buddhism gradually developed into an organized religion, preserving and transmitting orally the teachings of Buddha.

Buddhism initially spread from northern India to Gandhara and Kashmir in the middle of the third century BCE through the efforts of the Mauryan King Ashoka (ruled 273 – 232 BCE). Two centuries later, it made its first inroads into both West and East Turkistan (Turkistan) when it expanded from Gandhara to Bactria and from Kashmir to Khotan during the first century BCE. It also had passed, by that time, from Kashmir to Gilgit and from northern India to present-day Sindh and Baluchistan in southern Pakistan, through eastern Iran and on to Parthia. According to traditional Buddhist histories, two merchants from Bactria were among the direct disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. However, there is no evidence of their having established Buddhism in their homeland at that early stage.

Map 3: The Spread of Buddhism into Central Asia
Map 3: The Spread of Buddhism into Central Asia

By the first century CE, Buddhism had penetrated deeper into West Turkistan, spreading from Bactria to Sogdia. During that century, it also expanded further along the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, passing from Gandhara and Kashmir to Kashgar, and from Gandhara, Kashmir, and Khotan to the kingdom of Kroraina at Niya. Kroraina was abandoned to the desert in the fourth century and most of its citizens relocated in Khotan.

During the second century CE, Buddhism reached the northern rim of the Tarim Basin as well, passing from Bactria to the Tocharian people of Kucha and Turfan. According to some sources, the Tocharians there were descendents of the Yuezhi, a Caucasian people who spoke an ancient western Indo-European language. In the second century BCE, one group of the Yuezhi, later known as the Tocharians, had migrated to the west and settled in Bactria. Consequently, Eastern Bactria became known as "Tocharistan". Despite sharing the same name, no political connection existed, however, between the Tocharians of Eastern Bactria and the Tocharians of Kucha and Turfan.

There was an Iranian cultural presence in many of these regions of West and East Turkistan, particularly in Bactria, Sogdia, Khotan, and Kucha. Consequently, Central Asian Buddhism came to incorporate Zoroastrian features to varying degrees. Zoroastrianism was the ancient religion of Iran. The shared Zoroastrian elements appeared both in the Sarvastivada form of Hinayana Buddhism that flourished in Bactria, Sogdia, and Kucha, as well as in the Mahayana Buddhism that came to predominate in Khotan.

Han China

The Han Chinese maintained military garrisons in the oasis city-states of the Tarim Basin from the first century BCE to the second century CE. Buddhism, however, did not spread to Han China until after these colonies had regained their independence.

Starting in the middle of the second century CE, Buddhism came to Han China first from Parthia. Its spread was subsequently expanded by monks from the other Buddhist lands of Central Asia, as well as northern India and Kashmir. Central Asian and north Indian monks helped the Han Chinese translate Sanskrit and Gandhari Prakrit texts into Chinese, although the Central Asians themselves at first preferred these original Indian versions for their personal use. With constant exposure to international caravans visiting them along the Silk Route, most were comfortable with foreign languages. In the course of their translation work for the Han Chinese, however, the Central Asians never transmitted Zoroastrian elements. Han Chinese Buddhism, instead, took on many Daoist (Taoist) and Confucian cultural traits.

During the Six Dynasties Period (220-589 CE), Han China split into many short-lived kingdoms, divided roughly between north and south. A succession of mostly non-Han Chinese dynas­ties – early predeces­sors of the Turks, Tibetans, Mongols, and Man­chus – invaded and ruled the north, while the south maintained more traditional Han Chinese civilization. Buddhism in the north was devotionally oriented and subservient to the whims of government control, while in the south it was independent and emphasized philosophical enquiry.

Due to the influence of Daoist and Confucian ministers jealous of government support of Buddhist monasteries, the Indian religion suffered suppression in two of the northern Chinese kingdoms between 574 and 579. Wendi, however, who reunified Han China after three and a half centuries of fragmentation and founded the Sui Dynasty (589 – 618), called himself a Buddhist universal emperor (Skt. chakravartin). Declaring that his rule (589 – 605) would turn China into a Buddhist “Pure Land” paradise, he revived the Indian faith to new heights. Although several early emperors of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang) (618- 906) favored Daoism, they also continued supporting Buddhism.

The Eastern and Western Turk Empires

From the beginning of the fifth century, the Ruanruan people ruled a vast empire centering in Mongolia and stretching from Kucha to the borders of Korea. They adopted a blend of the Iranian-influenced Khotanese and Tocharian forms of Buddhism and introduced it to Mongolia. The Old Turks, living in Gansu within the Ruanruan domain, overthrew the latter in 551. The Old Turk Empire they established split into an eastern and western division within two years.

The Eastern Turks ruled Mongolia and continued the Ruanruan form of Khotanese/Tocharian Buddhism found there, combining it with northern Han Chinese elements. They translated many Buddhist texts into the Old Turk language from a variety of Buddhist tongues with the help of monks from northern India, Gandhara, and Han China, but particularly from the Sogdian community in Turfan. As the principal merchants of the Silk Route, the Sogdians produced monks who were natural polyglots.

The main character of Old Turk Buddhism was its appeal to common people, incorporating within Buddha’s entourage many popular, locally worshiped deities, including both traditional shamanic, Tengrian, and Zoroastrian ones. Tengrism was the traditional pre-Buddhist belief system of the various peoples of the Mongolian steppes.

The Western Turks at first ruled Dzungaria and northern West Turkistan. In 560, they captured the western portion of the Silk Route from the White Huns (Hephthalites) and migrated progressively to Kashgar, Sogdia, and Bactria, establishing a certain presence in Afghani Gandhara as well. In the course of their expansion, many of their people adopted the Buddhist faith, specifically the forms found in the regions they conquered.

The Situation of Buddhism in West Turkistan at the Advent of the Western Turks

For centuries before the migration of the Western Turks, Buddhism had been flourishing in central and southern West Turkistan under the successive rule of the Graeco-Bactrians, Shakas, Kushans, Persian Sassanids, and the White Huns. The Han Chinese pilgrim to India, Faxian (Fa-hsien), traveling in this area between 399 and 415, had reported it filled with active monasteries. However, when the Western Turks arrived in this region a century and a half later, they found Buddhism in a weakened state, particularly in Sogdia. It had apparently declined during the period of White Hun rule.

The White Huns were, for the most part, staunch supporters of Buddhism. In 460, for example, their ruler had sent a shred from Buddha’s robe as a reliquary offering from Kashgar to one of the northern Chinese courts. However, in 515, the White Hun king, Mihirakula, had instigated a persecution of Buddhism, purportedly under the influence of jealous Manichaean and Nestorian Christian factions in his court. The worst damage was in Gandhara, Kashmir, and the western part of northern India, but also extended to Bactria and Sogdia on a more limited scale.

In approximately 630, when the next notable Han Chinese pilgrim to India, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang), visited Samarkand, the Western Turk capital in Sogdia, he found that although there were many lay Buddhist followers, the local Zoroastrians were hostile toward them. The two main Buddhist monasteries were empty and closed. In 622, however, several years before Xuanzang’s visit to Samarkand, its Western Turk ruler, Tongshihu Qaghan, had formally adopted Buddhism under the guidance of Prabhakaramitra, a visiting northern Indian monk. Xuanzang encouraged the king to reopen the deserted monasteries near the city and to construct even more.

The king and his successors followed the Chinese monk’s advice and built several new monasteries in Sogdia – not only in Samarkand, but in the Ferghana valley and present-day western Tajikistan as well. They also spread a blend of the Sogdian and Kashgari forms of Buddhism to northern West Turkistan. There, they built new monasteries in the Talas River Valley in present-day southern Kazakhstan, the Chu River Valley in northwestern Kyrgyzstan, and in Semirechiye in southeastern Kazakhstan near present-day Almaty.

In contrast to Sogdia, Xuanzang reported the flourishing of many Buddhist monasteries in Kashgar and Bactria, the other major areas controlled by the Western Turks. Kashgar had hundreds of monasteries and ten thousand monks, while in Bactria the numbers were more modest. The greatest monastery of the entire region was Nava Vihara (Nawbahar, Nowbahar) in Balkh, the main city of Bactria. It served as the principal center of higher Buddhist learning for all of Central Asia, with satellite monasteries in Bactria and Parthia, also called navaviharas.

Run like a university, Nava Vihara admitted only monks who had already composed scholarly texts. It was famous for its stunningly beautiful Buddha statues, draped with luxurious silk robes and lavishly adorned with magnificent jewel ornaments, in accordance with local Zoroastrian custom. It had particularly close links with Khotan, to which it sent many teachers. According to Xuanzang, Khotan at the time had a hundred monasteries with five thousand monks.

The Decline of the Western Turks

By the middle of the seventh century, the Western Turk control of these areas in West and East Turkistan began to wane. First, the Turks lost Bactria to the Turki Shahis, another Turkic Buddhist people who were ruling Gandhara. Xuanzang had found the situation of Buddhism in Gandhara worse than that in Bactria, despite the Western Turks’ having established a monastery in Kapisha, not far to the north of Kabul, in 591. The main monastery on the Kabul side of the Khyber Pass, Nagara Vihara, just south of modern-day Jalalabad, housed the skull relic of the Buddha and was one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the Buddhist world. Its monks, however, had become materialistic and were charging pilgrims a gold coin each to view the relic. There were no centers of study in the entire region.

On the Punjabi side, the monks preserved merely the monastic rules of discipline and had hardly any understanding of the Buddhist teachings. In the Swat Valley (Oddiyana), for example, Xuanzang found many of the monasteries in ruins and, in those still standing, the monks merely performing rituals to gain protection and powers from supernatural beings. There was no longer any tradition of study or meditation.

An earlier Han Chinese traveler, Songyun (Sung-yün), had visited Swat in 520, five years after Mihirakula’s persecution. He had reported that the monasteries were still flourishing at that time. The White Hun ruler apparently did not implement his anti-Buddhist policy very strongly in the more remote regions of his realm. The subsequent decline of the monasteries in Swat was due to several severe earthquakes and floods that occurred during the century between the two Chinese pilgrims’ visits. With the mountainous valley impoverished and trade through Gilgit to East Turkistan cut off, the monasteries had lost almost all their economic support and contact with other Buddhist cultures. Local superstitious beliefs and shamanic practices had then blended with what was left of Buddhist understanding.

In 650, the Western Turk Empire shrank further with the loss of Kashgar to the Han Chinese, who had been expanding their empire since the founding of the Tang Dynasty in 618. Before gaining control of Kashgar, the Tang forces had taken Mongolia from the Eastern Turks and then the city-states along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin. In face of the growing Han threat and the inability of the weak Western Turks to defend them, Kashgar and independent Khotan on the southern rim peacefully submitted.


During the second quarter of the seventh century, the Tibetans unified their country. King Songtsen-gampo (Srong-btsan sgam-po, r. 617 – 649) established an empire that stretched from northern Burma to the borders of Han China and Khotan. It included Nepal as a vassal state, which at this time was limited to the Kathmandu Valley. After establishing his empire, Songtsen-gampo introduced Buddhism into his country in the late 640s. This was on an extremely limited scale, however, blending various aspects from Han China, Nepal, and Khotan. As the Tibetans expanded their territory, they captured Kashgar from Tang China in 663 and, in the same year, established their rule in Gilgit and the Wakhan Corridor connecting western Tibet with eastern Bactria.

Gangetic India

Buddhism had coexisted harmoniously with Hinduism and Jainism on the Gangetic Plain of northern India from the earliest times. Since the fourth century CE, the Hindus regarded Buddha as one of the ten incarnations (Skt. avatara) of their supreme god, Vishnu. On a popular level, many Hindus saw Buddhism as another form of their own religion. Emperors of the First Gupta Period (320 – 500) frequently patronized temples, monasteries, and teachers of both persuasions. They built numerous Buddhist monastic universities where philosophical debate flourished, the most famous being Nalanda in present-day central Bihar. They also allowed other Buddhist countries access to the pilgrimage sites within their realm. Emperor Samudragupta, for example, gave permission for the Sri Lankan king, Meghavanna (r. 362 – 409), to build the Mahabodhi Monastery at Vajrasana (modern Bodh Gaya), where the Buddha attained enlightenment.

The White Huns ruled Gandhara and the western part of northern India for almost the entire sixth century. Mihirakula’s destruction of monasteries extended as far as Kaushambi, a short distance to the west of modern-day Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. With the beginning of the Second Gupta Period (late sixth century – 750), its emperors strove to repair the damage. However, Xuanzang still found many monasteries to the west of Kaushambi in ruins when he visited. Those in Magadha to the east, however, such as Nalanda and Mahabodhi, were still flourishing.

Emperor Harsha (r. 606 – 647), the strongest Gupta patron of Buddhism, kept a thousand monks from Nalanda at his imperial court. He venerated Buddhism to such a high degree that he reportedly touched Xuanzang’s feet in the traditional Hindu show of respect when he first met with the Han Chinese monk.

In 647, Arjuna, an anti-Buddhist minister, overthrew Harsha and briefly usurped Gupta rule. When he mistreated a visiting Han Chinese pilgrim, Wang Xuance (Wang Hsüan-tse), and had most of his party robbed and killed, the monk, who was also an envoy of the Tang emperor, Taizung (T’ai-tsung, r. 627-650), escaped to Nepal. There, he requested the help of the Tibetan emperor, Songtsen-gampo, who, in 641, had married the Tang Emperor’s daughter, Princess Wencheng (Wen-ch’eng). With the help of his Nepali vassals, the Tibetan ruler overthrew Arjuna and reestablished Gupta rule. Subsequently, Buddhism continued to enjoy a favored status in northern India.

Kashmir and Nepal

In Kashmir and Nepal, as in northern India, Buddhism also flourished in primarily Hindu states. Xuanzang reported that Buddhism in Kashmir had mostly recovered from Mihirakula’s persecution, especially with support from the founder of the currently new Karkota Dynasty (630 – 856).

Nepal, on the other hand, had escaped White Hun rule. The rulers of the Licchavi Dynasty (386 - 750) maintained unbroken support of Buddhism. In 643, the Tibetan emperor, Songtsen-gampo, ousted Vishnagupta, a usurper to this dynasty, and restored King Narendradeva, the pretender to the Nepali throne, who had been receiving asylum in Tibet. This incident, however, had little impact on the state of Nepali Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley. Songtsen-gampo subsequently married Princess Bhrkuti, King Narendradeva’s daughter, cementing ties between the two countries.


Buddhism was found, then, in almost all parts of Central Asia when the Muslim Arabs arrived in the middle of the seventh century. It was the strongest in Bactria, Kashmir, and the Tarim Basin, was popular but at a low level of understanding in Gandhara and Mongolia, had just been introduced into Tibet, and was enjoying a recent revival in Sogdia. It was not, however, the exclusive faith of the area. There were also Zoroastrians, Hindus, Nestorian Christians, Jews, Manichaeans, and followers of shamanism, Tengrism, and other indigenous, nonorganized systems of belief. Bordering Central Asia, Buddhism was strong in Han China, Nepal, and northern India, where its adherents lived peacefully with Daoists, Confucianists, Hindus, and Jains.

On the eve of the Muslim Arab arrival in Central Asia, the Turki Shahis ruled Gandhara and Bactria, while the Western Turks controlled Sogdia and parts of northern West Turkistan. The Tibetans held Gilgit and Kashgar, while Tang China controlled the rest of the Tarim Basin as well as Mongolia. The Eastern Turks of Mongolia were temporarily held in abeyance during a short interim period of Han Chinese rule.