ISLAM & TIBET: CULTURAL INTERACTIONS (8th-17th centuries)

Introduction

Although some studies have begun to reveal the political and economic relations between Tibet and the Islamic world, the area of cultural interactions between these two cultures remains virtually unexplored. Initial indications point to the value of exploring these ties. It has become clear that commercial life on the Silk Road involved significant transfers of knowledge. Histories of sciences and of ideas have tended on the whole to treat their subject matters in isolationist terms, discussing ‘Western sciences’, ‘Eastern medicines’, etc., and have neglected fruitful exchanges within Asia, as facilitated by the wide expanse of the Islamic realm, and the well-frequented commercial and pilgrim routes across Central Asia. The transmission of Indian, Persian and Arabic science and philosophy to the West has been well documented. A similar consideration of cultural interactions eastward of the Islamic realm is also due. It is our task, and indeed our responsibility, to revise the inherently Eurocentric approach to the study of the history of sciences and ideas and increase the internationalist points of view. Illuminating points of common heritage between Islam and other cultures may also, in the longer run, assist in creating better understanding in our world today.

When discussing interactions between Buddhist and Islamic cultures, Western historiography has tended to emphasise elements of conflict. Western accounts of the spread of Islam in Asia, for example, have focused on the destruction of Buddhist monasteries and the slaughter of monks who refused to convert. From the Tibetan perspective, the perception of Islam as the destroyer of Buddhism in India has remained dominant and hindered research on this area. Western historiography, on its side, was tinted by the colonial interests of the nineteenth century. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the elements of conflict between these two cultures were over-emphasised for political reasons, both in the past and in more recent times. Recent scholarship reveals a more multi-faceted picture (See for example Dunlop. “Arab Relations with Tibet in the 8th and early 9th century”, Islâm Tetkikleri Enstitüsü Dergisi, 1973, 5/1-4; Gaborieau ed. Tibetan Muslims, Tibet Journal 20/3, 1995).

Though much of the history of Islamic-Tibetan interactions is still shrouded in obscurity, enough is known to indicate that there were political and economic interactions between the Tibetan empire and Muslims from the seventh century onwards (see for example W. Barthold, C.E. Bosworth & M. Gaborieau, “Tubbat”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2000; Beckwith, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia. 1987). The Tibetan Empire and the Caliphate formed an alliance in the 8th century; Tibet was well known through embassies and trade. It was located on Arabic maps, and its co-ordinates were given in astronomical works.

Our aims, therefore, are:

* To provide a historical description of the cultural interactions between Tibet and the Islamic world, as they are evident in the history of sciences of these two cultures.   

* To explore examples in Tibetan and Arabic literature of how religious ideas of these two cultures interacted. 

* To establish an active inter-disciplinary international network of scholars working on various connections between Buddhism and Islam. 

In the sphere of medicine, Tibetan historiography has tended to emphasize the links with Indian medicine, which has led to a similar bias in the western historiography of Tibetan medicine. There are, however, a number of indications that point to significant, but as yet unstudied links with Graeco-Arabic medicine.

We would also focus on the mutual influence between Buddhism and Islam as is suggested by the significant presence of different Sufi orders in Central and South Asia. Some of the most influential Sufi orders such as the Naqshbandiyyah and the Chishtiyyah developed techniques regulating the breath which are peculiar to Eastern Sufism and might give evidence of the influence of Yogis (see T. Zarcone, “Sufism from Central Asia among the Tibetan in the 16-17th Centuries”, TJ, 20, 1995).

The project is funded by the AHRC and based at the Warburg Institute, where the library already has rich resources in the history of religions and the sciences, and in cultural exchange, and where our exploration of the transmission of Graeco-Arabic learning to Tibet will add another dimension to the study of the Classical Tradition, to which the Institute is devoted..

This web site will be updated as the project proceeds. The project is inter-disciplinary and headed by Prof. Charles.Burnett.

Dr.Georgios.Halkias, who specialises in Oriental studies, Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim a Tibetologist, and Dr. Anna Akasoy, an Islamicist, formerly research assistants, remain associated to the project as consultants.

See Contacts page for details

Ongoing Project: The Ladakhi Kanjurs (for more information see Documents)

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