• Completed project, initiated in 2005 by Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

• Objective: to provide a historical description of the cultural interactions between Tibet and the Islamic world, and to explore their impact on science and religious ideas in these two cultures. A subsidiary objective is the establishment of an active, inter-disciplinary international network of scholars working on the connections between Buddhism and Islam. 

The project was based at the Warburg Institute. The researchers were Dr Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim,  Dr Anna Akasoy, and Dr Georgios T. Halkias.

Histories of sciences and of ideas have tended on the whole to treat their subject matters in isolationist terms, discussing ‘Western sciences’, ‘Eastern medicines’, and so on. The transmission of Indian, Persian and Arabic science and philosophy to the West has been well documented, but, by contrast, little attention has been paid to the fruitful exchanges within Asia, facilitated by the wide expanse of the Islamic realm, and the well-frequented commercial and pilgrim routes across Central Asia. The Islam and Tibet project undertook to revise the inherently Eurocentric approach to the study of the history of sciences and ideas. 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.

The image shows North East Asia with Buhayrat and Lake Barawan

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.

Islam-Tibet past events


Rashid al-Din as an Agent and Mediator of Crosspollinations in Religion, Medicine, Science and Art
London, 8-9 November 2007

Islam & Tibet: Cultural Interactions.
16 - 18 November 2006

Astro-Medicine: Medicine and Astronomy East and West
13-14 May 2005

Presentation by Professor Charles Burnett, ‘Islam and Tibet. Interactions along the Musk Routes’.Rubin Museum of Art, New York, October 27th, 2008

Presentation by Dr Georgios Halkias, 'Religious Syncretism in the Indian Himalayas'.
Austrian Academy of Science, April 15th, 2008. Vienna, Austria.

Presentation by Dr Anna Akasoy, ‘Islamic Concepts and Terminology in Rashid al-Din’s Life of the Buddha’ (in German)
Workshop: Neuere Forschungen zu hagiographischen Fragen (15), 10-12 April 2008, Stuttgart-Hohenheim

Presentation by Dr Georgios Halkias ‘Modern Pasts: Tracing the 1679 Tibet-Bashahr Treaty.
Warburg Institute, Lecture Room, 27th of February 2008, 2:15 pm.

Presentations by Dr Anna Akasoy, ‘Dying of Laughter in Lhasa. Tibet in Islamic Geography and Cartography
(Universities of Haifa and Beer Sheva), December 2007

Presentation by Dr Anna Akasoy, ‘Alexander the Great in the Islamic Tradition. Recent Developments and Fields for Future Research’
Exploratory Workshop – Hellenism: Alien or Germane Wisdom?, Central European University, Budapest, 23-25 November 2007

Medicine on the Silk Roads, Transmissions and Transformation, a workshop dedicated to “Medicine on the Silk Roads, Transmissions and Transformations” took place at the British Library and the Wellcome Institute. Dr. Yoeli-Tlalim and Dr. Akasoy gave two talks in which they presented some of the results of the project: Between Tibet and the Islamic World: Musk Trade and Medicine Rashīd al-Dīn as a Source for Islamic-Buddhist Contacts

Warburg Institute lunch time lecture On 2 February 2006 in their lunch time lecture Dr. Akasoy and Dr. Yoeli-Tlalim presented four aspects of their research: Islam and Tibet: Cultural Interactions along the Musk Routes