Encounters,  Histories, Dialogue and Representation

Buddhism and Islam

Numata Conference 2009

May 29 & 30, 2009

McGill University

Paper Titles and Abstracts



The Buddha and the Straight Path: Islamic Concepts and Terminology in Rashīd al-Dīn’s Life of the Buddha.

Anna Akasoy (Oriental Institute, Oxford)


The Ilkhanid wazīr and scholar Rashīd al-Dīn (c. 645/1247718/1318) included a version of the Life of the Buddha in his history of India which is independent of the widespread version of the Bilawhar wa-Būdhāsaf and offers an account which is much closer to the Buddhist tradition. My contribution will present a close reading of select parts of the Arabic version of the Life of the Buddha and an analysis of Islamic concepts and terminology as examples of cultural translation. Three aspects in particular will be discussed:

1) Qur’anic terminology and the Buddha as a prophet

2) Sufism and Indian asceticism

3) Doctrinal limits and Indian idolatry


Islam in the Tibetan World.

José Ignacio Cabezón (University of California, Santa Barbara)


Tibetan culture is, of course, overwhelmingly Buddhist. But Muslims—both Muslims of Kashmiri origin and ethnic Chinese Muslims (Hui)—have lived among Tibetans for centuries. This paper has two goals: to provide an overview of the history of Islam in Tibet, and to explore how Buddhists and Muslims have perceived and interacted with each other over the centuries. While these interactions have never been unproblematic, and despite attempts by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to reach out to Muslim leaders in the West in recent years, I argue that the Chinese annexation of the Tibetan plateau has exacerbated the tensions between these two groups, leading in recent times to outbreaks of violence in Tibetan ethnic regions of China.


Muslim Queens of Buddhist Kingdoms: Bride-Exchange in Ladakh and Baltistān.

Georgios Halkias (Oriental Institute, University of Oxford)


The practice of princess-exchange (giving and/or receiving them as brides) is a prevalent feature of ancient diplomacy that was widely practiced in the north-western Himalayas. Drawing from Ladakhi and Baltī folk-literatures and histories, we will survey folksongs composed during the times of the Ladakhi royal dynasty (rgyal-dus) and examine the narratives of the life of Muslim princesses who were sent as brides at the courts of Ladakh and became Khatuns (Muslim Queens) in Buddhist kingdoms. The Muslim Queens of the Himalayas stand witness to a rich cultural fusion, an old blend of Arab, Persian, Mongol, Indian and Tibetan elements. Ever since the conversion of the Baltīs to Islam in the 14th century the Muslim princess-brides stood as promises of unity and peace and as means of alleviating conflict between the warring houses of Baltistān and the Buddhist kingdoms of Ladakh.

The Study of Buddhism and the “Might of Islam.”

Charles Hallisey (Harvard University)


The “Might of Islam” or Quwwat-ul-Islam is the name of a masjid that was built in the twelfth century by a Muslim military commander in Delhi. An inscription from the mosque says that it was built from stones taken from destroyed temples. In this paper, I examine how a reified image of Islam has apparently been generated from such examples from the history of Islam in South Asia and used in accounts of the history of Buddhism in South Asia. I argue in this paper that in modern academic Buddhist Studies evidence like the Quwwat-ul-Islam is generally taken not as one part of a complex and varied whole but as a synecdoche, where a part stands for the whole, and as a synecdoche, used to explain the “end of Buddhism” in India. The paper also argues that this use of the “Might of Islam” as a synecdoche reflects a disposition to see the "end of Buddhism" as part of an “event-full” history, but that this disposition may deflect our attention from other large-scale processes that are at least equally relevant for explaining what happened to Buddhism in medieval South Asia. The paper will examine some of these processes to suggest that we will understand the history of Buddhism in Asia better when we see it as deeply intertwined with the history of Islam in Asia.

The Ritual of Two Religions in Ban Tamot, Patthalung, Southern Thailand: Reflexivity and Revitalization in Theravada Buddhism and Islam in Ritual Practice. 

Alexander Horstmann (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)


On the 15th of April every year just after the important new year’s ritual festivities, villagers in Tamot perform a fascinating multi-religious ritual on the common cemetery in which the local Imams and the Buddhist monks of Wat Tamot monastery and hundreds of people take part. In the ritual, the hierarchy of several value-systems are negotiated with each other, namely the relation of the living and the Muslim village spirit (To Mut), the relation of ancestor worship and religious forms and the relations of Buddhists and Muslims. The basis of this ritual is the mutual bond of kinship relations that criss-cross through the religious communities and the local élites. Thus, the Imam of Ban Klong Nui is related to the old Buddhist abbot of Wat Tamot. Second, the village spirit is believed to be of Malay-Muslim origin and Tamot was first settled by Malay-Muslims. Thus, while not verbally announced, the participation of Muslims is crucial to the ritual, although the cemetery is largely taken over by Buddhists and Muslims participate in much smaller number then Buddhists, whose presence is overwhelming. During the ritual, food, prayer gestures and money is exchanged between Buddhist and Muslim villagers. Islamic Imams perform Muslim chants (doa) and Buddhist monks Buddhist sermons (suat mon) for the dead. Then, the food offered to the ancestor spirits is consumed in a picnic-like atmosphere. The paper explores the tension between local religion encompassing Buddhist and Muslim villagers in a shared cosmology and orthodox/national/universal religion. The paper assesses the impact of modernity and the nation-state whose normalizing influence separates religious systems of Buddhism and Islam as do the orthodox wings of the religious élite.  Thus, what counts of religion and why is also negotiated here.   


Visions of Fear in a Small Community: Terrorism and News in a Borderland Village.

Irving Chan Johnson (National University of Singapore)


With the globalization of media technologies, once isolated communities living far from sites of terrorist violence have found themselves enveloped in a discourse of fear that has transcended national borders. How then do these marginal groups imagine and interpret the surge of violent news images and reports in their midst? I answer this question through an ethnographic investigation of a small community of Thai Buddhists who live in the predominantly Muslim state of Kelantan, Malaysia. In these villages, news-making processes such as televised reports and radio broadcasts are held together through a web of informal everyday stories that attempt to reinterpret global events in relation to the everyday lived realities of village life. In my paper, I will explore how these villagers, living on the hinterlands of the Thai and Malaysian nation-states, speak of their Buddhist identity through engaging with the discourse of Islamic terror. In particular, I discuss the creative agency of news spectacles of extreme violence that are associated with Muslim fundamentalism e.g. 9-11 and the daily bombings and shootings in Thailand’s southernmost provinces. Theoretically, my paper addresses the question of cultural production in Buddhist communities living amidst transformative and violent landscapes. I show how grand narratives of terror in faraway places impact on the way seemingly powerless social actors define religious and ethnic personhood and strategize their meanings of identity.


Indonesian Divinity—Distinct Yet One.

Hudaya Kandahjaya (Numata Center)


Recent studies on Indonesian Buddhism in the New Order era (1966-1998) generate interesting results. Some studies say that the adoption of Adi Buddha was due to Indonesian government framing of Buddhism, onto which monotheistic religions, especially Islam, exerted major influence. To others, the adoption was perceived as forming theistic Buddhism and therefore causing conflicts among Indonesian Buddhist organizations to arise. In the middle of all these, Ashin Jinarakkhita, the Buddhist leader of the time, was thought to be acting politically while being the religious leader. These suggestions are problematic and the examination consequently deserves further scrutiny. In this paper I shall reexamine the controversies surrounding the adoption of Adi Buddha. I will employ data from three interconnected perspectives which hitherto have hardly been properly analyzed for this purpose. They are: (1) from the first principle of PancasilaKetuhanan yang Maha Esa (Divinity Which Is One)—and the state motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (They Are Distinct Yet One); (2) from the development of Buddhism in Indonesia; and (3) from the view of Ashin Jinarakkhita and his mission.

Muslim “Others” in Thailand.

Charles Keyes (University of Washington)


In his late-seventeenth-century account of his visit to the Siamese capital of Ayuthaya, the French envoy Simon de la Loubčre noted that the Siamese King had sent as an envoy to Persia one Agi Selim who was identified as a Moor. This envoy returned with a Persian ambassador who “was a Moula, or Doctor of the Law of Mahomet whom the Persian king had asked to instruct the king of Siam in the Islamic religion. The King of Siam received the envoy, but did not convert: “Generally speaking, these trading Kings do exceedingly make use of the pretense of Religion, for the increase of their Commerce” (la Loubčre 1969 [1688]: 110). The tolerance of religions other than Buddhism in order to advance trade was characteristic not only of Kings of Siam, but also of Buddhist rulers of small principalities in Northern Thailand. Whereas the Muslims who were involved in trade with Siam came mainly from Persia and India, those in northern Thailand were primarily Hui or Chinese Muslims from southern China.

     By the beginning of the twentieth century followers of Islam living within the Kingdom of Siam constituted perhaps 8-9% of the total population. These Muslims included South Asians (found in cities and towns throughout the country), Chinese Hui (found mainly in northern Thailand), Cham (an ethnic group found mainly in Cambodia and Vietnam, some members of which had settled in central Thailand), and Malays (living in the far south of Thailand). In addition, the Muslim population included ethnic Thai in southern and central Thailand who were descendants of assimilated members of other Muslim groups.

     The restructuring in the late nineteenth century of the Siamese empire into a centralized kingdom altered the status of Muslims in the country. This restructuring was associated with the development of a nationalism based not only on loyalty to the king, as had been the case in the imperial period, but also on the promotion of Buddhism as a fundamental pillar of the Thai nation. Muslims living in Thailand came to be seen as distinctive “others”—referred to as khaek in Thai. This “other-ness” has become increasingly significant in Thai thinking in recent years as some Muslims, especially Malay-speaking Muslims, have embraced fundamentalist versions of Islam and some Thai politicians and Buddhist leaders have accentuated Buddhist nationalism.

     In this paper I will both trace the history of how some Muslims in Thailand came to be construed as the most alien of peoples living within Thailand—a perspective that that has intensified in the early twentieth century as manifest in the conflict in southern Thailand and the treatment of Rohingya refugees from Burma. Despite this, at the same time there have been some Buddhist and Muslim leaders who are working to promote a tolerance which, as in the premodern pattern, emphasizes common interests over religious difference.


From Khuda to Buddha: the Islamic Heritage of a Neo-Buddhist Community of North India.

Dominique-Sila Khan (Institute of Rajasthan Studies, Jaipur)


This will deal with the shifting identities of a small community of Bhangis (sweepers, exuntouchable caste) who had once adopted a particular, “non-normative” form of Islam— which has survived in a changed form—and who recently, under the influence of Dr. Ambedkar, have adopted Buddhism. The paper will show how they perceive their own past and the different religions in the light of their recent conversion, some of them having been “Hinduised” and absorbed into the Hindu fold, others having becoming Sikhs, etc. The paper will also deal with their representation of Islam and Muslims in general and the role played by Buddhism in their social and moral upliftment.


From Buddhism to Islam—a Silk Road Legacy.

Xinru Liu (The College of New Jersey)


Before the Islamic conquests, Tukharistan (northern Afghanistan) and Sogdiana (southern Uzbekistan) were strongholds of Buddhism and encompassed the most important way stations on the routes that moved Buddhism from India to China. In Afghanistan, the gigantic Buddhas, that graced the Bamiyan valley until a few years ago, are a testament to the long legacy of Buddhism on this passage that connected India and China. However, along this portion of the Silk Road, the persistence of earlier religious practices, even after changes in religious regimes, appears to be closely related to the nature of the locale’s political and social conditions.

      From roughly 500 to 700 CE the Tukharistan–Sogdiana region was a junction of routes going both east and west and north and south. It was also a major trading center for goods from China, Iran, and the Mediterranean. Buddhist missionaries from India were often stationed there, prior to their proceeding to China. Turkish nomads invaded from the north, settling in this region, or moving even further south to India. The ever-changing political situation made the people rely heavily on non-governmental institutions for social stability and security. Zoroastrian and Buddhist institutions and practices provided religious and social cohesion in the region. The elite of the region—scholars, merchants, and generals—learned to be flexible regarding their political allegiance, often changing masters in accordance with their economic and social interests.

      The eighth-century Islamic conquests in Central Asia, however, brought in not only a new political regime, but also a new religious regime. Realizing that Islam was going to be preeminent in the region, elite families such as the Barmakis from the city of Balkh (the ancient city of Bactra) and many Bukharis, Samarkandis, and members of the Turkish military aristocracies took advantage of this historical opportunity to join the Islamic religious and cultural world and, indeed, soon became pillars of Islamic society, not just locally but throughout the Islamic world. Their contributions to Islamic culture played a fundamental role in the religion’s future development, outshining even the contributions of their counterparts from the Islamic homeland. Furthermore, those who remained in the eastern domains constructed an Islamic culture on their own terms. Hence, the Islamic culture of Tukharistan and Transoxiana inherited and preserved many of the pre-Islamic local cultural traditions. (Transoxiana is a term now used by scholars of Islamic Central Asia to refer not only to what was Sogdiana, but also to what was Khwarism, north of Sogdiana.)

Allah as Emptiness?: Japanese Buddhist Perceptions of Islam.

Kieko Obuse (University of Oxford)


This paper discusses how contemporary Japanese Buddhists perceive Islam, especially how they understand Allah in relation to Buddhism. It first notes a few contemporary Buddhist attempts to compare Allah with the Ultimate Reality in Buddhism, and then analyzes the views of Jōdo-shin and Sōtō Zen followers collected through a small survey. The discussion includes three main points:

1)  Jōdo-shin followers compare Allah with both Amida Buddha and emptiness;

2)  The views of Sōtō Zen followers are more varied and are generally more cautious about comparing Allah with a Buddhist concept;

3)  Compared with those outside the country, Buddhists in Japan are less willing to relate Buddhism and Islam on a doctrinal level.

Telling Nalanda’s story: Buddhists, Bakhtiyar, and the British in Bihar.

Leslie C. Orr (Concordia University)


The great monastic centre of Nalanda looms large in histories of Buddhism in India, and its presumed destruction by the armies of Bakhtiyar Khilji at the beginning of the thirteenth century is an event that is frequently taken to signal the death of Indian Buddhism brought about by the forces of Islam. Yet the nature of this siteas monastery, university, or a place of worship (for Hindus as well as Buddhists?)and the history of its development and decline, are represented in quite different ways in various sources. It is possible to construct several alternative narratives, depending on whether one refers to the accounts of Chinese or of Tibetan travellers, or to the brief mentions of Nalanda in Persian histories produced in Delhi, or to the sculptural and architectural remains, or to the inscriptions of Nalanda. The telling of Nalanda’s story has been further complicated by the fact that, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, colonial archaeologists have read the material evidence through the eyes of the Chinese pilgrims, while colonial historians have relied on the Persian chronicles for the history of Nalanda’s demise. But the colonial (and contemporary) archaeologists and historians have given little serious scrutiny to the question of the impact of Muslim armies, or of Islam, in Biharwhere Nalanda stands nearby Bodhgaya and other important Buddhist sites. By juxtaposing the various sources that are available, I will not be able to say what “really happened” in the encounter between Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims at Nalanda, but I hope to raise questions about the narratives that have been constructed, and to provide a framework within which the stories told about Nalanda can be contextualized.


A Muslim Perception of Buddhism: Ottoman Muslim Travellers among the Lamas of Siberia, Mongolia and China.

Alexandre Papas (CNRS, Paris)


This paper will examine the sporadic encounters between Turkish Muslims and Inner Asian Buddhists. Along the routes of trade, diplomacy and Islamization, Turkish travellers, heading for the attractive Middle Kingdom, sought to observe, sometimes to meet, the religious authorities of Buddhism. They have left invaluable accounts of their impressions and experiences. Firstly, in order to better understand the motivations of these Muslim travellers, I will present a brief historical overview of the relations between the Ottoman and the Chinese Empires from the 16th to the 19th century. Secondly, I will explore two Ottoman travelogues which feature vivid dialogues between Muslim authors and Buddhist monks. The first text is Süleymân Şükrü’s Seyâhât ül-Kübrâ [The Grand Travels] (lithograph, 1907). The second source is Abdürreşîd Ibrâhîm’s Âlem-i Islâm ve Japonya’da Islâmiyet’in Yayılması [The World of Islam and the Spread of Islamity in Japan] (lithograph, 1910-13). This author was actually a Volga Tatar but spent a lot of time in Istanbul and was close to Sultan Abdülhamîd II’s court; they both wrote in Ottoman Turkish. These two writings provide a Muslim vision of Buddhism and the Far East; moreover, in the specific context of the anticolonial movements in three declining empires (Ottoman, Russian and Qing) the theological discussion takes on a political, perhaps even philosophical, colour.

Consideration on Otherness: Muslim-Buddhist Relationships in Southern Thailand.

Nishii Ryoko (ILCAA, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies)


This paper considers otherness from the relationships between Muslims and Buddhists in Southern Thailand. I would like to explore this question by focusing ancestor rituals on the west coast of Southern Thailand, especially the formal vows Muslims make to become Buddhist nuns or monks, which seem to rehearse/reiterate memories of past relationship between villagers, including Muslims and Buddhists, who have lived together for many generations. Rather than being located in a socioeconomic vacuum, this analysis is properly contextualized in the present situation of Muslims in Thailand. My consideration of these rituals suggests that Buddhist ancestry may often manifest itself as disorder in the human body of an individual Muslim. This implicates the most conspicuous others in the daily life of an individual as the acknowledged cause of a disorder in the self. Postulated past relationships motivate a person to perform the ritual, which uncovers the memory of Muslim-Buddhist connections. By so entering Buddhist holy orders, Muslims are able to negotiate with the other within the self. The transformation makes it possible to imagine identity replacement in local face-to-face relationships.


Moving Beyond Orientalist Frameworks: Towards a Religious Studies of Buddhism and Islam in Ladakh.

Rohit Singh (University of California, Santa Barbara)


Drawing on historical and popular sources, I examine representations of Buddhism and Islam in Ladakh. Most sources depict the region as a Buddhist “Shangri-la” and either ignore Ladakh’s Muslim populations or describe Islam as an invasive and subversive force which threatens to dilute Ladakh’s authentic Tibetan Buddhist culture. I show how discourses on religion in Ladakh operate within colonial and orientalist frameworks that have pervaded Euro-American studies of Buddhism and Islam. By doing so, I highlight central issues and challenges for developing a Religious Studies of Ladakh.


Buddhism in Muslim Indonesia.

Karel Steenbrink (University of Utrecht)


This paper presents an overview of various ways that Buddhists and Muslims have lived together since the arrival of Islam in about 1200. It tells how Buddhism slowly disappeared and became a religion for the Chinese (who until the nineteenth century very often converted to Islam). In the early twentieth century we see more female Chinese arriving in Indonesia and a revival of Chinese self-confidence that was mostly concentrated on Confucianism, but included Buddhism. The Muslim revival of the late colonial period had some anti-Chinese tendencies, but it was not directed against Buddhism as a religion.

     Between 1945 and 2006 only five religions were recognized in Indonesia: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Only very recently Confucianism too has been recognized as an official religion. All religions have to recognize the base of the Indonesian State in its Pancasila ideology that stipulates the “belief in the one and high divinity.” We analyze the position of three key figures in the more recent government-supported revival of Buddhism. They tried to accommodate Buddhism to Islam-dominated nationalism in modern Indonesia. Special attention will be given to Walubi, the government-recognized national union of Buddhist organizations; to the tensions between (partly foreign) monks and the laity; and to the role of women in Buddhist education and organizations. Muslims saw Chinese Buddhists as competitors in the field of economics, but as to religion there were few efforts to convert Chinese and adjusted Buddhism secured a modest but safe position in independent Indonesia. 

Links Between Buddhism and Islam in the Context of the History of Science.

Michio Yano (Kyoto Sangyo University)


We do not have much textual evidence of direct contact between Islamic science and Buddhist science. Especially in India, Islamic culture penetrated into the subcontinent while Buddhists almost disappeared. But when we turn our eyes to the neighbouring cultural areas, we find some interesting evidence of mutual influence. In my presentation I would like to offer several examples of such links in the context of the history of astronomy and astrology. I will talk briefly about some Buddhist texts whose provenance is somewhere in Central Asia. Although they are no longer extant in their homeland or in China, they have left their influence on Buddhist Tantric astrology in Japan. Among them are the Qiyao rangzai jue (七曜攘災決) and the Fu tian li (符天暦), both belonging to the early ninth century.

     The Qiyao rangzai jue provides a kind of planetary ephemeris. The Fu tian li, where a parabolic function is found, was used by Japanese Buddhist astrologers in order to compute planetary positions. A similar function was used in the so-called “Chinese Uighur calendar.”Another interesting text, belonging to the later period and related to the texts of the Central Asian origin, is the Mingyi tienwen shu (明訳天文書), a 1383 Chinese translation of Kūšyār ibn Labbān’s Introduction to Astrology. In this translation, some technical terms are borrowed from Buddhist Tantric astrology.    Especially interesting are the names of the twelve zodiac signs. Similar names are attested in a Buddhist text, the Zhi lun jing (支輪経), belonging to the eleventh century. These names are reflected in the iconographic images in a mural painting of Dunhuang as well as in the star mandalas in Japan.

     Another piece of evidence is found in the Chinese translation of the four kinds of planetary aspects: san he (三合) for trine, er xian (二弦) for quartile, lu he (六合) for sextile, and chon () for opposition. It is interesting to know that the term san he is found in a fragment of a horoscope cast by a Japanese Buddhist astrologer. This special technical term, which is not attested in any Chinese texts, is attributed to the so-called Duli yusi jing (都利聿斯経), Duli yusi being a phonetic translation of Ptolemaios.


Rashid al-Din’s Life of the BuddhaSome Buddhist Perspectives.

Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim (University College London)


Rashid al-Din’s (12471318) World History, known to be the first world history, contains, within the context of the history of India, a separate section dedicated to the life of the Buddha. An analysis of this text can provide us with some clues regarding the type of Buddhism which was present at the Ilkhanid court at the time. Karl Jahn, who has conducted much important work on this text, has focused primarily on Indian and Chinese influences. In this paper, I wish to highlight influences which seem to have come from Tibetan Buddhism.  The case for Tibetan Buddhism will be based on the combination of several characteristics of the text and its context. In this paper I discuss the following points:

Firstly, I shall discuss some sources external to the “Life of the Buddha” which give evidence of the Buddhist presence in the Ilkhanid court. Some of these sources point specifically to Tibetan Buddhists.

Secondly, I shall discuss a number of characteristics which can be interpreted as deriving from a Tibetan Buddhist sphere.

Thirdly, I shall say a few words on the method of translation used by Rashid al-din in this text.