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Belief Systems
When China opened the way to Silk Road trade by defeating the Xiongnu confederation and pushing Chinese military control over trade routes northwesterly as far as the Tarim Basin, Buddhism was known in Central Asia but had not yet spread to China or elsewhere in East Asia. Christianity was still more than a century in the future. Daoism, in the strict sense of that term, connoting an organized religion with an ordained clergy and an established body of doctrine, would not appear in China for another three centuries. Islam was more than seven centuries in the future.

The peoples of the Silk Road in its early decades followed many different religions. In the Middle East, many people worshipped the gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman pagan pantheon. Others were followers of the old religion of Egypt, especially the cult of Isis and Osiris. Jewish merchants and other settlers had spread beyond the borders of Israel and had established their own places of worship in towns and cities throughout the region. Some people in the Middle East followed Mithraism, a religion originally of Persian origin that became popular in the armies of Rome as well as among the general populace; central to its theology was a struggle between good and evil symbolized by the sacrifice of a sacred bull. Elsewhere in the Middle East, and especially in Persia and Central Asia, many people were adherents of Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the Persian sage Zoroaster in the 6th century BCE. It, too, posited a struggle between good and evil, light and darkness; its use of fire as the symbol of the purifying power of good was probably borrowed from the Brahamanic religion of ancient India. The Greek colonies of Central Asia that had been left behind after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great had, by the first century BCE, largely converted from Greco-Roman paganism to Buddhism, a religion that would soon use the Silk Road to spread far and wide.
In China rulers worshipped their own ancestors in great ancestral temples; they were joined by commoners in worshipping also the Lord of the Soil, the gods of the four directions, gods of mountains and rivers, and many other deities. There was, as yet, in China no official state cult of Confucius, no Buddhism, and no organized religious Daoism. The beliefs of Korea and Japan at that early period also are largely lost in an unrecorded past, but they appear to have been ancestral to the later Japanese religion of Shinto, a polytheistic religion that emphasizes worship of local gods and goddesses, the importance of ritual purity, and rule by a king of divine descent.

That the religious beliefs of the peoples of the Silk Road changed radically from what they had been when trans-Eurasian trade began to take place on a regular basis was largely due to the effects of travel and trade on the Silk Road itself. Religious belief is often one of the most important and deeply held aspects of personal identity, and people are reluctant to go where they cannot practice their own faith. Traders who used the Silk Road regularly therefore built shrines and temples of their own faiths wherever they went, in order to maintain their own beliefs and practices of worship while they were far from home. Missionaries of many faiths accompanied caravans on the Silk Road, consciously trying to expand the reach of their own religious persuasion and make converts to their faith.

The dynamics of the spread of beliefs along the Silk Road involves a crucial, though little-remarked, difference between two fundamental types of religions. Generally speaking, religions are either proselytizing or non-proselytizing. That is, they either actively seek to recruit new members to the faith from outside the current membership group, or they do not. Examples of proselytizing faiths are Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; non-proselytizing faiths include Hinduism, Judaism, and Shinto. All of these were religions of the Silk Road; some spread along the trade routes to extend their spheres of faith enormously, while others did not travel from their native lands, or did so only so as to form enclaves of the faithful in foreign lands.

Buddhism was the first of the great missionary faiths to take advantage of the mobility provided by the Silk Road to extend its reach far beyond its native ground. From its origins in northeastern India, Buddhism had already spread into the lands that are now Pakistan and Afghanistan by the first century BCE. Buddhist merchants from those areas built temples and shrines along the Silk Road everywhere they went; the priests and monks who staffed those religious establishments preached to local populations and passing travelers, spreading the faith rapidly. Buddhism's essential message — that earthly life is an endless round of rebirth, suffering and death, but that the cycle of suffering can be ended with rebirth in paradise through Buddhist faith and practice — had wide appeal, and its universalism enabled it to cross boundaries of space, language, and ethnicity with ease.

The arrival of Buddhism in China was officially noted by the imperial court in the mid-first century CE, and the faith spread rapidly in China thereafter, helped by both official and private support for the building of temples and monasteries. Buddhist missionaries from Central Asia began an active program of translating sacred texts into Chinese, and a number of Chinese priests and monks, over the centuries, traveled the Silk Road in search of doctrinal instruction in Central Asia and India. Buddhism became the dominant religion of China by the 5th century, and spread via China to Korea and Japan; it retained its dominant position until the 9th century, when government patronage began to shift decisively to what became known (retrospectively) as Neo-Confucianism, a synthesis of social, ethical and metaphysical doctrines based on the thought of Confucius and his disciples. Thereafter Buddhism remained important in China, but more as a private than an officially-sponsored religion.

Buddhism was also challenged in China by the rise of religious Daoism in the 3rd century CE. Religious Daoism, in the form of several competing sects, absorbed many of the local religious temples and doctrines of ancient China. It offered believers immortality or reincarnation in a celestial pantheon, and amassed a canon of sacred texts rivaling that of Buddhism. Daoism spread westward into Central Asia along the Silk Road, providing, just as Buddhism had done, religious facilities for traveling believers; many of the important Buddhist temple complexes of Central Asia show Daoist influence or incorporate Daoist chapels.

Meanwhile, in the western reaches of the Silk Road, important changes were also taking place. Christianity was transformed, in the century or so after 50 CE, from a local phenomenon in Israel to a rapidly expanding, proselytizing religion through the efforts of Paul and the other Christian apostles.

Silk Road faiths from the Middle East to the northwestern reaches of China were challenged, and soon largely displaced, in the 7th century by the rise of Islam, now the dominant religion of most of the countries spanned by the old Silk Road. Islam was shaped by Muhammad, a prosperous merchant of the Arabian city of Mecca, who received the revelations from Allah (God) that he wrote down in the sacred Islamic book, the Koran.

Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East, North Africa, and into Persia and Central Asia, and by the mid-8th century it was the dominant faith from Morocco to Afghanistan, while mosques were established in Arabic trading communities in China, India and port cities of the Indian Ocean. Probably no other religion in human history has spread so far so rapidly. Islam is at least theoretically tolerant of Judaism and Christianity, because all three faiths claim descent from the patriarch Abraham, but it is intolerant of other rivals. Islam was largely responsible for the decline of Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Central Asian Buddhism, and other local religions of the Silk Road. Henceforth travelers on the Silk Road might still belong to any of several religions, but the lands through which they passed, everywhere west of the borders of China, were with few exceptions part of the world of Islam.
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