In the popular imagination, Buddhism is synonymous with introspective peace, Islam with violent blind faith. But both conceptions are nothing more than Western fantasy. Revisiting the centuries of Buddhist-Muslim cooperative interaction forces us to rethink our stereotypes.By Johan Elverskog
The Buddhist monastery of Nalanda was founded in northeast India in the early 5th century. Over time it became the premier institution of higher learning in Asia and, much like leading universities today, had a world-renowned faculty working on the cutting edge of the theoretical sciences and a student body drawn from across the Buddhist world. This prestige also brought with it ample gifts from the rich and powerful. At its height Nalanda had an extensive faculty teaching a diverse student body of about 3,000 on a beautiful campus composed of numerous cloisters with lofty spires that “resembled the snowy peaks of Mount Sumeru.” Then, suddenly, the serenity of this Buddhist institution was shattered. In the fall of 1202, Muslim soldiers on horses rode in and hacked down teachers and students where they stood. The once majestic buildings were left in ruins: the savagery was so great it signaled the end of Buddhism in India.
This powerful story has been told countless times. Today it is ubiquitous, appearing in everything from scholarly mono- graphs to travel brochures. Indeed, by its sheer pervasiveness, this one episode has in many ways come to encapsulate and symbolize the entire 1,300-year history of Buddhist-Muslim interaction. As a result, anytime the topic of Buddhism and Islam is mentioned it almost invariably revolves around the Muslim destruction of the dharma.
This is problematic for many reasons, not the least being that the story of Nalanda is not true. For example, not only did local Buddhist rulers make deals with the new Muslim overlords and thus stay in power, but Nalanda itself carried on as a functioning institution of Buddhist education for another century. We also know that Chinese monks continued to travel to India and obtain Buddhist texts in the late 14th century. In fact, contrary to the standard idea promoted by the story that Nalanda’s destruction signaled the death of Buddhism, the historical evidence makes clear that the dharma survived in India until at least the 17th century. In other words, Buddhists and Muslims lived together on the Asian subcontinent for almost a thousand years.