New Silk Road

Trade, Culture, Religion

What defined the Old Silk Road? And how has its modern counterpart changed?

Even today, the vision of the Silk Road conjures up a powerful sense of longing. For a time when trade and culture, transport routes and communication channels, material and spiritual enrichment can prosper side by side. A time when, far from them being mutually exclusive, neither can exist without the other. That yearning also carries a hope: that a desire for cultural identity and for moral and spiritual values need not spawn a clash between trade and the exchange of ideas, as currently seems to be the case in the West at times.

In reality, knowledge and culture have always been associated with trade. "Seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China," is an oft-quoted adage of the prophet Muhammad. This statement alone reveals that exchanges were not limited to material goods; they must have been cultural and intellectual by nature as well. It also documents that Islam, contrary to what we might think today, did not scorn secular knowledge and the wisdom of the Far East. Rather, from the very outset, it considered them an important part of a world it seemed destined to order.

Christianity was initially confined to Europe and the Mediterranean countries, never venturing further into Asia and Africa before the colonial era. Similarly, Buddhism had a relatively small footprint in eastern Asia. Since the eighth century, it is Islam that has been the cultural and religious conduit that led to the Silk Road's zenith. Its eastward expansion was not the product of military conquest. First and foremost, the faith was exported by merchants and Sufism – the mystical order to which many of the traders belonged. Together with the roadside inns known as caravanserais, Sufism provided the opportunities to meet, connect and network.

Military aggression, however, still shaped the character of the Silk Road. Interestingly, though, it took the opposite direction: from east to west. From the 10th century onwards, the Islamic world was invaded by Mongols and Turkic peoples from the steppes of eastern Asia. Almost ironically, these incursions resulted in the aggressors adopting Islam rather than imposing their values on their new empires. The reasons for this are clear. On the one hand, Islam's cultural superiority was obvious and, on the other, it helped the conquerors secure their authority and the acceptance of their new Muslim subjects.

Today this is still a utopian moment: the conquerors won militarily, but were culturally defeated, assimilated, absorbed – so effectively that the Mongols and Turkic peoples themselves became the leading standard bearers, propagators and mediators of the civilization they had once vanquished. For example, we owe breathtaking architecture like the Taj Mahal to the Mongolian Mughals, and the magnificent mosques of Istanbul to the Turkic Ottomans.

Islam was therefore the prevailing culture and religion of the Silk Road of old. Yet, in stark contrast to the Muslim fundamentalism of today, its hallmark was diversity. It served as a kind of umbrella under whose protection numerous local traditions and practices could flourish. While Arabic was the language of law and religion at the time, Persian became the language of poetry, diplomacy and a cosmopolitan, courtly culture. Persian, not Arabic, was the true lingua franca of the Silk Road. Until the mid-nineteenth century, it – Persian – was understood by the countless travelers, merchants, mystics, writers and intelligentsia from Bosnia to India and Sarajevo to Delhi. It was the medium in which they wrote, sung, debated, and reflected on the world – and, of course, traded.

Shamsuddin Muhammad Hafez from Shiraz, who lived in the fourteenth century, was the most famous poet of his time. For centuries his verses served as inspiration for writers and mystics along the Silk Road. Fusing spirituality and joie de vivre, they created the artistic idiom that invested the trading routes from Asia to Europe with their intellectual and emotional coherence. Five hundred years later the great German author Goethe paid tribute to Hafez' work in a collection of lyrical poetry entitled West-Eastern Divan.

The Silk Road may have started in China, and ended at the trading stations of Venice, Gdansk, and subsequently Hamburg and London, but Islam typically held sway en route. The religious framework of Sharia law served as the World Trade Organization of the premodern period. Before the nationalist superstructure of individual states emerged, it provided a dependable code of conduct. People adhered to the rules of trade set out in Sharia law as if they were religious edicts. In pre-colonial times, this made Islam the ideal faith for merchants who – conversely – then contributed significantly to the religion's spread. After all, tradition has it that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who lived on the Arabian Peninsula from 570 to 632, had been a merchant himself by profession – until his revelations destined him for higher things.

All of that ended with the era of colonialism. The Europeans began bypassing the Silk Road with their ships, subverting the Islamic foundations underpinning European ideas, methods and laws. As might be expected, anyone objecting to the effects of colonialism invoked the values of Islam – and this evolved into the militancy that, in many people's eyes, is incompatible with a peaceful world order. However, looking back at the history of the Silk Road, we can see that this is unfair. The harmony, conciliatory power and spiritual force of Islam can still be sensed in the culture and literature of the Silk Road.

Stefan Weidner is an author and Islamic scholar.

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