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Islam in Asia: Diversity in Past and Present Exhibition: The Silk Road & Islam Spread

An Exhibition organized by The Division of Asia Collections at Kroch Library, November, 2016 - April, 2017

Spread of Islam along the Silk Road

Cornell University Library Map Collection. The Silk Road [map]. 2016. 1: 4,229,548; generated by Martin Ziech; made with Natural Earth; using ArcView GIS 10.4.1 [GIS software]. Redlands, CA: Environmental Systems Research Institute, 1992-2016.


The term Silk Road, coined by 19th-century German explorer Ferdinand von Richtofen, refers to a loose network of overland trade routes stretching from the Mediterranean to East Asia. Textiles, gems, spices, animals and even religions were all exchanged along this vast expanse, starting around 1,000 B.C. and continuing for millennia.

For much of this time, most Silk Road traders coming from western Eurasia were Muslim, and they brought their beliefs and rich culture to millions of people.

A crossroads of ideas

While the Silk Road was a two-way route, most of its movement was eastward, carrying Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and later, Islam.

By the 8th century, Muslims stopped thinking of religion geographically and began seeking converts along the Silk Road. The benefits of conversion to such a widespread religion were many, as Muslims preferred trading with other Muslims.

Islamic scientific and medical advancements also had significant impact on Silk Road travelers. Chinese Buddhist traders adopted Islamic medical knowledge (in wound healing, urinalysis, et al.) Muslims brought India their insights on astronomy, including a skepticism of the geocentric universe.

Cultural exchange along the route

Influences from Buddhist China and other regions also effected radical changes in Islam. In the 12th century, abstract Islamic art suddenly started depicting human figures, long considered forbidden in Islam. Murals showing Buddhist statues and Indian narrative artwork started appearing in mosques, and Islamic art exploded with new techniques and figures.

Chinese technologies, such as paper production and gunpowder, were transmitted to the West. Iran’s art in the Mongol period (13th and 14th centuries) is dramatically influenced by Chinese artistic traditions.

{See Bibliography section above for further reading on the topic}

The tracking of the Silk Road is schematic and approximate. It covers herein specifically the Islamic era land routes, rather than the multitude of earlier and later itineraries.