Islam and Buddhism: The Arabian Prequel?
Conventionally, the first Muslim-Buddhist encounters are thought to have taken place in the context of the Arab-Muslim expansions into eastern Iran in the mid-seventh century, the conquest of Sind in 711 and the rise of the Islamic empire. However, several theories promoted in academic and popular circles claim that Buddhists or other Indians were present in western Arabia at the eve of Islam and thus shaped the religious environment in which Muhammad’s movement emerged. This article offers a critical survey of the most prominent arguments adduced to support this view and discusses the underlying attitudes to the Islamic tradition, understood as a body of ideas and practices, and Islamic Tradition, understood as a body of texts. Such theories appear to be radical challenges of the Islamic tradition insofar as they seek to reinscribe the presence of religious communities in conventional narratives of Islamic origins that do not acknowledge them. On the other hand, they often operate with an unreconstructed reliance upon the sources of the Islamic Tradition. The assessment focuses on
descriptions of the Ka’ba and objects associated with it as well as on a story about an Indian physician who diagnosed an illness of Muhammad’s wife Aisha. While Indian or Buddhist connections with western Arabia and early Islam do not appear to be entirely impossible, the evidence does not amount to a persuasive case for the early seventh century.