Belief Systems Spread Along Trade Networks
Increased trading connections resulted in the increased spread of belief systems and the cultural traditions associated with those belief systems.
The most important impacts of trade networks were not the goods that merchants bought and sold but the spread of cultures. Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam spread through trade routes and merchant activity. As their beliefs and practices slowly spread to new regions over hundreds of years, entire regions changed as new belief systems blended with native traditions.
The spread of Hinduism through trade
Hinduism began in India. It spread to Southeast Asia in the 1st century CE along land and maritime trade routes. Regional kings adopted the religion and provided state support for its promotion—mostly among elites. Conversion to Hinduism offered cultural and trade connections with the prosperous civilizations of India. Indian culture also diffused with the Hindu belief system (see chart below in the Buddhism section).
Major Hindu kingdoms in Southeast Asia whose ruling classes converted to Hinduism included:
- the Khmer (Angkor) (9th – 13th centuries)
- the Majapahit (13th – 16th centuries).
Language and Literature
- Indian language and script (Sanskrit)
- Indian stories and epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata)
Art and Architecture
- Temple architecture (pagodas and stupas)
- Sculptural styles (sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses and Buddha)
- Holy symbols (mandalas)
- The Indian caste system
The spread of Buddhism through trade
Buddhism also originated in India but spread more widely than Hinduism. By 1000 CE, Buddhism had spread into Central Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia along the Silk Roads and Indian Ocean trade network.
Buddhism spread along the Silk Roads: Despite encouraging followers to give up desires, Buddhism diffused along land trade routes with the support of wealthy merchants. Using donated merchant wealth, Buddhist monks set up monasteries in trade cities. One of the earliest monastic communities outside of India was Bamiyan in Afghanistan. From Bamiyan, Buddhism managed to spread out across Central Asia before traveling east toward China. The Tarim Basin in Western China was the first region outside India to adopt Buddhism. Some early Buddhist converts were nomadic tribes in Central Asia and Western China.
Buddhism in China: After several hundred years of slowly making its way down the Silk Roads, Chinese elites began experimenting with the belief system. The Tang dynasty (6th-9th centuries) politically and financially supported the region for a period. Many Confucianist and Taoists rejected Buddhism as foreign and argued for its suppression in China.
Buddhism in Southeast Asia: India’s historical influence in Southeast Asia meant Buddhism spread to the region. Once it arrived, some rulers and dynasties converted to Buddhism, while others continued to follow Hindu practices.
Major Buddhist kingdoms in Southeast Asia:
- Angkor/Khmer (after the 13th century)
Buddhism changed as it spread: As Buddhism diffused from its origin in India, it adopted new beliefs and practices. These changes allowed Buddhism to fit better into new regions and societies.
- Theravada Buddhism: Original Indian Theravada Buddhism viewed Buddha as a teacher, not a god. Theravada Buddhists believed that one must withdraw from society and live entirely devoted to reflection and meditation to achieve nirvana and enlightenment.
- Mahayana Buddhism: In newer branches of Buddhism, Buddha became a semi-divine being who could help people achieve enlightenment. Mahayana Buddhism transformed Buddhism into a religion of salvation that contained various types of heaven and hell. Mahayana Buddhism also developed Bodhisattvas: spiritually enlightened people who could help others on their path to enlightenment.
- Tibetan Buddhism: Buddhism in Tibet Tibetan Buddhism contains a holy teacher, the Dali Lama, who leads Tibetan Buddhists spiritually.
The spread of Islam through trade
One of the primary ways Islam spread was through trade.
The Spread of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa: Islam slowly spread into portions of Western and Eastern Africa. The elite, merchants, traders, and governing classes, were the first to convert. While conversion to Islam may have taken place out of true faith, African leaders also recognized the financial benefits, such as access to Islamic wealth, that came with the conversion.
- West Africa: The Sahara desert had prevented a rapid Islamic conquest of areas in Western and Eastern Africa south of the Saharan desert. However, Islamic religion and culture slowly diffused into the region over hundreds of years as Islamic traders interacted and traded their goods on the Trans-Saharan trade network.
- East Africa: Islam arrived much earlier in east Africa—in the 8th century—with Islamic maritime merchants. By the 13th century, many leaders of different Swahili city-states had converted to Islam.
The Spread of Islam into Southeast Asia: Islamic merchants also brought Islam through Indian Ocean trade to Southeast Asia’s coastal regions and Islands. By the 14th and 15th centuries, Islam had become powerful enough on the Malaysian peninsula and Indonesian islands that local rulers began converting to Islam and providing state support for the expansion of Islam. The first significant and successful Muslim dynasty in Southeast Asia was the Sultanate of Malacca. Parameswara, the King of Singapore, founded the Sultanate in c. 1400. Buddhism remained the dominant belief system in mainland Southeast Asia.
Language and Literature
- The Arabic language and script
- The Quran and Hadith
Art and Architecture
- Mosque architecture (minarets, four-sided courtyards, and domed roofs)
- Geometric and floral patterns used in religious architecture
- The Sharia legal system
Click the icons on the map to explore the spread of global religions along trade networks.
Science and Technology Increasingly Spread Along Trade Networks
The expansion of trade networks increased the spread of revolutionary science and technology that transformed the world beginning in the 15th century.
Scientific and technological innovations also spread along exchange networks. By the 15th century, the diffusion of these innovations had begun to reshape the world.
Afro-Eurasian Travelers Increasingly Crossed Long Distances on Journeys of Exploration
Travelers increasingly began using trade routes to go on long-distance journeys of exploration. The records provided important information about the cultures of distant societies.
As global trade networks expanded and became safer, more travelers used the routes to explore distant civilizations. As they visited new areas, travelers recorded their experiences in diaries. These travel diaries provided readers back home with a glimpse of faraway cultures.
Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer that traveled extensively throughout Asia along the Silk Roads between 1271 and 1295 before returning home along Indian Ocean trade routes. For 17 years of his journey, Marco Polo stayed in Mongol China and worked in the government of Chinese Mongol leader Kublai Khan. While Marco Polo was not the first European to visit the far east, his journeys were the most widely chronicled. His travels inspired future European explorers.
Marco Polo’s diaries: Marco Polo published his journals in a book called The Travels of Marco Polo after returning home to Italy. His book gave Europeans an in-depth view of the Eastern world’s geography and customs. He also provided the first recorded accounts of porcelains, gunpowder, paper money, plants, animals, and the use of coal as an energy source in China. European cartographers (map makers) also used Marco Polo’s experiences to create better maps of Afro-Eurasia. Historians believe that Marco Polo was an essential source for mapmaker Fra Mauro who created the Fra Map, the most accurate and modern map of Afro-Eurasia in the 15th century.
Ibn Batutta was a Muslim scholar who traveled widely during the 14th century. Born in Tangiers, Morocco, his journeys took him throughout the Islamic world, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Like other travelers during this period, Ibn Batutta followed established commercial networks.
Ibn Battuta’s book: Upon returning home in 1454, he dictated his travels to the Muslim scholar Ibn Juzayy who wrote them down and published them in The Travels of Ibn Battuta. The book highlighted the highly interconnected nature of the Islamic world in Asia, Africa, and Southern Europe. Ibn Butta’s commentary also showed the diversity of Islamic traditions practiced worldwide. He noted that it was common for unmarried women and men to mix in social settings in sub-Saharan African Islamic communities. He also observed that in West Africa, men did not pass their wealth to their sons but to their sisters, who then passed it to their sons.
Margery Kempe was a Christian mystic and author who lived in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. She is best known for her autobiography, The Book of Margery Kempe. In this book, Kempe chronicles her life as a middle-class woman in England, her conversations with God, and her pilgrimages to holy sites across Europe and the holy lands in the Middle East.
Kempe’s book is significant for several reasons.
- First, the book chronicled the increasing tension between orthodox (traditional) Christian teachings of the Catholic Church and religious dissenters who wanted to reform and diversify Christian practices. On multiple occasions, authorities tried Kempe for heresy (beliefs contrary to traditional views). One trial resulted when authorities accused Kempe of preaching the gospels, a forbidden act for women.
- Second, her book described her travels across both European and Middle-eastern Christian holy sites. Her details provided a glimpse of life, society, and Christian tradition across a wide area of the Christian world.