Biblical Perspectives on the Silk Road
The Bible Society of Uzbekistan is set up to serve the population of Uzbekistan with the Biblical Scriptures. The stories of these scriptures have been known, read and told along the Silk Road for almost two thousand years. Nestorian Christians travelled along the old merchant routes through Central Asia and brought their faith and message along with them, establishing communities of believers in many of the towns serving the Silk Road trade.
These perspectives came into focus for me as I recently had the privilege of visiting the Bible Society of Uzbekistan as a member of a small delegation from United Bible Societies, the global fellowship of national Bible Societies.
I am very grateful to the Ministry of Religious Affairs who made this trip possible by giving us visa support and offered us all the practical help we needed.
The delegation consisted of Anatoliy Raychynets, Deputy General Secretary of the Bible Society of Ukraine, Bernt Greger Olsen, Deputy General Secretary of the Bible Society of Norway and myself, who is a board member of the Bible Society of Norway. As I am also serving as a Professor in the discipline Science of Religion in a Specialized University and having Islam as my central academic competence, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to visit Uzbekistan. The Central Asian contribution to the history and development of Islam is in my opinion understudied and underestimated in the West, and this view was confirmed and strengthened during our short visit.
During an intensive week in Uzbekistan we had most of our program in Tashkent, a visit to the Qur´an Museum, meetings with Muslim leaders and a workshop wit local pastors were highlights of the visit. Then we also had the opportunity of visiting the ancient city of Bukhara. Thanks to a professional guide who shared solid historical information with us during visits to places of interest, our understanding of the historical and religious significance of the city was developed.
Bukhara is one of the legendary old Islamic cities in the world, along with Samarkand and a few others. Bukhara is the home town of the famous Imam al-Bukhari, honoured for the most authoritative Hadith collection, and several monuments in the town are related to him. Bukhara has also played a significant role in the development of Central Asian political history, especially as the centre of the Bukhara Khanate. The impressive Naqsbandi complex on the outskirts of Bukhara illuminates another aspect of the Central Asian Islamic tradition, that of Sufi piety and practice.
With this impressive Islamic history in mind, it was especially interesting to visit the Synagogue in Bukhara, with roots in both the Aschenazy (Eastern European) and the Sephardic (Spanish) traditions of Judaism. Many Jews came to live in Bukhara because they were not welcome in Europe, for example after the Christian reconquest of Spain, ending in the year of 1492. A very precious item in the Synagogue was a Sephardic Torah, produced in Spain before 1492 and brought as a sacred treasure to Bukhara where the Muslim rulers invited the Jews to live in peace with them. In the context of a long and strong Islamic tradition, it is interesting to see this example of tolerance and hospitality towards a religious minority.
This ancient tradition of hospitality was now enjoyed by us as we met a number of religious leaders in Bukhara and Tashkent, both Muslim and Christian leaders. Excursions, meetings and conversations gave interesting insights and new perspectives. In the post-Soviet community, the religious communities are developing new roles in the society. The Bible Society of Uzbekistan is itself a proof of this and an example of this process, as it was established shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In conversations, meetings and workshops, the need to know each other personally and the need to be properly informed about the other were issues that came up in several different ways. In such a context, the Bible Society has a special role, as it provides the primary source of information concerning the faith and practice of the Christians, and therefore the Bible Society is working to make the Bible available in each of the countries where a Bible Society exists. At the same time, the Bible also is a significant book when it comes to the relationship of Christianity to Judaism as well as to Islam. Many Muslims are familiar with the Qur´anic references to the previous books of Taurat, Zabur and Injil, and this gives good opportunities to discuss the relationship between the two major religions in the world today. Having access to the Biblical texts is essential for having good interreligious dialogues on issues like these.
The Biblical perspectives on the Silk Road were amazingly relevant, both in a historical and in a contemporary perspective. Our visit also emphasized the significance of the local Bible Society being connected to a global network of other Bible Societies.
By Professor Jan Opsal