LECTURE – Monks, Magi and Mosques: Religion Along the Silk Road

One experience I recommend is attending university events – you don’t even have to be a prospective or current student and they’re usually free. In London, we’re lucky enough to have so many institutions, though not all of them actually run many public events. As far as I’m aware my alma mater, Queen Mary, doesn’t run any (at least ones I’m interested in). So far I’ve attended events at SOAS and Goldsmiths. The one in question ‘Monks, Magi and Mosques: Religion Along the Silk Road’ presented by Bishop Michael Nazir Ali was held at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery to coincide with their exhibition ‘Embroidered Tales and Woven Dreamsrunning from 20th January 2017 – 25 March 2017.

First, the exhibition is great for people who want to visit a showcase of embroidered textiles from Indus, Afghanistan, the Near East and Central Asia. It was interesting to see other people’s intrigue in the outfits donned by the mannequins which I would already be quite accustomed to because of my South Asian heritage. The items on display are great to look at but at the time I visited the exhibition, labels relating to the item were non-existent. I overheard someone say that they never arrived or were lost, which was a shame.

The lecture itself was great and packed out. It proved very insightful for reasons I didn’t expect it would be. Of course as the title suggests, Bishop Ali explained how religions spread and interacted along the silk road through trade routes. I’m writing this a few too many days after the lecture with no notes because I didn’t know what to expect so sadly I don’t think I can off much perspective apart from the moments that touched me.

When the trade routes from China to India were discussed this peaked my interest. Last year, I took a genetic DNA test to see where I originated from. I’m mostly South Asian (no surprise there) but I also had DNA from North Africa, The Middles East, Europe and East Asia. To be fair the range of regions that clearly runs through my blood didn’t surprise me. Considering my previous knowledge about the spread of Islam or about the Europeans colonising South Asia. One thing that did surprise me was that my heritage from East Asia was much lower, so I’m assuming  (with no background in genetics) that my East Asian ancestors came from WAAAAAAAY back when.

Now the relevancy of the DNA test was when the trade routes were mentioned. It helped me understand the migration patterns of my people. It was a sweet connection because it gave me some history to my genes.

Another moment that I liked during the lecture was the Q&A session. In fact, there were a few moments. Some questions were relevant to the lecture, people clearly wanted to show that they actually knew about what was being said unlike a random person i.e. me, who approached it with fresh eyes. Others were so broad and it seemed to me were asked because people wanted to make sense of the world around them – specifically the refugee situation and the clash of religions in the modern world.

It was interesting to see that through trade along the silk road there had been unity between religions. We learnt about how the unity went so deep that even scriptures belonging to Sikhism were, to an extent, influenced or even written by Sufi scholars. This led to the question about how in the modern world trade could not bring unity between religions. Of course the answer was complex but in summary it’s because the world’s problems today are too complicated. Conflicts of religion today go deeper because of society particularly the need to be secular.

Colonisation also played a role, as it still does today. It is also the reason for why certain countries (which seem to have similar ideologies) are really quite different because of the mechanisms colonisation had put in place. For example, one of the reasons why Pakistan and Iran (two majorly muslim countries) differ is because of the judicial system put in place by the British.

The discussion went from religion along the silk road to religion across the globe while indirectly referring Donald Trump. Even though it was a cold Monday evening. I am truly glad I attended. On the way out a mature lady said to me ‘What a great lecture – it seems the older I get the more I learn but the less I know about the world’. I understood the feeling.


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