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UNIT 7: The Spread of Religions



The three major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — changed over time and were transmitted across cultures. This unit explores how missionaries, pilgrims, and converts served as elements of change by facilitating the transmission of diverse beliefs and practices between the second and twelfth centuries CE. During that time, believers spread their faith to rulers of diverse states as well as to merchants, travelers, and local communities who adopted and promoted the new religions.

As religions moved across space, they also changed. Some of this change occurred when religious leaders interpreted doctrine differently in different historical contexts. Change also occurred as a result of influence from indigenous religions; for example, as Buddhist beliefs were translated into the Chinese cultural context, they were influenced and shaped by earlier Taoist beliefs.

At other times, change occurred as a result of adaptation, such as when Buddhist monks adopted the local deities of northwestern China into the pantheon of Buddhist beliefs. In Islam, too, Sufi mystics spread a message designed to appeal to ordinary people and to incorporate pre-existing indigenous beliefs. The practice of adapting to a variety of local contexts was, indeed, one of the reasons behind the extraordinary success of all three religions. Each of the three major world religions transformed as a result of encountering different peoples and cultures, and all of them have evolved over time. Transformations as a result of missionaries, pilgrims, and converts have continued into the modern era. These people have been critical to maintaining their parent religions as organic institutions — and as religions in motion.


Time Period: 600 BCE-1200 CE

All of the world's great religions have spread far and wide from their origins. In the pre-modern era, this process was one of world history's most important stories, as religions helped establish connections between many societies. Buddhism emerged in south Asia in the sixth century BCE. Around the same time, Confucius began his ethical teachings in China and the Greek philosophers imagined a new way of ordering society. By 200 BCE Buddhism had spread to China, and in the next several centuries it spread by maritime routes to Southeast Asia. As Buddhism was linking Southeast Asia to China, Christianity was beginning to spread in the Mediterranean. By 600 CE, Christianity had spread through western Europe and Africa, just as Islam was emerging and beginning to spread across the Arabian Peninsula.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economics and politics by exploring interactions between societies as religions moved across political frontiers by trade routes.
  • Explores systems of social structure because Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam helped change the structure of societies wherever they spread.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments because these three religions shaped the intellectual and cultural environments of the societies where they originated, as well as the societies to which they spread.


  • Question 1: How did Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam spread across the world, and why are they practiced so far from their origins?
  • Question 2: How did these three major world religions change and adapt to diverse cultural circumstances?
  • Question 3: Why did Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam emerge when and where they did?
  • Question 4: How did Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam interact with, provide justification for, and conflict with various states and empires in Afro-Eurasia?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

As Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam spread across the borders and frontiers of Afro-Eurasia, they integrated diverse peoples by means of a common religion.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

The spread of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam introduced new beliefs and practices to a wide variety of peoples. These beliefs and practices were often quite different from indigenous religions. In addition, indigenous beliefs and practices often changed the new religions as they adapted to local conditions. These changes frequently resulted in the development of different sects within the new religions.

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