Seminar: The Mongols and Islam

Everyone knows the Mongols. As conquerors they have left an indelible mark upon world history, influencing the cultural path of territories from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. Their prominent place in history, however, has collected a number of stereotypes, from that of an unmitigated barbarian horde to that of tolerant outsiders presiding over an unprecedented Pax Mongolica in Asia.

The Mongol realms. After Chinggis Khan's death, the Mongol territories were split into appanages, ruled by different branches of the conqueror's family. (

Today I attended a seminar that strove to look a bit deeper, particularly in the area of ‘The Mongols in Islam,’ the title of the talk presented by Dr. Peter Jackson. He explored a number of dimensions between the Mongols and their Islamic subjects before the Mongols converted.

Understandably, the Muslim population of the Middle East reacted with shock and resentment to the Mongol conquests, but this was only partly caused by the military campaigns themselves. After the dust settled, and the Mongols set about building a state, they adhered to Chinggis Khan’s edict not to favour one religion over another, but allow all religions equal freedom to practice. This was met with enthusiasm by the region’s Christian and Jewish minority populations, but deepened the Muslims’ sense of subjugation. Particularly galling was a poll tax (levied on each individual) that resembled the tax which Islamic governments had levied on minorities in previous centuries.

Because of even-handed policies like this, the Mongol rulers have often been portrayed as paragons of tolerance in a bigoted age. Some legal mandates, or yasa, however, did impinge upon Muslim religious life, such as an edict prohibiting bathing in running water, which prevented the canonical form of ablutions before prayer. Gauging the precise impact of these edicts is difficult, though, since we have no complete record of Mongol customary law. Questions include: Did their legislation only target nomads? What regions were they applied in? And finally, how long did they remain in effect?

While the answers to these questions are not forthcoming, the processes of conversion would eventual bring these policies to a close. Theories as to why the Mongols chose Islam are purely speculative, but there are a few preferred ideas. One established argument is that Sufis, Muslims who sought a mystical relationship with God, made the most missionary inroads because they resembled Mongol shamans. In recent years, however, more and more scholars have begun to point out that such similarities are only superficial. Another potential source of converts may have been the home environment, with Mongol princes experiencing Islam while in the homes of Muslim foster parents.

Undoubtedly, the conversion involved these and many other pathways, according to the social status and circumstances of the converts. Most, simply determined by the social hierarchy, will not have been princes, and their stories are unrecoverable. When historians do see Mongol rulers converting, however, the decision isn’t always straightforward. Some could risk insurrection and death for converting, although not quite for the reasons that you might think.

Those rulers who ascribed to Islam on a personal level, or patronised it mildly, usually faced little opposition. Those who attempted to establish it as the religion of the state, however, risked antagonising not only the adherents of other religions, but also those among their Mongol followers who valued the policy of pluralism. For them, an edict of Chinggis Khan’s simply should not be set aside.

These complexities demonstrate that when one of the world’s great religions meets one of its great conquerors, the results are neither simple or predictable. Instead, both would continue to play a formative influence over a wide swathe of western Asia, where the effects of Turco-Mongolian migration and conquest can still be seen today.


4 thoughts on “Seminar: The Mongols and Islam

    • I’ve heard so much about this exhibit, and would really like to go see it! It covers a very interesting period, and I’ve done a lot of work in classes on related topics, but unfortunately I don’t think a visit to New York is in my future. 😦 I would very much like to read about it if you go, though!

    • You’re welcome! I was particularly glad to go to this seminar, because the Mongol period is something I haven’t yet had a chance to study in depth, and I too found it really fascinating.

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