Master­ful on the Mon­gols

FRANK MCLYNN ap­plauds a vast study of how the Mon­gol em­pire’s re­la­tion­ship with Is­lam was trans­formed

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Yale, 640 pages, £30 Frank McLynn’s books in­clude Genghis Khan (Bod­ley Head, 2015)

Genghis Khan’s de­ci­sion to di­vide his do­main be­tween his four sons was not sup­posed to break up his em­pire, but in­evitably that was what hap­pened. Although his grand­son Kublai ruled the Yuan em­pire (China and Mon­go­lia), the other three sec­tors – the Ilkhanate (roughly Iran), the Ja­gatai khanate (cen­tral Asia) and the Golden Horde (Rus­sia) – be­came in­de­pen­dent king­doms in all but name. Even more as­ton­ish­ingly, given Genghis’s an­ni­hi­la­tion of the Mus­lim em­pire of the Shah of Kh­warezmia, stretch­ing from Iraq to Afghanistan, within 100 years of this shat­ter­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal blow to Is­lam, the three western Mon­gol king­doms had con­verted to the reli­gion of Muham­mad. In a mas­sively schol­arly, com­pen­dious sur­vey, Peter Jack­son, well known as one of the most em­i­nent liv­ing stu­dents of the Mon­gols, traces this trans­for­ma­tion.

So why did western Mon­gols con­vert to Is­lam (while China and Mon­go­lia em­braced Bud­dhism, Con­fu­cian­ism and shaman­ism)? There can be many an­swers – in­ter­mar­riage, the ex­cel­lence of Mus­lims as ad­min­is­tra­tors, ba­sic Mon­gol re­li­gious tolerance – but for Jack­son the prin­ci­pal fac­tor was mil­i­tary se­cu­rity. The western Mon­gol rulers did not rel­ish rul­ing a sullen and dis­af­fected Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion, so made their own life eas­ier by adopt­ing the ma­jor­ity reli­gion of their sub­jects; that made more sense than bloody at­tempts at re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion. Genghis’s fa­mous le­gal code, the yasa, which for­bade many Is­lamic cus­toms, like ha­lal butch­ery and cir­cum­ci­sion, was qui­etly ig­nored, even as his de­scen­dants in Iran and cen­tral Asia paid lip ser­vice to his her­itage.

One cu­ri­ous con­se­quence of the mass con­ver­sion was that Genghis’s most fa­mous suc­ces­sor, Timur, tried to re­store his en­tire em­pire as a sin­gle realm but in the name of Is­lam. Jack­son has lit­tle time for Timur, whose con­quests were said to have led to 17 mil­lion deaths, but there is no doubt that by his time the cres­cent, not the shaman­is­tic wor­ship of the god Ten­geri, was the dom­i­nant reli­gion. Timur was ac­tu­ally on his way to the con­quest of China when he died in 1405.

Jack­son un­der­lines the many con­se­quences of Mon­gol Is­lami­sa­tion: prin­ci­pally eco­nomic boom and Asian in­te­gra­tion, trig­gered by a sim­ple tax­a­tion sys­tem and a so­phis­ti­cated distri­bu­tion of loans to mer­chants. But he has no time for the tra­di­tional idea of the pax Mon­golica – sup­pos­edly a hal­cyon pe­riod in which car­a­vans could pass from China to Europe without be­ing at­tacked. Jack­son ar­gues that the main fac­tor in that eco­nomic golden pe­riod was in fact vastly in­creased seaborne com­merce. He also has lit­tle re­gard for other myths about the later Mon­gol pe­riod, such as that the Black Death orig­i­nated in China or the western khanates.

Jack­son’s over­all sum­mary is mas­terly. Un­like most icon­o­clasts, he has for­mi­da­ble eru­di­tion and in­tel­lec­tual elan to but­tress what might seem at first sur­pris­ing and even ec­cen­tric ar­gu­ments, and this reader, at least, emerged con­vinced by his the­ses. The book is not an easy read but, per­se­vered with, pro­duces some­thing like a mother lode of Mon­golica.

Mon­gol rulers did not rel­ish rul­ing a sullen Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion

Genghis Khan (c1167–1227) and two of his four sons in a 13th- cen­tury de­pic­tion

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