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