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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Aug 2, 2021

    The Mongols were known for unleashing a series of unrelenting horrors upon the Islamic world, from the catastrophic destruction of the Khwarezmian Empire under Chinggis Khan, to the sack of Baghdad under his grandson Hulegu, where the Caliph himself was killed on Mongol order. No shortage of Islamic authors over the thirteenth century remarked upon the Mongols as a deathblow to Islam, a punishment sent by God for their sins. Yet, many of the Mongols of the west end of the empire even before the end of the thirteenth century converted to Islam, and in time some of the heirs of Chinggis Khan held the sharia over the yassa. In today’s episode, we explore why so many Mongols chose to convert to Islam. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    The Mongolian interaction with Islam began in the twelfth century, as Muslim merchants came to Mongolia with expensive goods such as textiles or metal weapons and tools to exchange for furs and animals to sell in China or Central Asia. Some of these merchants took up valued roles among the up and coming Mongol chiefs; at least two Muslims, Hasan the Sartaq and Ja’far Khoja, were among the warlord Temujin’s close allies during his fabled escape to lake Baljuna, where they swore long lasting loyalty to him. Hasan’s arrival brought much need flocks of sheep to help feed Temujin’s starving men, while Ja’far Khoja was supposedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Ja’far served Temujin in valued roles for the rest of his life, acting as an embassy to the Jin Emperor and as daruqachi, or overseer, over the Jin capital of Zhongdu and its environs once the Mongols took it in 1215. When Temujin took the title of Chinggis Khan and began to expand the Mongol Empire, initially Muslims found little reason to lament the expansion of the Great Khan. Muslim merchants continued to serve in prominent roles, acting as emissaries and spies on behalf of Chinggis Khan, who rewarded them handsomely: gladly did Chinggis give them gifts and overpay for their wares in order to encourage them to make the difficult journey to Mongolia, as well as bring him useful information of Central Asia. One such Central Asian, Mahmud, served as Chinggis’ loyal envoy to the Khwarezm-Shah Muhammad. His actions earned him the title of Yalavach, becoming Mahmud the Messenger.


In the Tarim Basin in 1218, the local Muslim population had suffered oppression under the Naiman prince Kuchlug, who had usurped power in the Qara-Khitai Empire. When Chinggis Khan’s great general Jebe Noyan entered the region pursuing Kuchlug, he proclaimed that all those who willingly submitted would be free to worship as they chose. The region largely seems to have swiftly thrown out Kuchlug’s garrisons and officers and happily accepted Mongol rule, not as conquerors but liberators.


    This, of course, was not the case for the next stage of Mongol expansion. The highly destructive campaign against the Kwarezmian Empire launched in 1219 resulted in the deaths of perhaps millions of people from what is now Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan through eastern Iran and Afghanistan, a predominatly Muslim region. There are no shortage of accounts of horrendous atrocities suffered throughout the former domains of the Khwarezm-shahs. Though most of what is now modern Iran submitted peacefully to the Mongol commander Chormaqun over the 1230s, with the arrival of Hulegu in the 1250s a new wave of massacres were unleashed, culminating in the infamous sack of Baghdad in 1258 and death of the ‘Abbasid Caliph, an immense blow the psyche of the ummah. At the end of the 1250s it seemed reasonable to anticipate that soon the whole of the remaining Muslim world would become the subject of the Grand Khan.


    The initial period after the Mongol conquest was, for many Muslims, not easier. Statements by modern writers of Mongol religious toleration have been greatly over-exaggerated. While it is true that the Mongols in the early years of the Empire generally did not persecute on the basis of religion, the Mongols did persecute on the basis on specific beliefs that they felt ran contrary to steppe custom or the laws of Chinggis Khan, the great yassa. For example, for slaughtering animals the Mongols forbid the spilling of blood. This differed greatly from Muslim and Jewish halal and kosher slaughter, that mandated the draining of it. This in particular became a frequent source of conflict over the thirteenth century, with the Mongols feeling the spilling of blood on the earth would bring misfortune. We are told from the Persian writer Juvaini, a member of Hulegu’s entourage in the 1250s, that Chinggis Khan’ second son Chagatai so thoroughly enforced this prohibition that “for a time no man slaughtered sheep openly in Khorasan, and Muslims were forced to eat carrion.” Essentially, the Mongol viewpoint was that as long as a given religion adherents remained loyal and did not perform the tenets the Mongols forbid, then the worshippers could practice freely. But such freedoms could be revoked: Khubilai Khan in the 1280s, upon feeling insulted when a group of Muslims at his court refused to eat meat he offered them, banned halal slaughter and circumcision, on pain of property loss and death, for almost the entire decade. A Khwarezmian refugee to the Delhi Sultanate writing around 1260, Juzjani, wrote of his sincere belief that Chagatai and other members of the Mongol leadership intended a genocide of the Muslims.


Why then, did Islam succeed in converting the Mongols of western Asia, after such a low-point? It was a matter of proximity. The majority of the population in the major centres in the Golden Horde, Ilkhanate and Chagatai Khanate were Muslims, ensuring that not only could sufis and others proselytize to the Mongol leadership, but also their military. Efforts by Buddhists or various Christian representatives, be they Catholic, Syriac or Nestorian, lacked comparable resources or presence, and their efforts were generally restricted to attempting to convert the highest ranking Mongols. While this brought them some influence, in contrast to the image in most historical narrative sources monarchs tended to convert once enough of their followers had done so for it to be a sound decision for their legitimacy. More Mongols simply had closer proximity to Muslims populations than they ever did Christian or Buddhist, leading to a more thorough conversion than any Franciscan friar could ever accomplish. Similar proximity prompted the slow sinicization of the Mongols in Yuan China.


    While the Mongols disliked certain tenets of Islam, they still found use of it. Islamic craftsmen, administrators and healers were quickly spread across the Mongol Empire, accompanying every Khan and Noyan everywhere from campaigns to their personal camps.

In short order they commanded armies, often of their own locally raised forces, to fight for the khans. The various Islamic peoples of Central Asia, be they Turkic or Iranic, could provide a plethora of skills and manpower the Mongols found useful or themselves lacked. Various Mongol armies, particularly the tamma garrison forces, were stationed in close proximity to Islamic centres for extended periods of time. Mongol princes from the highest ranks of the empire, including Chinggis Khan and his own sons, took Muslim wives and concubines. For the lower ranking soldiers forced to leave their families behind in Mongolia, they took Muslim wives and began new Muslim families which replaced their own. 


    By the reign of Chinggis Khan’s son and successor Ogedai, Muslims made up many of the highest ranking members of the bureaucracy and administration from eastern Iran to Northern China. Some of these men, such as Mahmud Yalavach, his son Mas’ud Beg, and ‘Abd al-Rahman, served as heads of the Branch Secretariats the Mongols established to govern Asia. These men were answerable only to the Great Khan, and held immensely powerful positions.


    The proximity of high ranking Muslims throughout the Mongol government and army in significant numbers made them an influential force. The presence of well educated Islamic jurists in the courts of the Khans is very well attested, and a merchant who showed great fiscal ability could find himself richly rewarded in lucrative ortogh arrangements with Mongol princes, where a  Mongol prince would provide silver and other currencies, taken via conquest, tribute and taxation, to a merchant as a loan, who would then use it for trade, make money and pay back the prince. Sometimes a well connected merchant could even be rewarded with prominent government position once they won the favour of a prince or khan. The Mongol search for whatever skills they saw as useful particularly rewarded Muslims with aptitude in alchemy and astrology. The Khans of the Ilkhanate spent considerable sums of money on the alchemists who claimed to be able to produce gold or prolong life, much to the chagrin of the Ilkhanid vizier and historian Rashid al-Din. Astrologists who could help determine the future or courses of action also received great reward, for the Mongols put great stock in this, as it was a position similar to the occupation of their own shamans.


    With the mention of the shamans, we should give a brief account of the Mongols pre-Islamic religion, and in what ways it helped pave the way for their conversions. Though often dubbed “shamanism,” this is a poor description. Shamans occupied only a part of the Mongol folk religion, which was a series of practices relating to the appeasement and interpretation of spirits which inhabited every part of the natural world. It was the fear of offending these spirits which was behind the Mongols’ own methods of slaughter, refusing to spill blood on the earth, place dirty things into running water or urinate or place knives into fire and ashes. It was the job of shamans to communicate, appease or harness these spirits, and ensure no misfortune befell the family or, after 1206, the Empire. The duties of shamans strictly fell to influencing events within the current life, rather than with a next level of existence. Thus, for the Mongols it was useful to accumulate other holymen who could interact with the supernatural on their behalf beyond what their own shamans did. It also demonstrates why, once they did convert, the Mongols saw it fit to continue to commune with shamans, and makes it so difficult for many to accept the conversion of the Mongols as sincere.


    In fact, as historians like Devin DeWeese or Peter Jackson have thoroughly argued, we are in no place to gauge the authenticity of any Mongol’s conversion. Our vantage point centuries later, and nature of our sources, leaves us unable to actually determine the conviction of each convert, and makes it inappropriate to reduce the story of a given khan’s conversion to simply a matter of political convenience. The Mongols actively selected aspects of sedentary societies which benefitted themselves, and therefore could choose to profess Islam while continuing observe shamanic practices and standard cultural actions, all the while seeing no juxtaposition between this. 


    The earliest conversions of the Mongols or their servants began in the 1230s and 40s. One of the earliest, most prominent figures to convert was not even a Mongol, but a Uyghur named Korguz, Ogedai’s appointment to the new Branch Secretariat of Western Asia, covering Iran and the Caucasus, towards the end of his life. Korguz was one of the most powerful civilian officials in the empire, and his conversion to Islam from Buddhism at the start of the 1240s marked the highest profile convert yet in the Mongol government, though he was killed in 1244 on the order of Ogedai’s widow, the regent Torogene. Batu, shortly before the climactic battle against the Hungarians at Mohi in 1241, certainly had a number of Muslims in his army. According to Juvaini, while preparing for the confrontation Batu ascended a hill to pray to Eternal Blue Heaven, and asked the Muslims in his army to pray for victory as well. It is unclear if they were Muslim troops raised from Central Asia and the steppe, or Mongol converts to Islam in his army. 


    The exact mechanics of conversion are unknown. Though the historical sources like to portray the people following a prominent prince or khan’s conversion, it seems generally that it was the other way around, where the lower ranks converted in enough numbers to make it useful or safe for a prince to convert. For example, one of the primary army units in Mongol expansion and consolidation were the tamma,  a sort of garrison force permanently stationed in a region, made up of a mixed body of nomadic and sedentary troops. The Mongols in these troops were usually forbidden to have their wives and families accompany them. Separated from their homeland, families or local shamans, and taking new, local wives who were generally Muslims, these Mongols were largely removed from the infrastructure that would have encouraged the maintenance of their traditional religion and made them more susceptible to conversion. If not themselves, then their children. Perhaps the best example comes from the tamma commander Baiju, stationed in the Caucasus and Anatolia from the early 1240s until the start of the 1260s. Over the twenty or so years of his career, he appears in a variety of historical accounts, which demonstrate not only the presence of a great number of Muslims in his camp, as advisers, administrators and sufis, but also demonstrate the gradual conversion of his men. By the end of his life, according to sources like the Mamluk encyclopedist al-Nuwayri, Baiju himself became a Muslim and asked to be washed and buried in the Muslim fashion on his death.

    Perhaps the most famous convert though, was Berke. A son of Jochi and grandson of Chinggis Khan, Berke is most well known for his war against his cousin Hulegu over the Caucasus. Conflicting accounts are given for his conversion, with some having him raised a Muslim, while others suggest a conversion in the 1240s, drawn to Islam through the efforts of the sufi Shaykh Sayf al-Din Bakharzi. Certainly by the 1250s Berke was a Muslim, and quite a sincere one: the Franciscan Friar William of Rubruck remarks during his trips through the Jochid territories in 1253 that Berke was a Muslim, and forbid the consumption of pork in his camp. Juvaini reported that meat at Mongke Khaan’s enthronement feast in 1251 was slaughtered in halal fashion out of deference to Berke, and Juzjani in distant Delhi had learned of Berke’s Islam by 1260. Mamluk accounts present him having a Muslim vizier and showing great respect for qadis and other Muslim holymen. Yet, the Mamluk embassy also remarked that Berke still continued to dress and wear his hair in the distinctive Mongolian style, rather than don Islamic clothing. While Berke’s war with Hulegu is often portrayed as his anger over the death of the Caliph, it seems this was a secondary concern to him. His own letter to Sultan Baybars remarks on his anger over Hulegu’s infringement of the yassa of Chinggis Khan, by failing to send Berke loot from Baghdad and Iraq or consult with him. The fact that war began three years after Baghdad’s fall, and that Hulegu occupied Jochid territory in northern Iran and the Caucasus after Mongke’s death, suggests that Berke’s immediate concerns were more strategic than spiritual. Islam for the early converts like Berke was not a change of identity, but an acceptance alongside their existing beliefs and incorporated into a Chinggisid world view. Almost certainly Berke, like his Islamic successors, continued to consult with shamans and the yassa, yet never felt disloyal to the sharia.


    While Berke’s conversion was accompanied by some of his brothers and commanders, it did not precipitate the Islamization of the emerging Golden Horde. Following Berke’s death around 1266, it took some 14 years for another Islamic Khan to sit on the throne of the Jochids. At the start of the 1280s, both the westernmost khanates of the Mongol Empire saw the enthronement of Muslim rulers: Töde-Möngke taking the throne in the Golden Horde between 1280 and 1282,, and from 1282 to 1284 Tegüder Ahmad in the Ilkhanate. Once more, the sources hint that shaykhs and sufis were behind the conversion of both men, and continued to be held in great esteem in both courts. For the Ilkhan Tegüder, who upon his enthronement went by the name of Sultan Ahmad, we have a variety of sources which describe his commitment to Islam, which vary widely and demonstrate why it remains difficult for many to accept the authenticity of the early conversions.


In a letter Tegüder sent to the Mamluk Sultan Qalawun, Tegüder spoke of establishing sharia law in the Ilkhanate, protected pilgrimage routes and built new religious buildings, similar claims to what Töde-Möngke made in his first letter to the Mamluks around similar time. Tegüder argued that based on the fact of their now shared religion it was easier for the Mamluk Sultans to submit to him. Cilician Armenian writers like Het’um of Corycus and Step’annos Orbelian generally portray Tegüder as a prosecutor of Christians. Yet at the same time the Syriac churchman Bar Hebraeus wote of Tegüder as a friend to Christians, an upholder of religious toleration who exempted them from taxation and allowed Hebraeus to build a new church, while the Mamluks were largely skeptical of his conversion.


Ghazan, the great reformer of the Ilkhanate, sought to portray himself as a powerful Muslim monarch and an heir to the defunct ‘Abbasid Caliphate, but also as the first true Muslim Ilkhanate. For this reason, his two predeceassers who were attached to Islam, Tegüder and Baidu, were both denigrated in official accounts from his reign. Ghazan was raised a Buddhist, and only came to Islam a few weeks before his enthronement, urged to convert by his commander Nawruz Noyan and the Shaykh Sadr al-Din al-Hamuwayi during his rebellion against Ilkhan Baidu. While his biographer Rashid al-Din desperately sought to portray Ghazan’s conversion causing his commanders and soldiers to follow suit, it seems almost certain that it was in fact the opposite, and that by converting Ghazan hoped to gain the wavering support of Baidu’s Muslim followers. Ghazan did so successfully, and overthrew Baidu only a few months after he had himself seized the throne. Upon becoming IlKhan, on the instigation of his zealous general Nawruz, Ghazan order the destruction of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Zoroastrian centres in Muslim cities in his empire and imposed the jizya. However, these harsh measures were quickly rescinded by 1297 with the downfall of Nawruz, though Buddhists did not return to the prominence they had previously enjoyed. Ghazan before the end of the 1290s donned a turban and even declared jihad against the Mamluks. Though some Mamluk scholars, none more famous than the jurist and scholar Ibn Taymiyya, were not convinced of Ghazan’s Islam. Outside of Damascus in 1300, Ibn Taymiyya insulted both Ghazan and his vizier, the Jewish convert to Islam Rashid al-Din, of being false Muslims. Ghazan, he stated, continued to worship Chinggis Khan in place of sharia.


The life of Ghazan’s brother and successor Oljeitu demonstrates perhaps the most extreme example of a Mongol prince’s flexible approach to religion. His father Arghun had the young Oljeitu baptized a Nestorian Christian and given the name of Nicholas, supposedly after the Pope Nicholas IV, with whom Arghun was attempting to ally with against the Mamluks. As a teen, he converted to Buddhism, when he took the Buddhist name of Oljeitu. Under the influnece of a wife, he then converted to Sunni islam, taking the name of Muhammad Khudabanda, servant of God, which became the source of rude puns on his name: kharbunda, donkey driver. First he attached himself to the Sunni school of Hanafism, then to Shafi’ism, before frustration with fighting between the schools turned him back to Buddhism, before in 1309 returning to Islam, but this time abandon the Sunnis for Shi’ism. A number of different sources offer explanations for what drove Oljeitu to become a Shi’a, generally focusing on how a various princes, commanders, scholars and others convinced upon Oljeitu the merits of Shi’a Islam. One particularly detailed account has a Shi'a Scholar describe the succession of the first of the Rashidun Caliphs, those accepted in Sunni Islam, to the Prophet Muhammad instead of 'Ali, remarking to Oljeitu it would be as if a non-Chinggisid general were to succeed Chinggis Khan.

According to the Mamluk sources, Oljeitu’s conversion to Shi’ism prompted a series of rebellions across Ilkhanid Iraq. In some accounts, Oljeitu converted back to Sunni Islam shortly before his death in 1316. His son, Abu Sa’id, followed him to the throne, a Sunni Muslim who did not waver in his faith as his father. 


Following Ghazan’s reign from 1295 until 1304, the Ilkhanate became an Islamic state, with the majority of its army and upper echelons converted to Islam.  The process was slower in the Golden Horde and Chagatai Khanate. After Töde-Möngke’s deposition in 1287, the Golden Horde would not have another Muslim monarch until the reign of Özbeg, who took the throne in 1313. It seems he converted shortly after his accession, seemingly to gain the support of influential noyans within the Horde. In legendary accounts Özbeg was converted by a sufi named Baba Tükles, who proved the veracity of his religion when he comfortably survived an oven wearing nothing but chain maille, while the shaman he challenged was burnt to death in his oven. However, Baba Tükles does not enter into accounts of Özbeg’s life until centuries after his death. It seems likely that Özbeg was converted by influential sufi and islamic jurists in his entourage, and the increased islamization of members of military and aristocracy making it a viable political choice to convert as well. To cement his reign and his religion, Özbeg ordered the executions of over a hundred Chinggisid princes and noyans. Other prominent converts, such as Ghazan in the Ilkhanate and Tughluq Temur in the eastern Chagatai Khanate, also carried out large scale purges though none matched those of Özbeg. So extensive was Özbeg’s purge that within a generation, the line of Batu had died out within the Golden Horde. In the Chagatai Khanate, Islamization proceed in stops and starts. In the western half of the Chagatai realm, centered as it was around the trade cities of Transoxania and closer to the Iranian world, islamization went quicker, more or less winning out by the mid 14th century. It would take another century in the eastern half of the Chagatai realm, Moghulistan, where steppe lifestyle maintained greater influence. Not until the reign of Tughluq Temur’s grandson, appropriately named Muhammad Khan, in the fifteenth century did Islam win out most of the remaining holdouts, according to the mid-sixteenth century source of Mirza Haidar Dughlat. For the eastern Chagatais, where the local islamic population was much smaller, there was much less interaction with the faith, and thus it took much longer for the military and the noyans to fully convert, despite the conversion of the Khans themselves.


Still, in policy men like Özbeg, Ghazan and Oljeitu largely matched their forebears in providing taxation exemptions, favours and other privileges to Christians, especially Franciscan missionaries, though on a lesser scale than earlier in the thirteenth century. Their successors, Özbeg’s son Janibeg and Oljeitu’s son Abu Sa’id, proved less welcoming, as even Christians found their privileges revoked. Janibeg ordered his men to dress in the fashion of Muslims, while Abu Sa’id sought to become the protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, one year even sending an elephant there for inexplicable reasons. Still, these monarchs showed themselves to continue in their traditions, such as acts of levirate marriage, that is marrying their father’s wives, something forbidden by Islam.  Islam proved an aspect of these monarch’s identities, but it took many generations in Iran for all elements of Mongol culture and Chinggisid ideology to be driven out, and in the steppes the process, it can be argued, never truly fully replaced the memory of the house of Chinggis Khan. 


    Our series on the Mongols will continue, and we will visit in detail the topic of Mongol religious tolerance very soon, which ties closely to this matter, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast. If you’d like to help us continue to bring you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at Please also consider leaving us a positive review and rating on the podcast catcher of your choice, and sharing us with your friends; each one helps the podcast out alot. This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.