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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Sep 13, 2021

One of the most enduring images of the Mongolian Empire is that it was a model of religious tolerance, one where each of the Khan’s subjects were free to worship as they pleased. This is not a new belief;  in the 18th century, Edward Gibbon presented Chinggis Khan as a forerunner of the enlightenment, and for modern audiences the notion was repopularized with Jack Weatherford’s book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. Some use the notion to counter the common presentations of Mongol brutality, usually accompanying blanket terms that all religious clergy were exempted from taxation, labour and were respected- or go as far as to present the Mongols as the inspiration for modern liberal religious toleration. While there is an element of truth to be had here, as with so much relating to the Mongols, describing the Chinggisid empire as a state of religious tolerance where all religions east and west lived in harmony fails to capture the reality of the period.


    Even before the founding of the empire, Chinggis Khan interacted with a variety of religions. During his war to unify Mongolia, Chinggis Khan was supported by men of various religious backgrounds: Mongolian shamanist-animists, Nestorian Christians, Buddhists and Muslims, one of whom, Jafar Khoja, was supposedly a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and stood with him at the muddy waters of Lake Baljuna during one of his lowest moments. The most prominent tribes in the Mongolian steppe in the 12th century were Nestorian Christians such as the Kereyid and Naiman, and on the declaration of the Mongol Empire in 1206 Chinggis Khan’s army and administration were quite mixed. Chinggis Khan himself was an animist: in Mongolian belief, all things in the world were inhabited by spirits which had to be consulted and placated. It was the job of shamans to intercede with these spirits on the Mongols’ behalf. Generally, shamanism is not an exclusive religion; one can consult a shaman and still practice other faiths. The shaman was not like a Christian priest or Islamic imam, but a professional one could consult with regardless of other religious affiliation. The persuasion and power of religion in the Mongol steppe  came from the charisma of specific holy men -such as shamans- and their power to convene with spirits and Heaven on the Khan’s behalf in order to secure his victory. 


    This seems to have been the guiding principle for how Chinggis Khan, and most of his successors, approached religion. Some Mongols viewed the major religions they encountered -Daoism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam- as all praying to the same God via different methods. This was more or less the statement that in the 1250s, Chinggis’ grandson Mongke Khaan provided to the Franciscan friar William of Rubruck during an interview, stating that “We Mongols believe that there is only one God through whom we have life and through whom we die, and towards him we direct our hearts [...] But just as God has given the hand several fingers, so he has given mankind several paths.”


    Usually for the Khans, it did not matter who was right, as basically all of the major religions were. What mattered was that these religions should pray to God on behalf of the Chinggisids to ensure divine favour for their rule. Heaven’s will was manifested through victories and rulership, while it’s displeasure manifested in defeats and anarchy. Much like the concept of the Chinese Mandate of Heaven, the right to rule provided by heaven could be rescinded, and thus the Mongols hoped to continually appease Heaven.


    But the Mongols’ views on religion were not static and took years to develop into their political theology- and nor were they inherently tolerant, and favours were allotted more on a personal basis. For example, in 1214 Chinggis Khan, or one of his sons, had an encounter with a Buddhist monk named Haiyun. Haiyun, with his head shaved bare in accordance with his role as a monk, was told by the Khan to grow his hair out and braid it in Mongolian fashion- for at that time, the Mongols were attempting to order the general population of north China to do so as a sign of their political subordination.  Religions in China dictated how one should maintain their hair; Buddhist monks had to shave their heads, Daoist monks could keep their hair long, while the general Chinese population, on Confucian teaching, could not cut their hair in adulthood, as it was a gift from the parents, and thus was kept in topknots. Demanding that the general population adopt the unique, partly shaved Mongolian hairstyle, was therefore a decree against all of China’s major religions. The Mongols did not succeed in this policy and soon abandoned it’s implementation on its sedentary subjects, though other sources indicate it was enforced on nomadic Turkic tribes who entered Mongol service, indicating their submission to the Great Khan. Notably the Manchu would successfully implement such a policy after their conquest of China 400 years later, forcing the population to adopt the long queues at the back of the head. When the Chinese revolted against Manchu rule, the cutting of the queue was one of the clearest signs of rejecting the Qing Dynasty.


Back to the Buddhist monk Haiyun, who Chinggis had ordered to grow out his hair in Mongol fashion. Haiyun told Chinggis that he could not adopt the Mongol hairstyle, as growing his hair out violated his duty as a monk. Learning this, Chinggis Khan allowed Haiyun to maintain his baldness, then in time extended this allowance to all Buddhist and Daoist clergy.  Even with this first privilege, Haiyun and his master did not receive coveted tax exempt status until 1219, and then on the recommendation of Chinggis’ viceroy in North China, Mukhali. This is the earliest indication of Chinggis Khan granting of such a favour, followed soon by the extensive privileges granted to the Daoist master Qiu Chuji. The Daoist had made the journey from North China to meet Chinggis Khan in Afghanistan on the Khan’s urging, ordered to bring Chinggis the secret to eternal life, as the Mongols had been told Qiu Chuji was 300 years old. Master Qiu Chuji told Chinggis that not only did he not have such power, but Chinggis should also abstain from hunting and sexual activity. Not surprisingly, Chinggis Khan did not take this advice, but he did grant the man extensive privileges, tax exempt status and authority over all Daoists in China. Importantly, Chinggis’ edict was directed personally at Qiu Chuji and his disciples, rather than Daoism as a whole. The value Qiu Chuji had to Chinggis was on his individual religious charisma and ability to intercede with the heavens on the Khan’s behalf, as well as his many followers who could be induced to accept Mongol rule. In Chinggis’ view, the fact that Qiu Chuji was a Daoist leader did not entitle him to privileges. Neither did the Mongols initially differentiate between Buddhism and Daoism. In part due to the vaguely worded nature of Chinggis’ edicts, Qiu Chuji’s Daoist followers used these decrees to exert authority over Buddhists as well, seizing Buddhist temples and forcing Buddhist monks to become Daoists, beginning a Buddhist-Daoist conflict that lasted the rest of the 13th century.


    The point of these anecdotes is to demonstrate that the conquests did not begin with a specific policy of general religious tolerance or support for local religious institutions. Governmental support and privilege was provided on an ad hoc basis, especially when a group or individual was seen as influential with the almighty. Toleration itself was also advertised as a tool; in the Qara-Khitai Empire, in what is now eastern Kazakhstan and northwestern China, an enemy of Chinggis Khan, prince Kuchlug of the Naiman tribe, had fled to Qara-Khitai and eventually usurped power. Originally an Eastern Christian, that is a Nestorian, in Qara-Khitai Kuchlug converted to a violent strang of Buddhism and began to force the Muslim clerics, particularly in the Tarim Basin, to convert to Chrisitanity or Buddhism on pain of death. When Chinggis Khan’s forces under Jebe Noyan arrived in 1217 pursuing the prince, they recognized the general resentment against Kuchlug and, in order to undermine his support, declared that anyone who submitted to the Mongols would be free to practice their religion. The announcement worked well, as the empire was quickly and successfully turned over to the Mongols, and the renegade prince Kuchlug cornered and killed. Notably, this announcement did not come with statements of privileges or tax exemptions at large for the Islamic religious leaders. It was a decree spread to deliberately encourage the dissolution of the Qara-Khitai and ease the Mongol conquest- in this region, it was a comparatively peaceful conquest, by Mongol standards. But it was not coming from any specific high-mindedness for the treatment of religion, but an intention to expand into this territory and defeat the fleeing Kuchlug.


    By the reign of Chinggis’ son Ogedai in the early 1230s, the Mongol stance towards religions became more solidified. A major advancement, on the insistence of advisers like the Buddhist Khitan scholar Yelu Chucai, was that privileges were to be granted on religious communities and institutions rather than based on individual charisma, which made them easier to regulate and manage. Chucai also impressed upon the Mongols that Buddhism and Daoism were distinct beliefs, though the Mongols seem to have often continually erroneously thought both creeds worshipped a supreme deity a la Christianity and Islam. Buddhist and Daoism became, alongside Christianity and Islam, the four main “foreign religions” which the Mongols would issue edicts regarding privileges. It was not an evenly applied thing. With Islam, for instance, it can be said the Mongols often had the greatest difficulties. For one thing, the rapid annihilation of the Khwarezmian empire, the world’s single most powerful islamic state at the time, resulted in the deaths of perhaps millions of Muslims as well as the belief that the Mongols were a punishment sent by God- a belief the Mongols encouraged. The reduction of Islam from “the state religion” to “just another religion of the Khan’s subjects,” was a difficult one for many an imam and qadi to accept. For a universalist religion like Islam, subjugation to a pagan entity was a difficult pill to swallow, and the destruction of cities, mosques, agriculture and vast swathes of the population would not have been eased by statements of how tolerant the Mongols supposedly were. 


    Further, it is apparent that the Mongols' rule for the first decade or two of their interaction with the Islamic world was not tolerant. Part of this comes to an inherent conflict between the sharia law of Islam, and the yassa of Chinggis Khan. The yassa and yosun of Chinggis Khan were his laws and customs set out to provide a framework for Mongol life, which regulated interactions for the state, individuals, the environment, the spirits and the heavenly. As a part of this, it was decreed that animals had to be slaughtered in the Mongolian fashion; the animal usually knocked unconscious, turned onto its back, an incision made in the chest and its heart crushed. The intention was to prevent the spilling of the animals’ blood needlessly upon the earth, which could beget misfortune. Contravening this was forbidden and punishable by death. The problem was that this is inherently conflicting with halal and kosher slaughter, which entailed slitting the throat and draining the blood. At various times over the thirteenth century, this was used as an excuse to punish and lead reprisals against Muslims. A number of Persian language sources assert that Ogedai Khaan’s brother Chagatai was a harsh enforcer of the yassa on the empire’s Muslim population. In the 1250s ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini asserted that Muslims in Central Asia were unable to make any halal killings due to Chagatai, and were forced to eat carrion from the side of the road. The Khwarezmian refugee Juzjani meanwhile said Chagatai planned a genocide of the Muslims. While these sources like to depict Chagatai as a foil to Ogedai’s more ‘friendly to islam’ image, it remains clear that for many Muslims, it was felt that the Mongol government had a particular hatred for them. But Chagatai was not the only one to enforce this. Ogedai himself briefly sought to enforce this rule, and the famous Khubilai Khan grew increasingly unfriendly to religion in his old age, and in the 1280s launched anti-muslim policies, banning halal slaughter and circumcision on pain of death. The incident which apparently set him off was a refusal of Muslim merchants in Khubilai’s court to eat meat prepared in the Mongolian manner, though it may also have been an attempt to appease some of the Chinese elite by appearing to reduce Islamic and Central Asian influence in his government, particularly after the assassination of Khubilai’s corrupt finance minister Ahmad Fanakati. 


    Even Daoism, favoured early by the Mongols thanks to the meeting of Qiu Chuji and Chinggis Khan, suffered stiff reprisals from the Mongol government. As the conflict between the Daoists and Buddhists escalated, in the 1250s on the behest of his brother Mongke Khaan, prince Khubilai headed a debate between representatives of the two orders. Khubilai, inclined to Buddhism on the influence of his wife and personal conversion, chose the Buddhists as the winners. Declaring a number of Daoist texts forgeries, Khubilai ordered many to be destroyed and banned from circulation, while also reducing their privileges. This failed to abate the tensions, and in the 1280s an older, less patient Khubilai responded with the destruction of all but one Daoist text, Lau Zi’s Daodejing, and with murder, mutilation and exile for the offending Daoists.


    Privileges only extended to religions the Mongols saw as useful, or offered evidence that they had support from heaven. Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheism and Hinduism were usually totally ignored by the Mongols and did not receive the same privileges as the Christian, Buddhist, Daoist and Islamic clergy. Judaism may have received tax exemption status in the Ilkhanate for a brief period in the 1280s  and 90s due to the influence of a Jewish vizier, Sa’d al-Dawla, while in the Yuan Dynasty it took until 1330 for Judaism to earn such a status. As these religions lacked states which interacted with the Mongols, the Mongols saw these religions as having no power from heaven, and were therefore useless to them. Without any political clout, and of small representation within the Empire, these groups largely escaped the notice of the Khans.


    The Mongols were also not above ordering the annihilation of a religion or religious groups when they defied them. The most well known case was a Shi’ite sect, the Nizari Ismailis, better known as the Assassins. Due to their resistance against the Mongol advance, the sect was singled out for destruction not just politically, but religiously, as Mongke Khaan had become convinced of this necessity by his more orthodox Islamic advisers. This task fell to his brother Hulegu, who enacted his brother’s will thoroughly. Soon after the destruction of the Ismaili fortresses, which was lauded by Hulegu’s Sunni Muslim biographer ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini,  Hulegu famously sacked Baghdad and killed the Caliph in 1258. Juvaini’s chronicle, perhaps coincidentally, cuts off just before the siege of Baghdad. This attack on Baghdad was not religiously motivated; the Caliph had refused to accept Mongol authority. As a seemingly powerful head of a religion, his independence could not be abided. It was not a specifically anti-Islamic sentiment here, but a political one. Had the Mongols marched on Rome and the Pope also refused their mandate, such a fate would have awaited him as well. The presence of Christians in Hulegu’s army, many from the Kingdom of Georgia and Cilician Armenia who partook with great enthusiasm in the slaughter of Muslims on Hulegu’s request at Baghdad and in his campaign into Syria, as well as the fact that Hulegu’s mother and chief wife were Chrisitans, would not have been lost on many Muslims, as well as the fact that Hulegu himself was a Buddhist.  Hulegu after the conquest of Baghdad ordered its rebuilding, but placed a Shi’ite Muslim in charge of this task and sponsored the restoration of Christian churches and monasteries, and other minority religions in his majority sunni-islam territories.

    When the Mongols did convert to the local religions, they were not above carrying out with zeal assaults on other religious communities in their empire. Such was the case for Khans like Ozbeg in the Golden Horde or Ghazan in the Ilkhanate, who converted to Islam and struck against Christian, Buddhist and shamanic elements in their realms. These were as a rule very brief rounds of zealousness, as the economic usage of these groups and the uneven conversion of their followers to Islam made it politically and economically more useful to abandon these measures. 


    This is not to say of course, that there is no basis for the idea of Mongol religious tolerance, especially when compared to some contemporary states: just that when the favours, privileges and state support were granted, they were usually done to the four main religious groups the Mongols designated: again, Muslims, Christians, Daoists and Buddhists. So entrenched did these groups become as the “favoured religions” that in the Yuan Dynasty by the 14th century it was believed these four groups had been singled out by Chinggis Khan for their favours. This is despite the fact that Chinggis Khan had no recorded interactions with any Christian holymen.


But not idly should we dismiss the notion of there being a certain level of religious toleration among the Mongols. Not without reason was Ogedai Khaan portrayed as friendly in many Islamic sources, and he regularly gave the most powerful positions in the administration of North China to Muslims.  European travellers among the Mongols, such as John De Plano Carpini, Marco Polo and Simon of St. Quentin, along with Persian bureaucrats like ‘Ala al-Din Juvaini and the Syriac Churchman Bar Hebraeus, generally reported Mongol indifference to what religions were practiced by their subjects, as long as said subjects accepted Mongol command. Sorqaqtani Beki, the mother of Mongke and Khubilai, was a Nestorian Christian famous for patronizing and supporting mosques and madrassas. Mongke Khaan held feasts to mark the end of Ramadan where he would distribute alms and at least one such feast held in Qaraqorum, listened to a qadi deliver a sermon. He show respect to his Muslim cousin Berke, and for him had halal meat at one imperial banquet. If the yassa of Chinggis Khan was upheld thoroughly, then the Khans and all princes present would have been executed. In the four level racial hierarchy Khubilai Khan instituted in China, Muslims and Central Asians were second only to Mongols and nomads, and ranked above all Chinese peoples.


 Religious men visiting the Khans usually left with the belief that the Khan was about to convert to their religion, so favourably had they been received. Khubilai Khan asked Marco Polo’s father and uncle to bring him back  100 Catholic priests and holy oil from Jerusalem, and likely sent the Nestorian Rabban bar Sauma to Jerusalem for similar purposes. Marco Polo then goes on to present Khubilai as a good Christian monarch in all but name. Qaraqorum, the Mongol imperial capital, held Daoist and Buddhist temples across the street from Mosques and Churches. In Khubilai’s capital of Dadu and the Ilkhanid capital of Sultaniyya were Catholic archbishoprics by the early 14th century. So there certainly was a level of toleration within the Mongol Empire that contemporaries, with wonder or frustration, could remark truthfully that it was quite different from their own homelands. 


Such religious syncretism survived well into the century, when claimants to the fragmenting successor Khanates in western Asia, in order to define their legitimacy amongst the largely converted Mongol armies and stand out amongst the many Chinggisids, latched onto Islamic identities. Eager to prove their sincerity, they pushed back violently against even traditional Mongol shamanism. Despite it’s early difficulties, in the end Islam largely won amongst the Mongols of the western half of the empire and their descendants, overcoming the brief revitalization Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism had enjoyed thanks to Mongol patronage. Such was the final outcome of the Mongols’ religious toleration

    Our series on the Mongols will continue, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this, and would like to help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on patreon at, or sharing this with your friends. 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.