Conversion Versions: Making the Mongols Muslim

This panel examines four aspects of the interaction between Mongol dynastic figures and various markers of Islamic culture and identity to show how both were transformed in the long process of rapprochement between a strongly rooted, if heterogenous, cultural formation and a new ruling elite. The first pair of papers brings new perspectives to the conversion to Islam by two members of the Chinggisid family in the year 1295. “From convert to Mahdi” compares two accounts of the Ilkhan Ghazan Khan’s conversion to show how it became increasingly identified with pre-Mongol traditions of polemical literature in the Middle East. Rather than focusing on the personal aspect of conversion or trying to answer the intractable question of how it fit within the broader islamization of the Ilkhanate, this paper looks to the rhetorical value of the conversion in the developing debate between Mongols and Mamluks over their roles as protectors and promoters of Islam. “Conversion to Islam in Mongol-ruled Hexi,” offers a sophisticated analysis of the motivations and impacts of the less well-known conversion of a member of the Yuan dynasty of China. This paper uses textual evidence from both ends of the empire as well as archaeological data to examine not only the conversion itself, but also its long-term impact on regional society. The last two papers turn from the religious conversion of Mongol rulers to discuss how the rhetoric of dynastic legitimacy developed in Iran during the fourteenth century. “Rashīd al-Dīn’s history of Oghuz” looks at the use of heroic epic cycles in the Jāmi ʿ al-tawārīkh to integrate the Mongols not only into the Islamic religious space, but into more secular literary traditions with reflections across Eurasia. Finally, “The ‘Ilkhanid legacy’ and the re-imagining of dynastic rulership” flips the scales, making the Mongol legacy the “source” from which later dynasties drew for cultural and political legitimacy. By examining the rhetorical and ideological exchange between Shaykh Uvays and Qara Yusuf, this paper offers a discussion of how the memory of the Mongols became an enduring part of the Perso-Islamic political landscape.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Stefan Kamola
Princeton University


Judith Pfeiffer


Charles Melville
Cambridge University


by Jonathan Brack / University of Michigan

A distinct account of the Mongols’ conversion to Islam is found in a threatening letter addressed by Ghazan Khan to the Mamluk commanders of Syria after the Ilkhanid victory of 699/1299. The text states that since the age of the Prophet whenever degeneration appears in Muslim religion and law, God brings forth an individual from among the powerful to strengthen Islam and rebuke the people. The letter blames the Mamluks’ tyranny for the recent decay arguing that, in response, God had ordained the miraculous conversion of Chinggis Khan’s descendants, who are given the task of restoring justice, fighting polytheists and commanding right. The letter interestingly echoes another conversion narrative in the histories of the Ilkhanid vizier Rashid al-Din and the court poet Banakati that too situates the Mongols’ conversion within a broader Islamic cyclical salvation history. Here, Ghazan converts to Islam upon hearing from the amir Nawruz that he will be the prophesized “reviver king,” who will restore utopian justice and rejuvenate Islam.

The paper starts by considering each account separately. I argue that the letter is structured similarly to anti-‘Abbasid moral apocalypses, with the Mamluks filling the role of the apocalyptic tyrants and Ghazan the anticipated restorer of justice, or, Mahdi, in the cycle of prophetic revelation, corruption and renewal. In the case of the account in Rashid al-Din’s and Banakati’s histories, I focus on the role of the “kingmaker” amir Nawruz as a herald of Ghazan’s revivalist role in an Islamic salvation narrative. I suggest that this conversion account originated in efforts to appropriate amir Nawruz’s charisma as a “Mahdi like” reformer after his execution, in order to resolve the Ilkhan’s own crisis of legitimacy. The paper continues by tracing later transitions in the image of Ghazan, from a “reviver king” and Mahdi to a new type of centennial religious renewers, a “Mujaddid-king.” The study argues that the two alternative conversion accounts alongside with the later “mythization” of the figure of Ghazan indicate a broader move, not only towards a providential interpretation of Mongol rule as a realization of a divine plan to “renew” Islam, but also towards the cultivation of the image of the Ilkhans as domesticated “Stranger Kings,” a concept formed by Marshall Sahlins, who enjoy both opposing and complementary binary forms of authority and legitimacy, namely, indigenous and foreign, internal and external, or in this case, Islamic and Mongol.

by Vered Shurany / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Prince Ananda 阿难答 (d. 1307), Qubilai Khan's grandson, ruled the Anxi province and headed the Yuan garrison in the Hexi region (modern Gansu and Ningxia). The region was formerly under the rule of the Buddhist Xi Xia dynasty (1038-1227). Ananda was born a Buddhist; he had a Korean Buddhist wife and moreover, maintained a close relationship with a Buddhist monk, whom he had summoned to Anxi, probably for the service of his wife. However, according to the sources, in 1295 Ananda embraced Islam influenced by his Turkestani wet nurse among others. Ananda's conversion allegedly led to the conversion to Islam of about 150,000 soldiers, the majority of his troops. Furthermore, in the long run, the region, over which he ruled, is to this day one of the centers of the Chinese Muslims (the Hui). My paper examines the reasons for Ananda's conversion and its impact on this primarily Buddhist region. It highlights the influence of the pre-Mongol Muslim community as well as the forced and voluntary migrations of Muslims during the United Mongol Empire period on the Hexi region. I further examine what role, if any, the concurrent conversion of Ghazan Khan, ruler of the Mongol state in Iran (the Ilkhanate), played in Ananda's Islamization and how Ananda’s new religious identity affected his chances of gaining the Yuan throne after the death of the Yuan Emperor Temür Oljeitu in 1307. These questions will be addressed on the basis of a close reading of Chinese and Persian sources as well as on archaeological studies.

by Stefan Kamola / Princeton University

The Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh of Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1318) has been praised as an early example of “world history” by virtue of including, in addition to the famous dynastic history of the Mongols, a series of summary histories of other peoples from across Eurasia. One of these histories is the earliest extant lengthy prose elaboration of the cycle of legends concerning Oghuz Khan and his descendents. These stories, later known as the “Oghuznāma,” provide an etiology for the tribes of Oghuz Turks that occupied the western Eurasian steppe and that, under the leadership of the Saljuqs, had entered the Middle East two centuries before the Mongols. Rashīd al-Dīn’s version of the Oghuznāma has been recognized as the source for later Turcoman tribal identifications and, for this reason, has been extensively studied as an important document in the formation of western Turkic social organization. Karl Jahn went so far as to see in Rashīd al-Dīn’s work the first attempt at a unified history of the Turkic peoples. However, the location of the Oghuznāma within the Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh and its relationship to the Mongol dynastic history suggest that it was meant to be read as far more than simply a history of the Oghuz Turkic tribes. This paper examines the Oghuznāma of Rashīd al-Dīn as it pertains to its author’s project of legitimizing the Mongol Ilkhans within the Middle East. By comparing this account to other early reflections of the life of Oghuz, this paper shows how Rashīd al-Dīn deploys Central Asian and Middle Eastern historical traditions in the service of Mongol political ideology. In particular, Rashīd al-Dīn associates the literary tradition surrounding Oghuz Khan and Alexander the Great with the historical conquests of Genghis Khan and Hülegü to bolster Ilkhanid claims to sovereignty over and against those of the Mamlūks of Egypt and the Jochid Khanate of Kipchak.

by Patrick Wing / University of Redlands

This paper examines the appropriation of Ilkhanid rhetoric and symbolism by post-Chinggisid rulers in Iran in the 14th and early 15th centuries. Although the end of the Ilkhanate is generally understood to have occurred in 1335 with the end of the Chinggisid line, the notion of the Ilkhanid political tradition continued, and became a powerful ideological concept by which contenders for power sought to create a prestigious political identity.
Specifically, the paper focuses on the ways in which the Jalayirid ruler Shaykh Uvays (d. 1374) and the Qara Quyunlu ruler Qara Yusuf (d. 1420) deployed notions of legitimate political authority developed during the Ilkhanid period by figures such as Rashid al-Din in order to connect themselves and their families to the (usefully) vague notion of a Ilkhanid legacy. Because the Jalayirids and Qara Quyunlu Turkmans were not Chinggisids, the nature of the connection between both Shaykh Uvays and Qara Yusuf to the Mongol past could not be genealogical. Instead, the connection rested upon a quite broader formulation of the Ilkhanid ulus as a geo-ideological concept, which could be distinct from the Chinggisid family, provided it was in the hands of a ruler who could uphold the political and religious traditions of the Ilkhanate. What these traditions were was of course open to a degree of interpretation, and thus served as an attractive notion for members of the political elite who were non-Chinggisids, but who also hoped to convert the Ilkhanid patrimony into their own dynastic possession. Such a formulation of ideology required ingenuity, literary subtlety, and a rich understanding of the earlier generations of Ilkhanid historical writing by those who served these rulers, and who had a great deal to gain by connecting their patrons, and thus, their own fortunes, to the power and glory of the Ilkhanate.
The “conversion” dealt with here is thus not a religious one, but a transferal of political legitimacy from one dynastic tradition to another, mediated by a re-imagining of the essential features of the Ilkhanate by those rulers and men of the pen who would rule post-Chinggisid Iran.