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.
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.