From Convert to Mahdi: Ghazan Khan’s Alternative Conversion Narratives

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.