How did the Mongols convert to Islam
sehepunkte 14 (2014), No. 9
Reuven Amitai, who holds the Eliyahu Elath Chair for Muslim History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has so far mainly devoted his academic life to researching Mamluk-Mongolian relations from the middle of the 13th to the middle of the 14th century. The historical cornerstones are the victory of the Mamluks against the non-Muslim enemies at Ayn Jalut in 1260 and the peace treaty between the two parties in 1323. The Mongols had since officially converted to Islam. Amitai, who in addition to his groundbreaking monograph "Mongols and Mamluks: The Mamluk-Ilkhanid War, 1260-1281" (Cambridge 1995) has written numerous articles on this topic, now presents a kind of interim conclusion. It is the transcription of four consecutive lectures that he gave at the beginning of 2007 in Paris at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.
The author provides a very convincing picture of the varied relationships between the two great empires. He focuses on four central aspects: (1) the military conflict, (2) and (3) the legitimation of rule before and after the conversion of the Mongols to the Muslim faith and (4) the relationship between the two Turkish-Mongolian elites and their respective one social environment.
The long Mamluk-Mongolian war with the regular campaigns of the Ilkhane to Syria (1281, 1299, 1300, 1303 and 1312-13) and the equally continuous incursions of Mamluk troops into Mongolian territory determined the events. Here, according to Amitai, in addition to dealing with military matters (logistics, combat technology, army strength, composition of the armed forces), the main question is why the Mamluks usually emerged victorious from the clashes. The author comes to the plausible conclusion that for the Mongols the Syrian front represented only one of many battle zones, whereas the Mamluks could focus on this one challenge.
In the second part of his book, the author deals with the ideologies formulated on both sides in the course of the conflict up to the end of the 13th century - i.e. before the conversion of the Mongol ruler Ghazan (d. 1304) - to secure their own claims to power in society to defame the opponent. Ultimately, the Mongols continued to invoke Heaven's mandate to subdue the world and to fight anyone who did not surrender to the desired effect. That was of course also or especially true of the insubordinate Mamluks. Amitai proposes with good arguments that this strategy of justification should be understood as a "holy war" as well as the jihad officially declared on the other side. The Mamluks naturally saw themselves as the defenders of Islam and all Muslims against the armies of polytheistic infidels who not only waged war against the Islamic countries, but above all had conquered Baghdad and murdered the caliph. The Mamluk rulers were given additional legitimation by the fact that a descendant of the last caliph had settled in Cairo as the nominal head of the Sunnis and thus established a kind of successor caliphate. The Mamluk sultans allowed him to transfer secular rule to them at every change of government in an official ceremony.
After Ghazan converted to Islam in 1299, a new rhetoric was needed to further legitimize Mongol rule in Iran. Interestingly, the Mongols largely retained their traditional argumentation patterns, only that they now dressed them in Islamic garb. Although Ghazan was staged as a model Muslim ruler and presented in a narrative, the claim to world domination was retained. Since attacks on other Muslim areas always required a special justification, since the actual jihad is primarily directed against non-Islamic regions, the Mamluks were portrayed as corrupt and criminal upstart of unclear origins and origins, who should eliminate it and through to replace a truly Islamic rule. The Mamluks, for their part, challenged the conversion of the Mongol ruler and his entourage and accused the opponents of opportunism and dishonest motives. The well-known scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), who publicly denounced the suspicious nature of Mongolian Islam on the basis of fatwas, played a special role in this polemical dispute. The Mamluks did not surrender without a fight, but celebrated a great military success at Marj as-Suffar in 1303. In this section, Amitai briefly devotes himself to the following Mamluk-Ilkhanid peace process and the political relations of the new partners up to the dissolution of the Ilkhanate in 1335.
The last of the four revised lectures then has a different topic as its subject. Amitai explores the question of how the two power elites from Central Asia "sold" their rule to the non-Mongolian and non-Mamluk population. Since their establishment in the middle of the 13th century, the Mamluks have of course, as already mentioned, been able to portray themselves as the victorious defenders of Islam against the Mongolian hordes. In addition, they came to terms with the religious scholars, who profited amply from their patronage and the numerous educational institutions they founded. The Mongols, on the other hand, did basically nothing for a long time to receive appreciative support from the people and groups they ruled. It seems that they had more to do with legitimizing themselves internally to the Turkic-Mongolian tribes. Only after switching to Islam did they begin to present themselves to the Iranian-Muslim population as ideal-typical rulers. With this behavior they are in line with their predecessors, the Seljuks, who had made a similar ideological about-face 200 years earlier.
All in all, Reuven Amitai has presented an excellent synthesis of his many years of expertise on Mamluk-Ilkhanid relations that deserves many readers!
Reuven Amitai: Holy War and Rapprochement. Studies in the Relations between the Mamluk Sultanate and the Mongol Ilkhanate (1260-1335) (= Miroir de l'Orient Musulman; 4), Turnhout: Brepols 2013, 149 pp., ISBN 978-2-503-53152-6, EUR 40.00
Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, Bonn
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