The Mongol Transition to Islam

Hafsa Adil Chughtai




Nomadic warriors, sophisticated weaponry, and brutal tactics: this moderately sums up what the Mongol Empire is widely known for. Their reputation as merciless fighters – who ravaged Muslim lands, levelling entire cities and leaving nothing but death and destruction in their wake – perhaps makes their later conversion to Islam appear somewhat surprising. 

Nomadic Conquerors

Genghiz Khan, son of a Mongol chieftain, was unstoppable even at a young age. He laid the foundations of the largest contiguous empire in history by defeating influential Mongol leaders and uniting the nomadic tribes of north east Asia. Not only did he conquer vast territory, but he also proved to be one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.

Though their reputation implies a sort of unchecked barbarism, the Mongol warriors were true geniuses when it came to military strategy. This was a key factor in their success in conquering vast lands, including the Muslim empires of the day. 

The Mongols moved through the Muslim world, destroying numerous cities in their wake and dismantling four prominent Muslim dynasties in just forty years: the Khwarazmshahs, the Seljuqs, the Ayyubids, and the Abbasids. The Mongol forays into Muslim territory began with the initial campaigns of Genghis Khan and his sons in north eastern Iran between 1219 and 1222, when they reduced many of the most prosperous cities of the region to complete ruins.[1]

While some cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand were granted terms that allowed urban life to continue, others including Merv and Nishapur, were not so fortunate. In Balkh in northern Afghanistan, as elsewhere, Genghis Khan commanded that the population, both men and women, should be put to the sword. 

Juvayni, later a court historian for the Mongols, reported that it took survivors thirteen days and nights to count all of the corpses following the fall of Merv; they reportedly numbered 1.3 million, though this number may be inflated. According to David Morgan, Mongol actions in Central Asia were “an attempted genocide.”[2]

The Mongol Transition to Islam
 From the illuminated manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh.

Even in Bukhara, though not completely massacred, historian Ibn Athir who had visited north eastern Iran in the years before the Mongol invasion, writes, 

It was a dreadful day from the count of weeping by the men, women and children. They were scattered to the four winds and completely torn apart. They divided them women among themselves too. Bukhara became [a waste land], ‘collapsed on its roof timbers’ as though it had not been thronging with people just the day before.”[3]

Stories such as these spread far and wide; tales of their ruthlessness created fear and terror, ensuring that the reputation of the Mongols preceded them.[4] This played a part in the success of their armies, and Genghis Khan himself encouraged it. Ibn Athir records a narrative in which Genghis Khan, upon capturing Bukhara addresses the crowd: 

‘“O people, know that you have committed great sins and that the great ones among you have committed these sins! If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you!” 

In the audience, a man told his friend who wanted to object, 

“Be silent! It is the wind of God’s omnipotence that blows and we have no power to speak.”’[5]

Where other conquerors would likely have spared cities in order to enjoy their revenues, the Mongols chose instead to plunder. They had little respect for places of worship, as the following narrative makes clear:  

“The infidels were even taking the minbars and the Koran containers and throwing them into the moat. Verily we belong to God and to Him to we return. In truth did God call Himself patient and forbearing, otherwise the earth would have swallowed them up when they did such a thing.”[6]

After Genghis

By the time Genghis Khan died in 1227, he had conquered northern China and Iran. Following his death, campaigning resumed in 1236, and Mongol attention was turned towards southern China in the east and Eastern Europe in the west. 

In 1255 Hulagu Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, was charged by the new Mongol ruler to destroy all remaining Muslim powers between Iran and the Mediterranean,[7] leading to the Mongol excursions into Syria and Iraq, and resulting in the fall of Baghdad in 1258. 

The destruction of Baghdad remains a pivotal moment in history, a disaster by any standards. The figure of casualties in the city, though somewhat questionable, is estimated by some sources as between 200,000 and 800,000. The figure included the Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself. 

Havoc was wreaked upon ‘the city of peace’ and along with it, its libraries, containing numerous priceless manuscripts, were destroyed (though some have questioned the accuracy of this latter claim). This is how the 14th-century Persian historian Wassaf described the situation: 

“They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror…beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels were cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged…through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a plaything…as the population died at the hands of the invaders.”[8]

Mongols besieging Baghdad
Mongols besieging Baghdad in 1258.

The Ayyubid capital of Damascus was captured shortly after Baghdad. Only in 1260 did the expansion of the Mongol empire finally come to an end; Hulagu’s army was defeated at the Battle of Ain Jalut, by the Bahri Mamluks, led by Sultan Qutuz.

By now, fractures had long started to appear within the Mongol empire, and had resulted in the creation of various Mongol states (khanates) with widening economic and religious differences between them.[9]Juchi, son of Genghis Khan, and his succeeding sons, were already ruling over the territory known as the Golden Horde, as the western portion of the empire, and while Khubilai, the Great Khan focused his attentions on consolidating China, Hulagu and his successors in Iran and Russia built the Ilkhanid state.[10]

The New Muslims

As fate would have it, from the ashes of the Caliphate, a new Muslim empire would eventually arise, beginning first with the khans of the Golden Horde, and later through the conversion of the Mongols of Persia, the Il-Khans, to Islam. 

Berke Khan, a grandson of Genghiz Khan from his son Juchi, is believed to be the earliest Muslim convert among the Mongols. Berke ruled over the Golden Horde for ten years until his death in 1267. Few sources about his conversion exist, though his courtiers and those closest to him are thought to have converted alongside him and “openly displayed their Muslim identity at court.”[11]

Upon hearing of Hulagu’s destruction of Baghdad, according to the Persian historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani (d.1318), Berke is reported to have said: 

“He has sacked all the cities of the Muslims and, without consulting his kinsmen, has brought about the death of the Caliph. With the help of God I will call him to account for so much innocent blood!”[12]

Following the Mongol defeat at Ain Jalut, Berke struck an alliance first with Mamluk Sultan Qutuz and later, Sultan Baibars. In 1262, the armies of Berke and Hulagu faced each other in battle for the first time, that ultimately led to the fragmentation of the Mongol empire and saw the death of both military leaders in 1265 and 1266 respectively. 

Some historians believe that Berke’s intervention, busying Hulagu with inter-Mongol disputes, prevented him from inflicting the sacred lands of Islam, Mecca, Madina, and Jerusalem with the same fate that was suffered by Baghdad.

The Mongol Transition to Islam
A Mongol prince studying the Quran. From the illuminated manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh.. 14th century.

Berke’s successors Töde-Möngke (1282-1287) and Özbeg (1312-1341), after whom Uzbekistan is named, also converted to Islam, ensuring that the religion was connected with the very foundation of the Golden Horde; “These public and collective conversions were not mere political opportunism, but expressed a new social identity and source of collective solidarity that went beyond the ideological framework of the Chinggisids.”[13]

In the decades following Berke’s initial conversion, three of the four Khanates would convert to Islam under their Muslim rulers at one point or another. 

A direct descendent of Hulagu, Mahmud Ghazan (reigned 1295–1304) of the Il-Khans, was the first to officially declare Islam as the religion of his khanate, compelling other notable leaders to follow his lead. Contact with the Mongol chieftains in China was, by now, lost. 

Ghazan’s formal adoption of the religion took place on 2 Sha‛bān 694/17 June 1295, guided by Shaykh Ṣadr al-Dīn Ibrāhīm Ḥamuwayī.14

The Mongol Transition to Islam
Conversion of Ghazan to Islam.  From the illuminated manuscript of Rashid ad-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh. 14th century.

Although Ghazan was continually at odds with other Muslim dynasties, his patronage of religious scholarship is well-known; historian Rashid al-Din is just one of many scholars who flourished under it. Ghazan also earned the good regard of minorities in his kingdom, allowing them to practice their religion freely.  

The Chagatai Khanate was the third to accept Islam, though it grappled with its identity for some time. Tarmashirin Khan (reigned 1331 AD – 1334 AD), became Muslim much to the chagrin of the Mongol nobles who remained Buddhist and Tengriist. He was eventually murdered following accusations that he had abandoned the Mongol code of conduct. Only under Tughlugh Timur Khan (reigned 1347–1360) did Islam have a more permanent presence in the khanate, following the conversion of Tughligh himself (and it is claimed, some 120,000 Chaghadayid Mongols alongside him).

Unlike the three western khanates, the forth, the Yuan, in modern day China, did not convert to Islam, remaining primarily Buddhist.

Later, in the 15th century, another descendent of Genghis Khan, and a great grandson of the Chagatai Muslim ruler Timir (Tamerlane), would continue the Mongol legacy. Zahir al-Din Babur (1483 – 26) founded the Mughal empire in India, becoming the first emperor of what was to be the last of the world’s major Turco-Mongol dynasties.

The Mongol Transition to Islam
Babur, the first Mughal emperor


Though some have questioned the sincerity with which some Mongol leaders and notables adopted Islam, pointing towards the economic and political benefits they ensured, Peter Jackson reminds us that:

“It is fruitless to write off a conversion of this kind as ‘partial’ or ‘insincere’, since we occupy no vantage point that enables us to judge the wholeheartedness of Mongol rulers who accepted Islam. All too often such judgements are predicated on views of conversion – revolving around a profound inward change – that owe more to Western Christian expectations and experience…”[15]

See also

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Whatever the case, after the fall of Baghdad, few would have predicted that in less than a hundred years, all of the Mongol leaders in the western part of the empire would have accepted Islam, allowing the religion to spread still further east and changing the face of the region forever.


[1]Hugh Kennedy, Mongols, Huns & Vikings (Orion, 2002), 127. 

[2]Quoted in S. Frederick Starr, Lost Entitlement (Princeton University Press, 2015), 465.

[3]Ibn Athir, The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period, trans. D.S. Richards (Ashgate, 2008), 208.  

[4]Kennedy, Mongols, Huns & Vikings, 138.

[5]Ibid. 138. 

[6]Ibn Athir, The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period,208.  

[7]Starr, Lost Enlightenment, 449.

[8]Justin Marozzi Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood (Penguin Books, 2014), 176–177.

[9]Starr, Lost Enlightenment, 454.

[10]Ibid. 449.

[11]Marie Favereau, “Introduction: The Islamisation of the Steppe,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée, Issue 143 (Oct 2018).

[12]Quoted in David Nicolle, The Mongol Warlords, (Firebird Books, 1990), 119. 

[13]Marie Favereau, “Introduction: The Islamisation of the Steppe,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée, Issue 143 (Oct 2018).

[14]Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World, (Yale University Press, 2017), 799.

[15]Ibid. 768




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