How to Rule the Biggest Empire in History: The Mongols on Inter-faith Dialogue

Mongols treated the faiths of other nationalities with great tolerance, helping them rule a wide territory.

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You might have heard of this name before– Khan. It could be your friend from some Eurasian origin. Or you probably heard of Genghis Khan in history class, the first name that would come to us when we hear “Mongolia.”

We know very little of how he and his people ruled half the world, not to mention that his name is actually more appropriately spelled as “Chinggis Khan.” But we do know that through his leadership, the Mongols ruled the biggest empire in history – one that stretched from the Sea of Japan to the Carpathian Mountains.

Many will have their say about imperialism and its ways; there are those horrific and inhumane stories of course, but whatever version of his-story we hold in our hands, there is always something to learn from every civilization that has gone before us.

Alhamdulillah, through my engagements with UN YAP in Mongolia, I was recently able to travel the country and re-visit this oft-forgotten trail of history.

 

So how exactly did the Mongols change the map of the world?

mongol map

Source: Mr Yankee’s World History Class

1. Don’t impose your beliefs on others.

Me and my Mongolian Buddhist friend Bella, at the Chinggis Khan square, with the “Eternal Leader” behind us.

Me and my Mongolian Buddhist friend Bella, at the Chinggis Khan square, with the “Eternal Leader” behind us.

Despite earlier stories of immortalising Mongol leaders, one thing that I picked up from the reign of Kublai Khan was how he did not impose Shaminism, the native religion, to an already diversified Asia. This sounds a lot like the ayat from Surat Al Kafiroon: “To you your religion and to me mine.”

Historians have affirmed that the Mongols did treat with great tolerance, the faiths of any nationality that helped them rule a country. According to Sister Fatima, a local tour guide who happened to be a Muslim, the capital Karakorum was once one of the greatest cultural, religious and political centres of the world. It had one Buddhist lamasery, two mosques, one Christian church and twelve temples of other religions, each with their own centres of governance.

Marco Polo reported this interesting quote from Khublai Khan, who was said to celebrate the festivities of all religions that were under his rule:

“There are prophets who are worshipped and to whom overrides does reverence. The Christians say their God was Jesus Christ. For the Saracens (generic term for Muslims widely used among Christian writers in Europe during the later medieval era), Mohammed; the Jews, Moses; and the idolaters Sakamuni Borhan (Buddha); and I do honor and revere all for that is to him who is the greatest in heaven and more true, to him I pray to help me.”

Another interesting quote from Munkh Khan which was relayed to Rubruck, a French missionary:

“Though we, the Mongols, believe in the existence of only one god (Burhan), but like Burhan made the fingers of a man in different shape, different were the paths he showed to people. God offered you his teachings and you are not following them. He allotted us with healers and soothsaying magicians. We will live in this world following their instructions.”

Although there was one religion that did not get the support of the Mongols – Daoism, it was due to political reasons, while the Daoist monks were in constant conflicts with the Buddhist monks whom the Mongols had close affinity with.

 

2. Put in power the best leaders – regardless of race, religion, or family.

Under Yasa, the Mongol Code of Dignity, Honor and Excellence, chiefs and generals were selected based on merit.

Tibetan Buddhists and Persian Muslims were recruited to help rule China because they cannot solely rely on the locals to lead. This lead to the rise of the many Buddhist monasteries and mosques in the country.

Additionally, Muslims were given extraordinary job opportunities by the Mongols such as tax collectors and administrators. Persian astronomers and doctors were sent all the way to China to cultivate its sciences.  During the 13th century, the Uyghur Turks also submitted peacefully to the Mongols and assumed key political positions.

Nestorian Christianity was also present during the empire, while Kubali Khan’s mother adhered to it. And although there is little information about the Jews, they were also allowed to worship, engage in commerce, and hold positions in office and the army. In fact, one Jewish journal amusingly narrates that Jews and Muslims were closely associated with each other in that era, given the shared belief in One God and similar eating habits which made it difficult for the Mongols to distinguish them from each other.

 

3. Seek for co-existence and peace.

Kotwich, a Polish scientist, described Mongol religious policy as one of the first historical initiatives for world peace.  Not to mention, the Mongols ruled with justice. Legend says that a woman carrying a sack of gold can travel safely from one end of the empire to another. The New World Encyclopedia describes a particular point in history where “the Mongols brought peace, stability, and unity to large tracts of the known world.”

Religious tolerance was practiced remarkably, at a time when conformity to religious doctrine was enforced in Europe. The absence of religious persecution proved to be good military strategy. When Genghis Khan was fighting against Sultan Muhammad of Khwarezm, other Islamic leaders did not join forces, whilst it was seen as a non-holy war between 2 people.

 

 

While this topic can be historically debatable, let this serve as a simple reminder that a multi-cultural society was, and is, possible.

Personally, this struck me as a kind of leadership that we hear of the earlier leaders of the ummah (Read on: Muslim Spain in Andulasia). One of the legacies of the Prophet himself was the Medina Constitution. In his book The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, Dr. John Andrew Morrow wrote:

“The Prophet recognized that there were nations and peoples within the Muslim ummah… Whether they were Jews or Christians, and later Hindus and Buddhists, these communities represented a kind of United Nations under Islamic rule.”

Now more than ever, with all the institutions and technologies in place, we are capable of recreating a multi-ethnic and inter-religious “medina.”

To my brothers and sisters in humanity, our generation has faced discrimination and conflict at all fronts – from the Jews who survived the holocaust, to the Syrians now in search for safe haven in Europe. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe in. Every human being has a right to life, which comes with skills and talents that can strengthen the community – if only we hold judgment on who are capable of becoming its valuable members.

There is such as thing as co-existence in this big, round world we all share.

Whoever can achieve that, will be our next epic leader.

 

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” 49:13

 

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