18.04.05, Jackson, The Mongols and the Islamic World

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Kiril Petkov

The Medieval Review 18.04.05

Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. pp. xxi, 614. ISBN: 978-0-300-12533-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kiril Petkov
University of Wisconsin-River Falls

This is a monumental study. It is also most likely the definitive work on the period and subject matter, complementing Jackson's earlier monograph, The Mongols and the West (Routledge, 2005). Together, the two volumes present the reader with the most thorough and erudite synthesis of the Mongol engagement of the world west of their ancestral home and the creation and functioning of the Mongol world empire, from the first conquests of Chinggis Khan to the Mongol conversion to Islam. As the title indicates, the focus is specifically on the conquest and subsequent governance of Islamic lands, especially the territories that came to constitute two of the Ghinggisid successor-states, the Ilkhanate in Iran and the Khanate of Chaghaday in Central Asia and, to a lesser extent, on the areas of the Jochid domain in the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

Standing at 418 pages narrative and 157 pages of notes and bibliography, The Mongols and the Islamic World provides a complete coverage of the existing source base and secondary literature to date, making it the indispensable reference tool for anyone interested in any aspect of the Mongol imperial buildup within the Muslim lands. On both counts, as a scholarly synthesis re-assessing the popularly accepted (and largely incorrect) negative verdict on the Mongol entanglement with the Muslim world of Central Asia and the Middle East, and as a bibliographical resource, Jackson's study will certainly be added to, updated, and augmented by future detailed explorations of minor aspects of the theme, but it is unlikely to be supplanted.

After a short introduction, Jackson begins with a judicious survey of his sources. He relies mostly on contemporary (that is, thirteenth- to early fifteenth-century) narrative Muslim material of Persian and Arabic provenance, both from areas within and without the Ilkhanid and Chaghadayid khanates. Besides well-known works, such as the Secret History of the Mongols, Ibn al-Athir, Nasawi, Juzjani, Juwayni, and Rashid al-Din, Jackson uses a few fresh accounts of local historians in the Sunni tradition, made available only recently, such as that of the philosopher and astronomer Qutb al-Din Mahmud b. Mas'ud Shirazi, and treatises produced in near-by Egypt and as far away as Delhi. Non-narrative evidence, including biographical dictionaries and financial treatises, is also represented. The Muslim-produced material is complemented by the accounts of Christian observers, Georgian, Armenian, and Western emissaries and missionaries. As the author notes, he has skipped unreliable Muslim hagiographical material and later, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century compilations of earlier works; while this may raise concerns in some quarters, the approach lends credibility to the source base and solidity to Jackson's conclusions.

On such evidence, Jackson develops twelve substantive chapters. The first is on "The Islamic world and inner Asian peoples down to the Mongol invasion." The author traces the contacts of the steppe groups of Eastern and Central Asia, mostly Turks of various extractions (ranging from the Qipchaq-Qangli, the Qara-Khitai, and the Ghurids to the Saljuks) with the Islamic population in the region, and the system of relations established between the local Muslims and the invaders. By the time the Mongols came, the eastern Islamic world had grown accustomed to these steppe nomads and had developed means and strategies to approach them and Islamize them; but these long-term experiences, Jackson concludes, did not prepare them at all for the impact of the Mongol invasion. Jackson maps out the military-strategic aspects of that invasion in the next chapter, "The Mongol westward advance, 1219-1253." The account here is a brief summary of the well-known events that provoked Chinggis Khan's conflict with the Khwarazmians, the unleashing of the Mongol onslaught on the eastern Islamic lands during the Khan's life, and the expeditions and conquests of the Eurasian steppes west of the Ural. The author stresses the advanced Mongol art of war, enhanced by the symbiosis of Chinese and Islamic war technology, and the fact that Mongol operations were considerably facilitated by the assistance (willing or forced) of local Muslims of all walks of life, from princes and emirs to throngs of commoners.

The following chapter, "Apportioning and governing an empire, 1221-1260," covers the specifics of the Mongol imperial organization, administration, law, and taxation. Jackson discusses the heterogeneous character of Chinggis Khan's polity, the formation of appanages apportioned to imperial princes, the role of imperial women, and the early administrative structures of the Mongols, which incorporated the experience of East Asian and Chinese art of governing, while employing specifically Mongol features as well. He stresses the forces of unity, which provided cohesion to the far-flung Mongol domain: the dynasty, aristocracy, postal service, and abiding allegiance to the founding institutions of Chinggis Khan, and the attempts of centralization by Mönghke Khan. The logistics of empire were overwhelming, however, and the next chapter, "Hülegü's campaign and imperial fragmentation (1253-1262)" details the parceling of the early unitary polity. Planned to crush the still-resisting Islamic powers on the fringes of the Mongol domain, and to enhance the centralization envisioned by Mönghke, Hülegü's conquest of south-west Asia was not as swift as the earlier endeavors but just as decisive. Jackson offers a detailed account of the conqueror's progress, the disarray of his opponents, the complicated inter-Mongol relationships and the sophistication of the Mongol war machine. He also discusses the conflicting accounts of the sources in reference to Hülegü's commission. The accounts suggest that the Great Khan may not have envisioned a separate ulus for Hülegü, and the creation of the Ilkhanate was more a result of the gradual evolution of centrifugal forces in the empire, which grew out of the clash between the centralizing designs and the former appanage system, illustrated by the overlapping claims of Hülegü, the Jochids of the Golden Horde in the Qipchaq steppes, and the Chaghadayids in Central Asia, respectively west and east of the core Middle Eastern Islamic lands.

Even with a permanent occupation in mind, the campaigns were highly destructive, and Jackson dedicates the next chapter to the human and material costs of the Mongol conquests. Unanimously, contemporary sources cite high figures: Jackson offers reasonable reductions, detailing the different strategies the invaders deployed in the course of the conquests. Even so, however, it is quite clear that wholesale destruction and putting whole populations to the sword--especially where there had been resistance and a Mongol prince or a high commander had been killed, or a locale that had surrendered reneged--took a very heavy toll on the local Muslim population in both town and countryside. Removal of skilled workers and refugee waves indicate a high level of secondary depopulation and general economic decline after the conquests, with uncertain and spotty levels of recovery. The recovery and reconstruction was impeded by inter-Mongol warfare in the second half of the thirteenth century, a period during which the four great Mongol domains, and a number of smaller polities on their fringes, engaged in intermittent warfare. Jackson dedicates a chapter to this turbulent period, mapping out the political ambitions, claims, and military interventions of the western khanates, and their gradual consolidation as sovereign territorial states as opposed to the overlapping and tiered loyalties and partial affiliations characterizing the early unitary empire. In view of his principal theme, the impact of the warfare on the local Muslims, Jackson concludes that the devastations and dislocations inflicted were less serious than those during the conquests, and they fall in the broad framework of destructiveness caused by any medieval warfare. Once the domains were more-or-less defined by the early fourteenth century, one can speak of Pax Mongolica. This, and the connectivity forged by the Mongols over the large Eurasian expanse, the role of the Chinggisid princes (who deliberately fostered cultural exchange and supported the network of routes enabling the movement of skilled personnel, goods, and ideas, overland on the Silk Road or overseas, with all of its advantages, obstacles, and risks), and the cultural diffusion and entanglement facilitated by cultural brokers such as Rashid al-Din, are the subjects of the next chapter.

Pax Mongolica, however, was not entirely of Mongol fashioning, and depended heavily on the assistance of a host of client Muslim principalities. In the chapter "Mediated Sovereignty," Jackson elaborates on the volatile history of the subject Muslim polities within the western khanates in a geographical sweep from the Qipchaq Khanate to Iran, and discusses the burdens and benefits of vassalage for both Chinggisid sovereigns and client Muslim princes, intermarriages, the role of Muslim princesses in Mongol courts, and the varied responses of the Mongol rulers to recalcitrant vassals--ranging from gruesome punishment, as that of al-Salih Ismail, covered in sheep fat and let out in the sun to be consumed by maggots, his son cut in two, to complete pardon and re-incorporation in the relevant khanate's political system. The following chapter, "Unbelieving monarchs and their servants," examines the integration of the two traditions out of which grew the Chinggisid administration of their Muslim domain: the eastern, Mongol, Uigur, and Chinese customs and the western, Muslim Middle Eastern practices. Jackson reviews accounts of a host of top-tier Muslim administrators in service of the Chinggisids, above all in the Ilkhanate, and argues that the upper echelon of imperial servants remained heterogeneous and un-integrated, and it is difficult to talk about a cohesive governing class with an esprit de corps and stable position in office--this being, in fact, a feature of both early Mongol and classic Islamic administration under the Caliphs and Sultans. In part, this was the reason the local Muslims viewed the Mongol rule as oppressive and tyrannical, a theme Jackson explores in the next chapter. The most important factor, of course, was the fact that the Mongols were "infidels" and as such did not follow Muslim practices: they imposed even-handed treatment of all faiths, and imported and imposed traditions of administration, taxation, and religion, which were contrary to Islamic law and custom and in some cases led to suppression of the latter. Jackson briefly outlines the clashes between Mongol tolerance (appointments of Shiites in Sunni domains, or various dhimmis) and Muslim strict monotheism, Islamic norms and steppe customary law (stressing the uncertainties in the area to which the latter applied). The Muslim authors viewed all this as undermining the foundation of their faith and society and there was a profound sense of insecurity among the broad Muslim population. How did they come to terms with that turn of affairs? The growth of Sufism and the proliferation of sheikhs may have been a response to the insecurity thus felt by the commoners; the literati, for the their part, embarked on learned projects that sought to "acculturate" the Mongol elite by incorporating them in the natural trajectory of the history of the regions they ruled over, especially in Iran. The rulers themselves, it seems, were not adverse to furthering their affiliation with the conquered population, including growing components of Islam into their cultural practices. Islamization, therefore, was only a matter of time.

What, exactly, this meant in context, and what were the dimensions of "conversion to" and "adoption of" Islam in the context of the Mongol Middle Eastern experience, are questions that Jackson explores in the two concluding chapters. In the first, subtitled "Common themes," he reviews recent discussions on the nature of religious conversions and opines that for the Mongols, it was mostly a social transition signified by change of practice, acceptance of the religious custom prevailing in the majority of the Chinggisid subjects. And even though the sources mostly speak about the conversion of rulers, the "top-down" model may be an optical illusion: the rulers, in fact, accepted the new creed in order to reclaim the loyalty of their Mongol subjects who may have already Islamized as a result of their acculturation and entanglement with the local Muslim population. Evidence from all three western Mongol khanates testifies for the relatively early and widespread adoption of Islam among the Mongol troops, rank and file and commanders alike, even though the process may have been slow and fitful. Political factors certainly played a role in the princes' conversion, as the only allies they could seek in the inter-Mongol wars, for example, were Muslim powers. Royal consorts of Muslim extraction and Sufi sheikhs were instrumental in the conversion, and although Jackson discounts the sheikh-shaman identification, he accepts that the Mongol elite may have been influenced by the magical and thaumaturgical skills attributed to the sheikhs as they were to the Mongol shamans. The last chapter, on "Royal Converts and Muslim resurgence," discusses a number of Mongol khans whose conversion has been handled in a contradictory fashion by the sources. Jackson concludes that in the first several generations, the Chinggisid princely converts exhibited the traditional Mongol religious and customary-law syncretism, even when officially declaring themselves Muslim. That heterogeneity, however, rapidly faded in the early fourteenth century, as demonstrated by the Ilkhans' treatment of the dhimmis, for example, even though outside hardliners, such as Ibn Taymiyya, denounced the Mongols as expansionist polytheists for whom religion was merely a political tool.

In the Epilogue & Conclusion, Jackson examines the long-term processes that resulted from the Mongol conquests and rule, direct and indirect, such as the survival of the "Mongol imperial culture," the concept of political legitimacy in the Chinggisid domains, their techniques of government, the strengthening of the neighboring Muslim states as a result of the mass immigration during the conquests, the spread of Islam among the Mongols and their Central and East Asian subjects, and, lastly, the issue of the Mongol role in the integration of Eurasia into a single disease zone, from which the murderous waves of the fourteenth-century Black Death originated.

Informative and eminently readable, Jackson's synthesis is also quite dense. The narrative is thickly peppered with names, terms, and concepts that will challenge the lay reader. And while it will not be an easy read for the average undergraduate, The Mongols and the Islamic World is certainly a must for the graduate student entering the field of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Mongol, or medieval history in general; it will be also a treat for the history buff who seeks a mastery narrative of one of the most dramatic transformations of the pre-modern Middle East.

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