The Mongols and the Islamic World

From Conquest to Conversion

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Peter Jackson
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , May
     2017.
     640 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780300125337.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

What has happened to the Dār al-Islām [the Islamic world] since Chinggis Khan and his bellicose Mongols set foot in the vast Muslim territories east of Syria and the Byzantine Greek oecumene in the thirteenth century (1)? Peter Jackson opens his voluminous book with this question. In The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion, Jackson utilizes a wide array of literary sources in the Persian, Arabic, Latin, and Old French languages as well as texts translated from Armenian, Georgian, Syriac, Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian. Supplemented with a comprehensive bibliography, this book is a treasure trove of cross-cultural encounters at the heart of the Eurasian continent.

The book title tellingly divides the work into two parts: the Mongol’s conquest of the Islamic world, and then their subsequent conversion to Islam. While the former event has galvanized attention in academia and beyond, the latter has yet to be explored extensively. Jackson engages with both of them. He asks “why did the Mongols conquer the Islamic World so quickly?” and “What were the consequences of the war both on the conquerors and the conquered in the ensuing centuries (7-8)?” Readers who are new to the topic will appreciate the detailed information on the Islamic world and Steppe polities prior to Chinggis Khan’s westward advance in chapters 1 and 2. The next three chapters focus on the period of conquest (c. 1218-1260), while chapters 7 to 13 examine the disintegration of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For those who are interested in the enduring impact of the Mongol presence on the Islamic world, do not forget the Epilogue.

 The Mongols’ expeditions came to a halt approximately three decades after Chinggis Khan’s troops took over the vast Islamic world. Jackson argues that it was neither the size of the military fighting forces nor their access to Inner Asian ponies that rendered a Mongol victory. What was missing in the absolute number of the fighting forces is made up for by what Jackson terms the Mongol’s “art of war.” Sophisticated military operations including intelligence gathering, communication, disciplined troops, and the use of compound bows were essential for the Mongols (85-89). In contrast, their enemies lacked such organization and unity, and were consequently vulnerable to the invading Mongols (89). How then did the Mongols govern the vast land that largely covered the heartland of the Eurasian continent? Jackson focuses on Mongol administrative practices in chapter 4. He discusses a range of issues that conquest regimes often faced, such as succession, taxation, governing offices and appointments as well as the distribution of wealth among the ruling elites. Jackson’s detailed accounts suggest that the Mongols bore characteristics of the nomadic conquerors of pre-modern Eurasia. Their pluralistic governing approaches often meant that taxation practices and principal appointees to a particular region were distinct and localized. This is, perhaps, the most revealing chapter of the book; it firmly situates the Mongol empire within a long tradition of non-agrarian regimes that often plundered their sedentary neighbors. Jackson’s meticulous research adds yet another interesting account of how such conquest regimes were innovative and, to a certain extent, sophisticated with respect to governance.

Yet, managing the Islamic world posed challenges to the conquering elites. Chinggis Khan’s successors formed several self-contained khanates that were involved in conflicts with one another. Jackson views the Mongol empire’s rapid disintegration as a reflection of persistent political difficulties among Steppe regimes. Their lack of established succession practices, reliance upon local administrations, and appendages weakened a centralized vertical state (410). It is indeed a critical question to ask how Steppe polities perceived and governed multicultural empires throughout history. Are there any alternatives to the centralized state that served sedentary states well? Jackson’s book is evidently valuable to the ongoing discussions of Steppe politics and societies in recent years. Additionally, the second half of the book calls into question two prevailing claims. Chapter 8 takes issue with the concept of Pax Mongolica—a historiographical consideration that emphasizes the role of the Mongol empire in alleviating cross-cultural commerce and communication. Jackson argues that the divided Mongol khanates functioned differently from the unified Mongol empire. Furthermore, Jackson challenges us to reconsider what the Mongol period was known for: religious tolerance. The Islamic world underwent significant changes under the rule of the “infidel.” Chapters 9 through 11 detail how Muslims of all walks of life came to terms with the changing political and cultural landscapes. At the core of Jackson’s discussion is “what constituted religious tolerance when the peoples in the invaded Islamic world organized their society on the basis of Islamic law?” When Islamic practices were separated from governance, Islam was nothing beyond a religion (297). Jackson’s powerful statement opens new questions about the very definition and social function of “religion” in premodern times. How did the ruptured Dār al-Islām and its newly converted rulers adapt to the new social and political realities when Islamic law took on new social and cultural meanings? It is a question that will excite scholars engaging with the text.

The Mongols and the Islamic World is a welcome addition to courses on cross-cultural exchange in the pre-modern era, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels, or for anyone curious about the Mongols and the Dār al-Islām beyond the conquests that brought the two face-to-face. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lan Wu is assistant professor of history at Mount Holyoke College.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Jackson is emeritus professor of medieval history at Keele University and has written on the Crusades, the eastern Islamic world, and the Mongols. His previous books include The Mongols and the West, 1221–1410. He lives in Staffordshire, UK.

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