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Religious Conversion Across Cultures


Converting the Khan: Christian Missionaries and the Mongol Empire

Timothy May


     Two waves of expansion struck each other in the thirteenth century. Coming from Inner Asia, the Mongol empire expanded inexorably. It encountered an invigorated Catholic faith that used military muscle in the form of the Crusades to expand its territory, but also relied on religious conversion through two new monastic orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans, to bring converts into the faith. They were not alone in their endeavors. Muslims and Buddhists also sought to convert the Mongols.1 In some cases, the hope of conversion came long after the initial Mongol onslaught in the first half of the thirteenth century that left an overwhelming sense of apocalyptic doom in the Islamic world.2

     Yet, while Islam and Buddhism found success in the Mongol World, Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity failed. To be certain there were some unmitigated successes, but it was ephemeral and not at the level anticipated by the Church. On the surface there is little reason to think that Catholicism, and Christianity in general would have less success than the other two universal religions. All three of them had little success prior to the dissolution of the empire.3 When conversion did occur in the pre-1260, it was rare among the elites and there is little mention of conversions in the sources for the rank and file as well. Yet, in the post-dissolution period, Christianity among the Mongols waned while Buddhism and Islam flourished and expanded into areas that previously had few if any practitioners. So why did the Mongols not convert to any of the universal world religions and why did the Mongols convert to other religions in large numbers only after the death of Möngke Khan? And finally, why did Christianity fail to win the souls of the Mongols despite unstinting efforts to do so?

     Such widespread resistance to universal religions is anomalous in the course of world history. Typically, when a universal religion (much less three) encountered a group practicing an indigenous religion, the indigenous population gradually converted often by force but also by choice.4 As a result, dual participation in the native religion and the new one occurred, with the native practices slowly being appropriated until they lost meaning and the new universal religion conserving its form in order to preserve social structures and the like. Yet, the Mongols did not experience this as an anomaly, since the rise of the massive empire was not engaged in a world religion but rather expanded into the territory of various world religions. Typically, missionaries from expansive states brought the world religion to non-world religion practitioners instead of the pagans conquering the world religion. For instance, the Seljuks converted to Islam before they entered the Middle East. Considering the Mongol Empire's imperial policy on religion, which promoted toleration, there was plenty of opportunity for the universal religions to thrive. This toleration is often viewed as a unique feature, but as Michal Biran has demonstrated, the empire of Kara Khitai (1131–1218) that ruled in Central Asia prior to the Mongols also carried out a policy of religious toleration in their empire. Indeed, a long tradition of religious toleration existed in Inner Asian empires.5

     Prior to the rise of the empire, Mongolia was not isolated from other religions, even though it was off the major trade routes which also served as conduits of conversion for religions. In the early eleventh century, contacts with merchants and missionaries led to the conversion of the Kereit of central Mongolia to Nestorian Christianity, more properly known as the Church of the East. In 1009 the Patriarch of the Church of the East in Baghdad received a letter from Ebedyeshu, the metropolitan of Merv, announcing that the Kereit requested priests and deacons who could baptize them. Exact numbers are uncertain, but it was thought that 20,000 Kereit converted. Not long afterwards, the Naiman, Merkit, and Önggüt also converted. 6

     The Mongols, living in northeastern Mongolia, appear to have had no or little exposure to the Church of the East. Nonetheless, the Kereit, Merkit, Önggüt and Naiman became part of the Mongol state with Chinggis Khan's unification of the Mongolian plateau by 1206. Many of the spouses of the Chinggisid princes came from these tribes and continued to practices the rites of the Church of the East. There is no indication that the non-Christian spouses converted. Furthermore, the vast majority of the Mongols maintained their native beliefs.7 Though the Nestorians were not a majority, they played a significant role within the empire. In addition to several princesses and queens who were Christian in faith, a few high ranking officials existed in the administrative apparatus. Indeed, Ögödei Khan's (r. 1229—1240/41) primary minister, Chinqai (d. 1252) was a Nestorian Christian as were Sorqoqtani (d. 1252), a Kereit princess as well as the wife of Tolui; Töregene (d. 1246), a Naiman, and the wife Ögödei; Oghul Qaimish (d. 1252), a Merkit and wife of Güyük Khan (d. 1248) were also Nestorian Christians. Indeed, over time the papacy viewed the Christian wives of the Khans as the route to converting the Khan. The success of the missionaries in this route, however, proved minimal.8 Nonetheless, a Nestorian Christian influence existed in the upper circles of the empire.

     The Christian influence among the elite did not have any noticeable detrimental impact on the Mongols' views of other religions. Indeed, they remained incredibly tolerant of all religions. Being primarily shamanistic, the Mongols did not possess a comprehensive religious canon that dictated morality or provided an exclusive worldview with an emphasis on the afterlife. Traditionally, shamanism focused on spiritual matters that directly impacted the mundane world and related to real life issues such as illness and other tragedies. The afterworld was very similar to the mundane. Salvation of one's soul did not exist, excepting instances where one's soul was stolen by an evil spirit. The soul was necessary in the mundane world, but in the afterlife, one was just another spirit and not at risk for eternal damnation.9 Indeed, one's rank in life dictated their power and status in the spirit world. Thus a khan in the mundane world would be a khan in the afterlife. While gods existed in the Mongolian world view, most were remote although Köke Möngke Tenggeri (the Eternal Blue Sky) and Etügen mother earth remained important gods to honor and respect. Prayer to them was necessary, but most individuals from the basest herder to the most high-born venerated their ancestors with sacrifices and offerings. Onggons or felt representations of the ancestors were kept in the yurt or ger. These ancestors could aid the family, particularly in the spirit world. The spirit world often encroached into the mundane, causing illness and disaster. Hence the ability of the shaman to thwart malevolent spirits as well as interpret the spirits' intentions made the shaman a valuable and necessary figure, but they were not all powerful in their dealings with the spirit realm. Furthermore, nothing within the traditional religion offered a transcendental afterlife or salvation, thus the Mongols "were open to any sort of religious practice or ritual which might help them find success in realizing their immediate needs".10

     As the empire expanded beyond Mongolia, the Mongols established relations with many religious communities throughout their empire for strategic as well as pragmatic reasons. Sympathetic rapport with religious elites aided in reducing the threat of hostility and rebellion among the conquered. Thus, the Mongols exempted clergy of most religions from taxes. The Mongols also often spared religious structures during invasions, unless there was resistance then no one was immune to the Mongols' wrath. Furthermore, the khans asked the clergy to pray for them.11 Although the clergy sometimes misinterpreted this request, within the minds of the Mongols this did not demonstrate an interest in conversion or even courting a particular religion, but rather simply respect and perhaps also interest in celestial insurance.

     Their actions were in accordance with the traditional religion of the Mongols in which one tried to avoid offending spirits for fear of supernatural retaliation. By demonstrating respect for the rituals of another religion and being included in prayers was simply a form of celestial insurance against offending another spiritual power. Furthermore, the inclusion in the prayers also demonstrated the legitimacy of the Khan's authority as it had the official backing of the religious elite. A contemporary example was the inclusion of the ruler's name in the khutba, the Friday sermon in Islam. This practice indicated the legitimacy of the ruler.

     Beyond their own policy of religious toleration, the Mongols attempted to preserve peace between the religious sects within the empire. Rather than being viewed as a philanthropic ideal, it was borne out of strategic necessity. When the Mongol general Jebe pursued the Naiman renegade Güchülüg into Central Asia, the Muslim population greeted him as a liberator. Under the rule of Güchülüg, who was a Buddhist, the Muslims felt persecuted by the Buddhists. As Michal Biran has demonstrated, much of the oppression stemmed less from actual religious motivation but rather Güchülüg's secular policies, particularly his taxation policies.12

     With the defeat of Güchülüg, the region did not revert to a persecution of Buddhists. The Mongols were not interested in becoming involved in religious strife. Jebe decreed that all should follow the religion of their ancestors and not attempt to persecute others for their beliefs.13 Other than manipulating religion for political purposes, the Mongols expressed little interest in doctrine while on campaign. The core component of their policy towards religions was that everyone had the freedom to worship in their respective religion, but if it threatened the stability of the Empire or Mongol supremacy, then the Mongols had no compunctions about reacting with violence. No religion could claim spiritual supremacy over the whole world as it came into direct conflict with the Mongols' own claims to world domination.14

     As the Mongol Empire was the most powerful state in the world, it was natural that other powers sought to find some type of relationship with it. Western Christendom was no exception. Since the advent of the legend of Prester John, Western Europe had sought an Eastern Christian ally against the Muslims. Indeed, during the Fifth Crusade, many thought the Mongols were the armies of Prester John. After the invasion of Hungary the Europeans quickly realized their mistake.

     Their fear of the Mongols, however, did not prevent many from dreaming that the Mongols might convert to Christianity. With rumors that Christian queens and even princes such as Sartaq b. Batu, the Papacy had reason to believe the Mongols could be converted.15 The Papacy, like clergy from other religions, believed that if the ruling elite converted, the masses would follow suit.16

     Combining the hope of conversion with the very real possibility of future invasions of Christendom by the Mongols, the so-called Mongol Missions took place. Pope Innocent IV dispatched several friars to the Mongols with a message of two parts. The first part reproached the Mongols for attacking Christians and informed them that if they did not cease their depredations, the Mongols would surely face the wrath of God.17 The second part was milder and outlined the tenets of the Catholic faith and the reasons why the Mongols should convert.18

     Despite Pope Innocent IV's efforts to convert the Mongols, he failed because he, and probably the rest of Europe, lacked a proper understanding of steppe diplomacy and the power of the Mongols. The response from Güyük Khan's response to Innocent's overtures is an exemplar in brevity, clarity, and menace. The core of Güyük's message was that the Mongols had conquered all who opposed them and who did not submit to Chinggis Khan and the successive Khans:

God ordered us to destroy them and gave them up to our hands. For otherwise if God had not done this, what could man do to man? But you men of the West believe that you alone are Christians and despise others. But how can you know to whom God deigns to confer His grace? But we worshipping god have destroyed the whole earth from the East to the West in the power of God. And if this were not the power of God, what could men have done? …But if you should not believe our letters and the command of God nor hearken to our counsel then we shall know for certain that you wish to have war. After that we do not know what will happen, God alone knows.19

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Guyuk Letter to Pope Innocent IV (replica in the National History Museum of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar). Text is in Persian. Red seal at the bottom is the Imperial seal. Photograph by author.  

     After receiving Güyük's missive, Innocent IV replied that he had no desire for war, but that he only sought the salvation for the Mongol's souls. He then undermined his reconciliation efforts by insisting that the Mongols risked the wrath of God. Innocent IV clearly failed to grasp that the Mongols believed Heaven was on their side and that could not be swayed. Furthermore, he did not comprehend that the Mongols did not consider him God's sole representative on earth.20 At the same time, Innocent IV may be forgiven for not understanding the Mongol worldview. As the letter from Güyük indicates, Güyük refers to God in language that would be understood by a Christian audience. The letter however was originally written in Mongolian, Persian, and Uighur. The Persian letter was then translated into Latin with appropriate word changes so it appears that Güyük was well versed in Christian terminology—demonstrating another example of the Mongols appropriating aspects of the Catholicism for their own purposes.

     Pope Innocent IV, however, was not alone in his efforts to establish some sort of accommodation with the Mongols. King Louis IX of France sent expeditions to the Mongol Khans. Although he was not opposed to their conversion to Catholicism, he primarily sought an alliance with them against the Muslims as part of Louis IX's crusading efforts. Louis IX's initial efforts also failed as the Mongols viewed them as offerings of submission.21 In truth, the Mongols had every reason to view King Louis' diplomatic efforts as a token of submission; for all of his zeal and efforts in winning the Holy Land for Christianity, his failures outweighed his minimal successes.22 In the minds of the Mongols, it would be logical for King Louis IX to submit in order to gain assistance against his enemies, although his Louis' emissaries arrived prior to 1250, the debacle of the Seventh Crusade (1248–1250) surely only cemented this idea.

     Clearly, the early efforts of Christians to convert the Mongols, or at least draw them closer, were unmitigated failures. Much of the blame, if blame can be placed, may be found in the thirteenth century papacy's attitude towards other religions. Western Europe as a whole, despite its involvement in the Crusades and perhaps because of them, possessed a more closed mindset than the Franks in the Holy Land, or the Muslims they struggled against, or even the Rus' who were already under Mongol dominion. With the exception of those on the frontiers with Orthodoxy in the East and Islam in Spain and Sicily, most western Europeans did not have enough contact with other cultures to recognize cultural barriers in communication, whether religious, diplomatic, or any other method. The Western European tended to consider himself superior to any member of another ethnic group, culture, or religion he encountered. Indeed, the papacy berated Muslim rulers for not allowing Christian missionaries to proselytize in their domains, despite the fact that Pope Innocent IV did not consider that this obligation should be reciprocal.23 Thus the Catholic missionaries, and indeed the various Popes, scoffed at the native traditions and even, in their view, the erring ways of the Nestorian Christians. Thus it was natural that they warned about divine retaliation while attempting to guide the Mongol khans toward the Catholic Church. From their perspective, only the Catholic path was correct and no other alternatives existed.

     At the same time, Pope Innocent IV recognized that differences did exist and necessitated some limited flexibility. As a result Pope Innocent IV attempted to alleviate some anxieties for infidels and heretics regarding conversion. In 1245 he issued a Papal Bull, similar to one issued by Pope Gregory IX in 1235, which granted missionaries special privileges in order to facilitate conversion.24 The four most important being the right to hear confession anywhere (as opposed to being on sacred ground), absolve excommunicates, dispense converts from various kinds of irregularities in ritual, and basically to make conversion as easy as possible without straying from the Catholic path. Here the papacy encouraged not only selective acculturation, in which the Mongols and other could adopt Christianity, but also maintain their culture. In addition, the Bull included a list of eighteen different ethnic groups and religious sects targeted for conversion. Predictably, considering the size of the Mongol empire, most of these groups resided in Mongol controlled lands.

     Yet, even with the new privileges, the Catholic missionaries did not gain any appreciable influence over the Mongols. The narrow view and self-conceived superiority of the westerners had the most deleterious effect on their conversion attempts. The presence of the Nestorian Christians did not help matters as it provided the Mongols with something of a model of Christianity. Despite the number of Mongols who were Nestorian Christians, the Mongol Khans did not see any advantage in joining the Church of the East in general.25 Nonetheless, the Church of the East embraced syncretism and cultural differences more easily, indeed, "it was unlikely that the Nestorian missionaries held these same prejudices [as did the Catholics], as [the Nestorians] freely incorporated the customs of the local religions into their brand of Christianity".26 From the perspective of the missionaries, the Mongols had simply used selective incorporation of Christian beliefs gained from the Church of the East, but essentially remained true to their pagan beliefs. An example of this occurs with the death of Toghril Ong-Khan, the Khan of the Kereit, an ostensibly a Nestorian Christian. After his defeat by Chinggis Khan, Toghril fled west and was captured and killed by the Naiman, also Nestorians. Gürbesü, the mother of the Naiman Khan, Tayang, took Toghril's head, placed it on white felt and venerated along with her daughters-in-law. Furthermore, she made offerings of liquor to it.27

     Despite the sacrifices and offerings to Toghril's head, the Church of the East remained important to the Naiman. The Nestorian missionaries's own practice of acceptance and commitment allowed the Church of the East to flourish among the Mongols even if not all or even most of the Mongols followed their faith. Their missionary work spread knowledge and ideas of Christianity without threatening the cultural values of the nomads.

     Anatoly Khazanov expressed another opinion toward the failure of the papacy to convert the Mongols:

It seems to me that one of the main reasons for their failure was connected with their claims on the supremacy over temporal and ecclesiastical authorities of the converts. The nomadic rulers were afraid that the conversion to Christianity would put their independence in danger.28

     Both scholars are correct, at least in part. The Nestorians held an advantage over the Catholics as their brand of Christianity was more syncretic and able to adapt to various cultures as Houston has suggested. Furthermore, the Church of the East did not voice any temporal or spiritual authority over the Mongols as Khazanov correctly observes with the papacy over Catholic Europe. On the other hand, I must disagree with Khazanov that the Mongols feared losing their independence by converting to Catholicism. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the Mongols would not tolerate any threat to their power, whether from a secular source or a religious figure. Chinggis Khan executed Teb Tengri after his attempts to seize more political power.29 The Mongols ended the Abbasid Caliphate, as the Caliph was a figure who could, at least in theory, claim spiritual and temporal authority. Considering the papacy's efforts to place itself above temporal rulers, it is likely that the Pope would have met the same fate as the Caliph if the Mongols had reached Rome.

     Religious and diplomatic relations altered, however after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire. While conversion remained in the mind of the Papacy, alliances and diplomatic relations became possibilities for Mongol rulers and the kings of Europe. During this phase however, the Mongols primarily initiated contact, albeit the papacy became more wary of accepting the Mongols' overtures as the papacy's optimism for converting the Mongols waned. Despite some declining enthusiasm, the papacy initiated new methods of conversion but still faced stumbling blocks in the post-Innocent IV era.

     Pope Alexander IV (r.1254–1261) vigorously instructed King Bela IV (r. 1235–1270) to decline an offer of a marriage alliance with the Jochid Mongols in the Pontic steppes, better known as the Golden Horde. Although Alexander admitted that the Mongol military machine was truly an intimidating factor to face, but he correctly realized that such an alliance would eventually lead Hungary into Mongol servitude. Two reasons supported Alexander's rationale. The primary reason was that the Mongols were not Christians and therefore, from the papacy's perspective, could not be trusted. As the Mongols were not baptized, how and why would they respect an oath sworn on a Christian relic, which was the normal method of making an alliance? The second reason, and the more accurate, was that a marriage alliance could make Hungary a vassal of the Mongols and not an equal ally.30 Despite the Papacy's protestations, it is unlikely that Bela needed any encouragement. After all, he ruled Hungary during the 1241 invasion and barely escaped with his life. He was well aware of Mongol power and intentions.

     Nevertheless, these issues did not deter the papacy's hopes to convert the ruling elite, preferably the Khan, believing the masses would then follow. Although the previous history of relations with the Mongols suggested conversion would not happen, the papacy clung to this dream because of the number of Christians in the upper ranks.

     Some renewed optimism occurred with the split of the Mongol Empire. The Il-khanate of Persia sought negotiations with Rome as the Il-Khans sought allies against an encirclement of Islamic states.31 In 1274 envoys of the Il-Khan Abaqa removed the first obstacle in concluding an alliance by receiving baptism. In doing so, the diplomats were no longer infidels and could negotiate on behalf of Abaqa.32

     Not satisfied with this initial step, the papacy continued to place conversion of the Mongols over the existence of the Latin kingdom in the Near East. As with their relations with the Greeks, the papacy extended the promise of a military alliance in return for conversion. James Muldoon demonstrated that this arrangement had a severe flaw:

As the papacy became less able to provide military aid for the Greeks and others who sought it, popes seem to have become more insistent on submission to the papacy before making promise of aid they could not provide.33

     With the papacy unable to fulfill their part of the bargain, such as providing an offensive against the Mamluks of Egypt, the Mongols had little incentive to convert. The papacy faced other problems in their conversion efforts. Even when the Mongols seemed to be genuinely interested in Christianity, there was a dearth of Christian missionaries to go to the Mongol lands—the most famous example of this being the experience of the Polo family.34 When the Polos returned from the court of Khubilai Khan in 1269, they brought a message from the Great Khan for the Pope. Khubilai requested that one hundred educated men be sent to teach him about Christianity. It was an unusual request, although Khubilai probably could have fulfilled a similar request easily. Still, the pope was unable to even meet a tenth of Khubilai's order. Instead, two friars accompanied the Polo family and those two intrepid souls turned back once they reached Mongols lands in the Middle East.35 One cannot truly blame the missionaries considering the abundance of stories and rumors that spread about the Mongols being the children of Gog and Magog, coming from Hell, and any number of stories about their behavior, the idea of traveling and remaining in Mongol lands for years must have been a terrifying experience for any prospective volunteers. At the same time, this was not a lost opportunity. While the Polos may have thought that Khubilai Khan held interest in Christianity and spreading the Catholic rite through his domains, Khubilai had ulterior motives. In truth, the request that the Polos carried was actually an effort to recruit more learned individuals for the Khan to serve in his empire as Marco Polo eventually did.36

     As a result, many of the efforts at conversion were restricted to correspondence with the Il-Khans by sending letters explaining the Christian doctrine to the ruler. In 1291 Pope Nicholas IV (r. 1288–1292) sent one to Nicholas, son of the Il-Khan Arghun. In this missive, Pope Nicholas warned him that when converting others to Christianity, he should not make significant changes in lifestyle and encouraged a process of selective incorporation of Christianity. Pope Nicholas specifically warned against changes in dress as this would be a various obvious change and cause for dissension between converts and others. Pope Nicholas, unlike his predecessors, realized that it was important for the convert to be both Mongol and Christian, and not just Christian.37 Unfortunately for the Christians, this realization came too late.

     The best example of this occurred with the establishment of a diocese in northern China. In 1294, the Franciscan friar John of Montecorvino arrived as the first bishop in Khan Baligh also known as Daidu (now modern Beijing). His dispatches back to Rome encouraged another mission to be sent to the city of Zayton, also in China. Yet despite the increased activity, including the arrival Friar Ordoric of the Franciscan order in 1330, the chance of success was ephemeral. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, they had unmitigated success, particularly in converting the As or Alans who served in the bodyguard of the Great Khan. This meant that approximately 30,000 highly placed individuals converted. Unfortunately, the friars missed an important issue. Despite a presence of thirty years, all of the priests in the region were from the West. They made no effort to bring anyone from within the Mongol Empire into the clergy, thus the mission could only succeed during their lifetime and if others continued to arrive. With the collapse of the Il-Khanid Empire in 1335, traveling to China became more difficult. In addition, most of their converts appear to have been mainly Nestorian Christians, although certainly some non-Christians converted as well. Indeed, the friars even performed exorcisms and won over a number of converts among the Mongols who then undertook baptism.38

     Nonetheless, even acts such as these were insufficient. Although there was often acceptance of Catholicism, there was a lack of commitment by the converted beyond conversion experiences and perhaps some charitable work. For reasons unknown there is no indication of the Catholics within the Mongol Empire becoming missionaries or serving in the clergy. Thus, as stated before, new friars and priests were always needed. As the new recruits passed through the Middle East and then the sea route around India, the journey was long and arduous, but evinced by the travels of Ibn Battuta, this was the most sensible approach.39 The fall of the Il-Khanate put this route in doubt. Then with the chaos caused by the collapse of the Yuan Empire in East Asia and the rise of an often xenophobic Ming Empire, the Catholic dioceses in China were short-lived. This was quite different from the Nestorian experience, in which the clergy for the Church of the East included people from across the Mongol Empire. Indeed, the Patriarch of the Church of the East in Baghdad and even high ranking envoys who journeyed to the Papacy as well as to the courts of the kings of France and England were Uighurs from the territory of the Great Khan.40

     Although Christianity failed to make inroads in converting the Mongols, another religion did: Islam. Khazanov wrote that Islam was more successful in gaining adherents because the converts did not have to give up their ethnic affiliation or change their way of life—exactly what Pope Nicholas began to realize.41 Despite initial encounters with Buddhism in Xixia and Tibet, the Mongols never had any true inclination towards Buddhism, at least on a wide scale level, until the time of Khubilai Khan. Certainly, individual Mongols may have been interested in it, but it was truly just another religion to them. Only after the dissolution of the Mongol Empire, it did gain widespread influence in the Yuan dynasty.

     So, the question remains, why did the Mongols not convert to any of the world religions that they encountered? Part of the answer may be found in how the Mongols viewed themselves. It is clear they believed that Heaven, or Köke Möngke Tenggeri, had decreed that Chinggis Khan and his sons were to rule the earth. This belief has been coined as Tenggerism.42 A component of Tenggerism also included the idea that just as there was only one god or heaven, there could only be one Khan on earth.

     At first their primary foes were nomads who were of similar culture and usually practiced the same shamanistic beliefs, as did the Mongols. Certainly the Naiman and the Kereit had Nestorian Christians, but it is uncertain just how deep their Christian beliefs ran. While selective acculturation did occur, such as the adoption of Christian names (Körgüz=George, etc.), and the Nestorians did use the vernacular to spread the gospel, its adaptation was clearly a syncretic form with selective incorporation into the steppe culture and thus not altering the nomads' identity as Kereit or Naiman. Instead, it was simply one facet of their identity. As the empire expanded, the Mongols encountered civilizations which had more sophisticated religious practices, focussing more on the concerns of the afterlife than on the mundane. Coming from an environment in which the afterworld and the present world were very similar, it is quite possible that the Mongols saw very little use in adopting something which placed an emphasis on the afterworld. After all, if one were a khan in the present world, one would still be a khan in afterworld.

     Moreover, from Chinggis Khan's perspective, what protection did these religions provide to their believers? He had defeated the Nestorian Christians, Ong-Qan, Khan of the Kereit, and the various khans of the Naiman. He had unified the tribes of Mongolia, as was prophesized by Qorci, one of Chinggis Khan's early supporters.43 As the Mongols conquered more nations, this only validated Heaven's decree that the Mongols would rule the earth. Furthermore, the Mongols had witnessed how religion could be an instrument of division. The Muslims of Khotan welcomed them, preferring an unknown ruler to the Buddhists who persecuted them. What incentive was there to convert to any of these religions of the conquered people? Furthermore, the Mongols saw little benefit in persecuting religions. In addition, the religions could co-exist as evinced by the Buddhist Uighurs who also had a large Nestorian population among them.

     Through the course of time, many observers believed the Mongols gradually turned to monotheism. In part this may have been due to their references to Köke Mönkge Tenggeri, and how they worded their messages to foreign powers, as we have seen.44 However, with the idea of Tenggerism evolving into a more complex form of religion in the mid-thirteenth century it truly became a form of monotheism as suggested by Sh. Bira.45 Indeed, Bira asserts that Mongolian Tenggerism was the driving force behind the Mongol Conquests.46 However, one must be wary of such an assertion. While indeed the Mongols did believe it was their manifest destiny, so to speak, to rule the world as decreed by Tenggeri, whether it was because of a religious zeal from Tenggerism or simply the idea that it explained their unparalleled success is another question and research puzzle altogether. Still, it is questionable if non-Mongols understood Tenggerism in the same context. Khazanov wrote that the Mongols' "trend towards monotheism could reflect not so much their own religions evolution but a desire of their observers, who professed different monotheistic religions".47

     In view of this, one must remember that most of our information concerning the Mongols and their religious beliefs and attitudes come from sources written by Christians and Muslims. One must also remember that at the court of the Khans, numerous religious figures were present: Christian friars, Muslim qadis and imams, Taoist sages, Buddhist monks, shamans, and possibly others.

     There were some who feared that the Mongols' claim to world supremacy would cross the temporal threshold and also be enforced on the ecclesiastical world. A passage that John Plano de Carpini left best describes this situation:

Since they observe no law with regard to the worship of God they have up to now, so we understood, compelled no one to deny his faith or law with the exception of Michael of whom we have just spoken. What they may ultimately do we do not know, but there are some who are of the opinion that, if they become sole ruler, which God forbid, they would make everyone bow down to that idol.48

     The idol Plano de Carpini referred to was that of Chinggis Khan. Mikhail, prince of Chernigov, was executed when he refused to bow before it. As it has been stated and observed by visitors to the Mongol empire, the Mongols did not attempt to force a religion upon anyone. So, why was Prince Michael killed? To understand this, and ultimately why the Mongols did not convert is to understand certain aspects of Mongol native belief and the position of Chinggis Khan within Mongol society.

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Although John de Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck failed to convert the Mongols, Wenceslao Padilla, CICM is the current Bishop of the Apostolic Prefecture of Mongolia and has had considerable more success in his endeavors than the Franciscan friars. Photograph by author.  

     One of the concepts in Mongolian folk religion is the concept of sülde or a protective spirit or genius. The sülde is immortal and cannot die. When Chinggis Khan died, his sülde took residence in the tuq or battle standard of the Mongol army. Furthermore, after the death of Chinggis Khan a cult arose around him. He was elevated to a god-like status. Whether or not all Mongols worshipped him is unclear, but the ruling elite considered him a sacred figure. It is debatable whether or not the yasa was a true law code, but it was, along with the sayings of Chinggis Khan, considered the proper way Mongol nobility should act.49

     Was there a threat of forcible conversion to the cult of Chinggis Khan? It is unlikely considering the Mongols' own tolerance. Furthermore, the religion of the Mongols, in particular the cult of Chinggis Khan, lacked any true universal or even ethical appeal. Köke Möngke Tenggeri was an impersonal god and not a creator god. The Mongol religion did not offer anything to its adherents in terms of salvation.50 Furthermore, the cult of Chinggis Khan was in all likelihood, a cult of the Chinggisid princes and not the common Mongols.

     This leaves us with the question of why Prince Mikhail of Chernigov was killed for refusing to bow to the sülde of Chinggis Khan and also pass through the fires of purification, which all envoys had to do. Indeed, in Mikhail's presence other Christians including the Franciscan friar, John de Plano Carpini did it. His execution had little to do with religion, although Friar John Plano de Carpini and perhaps even Mikhail himself may not have realized it. Indeed, the Russian chronicles lead us to believe that Mikhail as well as Friar John believed the Mongols attempted to forcibly convert him. Mikhail thought he was being forced to convert when he was told to bow to the sun, moon, and fire and would receive great honor, but if not, he would die as demonstrated in the following encounter. Mikhail responded to the Mongols' request that he bow before idols by saying:

     "The Khan says to bow to the sun and to the moon and to the fire; but all these things are given to serve man and I will not obey the Khan'". Eldega, one of Batu's men responded by saying "'The sun is in the sky and no one can touch it and the moon is in the sky and no one can touch it or know about it; and fire destroys all, and no one can withstand it".51

     Mikhail responded that God is everywhere and made all. Eldega told him to bow to the things that represented the Khan's power and did not actually try to convert Mikhail to shamanism, which is essentially impossible as it is not a religion of salvation or offers an afterlife that is drastically different than the mundane world.52 It should be noted that Mikhail was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church for his "martyrdom". The Mongols executed him for political reasons, but through the lens of religion and the conflict between Christian and infidel, all encounters had some religious context for the church, whether Catholic or Orthodox. As Charles Halperin has indicated, it is probably that Mikhail knew the encounter was not religious, but rather political.53 Indeed, Mikhail had previously recognized Mongol suzerainty and had also been part of an anti-Mongol confederation that included Galicia-Volhynia and the principality of Vladimir-Suzdalia.

     The Russian sources were primarily written by clergy who, as Halperin demonstrates quite clearly, wrote and redacted the chronicles to fit a religious ideology of the Russian states being a Christian bulwark against oppression by the infidels. 54 To indicate that Mikhail was executed for simply disobeying the khan and not demonstrating his obedience and submission to the rulers implied that he rebelled against his lord, Batu. A hagiographer, regardless of which chronicle one uses, could do this as it would then imply that the Mongols were the suzerains of the Rus'.55 In the same vein, it is not surprising that Carpini came to the same conclusion. As a Franciscan friar, the lens through which he viewed the Mongols was also through religion. Granted, the reasons and context behind his views and those of the Rus' were different, but nonetheless they arrived at the same conclusion.

     In conclusion, there are several reasons why the Mongols were able to resist conversion to a world religion until the breakup of the Mongol empire. The first was that they believed they were ordained by the heavens to conquer the world. The concept of Tenggerism is a powerful one. In this context, the Christians' God, the Muslims' Allah, and all other concepts of heaven or a divine spirit could be neatly incorporated into Tenggeri. The interpretation of how one addressed Heaven was of little consequence as suggested by Möngke Khan when he said, "But just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men".56 Thus, in the eyes of the Mongols, why would one convert when they all worship the same god. The various theological debates that took place before the Khan must have been amusing and puzzling to the Mongols as the participants philosophized and debated.

     This leads to the second point. Since they worshipped the same god, there was no reason to persecute someone on religious grounds. Thus it was natural that the Mongols were amazingly tolerant of all religions during a time when religious tolerance was rare. This tolerance extended to any religion, as long as the religion did not threaten their authority by making political claims that threatened Mongol power.

     Third, in the case of Islam and Christianity, there was simply no reason to convert prior to 1260; the Mongol armies destroyed all that opposed them. These religions did not appear to offer any strategic gain. Of course, the Mongols did not persecute these religions, but there was no convincing argument to entice conversion to their interpretation of worshipping the one god. Again it must be emphasized that although the Mongols did not, as a state, persecute on the basis of religion, there are several notices of mosques, churches, and temples being looted and clergy beaten. Many of these activities took place during conquests, but the Mongols viewed all those who resisted as an enemy. After the conquest, occasional raids upon clergy did occur; however these were more out of lust for plunder rather than any direct attack on a particular religion. Even in their plundering, the Mongols did not favor one religion over the other.

     Finally, another reason for Christianity's failure to convert the Mongols was a cultural issue, which may have also extended to Islam as well—perceived prohibition of alcohol. In the case of Islam, this might have been more apparent, but of course the definition of what alcoholic drinks were prohibited also varies with schools of law and variations of Sufism. In Christianity no prohibition existed, however a perception of such did. William of Rubruck encountered this on his journey to the court of Möngke Khan. While at the orda, or camp, of a Mongol commander named Scatatai, located somewhere in the Pontic Steppe, William encountered a Muslim who wished to convert to Christianity, presumably a Turk. This individual, however, feared he could not do so as if he did he would then not be able to drink kumiss, or fermented mare's milk, which comprises much of the nomads' diet, particularly in summer.57 William, who grew quite fond of kumiss, tried to convince him otherwise, but to no avail. Indeed, William met several Christians there who professed the same sentiment including Greeks, Rus', and Alans. Not only could Christians not drink kumiss, but if they did they were no longer Christians, and "their priests reconcile them as if they had denied the faith of Christ".58

     While it is not certain if the Mongols had heard this, many Christians in their empire viewed kumiss as not being kosher, so to speak. This too needs to be viewed through the lens of religion. As the Mongols were infidels, then for these Eastern Christians, their favored drink must certainly be ungodly. And without doubt, one can be certain a priest would point out the fact that kumiss was not to be found in the Bible. For Catholics, such as Friar William who enjoyed kumiss or even John of Plano Carpini, who did not care for it, since they previously did not have regular contact with the steppe cultures, it was simply a novelty.59 Nevertheless, as the Mongols had more contact with these Orthodox Christians, if the Mongols had converted to Orthodox Christianity they would have had to abstain from kumiss, a vital part of their culture, and, in a sense, lose their "Mongolness".

Figure 3
  Figure 2: Although John de Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck failed to convert the Mongols, Wenceslao Padilla, CICM is the current Bishop of the Apostolic Prefecture of Mongolia and has had considerable more success in his endeavors than the Franciscan friars. Photograph by author.  

     Only after the unity of the Mongols dwindled did religion begin to play a factor as each khan sought an advantage over his opponents. Furthermore, one may also return to the topic of Tenggerism and wonder if Tenggerism gave rise to the notion of a divine right to rule the world, then did the dissolution of the empire undermine the core beliefs? With the offspring of Chinggis Khan fighting each other rather than conquering the world, one may question if the princes and the common nomads still believed in Tenggerism as a religion. With a crisis of faith, many may have sought solace in another religion. While some conversions may have been sincere, most initial ones were strategic political conversion, rather than ones out of devotion. Nonetheless, the conversion to world religions made the Mongols too similar to most of their conquered subjects, thus the rulers became much like the ruled and gradual assimilation followed in much of the former Mongol empire.

Timothy May is Professor of Eurasian History and Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at the University of North Georgia. He is the author of The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012) and The Mongol Art of War (2007). Currently, he is finishing a book on the Mongol Empire for Edinburgh University Press and an encyclopedia of the Mongol Empire for ABC-CLIO. When not writing or practicing the dark art of administration, he also teaches graduate colloquiums on world history as undergraduate courses on the Mongols, the Crusades, and other things that involve plundering and pillaging.He can be reached at


1 See Reuven Amitai-Preiss, "Sufis and Shamans: Some Remarks on the Islamization of the Mongols in the Ilkhanate," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 42/1 (1998), 27–46; "Ghazan, Islam, and Mongol Tradition: A view from the Mamlûk Sultanate," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 59 (1996), 1–10; "The Conversion of Tegüder Ilkhan to Islam, " Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 25 (2001), 15–43. Also see Devin DeWeese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), passim.;

"Yasavian Legends on the Islamization of Turkistan," Aspects of Altaic Civilization III: Proceedings of the Thirtieth Meeting of the Permanent International Altaistic Conference. Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana June 1925, 1987, (Bloomington: Indiana University Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1990), passim.; Ibid, "The Masha'ikh-I Turk and the Khojagan: Rethinking the links between the Yasavi and Naqshbandi Sufi Traditions, " Journal of Islamic Studies 7/2 (1996), 180–207. The literature discussing the conversion in the Mongol Empire is vast with these representing a small portion of it.

2 See Timothy May, "The Mongols as the Scourge of God in the Islamic World", in Robert Gleaves and Istvan Kristo-Nagy, Legitimate and Illegitimate Violence in Islamic Thought, vol. II (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), forthcoming.

3 For more on the dissolution see Peter Jackson, "The Dissolution of the Mongol Empire", Central Asiatic Journal 22 (1978), 186–244.

4 For the purpose of this work, world religions are defined as ones that have spread beyond their original region through migration and conversion. Universal religions conceive of a transcendental afterlife and a higher power in which belief and salvation is obtainable by all regardless of other barriers. They share many features with world religions, but not all world religions are universal. Generally speaking universal religions also have a notable proselytizing aspect to them. A traditional religion is one lacks a central canon, the afterworld is essentially the same as the mundane world, and is usually limited to an indigenous population, thus making proselytization and conversion into it impossible to outsiders.

5 Michal Biran, The Empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian History, Cambridge Studies In Islamic Civilization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 211; for a study of other empires see J. P. Roux, "La tolerance religieuse dans l'empires Turco-Mongols," Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 203 (1986), 131–68.

6 Nestorian Christianity flourished in Asia for several centuries after a schism resulting from the Council of Ephesus in 431. See Moffet, A History of Christianity in Asia. Nestorianism was based on the school of thought in Antioch by Theodore of Mopsuetia (350–428). He was a bishop of Mopsuetia which is north of Antioch. He based his teachings' on a literal reading of the Bible, with little interpretation and also little emphasis on prophetic passages. He viewed sin as a weakness that could be overcome and not a disease or "tainted will". Nestorius was his pupil. In 428, Nestorius was elected Patriarch of Constantinople…many didn't like him because previously he was rather unknown. He launched a drive vs the Arians as heretics and also other groups, but he too was accused of heresy by Cyril the Patriarch of Alexandria. It was partially done for political reasons. Alexandria was the 3rd ranking city in Christianity behind Rome and Constantinople. And there was also rivalry between the schools of Alexandria and Antioch. Cyril accused Nestorius of "denying the deity of Christ" (p. 174), and sent 12 anathemas. The Antiochenes sent 12 counter anathemas. Emperor Thodosius II called for a council at Ephesus in 431 to settle things. Before the Antiochene supporters of Nestorius arrived, Cyril pushed forward the council and Nestorius boycotted the early start. As a result Cyril was able to get the council to excommunicate Nestorius in a vote of 200–0. Nestorius never really denied Christ's deity or unity. He just used the word "prosopon" meaning appearance or Presence while Cyril used "hypostatis" meaning substance or real being. Basically he recognized the humanity and deity of Christ as being separate things.

7 Samuel Hugh Moffet, A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. 1. Beginnings to 1500, (New York: Harper

Collins, 1992), 400–401. Also see J. M. Fiey, Chrétiens Syriaques sous les Mongols (Il-Khanat de Perse, XIIIe-XIVe s., Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium Editum Consilio Universitatis Catholicae Americae et Universitatis Catholica Lovaniensis, Vol. 362 Subsidia Tomus 44 (Louvain: Secretariat du Corpus SCO, 1975), passim.

8 J. D. Ryan, "Christian Wives of Mongol Khans: Tartar Queens and Missionary Expectations in Asia," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd Series, 8 (1998), 417.

9John Plano Carpini, "History of the Mongols" in The Mongol Mission, edited by Christopher Dawson, translated by a nun of Stanbrook Abbey (London: Sheed and Ward, 1955), 12.

10Richard Foltz, "Ecumenical Mischief Under the Mongols", Central Asiatic Journal 43 (1999), 44.

11 Foltz, "Ecumenical Mischief", 44–45.

12 Biran, Empire of Qara Khitai, 81–82, 194–196.

13‏'Ala' al-Dîn 'Aṭâ Malik ibn Muḥammad Juwaynī, Ta'rīkh-i-Jahān-Gusha, ed. Mīrzā Muḥammad Qazvīnī, (Leiden: Brill, 1912, 1916, & 1937), 50; 'Ala-ad-Din 'Ata-Malik Juvaini, The History of the World-Conqueror, trans. J. A. Boyle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 67.

14Anatoly Khazanov, "Muhammand and Jenghiz Khan compared: the religious factor in world empire building," Comparative Studies in Society and History 35 (1993), 468.

15William of Rubruck, "The Journey of William of Rubruck, "in The Mongol Mission, ed. Christopher Dawson, trans. A Nun from Stanbrook Abbery (London: Sheed and Ward, 1955), 117–119. By all appearances during William's visit, Sartak seemed to be a Christian. This is further confirmed by the Persian author, Juzjani. See Minhāj Sirāj Juzjanī, Ṭabaqāt-i-Nāṣirī, vol. II (Lahore: Markazi Urdu Bord, 1975), 286–287; Minhāj Sirāj Juzjanī, Ṭabaqāt-i-Nāṣirī (A general history of the Muhammadan dynasties of Asia), vol. II, trans. Major H. G. Raverty, (New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corp., 1970), 1291.

16Anatoly Khazanov, "The Spread of World Religions in Medieval Nomadic Societies of the Eurasian Steppes," Toronto Studies in Central and Inner Asia 1(1994): 15.

17Pope Innocent IV, "Two Bulls of Pope Innocent IV Addressed to the Emperor of the Tartars," in The Mongol Missions, trans. A Nun from Stanbrook Abbey, ed. Christopher Dawson (London: Sheed and Ward, 1955), 75–76.

18James Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), 42–43.

19 Güyük Khan, "Guyuk Khan's Letter to Pope Innocent IV (1246)", in Mission to Asia, trans. a Nun of Stanbrook Abbey, ed. Christopher Dawson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 85–86.

20The Secret History of the Mongols, trans. and ed. Francis W. Cleaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), 53.

21Jean de Joinville, "The Life of Saint Louis" in Chronicles of the Crusades, tran. and ed. M. R. B. Shaw (New York: Penguin Classics, 1963), 287–288.

22 King Louis IX led an invasion of Egypt in 1248 that started off successfully, but ended with the capture of the King and the ransoming of his army. In addition, he died while on Crusade in Tunis. In his endeavors as a Crusader, other than being indirectly involved with the fall of the Ayyûbid dynasty, King Louis' greatest achievement was strengthening the walls of a few castles in Palestine and supporting a garrison force to help protect the Latin holdings there.

23Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 50.

24 Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 36. These irregularities often concerned marriage, such as degrees of affinity that might not coincide with those acceptable by the Catholic Church.

25 Güyük Khan, 85. Güyük responds to the Pope's request that the Mongols become Christians and cease their attacks on Christian lands by writing "Though thou likewise sayest that I should become a trembling Nestorian Christian, worship God and be an ascetic, how knowest thou whom God absolves, in truth to whom He shows mercy?".

26 G. W. Houston, "An overview of Nestorians in Inner Asia", Central Asiatic Journal 24 (1980): 64–65.

27 The Secret History of the Mongols, trans. and ed. Igor de Rachewiltz (Leiden: Brill, 2004), §189. De Rachewiltz's translation is the best, but other translations such as the previously mentioned Cleaves are still useful and accessible, hence I am citing by passage number rather than page.

28 Khazanov, "The Spread of World Religions", 24.

29 The Secret History of the Mongols, 181–182. It should be noted that there is some debate over whether or not Teb Tengri was a shaman. See T D Skrynnikova, Kharizma vlasti v epokhu Chingiskhana. Moscow,
Vostochnaia literatura RAN, 1997.

30 Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 59–60.

31 To the north of the Il-Khanate was the Golden Horde whose rulers were often Muslim, to the Northeast were the Chaghtayid Khanate in Central Asia. To the southwest, the Mamlûk Sultanate existed as a continual thorn in the side of the Il-Khanate. In the southeast, in India also existed the Muslim Delhi Sultanate, although encounters between the two were rare.

32 Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 62.

33 Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 62.

34 Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 63.

35 Marco Polo, Description of the World, trans. A. C. Moule and P. Pelliot (London: Routledge, 1938), 79.

36 Morris Rossabi, "The reign of Khubilai Khan", pp. 414–489 in Denis Twitchett and John K. Fairbank, eds., The Cambridge History of China, vol. 6, Alien Regimes and border states (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 463–465.

37Muldoon, Popes, Lawyers, and Infidels, 67.

38 Odoric of Pordenone, The Travels of Friar Odoric, trans. Henry Yule (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 157–158.

39 Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, Rihala Ibn Baṭṭūṭa (Beirut: Dar al-Sharq al-Arabī, 1995), passim. Also worthwhile is Ross E. Dunn, The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

40 See Bar Sauma, The History of Yaballaha III and his Vicar Bar Sauma, trans. James A. Montgomery (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), passim. Also see Morris Rossabi, Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

41 Khazanov, "Spread of World Religions," 24.

42 Sh. Bira, "Mongolian Tenggerism and Modern Globalism: A Retrospective Outlook on Globalisation, Inner Asia 5 (2003): 110.

43Cleaves, trans., The Secret History of the Mongols, 52–53.

44 Plano Carpini, 9. Plano Carpini wrote that the Mongols believed in one god who was the maker of all things and he gave good things and hardships. However, they did not worship this god with prayers or ceremonies.

45 Bira, 110.

46 Bira, 111.

47 Khaznov, "Muhammad and Jenghiz Khan", 466.

48 Dawson, The Mongol Mission, 10.

49 Juvaini, trans. and ed. Boyle, 243–44; Juwaynī, ed. Qazvīnī, 199.

50 Khazanov, "Muhammad and Jenghiz Khan", 466–467.

51 Serge Zenkovsky, ed, The Nikonian Chronicle, volume 3, translated by Serge A. and Betty Jean

Zenkovsky, ( Princeton: The Kingston Press, Inc., 1984), 19.

52 Serge Zenkovsky, ed, The Nikonian Chronicle, volume 3, 19.

53 Charles Halperin, The Tatar Yoke (Columbus, OH, 1985), 49–50.

54 Halperin, passim.

55 Halperin, 52.

56 William of Rubruck, 195.

57 William of Rubruck, 111.

58 William of Rubruck, 109.

59 William of Rubruck, 212. Indeed, while at the camp of Baiju, the Mongol commander stationed in the Mughan plain near Tabriz, William was given wine, but stated he would have preferred kumiss as it "is amore satisfying drink for a hungry man".

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