Religion in the Mongol Empire

The Mongols were highly tolerant of most religions during the early Mongol Empire, and typically sponsored several at the same time. At the time of Genghis Khan in the 13th century, virtually every religion had found converts, from Buddhism to Eastern Christianity and Manichaeanism to Islam. To avoid strife, Genghis Khan set up an institution that ensured complete religious freedom, though he himself was a Shamanist. Under his administration, all religious leaders were exempt from taxation, and from public service.[1] Mongol emperors were known for organizing competitions of religious debates among clerics, and these would draw large audiences.

Initially, there were few normal places of worship, because of the nomadic lifestyle. However, under Genghis's successor Ögedei, several building projects were undertaken in the Mongol capital of Karakorum. Along with palaces, Ogedei built houses of worship for the Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Taoist followers. The dominant religions at that time were Shamanism, Tengriism and Buddhism, although Ogodei's wife was a Christian.[2] In later years of the empire, three of the four principal khanates embraced Islam, as Islam was favored over other religions.[3][4][5] The Yuan dynasty mainly adopted Tibetan Buddhism while there were other religions practiced in the east of the Mongol Empire.


Shamanism, which practices a form of animism with several meanings and with different characters, was a popular religion in ancient Central Asia and Siberia. The central act in the relationship between human and nature was the worship of the Blue Mighty Eternal Heaven - "Blue Sky" (Хөх тэнгэр, Эрхэт мөнх тэнгэр). Chingis Khan showed his spiritual power was greater than others and himself to be a connector to heaven after the execution of rival shaman Teb Tengri Kokhchu.

Under the Mongol Empire the khans such as Batu, Duwa, Kebek and Tokhta kept a whole college of male shamans. Those shamans were divided into bikes and others. The bikes camped in front of the Great Khan's palace and other shamans behind it. In spite of astrological observations and regular calendar ceremonies, Mongol shamans led armies and performed weather magic. Shamans played a powerful political role behind the Mongol court.

While Ghazan converted to Islam, he still practiced some elements of Mongol shamanism. The Yassa code remained in place and Mongol shamans were allowed to remain in the Ilkhanate empire and remained politically influential throughout his reign as well as Oljeitu's. However, ancient Mongol shamanistic traditions went into decline with the demise of Oljeitu and with the rise of rulers practicing a purified form of Islam. With Islamization, the shamans were no longer important as they had been in Golden Horde and Ilkhanate. But they still performed in ritual ceremonies alongside the Nestors and Buddhist monks in Yuan Dynasty.


Buddhists entered the service of the Mongol Empire in the early 13th century. Buddhist monasteries established in the Karakorum were granted tax-exempt status, though the religion was not given official status by the Mongols until later. All variants of Buddhism, such as Chinese, Tibetan and Indian Buddhism flourished, though Tibetan Buddhism was eventually favored at the imperial level under emperor Möngke, who appointed Namo from Kashmir as chief of all Buddhist monks.

Ogedei's son and Guyuk's younger brother, Khotan, became the governor of Ningxia and Gansu. He launched a military campaign into Tibet under the command of Generals Lichi and Door ha, and the marauding Mongols burned down Tibetan monuments such as the Reting monastery and the Gyal temple in 1240. Prince Kötön was convinced that no power in the world exceeded the might of the Mongols. However, he also believed that religion was necessary for the interests of the next life. Thus he invited Sakya Pandita to his ordo. Prince Kötön was impressed and healed by Sakya Pandita's teachings and knowledge, and later became the first known Buddhist prince of the Mongol Empire.

Kublai Khan, the founder of Yuan dynasty, also favored Buddhism. As early as the 1240s, he made contacts with a Chan Buddhist monk Haiyun, who became his Buddhist adviser. Kublai's second son, whom he later officially designated as his successor in the Yuan dynasty, was given a Chinese name "Zhenjin" (literally, "True Gold") by Haiyan. Khatun Chibi influenced Kublai to be converted to Buddhism, as she had received the Hévajra tantra initiations from Phagpa and been impressed. Kublai appointed Phagspa his Imperial Preceptor (initially "State Preceptor"), giving him power over all the Buddhist monks within the territory of the Yuan dynasty. For the rest of the Yuan dynasty in Mongolia and China, until the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, Tibetan lamas were the most influential Buddhist clergy. Via the Tibetan clergy, Indian Buddhist textual tradition strongly influenced the religious life in the Empire.

Some of the Ilkhans in Iran held Pagano grub-pa order as their appanage in Tibet and lavishly patronized a variety of Indian, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist monks. But in 1295, Ghazan persecuted Buddhists and destroyed their temples. Before his conversion to Islam though, he had built a Buddhist temple in Khorasan. The 14th-century Buddhist scriptures found at archaeological sites related to Chagatai Khanate show the popularity of Buddhism among the Mongols and the Uighurs. Tokhta of Golden Horde also encouraged lamas to settle in Russia [6] But his policy was halted by his successor Ozbeg Khan, a Muslim.


Some Mongols had been evangelized by Christian Nestorians since about the 7th Century, and a few Mongols were converted to Catholicism, esp. by John of Montecorvino who was appointed by the Papal states of Europe.[7]

The religion never achieved a great position in the Mongol Empire, but many Great Khans and lesser leaders were raised by Christian mothers and educated by Christian tutors. Some of the major Christian figures among the Mongols were: Sorghaghtani Beki, daughter in law of Genghis Khan, and mother of the Great Khans Möngke, Kublai, Hulagu and Ariq Boke; Sartaq, khan of Golden Horde; Doquz Khatun, the mother of the ruler Abaqa; Nayan, a descendant of one of Genghis Khan's brothers, who raised a rebellion against Kublai in Manchuria; Kitbuqa, general of Mongol forces in the Levant, who fought in alliance with Christians. Marital alliances with Western powers also occurred, as in the 1265 marriage of Maria Palaiologina, daughter of Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus, with Abaqa. Tokhta, Oljeitu and Ozbeg had Greek Khatun as well. The Mongol Empire contained the lands of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Caucasus and Russia, the Apostolic church in Armenia and the Assyrian Church of Nestorians in Central Asia and Persia.

The 13th century saw attempts at a Franco-Mongol alliance with the exchange of ambassadors and even military collaboration with European Christians in the Holy Land. Ilkhan Abacha sent a tumen to support crusaders during the Ninth Crusade in 1271. The Nestorian Mongol Rabban Bar Sauma visited some European courts in 1287-1288. At the same time, however, Islam began to take firm root amongst the Mongols, as those who embraced Christianity such as Tekuder, became Muslim.[8] After Ongud Mar Yahbh-Allaha, the monk of Kublai Khan, was elected a catholicos of the eastern Christian church in 1281, Catholic missionaries were begun to be sent to all Mongol capitals.


The Ilkhanate, Golden Horde, and the Chagatai Khanate - three of the four principal khanates (except for the Yuan dynasty) - embraced Islam,[3] as the Mongol elite favored Islam to strengthen their rule over the Muslim majority populace.[4][5] Non-Muslim Mongols also employed many Muslims in various fields and increasingly took their advice in administrative affairs. For example, Genghis Khan's advisor, Mahmud Yalavach, and Kublai Khan's financial minister, Ahmad Fanakati, were Muslims. Still, the mainlands of the Mongols remained staunchly Buddhist and Shamans.

As they were well educated and knew Turkish and Mongolian, Muslims became a favored class of officials with notable Mongol converts to Islam including Mubarak Shah and Tarmashirin of the Chagatai Khanate, Tuda Mengu and Negudar of the Golden Horde, Ghazan and Öljaitü of the Ilkhanate. Berke, who ruled Golden Horde from 1257 to 1266, was the first Muslim leader of any Mongol khanates. Ghazan was the first Muslim khan to adopt Islam as the national religion of Ilkhanate, followed by Uzbek of the Golden Horde who urged his subjects to accept the religion as well. Ghazan continued his non-Muslim forefathers' approach toward religious tolerance. When Ghazan learned that some Buddhist monks feigned conversion to Islam due to the earlier destruction of some of their temples, he granted permission to all who wished to return to Tibet where they could freely follow their faith and be among other Buddhists.[9]

Though in Chagatai Khanate, Buddhism and Shamanism flourished until the 1350s. When the western part of the khanate embraced Islam quickly, the eastern part or Moghulistan slowed Islamization until Tughlugh Timur (1329/30-1363) who accepted Islam with his thousands of subjects.

The Yuan dynasty, unlike the western khanates, never converted to Islam. The other three Khanates accepted the suzerainty of Yuan dynasty but gradually that withered away. There had been many Muslim residing in Yuan dynasty territory since Kublai Khan and his successors were tolerant of other religions. Nevertheless, Buddhism was the most influential religion within its territory. Contact between Yuan emperors in China and states in North Africa, India, and the Middle East lasted until the mid-14th century. Foreigners like Uyghur Buddhists from Cochon, Nestorian Christian Keraits, Naimans, On guns, Jews, and Central Asian Muslims were classified as Semuren, "various sorts", below the Mongols but above the Chinese.[2]

At the same time the Mongols imported Central Asian Muslims to serve as administrators in China, the Mongols also sent Han Chinese and Khitans from China to serve as administrators over the Muslim population in Bukhara in Central Asia, using foreigners to curtail the power of the local peoples of both lands.[10]

Genghis Khan and the following Yuan Emperors forbade Islamic practices like Halal butchering, forcing Mongol methods of butchering animals on Muslims, and other restrictive degrees continued. Muslims had to slaughter sheep in secret.[11] Genghis Khan directly called Muslims and Jews "slaves", and demanded that they follow the Mongol method of eating rather than the halal method. Circumcision was also forbidden. Jews were also affected, and forbidden by the Mongols to eat Kosher.[12]

Among all the [subject] alien peoples only the Hui-hui say “we do not eat Mongol food”. [Cinggis Qa’an replied:] “By the aid of heaven we have pacified you; you are our slaves. Yet you do not eat our food or drink. How can this be right?” He thereupon made them eat. “If you slaughter sheep, you will be considered guilty of a crime.” He issued a regulation to that effect ... [In 1279/1280 under Qubilai] all the Muslims say: “if someone else slaughters [the animal] we do not eat”. Because the poor people are upset by this, from now on, Muscleman [Muslim] Huihui and Zhuhai [Jewish] Huihui, no matter who kills [the animal] will eat [it] and must cease slaughtering sheep themselves, and cease the rite of circumcision.


The Muslims in the same class also revolted against the Yuan dynasty in the Ispah Rebellion but the rebellion was crushed and the Muslims were massacred by the Yuan loyalist commander Chen Youding. Some Muslim communities had the name in Chinese which meant "barracks" and also mean "thanks", many Hui Muslims claim it is because that they played an important role in overthrowing the Mongols and it was named in thanks by the Han Chinese for assisting them.[14]

During the Ming conquest of Yunnan, Muslim Generals Mu Ying and Lan Yu, led Muslim troops loyal to the Ming dynasty against Mongol and Muslim troops loyal to the Yuan dynasty.[15][16]

Religion under Genghis Khan

As Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and waged war on most of Asia he became known as one of the most ruthless and brutal warlords of all time. However, one hallmark during his military conquest was his tolerance of all religions. He embraced diversity and decreed religious freedom for everyone.[17] Genghis Khan’s tolerance proved to be beneficial for him. Genghis continued to use religious persecution to his benefit. He would use suppressed people as spies in cities such as Baghdad and then take the land, assimilating all those willing.[18] In her book Day of Empire, Amy Chua claims that “the Mongols were more religiously open than any other power in the world.”[18]

Genghis Khan’s Inner Circle

After a failed assassination attempt on Genghis Khan, 100 of his men fled and nearly starved to death. While on the run these men swore allegiance to one another and remarkably these men included Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and animists who worshiped the Eternal Blue Sky and the God Mountain of Burkhan Khaldun.[19]

Defender of Religions

When Muslim envoys came from central Asia to seek Genghis Khan’s protection from the religious persecution they faced under their Christian khan Guchlug, Genghis Khan was happy to help. He led a campaign into Balasagun and killed Guchlug and declared religious freedom in his lands. This earned Genghis Khan the title as "defender of religions" and it was even said he was "one of the mercies of the Lord and one of the bounties of his divine grace."[20]

Outside Perspective

The Mongols passion for religious tolerance appealed to writers of the eighteenth century. "The Catholic inquisitors of Europe," wrote Edward Gibbon in a celebrated passage, "who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration." He goes on to add, in a footnote, "a singular conformity may be found between the religious laws of Zingis Khan and of Mr. Locke."[21]

See also


  1. Weatherford 2004, p. 69.
  2. Weatherford 2004, p. 135.
  3. Encyclopedia 1920, p. 680.
  4. Ezzati 2002, p. 274.
  5. Bukharaev 2000, p. 145.
  6. Gumilev 2006.
  7. Foltz 2010.
  8. Runciman 1987, p. 397.
  9. Arnold 1896, p. 342.
  10. Buell, Paul D. (1979). "Sino-Khitan Administration in Mongol Bukhara". Journal of Asian History. Harrassowitz Verlag. 13 (No. 2): 137–8. JSTOR 41930343.
  11. Michael Dillon (1999). China's Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects. Richmond: Curzon Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-7007-1026-4. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  12. Johan Elverskog (2010). Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (illustrated ed.). University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 228. ISBN 0-8122-4237-8. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  13. Donald Daniel Leslie (1998). "The Integration of Religious Minorities in China: The Case of Chinese Muslims" (PDF). The Fifty-ninth George Ernest Morrison Lecture in Ethnology. p. 12. Retrieved 30 November 2010..
  14. Dru C. Gladney (1991). Muslim Chinese: ethnic nationalism in the People's Republic (2, illustrated, reprint ed.). Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University. p. 234. ISBN 0-674-59495-9. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  15. Tan Ta Sen, Dasheng Chen (2009). Cheng Ho and Islam in Southeast Asia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. p. 170. ISBN 981-230-837-7. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  16. Michael Dillon (1999). China's Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects. Richmond: Curzon Press. p. 34. ISBN 0-7007-1026-4. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  17. Chua 2007, p. 90.
  18. Chua 2007.
  19. Chua 2007, p. 95.
  20. Chua 2007, p. 102.
  21. Morgan 2007, p. 39.


Further reading

  • Brent, Peter (1976). The Mongol Empire: Genghis Khan: His Triumph and his Legacy. London: Book Club Associates. ISBN 978-0-297-77137-1.
  • Briant, Pierre (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraun. ISBN 1-57506-031-0.
  • Buell, Paul D. (2003). Historical Dictionary of the Mongol World Empire. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-4571-7.
  • Farale, Dominique (2003). De Gengis Khan à Qoubilaï Khan : la grande chevauchée mongole (in French). Economica. ISBN 2-7178-4537-2.
  • Farale, Dominique (2007). La Russie et les Turco-Mongols: 15 siècles de guerre (in French). Economica. ISBN 978-2-7178-5429-9.
  • Howorth, Henry H. (2008). History of the Mongols from the 9th to the 19th Century: Part 1 the Mongols Proper and the Kalmyks. New York: Cosimo, Inc. ISBN 978-1-60520-133-7.
  • Kradin, Nikolay; Skrynnikova, Tatiana (2006). Imperija Čingis-chana [Genghis Khan Empire] (in Russian). Moscow: Vostochnaia literatura. ISBN 5-02-018521-3.
  • Kradin, Nikolay; Skrynnikova, Tatiana (2006). "Why do we call Chinggis Khan's Polity 'an Empire'". Ab Imperio. 7 (1): 89–118. ISBN 5-89423-110-8.
  • Lamb, Harold (1927). Genghis Khan, the Emperor of All Men. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-89987-512-2.
  • May, Timothy (2007). The Mongol Art of War. Yardley: Westholme Publishing. ISBN 978-1-59416-046-2.
  • Olmstead, A. T. (1959). History of the Persian Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago. ISBN 0-226-62777-2.
  • Pocha, Jehangir S. (10 May 2005). "Mongolia Sees Genghis Khan's Good Side". The New York Times.
  • Roux, Jean-Paul (2003). Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. "Abrams Discoveries" series. Translated by Ballas, Toula. New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 978-0-8109-9103-3.
  • Woods, Shelton (2002). Vietnam: An Illustrated History. Hippocrene Books Inc. ISBN 0-7818-0910-X.
  • Banzarov, Dorji, Jan Nattier, and John R. Krueger. 1981. “THE BLACK FAITH, or SHAMANISM AMONG THE MONGOLS”. Mongolian Studies 7. Mongolia Society: 53–91.
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