Mongol Invasions

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Mongol Invasions



Destruction . The Mongol invasions of the Muslim world began in 1219 and lasted until the Mongols eventually embraced Islam as their religion, in 1295 in the Ilkhanid empire of Persia and in 1313 in the Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia. Even after this time, Muslim Mongol rulers such as Timur (1369–1405) repeated the pattern and some of the destructiveness of the earlier pagan Mongol invasions. Based on the testimony of all the sources and even allowing for exaggeration, it is clear that the Mongol invasions were quantitatively the most destructive episode Muslim Asia ever experienced, and they had deep and widespread repercussions. Cities were totally destroyed and their inhabitants massacred, sometimes almost to the last person. For the purpose of controlling conquered lands, the Mongols deliberately wrecked agricultural systems and irrigation channels and tunnels, reducing the size of the population that the land could support. Even after the immediate destructiveness of the invasions had passed, Muslim society continued in a downward spiral for a considerable time because early Mongol governments tended to be inefficient and rapacious, leading to further neglect of agriculture. When a recovery from these bouts of destruction finally got under way, lands such as Iran and Central Asia found themselves greatly surpassed in population and urbanization by Europe, India, China, and even other parts of the Muslim world.

Turkic Invaders and Migrants . Many migrations into and invasions of southwest Asia by pastoral peoples had taken place over long periods. By Muslim times, these migrants and invaders were Altaic peoples who spoke either Turkic or Mongol languages. In 1037 the Oghuz Turks, led by the Saljuk family, took Nishapur in northeastern Iran. Although the Saljuks’ spread was accompanied by some destruction, which may have helped to pave the way for the later ultimate catastrophe of the Mongols, the Saljuks were already Muslims, which tempered their actions toward fellow Muslims somewhat. Thus, when the Saljuks took Baghdad in 1055, they were interested in ruling, not plundering. Later, in 1141, the pagan Kara Khitay conquered Turkestan, including the great Muslim cities of Samarqand and Bukhara, helping to set in motion new invasions of Oghuz Turks, this time from tribes not yet Muslim. By 1153, these Oghuz had managed to capture the Saljuk Sultan Sanjar, opening inroads into northeast Iran, where they visited great destruction and thus paved the way for the Mongols.

Mongol Strategy . The Mongols erupted from their aboriginal homeland in Mongolia and Siberia. Their power was so great that they were able to carry on campaigns against China and the Middle East at the same time and to launch invasions of Russia, Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and Japan. They possessed excellent military organization and augmented their power by enlisting defeated enemies of Turkish stock and exploiting existing political splits and hatreds. Often, the Mongols used their subject allies to perpetrate the worst massacres carried out under their auspices. The terror they inflicted was often enough alone to convince enemies to surrender, and when the Mongols were faced with a determined opposition, they relentlessly pursued the resisters until they were completely wiped out. Probably the first Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan (ruled 1206–1227), was the worst. Genghis had already spent years subduing North China, where he visited a destruction as severe as in any Muslim land. During the Mongol invasions, the population of China decreased from about 100 million to 65 million. Of course, most of the 35 million excess deaths probably came about not from direct killing, but because of the destruction of the means of production, especially agricultural, that gave people their livelihoods. In some regions the downward spiral of population continued for some time. In Muslim Central Asia, Genghis advanced from 1219 to 1221, conquering all of Central Asia and most of Afghanistan before returning to Mongolia in 1222. Generals sent by him devastated northern Iran, the Caucasus region, and southern Russia, returning to Mongolia in 1224. This invasion was the first visitation. Although the Mongols did not immediately incorporate all their conquests into their empire, they did keep control over Central Asia and waged campaigns from there, extending their rule over much of Iran (1231) and Anatolia (1242–1243), where they made the Saljuks of Rum their vassals. During the next big campaign, led by Genghis’s grandson Hulagu from 1254 to 1260, the Mongols destroyed the Isma’ili castles in Iran and then conquered Baghdad in 1258. From there, they went to Syria but had to withdraw partially in 1260 to face civil war in the Mongol empire. Indeed, the year 1260 was a decisive watershed in Mongol history, after which the Mongol empire split into several mutually hostile areas that soon coalesced into separate states. Hulagu’s withdrawal from Syria quickly led to the defeat and expulsion of the rest of his occupying force there by the Mamluks of Egypt. This victory was the first time the Mongols had been stopped. The state founded by Hulagu, the Ilkhan empire, continued in Iran and Iraq. Gradually the Ilkhanids Mongols accepted the Muslim religion of their subjects, the ruler becoming a Muslim in 1282–1284 and again from 1295.


Students of Muslim history often tend to conflate the Arab conquests with the spread of Islam when, in fact, the two events are distinct historical processes separated by centuries. During the first century after the Hijrah, rapid expansion of Muslim territory occurred under the impetus of military campaigns. However, these lands did not at that time suddenly become “Islamic”. The spread of Islam among the population of these lands was a gradual process that continued for centuries, even in the regions conquered in the seventh century.

The chronology below traces major milestones in the expansion of Islam. It marks both dates when various regions became exposed to Islam, and also gives a range of dates within which Muslims likely became a majority of the population in those areas.

750s: Muslim soldiers settle in Chang’an (Xian) while Muslim merchants regularly visit and reside in Chinese ports.

Circa 800–850: The majority of the population in present-day Iran is Islamic.

819: The Samanids form the first independent Muslim state in northeastern Iran and Central Asia; by the end of the ninth century, Islam has become the predominant religion in the region.

Circa 850–900: Islam achieves majority status in present-day Iraq, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Circa 940–1000: The Muslim-ruled populations of the Iberian Peninsula become Islamic.

1000s: Muslim traders help to spread Islam in West Africa; Muslims reside in Champa (present-day Vietnam).

1000s–1200s: Some rulers and resident merchant traders of the Sudanic kingdoms are Muslims. The rulers occasionally go on pilgrimages. Trading contacts increase.

1040s; The Almoravids, a Berber group, are established in Mauritania, spreading Islam in the western Sudan. They undertake campaigns against the Soninke kings of Ghana.

1060s: The Almoravids subjugate the Maghrib and al-Andalus; the empire of Ghana, center of western Sudanic trade, grows weaker.

Circa 1200: The majority of the population in Syria is Muslim.

1200s: The Ghana empire collapses while the Mali empire rises. The rulers of Kanem, near Lake Chad, are Muslims by this point.

Late 1200s: Muslims reside in the northern ports of Sumatra, and they maintain close trade and cultural contacts with East Indian coastal cities such as Gujarat,

1295: Ghazan “the Reformer” becomes the first Ilkhan to break with Mongol tradition and embrace Islam, along with most of his Mongol generals.

Circa 1300: The majority of the population in Anatolia is Muslim.

1300s: Mali, Gao, and Timbuktu on the Niger River become important centers of Muslim trade and scholarship.

1324–1325: Mansa Musa, king of Mali, makes his pilgrimage journey to Makkah, strengthening the region’s ties with Islam.

1400s: A ruler of Malacca converts to Islam as the port city becomes important to trade in the East Indies. From Malacca Islam spreads to the southern Malay Peninsula and to neighboring islands.

Sources: Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979).

Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Cwitizatum, 3 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974).

Successor States . The Mongols who had conquered Russia in 1237-1241 had also established a state, which is known as the Khanate of the Golden Horde. This state waged war mostly against Russian Christians rather than other Muslims, and its ruler of 1258–1266, Berke, became the first important Mongol Muslim. Indeed, he allied with the Mamluks of Egypt against his own relatives, the Ilkhanids, whom he attacked from the north. This attack contributed greatly to curtailing Hulagu’s plans for further expansion of the Ilkhanid state. After its Muslim khan had died, however, the Golden Horde went back to paganism until about 1313, when Islam was re-established there on a firmer basis. Although the conversion of the Mongols to Islam usually limited the ferocity of their military campaigns, occasional repeats of their earlier destructiveness continued to occur, mostly in Turkestan, which as a result suffered a considerable fall from its once high estate in Islam. Furthermore, the Turkish or Mongol ruler Timur the Lame (Tamerlane, ruled 1369–1405) severely damaged Delhi in 1398–1399; Iran, Iraq, and Syria in 1400–1401; and Turkey in 1402 during a series of attacks designed to build up the core of his empire in Turkestan. Not only did Mongols in all previously Muslim areas eventually convert to Islam, but Islam also later expanded in some steppe areas where it had not previously prevailed, as in Kazakhstan. Though Islam survived and prevailed, however, the vast destruction caused by the Mongol invasions, especially in the period 1219–1260, was a great setback for the Muslim world.


’Ala’al-Din ‘Ata-Malik Juwayni, The History of the World-Conqueror, translated by J. A. Boyle (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958).

David O. Morgan, The Mongols (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

Morgan, “Mongols,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, CD-ROM version (Leiden: Brill, 1999)