FEATURED | Mongols : Origin to Failure (Part 1) by Ron Rodriguez
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FEATURED | Mongols : Origin to Failure (Part 1) by Ron Rodriguez

By Ron Rodriguez

Once established, the Mongol Empire under Chinggis Khan, Ogodei Khan, and Mongke illustrated its willingness to accept the practice of other religions and in some cases even accepted the religion for themselves. To understand this, we can rely on the ideas seen in The Secret History of the Mongols(1) and themes in the European travelers. John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck can be relied upon to provide well adequate information to believe that the Mongols had religious beliefs and practices.(2) However, Mongol religious beliefs centered upon their moral and social viewpoints. These beliefs are the foundation of their shamanistic religion. The Mongols religion was exclusive to their tribal heritage. In addition, they firmly believed that they had “access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits.”(3) Therefore, their shamanistic religion is not conducive to being a widespread religion like Christianity or Islam. Consequently, the Mongols had to either take a policy of least resistance and adopt a religion and practices or stay isolated. The Mongols realized that their tribal heritage did not provide the administrative experience to rule a state. As a result, “it was not long before they took the line of least resistance and adopted, in the various parts of their empire, a more developed religion learned from their conquered subjects.”(4) The Mongols purpose was to use religion as a syncretic tool to reach their goals in any specific region. Therefore, the policy on religion became a linchpin to the success and later failure of the Mongol Empire.

The Mongols made the decision to adopt or adapt to the religious beliefs of regions they conquered because it was influential in creating and managing a state. However, every other nation, during this period, favored a policy that accepted one religion over another, creating an alliance between church and state. Consequently, how did Chinggis Khan and his immediate successors manage to create a state, with all the institutions and bureaucracy needed to run an empire, out of a tribal heritage? What resources did they draw upon? How did this influence their policy toward religion and the state? How does a policy on religion change with the breakup of the Mongol Empire?

From the beginning of the Mongol empire, under Genghis Khan until two or three generations after his death, many Mongol rulers chose not to institute a state religion. Rather the Mongol rulers chose to embrace peoples of many different religions and ethnicities into their empire, upon an equal playing field with each other. However, the Mongols did not consider conquered peoples on the same level as themselves. The Mongols did not impose a state religion on the regions they conquered because they were a coalition of Asiatic and Turkish tribes that consisted of multiple ethnicities and religions – hence the linchpin underlining their classification as shamans. The Mongols understood that to adopt or adapt to the conquered religion would be easier and more effective than attempt to implement their belief system in any specific region.(5)

Genghis Khan understood that the Mongols had vastly different religious and cultural traditions than the conquered peoples, which resulted in a need to find a common place to start. Furthermore, he understood that the conversion(6) of “pre-modern peoples to adopt or adapt foreign cultural traditions for political, social, or economic purposes.”(7) He understood that the acceptance of cultural traditions sometimes attracts individuals to foreign cultural traditions or gain political or military support to an expanding cultural tradition. However, he needed a syncretic course of action encircling the three modes of cross-cultural conversion and syncretism that were rarely effective alone yet were highly effective when incorporated in unison.(8) This process is vital to the state building since this approach intertwines numerous aspects between two vastly different societies’ cultural differences.

The Mongols were a small group of loosely connected nomadic tribes while the regions they conquered were established states. Therefore, the Mongol culture was vastly different in 1206 as Chinggis Khan and immediate successors conquered numerous regions that included the Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Iran, China, Korea, Vietnam and many places in-between. The Mongols lack of administrative skills was a common trait among conquerors, but they became historically unique as they approach the process of state building in a syncretic method. However, David Ringrose in

The Mongols lack of administrative skills was a common trait among conquerors, but they became historically unique as they approach the process of state building in a syncretic method. However, David Ringrose in Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700(9) clearly synthesizes the significance of the Mongols role in the development of the political, cultural, religious, and economic development. In addition, the historian Thomas Allsen provides an in-depth overarching foundation of Mongol state building. His linchpin work, Mongol Imperialism, clearly explains the foundation of state building by outlining “The Politics of Centralization,” “The Tools of Centralization,” “Population Registration,” “Taxation,” and “Recruitment of Manpower.”(10) It provides the reader with an excellent in-depth and synthesized source on Mongol history. In addition, the work by David Morgan, The Mongols, is an excellent introductory study that is a critical evaluation of other historian’s hypotheses. Ultimately, these discussions provide an excellent examination of Mongol history but cannot be the backbone of this papers research.

Therefore, it became important to devote time to understanding the vast array of primary sources concerning Mongol history. Unfortunately, the process begins with the realization that there are not many Mongolian written sources. Nevertheless, the most prominent of the available Mongolian sources is The Secret History of the Mongols, which is surrounded by uncertainties concerning the language it was originally written in. Nonetheless, this source is critical because “[i]nternal evidence suggests that [the purpose of] the book was to serve as the official account of the origins of the ruling clan of the Mongols, the life of the clan’s late leader, Chinggis Khan, and the reign of Chinggis son and successor, Ogodei Khan.”(11) Access to the Secret History was initially available to only the family of Chinggis Khan. Thus, the family controlled source resulted in the Secret History containing portions that are limited or unblemished narratives of the Mongols because it was the family’s private history written by an unknown scribe. The uncertainties bring skepticism to this history, but it contains invaluable information.

The Secret History is slanted in the favor of the Mongol elite but it contains invaluable accounts that other sources gloss over or do not touch on at all. Therefore, it is an excellent source to obtain thee viewpoint of Mongol history from the elite’s perspective. In addition, it provides a starting point of Mongol history that is useful when delving into other sources. For example, Mission to Asia(12) includes the narratives and letters of the Franciscan missionaries in Mongolia and China in the thirteenth and fourteenth century but it contains gaps in vital aspects. Therefore, the reader will find the Secret History useful in enabling a deeper understanding of Mongol history. As a result, it is necessary to know the scholarly Mongol historians.

It is necessary to recognize the prominent Mongol historians in order to understand the scope of their history. The significant historians that are vital to this subject are David R. Ringrose, Jerry H. Bentley, David Morgan, and Thomas T Allsen. There works provide the necessary background information and the ability to fill in the gaps of information that the primary sources do not provide or are not fully illustrated. Although secondary sources provide vital and useful information, their use it limited in supporting the evidence obtained through primary sources. There are numerous primary sources available but this paper only focuses on three. The first amongst these primary sources is The Secret History of the Mongols.

Modern scholars believed that Genghis Khan dictated parts of this history to a scribe, which no one knows who it was. In addition, the large portion of The Secret History was written within several decades of Genghis Khans death. The original text of the Secret History is arguably the oldest textual history written in the Mongolian language. This copy of The Secret History is not another English translation of the original source. Rather this version is an adaptation of Francis Woodman Cleaves translation in order to provide a more accessible text to all readers. It provides the history of the origins of Genghis Khan and the Mongols in a clear and concise fashion. This source is relevant to this research because it provides a solid foundation and background on the thoughts of the Mongols particularly of Genghis Khan. The second source used in this paper is Mission to Asia by Christopher Dawson.

John of Plano Carpini wrote Mission to Asia throughout his missionary journey through Asia. The editor Christopher Dawson has enabled modern historians to take advantage of this compiled source. This is because historians are able to compare this source to others that contain the regions consensus opinions amongst the world religious figures. The overarching content of this source illustrates the Franciscan missionaries in Mongolia and china in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This becomes useful because it provides specific information on the Mongols and their interaction with the people of China. The final primary source that this paper relies on is the starting point of Russian history: The Chronicle of Novgorod.

The Chronicle of Novgorod is a textual history and is the starting point of Russian history. This source provides an excellent first hand account of Russian history that includes the earliest point of Russian history. Its overarching purpose provides the history of the Russians, particularly their relationship with others. In addition, for the purpose of this paper, the most vital aspect is the discussions on the relationship between the Mongols and Russians. This is an important aspect because it helps illustrate the Mongols approach to foreign cultures. In addition, their shifts in policy toward religion and how that affected the Russian people.

This theospian analaysis on Mongols has been first published at RonRodriguez.org / RonRodriguez.org by Ron Rodriguez is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


1 Anonymous, The Secret History of the Mongols. Adapted by Paul Khan (Boston: Cheng & Tsui Company, 1998).

2 Cf. David Morgan, The Mongols (New Jersey: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 40 – 41; Khan, The Secret History of the Mongol, xx.

3 Oxford University Press, The New Oxford American Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010).

4 Morgan, The Mongols, 41.

5 Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 7.

6 “[T]he term conversion rarely refers to an individual’s spiritual or psychological experience but, rather, to the broader process that resulted in the transformation of whole societies. Ibid., 9.

7 Ibid., 7.

8 Ibid., 17.

9 David R. Ringrose, Expansion and Global Interaction, 1200-1700 (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2001).

10 Morgan, The Mongols, v – vi.

11 Anonymous, Secret History, ix.

12 Christopher Dawson, Mission to Asia (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1955).

13 Robert Mitchell and Nevill Forbes, eds., The Chronicle of Novgorod 1076-1471 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1918).