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The Mongol Catalysis

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A manuscript of the Tarikh-i Jahangushay (History of the World Conqueror) by ‘Ala ad-Din ‘Ata-Malik Juvayni (d. 1283), completed in 1290 CE, contains an illustration of uncertain provenance as a frontispiece to the text. Although damaged and enigmatic as to the full significance of its pictorial elements, the painting encapsulates sociopolitical relations foundational to Persian chronicles written in Islamic societies circa 1250–1350. The painting depicts two men under a highly stylized, flowering pomegranate tree. One is bigger, with a long beard and dressed in blue. He sits on the ground, holding a book in which he seems to be writing. The second, smaller figure is wearing a layered, more opulent costume. The face on this figure has been damaged. His right hand is raised in air, as if in the middle of an oratorial act. By his right foot on the ground, there is a small pool of water with a fish in it. A textual annotation identifies the sitting figure as Juvayni, the work’s author, whereas we can surmise the standing one to be a Mongol royal person.

The Tarikh-i Jahangushay is a Muslim chronicler’s account of non-Muslim Mongols taking over regions in Central Asia and the Middle East. Juvayni came from a family of learned bureaucrat-scholars who had acted as administrators for various dynasties dominant in the region for centuries. As Mongol power expanded in the wake of Genghis Khan’s (d. 1227) phenomenal military success in the early thirteenth century, highly trained individuals such as Juvayni became employed by the newcomers.

In 1258, Juvayni witnessed, in the company of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hülegü Khan (d. 1265), the capture of Baghdad and the subsequent execution of the reigning ‘Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim. He remained employed by the Mongol court until his death in 1283, his history of the Mongol conquest becoming a touchstone for later chroniclers. He lived just long enough to see the first year of the short reign (1282–1284) of Ahmad Tegüder (d. 1284), the first Ilkhan (Mongol ruler in the Middle East) who was a convert to Islam.

The painting I am highlighting captures the important fact that almost all of what we know about the Mongol conquests across Central Asia and the Middle East and their resulting massive social and political transformations comes to us from literary works penned by Muslims in positions of power. These were administrative professionals like Juvayni, who mediated between the new rulers and local populations. This circumstance makes the narratives historical objects in and of themselves, more than the information contained within them.

The structures and forms of these narratives indicate that Islam’s placement in time was reconfigured concurrently with the period’s sociopolitical changes. A full account of the transformations involved is beyond the scope of this book. But a short, focused discussion of this context is valuable to underscore the variability of the Islamic past. I highlight aspects of three prominent works that illuminate different sides of the new historiographical idiom for Islam that came into being circa 1250–1350.

I begin by discussing Juvayni’s Tarikh-i Jahangushay as a case for understanding the moral stakes of writing about the past. Juvayni needed to explain the Mongols’ victory over Muslim rulers, who were customarily expected to guarantee the predominance of Islamic ideas and practices in society. Juvayni’s introduction and his treatment of certain Muslim and non-Muslim figures indicate that he made a distinction between Islam and Muslims. This enabled him to regard the Mongols as divine agents whose victory over certain Muslims could, counterintuitively, be understood as a triumph of Islam.

My second focus is Rashid ad-Din Tabib’s (d. 1318) grand universal history called Jami’ at-tavarikh (Compendium of Histories) that was produced in both Persian and Arabic. Tabib was, like Juvayni, a high-level administrator, but he worked in a period when the Mongol rulers identified as Muslim. When composing this work, his challenge was different, namely to collate knowledge about the past that had become available as a consequence of the creation of a vast empire across Eurasia. He sought to establish principles to adjudicate between divergent claims about the past. Faced with varying evidence and attitudes among the world’s myriad communities, he saw the chronicler as a curator whose job was to allow narratives to be told in parallel without the persistent need to identify correlations. This approach had permissive as well as restricting consequences with respect to how the past would be represented.

My last example is Sharaf ad-Din Vassaf’s (died after 1328) Tajziyat al-amsar va tazjiyat al-a’sar (The Division of Lands and the Passing of the Ages). Vassaf saw his work as a continuation of Juvayni’s chronicle, and his access to the Mongol court was mediated by Tabib. Yet, his lengthy chronicle reads very differently because the narrative is artful in the extreme. Vassaf’s attention to elaborate literary expression was highly deliberate. For him, the occurrence and narration of events were inseparable, the chronicler’s job being to create authoritative and exemplary meaning from contingent historical details. Born of the circumstances created by the Mongol conquest, Vassaf’s elaborate language was a political tool with existential implications. In later centuries, Vassaf came to be seen as a foremost exemplar of historiographical expression in Persian and Turkish.

The three works I discuss are lengthy, multivolume tomes each, which I treat here in summary fashion. These works are also deeply interconnected through the lives of their authors and the events they describe. Exemplifying, respectively, the moral, epistemological, and literary concerns of the times in which they were produced, they provide us a sense for the Mongol conquest as a transformative moment that gave birth to a new way to understand and articulate the Islamic past.

Manuscript illustration showing four figures standing around two seated men - one of whom has a long white beard and moustache, and the other has a shorter black beard and moustache.

A Mongol king conversing with a Muslim scholar.


Rashid ad-Din, Jami‘ at-tavarikh, MS Supplément Persan 1113, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, fol. 202a


The Mongol Catalysis

Juvayni and the Moral Framing of History

The Tarikh-i Jahangushay of ‘Ata-Malik Juvayni contains a story that is helpful to understand the circumstances of the Mongol empire. It goes to the time of the death of Ögedei Khan (d. 1241), Genghis Khan’s immediate successor, amid rivalry within members of the ruling family. As the contenders awaited the council to determine the next ruler (quriltai), Töregene Khatun, one of Ögedei’s wives, was designated the caretaker. While a part of her authority came from being the mother of Ögedei’s oldest children, she had political ambitions of her own and embarked on determined action to form a faction among the ruling elite. This brought her into conflict with her own sons, including Güyük Khan (d. 1248), the eldest, who was eventually installed as the empire’s ruler in 1246.

Juvayni tells us that during the short period Töregene Khatun was the empire’s (contested) leader (1241–1246) based in Mongolia, she delegated much of her authority to a woman named Fatima Khatun. This second, very powerful woman in the empire had an unusual path to gaining authority. She had been captured near the city of Mashhad in Iran during the Mongol conquests under Genghis Khan. Given as a slave to Töregene Khatun, she had risen rapidly to a place of companionship and trust due to her intelligence and mental agility. Installed into a position of great authority, she was sought after by the population, especially by the leaders and sayyids of her native region who wished to influence imperial policy. It was said that she was herself a sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Fatima’s prominence led to a charge of sorcery by Köten Khan, one of Töregene’s sons, who had become sick. He told his brother Güyük that should something happen to him, Fatima Khatun should be held responsible. Shortly thereafter, Köten died. Güyük’s courtiers, who were opposed to Töregene and Fatima, incited Güyük to ask his mother to send Fatima to him. Töregene resisted for a while but was eventually compelled to give her up. Fatima was then tortured brutally for days until she confessed to the charges against her. They then sewed up the upper and lower entry points into her body, put her in a felt, and threw her into the river near Samarkand. Everyone connected to her, including those from Mashhad who claimed to be related to her, was also subjected to severe interrogation. Juvayni commemorates the story with a verse addressed to God:

You bring someone up and give them kingship.

Then You send them to the river to the fishes.

(Juvayni, Tarikh-i Jahangushay, 302–303)

This story provides a sense for life’s precarity under Mongol rule. Conquests unleashed by Genghis Khan and his descendants caused tremendous bloodshed and carried large numbers of people into slavery and severe dislocation from their homelands. The brutality of Fatima Khatun’s end has parallels in dozens of other scenes of torture and collective punishment recorded by Juvayni and other reporters. Yet, it is also noteworthy that in this sociopolitical setting, a Muslim woman captured and enslaved at one point could later rise to a position of great power. Moreover, her prominence did not depend on status conferred through marriage or motherhood.

Fatima’s story as it is available from Juvayni and later authors is too fragmented for us to get the full picture. At a minimum, two things seem to have been crucial to her rise: personal capability and a non-Mongol high social status by birth. For Fatima Khatun to have made decisions about the empire’s financial concerns implies aptitude, training, and sociopolitical acumen. Her reconnection to her sayyid relatives despite enslavement speaks to the continuation of patterns of Muslim social prestige after the Mongol conquest. In fact, her brief authority and the ability to help her relatives indicate established Muslim hierarchies seeping into Mongol structures of power. Her spectacular demise highlights the fragility of success under the prevailing conditions: access allowed by the social setup was easily overturned, with dire consequences.

Juvayni’s account of Fatima Khatun is presented in a neutral voice, although one imagines that his personal background as a Muslim bureaucrat in the Mongol empire, hailing from a celebrated family, may have induced him to be sympathetic. Like her, he was a close confidant to some Mongol rulers while being despised by others. While his access to Mongol courts was the documentary bedrock for what he related in his chronicle, his administrative job did not require that he write history. The work’s introduction provides an explanation of its overall purpose, taking into account the fact that it was written under the brutalizing circumstances we can see in the story of Fatima Khatun.

At the broadest level, Juvayni’s own explanation for his work is that he sought meaning in the events he had seen come to pass. His ultimate appeal is to God’s plan for the universe, which must include some purpose behind all the devastation and dislocations (118). Reflecting on this issue, he provides both religious and worldly reasons for understanding the Mongol takeover as an event whose purpose could be discerned.

On the religious side, the Mongols’ arrival had expanded the presence of Islamic beliefs and practices in the world, thereby propelling the religion’s ultimate universal triumph. Before their expansion into Muslim territories, the Mongols worshipped false gods, as had been the case among Arabs before Muhammad. By becoming acquainted with Muslims, they had now started to change through gradually converting to Islam. As proof that this process had begun, he states that he had heard from the Mongols’ old priests that the presence of Muslims had made their idols angry. They had stopped talking to the priests as they used to do in days of old (120).

If the Mongol expansion was to be seen as opening the world to Islam, then the fate of Islam would seem to have an inverse relationship with the lives of those who were already Muslim. In this understanding of the divine plan, God had mandated the pillage of Muslim lives and livelihoods as a part of his ultimate purpose. Acknowledging this consequence of his argument, Juvayni indicates that even this could be seen as something positive. Muslims who had died at the hands of the Mongols had achieved martyrdom, an assured way to accede to paradise in life after death. And those who had survived had received the most profound lesson, to invest in religious rather than worldly pursuits. Their suffering could then be read as a goad toward salvation (120).

Mongol victories had provided a worldly lesson as well, namely in the form of teaching Muslims, by the Mongols’ example, how a strong, well-organized force operates in unison. The Mongols’ actions on this score were the opposite of the situation of the Abbasid caliphs and their retinue who were militarily weak and riven with internal conflicts. It was significant too that the Mongols did not discriminate on the basis of religion—their severity and indulgences toward others were determined by their worldly purposes irrespective of the opponents’ creed.

The fact that many of them had begun to convert to Islam meant that, gradually, their military advantages would transfer to the side of Islam and they would become instruments for the right religion. They may think that their empire’s formation was their triumph. However, this was actually God’s way for them to be roused from their wayward state to become a bittersweet medicine for Islam’s historical trajectory.

Was Juvayni a venal bureaucrat tasked to justify the depredations of his employers? Or should we take him on his word as a sincere person trying to make sense of his world? These questions have loomed large in modern readings of Juvayni, especially because he was a companion to Hülegü Khan in 1258 when the Mongols sacked Baghdad and put an end to the Abbasid caliphate. Both in scholarship and in popular memory to this day, Hülegü is portrayed as an arch villain responsible for the end of the classical age of Islam. It is true that Juvayni’s narrative lauds Mongol sovereigns and does not condemn their rise in categorical terms, as done by his contemporaries writing in places such as India and Egypt that were outside the Mongol sphere.

But to my reading, it is important to note that Juvayni was concerned to describe and explain the rise of the Mongols but not necessarily to advocate for it. The world he experienced was not a matter of his choice. Inasmuch as it had come to exist, he was, as the chronicler, called upon to explicate it in the context of a providential framing of history. Locating positive possibilities in this situation was an imperative dictated by the belief that God had predetermined Islam as an incontrovertible truth whose ultimate triumph was presaged in Muhammad’s original message. If a lot of Muslims were in distress at a given moment, this fact needed accommodation within an overall triumphalist view of Islam’s future.

Syrian television broadcast a 30-part serial “Hulaku” in 2002. Juvayni is depicted as the narrator writing down the events. In episode 23, the Abbasid caliph is executed (9:00) and Juvayni writes about the devastation of Baghdad (13:30).

The distinction between the past and future of Islam versus that of Muslims hinges also on the fact that, for Juvayni as well as others, not all who proclaimed themselves Muslims were to be treated alike. A very significant proportion of Tarikh-i Jahangushay—in fact, the narrative’s long concluding section that vigorously lauds the Mongols (3:719–851) —is devoted to the defeat of the Nizari Isma’ilis and the destruction of their legendary fortresses such as Alamut (see the section “A Resurrection” in chapter 7). For Sunnis like Juvayni, the Nizaris were a wayward and pernicious form of Islam, worthy of extreme suppression. If this came to happen through the agency of the Mongols, then the invaders were to be seen as the instruments of a just divine intervention in the world.

Juvayni’s chronicle provides the full text of an Epistle of Victory (fathnama), a public announcement sent out after an expedition, that the author had composed for the Mongol court to commemorate the destruction of the Nizaris (3:725–747). Much of this document provides the details of the military conflict, including the purportedly incurably treacherous nature of the Nizaris. Juvayni compares Hülegü’s role in the preservation and propagation of correct Islam to none other than the Prophet Muhammad himself and states the following:

By this victory… the reality of God’s secret pertaining to the rise of Genghis Khan has become apparent and the prudence of the transfer of domains and kingship to the Emperor of the World Mengü Qa’an [Hülegü’s brother, the reigning Mongol sovereign] has become obvious. … With this good news, the zephyr has started to blow and the birds to fly in the air. Saints (awliya) say happy greetings to the prophets’ spirits and the living send congratulations to the dead:

A victory such that heavens’ doors are flung open.

And the earth is displayed in new garments (3:744–745).

Juvayni’s moral judgment on the Mongols was rooted in the perspective that his own faction was the ultimate arbiter of correct Islam. Clearly, his views would not be shared by others, especially the Nizari Ismailis who considered themselves equally good Muslims and would have had to find an alternative rationale for what had befallen them.

The contrast is critical for this book’s argument in that it shows the impossibility of creating a morally univocal history of Islam. For both Juvayni and the Nizaris, the events that came to pass were tied to Islamic ends, albeit they necessitated radically different explanations. In the sphere of moral judgment, history and religious thought were inextricable from each other. Moreover, as shown by the force of the Mongol invasions, moral understandings of the past were perpetually subject to change based on circumstances. While everyone might agree that the past was a morality tale, the lesson to be gained from it could not be the same, whether at a given point or across different periods. Differences of opinion on religious matters triggered conflicting views of the moral framework surrounding understandings of the past and the future. Notably, prospects pertaining to the success of Islam could well necessitate the devastation of some existing Muslim communities.

Rashid ad-Din Tabib’s Universal Historical Knowledge

‘Ata-Malik Juvayni died in 1283. Had he lived thirteen years longer, he may have felt explicitly vindicated regarding the interpretation of the rise of the Mongols he had provided in the Tarikh-i Jahangushay. In 1295, the soon-to-be enthroned Ghazan Khan (d. 1304), a great-grandson of Hülegü Khan, made a very public announcement of converting to Islam. Not only that, but he also chose for himself the title Padishah-i Islam (The King of Islam), making the religious identity the centerpiece of his image.

Ghazan died in 1304 and Öljeytü (d. 1316), his brother who succeeded him as Ilkhan, further amplified the patterns he had established. Öljeytü is the Mongol king who sponsored the mihrab in the Friday mosque of Isfahan that I discuss in chapter 1. During the two decades when Ghazan and Öljeytü ruled, the Ilkhans promulgated a grand imperial vision combining elements traced to Mongol, Iranian, and Islamic identities. The Ilkhans were to be seen as, simultaneously, genealogical heirs of the great conqueror Genghis Khan, absolute monarchs with a divine mandate like the kings of ancient Iran, and Muslim leaders beholden to the religious message brought by the Prophet Muhammad. Although subject to modification and resistance, the amalgamated vision that took shape under Ghazan and Öljeytü remained a preeminent political ideal throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia for nearly half a millennium (1300–1800).

Historiography and architecture are the best venues to observe the particulars of Ilkhan self-projection. While many grand buildings begun by Ghazan and Öljeytü soon fell to ruin, works of history ended up serving as long-lasting monuments. Read widely and emulated for their scope and style for centuries, historiographical works were primary carriers of a political ideology that cast a shadow well beyond the Ilkhans’ own intentions. Of these, Rashid ad-Din Tabib’s Jami’ at-tavarikh (Compendium of Histories) is by far the most extensive and instructive work to gauge the relationship between history and politics.

Tabib was a grand vizier, a highly skillful participant in the intricate politics of the Ilkhan court. His literary endeavors spanned fields as diverse as medicine, theology, and history. In history, his first substantial foray was an account of Ghazan’s reign undertaken upon the king’s suggestion. This endeavor became the kernel for a work of grander ambition whose purpose was to bring together all the information about the past that was available to someone in Tabib’s position.

The Jami’ at-tavarikh was composed circa 1304–1318 with the aid of numerous informants and writers working under Tabib’s tutelage. The author made extensive financial provisions to the effect that elaborate copies of all his works were to be produced in both Persian and Arabic for distribution to centers of learning in the empire. Illustrations accompanying his historical work marked a major step in the development of miniature painting in the Iranian world.

The Jami’ at-tavarikh is sometimes termed as the first universal history to be written in any language. The work’s sheer mass, evident from even a skeletal table of contents, is certainly impressive for a product of the early fourteenth century. Equally instructive are its organization and method, both being unique for its time and reflecting the Ilkhans’ ideological program.

In the preface, the author traces the work’s genesis to Öljeytü, who had, after Ghazan’s death, become the recipient of the initial historical work intended for his predecessor. Öljeytü observed that “until now, no history has been written that consists of the conditions and stories of all the world’s climes and the types of Adam’s descendants. … Among bygone kings, no one has sought or pursued this.” This lack was now open to remedy because peoples in the inhabited world “from Khatay [northern China], Ma-Chin [Greater China], Hind, Kashmir, Tibet, Uyghur and other kinds of Turks, Arabs, and Franks, are all collected, group by group, in service of his heavenly majesty. … [This enabled a work that] would be incomparable, a total collection of all the different kinds of available histories. [He ordered] a composition of such moment that its like had not been available to kings ever before. Avoiding negligence and delay, it was to be created with the aim of compelling the perpetuation of [his] name and fame” (Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh, 1:8).

Rashid ad-Din Tabib’s Jami‘ at-tavarikh

Table of Contents

  • Volume One

    Chapter One:
    Turks and their division into tribes

    1. The Oghuz

    2. Turkic tribes now called Mongols

    3. Other Turkic tribes with separate royal lines

    4. Turkic tribes that used to be called Mongols

    Chapter Two:

    1. Origins and genealogy of Genghis Khan

    2. Stories of Genghis Khan and his descendants to the present Annalistic account of the career of Genghis Khan

      Interpolated sections on rulers in the Middle East and Asia contemporary to Genghis Khan

      Successors: Ögedei, Jöchi, Chaghatai, Tolui, Güyük, Möngke, Qubilai, Temür

      [Ilkhans:] Hülegü, Abaqa, Ahmad Tegüder, Arghun, Gaykhatu, Ghazan Khan (Padishah-i Islam)

  • Volume Two

    Part One

    Early reign of Öljeytü (not extant)

    Part Two

    Chapter One:
    Islam and Iran

    1. Prophets, caliphs, and monarchs to the present

      Prophets from Adam to Muhammad, Kings of Iran from Kayumars to Sassanids, Alexander, pre-Islamic Arab kings

      Muhammad, Four Caliphs, Umayyads, Abbasids

      Samanids, Buyids, Ghaznavids, Saljuqs, Khwarazmshahs, Sulghurids


    2. History of every nation of the inhabited quarter of the world

      The Oghuz Turks


      The Children of Israel

      Franks (Biblical patriarchs, dynasties, Popes)

      Hind, Sind, and Kashmir (focus on Shakyamuni Buddha)

    Chapter Two:
    Later reign of Öljeytü (not extant)

  • Volume Three

    Climes and routes of the world (not extant)

Öljeytü’s command as reported by Tabib contains a hyperbole at great variance from the circumstances in which it was made. The Ilkhan state was one of the many successor states to the original Mongol empire. It had, by Öljeytü’s time, stopped expanding and had suffered significant defeats, and its internal politics consisted of bitter competition between rival royals and nobles. When commanding that a universal history be written, Öljeytü’s act was a rhetorical rather than material assertion of world dominion. But what the Ilkhans could not do by force of arms was possible in the sphere of knowledge and literary composition. Knowing and narrating the pasts of all the peoples of the inhabited quarter was a grand imperial gesture, a politics of dominion via representation.

In taking up the task, Tabib acknowledged the special difficulty encountered by a historian who had no way to differentiate between the true and the false when it came to conflicting reports provided by all kinds of people, coming from places regarding which the author knew little beyond what they were saying. Tabib’s solution to this was to rely on those whose authority could be ratified:

The historian’s duty must be to copy and write stories and information of every nation and group according to what comes in their own books, what they say in the way of their established traditions, from books famous within that nation, and from sayings of their reliable grandees. The warranty rests with the [original] narrator (Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh, 1:10).

Tabib’s methodological principle had permissive as well as constraining consequences that are evident in the way he presents the materials. For the first, he allows various communities’ understandings of their history to be told on their own terms, an especially poignant case being the biblical story of genesis common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Although clearly aware that the differences in the versions espoused by the three are a case of contestation, he provides independent narratives in the sections on the Children of Israel, the Franks, and prophets as a part of the history that leads up to Muhammad (Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh: Tarikh-i Bani Isra’il, 6–9; Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh: Tarikh-i Afranj, Papan, va Qayasara, 21–24; Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh: Tarikh-i Iran va Islam, 1:32–49).

Similarly, but along a different axis of difference, Tabib’s version of the history of India includes scales of time used by Buddhists, Brahmins, and so forth, without an effort to find equivalence among non-Indians (Tabib, Jami’ at-tavarikh: Tarikh-i Hind, Sind, va Kashmir, 3–11). The overall effect of these choices is to create a strikingly ecumenical history of histories.

The constraining side of Tabib’s work relates to the question of who is given the authority to decide what should be regarded as customary and reliable according to a given community. For spacetimes at a distance from the author, his choices may be seen as accidental. For example, the fact that his account of the Buddha conveys a Mahayana understanding follows from the influence of the monks present in the Mongol milieu on whom he relied (Jahn, “Kamalashri-Rashid al-Din’s ‘Life and Teaching of Buddha,’” 99).

For more proximate contexts, such as the Mongol empire itself, Tabib used authors connected to the courts, including his own judgments as a power broker in addition to being the historian. From this side of things, his deferral to the holders of power and tradition in every group of people he discusses had the effect of bolstering his own credentials as a normative authority quite aside from someone whose job was to describe the world as a historian.

Once put in writing backed up by the Ilkhan court, Tabib’s versions of all the histories of the world acquire the same canonical status he is willing to accord to those authoritative over other narratives. Being the author of the “compendium of histories” makes him the “historian of historians.” The ultimate product generated by Tabib thus lives up to Öljeytü’s original command to create universal knowledge entwined with the claim to universal power.

Landscape photo of mountains in the background and a city with a blueish green domed building in the foreground.

Landscape surrounding Öljeytü's tomb in Sultalniyya, Iran.


Wikimedia, Alireza-Derogar, 2016 (CC BY 4.0)


The Mongol Catalysis

Vassaf and Monumental Literary Expression

In 2005, UNESCO declared Sultaniyya a World Heritage Site. Now a small town in Iran, Sultaniyya is the location of a grand imperial city that flourished as the Ilkhans’ summer capital under Öljeytü. While the city withered long ago, its ambition remains visible in the towering form of the great mausoleum that Öljeytü constructed for himself and his family between 1305 and his death in 1316. Topped by a dome that ranks among the largest ever constructed, this building has inspired copies from fourteenth-century South Asia to twentieth-century United States.

Sharaf ad-Din Vassaf’s Tajziyat al-amsar va tazjiyat al-a’sar (The Division of Lands and the Passing of the Ages) is a literary equivalent of the grand building that survives as a remnant of Öljeytü’s ambitions. Although covering less than a century and concentrating largely on the Ilkhans’ domains in Iran, Vassaf’s work consists of five lengthy volumes of prose and poetry renowned for its intricacy and density.

The only full print edition of the work is a lithograph published in Mumbai in 1853 that includes an extensive glossary at the end to aid comprehension. Rendering its contents accessible for modern readers of Persian has required a summarizing abridgment that omits most of the poetry and other supposedly extraneous matter to highlight the work’s descriptive aspects (Ayati, Tahrir-i Tarikh-i Vassaf, 1967).

To understand Vassaf’s project, we can turn to his description of his meeting with Öljeytü on the twenty-fourth of Muharram, 712 AH (June 6, 1312). The audience came about through the good offices of Rashid ad-Din Tabib. A decade earlier, the great vizier and historian had presented Vassaf to Ghazan Khan too, with great praise, on 16 Rajab 702 AH (March 6, 1303) (Vassaf [1853], Kitab-i Mustatab-i Vassaf al-Hazrat, 405; Vassaf [2009], Tarikh-i Vassaf al-Hazrat: Jild-i Chaharum, 25).

Vassaf’s report on his conversation with Öljeytü mentions that he recited some of his compositions to the king. Several times, this resulted in Öljeytü asking Tabib and others to provide an interpretation because of the language’s difficulty. An especially instructive instance of this is the following description of royal victory as reflecting “the inseparability between matter and form and the inalienability between the sunlike imperial parasol and its shadow.” Prompted by the king, Tabib explained the following:

Embodied entities—whether in the heavenly sphere or made of the elements fire, wind, earth, and water—must have both form and matter. Form and matter cannot be separated from each other since if form is removed, embodiment is nullified. [So he means] a victory akin to matter that [becomes visible and] always subsists with the form that is the auspicious, fortunate parasol (Vassaf [1853], Kitab-i Mustatab-i Vassaf al-Hazrat, 545; Vassaf [2009], Tarikh-i Vassaf al-Hazrat: Jild-i Chaharum, 345).

Vassaf’s hyperbolic similes here consist of quite specific transpositions. The root of the matter is a royal victory, an event in time that could be placed in a historical narrative. In the vein of grand symbolism, he takes the relationship between the king and the victory to be the same as that between the royal parasol and the shadow it casts without exception. By this token, the king is made perpetually victorious since the parasol is metonymic to his existence. Bringing the connection between form and matter into this raises the stakes since it takes us to metaphysics. The victory apparent to the eyes then becomes ontologically inherent, an aspect of being as an abstraction. We might summarize the serial of ideas as follows: the king’s victory is inherent to his existence, which is, in turn, inscribed into the very nature of matter as the substrate of the cosmos.

The grandiosity of Vassaf’s language should be discernible from this example, which required even the subject of the statement to seek an exegesis from those more adept. The Tajziyat al-amsar  is chockfull of such literary maneuvers, deciphering that requires the reader to have extensive knowledge of precedents in the deep wells of Persian and Arabic literature. Crucially, Vassaf’s practice is not an empty game in which a literary virtuoso may be subjecting his audience to intense mental labor to make sense of the puzzles he is creating. Rather, the mystifying form of the language bears a direct relationship to the image of grand authority the Ilkhans aimed to project.

The name Vassaf is the first word in the Arabic phrase wassaf al-hadara, translated as “describer of the imperial presence” or, more idiomatically, “the royal panegyrist.” Having received this as a title from the Ilkhans, Vassaf described it as a royal robe given as a gift and was very proud to use it to refer to himself (Vassaf [1853], Kitab-i Mustatab-i Vassaf al-Hazrat, 592; Vassaf [2009], Tarikh-i Vassaf al-Hazrat: Jild-i Chaharum, 451). The job of describing a grand being required monumental language suitable to the task.

His work contains numerous sections explaining the art of literary composition in great detail, including expectations for similes, metaphors, intertextual allusions, deliberate ambiguity, rhyming, poetic enjambment, and decorative versus necessary words. For the diligent reader, Vassaf provides the means to decoding his work in the work itself, which was a part of its appeal as a model and learning tool for centuries after the author’s death. This art was profoundly political: it rendered the royal figure at the center of the narrative metaphysical and metaphorical. The form of the language was the ultimate tool to project the king as an utterly exceptional and otherworldly authority.

Vassaf’s discussions of literary technique pay special attention to the way language is used in the Quran. This is unexceptional in itself since the Quran was widely regarded as the height of eloquent speech. But it is distinctive that Vassaf’s hyperbolic descriptions of the Ilkhan kings attempt to generate the effect of the Quran in reverse. In the case of the Quran, God’s language was thought to provide an infinite resource for human beings to gain a partial understanding of the divine. The Quran’s enigmatic language indexed a Being enigmatic and impervious, by definition, to total apprehension by humans.

The king in front of Vassaf could be seen as an ordinary human body. But this being could be exalted to metaphysical status by mimicking the techniques of the divine text. This was effected through an endless play of tropes, including moves such as making the king equivalent to the abstraction “matter,” for which the world encountered as phenomenon could be deemed the “form.” In Vassaf’s account of his interaction with Öljeytü, the king “applauded and showed pleasure” once the statement was explained to him. While he may not have had the capacity to play with language at the level of a professional such as Vassaf, he was certainly able to appreciate the link between Vassaf’s language and the imperial image he and his courtiers were keen to cast by sponsoring chronicles and grand buildings.

Islam in the Image of Mongol Power

The arrival of the Mongols in Central Asia and the Middle East remade Islam. This included a transformation of the understanding of Islam’s placement in time, a circumstance reflected in the historiography and material culture of the period 1220 to 1320 CE. Elements of the transformation I have traced in this section through the works of ‘Ata-Malik Juvayni, Rashid ad-Din Tabib, and Sharaf ad-Din Vassaf are reflected in the symbolism of coinage issued under the auspices of Genghis Khan and the Ilkhans.

Genghis Khan and his generals led military expeditions into territories under the control of Muslim rulers between 1210 and 1227 CE. A coin issued in this period contains the following inscriptions in Arabic script:

Side 1: The Just the Great Chingiz Khan

Side 2: an-Nasir li-Din Allah Commander of the Faithful 

This coin is a case of adapting existing minting to the new reality brought by Mongol rule. One side refers to an-Nasir li-Din Allah (d. 1225), the Abbasid caliph who was the titular head of the empire identified with Islam. The reverse side affirms Genghis Khan, extolling his political power and casting him as just, an epithet readily legible in the political framework prevalent in the region. Although not Muslim, Genghis Khan was naturalized into an Islamic political idiom immediately upon conquering parts of the region. Juvayni’s interpretation of the Mongols as a form of divine justice, sent to eliminate wayward groups such as the Nizari Isma’ilis and teach Muslims a lesson, was an extension of this logic into a later period when Genghis Khan’s descendants eliminated an-Nasir’s Abbasid successors.

Coinage issued under Hülegü Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson who sacked Baghdad and executed the last Abbasid caliph in 1258, contains more expansive messages. One of these has the following text:

Side 1: Great Qa’an Möngke Qa’an Hülegü Khan master over the necks of nations may his kingdom last eternally struck this dinar in Baghdad year [missing]

Side 2: Praise be to God there is no god but God He has no associates Muhammad is the Messenger of God God’s prayers and peace on him

Here we have an imperial claim over multiple kingdoms through reference to both the sovereign Möngke and his brother and local representative Hülegü. The Abbasids are gone, and instead we have the Muslim profession of faith spelled out in full, together with benedictions on Muhammad. This arrangement links the Mongol sovereigns directly to Islamic religious authority, the non-Muslim rulers taking over the symbolic role of religious protectors. The signification seen here presages Mongol localization in the form of the Ilkhanid dynasty, for whom Tabib would eventually write his universal history.

As we might expect, Öljeytü’s coinage contains the most intricate and dense messaging. The small surfaces of a coin are crammed with religiopolitical arguments:

Side 1

God there is no God but God Muhammad is the Messenger of God prayers on him

Abu Bakr Siddiq ‘Umar Faruq ‘Uthman Dhu an-Nurayn ‘Ali Abu as-Sibtayn peace be on all of them

[Quran 48:29] Muhammad is the Messenger of God and those who are with him are severe against the disbelievers, merciful among themselves. You see them bowing and prostrating seeking bounty from God and [His] good pleasure. Their mark is on their faces, the trace of prostration.

Side 2:

The greatest Sultan succor of the world and religion Khudabanda Muhammad may his kingdom last eternally praise be to God, Lord of the worlds struck in Wasit 704 [1304–1305]

[Quran 24:55]: God has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the land just as He granted this to those before them and that He will surely establish for their religion there which He has approved for them and that He will give them security in exchange for their fear (Lane-Poole, Catalogue of Oriental Coins in the British Museum, 6:46)

In this case, we see a total identification between religion and political dominion. The king is exalted as a representative of God, his authority being ratified by Quranic verses that reference social and political authority.

Especially relevant here are also the names of Muhammad’s first four successors, the men regarded as the Rightly Guided Caliphs by Sunni Muslims. Placing Öljeytü near these names conveys his charge as a successor to Muhammad’s religiopolitical authority. The date on this coin is significant in that it was struck early in Öljeytü’s reign, when he espoused Sunnism. Later, circa 1308–1309, he converted to Twelver Shi’ism (as reflected in the mihrab discussed in chapter 1), although he may have gone back to Sunnism by the time of his death. The complexity of Mongol religious affiliations is reflected in Öljeytü’ s life in that his religious affiliation shifted between shamanism, Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, Hanafism, Shafi’ism, and Twelver Shi’ism during his life as a Mongol prince and king (Pfeiffer, “Conversion Versions,” 37).

Between Genghis Khan and Öljeytü, we can see the tie between Islam and Mongol authority go from tentative to total. The coinage I have discussed parallels the development of the historiographical tradition in the period. The coins stopped circulating long ago as the Ilkhans were replaced as rulers. But the historical narratives they sponsored acquired exemplary status and were copied and read extensively until the transformations caused by the rise of modern historical epistemologies. The Mongol understanding of Islam’s past and future marks a crucial cluster of nodes in the web of Islamic history.

Related Sections in Other Chapters