The Mongols and Muslim Societies


narrated by Chris Gratien
featuring Joshua White, Zoe Griffith, Sara Nur Yıldız, and Neelam Khoja
| The Mongol conquests of the 13th century were an unprecedented event. Not since the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had such a rapid political rise occurred. For a time, Mongol successor states controlled most of Asia. And though many of these dynasties would not last, the lasting consequences of the Mongol Empire would be many. In this episode, we study the consequences of the Mongol period for the Islamic world, focusing both on the immediate destructive impacts that appear in the Islamic sources from the period as well as the lasting transformations introduced by Mongol rule. Whether in terms of political ideology, law, trade, or culture, the Mongol period represented a significant departure for Muslim societies east of Egypt. In addition to highlighting the impacts of the Mongols in former Seljuk domains of Iran and Anatolia, we discuss the rise of the Timurid dynasty in Khorasan and foreshadow its legacy for South Asia.


The Mongol conquests of the 13th century were an unprecedented event. Not since the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had such a rapid political rise occurred. For a time, Mongol successor states controlled most of Asia. And though many of these dynasties would not last, the lasting consequences of the Mongol Empire would be many.

In this episode, we study the consequences of the Mongol period for the Islamic world, focusing both on the immediate destructive impacts that appear in the Islamic sources from the period as well as the lasting transformations introduced by Mongol rule. Whether in terms of political ideology, law, trade, or culture, the Mongol period represented a significant departure for Muslim societies east of Egypt. In addition to highlighting the impacts of the Mongols in former Seljuk domains of Iran and Anatolia, we discuss the rise of the Timurid dynasty in Khorasan and foreshadow its legacy for South Asia.

"The Making of the Islamic World" is an ongoing series aimed at providing resources for the undergraduate classroom. The episodes in this series are subject to updates and modification.





Joshua M. White is Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean (Stanford University Press, 2017).
Zoe Griffith is Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College, CUNY and completed her Ph.D. at Brown University in 2017. Her research focuses on political economy, law, and governance in the Ottoman Arab provinces from the 17th to the 19th centuries. She records mainly in New York City.
Sara Nur Yıldız holds a Ph.D. from University of Chicago and has published widely on the history of medieval Anatolia. She is co-editor of the book The Seljuks of Anatolia (with A.C.S. Peacock).
Neelam Khoja is a transregional and transdisciplinary historian; she focuses on historically marginalized communities whose networks cross imperial boundaries and national borders from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Khoja received her doctorate degree from Harvard and is currently a Postdoctoral Associate for the Inter-Asia Connections Initiative at the MacMillan Center, Yale University.

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Interviews by Chris Gratien
Sound production by Chris Gratien
Music (by order of appearance): Aitua - The Grim Reaper - II Presto; A.A. Aalto - Admin; A.A. Aalto - Coast Highway; A.A. Aalto - Corps of Discovery; Aitua - The Trap; A.A. Aalto - Entonces; Chad Crouch - Wide Eyes; Komiku - Un désert; Chad Crouch - Ruby; Cecilia Bartoli, Sposa son disprezzata; Zé Trigueiros - Sombra; A.A. Aalto - Canyon; Zé Trigueiros - Big Road of Burravoe


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The Mongol World, 13th Century. Source: "The Mongols"


During the 13th century, the former Abbasid heartlands of the Islamic world were under siege. While the impacts of the Crusader armies from the west would prove relatively minor and localized, the Mongols invading from the east would utterly transform the Muslim societies they encountered. Arabic sources of the period often cast the Mongol conquests in apocalyptic terms. The 1258 Siege of Baghdad is an event especially remembered for the rampant destruction wrought by Mongol armies. There is no doubt that the Mongol armies, each comprised of tens of thousands of horsemen, brought an unprecedented speed and scale of warfare. However, the historical accounts which emphasized cruelty, in part due to the Mongols' own proclivity to exaggerate their own ferocity, may overshadow the fact that the Mongols and their successors in the Islamic world built new political formations with an enduring legacy.

One arena where Mongol impact has been significant is law. Prior to the Mongol invasions, the role of sovereign rulers in determining legal matters was fairly limited. Islamic legal traditions tended to emphasize the independence of jurists and judges. The Mongol law or yasa first instituted under Ghengis Khan created a new space for implementing rules about matters that had often stayed outside the bounds of Islamic law entirely, increasing the role of the state in the lives of its subjects. The Mongols also built connections. In politically unifying a vast domain stretching from China to Eastern Europe, they faciliated increased commerce and travel. The Mongol postal system also allowed for increased communication. 

The Mongol approach to religion was uniquely ecumenical. Their capital of Karakorum in modern-day Mongolia contained places of worship for the various religions represented within the Mongol domains, and their armies were often made of diverse groups. The Mongol rulers tended to accept the dominant religions of their subjects. In the Islamic world, this mean that by the 14th century, the Mongols embraced Islam, patronizing building and scholarship as previous rulers had done. In fact, the celebrated tradition of Persian miniature painting attained its height under the Mongols and their successors.


"Chess versus Backgammon" from Anthology of Persian Treatises produced in Herat during Timurid period c1427. Source: Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Florence. H/T @narengestan

While Mongol states like the Ilkhanate were short-lived, their political legacies were many. With the decline of the original states established by the Mongols, the Islamic world saw the rise of the Timurids, who inherited the Mongol tradition of warfare and statecraft. Their founding figure Timur -- often known as Tamerlane -- styled himself as a conqueror in the mold of Genghis Khan and commanded what was the most feared army in the world at his height.

All these issues are part of why scholars have begun to pay more attention to the Mongol legacies within Muslim societies. One place where the Mongols have begun to receive new consideration is in the history of medieval Anatolia. Though the Mongols may not have achieved much of a direct rule in Anatolia, they redefined notions of political legitimacy during the period Turkic principalities out of which the Ottoman Empire would eventually emerged.

To learn more about current debates in the history of medieval Anatolia, listen to our interview with Sara Nur Yıldız.



A tension between the themes of destruction and creation prevails in the historiography of the Mongols. The history of empire often reveals that the two go hand in hand. However we see the history of the Mongols, there's no question that nothing in the Islamic world was the same. Whether politics, culture, economy, or even environment, the period of the Mongol conquests represented a transformation the legacy of which historians continue to study.

To learn more about the history of the Mongols in the Islamic world, consult the bibliography below.

Primary Sources

Ibn al-Athīr, ʻIzz al-Dīn, and D. S. Richards. The chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh. Part 3. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

Juvaini, Ata-Malik. Genghis Khan: The History of the World-Conquerer. 1998.

Subtelny, Maria. Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran. Leiden: Brill, 2007. (includes translations of Timurid waqf documents)

Secondary Sources

Burbank, Jane, and Frederick Cooper. Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference. 2011.

Jackson, Peter. The Mongols and the Islamic World: From Conquest to Conversion. Cumberland: Yale University Press, 2017.

Komaroff, Linda. Beyond the Legacy of Genghis Khan. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Levi, Scott Cameron, and Gurcharan Das. Caravans: Indian Merchants on the Silk Road, 2015.

Manz, Beatrice Forbes. Power, Politics and Religion in Timurid Iran. [New York]: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Noelle-Karimi, Christine. The Pearl in Its Midst: Herat and the Mapping of Khurasan (15th-19th Centuries). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2014.

Peacock, A. C. S., and Sara Nur Yildiz. The Seljuks of Anatolia: Court and Society in the Medieval Middle East. 2015. 

Prazniak, Roxann. Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art. 2019.

Larry Wolff. 2016. "The Captive Sultan: Operatic Transfigurations of the Ottoman Menace After the Siege of Vienna".




Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.

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