Mongol Religious Tolerance

Mongols. Public domain.

Mongol cavalry, 14th or 15th Century manuscript. Public domain.

Richard C. Foltz’s Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century describes Mongol policies of religious tolerance within their empire:

The religiosity of the Mongols and related steppe peoples was generally reflected in what goes under the rubric of shamanism and featured a somewhat vague notion of a supreme sky god, Tangri. However, their interest in spiritual matters centered largely on applications to real-life issues, such as the acquisition of food, victory in battle, and personal health. Thus, they were open to any sort of religious practice or ritual which might help them to find success in realizing their immediate aims. This led to a kind of religious toleration, in which any religion tended to be seen as being potentially effective, at least until proven otherwise.

Successive Mongol khans repeatedly asked representatives of every religion–Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism–to pray for them, and the Mongol elite frequently patronized all of these religions through the construction of places of worship and the giving of gifts to religious figures. They drew the line on foreign religious practice only when it infringed on their own, such as the Muslim method of slaughtering animals for meat or bathing in running water. (113)

A Flemish Franciscan friar named William of Rubruck visited the court of Möngke Khan in 1253-5 and provided an eyewitness account of the khan‘s religious pragmatism:

William mentions that on feast days, the clergy of each religion in turn come before the khan to pray for him and bless his cup. In William’s somewhat cynical view, the khan “believes in none of them . . . and yet they [the clerics] all follow his court as flies do honey, and he makes them all gifts and all of them believe they are on intimate terms with him. . . .” (Foltz 121)

Foltz opines that “Nowhere is the failure of the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist leaders to understand the Mongol attitude toward religion clearer than in the preceding passage; William alone seems to have assessed the situation with any accuracy” (121).

William of Rubruck's Route. Public domain.

William of Rubruck’s route across Asia. Public domain.

However, William of Rubruck’s missionary efforts were not without episodes of hilarious confusion of their own:

He tried to explain to the Mongols that his purpose in coming to Möngke was not for any diplomatic reason but simply “to utter the words of God, if he were willing to hear them.” The reaction of the Mongols was that “They seized on this and asked what were the words of God that I wanted to say, thinking that I intended to foretell some success for him as many others do.” (Foltz 121-2)

Möngke also staged a debate between Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in which William participated and subsequently claimed victory, though not without a shamefaced admission of his lack of converts:

The only account we have of the ensuing debate is William’s, in which he portrays himself as putting the Buddhists, Muslims, and Nestorians [a Christian sect condemned as heretical in the 5th Century which fled East to Sassanid Persia] to shame. “But for all that,” he admits, “no one said, ‘I believe, and wish to become a Christian.'” (122)

According to Foltz, William of Rubruck was “the first medieval European to encounter and describe Buddhism” (119). Hilariously, he was initially convinced that they were misguided Christians. In his own words:

In the town of Cailac [Qayaliq, in present-day Kazakhstan] they possessed three idol temples, two of which I entered in order to see their stupid practices. In the first one, I encountered a man who had on his hand a little cross in black ink, which led me to believe he was a Christian, since he answered like a Christian all the questions I put to him. So I asked him: “And why do you not have here a cross and an effigy of Jesus Christ?”

“It is not our custom,” he replied. From this I concluded that they were Christians, and that the omission was due to faulty doctrine. (Foltz 119-20).

Foltz describes the even funnier aftermath of this episode: “William was frustrated in his attempt to learn more about this strange sect from the local Muslims, who refused to talk about them. Subsequently whenever he asked any Muslims about the Buddhists’ religion, ‘they were scandalized'” (120).

Khubilai Khan. Public domain.

Posthumous (1294) portrait of Khubilai Khan by Nepalese artist Anige. Public domain.

Khubilai Khan

Khubilai Khan, he who in the immortal words of Coleridge “heard from far/Ancestral voices prophesying war,” succeeded his brother Möngke as Great Khan:

Mongol rule reached its greatest sophistication under Khubilai Khan, who became Great Khan following Möngke’s death in 1259. Khubilai’s initial attitude toward the great religious traditions was a typical Mongol openness to anything that could be of use.

Marco Polo quotes him as saying: “There are four prophets who are worshipped [sic] and to whom all the world does reverence. The Christians say their God was Jesus Christ; the Saracens Mahomet; the Jews Moses; and the idolaters Sakyamuni Burkhan, who was the first to be represented as God in the form of an idol; and I do honour and reverence to all four, so that I may be sure of doing it to him who is greatest in heaven and truest, and to him I pray for aid.” (124)

Foltz writes that “Khubilai took pains to avoid religious rivalries at court” both by appointing ministers from each of the major Central Asian ethnic groups of his empire, and by appointing coreligionists to work together “in order that disputes and disagreements on religion would not arise” (124).

Foltz notes wryly that “This policy does not seem to have been particularly effective, however” (124). One particular instigator of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims was “a Christian official by the name of ‘Isa Tarsah Kelemechi (Ch. Ai-hsüeh)” (Foltz 125). Foltz relates the following story:

‘Isa Kelemechi appears to have nearly sealed the Muslims’ fate for good by pointing out to Kubilai the Qur’anic verse which commands “Kill the polytheists, all of them.”

The khan then somewhat sarcastically asked the Muslims at his court why they didn’t carry out this directive and kill their Mongol overlords. None of the Muslims could reply, until one finally volunteered, “Thou art not a polytheist since though writest the name of the Great God at the head of thy yarlighs [edicts].” This response saved the Muslims for the time being. (126)

Regarding Qur’an 9:5, Foltz’s endnote states that “The verse in question refers to Muhammad’s Meccan opponents; whether it condones the killing of polytheists in general is a matter of debate” (158).

Ironically (given the focus of this blog), Chinese indigenous religion did not fare particularly well under Khubilai. Foltz writes that “Tibetan Buddhists […] maintained their rivalry with native Chinese Taoists, and eventually used their influence (through the monk ‘Phags-pa) to persuade Khubilai to suppress the latter and destroy their books in 1281; the only Taoist text to survive this purge was the Tao Te Ching” (124-5).

However, this is perhaps unsurprising given the high likelihood of the Chinese to revolt against Mongol rule. Foltz points out that “Since the foreigners [Central Asians, Arabs, Persians, etc.] had no support base in China aprt from their Mongol patrons, Khubilai saw them as being more reliable. Likewise, perhaps, Khubilai’s suppression of Taoists and Confucians was ‘intended to deprive of spiritual support the Chinese who were subject to the Mongol dynasty'” (125).

Works Cited: Foltz, Richard C. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.

11 responses to “Mongol Religious Tolerance

  • Katherine

    Topical, given the curiosity about Mongol religion that Netflix’s Marco Polo might be giving rise to. Have you watched any of it?


      No, I didn’t even know about it! I’ll have to take a look.

      • Katherine

        I actually think it’s kind of terrible if one’s looking for good TV. Best watched as a high fantasy series rather than historical drama. But I think it’s going to make some viewers curious about how things actually were back when Polo visited China and was at Kublai Khan’s court.

        I’m three episodes in and there’s already been some dialogue about Mongol religious beliefs.


        Yeah, I usually have extremely low expectations for historical accuracy in TV series. Thanks for the recommendation though!


        Five minutes in: “I will say this and you will listen. Christianity is welcome in my kingdom…as is Buddhism, Judaism, Islam…and the Eternal Blue Sky of my grandfather, Chinggis Khan, descended from a Wolf.”

        This news article says that Genghis Khan’s clan name was “Borjigin, or Master of the Blue Wolf,” so I guess that’s where the “descended from a Wolf” bit comes from.


      I just watched the second episode. It’s funny, Ariq is a badass character, and he was supported by the Mongol traditionalists during his civil war with Khubilai (which actually happened well before Marco Polo visited Khubilai’s court), but his mother was a Nestorian Christian and William of Rubruck reported that he was “sympathetic towards Christianity.” That’s according to Wikipedia, so take it with two large grains of salt – one for Rubruck and one for Wikipedia.

      Interesting how even the leader of the traditionalist faction within the Mongol ruling class was probably more religiously tolerant than one would assume (especially given the show’s portrayal of him).

      • Katherine

        Thank you, that’s incredibly interesting (even if it’s from Wikipedia and Rubruck). Ariq is totally a badass. That scene with the brothers meeting the night before the battle was pretty great. Sigh, this show has its moments…

        But I’m debating whether I want to bother watching the rest of it (haven’t made it past episode 3). In part, it’s because it’s turning into too much of a soap opera, without much substance to back the drama or character development. And, in part, it’s because I’m not sure how much of the difference between the show’s narrative and historical reality (as far as we can understand it) is due to creating a better story for television and how much is due to lazy research. The foot-binding scene at the end of episode 3 really bothered me for its glaring inaccuracy with 1) historical evidence from that time period about how feet were bound and 2) historical evidence from later time periods about the footbinding style it’s anachronistically attributed to the late Song.

        Still trying to figure out how to articulate what bothered me so much about that. I think maybe how foot-binding is such a hack way of making a shorthand reference to the perceived victimhood of women in “traditional” China?

        Oh, but I’ve written you something like a novel!


      Yeah, the dialogue between the two brothers was powerful! My favorite scene from the show by far.

      I haven’t watched Episode 3, but I definitely share your misgivings about the show as a whole. There’s a certain tipping point in any media (but especially TV and film) where the accumulation of cliches, stereotypes and anachronisms just becomes too much for me to sit through. It’s a shame, because the actual history is so fascinating, I can’t comprehend why a writer wouldn’t stick to the source material as much as possible rather than gratuitously creating incongruities (obviously some details and plot need to be added). I have the same problem with book-to-TV/film adaptations.

      I know a Chinese woman in her 20s who was asked by her high school classmates if she had bound feet…I think that many Americans have a poor understanding of time periods when it comes to Chinese history. Admittedly, it can all be a bit confusing, and there were/are many “feudal” institutions and ideas that lasted/have lasted well into the 20th and 21st centuries, but still…

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