By George Lane
Journal of Qur’anic Studies, Vol.16:1 (2014)
Introduction: The erection in Marble Arch recently of a statue commemorating the memory of the world conqueror, Chingiz Khān, has, once again, drawn attention to this controversial figure. Dashi Namdakov’s epic work, on loan to the city, has introduced both the sculptor and the emperor to Londoners in a particularly dramatic fashion. For centuries Chingiz Khān has been a symbol of barbaric mayhem and murderous plunder, and the unifier of the Turco-Mongol Eurasian tribes has been presented as the archetypal embodiment of evil, a threat to the sedentary civilised world, and the stereotypical steppe marauder. Chingiz Khān occupied a special place in the civilised world’s universal subconscious: in the West, the Tatars, denizens of Tatarus, a visitation from Hell, were simply the manifestation of Gog and Magog, and for the Islamic west in particular, the Mongols were the harbingers of destruction intent upon the annihilation of the Muslim world. The following article will demonstrate that this depiction of Chingiz Khān has little basis in reality and the portrayal of the Great Khān as the enemy of the Islamic world is simply erroneous.
In fact the portrayal of Chingiz Khān as a steppe emperor is a misreading of history and a distortion of his legacy. Chingiz Khān did achieve that distinction of uniting the Turco-Mongol tribes under his rule and was able to bend them to his will, and he did attain the status of undisputed and indeed unchallenged ruler of the Eurasia steppe from 602/1206 for many years hence. As early as the time of the Baljuna covenant, when his closest allies pledged their loyalty under the harshest of conditions, Temūchīn was recognised as more than a charismatic ruler. Baljuna was both Temūchīn’s lowest point, when he found himself isolated in a remote valley with only those of his most loyal followers, and the turning point in his fortunes after which he trod the path to victory and greatness:
The first of his actions that are recorded was in the Wadi Baljuna that is in the direction of China. There they went without food for a few days. Someone from his army fired an arrow at a desert sparrow, grilled it and presented it to him. He ordered that it be divided into 70 portions and from that he took his share, and his was no more than the 70 men’s portions. From that sharing and righteousness the people became devotees and followers and towards him they surrendered their souls.
But if Chingiz Khān was initially a steppe emperor, his legacy and his successors cannot be so easily labelled. Chingiz Khān might well have set out to establish himself as undisputed ruler of the Eurasian steppe, but the reality of his conquests very quickly forced a different role upon him. Transcending those aspirations that had hitherto been his guide, he grew seamlessly into his role of world-conqueror, jahān-gushāī, as ʿAṭā Malik Juwāynī (681/1283), historian of the Mongols and Governor of Baghdad, would describe him, and he ensured that his grandsons were ready and trained to assume their global responsibilities when the time came.