“An Afterlife for the Khan: Muslims, Buddhists, and Sacred Kingship in Mongol Iran and Eurasia” by Jonathan Z Brack


In the Middle Ages when representatives of different religions met for formal disputations, they did not cite chapter and verse from their own scriptures, knowing full well that their opponents would not consider these sources credible. Instead, they used common sense. They shared many common assumptions about the nature of reality, the sacred and the profane. They mostly agreed that God created the world, and humans had been set inside that world in order to fulfill their destiny. The question was how best to do this, and which religion offered the best guidance for that. 

They debated as medical doctors might argue over the best medicine for the patient. For example, the Muslim theologians challenged the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth. The human soul, said the Muslims, requires the human body for self-actualization, making it impossible for a human soul to be reborn as a mosquito. The Buddhists countered that it was unlikely the soul could return in its original, ephemeral body. All sides studied one another’s beliefs systematically, in order to be able to counter them intelligently and come out on top in the debate.


 An Afterlife for the Khan: Sacred Kingship in Mongol Iran and Eurasia, Jonathan Z Brack (University of California Press, May 2023)
An Afterlife for the Khan: Sacred Kingship in Mongol Iran and Eurasia, Jonathan Z Brack (University of California Press, May 2023)

Much was at stake in these debates in 14th-century Iran. The patronage of the all-powerful Mongol khans depended on arguing successfully, in a court where religious debates provided both instruction and entertainment. Moreover, the Mongols by tradition believed in what Jonathan Brack calls in his Afterlife for the Khan “cultic efficiency”. They held charismatic figures of any religion in awe, and counted on them for blessings, healing and soothsaying. Many khans had no particular religious loyalty. The eighth khan of Iran, Öljeitu, was baptized a Christian, educated as a Buddhist, then converted to Shiite, and finally Sunni Islam. Even his last change of faith did not diminish his enjoyment of these debates.

One of Islam’s foremost proponents in the age of Öljeitu was his vizier, Rashiduddin. Better known as the author of the sprawling Compendium of History, the vizier also actively participated in religious debates and produced several theological treatises to document his views. Rashiduddin understood well that anchoring the Mongols in Sunni Islam was key to both the dynasty and his own position. He tiptoed around the Mongols’ ancestor worship, likening it to the veneration of Sufi saints—a strategy later adopted by the Jesuits in 16th-century Ming China. Rashiduddin becomes the focus for Brack’s study, which includes a deep reading of his works. Of particular interest to Brack is how Rashiduddin dealt with the Mongol imperial agenda.

The Buddhist, knowing that Genghis Khan had claimed world sovereignty, argued that the Mongol khans represented the chakravarti, or lord of the karmic wheel. This alignment suited the great khans in Beijing, where Buddhism was already patronized by previous dynasties. Rashiduddin countered that Islam was a more truly universal religion than Buddhism, which was more like a school of philosophy. Thus, Islam was more suited to the universality of the Mongol empire. He went so far as to argue that Genghis Khan’s world conquest was specifically designed to spread the faith of Islam. As Brack notes, Rashiduddin’s formulation of sacral kingship for the Mongols carried on to their distant successors the Mughals of India. Indeed, Emperor Akbar also aspired to be the universal ruler and likewise encouraged religious disputations among his Muslim, Jain, Hindu and Christian court attendees.


Brack’s evocation of this era is anything but slow going. With a light touch, he covers the intricacies of Muslim and Buddhist theology in a way that a Mongol khan, or a modern reader, can easily appreciate and understand.

It’s difficult to assess just how influential the theological works of Rashiduddin really were in his time, or if they were not the vanity project of an immensely powerful and wealthy man of state. The Mongols of Iran probably converted to Islam because of the better commercial possibilities of the Muslim world, compared to the austere life of the Tibetan monks. Nevertheless, this book offers a fascinating insight into what must have been one of history’s most stimulating intellectual eras.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.