“Genghis Khan and the Quest for God” by Jack Weatherford


Jack Weatherford has a clutch of informed, and impassioned, books on the Mongols to his credit. In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, he argued that the Mongols were the precursors of modern economic globalization:


The Mongols displayed a devoutly and persistently internationalist zeal in their political, economic, and intellectual endeavors. They sought not merely to conquer the world but to institute a global order based on free trade, a single international law, and a universal alphabet.


He credits them with universal paper money, primary school education and a unified calendar.

In The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, Weatherford set forth the argument that it was the women—wives and daughters—that preserved Genghis Khan’s empire, not his “four self-indulgent sons”.

In the most recent, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, Weatherford explores not just Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance, but also finds its legacy in the United States’s Constitution.

Weatherford explores not just Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance, but also finds its legacy in the United States’s Constitution.

The book mostly comprises a reprise of Genghis Khan’s life and immediate aftermath, ground well trod before by Weatherford and other writers. If one hasn’t read these other volumes, this new book will provide a good basic and eminently readable introduction to this history. This one differs, however, in its emphasis on the religious developments of the time. We are led through discussions of the nature of steppe nomads’ belief in Tengri or Tenger, a single all-encompassing spirit, as well as the Mongols’ interactions with the other religions they came across along the way.

There had been Christians in the steppe for quite some time; the Mongols, it seems, had a predilection for marrying them. The precepts of Manichaeism remained prevalent. The Mongols had a conflicted relationship with Islam: sometimes laying the cities waste, sometimes importing its bureaucrats and artisans. Taoists, Confucians and Buddhists all had senior theologians at the Mongol court. While Genghis Khan seems to have respected some adherents individually, the religions themselves never seem to have made much of an impression on him: after all, the books and rites didn’t seem to have afforded much protection when the Mongol armies came calling.

The Mongols perhaps considered Tenger as something of an all-encompassing form of all these religions, although that might be an anachronistic reading. Weatherford draws a line, however, from generalized reverence for a natural order to the beginnings of a reverence for the law and subsequently the state, that is a loyalty not to an ethnicity or theology but to a society structured by rules:


Genghis Khan taught his people to worship their nation as other people worshipped their gods, spirits, prophets, and saints. The Mongols made sacrifice and promises to the Spirit of the State, Toriin Sulde, and the national banners precisely as other peoples did to their gods.


Weatherford does not explicitly draw parallels between this and an idealized form of American nationalism, but given the theme of the book and its subtitle “How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom”, it is not farfetched to assume that readers are meant to. Of course, the parallels to Communism are just as strong: it depends on one’s point of view.


Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom, Jack Weatherford (Viking, October 2016)
Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom, Jack Weatherford (Viking, October 2016)

Weatherford’s core argument, however, is not so much the development of Mongol attitudes towards organized religion, but rather their influence on the thought of America’s Founding Fathers, in particular Thomas Jefferson. This somewhat surprising and, it must be said, intellectually appealing, notion is derived from Jefferson’s having read, and ordered additional copies of, the early 18th-century History of Genghizcan the Great by Frenchman François Pétis de la Croix.


The book emphasized Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance and reproduced a text of the Mongolian Law of Religious Freedom, which Pétis de la Croix had stressed was the first law of Genghis Khan. As presented in this biography, the Mongol law was a general law offering freedom, in very simple words, for everyone of every faith. In 1777, one year after the drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson translated its lofty words into specific legislation when he composed America’s first law of religious freedom for his native state of Virginia.


Weatherford draws attention to the similarity of wording between the Pétis de la Croix, who said that Mongol law forbade anyone


to disturb or molest any person on account of religion and desired that everyone should be left at liberty to profess that which pleased him the best…


and the 1777 Virginia law that prescribed


That no man shall … suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess … their opinions in matters of religion.


But proof that Jefferson cribbed the lines is elusive: Weatherford does not point to any direct connection, such as an explicit reference by Jefferson, that he drew inspiration from the book. He states that the “elegance and simplicity” of the wording of Genghis Khan’s religious freedom law in Genghizcan, “attracted Jefferson’s attention”, but the claim is unreferenced. It’s a fascinating conjecture, but it must perhaps remain that.

Even had Jefferson found “a simple, concrete example of how to implement religious freedom”, the lines are Pétis de la Croix’s, a Frenchman writing at the beginning of the Enlightenment, and in English translation, no less. Weatherford has, furthermore, engaged in some selective editing, for the original passage is hedged with an important condition: the phrase quoted is bookended in the original by


Il fut ordonné de croire qu’il n’y a un seul Dieu Createur du Ciel et de la terre…




… pourvû qu’on crût qu’il n’y avait qu’un seul Dieu.


That is, one could believe what one liked as long as “there be but one God”, as the translation has it.

Not being an expert in early 18th-century footnoting conventions (the copy in Google Books dates from 1710), it is unclear which were Pétis de la Croix’s sources, but he places “Rubruquis” (William of Rubruck), “Carpin” (Giovanni da Pian del Carpine) and “Marco Polo” in the margin, i.e. European sources. If the passage had indeed, as Weatherford says, made its


way from Central Asia to the United States, translated from Mongolian into Persian, then Turkish, French and finally English…


the evidence is not immediately apparent in the source. So while Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance itself seems to be in little doubt, if Jefferson did indeed pick up Pétis de la Croix’s wording, it is a considerable stretch to attribute it, even indirectly, to Genghis Khan.


There is much about the Mongols that is fascinating on its own terms: Genghis Khan went about structuring society in ways—religious tolerance among them—that can seem centuries ahead of their time. Weatherford dedicates at least 90% of this very readable book to precisely this. However, while the attempt to link 13th-century steppe practices with 18th-century American thought is interesting, it perhaps does a disservice to both.

It is probably impossible at this distance to know exactly whence Genghis Khan’s religious tolerance derives—Weatherford connects it to both to Tengrism and Genghis Khan’s encounters with religious strife as his empire expanded. He derides Genghis’s successors for involving themselves in inter-religious debates and competition. In other words, Weatherford’s book makes the case that Genghis Khan promulgated separation of church and state more for reasons of governance than philosophical principle.

Mongolian official tolerance, indeed, did not extend to religion being used as justification for opposition to the state. It was a kind of freedom of religion closer to that accepted in countries nearer to Genghis Khan’s homeland that what presumably prevails in the United States.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.