April 21, 2004
When Islam Almost Vanished
The genocide lasted decades. Historians said that the world had never seen
murder and destruction on such a massive scale. Millions died and those left
alive often longed for death. People openly wondered whether the light of Islam
would be forever extinguished. But the course of history changed through some
of God’s most unassuming servants.
In the thirteenth century a tidal wave of devastation swept over the Muslim
world. City after city, region after region disintegrated amidst a storm of
iron and fire. The death toll was incredible.
Nishapur 1,747,000 dead
Baghdad 1,600,000 dead
Herat 1,600,000 dead
Samarkand 950,000 dead
Merv 700,000 dead
Aleppo 50,000 dead
Balkh completely destroyed
Khiva completely destroyed
Harran completely destroyed
Baghdad was often described as the jewel of the world. For six long weeks this
jewel cracked and shattered under the ferocious might of the Tartar hordes.
The rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates ran red with blood. Women who had observed
modest and chaste lives were savagely assaulted and raped. Five centuries of
knowledge accumulated from every literate civilization and contained in the
world’s largest libraries was reduced to ashes. Many of humanity’s
greatest centers of education, commerce and culture became nothing more than
The architect of this colossal avalanche of death was Genghis Khan. His barbaric
legions were triggered into a forty year bloodlust through the folly of the
Muslim ruler, Muhammad Khwarizm Shah. Once a powerful and mighty monarch, Khwarizm
Shah ordered the execution of Mongol caravans that came to trade within his
kingdom. When Genghis Khan sent a delegation of envoys to lodge a formal protest,
Khwarizm Shah executed most of them. These two inhuman acts were avenged at
the cost of millions of innocent lives.
The Tartar Holocaust began in 1218 CE six centuries after the death of the
Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It moved westward from Mongolia across
Central Asia and the Persian Gulf, southward toward Delhi and northwest to Budapest
and Moscow. People as far away as Sweden shuddered at the thought of a Mongol
invasion. Muslims were so overawed by their power that one Mongol could kill
over a hundred Muslims and none would dare defend himself. In Arabic a proverb
sprang up which meant that if someone tells you the Mongols have suffered a
defeat don’t believe him.
On the eve of the Mongol invasion, the spiritual state of the Muslim world was
pathetic. Corruption, disunity, and materialism were rampant. Khwarizm Shah
was not the only example of insufferable leadership. The Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mustasim,
was reportedly pleased to hear of the collapse of Khwarizm Shah’s empire
because of his personal dislike for the monarch. Before the Mongols reached
Baghdad, the Caliph’s advisors had convinced him to seriously scale back the
army. The city was in no way prepared to withstand what lay in store for it.
And yet Islam did not die. Genghis Khan who proclaimed himself as the Scourge
of God, who delighted in the rape of conquered women could not exterminate the
Muslim ummah. Within a generation the tide had begun to turn in Islam’s
favour. Baghdad was destroyed by Genghis’ grandson Halaku but his great
grandson Berek became a Muslim. In fact, Berek withdrew his forces from Halaku’s
army after the fall of Baghdad which contributed to the first defeat the Mongols
suffered against the Muslims during the battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. The aura
of the Mongols’ terrifying invincibility was broken. Three years later
Berek himself would defeat Halaku’s forces in the Caucus region. Those
who tried to destroy Islam became its protectors.
The role that ordinary Muslims played in this miraculous recovery cannot be
ignored. The entire ummah owes a debt of gratitude to those men and women who
never forgot the centrality of their faith or the importance of sharing it with
others. Berek or Baraka Khan was introduced to Islam by two unknown merchants.
Their efforts eventually led Islam to reach Russia and Eastern Europe.
If the Tartars are regarded as part of Islam’s universal brotherhood
today, one can thank the efforts of unsung heroes like Jamal Uddeen. The vast
Mongol empire was divided amongst the various descendants of Genghis. In certain
parts of the empire, the Mongols regarded Muslims as no better than animals
while Christianity or Buddhism were expected to become the official state religion.
But the sincerity of ordinary believers like Jamal was to outshine all else.
Jamal was a Persian who was travelling through the Middle Kingdom or Chaghatay
Khanate known for its animosity toward Muslims. With his small band of travellers
he mistakenly travelled through the game preserves of the Mongol Prince Tuqluq.
Jamal was arrested and brought before Tuqluq. In his anger the prince told Jamal
that a dog was worth more than a Persian. Jamal replied, “Yes. If we did
not have the true faith, we would indeed be worse than dogs.” Tuqluq was
struck by the reply. He inquired what Jamal meant by the true faith. When Jamal
explained the message of Islam Tuqluq was convinced. He asked Jamal for some
time to unite the fractured Middle Kingdom and then he would proclaim his faith.
Jamal returned home and later fell ill. As he was dying, he instructed his son
Rasheed to remind the prince of his promise when he became king. When Tuqluq
ascended the throne Rasheed set out to meet him. An ordinary person had little
access to royalty and after many efforts Rasheed risked his life to enact a
plan. He called out the adhan at fajr nearby the royal compound. He was brought
before the king and there he invited him to fulfill his promise. On that very
morning Tuqluq Timur Khan, king of the unified Middle Kingdom, became a Muslim.
Death and destruction are ravaging Baghdad once more. The innocent victims
of this injustice must not be forgotten. We owe it to them to follow in the
footsteps of the Last Prophet, in the footsteps of ordinary believers like Jamal
and Rasheed Uddeen and share Islam with each and every human being. The beauty
of our character and our sincere conduct need to be the beacons that attract
those around us to this Divinely prescribed system of life. True it is Allah
alone who guides; it is also true that Allah does not change the condition of
a people until they change what is within themselves. For us to do anything
less would be to disgrace those who are dying before our very eyes.
Saviours of the Islamic Spirit, Volume 1, by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi
History of Islam, Volume 2, by Masudul Hasan
A Short History of the Saracens, by Amir Ali