Genghis Khan and the Quest for God
How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom
Viking Press, New York, 2016, 432 pages
Book Review published on: May 12, 2017
“Khan! Khan!” When contemporary people hear this word screamed out, they might think of a large lifeless rock in space and a lone space admiral trapped inside for all eternity. For many, this is an iconic scene that causes chills down the back of fear, anxiety, and dread toward what’s to come. When a city dweller living in the early thirteenth-century central Asia, hearing the name of Khan would create those same emotions ten times over.
In his book Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, Jack Weatherford takes us down the historical road of a little known man by the name of Temüjin (1162-1227) whose humble beginning starts out between what is now Siberia and Mongolia. Over forty years filled with abandonment, family turmoil, tribal issues, and soul-searching, this young man would claim the Mongolian name Chinggis Khan, or “Sovereign of the Strong,” and eventually Khan of Khans. The West would call him Genghis. He would rise to be the world’s most powerful ruler, in charge of over a million people in the Steppe tribes. However, when people think of Genghis Khan, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the historical figure that rampaged China, Persia, Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, and even pushed into Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic. The book reminds those how his forces decimated cities and gave no mercy to those who resisted, documenting the shift from beneficent leader to ruthless murderer. Weatherford gives plenty of examples of this. On one occasion in March 1220, Khan’s forces captured the city of Khiva, Uzbekistan. Khan summoned the city’s leaders and told them, “You have committed great sins.” Khan goes on to say, “If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”
Yet, what the book primarily provides is an insight into the man himself and his beliefs. The years pass by through each chapter giving a rare view of not only the family man, but also the man searching for something bigger then himself. In that aspect, Weatherford conveys how open-minded Genghis was when it came to religion. His primary law was that anyone can practice any religion they want, as long as they obeyed his orders. Weatherford brings us through Khan’s life from a young boy showing his curiosity in how religion affected people’s actions and more importantly, their morals. While Mongols believe in the Eternal Blue Sky or the Eternal Heaven, the Great Khan regularly conversed with all types of religious leaders and scholars from around and beyond his empire to see how they worked and thought—sending for Catholic priests, Islamic imams, and even Buddhist monks. Genghis was ruthless in his scrutiny of religious leaders when he interviewed them. But in the end, Khan was civil and hospitable to his guests, volunteer or otherwise, for he strived for knowledge and not unnecessary bloodshed.
The world produces a personality of this scale very rarely. The book not only keeps the reader involved with Temujin’s humble beginnings, but it also does an excellent job putting his experiences in historical context. Why did the tribes act the way they did? How did the Khan of Khans decide on the Mongolian written system, even though he himself was illiterate? He describes how the interaction with the Song Dynasty and the Chinese that would influence his son, Ögedei, and grandson, the Great Kublia.
Weatherford’s book is both education and entertaining. I would recommend this books to anyone interested in the Great Khan’s story and this would be a great addition to a home library. Religion means something to everyone. Whether you are in an organized religion like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or just believe in some higher power like the Eternal Blue Sky, Weatherford’s book can open your eyes on what it means to be open minded to other points of view without becoming violent. A pleasant thought in today’s times.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col Thomas Ficarra, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas