Some notes on revenge and justice in the Mongol empire and the Il-Khanate of Iran.

Author:Hope, Michael

There seems to be a consensus among historians of the Mongol empire that revenge and blood-feuding were integral parts of early Mongol society. The absence of central authority and the division of the population into supposedly kinship-based "tribal" groupings were thought to have rendered revenge the only reliable means of protecting collective rights and honor. (1) There is, however, less agreement as to the role of revenge after the unification of the Mongols under the leadership of Chinggis Khan at the start of the thirteenth century. The prevailing wisdom holds that when Chinggis Khan broke the power of kinship ties and built a new imperial society, he removed the underlying emotional and cultural imperatives to seek revenge. (2) Yet adopting this view requires us to ignore the wealth of evidence for the continuation of feuding as a legitimate means for resolving disputes, imposing hierarchies, and protecting rights within the Mongol empire. The present study will begin the process of re-evaluating the role of blood-feud and revenge in the years after the formation of the Mongol empire by tracing these themes within the history of the Il-Khanate, the successor-state that came to dominate the Mongol-held lands of the Middle East between 1258 and 1335.

If we are to accept that the imposition of a centralized state, a common legal code, and a new civic identity did indeed eradicate, or at least significantly reduce, the incidence of feuding in the Mongol empire, then we must first determine how these organs of power operated--or to put it another way, which institutions and officials enforced the new hierarchy and its laws in the provinces of the Il-Khanate? I will demonstrate that, although the Great Jasaq (3) and the Mongol imperium did result in the spread of common values of Right and Justice, the burden of enforcing these values, particularly in the distant provinces of the empire, remained largely with the individual Mongols themselves. The fact that "self-help" was the most effective means of asserting and protecting one's rights meant that factionalism, feuding, and revenge flourished in the years after Chinggis Khan's death in 1227.

The working definition of revenge adopted in this article is "the act of doing someone harm because they have done harm to us." The type of harm inflicted at the time was not restricted and could involve physical violence, slander, looting, cursing, or sabotage. These acts of revenge were not necessarily against the individual who initiated the conflict, but could be directed against the people and property of the parties involved. Paul Hyams has suggested that proportionality was also one of the so-called rules regulating revenge, viz., "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." (4) Yet in the Il-Khanate, and the Mongol empire more broadly, the degree of revenge seems to have been determined more by the underlying aims of the revenge attack. The principle of lex talionis may have been a way of restoring balance to a social or political relationship by "leveling the score," but to deter another attack or demonstrate one's superiority, an escalated response was often favored.

At this stage I am reluctant to separate revenge from political, social, and sectarian disputes. Revenge was often used to justify and legitimate conflicts for control of offices, territories, and resources. The existence of such practical motivations for conflict does not render vengeance irrelevant; nor can we disentangle revenge from the often quite pragmatic goals that motivated it. Had it not brought material as well as moral fulfilment, revenge would never have held such appeal. Rather, revenge thrived under the aegis of broader disputes such as dynastic and regional wars, which often served as an opportunity for feuding parties to act out their vengeance by supporting opposing sides on the battlefield. Revenge and political expediency complemented each other and were often hard to disentangle in long-running feuds.


The belief that an offense had to be repaid to satisfy justice was an integral part of Mongol cosmology, a belief that was shared by the Muslim sources that documented them. The idea that the Mongols were fighting for justice complemented the idea that they had been chosen by Eternal Heaven (mongke tenggeri) to conquer the world and impose a new world order. In at least one account of the subjugation of the Jin empire (1211-15), it seems that the support of Heaven was predicated upon the righteousness of Chinggis Khan's claim to vengeance. Prior to going to war with the Jin, Chinggis was said--whether anachronistic or not--to have scaled a mountain, bared his head, and slung his belt across his shoulder, before pleading with Heaven,

Lord, you know that I did not seek war or combat with him [the Jin emperor] and also that the dispute and trouble was stirred up by the khans of China who killed my innocent forefathers Orqin Barqaq and Ambaqai; I want to avenge and repay them. If right is on my side, then send strength and assistance from above. (5) Eternal Heaven, the supreme creative deity, was certainly thought to have played a pivotal role in avenging injustice. The Secret History of the Mongols recorded Chinggis Khan's volatile ally, Ong Khan, initially resisting the urge to betray the young leader because he feared that it would bring down the wrath of Heaven. (6) This notion that God, or Heaven, used humans, animals, natural disasters, and disease to avenge offenses against His creatures was also shared by Muslims. The historian and governor 'Ala' al-Din (Ata Malik Juwayni (d. 1283) most famously attributed the Mongol conquest to the wrath of God; he also borrowed a qastda from the poet Kamal al-Din Isma'il, in which it was stated that the Mongols' enemy, Jalal al-Din Mingbirni, had been God's weapon in His punishment of the Christian Georgians for their attacks on the Muslims: "Thou hast exacted revenge for the pulpit of Islam from the Cross: thou hast removed the bell from the place of the azan." (7) In a similar sentiment, one week before the fall of Baghdad to the armies of Hulegu in 1258 the khatib of Baghdad was said to have recited: "Praise to God Who destroys the edifices of the ages, and [Who] orders the annihilation of the people of this house." (8) The passage, perhaps apocryphal, nevertheless betrays the fact that God was seen to be more than capable of perpetrating mass violence in revenge for the sins of His people.

Vengeance was one of the philosophical pillars underpinning many of Chinggis Khan's early campaigns and those of his successors. His wars against the Tatars, the Tayici'ut, and his old rival Jamuqa were all portrayed by The Secret History of the Mongols as acts of retribution for personal and political wrongs suffered by Chinggis and his people; (9) revenge was also used to justify his campaign against the Khwarazmshah sultan 'Ala' al-Din Muhammad (r. 1219-25). The secretary Shihab al-Din Muhammad Nasawi (d. 1249) asserted that the massacre of Mongol merchants and envoys by the Khwarazmian governor of Otrar caused a sea of blood to flow in revenge, and the historian 'Izz al-Din Ibn al-Athir claimed that the Mongols conquered and destroyed any town that had received coins stolen from Chinggis Khan's murdered traders. (10) The stated desire to avenge earlier defeats and invasions by the Mamluk rulers of Syria and the Chinggisid rulers of the Golden Horde and Chaghadai Ulus was also used by the Il-Khanate to justify a string of raids and incursions into all three territories in 1269, 1301 (Syria), 1272, 1312 (Chaghadai Ulus), and 1319 (Golden Horde). (11)

It seems evident that revenge was an acceptable means of pursuing justice, but how it was to be exercised was far less obvious. The Persian functionaries who staffed the Mongol administration from Hangzhou to Mosul clearly believed that it was the sole prerogative of the king to take vengeance and that any feuding between his subjects, including the nobles, bordered on treason. Writing toward the end of Il-Khan rule, the secretary Muhammad b. Hindushah Nakhjawani stated that acts of retribution and punishment were reserved for the sultan. To support his assertion he recounted a tale in which the brother of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna had been found to have punished one of his servants. Mahmud immediately summoned his brother and told him that only the sultan had the right to punish his people, for the sultan alone must answer for their treatment in the next life. (12) In his poetic rendering, the Il-Khan clerk Hamd Allah Mustawfi Qazwini likewise had the Il-Khan Geikhatu ask, "How can anyone other than the king (shahriyar) remove the calamity of feud? If another were to try, without the shah-i jahan [i.e., his consent] it is rebellion." (13) These sources followed a pattern set by Persian political philosophers, who treated the king as the only legitimate source of coercive authority. The Siyasatnama of Nizam al-Mulk, for example, claims that the sultan's officials should always be fearful of his punishment, but that if anyone else was aught punishing someone he should himself be punished because punitive authority resided with the king alone. (14)

Regardless of the theory, it is clear that the Mongol notables believed that they had a right to take revenge, independently from the khan, whenever they felt that their rights had been violated. There is certainly no shortage of examples in which commanders and officials engaged in private feuds. Perhaps the most illustrative example of revenge and ongoing feud is provided by Tarikhnamah-i Harat, which documents the growing tension between the local Kartid princes and the Mongol commanders of the Qaraunas people as they competed for control of Khurasan. Far from the Il-Khan court (ordu) in Arran, the feud was a means of expressing and regulating political hierarchies, which shaped the strategic landscape...

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