In the popular view, Genghis Khan is one of the most vile people in history: a conquering, murderous barbarian who sowed a path of destruction all across Asia and up to the very gates of Europe in the 13th century. So it surprised me a number of years ago to read the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by J. McIver Weatherford (Crown, 2004). It was the author’s intent to show that although Genghis Khan did lead a massive army across Asia, conquering anyone who stood in his way, the empire he built was a model of enlightened thought. Religious freedom was emphasized, as was equality of women. People from all conquered nations and cities were allowed to become administrators and officials in his governments, and he took advice from anyone would offer it.
The book so impressed me with its revisionist view of the Great Khan that I was excited to see Weatherford’s next book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (Crown, 2010). This story went deeper into the Mongol leader’s respect for the women around him, and how when certain of his sons and grandson let him down, the women who had been active participants in his court stepped up to become great and near-great queens of history. As with the previous book, the research was excellent, the storytelling compelling, and the new perspective on this chapter in history was very enlightening.
Weatherford’s third ‘Genghis Khan’ book came out in 2016, and it will likely be the last book in the set. It is called Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. In the introduction, Weatherford describes that it was an investigation into Genghis Khan’s treatment of the various religions practiced in the many lands he conquered that started him on his journey of research into the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan was himself a deist, worshiping the eternal sky and sea. But he had great respect for holy men of all stripes, Confucian philosophers, Taoist scholars, Buddhist monks, Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, and Islamic imams. He shielded them from harm, exempted them from taxes and compulsory labor. He met with them regularly and held long discussions. His eventual conclusion was that all great religions had some truth to teach, but none was the final, best, or correct faith. He ordered that within his realms, nobody was to be harmed or molested based on what faith they practiced. Sadly, his laws on religious freedom did not long outlive him. His descendants let the squabbling among Taoists and Buddhists, Christians and Muslims resume and grow violent again. But Weatherford paints a direct line of influence through Genghis Khan’s religious law to Enlightenment philosophy and right up to Thomas Jefferson, who owned an influential biography of Genghis Khan, and whose statements on religious freedom, first in Virginia and then in the United States, echo nearly verbatim words of the Great Khan.
For anyone who likes to read history, this set of books should provide a wonderful and instructive reading experience.