Religious freedom is the bedrock of the causse for a revolution in the United States. Every citizen knows the story of the Pilgrims coming to the new world to escape religious persecution, but what many may not know is that when Thomas Jefferson crafted his messages of religious freedom into the North Carolina and US constitutions, he was inspired by the great conqueror of Asia, Genghis Khan.
I’ve had the pleasure this past month of reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan & The Search For God, which comprehensively chronicles the Mongol’s spiritual journey from childhood and how allowing Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Christians and the more pagan rituals of Mongolia to exist, and be practiced openly, helped him maintain his empire for over a century. Beyond that, however, the Great Khan had many other qualities that advanced freedom among his constituents.
One can’t ignore the fact that Genghis led armies that murdered countless people and plundered their riches, so any lesson drawn from his history will have to tinted through these lenses. The progress of history shows that bad must be acknowledged so that the good can eventually be properly implemented, but the Mongol leader definitely is not as big of a tyrant as is commonly believed.
Whenever a city would be conquered, the Mongols would allow the citizens to keep their homes and culture as long as they surrendered and swore allegiance to the Khan. Often, those within the newly acquired city would be given leadership positions. Genghis felt that allowing his defeated subjects to maintain their culture instead of imposing the Mongolian way of life would avoid strife in his kingdom; the main influence behind his allowing any citizen to practice any religion.
The Great Khan was always suspicious of religious leaders and their claim to be the sole medium through which people could connect with God, and that their congregations should pay taxes in order to maintain the Lord’s good graces. Mongolian religious practices, based more on man’s relationship between the earth and sky, believed that each person had their own relationship with God, or whatever religious idea one decided to worship.
Part of this is because of the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongols which didn’t allow for the development of great chapels or temples, but it was also based on a belief in each individual’s ability to work within their destiny, creating a rejection of leaders who claimed to be the sole source of divine knowledge. Genghis Khan would intentionally target the religious leaders and aristocracy of those he wished to conquer for these reasons and allow his new subjects to practice belief how they wished.
According to Weatherford, “Genghis Khan’s law was unique because it did not merely allow religious clerics to practice their profession; it allowed each individual to choose which religion or belief seemed most appealing. Freedom of religion, under the Mongols, was an individual right.” This should remind one of Martin Luther hammering his 99 theses in rejection of the very same dominion of the church in his time, and yet Genghis Khan is not known for demonstrating similar views nearly 300 years earlier.
Once the Mongols had conquered most of East Asia and Northern China, Genghis Khan realized the best way to begin building relationships with the neighboring Middle Eastern empire of Khwarizm would be to open a free trade route between the two. He passed laws that lowered taxes and tariffs and set up protection along trade routes to protect merchants. “Genghis Khan sought to rule an empire in which trade formed the basis of prosperity not only for the Mongol nation but also for the vassals under his rule, from the lands of the Chinese to those of Muslims and Christians,” explains Weatherford.
To initiate this new prosperity built on trade, Genghis Khan sent a peaceful convoy of merchants and 450 caravans to trade wares with the Middle Eastern empire. When his men reached Khwarizm’s borders, a general of the Shah attacked, leaving only one person alive to return to Mongolia and stealing all of the Khan’s sent riches. The Mongols retaliated and eventually conquered the region.
The Khan also allowed women to hold property, receive inheritance, and take up leadership roles in the empire. His wives were integral to running the various regions of his empire and had control over scores of men. The Confucians who were a part of the empire thought that the Mongols were uncivilized for this practice, as their views called for solely men to be the leaders.
Mongolian culture, and the Khan’s views, in general, rejected a separation between leadership and the people for all would share meals and sit together. The Mongols did hold Genghis Khan as being the “whip of God” and he had his own separate home with guards, but he would ride together with his men into battle, and, as demonstrated earlier, tended to reject the wealthy and powerful who claimed to control those below them.
Of course, the Mongol Empire was not the picture of perfect liberty and individual choice, as those conquered essentially had the choice of joining the empire or dying, but that so many qualities valued by the liberal free-market tradition were present centuries before the Enlightenment is a pleasant surprise. While one shouldn’t admire Genghis Khan’s taste for war, his belief in free, individual faith, equal rights across genders and the necessity of open trade to a peaceful society certainly can be appreciated.
Mongolia shows that the benefits of a free society were recognized even further in the past than most would think and that perhaps the world’s greatest conqueror had the origins of true liberty as his legacy.