The Making of History in Mongol Iran


A review of Rashīd al-Dīn and the Making of History in Mongol Iran, by Stefan T. Kamola.

To dedicate a PhD dissertation to a man like Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1317) is risky because he is not only the most famous historian of his time but has also attracted the attention of modern historians since the late nineteenth century. Kamola’s work, however, aims to provide a different view, not only of the man but of the historical context that ‘made the man’. This work offers a historical and historiographical analysis of the Ilkhanate (Mongol dynasty of Iran) based on the figure of Rashīd al-Dīn in his multiple facets of historian, administrator and patron. It engages with the secondary literature on the history and historiography of the Ilkhanate while making an exhaustive and inventive scholarly use of primary material. One of the challenges and interesting aspects of the dissertation is that it engages with a source that has provoked a fair amount of discussion and controversy in the past. In this sense, the thesis is not limited to the best known works by Rashīd al-Dīn (like the Jāmi‘ al-tawārīkh) but additionally makes use of an extensive corpus of Ilkhanid-era literature to explore the intellectual life of Ilkhanid Iran. Kamola engages with controversial material such as the Sawāni al-afkār-i rashīdī (commonly known as the ‘letters of Rashīd al-Dīn’), a source that was at the centre of a scholarly debate about their authenticity between A. H. Morton and Soudavar some years ago. Kamola addresses the issue in his Introduction, concluding that although the authenticity of the whole collection of letters cannot be asserted, there is a good deal of authentic information in them. While the letters may not be entirely reliable as a basis for a reconstruction of the biographical events of Rashid al-Dīn’s life, this dissertation makes use of this largely neglected source to investigate aspects of administrative and financial affairs in the life of the great Persian historian and statesman. Similarly, it deals with those Ilkhanid intellectuals who preceded and succeeded Rashīd al-Dīn in the intellectual milieu of Mongol Iran in a way that gives us a better understanding not only of the setting of Rashīd al-Dīn’s life and work, but also of the legacy of his cultural production. Further, this study is not content with simply carrying out an analysis of the life and work of the Hamadani doctor, but looks further at the political implications of his intellectual production, with issues such as kingship, acculturation and Islamisation being approached with scholarly rigor. In taking Rashīd al-Dīn as a central figure, this dissertation evaluates the political, historical and historiographical changes that the arrival of the Mongols in Iran triggered in the Islamic Middle East.

The dissertation is divided into two parts, each containing four chapters. The first part focuses on the historical development of the Ilkhanate from the time of the Mongol conquest in the first half of the thirteenth century up to the time that Rashīd al-Dīn became the vizier of the realm under the rule of Ghazan Khan (r. 1295-1304). Entitled “Apocalypse to Ilkhanate”, this part opens with a section whose analysis centres on the Mongol domination of the Middle East before the conquest of Hulegu in the 1250s. Its primary argument is that the region was not one of particular strategic interest at the time of Chinggis Khan (d. 1227) and his successor Ogedei (d. 1241). Although campaigns into the region existed, pre-Mongol political entities such as the Abbasid Caliphate or a reduced Khwarazmshah empire retained influence in the region. In the context of the shift in power from the Ogedeid to the Toluyid line of descent after Chinggis Khan, Kamola argues that this political shift meant that Hulegu (a Toluyid) favoured Iranian scholars and bureaucrats over Central Asian Jochid administrators. According to Kamola, this change is behind the emergence of a new class of intellectuals and officials with Persian roots that proved to be pivotal in the incipient Ilkhanid state. The second chapter focuses on the contribution of characters such as Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī and the brothers ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn and Shams al-Dīn Juvaynī to the creation of a cultural and intellectual legitimacy for Mongol rule in Iran. The chapter focuses on the interaction between rulers and officials and suggests patterns of acculturation that might have occurred (or begun to occur) in this period through the development of a new style of historical writing and the introduction of a system of patronage for the arts, philosophy and the sciences. The third chapter in this section explores what is, in my view, a crucial period in the history of the Ilkhanate: the rise of Gheikhatu and Ghazan Khan. The chapter argues that this turbulent period, defined by courtly intrigues, political turmoil and religious confrontation, provoked a shift in the legitimacy discourse constructed for the Mongols in the Middle East. Kamola suggests that this period explains Rashīd al-Dīn’s rise to power and the eventual triumph of his ideas. The final chapter in this section deals with the biography of Rashīd al-Dīn from the time of his early career to his demise at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

The second part of the dissertation focuses on the tradition of historical writing in the Ilkhanid court at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It argues that there was a deliberate attempt to provide Mongol rule in the Middle East with a new basis of legitimacy, now based on Islamic values and, more importantly, on the Persian/Iranian tradition. Given this argument, chapter five is dedicated to exploring the ways in which historical writing in this period relied on a variety of historiographical traditions in constructing a new idea of kingship suited to the Mongols in Iran. The section proposes that Mongol and Iranian traditions of ruling legitimacy were synthesized by simultaneously enhancing both the figure of Chinggis Khan and the concept of Īrān-zamīn (Land of Iran) in order to construct a legitimising discourse for the Mongols. Chapter six explores the Islamic elements incorporated in this new idea of legitimacy, particularly after Ghazan Khan’s conversion to Islam in 1295. However, Kamola argues that the Islamic elements were carefully selected so as to emphasise elements of Shī‘a Islam, Sufism and Turco-Mongol traditions as reflected in Rashīd al-Dīn’s works. This point is a crucial one in that these writings served the basis of the ideal of kingship not only for the Mongols of Iran but also for the succeeding Timurid and Mughal dynasties. Chapter seven focuses again on Rashīd al-Dīn by looking at his patronage and literary activities while he was at the peak of his career. His preoccupation with the distribution and preservation of his works and the financial patronage he bestowed on the arts and architecture are the main focus of this chapter. Kamola suggests that these were a sign of Rashīd al-Dīn’s struggle to maintain his own legitimacy at the head of the Mongol court; as he states, Rashīd al-Dīn became “state’s greatest mind and its worst enemy” (p. 134). Finally, the last chapter is dedicated to exploring the theme of Rashīd al-Dīn as a vizier and statesmen in the works of his intellectual disciples and protégés at the Mongol court. To this end, Kamola investigates the works of Vaṣṣāf, Abū ’l-Qāsim Kāshānī and, in particular, Ḥamd Allāh Mustaufī. On the latter, Kamola suggests that this historian extended the intellectual legacy of his predecessor in both prose and verse works, and contributed to the creation the image of Rashīd al-Dīn as “the unimpeachable man of state and wise vizier and author of the crucial base text for the understanding of Ilkhanid history” (p. 279).

The dissertation is well written and organized and contributes to our knowledge in the fields of Mongol and Iranian history. It provides a masterful account of the historiographical production that emerged in the period, which remained highly influential among other dynasties in the Middle East and South Asia long after the Mongols disappeared from the political scene. More importantly, Kamola adds further weight to the increasingly accepted view that the Mongols, despite the initial destruction wrought by their conquest, were not mere destroyers and bloodthirsty conquerors but also vital contributors to a new Iranian-Islamic ideal of kingship and energetic patrons of cultural and intellectual life in a way that provided a crucial precedent for the great early modern Islamic empires. He demonstrates, moreover, that it is precisely the life and work of Rashīd al-Dīn and other men of letters who lived under Mongol patronage which prove the older image wrong.

Dr. Bruno De Nicola
School of History
University of St. Andrews

Primary Sources

Rashīd al-Dīn, Savāni al-afkār-i rashīdī (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Dānishgāh-i Tihrān, 1980).
Rashīd al-Dīn, Jāmi al-tawārīkh (Tehran: Alburz, 1994).
Ḥamd Allāh Mustaufī, Ẓafarnāma (Tehran and Vienna: Dānishgāh-i Īrān and Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1999).
Vaṣṣāf, Kitāb-i mustaāb-i Vaṣṣāf al-Ḥaẓrat dar bandar-i Mughūl (Bombay lithograph edition, 1853).
Īraj Afshār (ed.), Akhbār-i mughūlān (650-683) dar anbāna-i Mullā-i Quṭb (Qum: Marʿashī, 2010).

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2013. 326 pp. Primary Advisor: Joel Walker.


Image: Berlin Staatsbibliothek Orientabteilung, Diez A Folio 70 Seite 4.

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