Jihad and the Mongols

I. Introduction to Ibn Taymiyya's anti-Mongol and anti-Nuṣayrī activism

This page provides basic historical and textual information on Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol and anti-Nuṣayrī activism. Ibn Taymiyya wrote three well-known fatwas against the Mongols (Tatars) and another fatwa on the status of Muslims living under Mongol rule in the city of Mardin, today in southern Turkey. Both the anti-Mongol fatwas and the Mardin fatwa have been cited by modern Muslim jihadists from the Islamic Jihad assassins of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 to the present. However, discussion of these fatwas is sometimes confused. Two examples illustrate the difficulty. In a wide-ranging survey of jihad in the Islamic tradition, Richard Bonney provides a translation of a portion of one anti-Mongol fatwa and misidentifies it as the Mardin fatwa (Jihād: From Qur’ān to bin Laden (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 115, 424-425, 464 n. 26). In a second example, the prominent American Muslim teacher Hamza Yusuf has claimed that the whole of modern Islamic terrorism was based on the Mardin fatwa and, in particular, a misreading of one word found in it (see The Mardin Fatwa & Al Qaeda). The Mardin fatwa does not in fact call for engaging in jihad. Ibn Taymiyya's main anti-Nuṣayrī fatwa dates to 1305 or 1317, and today it inspires sentiment among some Sunnīs that the Nuṣayrīs, now called ʿAlawīs, in Syria and Lebanon are apostate Muslims.

Sections II-IV below II) trace the events of the three Mongol invasions of Syria in 1299-1303, III) describe Ibn Taymiyya's fatwas and IV) briefly note their use in modern jihadist literature. Section V introduces Ibn Taymiyya's anti-Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī fatwas.

This page does not address two interpretative questions surrounding Ibn Taymiyya’s view of jihad. One question is whether his vision of jihad is most fundamentally about 1) control of territory in the name of Islam and the imposition of Islamic law within that territory or 2) defense of the doctrinal and ritual integrity of the Muslim community. The first view is widely held by western commentators and jihadists alike. The second is argued by Paul L. Heck, “Jihad Revisited,” Journal of Religious Ethics 32 (2004): 95-128, and Yahya Michot in two books: Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims under Non-Muslim Rule (Oxford, UK: Interface Publications, 2006) and Ibn Taymiyya: Against Extremisms (Beirut: Albouraq, 2012). The second interpretative question involves Ibn Taymiyya doctrine of jus ad bellum, that is, what justifies war and armed rebellion. Specifically, is war justified in defense of religion only, or for political reasons as well? Additionally, is rebellion justified against one’s own ruler, and, if so, on what grounds? On these questions, see again the two works of Michot cited above--Michot argues that Ibn Taymiyya cannot be used to justify rebellion against rulers--Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 62–65, 271–279; and Mona Hassan, “Modern Interpretations and Misinterpretations of a Medieval Scholar: Apprehending the Political Thought of Ibn Taymiyya,” in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times, ed. Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2010), 338-366, especially pp. 355-359.

II. Chronology of Ghāzān’s three Mongol (Īlkhānid) invasions of Syria 

Ibn Taymiyya’s three anti-Mongol fatwas are often dated to the three Mongol invasions of Mamlūk Syria in 1299-1303. Following is a chronology of this period. As noted in the next section, one of these fatwas probably dates about a decade later. This chronology is based on the following scholarship. Note that Aigle's important article is available open access: 

Denise Aigle, “The Mongol Invasions of Bilād Al-Shām by Ghāzān Khān and Ibn Taymīyah’s Three “Anti-Mongol” Fatwas,” Mamlūk Studies Review 11.2 (2007): 89-120. [pdf

Reuven Amitai, “The Mongol Occupation of Damascus in 1300: A Study of Mamluk Loyalties,” in The Mamluks in Egyptian and Syria Politics and Society, ed. Michael Winter and Amalia Levanoni (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 21-41.

Jean R. Michot, Ibn Taymiyya: Lettre à un roi croisé (al-Risâlat al-Qubruṣiyya) (Louvain-la-neuve: Bruylant-Academia, 1995), 35ff.

Thomas Raff, Remarks on an Anti-Mongol Fatwa by Ibn Taimīya (Leiden: n.p., 1973).

First Invasion: December 1299-April 1300 (mid-699 AH)

Mongol justifications: Mamlūk ravaging of Mongol ally Little Armenia in 1298 and corrupt behavior of Mamlūks in Mardin in June 1299.

1298: Sayf al-Dīn Qipchāq, governor of Damascus, defected with some other Mamlūks to the Mongol side

23 December 1299:  1) Ghāzān—along with 2) Sayf al-Dīn Qipchāq, 3) Mamlūk captives forced to fight on the Mongol side, and 4) Armenian and Georgian Christian allies—defeated the Mamlūk army in a bloody battle at Majmaʿ al-murūj/Wādī Khazindār (between Ḥamā and Homs)  (For Ibn Taymiyya’s rulings on these different parties, see Aigle, 102-103). As the Mamlūk army retreated, many Mamlūk soldiers died or were taken prisoner and sold to the Franks on Cyprus.

26 December 1299-1 January 1300: Fear and chaos overtake Damascus; many fled the city including the Shāfiʿī and Mālikī judges.  A group of notables including Ibn Taymiyya go out to meet Ghāzān pleading for clemency.

2 January 1300: Ghāzān enters Damascus and has an amān (security assurance) read in the Umayyad mosque, which portrays the Mamlūks as bad Muslims and Ghāzān as the protector of religion (summary of the amān in Aigle, 107-110).

8 January 1300: Friday sermon in the Umayyad mosque in Ghāzān’s name, and Sayf al-Dīn Qipchāq made the Mongol governor of Damascus.

Early January.  Armenians and Georgians wreaking havoc around Damascus. Ibn Taymiyya intervenes with Mongol officials to get this stopped and negotiate release of prisoners; otherwise he accepts Īlkhānid Mongol rule.

5 February 1300: Ghāzān departs Damascus, promising to return to invade Egypt in autumn.  He leaves behind Qibchāq as governor of Damascus and Mongol army units.  Throughout all this, Arjawāsh, commander of the citadel, kept up Mamlūk resistance against Mongol attempts to take the citadel.  Ibn Taymiyya tried to mediate a truce to avoid further bloodshed, even telling Arjawāsh to stop his resistance.

March-April 1300: The Mamlūk army is rumored to be coming from Egypt. The Mongol army abandons Damascus. Qibchāq goes out to meet the Mamlūk army, switching back to the Mamlūk side, and Arjawāsh takes back Damascus for the Mamlūks.

8 April 1300: Sermon in the Umayyad mosque back in the name of the Mamlūk Sultan al-Nāṣir Muḥammad.  Ibn Taymiyya and his colleagues launch a campaign against taverns to root out immoral activity (e.g. wine drinking) encouraged by Qibchāq.

30 April 1300: Mamlūk army arrives in Damascus; Mongol collaborators are punished (strangled, tongues ripped out, etc.).  Āqqūsh al-Afram made new governor of Damascus.

July-August 1300: Al-Afram, accompanied by Ibn Taymiyya, undertakes a punitive raid against the Shīʿīs in Kasrawān (Mount Lebanon) who had collaborated with the Mongols and the Crusaders.

Second Invasion: October 1300-January 1301 (first half of 700 AH) 

Mid-October-November 1300: The Mongols set out for Syria. Despair in Damascus. Ibn Taymiyya preaches jihad in the Umayyad mosque. Crusader army leaves Cyprus to join the Mongols.

Early January 1301: The Mongols, the Armenians and the Crusaders terrorize Aleppo.

12 January 1301: Ibn Taymiyya meets al-Afram to encourage him to victory. Al-Afram sends Ibn Taymiyya to Cairo to convince the Sultan to send reinforcements.

22 January 1301: For reasons not clear (harsh winter?), Ghāzān decides to return home. The Armenians and the Crusaders return as well, taking captives with them. The Crusaders return to Cyprus with shiploads of Muslim prisoners that they put up for ransom or sell in Cypriot slave markets.

February 1301: Christians and Jews in Syria and Egypt are made to follow the sumptuary laws, perhaps in view of Crusader and Lebanese Christian collaboration with the Mongols.

July 1301: The Mongols send a diplomatic mission to Cairo to make peace.

Third Invasion: February-April 1303 (mid-702 AH) 

July-August 1302: The Syrian Mamlūk army attacked and defeated Little Armenia.

September 1302: Mamlūks remove last Crusaders from Ruwād, followed by Crusader raids from Cyprus on the Levantine coast. The Crusaders regularly raided the coast for slaves and captives to hold for ransom. Also, Ghāzān is seeking assistance from the west (e.g. the Pope in Rome).

February 1303: Damascus panics at rumor of a new Mongol invasion

7 April 1303: Arrival of reinforcements from Egypt. Mongols advance south toward Damascus. Ibn Taymiyya encourages the Mamlūk side and assures them that it is licit and necessary to fight the Mongols, even though they were Muslims.

20 April 1303 / 3 Ramaḍān 702: The Mamlūks defeat the Mongols severely at Shaqḥab (near Damascus). Ibn Taymiyya issues a fatwa exempting Mamlūk soldiers from fasting Ramaḍān during battle.

III. Ibn Taymiyya’s three anti-Mongol fatwas and his Mardin fatwa

Western scholarship on Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Mongol fatwas, such as that of Aigle, Raff and Michot mentioned above, typically cites them from the Arabic as found in:

MF = Majmūʿ fatāwā Shaykh al-Islām Aḥmad ibn Taymiyya, ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad b. Qāsim and Muḥammad b.ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad, 37 vols (Riyadh: Maṭābiʿ al-Riyāḍ, 1961-67). See Arabic Texts for access to this work.

Anti-Mongol Fatwa 1: MF 28:501-508: argues that the Mongols are equivalent to the Khārijīs and those who withheld zakāt from Abū Bakr and so must be fought. Aigle (p. 117) dates it to perhaps the Mongol occupation of Damascus in January-February 1300, but it may well date to a year or more later.

Anti-Mongol Fatwa 2: MF 28:509-543: Ibn Taymiyya’s longest anti-Mongol fatwa. Polemic against the Mongol Īlkhānids and Shīʿis of various kinds. Raff dates this to spring 1303, but Aigle (pp. 117-120) dates it later to 1312-1313 because it contains an allusion to the Īkhānid ruler Ūljaytū who had converted to Shīʿism; it was probably written to address the threatened Mongol invasion at that time.

Ibn Taymiyya’s justification for fighting the Mongols even though they claimed to be Muslims:

Mongols = Khārijīs who left the consensus of the Muslims and apostates

Mamlūk renegades around Qibchāq = apostates (murtaddūn) like the people in Abū Bakr’s time who withheld alms (zakāh)

Mamlūk prisoners forced to fight for Mongols = Muslim prisoners of Meccans at Badr in 624

Traditionally, wars against the Khārijīs, Abū Bakr’s war against those who withheld zakāh, the Battle of the Camel, the Battle of Ṣiffīn between Muʿāwiyya and ʿAlī, and the like were all rolled into one category of intra-Muslim fighting that emerged from a different interpretation (taʾwīl) of a situation and could be resolved later on as simply differences in creative legal reasoning (ijtihād).

Anti-Mongol Fatwa 3: MF 28:544-553argues that the Mongols are equivalent to the Khārijīs and those who withheld zakāt from Abū Bakr and so must be fought; also defines status of Mamlūks fighting on the Mongol side. Aigle (p. 117) dates it to possibly the battle at Wādī al-Khaznadār in 1299. 

Mardin fatwa: MF 28:240-241

The basic work on the Mardin fatwa is Yahya Michot, Ibn Taymiyya: Muslims under Non-Muslim Rule (Oxford, UK: Interface Publications, 2006).

The date of the fatwa is unknown, but the town of Mardin, now in southern Turkey, was under Mongol rule. The fatwa inquiry asks whether Mardin is a land of war (balad ḥarb) or not and whether a Muslim needs to emigrate to the “lands of Islam” (bilād al-Islām), that is, leave Mardin. Ibn Taymiyya answers that Mardin’s status is composite (murakkab) and that it is not obligatory for Muslims to emigrate if they can practice their religion unimpeded.

The 2010 Mardin Conference dedicated to this fatwa (March, 27-28, 2010, http://www.mardin-fatwa.com) and its aftermath are written up in Yahya Michot, “Ibn Taymiyya’s ‘New Mardin Fatwa’. Is Genetically Modified Islam (GMI) Carcinogenic?” Muslim World 101.2 (2011): 130–181.

IV. Use of the anti-Mongol and Mardin fatwas today

Modern-day Islamists employ Ibn Taymiyya’s Mongol and Mardin fatwas to various ends, with jihadists using them to justify violent action against whomever they deem to have fallen afoul of Islamic law, including their own rulers, something Ibn Taymiyya himself never did. 

The Islamic Jihad organization assassins of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981 justified their actions on the grounds that Sadat had apostatized from Islam. The basis for this is set out in Jihad’s manifesto Al-Farīḍa al-ghāʾiba (The Neglected Duty) written by ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj. For a translation of Farīḍa, see:

Johannes Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York: Macmillan, 1986), 159-234; (reprint, London: Zed Books, 2013), 151-229, 254-9. The paragraph division is the same in both the original and the reprint. The reprint also includes a photocopy of the Arabic in an appendix. 

Faraj quotes extensively from the ‘chapter’ on jihad (pp. 279-320) in Volume 4 of an older five volume set of Ibn Taymiyya’s fatwas. This set appears to be in common use in jihadist circles and is known as Al-Fatāwā al-kubrā or simply Fatāwā. It is here abbreviated KMF in line with its full name in the printed edition:

KMF = Kitāb majmūʿat fatāwā Shaykh al-Islām Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Taymiyya, 5 vol. (Cairo: Matbaʿat Kurdistān al-ʿilmiyya, 1326-1329/1908-1911).  Vol. 4 link

Following is the material quoted in ʿAbd al-Salām Faraj’s Farīḍa from KMF. Paragraph numbers follow those in Jansen’s translation. Ibn Taymiyya’s most extensively quoted fatwa in Faraj’s Farīḍa is the Anti-Mongol Fatwa 2, which Aigle has dated to 1312-1313.

KMF 4:279-280 (Question 512) = Mardin Fatwa in MF 28:240-241. Quoted in Farīḍa paragraphs 20, 36, and 37. 

KMF 4:280 (Questions 513-515). Very short fatwas; first two quoted in Farīḍa paragraphs 38 and 39.

KMF 4:280-298 (Question 516) = Anti-Mongol Fatwa 2 in MF 28:509-543. Ibn Taymiyya’s longest anti-Mongol fatwa. Quoted in Farīḍa paragraphs 24, 26-28, 30 (quotation of part of the fatwa inquiry), 31-35, 40, 43-46, 67, 118.

KMF 4:298-302 (Question 517) = Anti-Mongol Fatwa 3 in MF 28:544-553. Anti-Mongol fatwa defining status of Mamlūks fighting on Mongol side. Quoted in Farīḍa 40-42, 103-105.

V. Ibn Taymiyya's fatwas against the Nuṣayrīs-ʿAlawīs of Syria/Lebanon

The following is based on Yaron Friedman, The Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawīs: An Introduction to the Religion, History, and Identity of the Leading Minority in Syria (Leiden: Brill, 2010), especially pp. 62-64 and 187-199; Appendix 8 (pp. 299-309) translates the text of Ibn Taymiyya’s main anti-Nuṣayrī fatwa; the discussion on pp. 187-199 is a revision of Friedman’s earlier article, “Ibn Taymiyya’s Fatāwā against the Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī Sect.” Der Islam 82.2 (2005): 349-63.

Along with Ismāʿīlīs and Christians in Syria, the Nuṣayrīs, today called ʿAlawīs, had sided with the Mongol invaders against the Mamlūks, and the Mamlūks had tried to convert them or liquidate them from the time of Sulṭān Baybars (d. 1277). Ibn Taymiyya issued his first and main anti-Nuṣayrī fatwa (MF 35:145-160) perhaps in 1305 or more likely in response to a Nuṣāyrī messianic uprising in 1317. A much shorter fatwa anathematizes both the Nuṣayrīs and the Druze (MF 35:161-162); the dating of this fatwa is not known, and the Druze may have been added in by a later editor. Another short fatwa responds to the Nuṣāyrī uprising of 1317. Ibn Taymiyya was the only scholar to write fatwas against the Nuṣayrīs in the medieval period.

Ibn Taymiyya deems the Nuṣayrīs and other kinds of esoteric sects to be apostate (murtadd) and more unbelieving and harmful than Jews, Christians, and many polytheists, and he argues that jihad against them is a higher priority than jihad against Jews and Christians due to the need to protect the integrity of the Muslim community. Ibn Taymiyya’s knowledge of the Nuṣayrīs is limited, and he conflates their beliefs with those of Ismāʿīlī Shīʿīs, which were better known at the time. Ultimately, the Mamlūks decided to spare the Nuṣayrīs for political and economic reasons. Ibn Taymiyya’s anti-Nuṣayrī polemic inspired Sunnī belief that the Nuṣayrīs fell outside the fold of Islam, and, as a result, the Ottoman Empire did not accord them legal status. Ibn Taymiyya's judgment that Nuṣayrīs were apostate Muslims continues to fuel anti-Nuṣayrī-ʿAlawī sentiment among some Sunnīs in Syria and Lebanon today.