There should be a new TV show this fall called “American Idolater.” Fox TV can just copy the basic format from the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan, and have three judges, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Buddhist, decide which up- and-coming religious leader is America’s biggest zealot, and deserves a million dollars’ worth of school vouchers and a chance to go on tour with The Rolling Stone-Throwers.
The original episode of this series took place on May 24, 1254, when Mongke Khan, grandson of Genghis and leader of the Mongols, received into his court the new French envoy, Franciscan monk William of Rubruck. Rubruck immediately told the court that he knew the word of God and had come to spread it to the ignorant hordes. “Those who do not keep God’s commandments do not love Him,” said Rubruck.
A Muslim cleric immediately challenged the Frenchman by asking, “Have you been in heaven that you know the commandments of God? And are you insinuating that our great leader Mongke Khan doesn’t observe God’s commandments?” Fortunately for Rubruck, the Mongols loved competitions of all sorts, so instead of dragging him off in chains for insulting the Khan, they instead arranged an organized debate amongst the empire’s main three rival religions, in the same way that they organized wrestling matches. In addition to the panel of three expert judges, a large audience came to watch. Mongke Khan laid down strict rules for the debate including, “On pain of death no one shall dare to speak words of contention.” This pretty much guaranteed that the debate would be extremely polite.
According to Jack Weatherford’s account of this spiritual wrestling match, taken from his wonderful book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, this may have been the first time in history that representatives of various faiths had come together and debated their beliefs as equals, “using no weapons or the authority of any ruler or army behind them. They could use only words and logic to test the ability of their ideas to persuade.”
“Their debate ranged back and forth over the topics of evil versus good, God’s nature, what happens to the souls of animals, the existence of reincarnation, and whether God had created evil. As they debated, the clerics formed shifting coalitions among the various religions according to the topic. Between each round of wrestling, Mongol athletes would drink fermented mare’s milk; in keeping with that tradition, after each round of the debate, the learned men paused to drink deeply in preparation for the next match.”
The results of having these hard-core religionists trying to convince each other of the rightness of their beliefs was predictable to anyone who has followed the past 5,000 years or so of recorded history. “No side seemed to convince the other of anything. Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in a effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation. At the end of the debate, unable to convert or kill one another, they concluded the way most Mongol celebrations concluded, with everyone simply too drunk to continue.”
Maybe Genghis Khan really wasn’t such a bad guy. Sure, he and his Mongol horde invaded most of the kingdoms of the known world and conquered them in sometimes horrifically bloody battles, during three generations of almost constant fighting. But he also smashed the feudal system of aristocratic privilege and built a new system that promoted individuals based on their abilities and achievements. Then he lowered taxes for everyone (always a good political move), getting rid of them entirely for priests, doctors, and even teachers. At a time when most rulers considered themselves above the law, (and how exactly is that different from now?) Genghis Khan demanded that laws should hold rulers, including himself, as equally accountable as the lowliest goat herder.
Perhaps most amazing was the empire’s attitude toward religions. The Mongols were animists who worshipped the many spiritual forces of nature but, although they believed in the supreme law of the Eternal Blue Sky over all people, they permitted the free practice of all religions within their realms. Before dismissing Rubruck and sending him back to France (where Catholic priests were busy going from city to city to find and torture suspected heretics) Mongke Khan gave him a lecture on religious tolerance. “Just as God gave different fingers to the hand so has He given different ways to men.”
Can we get these guys to come back and run for office?