Killing from Qur'anic Piety: Tamerlane's Living Legacy

Osama bin Laden was far from the first jihadist to kill infidels as an expression of religious piety. This years marks the 600th anniversary of the death of Tamerlane (Timur Lang; 'Timur the Lame', d. 1405), or Amir Timur  ('Timur' signifies 'Iron' in Turkish). Osama lacks both Tamerlane's sophisticated (for his time) military forces and his brilliance as a strategist. But both are or were pious Muslims who paid homage to religious leaders, and both had the goal of making jihad a global force. Santayana was correct when he told us that those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Tamerlane was born at Kash (Shahr—i—Sebz, the 'Green City') in Transoxiana (some 50 miles south of Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan), on April 8 (or 11), 1336 C.E.  Amir Turghay, his father, was chief of the Gurgan or Chagtai branch of the Barlas Turks. By age 34 (1369/70), Timur had killed his major rival (Mir Husain), becoming the pre—eminent ruler of Transoxiana. He spent the next six to seven years consolidating his power in Transoxiana before launching the aggressive conquests of Persia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and then attacking Hindustan (India) under the tottering Delhi Sultanate. [1]

Grousset [2] contrasts Jenghiz Khan's 'straightforward planning' and 'clean sweeps' with the 'higgledy—piggledy' order of Timur's expeditions, and the often incomplete nature of the latter's conquests:

Tamerlane's [Timur's] conquering activities were carried on from the Volga to Damascus, from Smyrna to the Ganges and the Yulduz, and his expeditions into these regions followed no geographical order. He sped from Tashkent to Shiraz, from Tabriz to Khodzhent, as enemy aggression dictated; a campaign in Russia occurred between two in Persia, an expedition into Central Asia between two raids into the Caucasus...[Timur] at the end of every successful campaign left the country without making any dispositions for its control except Khwarizm and Persia, and even there not until the very end. It is true that he slaughtered all his enemies as thoroughly and conscientiously as the great Mongol, and the pyramids of human heads left behind him as a warning example tell their own tale. Yet the survivors forgot the lesson given them and soon resumed secret or overt attempts at rebellion, so that it was all to do again. It appears too, that these blood soaked pyramids diverted [Timur] from the essential objective. Baghdad, Brussa (Bursa), Sarai, Kara Shahr, and Delhi were all sacked by him, but he did not overcome the Ottoman Empire, the Golden Horde, the khanate of Mogholistan, or the Indian Sultanate; and even the Jelairs of Iraq 'Arabi rose up again as soon as he had passed. Thus he had to conquer Khwarizm three times, the Ili six or seven times (without ever managing to hold it for longer than the duration of the campaign), eastern Persia twice, western Persia at least three times, in addition to waging two campaigns in Russia...[Timur's] campaigns 'always had to be fought again', and fight them again he did.

Timur's campaigns are infamous for their extensive massacres and emblematic 'pyramids of heads'. Brown [3] cites 'only a few' prominent examples:

As specimens of those acts mention may be made of his massacre of the people of Sistan 1383—4, when he caused some two thousand prisoners to be built up into a wall; his cold— blooded slaughter of a hundred thousand captive Indians near Dihli [Delhi] (December, 1398); his burying alive of four thousand Armenians in 1400—1, and the twenty towers of skulls erected by him at Aleppo and Damascus in the same year; and his massacre of 70,000 of the inhabitants of Isfahan in (November, 1387)...

Timur was  a pious Muslim, who may well have belonged to the Naqshbandi Sufi order. [4; also see my earlier essay, 'Sufi Jihad', for a discussion of Sufism and jihad.] Grousset [5] emphasizes the important Islamic motivation for Timur's jihad campaigns:

It is the Qur'an to which he continually appeals, the imams and [Sufi] dervishes who prophesy his success. [emphasis added] His wars were to influence the character of the jihad, the Holy War, even when— as was almost always the case— he was fighting Muslims. He had only to accuse these Muslims of lukewarmness, whether the Jagataites of the Ili and Uiguria, whose conversion was so recent, or the Sultans of Delhi who...refrained from massacring their millions of Hindu subjects.

The Turki chronicle Malfuzat—i—Timuri,  a putative [6] autobiographical memoir of Timur, translated into Persian by Abu Talib Husaini, illustrates these driving sentiments, complete with a Qur'anic quotation : [7]

About this time there arose in my heart the desire to lead an expedition against the infidels, and to become a ghazi; for it had reached my ears that the slayer of infidels is a ghazi, and if he is slain he becomes a martyr.  It was on this account that I formed this resolution, but I was undetermined in my mind whether I should direct my expedition against the infidels of China or against the infidels and polytheists of India.  In this matter I sought an omen from the Qur'an, and the verse I opened upon [Q66:9] was this, 'O Prophet, make war upon infidels and unbelievers, and treat them with severity.' My great officers told me that the inhabitants of Hindustan were infidels and unbelievers. In obedience to the order of Almighty Allah I ordered an expedition against them.

Timur's jihad campaigns against non—Muslims — whether Christians in Asia Minor and Georgia, or Hindus in India — seemed to intensify in brutality. Brown [8] highlights one particular episode which supports this contention, wherein Timur clearly distinguished between his vanquished Muslim and non—Muslim foes. After rampaging through (Christian) Georgia, where he 'devastated the country, destroyed the churches, and slew great numbers of inhabitants', in the winter of 1399—1400, Timur, in August 1400,

...began his march into Asia Minor by way of Avnik, Erzeroum, Erzinjan, and Sivas. The latter place offered a stubborn resistance, and when it finally capitulated Timur caused all the Armenian and Christian soldiers to be buried alive; but the Muhammadans he spared.

The unparalleled devastation Timur wrought upon predominantly Hindu India further bolsters the notion that Timur viewed his non—Muslim prey with particular animosity. Moreover, there are specific examples of selective brutality directed against Hindus, cited in the Malfuzat—i—Timuri, from which Muslims are deliberately spared:

My great object in invading Hindustan had been to wage a religious war against the infidel Hindus, and it now appeared to me that it was necessary for me to put down these Jats [Hindus]. On the 9th of the month I dispatched the baggage from Tohana, and on the same day I marched into the jungles and wilds, and slew 2,000 demon—like Jats.  I made their wives and children captives, and plundered their cattle and property... On the same day a party of saiyids, who dwelt in the vicinity, came with courtesy and humility to wait upon me and were very graciously received. In my reverence for the race of the prophet, I treated their chiefs with great honour...On the 29th I again marched and reached the river Jumna. On the other side of the river I [viewed] a fort, and upon making inquiry about it, I was informed that it consisted of a town and fort, called Loni...  I determined to take that fort at once...  Many of the Rajputs placed their wives and children in their houses and burned them, then they rushed to the battle and were killed.  Other men of the garrison fought and were slain, and a great many were taken prisoners.  Next day I gave orders that the Musalman prisoners should be separated and saved, but that the infidels should all be despatched to hell with the proselyting sword. I also ordered that the houses of the saiyids, shaikhs and learned Musulmans should be preserved but that all the other houses should be plundered and the fort destroyed.  It was done as I directed and a great booty was obtained...[9]

On the 16th of the month some incidents occurred which led to the sack of the city of Delhi, and to the slaughter of many of the infidel inhabitants...On that day, Thursday, and all the night of Friday, nearly 15,000 Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying... The following day, Saturday, the 17th, all passed in the same way, and the spoil was so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners — men, women, and children.  There was no man who took less than twenty.  The other booty was immense in rubies, diamonds, pearls and other gems; jewels of gold and silver, ashrafis, tankas of gold and silver of the celebrated 'Alai coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Excepting the quarter of the saiyids, the 'ulama and the other Musulmans, the whole city was sacked. [10]

Timur left Samarkand with a large, powerful expeditionary force destined for India in April, 1398. By October he had besieged Talamba, 75 miles northeast of Multan, subsequently plundering the town and massacring its inhabitants. He reached the vicinity of Delhi during the first week of December having forged a path of destruction— pillaging, razing, and massacring— en route through Pak Patan, Dipalpur, Bhatnar, Sirsa, and Kaithal. Prior to fighting and defeating an army under Sultan Nasir—ud—din Mahmud Tughluq on December 17, 1398, Timur had his forces butcher in cold blood 100,000 Hindu prisoners accumulated while advancing toward Delhi. [11]  Srivastava describes what transpired after Timur's forces occupied Delhi on December 18, 1398: [12]

The citizens of the capital, headed by the ulema, waited on the conqueror and begged quarter.  Timur agreed to spare the citizens; but, owing to the oppressive conduct of the soldiers of the invading force, the people of the city were obliged to offer resistance.  Timur now ordered a general plunder and massacre which lasted for several days.  Thousands of the citizens of Delhi were murdered and thousands were made prisoners.  A historian writes:  'High towers were built with the head of the Hindus, and their bodies became the food of ravenous beasts and birds.....such of the inhabitants who escaped alive were made prisoners.'

Timur acquired immense booty, as well as Delhi's best (surviving) artisans, who were conscripted and sent to Samarkand to construct for him the famous Friday mosque. Leaving Delhi on January 1, 1399 for their return march to Samarkand, Timur's forces stormed Meerut on January 19th, before encountering and defeating two Hindu armies near Hardwar. [13] The Malfuza—i—Timuri [14] indicates that at Hardwar, Timur's army

...displayed great courage and daring; they made their swords their banners, and exerted themselves in slaying the foe (during a bathing festival on the bank of the Ganges). They slaughtered many of the infidels, and pursued those who fled to the mountains. So many of them were killed that their blood ran down the mountains and plain, and thus (nearly) all were sent to hell. The few who escaped, wounded, weary, and half dead, sought refuge in the defiles of the hills. Their property and goods, which exceeded all computation, and their countless cows and buffaloes, fell as spoil into the hands of my victorious soldiers.

Timur then traversed the Sivalik Hills to Kanra, which was pillaged and sacked, along with Jammu "...everywhere the inhabitants being slaughtered like cattle." [15]

Srivastava summarizes India's devastated condition following Timur's departure: [16]

Timur left [India] prostrate and bleeding. There was utter confusion and misery throughout northern India. [India's] northwestern provinces, including northern tracts of Rajasthan and Delhi, were so thoroughly ravaged, plundered and even burnt that it took these parts many years, indeed, to recover their prosperity. Lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of men, and in some cases, many women and children, too, were butchered in cold blood. The rabi crops [grown in October—November, harvested around March, including barley, mustard, and wheat] standing in the field were completely destroyed for many miles on both sides of the invader's long and double route from the Indus to Delhi and back. Stores of grain were looted or destroyed. Trade, commerce and other signs of material prosperity disappeared. The city of Delhi was depopulated and ruined. It was without a master or a caretaker. There was scarcity and virulent famine in the capital and its suburbs. This was followed by a pestilence caused by the pollution of the air and water by thousands of uncared—for dead bodies. In the words of the historian Badaoni, 'those of the inhabitants who were left died (of famines and pestilence), while for two months not a bird moved wing in Delhi.'

The 13th century chronicler, Bar Hebraeus (d. 1286), provided this contemporary assessment of how the adoption of Islam radically altered Mongol attitudes toward their Christian subjects:

And having seen very much modesty and other habits of this kind among Christian people, certainly the Mongols loved them greatly at the beginning of their kingdom, a time ago somewhat short. But their love hath turned to such intense hatred that they cannot even see them with their eyes approvingly, because they have all alike become Muslims, myriads of people and peoples. [18]

Bar Hebraeus' observations should be borne in mind when evaluating Grousset's uncompromising overall assessment of Timur's deeds and motivations. After recounting Timur's 1403 C.E. ravages in Georgia, slaughtering the inhabitants, and destroying all the Christian churches of Tiflis, Grousset states : [19]

It has been noted that the Jenghiz—Khanite Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century was less cruel, for the Mongols were mere barbarians who killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behavior of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers. To this ferocity Tamerlane [Timur] added a taste for religious murder. He killed from Qur'anic piety. {Note: Curiously, the 1970 English translation omits the word 'coranique' in translating 'Il tuait par piete coranique' (p. 513 of the original L'Empire Des Steppes), so that the phrase becomes, 'He killed from piety' as opposed to Grousset's original, 'He killed from Qur'anic piety'}. He represents a synthesis, probably unprecedented in history, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism, and symbolizes that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and a sacred mission.

Tamerlane's barbarous legacy is still with us, 600—years later, in the heinous acts of jihad terrorism being committed by contemporary jihadists. Bin Laden, Zarqawi, the Sufi Basayev, and the Shi'ite Mugniyya—inspired by Islamic teachings conveyed through prominent contemporary Muslim religious leaders—have continued the practice of mass killing from 'Qur'anic piety'.

Dr. Bostom is an Associate Professor of Medicine, and the author of the forthcoming The Legacy of Jihad, on Prometheus Books (2005).

[1] E.G. Browne. A Literary History of Persia In Four Volumes, Vol. 3. The Tartar Domain (1265—1502), Cambridge University Press, 1928, pp. 180—206; Rene Grousset. L'Empire Des Steppes. Attila, Gengis—Khan, Tamerlan. Paris: Payot, 1952. [Translated as The Empire of the Steppes, by Naomi Walford, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1970, pp. 409—465.
A.L. Srivastava. The Delhi Sultanate, p. 222.
[2] Rene Grousset. The Empire of the Steppes, pp. 419—420.
[3] E.G. Browne. A Literary History of Persia. p. 181.
[4] Beatriz Forbes Manz. The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 17.
[5] Rene Grousset. The Empire of the Steppes, pp. 416—417.
[6] For conflicting views regarding the apocryphal nature of this work, see E.G. Browne. A Literary History of Persia. pp. 183—184, and Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, pp. 389—394.
[7] Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, pp. 394—395.
[8] E.G. Browne. A Literary History of Persia. p. 196.
[9] Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, p. 429
[10] Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, pp. 432—433.
[11] Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, pp. 445—446.
[12] Srivastava, The Delhi Sultanate, pp. 222—223.
[13] Srivastava, The Delhi Sultanate, p. 223.
[14] Srivastava, The Delhi Sultanate, p. 223.
[15] Elliot and Dowson, A History of India, Vol. 3, p. 459.
[16] Srivastava, The Delhi Sultanate, p. 223.
[17] A.L. Srivastava. The Delhi Sultanate, p. 224
[18] The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus. Translated from Syriac by Ernest A. Wallis Budge, Oxford University Press, Vol. 1, 1932, p. 354.
[19] Rene Grousset. The Empire of the Steppes, p. 434.; p. 513 of the original French, L'Empire Des Steppes. I want to thank Ibn Warraq for pointing out the omission of the word 'coranique', i.e., Qur'anic in the French to English translation by Walford.