People often think the Battle of Ain Jaloot (1260CE) was a turning point in the invasion of the Mongols, and saved the rest of Muslim lands from destruction. However, this is not entirely true, the battle only delayed the Mongols, the truth, like most of history, is stranger than fiction. Above all the story offers us an interesting and recurring lesson – just when we think we have no hope of success in Allah’s cause, Allah gives those who remain steadfast supporting his deen, help from an unexpected quarter.
The Mongol warlord of the Ilkhanate (one of the four semi-autonomous factions of the Mongol empire), Hulagu, led a force of over 120,000 soldiers and besieged Baghdad in 1258, the capital of the Islamic Caliphate and captured it, massacring the inhabitants and killing the Caliph of the Muslims, Al-Musta’sim in 1258. Hulagu then turned his attention to Syria, and began capturing Aleppo and Damascus (with help from Crusaders and his Georgian and Armenian vassals).
Hulagu sent an emissary to Egypt, demanding the Mamluks surrender or face complete destruction.
“To Qutuz the Mamluk…You should think of what happened to other countries and submit to us. You have heard how we have conquered a vast empire…We have conquered vast areas, massacring all the people. You cannot escape from the terror of our armies. Where can you flee? What road will you use to escape us? Our horses are swift, our arrows sharp, our swords like thunderbolts, our hearts as hard as the mountains, our soldiers as numerous as the sand. Fortresses will not detain us, nor armies stop us. Your prayers to God will not avail against us. We are not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations. Only those who beg our protection will be safe. Hasten your reply before the fire of war is kindled. Resist and you will suffer the most terrible catastrophes. We will shatter your mosques and reveal the weakness of your God and then will kill your children and your old men together. At present you are the only enemy against whom we have to march”.
While most people would quail in the face of such a demand, from a foe who had never been successfully resisted or defeated (especially those who call themselves “pragmatists”, like most of the rulers and warlords who rule the Muslim world today), the Mamluk leader Qutuz rejected the demand and killed the Mongol emissary (not a very Islamic thing to do, but you get the point).
Before Hulagu could attack the Mamluks, the Great Khan of the Mongol empire, Mongke, died, which meant Hulagu had to go back to East Asia to attend the selection of the next successor (although recently historians have claimed that Hulugu had to move his army to pasture in the east as all the fodder for horses in the region had run out). Hulugu left behind one of his commanders, Kitbuqa to consolidate Syria and continue the advance against the Mamluks while he was gone.
Taking the opportunity, the Mamluk leaders, Baybars and Qutuz set out from Egypt and attacked Kitbuqa, meeting him at Ain Jaloot and cleverly using Mongol tactics against the Mongols (which they never expected, and since they never thought of ever developing a counter to their own tactics, they fell for the Mamluk strategy) destroying an army of 25,000 Mongols and their Armenian and Georgian vassals. Kitbuqa was captured, and it was reported that Kitbuqa warned them before being executed, that the Muslims will face a million horses that will destroy them when Hulugu returns.
And return Hulugu did, two years later at the head of a massive army to exact revenge on the Mamluks and storm the remaining lands of Islam – however, Allah (swt) had other plans neither the Mamluks nor Hulugu expected.
To the north, across the Caucasus and central Asia, lay the lands of another faction within the Mongol empire ‘the Golden Horde’, led by the Mongol leader Berke Khan (who was a cousin of Hulugu). He had strong armies, and had recently embraced Islam after speaking to Muslim merchants from Bukhara. After converting to Islam, he managed to successfully convert many of his soldiers.
Before Hulugu could attack, and assuredly overwhelm the Mamluks and perhaps threaten the cities of Makkah and Madinah, Berke Khan attacked the Ilkhanate with his armies and dispatched forces which retook Ghazni and Eastern Afghanistan from the Ilkhanate control. This caused Hulugu to have to divert much of his army to fight the Golden Horde. Hulugu’s army attempted to invade the Golden Horde areas in the Caucasus, but were caught by surprise and attacked by Berke’s army near the river Terek in winter and smashed into a rout. It was reported that they ran across the frozen river to escape Berke’s forces, only for the ice to break and cause most of Hulugu’s remaining forces to plunge to their deaths.
Hulugu’s forces were so embroiled in the fighting with Berke Khan, that he could never launch the full invasion of Egypt (and beyond) that he had wanted. He only managed to muster 6000 horsemen to attack the Mamluks – but they were defeated by the Mamluks at the battle of Homs (despite the Mamluk army at the battle only having 1400 soldiers!).
Berke Khan, who was nominally under the rule of the Great Khan, Mongke, sent a letter explaining why he was about to attack a fellow Mongol, it read:
“He (Hulugu) has sacked all the cities of the Muslims, and has brought about the death of the Caliph. With the help of God, I will call him to account for so much innocent blood”
Nine months after the battle of Ain Jaloot, the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, re-established the Caliphate nominating a surviving Abbasid, Al-Mustansir, to continue the role as Caliph of the Muslims, moving the seat of the Caliphate to Cairo.
The Mamluks then received a message from Berke Khan, asking them for an alliance against Hulugu, and asking them to support their Seljuk brothers in Anatolia.
Hulugu was never able to successfully capture anymore territory from the Mamluks till he died. 40 years later, the great-grandsons of Hulugu, Mahmud Ghazan and Muhammad Khodabandeh publicly converted to Islam (albeit nominally) and each succeeded to rulership of the Ilkhanate.
The “Mongol civil war” between Berke Khan and Hulugu is said by many historians to have marked the beginning of the internecine warfare that ultimately broke up of the Mongol Empire, bringing it to an end.
The moral of the story is clear. The Mamluks trained their forces and developed their military technology to a razor edge. They used ingenious military strategies and tactics against their enemy and refused to surrender or lay down (where many “pragmatists” would have thought it “wisdom” to do so). The Mamluks were the last line in the defence of Islam and the Muslim world – and they prepared themselves to defend it or perish. Only after they did everything they could, exhausted every means of material resource and mental ingenuity, did Allah’s (swt) help come – from quarters they didn’t expect, reducing their burden and ultimately giving them victory.
The Mamluks didn’t just “tie their camel”, they tied it with a steel cord attached to a lead anchor then put their trust in Allah (swt). Consequently, Allah (swt) gave them such victory as would be remembered for the rest of human history until now.
A lesson we’d do well to heed today