Tamerlan, Tamerlane: What’s in a Name? An Islamic Warrior’s ‘Systematic Use of Terror’ 4

We learned today that the older of the two brothers suspected of bombing the Boston marathon was called Tamerlan Tsarnaev.


That means he was named after the 14th-century Turkic ruler Tamerlane (also spelled Tamburlaine, but more commonly Temur or Timur) who called himself “the Sword of Islam.” Tamerlane/Timur, says Wikipedia, was known for his butchery and his “systematic use of terror.” His empire stretched thousands of miles, encompassing parts of (among other countries) Turkey, India, Iran, Afghanistan, and also Kyrgyzstan, where the Boston suspects were born.

Timur was a devout Muslim who referred to himself as the Sword of Islam, converting nearly all the Borjigin leaders to Islam during his lifetime. His armies were inclusively multi-ethnic. During his lifetime Timur would emerge as the most powerful ruler in the Muslim world after defeating the Mamluks of Egypt and Syria, the emerging Ottoman Empire and the declining Sultanate of Delhi. Timur had also decisively defeated the Christian Knights Hospitaller at Smyrna. …

Timur’s armies were feared throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, sizable parts of which were laid to ruin by his campaigns. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns caused the deaths of 17 million people, amounting to about five percent of the world population.

Taking advantage of his Turco-Mongolia heritage, Timur frequently used either the Islamic religion or the law and traditions of the Mongol Empire to achieve his military goals or domestic political aims.


He not only consolidated his rule at home by the subjugation of his foes, but sought extension of territory by encroachments upon the lands of foreign potentates. His conquests to the west and northwest led him to the lands near the Caspian Sea and to the banks of the Ural and the Volga. Conquests in the south and south-West encompassed almost every province in Persia, including Baghdad, Karbala and Northern Iraq.

His incursion into Persia was notable in part for what Tamerlane ordered his troops to do after the brief siege of the city of Isfahan.

When Isfahan surrendered to Timur in 1387, he treated it with relative mercy as he normally did with cities that surrendered. However, after the city revolted against Timur’s taxes by killing the tax collectors and some of Timur’s soldiers, Timur ordered the massacre of the city’s citizens with the death toll reckoned at between 100,000 and 200,000. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers constructed of about 1,500 heads each. This has been described as a “systematic use of terror against towns…an integral element of Tamerlane’s strategic element” which he viewed as preventing bloodshed by discouraging resistance. …

He justified his campaign towards Delhi as a religious war against the Hindu religion practiced in the city and also as a chance for to gain more riches in a city that was lacking control. By all accounts, Timur’s campaigns in India were marked by systematic slaughter and other atrocities on a truly massive scale inflicted mainly on the subcontinent’s Hindu population.

He massacred 100,000 captives at Delhi, and at least 20,000 more at Baghdad. The Baghdad death toll came after

Timur ordered that every soldier should return with at least two severed human heads to show him. (Many warriors were so scared they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Timur.)

Then he turned his attention to Ankara and Anatolia (present-day Turkey).

Timur’s army ravaged Western Anatolia, with Muslim writers complaining that the Timurid army acted more like a horde of savages than that of a civilized conqueror. But Timur did take the city of Smyrna, a stronghold of the Christian Knights Hospitalers, thus he referred to himself as ghazi or “Warrior of Islam”.


In all,

The conquests of Timur are claimed to have caused the deaths of up to 17 million people; an assertion impossible to verify. Timur’s campaigns sometimes caused large and permanent demographic changes. Northern Iraq remained predominantly Assyrian Christian until attacked, looted, plundered and destroyed by Timur, leaving its population decimated by systematic mass slaughter.

Timur’s devotion to Islam, especially in his waning years, was never in question, but in his earlier adulthood he seems to have been more of a religious opportunist who just loved to subjugate and plunder. Notes one reviewer of Justin Marozzi’s biography Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World:

Temur rationalised his conquests by appeal to Islam, but he rates as one of the greatest butchers of Muslims of all time. His forces were hired and kept loyal with generous shares of the spoils of conquest, and the cynical deal was, “No jewels, no jihad.” If a city were rich enough to merit plundering, it would qualify as a city of bad Muslims to be blessed with Temur’s corrections and a pretext found. If it happened to be filled with Crusaders or Hindus, all the better. The Ottomans themselves, fresh from annihilating the flower of Christian knighthood at Nicopolis, were swept aside almost without effort. Clearly, Temur’s blessings to his religion were equivocal. Campaigns against Delhi and Christian enclaves in Asia Minor allowed a slightly more convincing pretext of religious war, and in his later years he directed his energies more consistently against non-Muslims as he felt immortality approach, but his campaigning character seems to have been defined by the lust for conquest.

Of course, that one of the apparent Boston bombers was named after the Sword of Islam may mean nothing. The Tsarnaev boys’ aunt claims they were unfailingly good and kind:

My nephews cannot be part of this terrible, horrible act that was committed in the streets of Boston. I know these two nephews, smart boys, good boys, they have no motive for that, they have no ideas to be going to this kind of act. It’s just not the case, it cannot be true.

We‘ll see.

[top photo via Business Insider; middle photo via National Geographic; bottom image via Aapna Punjab]

4 thoughts on “Tamerlan, Tamerlane: What’s in a Name? An Islamic Warrior’s ‘Systematic Use of Terror’

  1. Pingback: Just like me: the older ‘bomber’ Tamerlan studied Koran for days at a time amid ‘bombings and shootings’ in Islamic Dagestan — Winds Of Jihad By SheikYerMami

  2. behihoo Apr 24,2013 8:06 pm

    Thanks for the great post. I also wondered when I first heard his name if it was inspired by Timur. You have to wonder what kind of parents name their kid after a mass murderer. Having said that, there are enough Alexanders, Josephs, and Changizes running around to prove that one man’s mass murderer is another man’s hero.

  3. Terry Firma Apr 25,2013 1:25 am


  4. Temur Aug 26,2013 9:00 pm

    God damn those Temurs who are described in this article. But it is stupid to compare all Temur as it is unprofessional.

    My name is Temur and I am the one who even cannot kill a fly,spider,etc, Yes literally I cannot kill as I feel very emotional toward them!

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