by Ziya Meral
The Crusades are one of the saddest moments in the history of the world, when the Church found itself being carried away by geopolitical, spiritual, financial and cultural factors.
The Crusades are one of the saddest moments in the history of the world, when the Church found itself being carried away by geo-political, spiritual, financial and cultural factors. The results of such a movement are still very much alive today and we must note that the East has not learned to be pragmatic or adopt a short historical consciousness. It is very common to hear the word “Crusade” in modern Islamic rhetoric. In contrast, there is a wide ignorance about the subject in Western Christian circles. However, both the Islamic idea of the Crusades and the post-colonial insecurity of the “Christian” West lead to wrong conclusions. We must not just look at the Crusades through the medium of never-ending Islamic propaganda that speaks of mere victimization and places guilt on the side of Christianity. We must seek to understand what really happened within the historical context of the events. This article will show that the Crusades were the result of an inescapable religious, cultural and political tension between the East and the West. Specific attention is given to the place of the Crusades in Islamic thought and the long-term effects of this viewpoint.
ISLAM BEFORE THE CRUSADES
Some argue that the Arabic culture virtually did not exist before Islam, and Islam gave birth to the Arabic culture. Though one can legitimately argue that Muhammad and Islam gave much-needed unity to scattered and separated tribes (and that a stronger Arabic culture emerged from that unity and identity), Arabic people have nevertheless existed long before Islam’s arrival. This means there was already a “culture” present. Supra-cultural or universal status ascribed to Islamic texts, beliefs and practices today are much later theological re-readings of history. It was the Arabic culture that gave birth to Islam, and until the later worldwide spread of Islam to non-Arabic peoples, it remained a strongly Arabic religion, and in return a vital part of Arabic identity. Islam and Muslims of pre-Crusade and Crusade times differ from Islam and Muslims today, and they must be seen as such. It was not Muslims versus Christians (members of the two universal religions we know today) at odds in the Crusades. At odds were certain Arabic tribes at a certain point of history who were united under the umbrella of Islam and European peoples who were united under the umbrella of Christianity. Both groups understood themselves in unity or in opposition to the “other” by virtue of different beliefs. Unlike today’s post-Enlightenment world, beliefs were not separated from national identities in those times.
From the beginning of Islam, expansion and domination has been the goal of this religion. Muhammad himself waged wars; so did his caliphates. With the death of Muhammad, Islam entered the age of expansion (632 to 750 AD) that resulted in the conquering of the Holy Land and especially of Jerusalem in 636 AD. Saul Colbi writes that
the Muslim conquest was dreadful for Christians. That is not, however, to say it wiped that life out by any means. As soon as the fighting ended, it seems that the Moslem treated the subdued population humanely, and for a time the Christian majority in the Holy Land were undisturbed in their professions. (1988, 29)
However, Christians were soon forced to live under the dhimmi system where they had to pay taxes and live as second-level citizens. The Christian experience under Islamic rule worsened during the reigns of Ommayad Caliph Abd-al-Malikh (685-705 AD), Abu Djafar al-Mansour (756 AD) and, most of all, Jaffar al-Mutawakhil (847-861 AD). Not only were Christians not allowed to build new churches or share their faith, they were also forced to take down crosses on the tops of church buildings and to wear special apparel that set them apart as Christians.
According to Colbi, Christians under al-Mutawakhil’s rule were forbidden to ride on horseback or carry a sword. Liturgy in public was limited, tapers were not to be lit and church bells were not to be rung. Christians were forced to affix wooden images of pigs or monkeys to their houses. If Christians rode on mules or asses, the riders had to use wooden saddles marked with pomegranate-like balls on the cantle (1988, 32). As the pressure to convert to Islam increased, a large scale exodus from the Holy Land to Byzantine occurred.
Al Hakim (996-1021 AD) banned pilgrimages, confiscated church property, ordered crosses to be burned and commanded that small mosques be built on church roofs.
These events are not mentioned in Islamic rhetoric. There are no comments on why the Muslims conquered the Holy Land at all. There is an underlying assumption that Islam had an intrinsic right to dominate and/or conquer.
From the Islamic point-of-view, the so-called golden age of Islamic cultures during 750-1100 AD was disturbed by a great disunity among the Islamic groups. Tension between Shiites and Sunnis dates back to pre-Crusade years. In many ways, the jihadic movement to capture the known world for the cause of Islam was slowing and tensions among the camps were an increasing long-term problem for Islam. It is said that because of this slowing down, Christian Europe decided to attack and destroy Islam.
According to Jonathan Riley-Smith, the incoming forces created confusion among the Muslims. Some Muslims thought the invaders were Byzantines; others thought they were Franks (1995, 225). The stage was set for the first large-scale tension between the people of the Book and the Muslims. Facing this threat, Muslims had to reunite. Ali bin Tahir al-Sulami (1039-1106 AD), a Sunni Muslim religious scholar, wrote “Kitab al-jihad” in 1105 AD, calling Muslims to jihad. According to Riley-Smith, “He regarded the expedition of the Franks as part of Christian jihad from the West, which had the aim of helping native Christians as well as conquering Jerusalem” (1995, 226).
Meanwhile, some Muslims were apparently reflecting theologically about the upcoming Crusades. Riley-Smith commented that
al-Sulami presented the triumph of the Crusades in Syria as a symptom of the moral and political decay of Islam and of the enfeebled state of the caliphate, but he also offered his readers the certainty of future victory, since the Prophet Muhammad had predicted that the Muslims would lose Jerusalem for a while, but then they would not only retake it, but they would go on to conquer Constantinople. (1995, 226)
This attitude seemed to be present in Islam throughout the Abbasid and Egyptian tension and the expectation of the Mahdi, a savior figure whose significance differs for Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, was very much alive.
GOD WILLS IT! THE WESTERN MIND
Starting with Augustine, the just war theory was widely accepted by the Church. However, this theory was more defensive in nature and gave only partial permission to take retaliatory actions. Just wars were never seen as aggressive in advancing a cause (like jihads were). Even the word “Crusades” evolved much later. Hans Eberhard Mayer stated that “not until the mid-thirteenth century was there a Latin word for ‘crusade’ and even then it was seldom used. The English word ‘crusader,’ like the German word Kreuzzug, was only invented in the eighteenth century” (1972, 15).
A comprehensive look at the reasons behind this Crusader movement and its justification is outside the focus of this article.A quick list will include: the role of the pilgrimage in Europe, the news of mistreatment of Christians in the Holy Land and the increase in the number of knights who had a desire for adventure. Above all these, two main reasons stood out: (1) the situation of the Eastern Empire and the Church and (2) the rapid expansion of Islamic dominance. Scholars debate whether or not the goal from the beginning was to capture Jerusalem. This seems to be a later objective. Some argue that Pope Urban II’s desire to promote Crusades was either to bring unity between the Eastern and the Western Church or to have one gain control over the other. However, there is clear evidence that the Church appealed to the Byzantines for help (1972, 8). This demonstrates the importance of the geo-political situation of the day. By the seventh century, North Africa had been conquered by Muslims and in 711 AD the Ommayad Tariq crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and destroyed the Visigothic kingdom of Spain (1972, 4).
Mayer tells of the Islamic expansion in the East:
They possessed a serious threat to Byzantium. In the West they overran Sicily in the ninth century and established themselves in South Italy, where, in 982, they defeated the Roman Emperor Otto II. From bases on the coast of Provence they devastated South France and Switzerland. They controlled the Alpine passes. (1972, 4)
In short, the old continent was under serious threat and had to do something. This imminent threat of Islamic conquest was fueled by religious sentiments of pilgrimage and the longings for adventure and booty on behalf of the knights. Increasing reports of Christians in Palestine being mistreated allowed Christians to justify their part in the Crusades.
Even if the reasons for the Crusades can be justified, what has happened will always remain like a black stain on a white cloth. It was probably the Jews who suffered the most for no apparent reason from the rapes and abuses by troops pursuing their “holy” goals. The Eastern Christians also suffered enormously and were killed by the crusaders who were marching to protect them. After all the bloodshed they left behind in Europe and Asia Minor, the crusaders demonstrated the idea of Nietzsche (who warned that those who fight against monsters should be careful not to turn into monsters themselves) as they conquered Jerusalem. Zoe Oldenbourg’s description of the event based on historical sources is an aorist snapshot:
They [crusaders] wanted torrents and rivers of blood, the blood which in the Mosque of Al-Aqsa rose to the men’s ankles or even to their horses’ chests, inconceivable as this seems. The inside of the mosque was several hundred yards square; the bodies lay on the ground, drowned in their own blood, while the victors splashed through it and were soaked in blood with every step they took. (1998, 559)
The city [Jerusalem] had no more than twenty-five thousand inhabitants, for its Christians had been driven out by the Moslem defenders as the Crusaders approached; their dependability, in such circumstances, was not unnaturally suspected. For only forty days Jerusalem held out: a frightful slaughter of all Moslems and Jews taken in it was the final act. The only Moslems spared were the governor and his bodyguard. (1988, 38)
What happened to Muslim inhabitants under crusader kingdoms is not much different from what Christians experienced under the previous Islamic reign. This time, however, the Muslims were forced to pay the poll tax and live as second-level citizens. Riley-Smith suggests that
Ibn Jubayr, a Spanish Muslim pilgrim to Mecca who on his way home passed through the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1184 AD, claimed that the Muslim peasantry were well-treated by their Frankish masters and paid fewer taxes than peasants under neighboring Muslim rulers. He even thought that there might be a long-term danger of them converting to Christianity. (1995, 235)
He further comments that the freedom given to Muslims to dwell in the land was only pragmatic because the landowners needed workers for various tasks. During this relatively short period of crusader reign, both sides had cultural interaction and developed biases towards one another that have lasted until today. Usamah Ibn Munqid provides insight on the cultural aspect of their relationship. According to Usamah, “The Franks (may Allah redeem them helpless!) possess none of the virtues of men except courage” (1995, 233).
Yet these interactions seemed to be limited. Though there was trade and later Western interest in the languages and writings of the East, this does not appear reciprocal. There is no evidence that those in the Islamic camp had this same interest in the West. Riley-Smith writes,
There were numerous contacts between Muslims and Christians, [but] there was little cultural interchange. Proximity did not necessarily encourage understanding. According to the Bahr al-Favaid, the books of the foreigners were not worth reading. Also, according to the Bahr, “Anyone who believes that his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, and he has neither intelligence nor faith.” (1995, 235)
FROM THEN TO TODAY
If one simple sentence were to summarize the results of the Crusades, it would need to mirror Oldenbourg’s conclusion:
As a military operation, the Crusades were a failure. Western Christendom lost Jerusalem ninety years later, after it had unwittingly helped to bring about the reunification of Islam in the Near East, had strengthened warlike ardor of the Moslem world, had first weakened and then ruined the Empire of Byzantium, and in so doing increased the danger from the Turks and Mongols. (1998, 551)
For this article, the most important outcome of the Crusades was the long-term damage they made on the ever-present gap between the Islamic and Christian world.
Mayer rightly observes that “the Crusades did lead to an unwelcome hardening of the Muslim attitude to Christians” (1972, 280). The Crusades were to be only a normative experience for the Islamic consciousness. Though the spiritual intention of doing pilgrimage to Jerusalem and capturing the Holy Land faded in Europe, Islam suffered continually from European aggression. This came in the form of 1700-1945 colonialism, which offered Muslims continual humiliation. It is right in saying that although the Islamic world is convinced of its cultural superiority, it also feels inferior in regards to its place in global politics. For the Muslim, the entire colonial process was the continuation of this same humiliation. The same idea of “us versus them” that was shaped during the Crusades was fully developed in colonialism. It is only after 1945 that Islamic nations were free and began to develop their own countries. The 1970s petrol revolution was a turning point when the West was forced to recognize what the East had to offer. Yet, this mutually beneficial relationship has always contained an element of deep suspicion on the part of the East.
Experience has proved the West is not to be trusted.
The Arabic nationalism, which has been fueled by the creation of the Arab states and the new global presence brought on by extensive petrol resources, faced its acid test with the formation of the State of Israel. The new state was understood as a new Crusade trick to recapture the Holy Land. When the growing optimism in the Arabic world turned sour with significant losses in the wars of 1948 and 1967, the door was wide open to Islamic radicalism, which seeks to unite Islamic people against the infidels for the cause of Islam. It is in this quest to build and identify Islamic unity that the Crusades are mentioned in modern Islamic rhetoric. The Crusades are used to develop a common history of “us versus them.”
In European literature in later periods, the Crusades have been romanticized. There also seems to be increased reference by Muslims since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
In looking at the Crusades, it was inevitable that the European countries would react to the expansion of Islam and the situation of the Eastern Empire. The Crusades were only a political movement triggered by the realities of the day. They found unifying motivation for different European nations under a religious sentiment. They were motivated by the clash and hurt between two different cultural powers. The Crusades only brought the differences and distances into light.
FROM TODAY TO TOMORROW
There are two steps we must take in promoting a healthier understanding of the Crusades.
1. A change in the language. This will signify the deconstruction of a rhetoric which directly appeals to strong religious identity in the Middle Eastern mind. This means not categorizing the sides as “Christian” and “Muslim.” Due to word-limit parameters in this article, this same mistake of historical language is made when referring to Islamic nations. To say “Islam” or “Islamic invasion” is an oversimplification; these were different people groups (Ottomans, Mamluks, Arabs, etc.) living in different times and seeking their national interests as Muslims. Islam has never been a giant monolithic organization. We need to reflect the socio-political reality of the two sides by categorizing them with ethnic or national names. This change will bring forth a conscious and subconscious detachment from the emotional baggage loaded with negative propaganda. Only then can Muslims and Christians have a healthy discussion about the Crusades.
2. A propaganda and guilt proof look at the actual events. We need to acknowledge the mistakes both sides have made and feel true remorse over these mistakes. Both sides have indeed made mistakes and apologies need to be made.
Only a genuine acknowledgement from both sides can start the healing process. A simple one-sided symbolic event, such as reconciliation walks, offers superficial solutions to a deep problem and is generally welcomed with deep suspicion from the other side. The Islamic community has much self-reflection to do and must show the willingness to deconstruct the successful rhetoric that has been used again and again. Muslims must also want to heal past wounds and must not allow these wounds to be used for continuing political and cultural manipulation. The only way that can happen is to (1) rise above post-colonial guilt, (2) challenge
Islamic rhetoric by discussing the socio-political context of the Crusades and (3) show the shifting boundaries between “victims” and “perpetrators” by suggesting that both sides were victims and perpetrators at some point.
One can wonder whether it is necessary to bring the sad events of the past to the surface when many contemporary issues vie for our attention. However, we must remember that the events eight hundred years ago are not history for the Middle Eastern mind; they are the ground upon which the contemporary grows. That is why a simple use of the word “Crusade” by the President of the United States can cause an international scandal and open wounds that have never been properly cared for. True healing does not happen through ignoring, hoping to forget the past or accepting a simple “I’m sorry” designed to promote quick peace. True healing requires courage to face the issue. Desmond Tutu once wrote, “We must be radical. We must go to the root, remove that which is festering, cleanse and cauterize, and then a new beginning is a possibility” (2004, 54).
Colbi, Saul. 1988. A History of Christian Presence in the Holy Land. Boston, Mass.: University Press of America.
Mayer, Hans Eberhard. 1972. The Crusades. London: Oxford University Press.
Oldenbourg, Zoe. 1998. The Crusades. London: Weinderfeld & Nicolson.
Riley-Smith, Jonathan. 1995. Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tutu, Desmond. 2004. God Has a Dream; A Vision of Hope for Our Time. London: Random House.
Ziya Meral, a Turkish Christian, is a graduate of the London School of Theology and the International School of Theology in Asia. Ziya is currently doing postgraduate studies in sociology at the London School of Economics.
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