By John L. EspositoJohn L. Esposito, is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in the U.S.A. Esposito is the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, The Oxford History of Islam, The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, and Oxford’s The Islamic World: Past and Present
(Excerpted from “The Crusades”, Chapter 2: Roots of Conflict, Cooperation, and Confrontation, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, 1992, pp. 37-39.)
Two myths pervade Western perceptions of the Crusades: first, that Christendom triumphed; second, that the Crusades were simply fought for the liberation of Jerusalem. For many in the West, the specific facts regarding the Crusades are but dimply known. Indeed many do not know who started the Crusades, why they were fought, or how the battle was won. For Muslims, the memory of the Crusades lives on as the clearest example of militant Christianity, an earlier harbinger of the aggression and imperialism of the Christian West, a vivid reminder of Christianity’s early hostility toward Islam. If many regard Islam as a religion of the sword, Muslims down through the ages have spoken of the West’s Crusader mentality and ambitions. Therefore, for Muslim-Christian relations, it is less a case of what actually happened in the Crusades than how they are remembered.
The Crusades, which take their name from the “cross” (crux in Latin), were a series of eight military expeditions extending from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries which pitted Christendom (the Christian armies of the Franks) against Islam (the Muslim armies of the Saracens). The eleventh century marked a turning point in the relationship of the West to the Islamic world.
Up till 1000 the West was a poor, backward and illiterate region, precariously defending itself against the assaults of barbarous nations by land and sea…All this while for four centuries, Islam enjoyed an internal peace and security, untroubled save for domestic wars, and thus was able to build up a brilliant and impressive urban culture. Now the situation was dramatically transformed…Trade and commerce revived [in the West], towns and markets sprang up; the population increased…and the arts and sciences were cultivated on a scale unknown since the days of the Roman Empire.
The West, emerging from the Dark Ages, mounted a counteroffensive to drive the Muslims out of Spain, Italy, Sicily, and the Mediterranean at a time when the Islamic world has experienced an upsurge in political and religious strife.
When his forces were decisively defeated by the Abbasid army in the late eleventh century, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, fearing that Muslim armies would sweep across Asia and capture the imperial capital at Constantinople, appealed to the West. He called upon fellow Christian rulers and the Pope to turn back the Islamic tide by undertaking a “pilgrimage” to liberate Jerusalem and its environs from Muslim rule.
Jerusalem was a city sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. It had been captured by Muslim armies in 638 during the period of Arab expansion and conquest. Under Muslim rule, Christian churches and populations were left unmolested. Christians shrines and relics had become popular pilgrimage sites for Christendom. Jews, long banned from living thereby Christian rulers, were permitted to return, live, and worship in the city of Solomon and David. Muslims built a shrine, the Dome of the Rock, and a mosque, the al-Aqsa, near the Wailing Wall, the last remnant of Solomon’s Temple, and thus a site especially significant to Judaism. Five centuries of peaceful coexistence were now shattered by a series of holy wars which pitted Christianity against Islam and left an enduring legacy of distrust and misunderstanding.
The Crusades were initiated by Pope Urban II’s response to Emperor Alexius’s plea. In 1095 Urban called for the liberation of the Holy Land from the infidel, appealing to an already established tradition of holy war. For the Pope, the call to the defense of the faith and Jerusalem provided an ideal opportunity to gain recognition for papal authority and its role in legitimating temporal rulers, and to reunite the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) churches.
The Pope’s battle cry “God wills it!” initially proved successful. The appeal to religion captured the popular mind and engaged the self-interest of many, producing a reinvigorated and relatively united Christendom. Christian rulers, knights, and merchants were driven by the political, military, and economic advantages that would result from the establishment of a Latin kingdom in the Middle East. Knights from France and other parts of Western Europe, moved by the both religious zeal and hope of plunder, rallied and united against the “infidel” in a war whose ostensible goal was the liberation of the holy city: “God may indeed have wished it, but there is certainly no evidence that the Christians of Jerusalem did, or that anything extraordinary was occurring to pilgrims there to prompt such a response at that moment of history.”
The Crusades drew inspiration from two Christian institutions, pilgrimage and holy war: liberation of the holy places from Muslim rule partook of the character of both. Pilgrimage played an important role in Christian piety. Visiting sacred sites, venerating relics, and penance brought (its critics would say “bought”) indulgences which promised the remission of sins. Jerusalem, central to the origins of Christian faith, was a symbol of the heavenly city of God and thus a major pilgrimage site. At the same time, the notion of holy war transformed and sacralized medieval warfare and its notions of honor and chivalry. Warriors were victorious whether they won their earthly battles or not. To rout the enemy meant honor and booty; the indulgences earned by all who fought in the Crusades guaranteed the remission of sins and entrance into paradise. To fall in battle was to die a martyr for the faith and gain immediate access to heaven despite past sins.
Caught off guard and divided, the initial Muslim response was ineffectual; the armies of the First Crusade reached Jerusalem and captured it in 1099. But Christian success was short-lived: “The Crusaders were…a nuisance rather than a serious menace to the Islamic world.” By the middle of the twelfth century, Muslim armies mounted an effective response. Under the able leadership of Saladin (Salah-al-Din, d. 1193), one of Islam’s most celebrated rulers and generals, Jerusalem was reconquered in 1187. The tide had turned and the momentum would remain with Muslim forces. By the thirteenth century the Crusades had degenerated into intra-Christian wars, wars against enemies whom the papacy denounced as heretics and schismatics. Finally, the very fear that had initiated the Christian holy war, with its call far a united Christendom to turn back the Islamic tide, was realized in 1453 when the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell and, renamed Istanbul, became the seat of the Ottoman empire. A dream of Muslim rulers and armies originating in the seventh century had been fulfilled. Conversely, Christian fears and the continued threat of a powerful, expansive Islam now extended to Eastern Europe, much of which was brought under Ottoman rule.
The legacy of the Crusades depends upon where one stands in history. Christian and Muslim communities had competing visions and interests, and each one cherishes memories of its commitment to faith, and heroic stories of valor and chivalry against “the infidel.” For many in the West, the assumption of a Christian victory is predicated on a romanticized history celebrating the valor of Crusaders, as well as a tendency to interpret history through the experience of the past two centuries of European colonialism and preeminent American power. Each faith sees the other as militant, somewhat barbaric and fanatical in its religious zeal, determined to conquer, convert, or eradicate the other, and thus an obstacle and threat to the realization of God’s will. Their contention continued during the Ottoman period, through the next wave of European colonialism, and finally into the superpower rivalry of the twentieth century.