Looking Back on the Crusades Today

Perspectives and Religion in the Crusades

Circa 1250, A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades.
Circa 1250, A crusader is shot by a Muslim warrior during the Crusades. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Although members of other religions obviously suffered at the hands of good Christians throughout the Middle Ages, it should not be forgotten that other Christians suffered as well. Augustine's exhortion to compel entry into the church was used with great zeal when church leaders dealt with Christians who dared to follow a different sort of religious path.

This was not always the case — during the first millennium, death was a rare penalty.

But in the 1200s, shortly after the beginning of the crusades against the Muslims, wholly European crusades against Christian dissidents were enacted.

The first victims were the Albigenses, sometimes called the Cathari, who were centered primarily in southern France. These poor freethinkers doubted the biblical story of Creation, thought that Jesus was an angel instead of God, rejected transubstantiation, and demanded strict celibacy. History has taught that celibate religious groups generally tend to die out sooner or later, but contemporary church leaders weren't anxious to wait. The Cathari also took the dangerous step of translating the bible into the common language of the people, which only served to further enrage religious leaders.

In 1208, Pope Innocent III raised an army of over 20,000 knights and peasants eager to kill and pillage their way through France. When the city of Beziers fell to the besieging armies of Christendom, soldiers asked papal legate Arnald Amalric how to tell the faithful apart from the infidels.

He uttered his famous words: "Kill them all. God will know His own." Such depths of contempt and hatred are truly frightening, but they are only possible in the context of a religious doctrine of eternal punishment for unbelievers and eternal reward for believers.

Followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon, called Waldensians, also suffered the wrath of official Christendom.

They promoted the role of lay street preachers despite official policy that only ordained ministers be allowed to preach. They rejecting things like oaths, war, relics, veneration of saints, indulgences, purgatory, and a great deal more which was promoted by religious leaders.

The church needed to control the sort of information which the people heard, lest they be corrupted by the temptation to think for themselves. They were declared heretics at the Council of Verona in 1184 and then hounded and killed over the course of the following 500 years. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII called for an armed crusade against populations of Waldensians in France. Some of them still apparently survive in the Alps and Piedmont.

Dozens of other heretical groups suffered the same fate — condemnation, excommunication, repression and eventually death. Christians did not shy away from killing their own religious brethern when even minor theological differences arose. For them, perhaps no differences were truly minor — all doctrines were a part of the True Path to heaven, and deviation on any point challenged the authority of the church and the community. It was a rare person who dared to stand up and make independent decisions about religious belief, made all the more rare by the fact that they were massacred as fast as possible.

Most histories of the Crusades tend to focus on the Crusaders themselves and the perspectives of European Christians seeking conquest and plunder in the Holy Land. But what about the Muslims whose lands were invaded and cities sacked? What did they think about these religious armies marching out of Europe?

To be honest, they didn't even know that there was something to be concerned about at first. The Crusades might have elicited a great deal of excitement back home, but it wasn't even until modern times that Arabic developed a term for the phenomenon: al-Hurub al-Salibiyya, "Wars of the Cross." When the first European armies hit Syria, Muslims there naturally thought that this was an attack from the Byzantines and called the invaders Rum, or Romans.

Eventually they realized that they were facing a completely new foe, but they still didn't recognize that they were being attacked by joint European forces. French commanders and French knights tended to be at the forefront of the fighting in the First Crusade, so Muslims in the region simply referred to the Crusaders as Franks no matter what their actual nationality. As far as the Muslims were concerned, this was simply another stage in Frankish imperialism that had been experienced in Spain, North Africa, and Sicily.

It was probably not until after permanent kingdoms were established in the Holy Land and regular reinforcements from Europe began arriving that Muslim leaders began to understand that this was not Rome reasserting itself or Frankish imperialism anymore. No, they were facing an entirely new phenomenon in their relations with Christendom - one which required a new response.

That response was the attempt to create greater unity and a common sense of purpose among Muslims like they had experienced during the earliest years of their expansion.

Just as European victories were often attributable to high morale and a sense of common religious purpose, Muslims were able to effectively retaliate when they stopped bickering among themselves so much. The first leader to begin this process was Nur al-Din, and his successor, Salah al-Din (Saladin), is remembered even today by both Europeans and Muslims for both his military skills and his strong character.

Despite the efforts of leaders such as these, for the most part Muslims remained divided and, at times, even indifferent to the European threat. Occasionally religious fervor took hold and inspired people to participate in campaigns against the Crusaders, but much of the time people who didn't live around the Holy Land simply didn't worry about it - and even those who did sometimes signed treaties with Crusader leaders against rival Muslim kingdoms. As disorganized as they were, though, the Europeans were usually far worse.

In the end, the Crusaders didn't leave much impact. Muslim art, architecture, and literature are almost entirely untouched by the extended contact with European Christians. Muslims didn't feel that they had much of anything to learn from the barbarians who came out of the north, so it was a very rare scholar to took the time to find out what the Christians thought or did.

There were Jewish communities, some quite large, throughout Europe and the Middle East before the Crusades. They had established themselves and survived over the course of many centuries, but they also provided tempting targets for marauding Crusaders looking for infidels to attack and treasure to loot. Caught between two warring religions, the Jews were in a most untenable position.

Christian antisemitism obviously existed long before the Crusades, but poor relations between Muslims and Christians served to exacerbate what was already a troubled situation.

In 1009 Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, sixth Fatimid Caliph in Egypt and later the founder of the Druze sect, ordered the Holy Sepulchre and all Christian buildings in Jerusalem be destroyed. In 1012 he ordered all Christian and Jewish houses of worship destroyed.

One would think that this would have simply worsened relations between Muslims and Christians, despite the fact that Amr Allah was also considered mad and Muslims contributed heavily to the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre later on. For some reason, however, Jews were also blamed for these events.

In Europe a rumor developed that a “Prince of Babylon” had ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre at the instigation of the Jews. Attacks on Jewish communities in cities like Rouen, Orelans, and Mainz ensued and this rumor helped lay the basis for later massacres of Jewish communities by Crusaders marching to the Holy Land.

One should not be misled into thinking that all of Christendom was united in violence against the Jews - it isn't even true that church leaders were so united.

There was, instead, a wide variety of attitudes. Some hated the Jews; saw them as infidels, and concluded that since they were marching off to kill other infidels, why not get a head start with some locals. Others, however, wished the Jews no harm and sought to protect them.

This latter group included many churchmen.

A few were successful in protecting local Jews from marauding Crusaders and managed to enlist the aid of local families to hide them. Others started out trying to help but gave in to the mobs lest they be killed as well. The archbishop of Mainz changed is mind a bit too slowly and had the flee the city in order to save his own life - but at least a thousand Jews weren't so lucky.

Of course, Christianity had for centuries been promoting vile images and attitudes about Jews - it's not as though this anti-Judaism came out of nowhere, springing fully-formed from the Crusaders' swords and spears. Thus, even a sympathetic consideration of the position in which the priests and bishops found themselves must conclude that they brought it themselves. Through action or inaction, the church encouraged treating Jews as second-class citizens, and this led quite readily towards treating them as less than human in the end.

There is no way to tell how many Jews died in Europe and the Holy Land at the hands of Christian Crusaders, but most estimates put the numbers at several tens of thousands. Sometimes they were offered the choice of baptism first (conversion or the sword is an image more commonly attributed to Muslim conquests, but Christians did it as well), but more often they were simply killed outright.

Quite a few others chose to determine their own fates rather than wait for the tender mercies of their Christian neighbors. In an act called kiddush ha-Shem, Jewish men would first kill their wives and children and then themselves - a form of voluntary martyrdom at their own hands. Ultimately the Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East were the biggest losers to come out of the Christian Crusades against Islam.

The meaning of the Crusades for politics and society today cannot be understood simply by looking at the violence, the persecutions, or the economic changes they wrought. However important those things may have been at the time, the meaning of the Crusades for people today is determined not so much by what actually happened as it is by what people believe happened and the stories they tell each other about the past.

Both Christian and Muslim communities continue to look back upon the Crusades as a time when devout believers went to war in order to defend their faith. Muslims are seen as defenders of a religion that relied upon force and violence to propagate itself, and Turks even today are viewed through the lens of the threat the Ottomans posed to Europe. Christians are seen as defenders of both a crusading religion and imperialism, and thus any western incursion into the Middle East is regarded as simply a continuation of the medieval crusading spirit.

If Muslims were to be concerned solely with conflicts they lost, they would be looking at the record of European colonialism throughout the Middle East and beyond. There is certainly a great deal there to complain about and there are good arguments that problems today are in part a legacy of European colonial borders and practices.

European colonialism completely reversed a legacy of self-rule and conquest which had existed since the time of Muhammad.

Instead of being the equals of, if not superior to, the Christian West, they came to be ruled and dominated by the Christian West. This was a significant blow to Muslims' sense of autonomy and identity, a blow which they are continuing to deal with.

Colonialism is not alone, though, as a target of Muslims' anger - the Crusades are treated as the defining paradigm for relations between Islam and Christianity.

European colonialism is almost always treated not as a separate event from the Crusades but instead a continuation of them in a new form - just as is the creation of the state of Israel.

How else can one comprehend the fact that today the Crusades are used as a rallying cry among Muslims in the Middle East? Any privations or oppression currently experienced by Muslims are depicted as simply a continuation of the invasions originally launched to conquer the region. It is curious that this would be the case because, after all, the Crusades were a spectacular failure. The land conquered was relatively small and not held for very long, and the only permanent losses suffered was the Iberian peninsula, a region originally European and Christian anyway.

Today, though, the Crusades continue to be a sensitive issue as though Islam had lost, and sometimes current problems are actually attributed to the effects of the Crusades. Yet Muslims suffered no long-term effects from the Crusades, and in fact Muslim forces rebounded to capture Constantinople and move further into Europe than Christians moved into the Middle East. The Crusades were not simply a Muslim victory but, over time, proved Muslim superiority in terms of tactics, numbers, and the ability to unify against an external threat.

Although the Crusades generally tend to be viewed through the lens of humiliation, one bright spot in the whole affair is the figure of Saladin: the dashing military leader who united the Muslims into an effective fighting force that essentially drove out the Christian invaders. Even today Arab Muslims revere Saladin and say that another Saladin is needed to get rid of the current invaders — in Israel. Jews today are regarded by many as modern-day Crusaders, Europeans or descendants of Europeans holding much of the same land that made up the original Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is hoped that their “kingdom” will soon be eliminated as well.

When promoting the war against terrorism, President George W. Bush originally described it as a "crusade," something he was forced to back off from immediately because it only reinforced Muslims' perception that the "war on terrorism" was merely a mask for a new Western "war on Islam." Any attempt by western powers to interfere with Arab or Muslim affairs is viewed through the twin lenses of Christian Crusades and European colonialism.

That, more than anything, is the contemporary legacy of the Crusades and one which will continue to afflict relations between Islam and Christianity for a long time to come.