Islam and the Crusades

The historical issue of the Crusades may, at first, appear to be have little relevance in contemporary Western society. The battles of the Crusades are often thought of as crude displays of violence carried out in the guise of religious piety (fodder for Marxist theorists undermining the validity of organized religion), or as a showcase of shining armor and gallant horses. It is not often mentioned that the event of the Crusades was, arguably, the springboard from which Western civilization leapt to achieve scientific authority, artistic sophistication, and cultural world-domination. These more abstract concepts, the roots of which are often hard to unearth, are shrouded in the complexity of world history. It is simpler to think of broad swords and the holy grail, than to wonder why the most advanced hospitals in the world today are found primarily in nations that are mostly led by people of European ancestry. If the Crusades initially seem to be just another set of chronologically distant and meaningless wars, perhaps a little rumination on issues such as Egyptian terrorist attacks or United Nations sanctions is in order. The Crusades are of vital importance if one hopes to form a clear understanding of the political and social construction of the world today.

During the Seventh and Eighth centuries, the Abbasid Caliphate, its capital situated in Baghdad and its dominions stretching from the Indus river in the east to the Pyrenees in the west, was the most powerful and intellectually advanced empire on Earth (Maalouf, 277). Built upon the precepts of Islam, and controlled, for the most part, by Arab rulers, this kingdom was a bastion of scientific, philosophical, and artistic learning. Baghdad, drawing traders from three continents, and known for its opulence and cosmopolitan atmosphere, was among the most important cities in the world. For a significant period in the history of modern civilization the Arab empire had no equal. During this time science and industry flourished and countless fields of study were opened and built upon.

This was not the same kingdom that was found some two hundred years later by the crusading forces of Europe. Since its apogee early in the ninth century the Arab Middle-East had lost much of its grandeur. While still intellectually and scientifically ahead the Europeans, it was now marked by a disunity that had worked to significantly curb the intellectual and military power of the region. The Seldjuks, Turkish Muslims, were the faction that held most of the control in the region, but even amongst themselves there was a good deal of infighting. It was the plotting and posturing of rival Muslim leaders in the region that allowed the European forces to have the success that they did in the Holy Land.

For most of the Crusade period there was no great Muslim hegemony against which the Crusader armies had to fight. This allowed for the improbable advancements of the Europeans. They were often able to capitalize on squabbles between local princes and defeat Islamic "armies" that went unassisted by neighboring co-religionists. There were numerous instances in which territorially-minded Muslim forces would come to the aid of Christian Crusaders who had engaged a rival militia. To a lesser extent the same was true for the Europeans. One battle in particular pitted two Islamic-Christian coalitions against one another. The battles of the Crusades however, were, for the most part, characterized by divisions on the side of the Islamic defenders. The Christians enjoyed considerable success in their campaigns. They were able to control the Holy City of Jerusalem for almost a century, and succeeded in conquering nearly every major city along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean at one time or another. But, in the end the Muslims were militarily victorious.

By 1291, some two hundred years after the Europeans made their first encroachments into the Middle East, Islamic forces were able to push out their Christian enemies for good. This, however, was a nominal victory, for the Crusader invasion served to shift the locus of world power westward. During their occupation of the Holy Land and surrounding areas, the Westerners were able to learn a great deal from the culture which they bested militarily. Some European scholars learned Arabic and were able to access the wealth of information contained in these sources. It is said that "the heritage of Greek civilizations was transmitted to Western Europe through Arab intermediaries" during this period (Maalouf, 264). Vistas of knowledge were revealed to the Europeans in the areas of architecture, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, paper-making, leather-working and a host of other important fields (Maalouf, 264). This information, the basis of Arab intellectual society, was eagerly received and built upon by the still nascent civilization of Western Europe.

The Europeans quickly harnessed the power latent in the culture they had successfully conquered and used it to help construct the civilization that has culturally dominated much of the world for the past five hundred years. In contrast, interaction with the foreign invaders produced little positive effects for the Middle-Eastern Muslims. Instead it served to exacerbate festering problems in the region, and produced a sentiment of distrust that ostracized the Muslim world from the rapidly evolving civilization of the West (Maalouf, 262).

The Crusaders had proved themselves to be a terrible enemy. The much vaunted ideal of chivalry rarely carried through to the actual battles fought for the Holy Land. Many European victories were followed by extensive massacres of men, women and children. After a bloody battle at Ma'arra in which thousands were probably killed a European chronicler writes, "our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking-pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled" (Maalouf, 39). It was hard for Muslims to identify with such cruel adversaries. These horrors served to demonize the Westerners and their Christianity. They shunned all that was associated with their enemy. As Europe began to evolve, the Muslim world was unable to bring itself to emulate their progress. Middle-Eastern Islam sought to disassociate itself with all that was Christian and European. The age of modernism, brought on by advancements made by Europeans, was, therefore largely ignored by much of the Muslim world. This evinced a great separation between East and West - Christianity and Islam. Europe went on to try and rule world, while the Arabs made sure they held on to most of their territory and continued to fight their enemy ideologically.

It is assumed by many that the chasm that still separates the Arab world from the European world is a somehow a function of religion, that it is indicative of the incompatibility of the doctrines of Islam and Christianity, but such an explanation is inadequate. A more satisfactory understanding of the distrust and malevolence that exists between these major cultures of the world can be gained if the Crusades are examined closely. These battles, and the cultural exchange that was associated with them, have shaped world history significantly. The political and cultural after-effects can most easily discerned in the Middle East today. Open any newspaper and the legacy of the Crusades can be readily observed.

Last modified December 9, 1997