ISLAM AND THE CRUSADES

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kerby Anderson
KERBY ANDERSON is the President of Probe Ministries. He is the host of “Point of View” radio talk show. He is the author of fifteen books. B.S., Oregon State University (Zoology), M.F.S., Yale University (Science), M.A., Georgetown University (Government), Kennedy Institute of Bioethics (Washington, D.C)

The Crusades were a series of military campaigns first declared by the Pope in an effort to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Crusaders left jobs and families to take up arms and fight for the cause of Christendom. The word Crusade is taken from the Latin word crux or cross.

There were nine crusades. Although most of them were sanctioned by the Pope, there were other military campaigns later that are sometimes also called crusades. These continued into the sixteenth century. The Crusades had a political, economic, and social impact not only on those societies but even to this day.

Reason for the Crusades

As we have previously discussed, Islam spread rapidly through the Middle East and even into Europe in the hundred years after the death of Muhammad. This rapid expansion included Muslims conquering territories that previously had been within the control of Christians. For example, the cities of Antioch, Alexandria, and Carthage had been the centers of Christian thought. They all fell to Muslim armies engaged in jihad and quickly conquering what had been Christian lands.

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Jerusalem fell in 638, and this began centuries of persecution of Christians. Early in the eighth century, sixty Christian pilgrims from Amorium were crucified. During that same period, the Muslim governor of Caesarea rounded up a group of pilgrims from Iconium and had them executed as spies. By the end of that century, the Muslim caliph in Jerusalem required that all Christians and Jews have their hands stamped with a distinctive symbol. By the ninth century, large numbers of Christians fled to Constantinople and other Christian cities.

A key date in the history of the Crusades was 1095. In that year, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I requested help from Pope Urban. The Turks had already conquered much of the Byzantine Empire, and Alexius needed mercenaries to help him resist Muslim advances into their territory. In fact, the city of Constantinople (perhaps the greatest Christian city in the world at that time) was threatened. Pope Urban at the Council of Clermont called upon Christians in Europe to respond to this plea.

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While he knew that there was a need for the Christians to fight the Turks, he also knew that calling for that military action to save Eastern Christendom alone would not motivate many. So in order to motivate the faithful, he set forth a second goal: to free Jerusalem and the birthplace of Christ from Muslim rule.

This was not an arbitrary goal the Pope added to the list. In the years leading up to 1095, the Fatimid caliph, Abu ‘Ali al-Hakim had destroyed thirty thousand churches including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Many Christians during that time considered al-Hakim to be the Antichrist.

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The Pope also added something else to the call for military action: the possibility of the remission of sins. During the medieval period, the idea of a pilgrim’s vow was prominent. The crusaders vowed to reach the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in return for the Pope’s pardon for sins they had committed.

Pope Urban probably reasoned that a crusade would serve to reunite Christendom and perhaps even bring the East under his control. But once the Pope launched the first crusade, he had virtually no control over it. Those involved in the crusade made their decisions about tactics and strategy apart from the Pope.

Brief History of the Crusades

Although there were many military campaigns called crusades, when we refer to “the Crusades” we are talking about the nine military campaigns that took place between 1095 and 1272. These were launched from Western Europe against the Muslims in the Middle East.

  1. The First Crusade (1095-1099) – this began when the Byzantine emperor Alexius asked for Pope Urban to send mercenaries to join a war against the Turks. It was the most successful crusade. The Crusaders defeated the Turks and were also able to take Jerusalem. They established several states including the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
  2. The Second Crusade (1145-1149) – this was an unsuccessful attempt to recapture a Crusader state (Edessa). And it endangered the other Crusader states because of an unwise attack on Damascus.
  3. The Third Crusade (1189-1192) – this was also known as the King’s Crusade and was called by Pope Gregory in the wake of Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187. Many famous people participated in this Crusade, including King Richard the Lionhearted of England and King Phillip of France.
  4. The Fourth Crusade (1201-1204) – this was initiated by Pope Innocent but was diverted to Constantinople by someone seeking the Byzantine throne. After much confusion and misunderstanding, the Crusaders sacked the city in 1204. This shocked the Christian world and further weakened the Byzantine Empire.
  5. The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) – this Crusade focused on Egypt with the assumption that by breaking Egyptian power, they could recapture Jerusalem. While they did capture Damietta, they foolishly attacked Cairo and failed.
  6. The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) – was a continuation of the Fifth Crusade. It came about because Emperor Frederick had repeatedly vowed a crusade, but never kept his word. The Pope excommunicated him in 1228. He set sail to the Holy Land and was able to negotiate a truce that allowed Christians to live in Jerusalem. But since the city was defenseless, the Muslims were able to take the city in 1244. Christians were killed, and many churches burned, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
  7. The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) – was the best-equipped Crusade led by Louis IX of France against Egypt from 1248 to 1254. In the midst of one battle, he was captured and later ransomed and returned to Europe.
  8. The Eighth Crusade (1270) – this was also organized by Louis IX who came to the aid of the Crusader states in Syria. The Crusade was diverted to Tunis, where Louis died.
  9. The Ninth Crusade (1271-1272) – was organized by the future Edward I of England who had accompanied Louis IX on the Eighth Crusade. Little was accomplished, and Edward retired the following year after a truce.

Atrocities in the Crusades

Anyone who wants to criticize Christianity will most likely bring up the crusades and talk about the atrocities committed by Crusaders. It is certainly true that the Crusaders slaughtered Jews and Muslims in the sacking of Jerusalem. It is also true that the Crusaders even fought among themselves.

However, the true story of the Crusades is more complex than the typical criticism of Christianity. Both Muslims and Christians committed atrocities and brought about considerable carnage.

Muslims were also merciless and were barbaric in their treatment of Christians and Jews.  Consider what the Turks did with the German and French prisoners captured in the First Crusade (prior to the sacking of Jerusalem). If they renounced Christ and converted to Islam, they were sent to the East. If they did not, they were slaughtered.

The great Muslim leader Saladin was not as merciful as he has been portrayed in the movies. For example, after defeating a large Latin army in 1187, he ordered the mass execution of all Hospitallers and Templars left alive. He personally beheaded the nobleman Reynald of Chatillon.

Saladin is best known for re-conquering Jerusalem, and much is made of his willingness to allow the Christians in Jerusalem who fought against him to live. But the true story is that he had originally planned to massacre all of the Christians in Jerusalem after taking it back from the Crusaders. However, when the commander of the Jerusalem threatened to destroy the city and kill all of the Muslims inside the walls, Saladin changed his plan. He allowed them to buy their freedom. If they could not do so, they were sold into slavery.

Hollywood Films About the Crusades

There have been a number of films made about the Crusades, but the most expensive film (over $150 million) ever made about the Crusades is Kingdom of Heaven. It featured an all-star cast (Orlando Bloom, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neesom) and an extensive publicity budget. So how accurate is it?

The script was full of politically correct clichés and does a disservice to those trying to understand this period of history. The film invents a tolerance group known as the “Brotherhood of Muslims, Jews, and Christians.” No such group existed. It also makes it seem as if this brotherhood of tolerance would have held together if certain Christian extremists didn’t cause such problems.

Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith is a professor at Cambridge University and the author of A Short History of the Crusades. He called the film “rubbish” and said it was “not historically accurate at all.” He complained that it “depicts the Muslims as sophisticated and civilized, and the Crusaders are all brutes and barbarians. It has nothing to do with reality.”[1]

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Professor Jonathan Phillips is a lecturer at London University and the author of The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. He said the film relied on an outdated portrayal of the Crusades and the Knights Templar. He says it is bad history: “The Templars as ‘baddies’ is only sustainable from the Muslim perspective, and ‘baddies’ is the wrong way to show it anyway. They are the biggest threat to the Muslims and many ends up being killed because of their sworn vocation is to defend the Holy Land.”[2]

[1] Charlotte Edwardes, “Ridley Scott’s new Crusades film panders to Osama bin Laden,” London Telegraph, 18 Jan. 2004, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/01/18/wcrus18.xml&sSheet=/news/2004/01/18/ixworld.html.

[2] Ibid.

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