ANSWERING ISLAM: Crusades: Christian Holy War or Delayed Response?

DANIEL JANOSIK: Director of Islamic Studies, Adjunct Professor of Apologetics, Historical Theology, and Islamic Studies at Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the adjunct professor in Apologetics at CIU Columbia International University (A.B., College of William and Mary; M.Div., Columbia International University; M.A., Columbia International University; Ph.D., London School of Theology) Dissertation: John of Damascus, First Apologist to the Muslims.

Whenever the subject of the Crusades comes up in conversation, it seems to touch a raw nerve and causes Christians in the West to feel defensive as well as apologetic. Many view the Crusades as a medieval forerunner of European imperialism characterized by aggression, a desire for expansion, and wanton destruction. This volatile issue has also become an obstacle in discussions between Christians and Muslims. The core issue is often over who started the fight as well as which side caused the most death and destruction. It is crucial that both Christians and Muslims understand the historical record of this controversy since tensions are still high and situations are still volatile. The main apologetic question deals with whether the Crusades were really a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression or acts of unprovoked hostility by European Christians against the Islamic world. There are a number of responses that have been proposed in regard to this subject including the suggestion that the Crusades were both a delayed response as well as an unprovoked hostile action.


Critics of Christianity say the Crusades represented a low point for Christianity because Christians did not follow Christ when they took it upon themselves to initiate the fight against the Muslims, but rather weaponized their faith in order to justify their own Holy War against the Muslim world. For example, the 1995 BBC television series on the Crusades, presented by Terry Jones, portrayed the Crusades as “a long, misguided war of intolerance, ignorance, and barbarism against a peaceful and sophisticated Muslim world.”[1]

Ironically, this western view of the Crusades may have grown out of the criticism of some of the Protestant reformers in the 16th century, as well as Enlightenment thinkers like historian-philosophers David Hume and Voltaire, who strongly denounced the Crusades. Hume quipped that the Crusades were “the most durable folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.”[2] Voltaire described the Crusades as an “epidemic of fury which lasted for 200 years and which was always marked by every cruelty, every perfidy, every debauchery, and every folly of which human nature is capable.”[3] The historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) wrote that, “The principle of the crusades was a savage fanaticism,” and “the lives and labours of millions, which were buried in the East, would have been more profitably employed in the improvement of their native country.”[4]


However, the beginning of the negative view of the Crusades may have actually started when Protestant reformers in the 16th century blamed the Catholic Church for the crusading movement. One Catholic writer, Stephen Weidenkopf, comments that “most Protestant critics viewed the Crusades as the creation of the anti-Christ to increase Church wealth” and believed that the Crusaders themselves were nothing more than instruments of “Catholic bigotry and cruelty.”[5] Even the influential 20th century British writer, Steven Runciman, in his book on the Crusades, concluded that the Holy War in itself was “nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.”[6] The consensus of these scholars and philosophers is that the spirit of the Crusades certainly did not represent the spirit of Christ or the true purpose of the gospel. In other words, if the crusaders were true to Christ in their endeavors, they would not have taken up the cross of the Crusades, or the sword of war, and they would certainly not have associated themselves with the horrific events that took place in the long war against Islam.

These same critics of the Crusades also point to the long-standing animosity of the Muslim world as evidence of the negative influence the Crusades have had on Christian-Muslim relations over the centuries.  For example, shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, former president Bill Clinton suggested to the students at Georgetown University that the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 by Christian Crusaders was ultimately to blame for the horrific attacks on America a thousand years later. After describing the brutal details of the massacre of Jews and Muslims at the hand of Christians on the Temple Mount, Clinton then concluded, “I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East, and we are still paying for it.”[7]


On the other hand, a number of Christian scholars view the Crusades as a delayed response against the Muslims for subduing half of the Christian territory and devastating the church. One writer remarks, “It is a fundamental error and popular historic revisionism to say that Christians suddenly decided to lead a Crusade against the Muslims. It is a gross distortion of the historic record. In reality, the Muslims attacked and captured Jerusalem and many of the early ‘Christian Holy Lands’ to the degree that finally the Christians fought back to regain their lands taken by Islam.”[8] According to this view, “the Crusades were the reaction and response to more than four centuries of Islamic military expansion and religious imperialism which had captured more than two-thirds of the Christian world.”[9]

Were the Crusades a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression, or were they acts of unprovoked aggression by European Christians against the Islamic world? As usual, there are two sides to this controversy. One side argues that the Crusades were “a totally ‘offensive war’ of aggression and hostility against Islam – inspired by a corrupt Papacy and motivated by greed and plunder.”[10] The other side interprets history differently and claims that “the Crusades were, in reality, a ‘defensive war’ against centuries of Muslim aggression and imperialism toward Christianity.”[11] This chapter will seek to navigate both the negative and positive historical interpretations in order to determine the view that is best supported by the evidence.


The Traditional Muslim View

It is difficult to find references to the Crusades by Muslims during the time the Crusades were taking place. One reason may be that the word “Crusaders” (Salibiyyun) was not used in the literature at that time. The Western invaders were consistently called the Faranj (Franks), and the attacks from European Christians were considered secondary matters in comparison to the numerous struggles for power within the Muslim world.[12] Bernard Lewis, an eminent historian of Islam, notes that in the Arabic historiography of the period “the terms Crusade and Crusader do not appear at all,” and that “with few exceptions, the Muslim historians show little interest in whence or why they had come and report their arrival and their departure with equal lack of curiosity.”[13] Carole Hillenbrand, in her book detailing the Islamic perceptions of these battles with Christian forces, refers to the “Crusades” as a Western concept. She explains, “It has no particular resonance for Islamic ears and the Muslim historians are not concerned with it. For them, these are simply wars with an enemy – in this case, the Franks, as distinct, say, from the Fatimids.”[14] Muslim scholars did not treat the topic of the Crusades as an isolated topic in any surviving work, though “snippets of information” can be found in “Arabic annals, biographical dictionaries and other literary works of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.”[15] However, Hillenbrand points out that since the “Muslim sources show little interest in the activities and motivations of the other side,” it is difficult to reconstruct the flow of events between the Christian and Muslim forces from a Muslim perspective.[16]

However, this lack of historical background has not prevented modern Muslim scholars from promoting a perspective that the Christian Crusades have not ended, and therefore “the Christian powers of the West remain determined to destroy Islam.”[17] For example, Dr. Abdullah Mohammad Sindi, A Muslim professor who has taught in several American universities, claimed,

Of all the religious wars in human history waged by any religion, at any place, and at any time, none have been bloodier, more genocidal, more barbaric, and more protracted than the 200-year “holy wars” by the Western Crusades against the Arabs and Islam… The objective of the Crusades was simple, to destroy the Arabs (whether Muslim or Jew) in the Holy Land of Palestine and its environs.[18]

Dr. Sindi also likens the recent wars on Afghanistan and Iraq to the past “Western terrorist Crusades,” and therefore concludes that the Crusades are still continuing. According to this perspective, the Crusades represented an unprovoked aggression by European Christians against the Islamic world, led by a hypocritical pope and a corrupt Catholic Church. One modern Muslim writer summarizes the Crusades this way:

In the 11th century, almost a thousand years ago, hordes of Christian warriors bearing a red cross stormed into Syria. They journeyed from all parts of Europe, pillaging and slaughtering innocent Muslims along their way. They captured Jerusalem in 1099 leaving no mosque to pray in, nor any Muslim alive. After a hundred years, with the help of Allah, the Muslims struck back.[19]

Throughout the Middle East, and in many other parts of the world, it seems that today’s Arab Muslims are still bitter about the Crusades. They say that references to the Crusades cause them to relive the barbaric aggressions of the Crusaders, and they blame Christians for creating tensions that still impact relations between Christianity and Islam in the present.[20] One example of linking present Christian leaders to the past atrocities of the Crusades occurred in 1981 when Mehmet Ali Agha, who attempted to assassinate the pope, wrote in a letter beforehand, “I have decided to kill John Paul II, the supreme commander of the Crusades.”[21] The office of the pope was enough to link a later pope with the 11th and 12th-century ones who called for the Crusades.

Presently, Muslims who believe that the Christian Crusades have not ended emphasize the imperialistic aggression of the past Christian warriors and hold up Muslim leaders who squelched the Crusades, like Saladin, as heroes of the faith and great examples to the faithful. Even men like Seyyid Qutb, one of the earliest leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, are lifted up as those who follow in the footsteps of the Muslim protectors of Islam during the time of the Crusades. Qutb referred to the Crusades as a “form of imperialism”[22] that sought to confront and annihilate Islam.[23]

The subject of the Crusades often appears currently in propaganda pieces against the Christian West. For example, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State of Iraq, would refer to his military exploits as attacks against the Crusaders, who were considered enemies of Islam.[24] Critics cry out that the memory of the Crusades has incited the radical Muslims to seek justice through their own defensive war. The most famous of the anti-Crusader rhetoric is Osama bin Laden’s fatwa of 1998 in which he called for the killing of Americans, both civilians and soldiers. Osama bin Laden and other Islamists regularly referred to Americans as “Crusaders.” Indeed, bin Laden directed his fatwa authorizing the September 11 attacks against the “Crusaders and Jews.” He later preached that “for the first time the Crusaders have managed to achieve their historic ambitions and dreams against our Islamic umma, gaining control over Islamic holy places and Holy Sanctuaries…. Their defeat in Iraq will mean defeat in all their wars and a beginning of the receding of their Zionist–Crusader tide against us.”[25] Thus, for Muslims, it was imperative that they unify in order to defeat the current thrust of the Crusader invasion before more damage to the Muslim nations could take place.


This popular view of Christians as the aggressors has even been promoted in the Western secular media. For example, one scholar writes that the Ridley Scott movie, Kingdom of Heaven, proclaimed that “the Crusades were unprovoked campaigns of intolerance preached by deranged churchmen and fought by religious zealots against a sophisticated and peaceful Muslim world. According to the Hollywood version, the blind violence of the Crusades gave birth to jihad, as the Muslims fought to defend themselves and their world.”[26] This version of Christianity as the perpetrator and Islam as the innocent victim plays well with Muslim critics, like Abd al-Sabour Shahin, an Islamist writer, who says, “The Muslim nation has never attacked a neighboring nation,” and therefore all the battles by Muslim forces have been defensive in nature.[27]

This is also perhaps why Muslims say that the sack of Jerusalem was the “starting point of a millennial hostility between Islam and the West.”[28] To support this, they note that the Muslims were caught off guard and were not prepared for the invasion by the waves of Christian attackers from Europe. It took nearly fifty years for the Arabs to mobilize against the invaders. Even John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, blames the aggression of the Christian West for strained relations today when he implies that “Five centuries of peaceful coexistence elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play led to a centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust.”[29]

In conclusion, the general consensus among Muslims today seems to be that the Crusades were an Unholy War initiated by Christians who were defeated by the true army of Allah. Many Western non-Muslims would also agree with Runciman when he writes,

In the long sequence of interaction and fusion between Orient and Occident out of which our civilization has grown, the Crusades were a tragic and destructive episode…. There was so much courage and so little honour, so much devotion and so little understanding. High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost.[30]


Christian Counter-Offensives

It would seem then, according to Muslims, as well as a number of Western critics of Christianity, that the Crusades represented an unforgivable error by all who name the name of Christ. However, when a careful study of the battles between the Christians and the Muslims is carried out and the motivations of the Crusaders are put into perspective, then a very different explanation supports the view that the Crusades were a delayed response to centuries of Muslim aggression beginning four hundred years before Pope Urban’s first Crusade. A historical overview of these events will be useful in developing this paradigm.

The earliest use of the word “Crusader” was in 1577, hundreds of years after the end of the last major crusade. Usually, the Christians who participated in the Crusades were called “pilgrims,” “soldiers of God,” or ones who “took up the cross.”[31] A better term for this “crusading movement” then, would perhaps be “European counter attacks,” or “Christian counter offensives” against the many Muslim attacks which had begun over four hundred years earlier.

When the horizon is enlarged, it is easier to recall that the initial attacks on the Christians began in the middle of the 7th century when Arab forces took control of Jerusalem, Syria, Persia, and, within the next 100 years, a large swath of territory ranging from the mountains of Afghanistan in the East to the Atlantic shores of North Africa in the West. All but the most easternmost provinces had been taken from Christian rulers, and the House of Islam now ruled over two-thirds of the Christian world. Over the next three centuries, Europe was under constant threat from Islam and hundreds of battles were fought by Christians to defend their lands.


Finally, in 1095, at the call of the highest Christian authority, Europeans were finally ready to unify their forces and mount a counter-offensive in an effort to recover their lost territories and finally free the city of Jerusalem from Muslim control. Thus, the Crusades were not the beginning of the counterattacks against the Muslims, and the view that the Crusades represented the first major clash between Christianity and Islam is simply false. By the time Pope Urban II called Christians to “take up the cross” and sacrifice their lives in an effort to recover the lands that once belonged to Christians, the Crusades were merely the most recent counter attacks in a conflict that had existed between Christianity and Islam from the time Muhammad’s followers first turned northward. In order to better understand this perspective, it would be helpful to have a brief overview of the major Crusades as well as a consideration of the various motivations of the men who took up weapons of faith and of war.

Brief Overview of the Crusades

Most historians place the six major Crusades between the years of 1095-1291 AD. The first Crusade was called by Pope Urban II when he urged Christians in Europe to fight the Muslims in order to recover the Holy Land, especially the city of Jerusalem and the church of the Holy Sepulcher, from the “infidel” Muslims. Two other main reasons often cited for participating in the Crusades would be to provide safe passage for the pilgrims making their way to the holy places of Palestine, and for the crusaders to gain remission of suffering in Purgatory, which was promised by some of the Popes. Some scholars say that the Crusades were four hundred years too late, some say that too many atrocities were committed in the name of Christ, and others point out that “this venture began with an inconclusive Christian victory and ended with a conclusive Christian defeat.”[32] However, perhaps the real significance of the Crusades at this time is that the European Christians realized that something had to be done before Islam made more inroads into Europe.

The First Crusade (1098-1099) was called by Pope Urban II in 1095. This was more than 400 years after the Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 638. In addition to the influence of the pope and a number of powerful noblemen, the first crusade was also inspired by the great preacher, Peter the Hermit. In fact, Peter led a first wave of crusaders in what is known as the “popular crusade.” These were mostly poverty-stricken people who were ill-prepared. Most of them perished due to starvation, disease, or through the superiority of the Muslim soldiers. This wave was followed by a number of military forces that were mostly successful. In the end, the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 and set up a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem that lasted until 1187. This allowed the Christian pilgrims to resume their journeys to the Holy Land and it provided a deterrent to some of the Muslim incursions into European lands.

The Second Crusade (1146-1148) was proclaimed when the Turks conquered one of the Crusader cities, Edessa, in 1144. The main preacher urging people on was Bernard of Clairvaux. However, like the followers of Peter the Hermit in the previous Crusade, most of the crusaders were crushed in Asia Minor in December 1147 before they had a chance to reach the Holy Land. The military achievements were negligible and most consider this crusade to be unsuccessful.

The Third Crusade (1188-1192) was launched by Pope Gregory VII in response to the news of the fall of Jerusalem by the Muslim forces led by Saladin. This crusade was dominated by three strong leaders who, unfortunately, did not always see eye to eye: Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, King Philip II Augustus of France, and King Richard the Lionheart of England. The only military accomplishment was the conquest of the city of Acre and the reinforcement of the Crusader state called “Outremer” which stretched along the coast. However, Richard was able to reach an agreement with Saladin to allow Christians to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in safety. In some ways this set up the beginning of the end because Saladin was able to then use his “truce” to retake a number of the cities under control of some of the Christian leaders and send the Christians packing. In some instances, Saladin allowed his soldiers, and sometimes even the religious scholars, to execute the captives instead of exiling them from his newly gained territory.[33]

The Fourth Crusade (1201-1204) is generally considered to have been a disaster, and highlighted the reasons that these crusades, launched under the slogan of “Christ commands it,” often were anything but Christian. The crusaders were diverted to Constantinople to aid a claimant to the Byzantine throne. Instead of attacking Muslims, the crusaders ended up sacking the city of Constantinople and setting up a Latin Empire of Constantinople (1204-1261) under a Latin Patriarch. This further weakened the Byzantine Empire and earned the everlasting enmity of the Byzantines toward the west, bringing further division rather than reconciliation.

The Fifth Crusade (1218-1221) focused on Egypt in the hope that by breaking Egyptian power the crusaders could then recapture Jerusalem. The only real accomplishment was the siege and conquest of the port city of Damietta, which was later recovered by the Muslims. However, due to infighting and disunity, the crusaders had to settle for an eight-year truce and the recovery of the “True Cross of Christ,” which was a relic believed to be the cross used to crucify Christ.

The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) was essentially a continuation of the Fifth Crusade. This crusade was led by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, even after he was excommunicated by the Pope for failing to commit himself to leading a crusade earlier. Frederick II was able to convince the sultan, al-Kamil, who was involved with another campaign in Syria, to offer a 10-year truce to the crusaders. Essentially, this truce accomplished what the previous four crusades were not able to do, regain Jerusalem, as well as Bethlehem and Nazareth. Frederick entered Jerusalem on 17 March 1229, and the city remained under crusader control until the Turks attacked in 1244.

In the end, some may conclude that the Crusades were “late, limited and unsuccessful,”[34] but others argue that “during the Crusading movement these military events were mostly seen in a positive light throughout Christendom, with popes and saints exhorting Catholic warriors to engage in them.”[35] Warriors who participated in these battles did so for a number of reasons, and the next section will examine the most significant ones in order to provide a better understanding of the motivations involved and the sacrifices made.

Young Christians

The Motivations of the Crusaders

Critics of the Crusades have generally argued that the basic motivations of the Crusaders were for glory, gore, and gain, or, in other words, power of position, revenge on the infidel, and personal economic gain. However, the historical evidence from the accounts written at that time often tells a very different story.

The Church historian Justo Gonzalez gives eight causes of the Crusades: “lure of romantic adventure, social factors, economic factors, unity of the masses, the unity to the cause, corporate expiation, the code of chivalry, and the vow of the doomed.” Gonzalez also concludes that the concept of the Crusades “meant that the violence, pillage, and outright murder… were often seen as acts of virtue in the context of the Crusades.”[36]

This view of the religious influence on the Crusaders can be seen in other motivations put forth by other scholars. Jonathan Riley-Smith, for example, lists idealism, adventure, and a sense of fulfilling a vendetta as some of the motivations guiding those going on a crusade, especially for the knights. He says in reference to idealism that “the majority of commentators then and a minority of historians now have maintained that the chief motivation was a genuine idealism.”[37] In this case, the idealism was focused on conquering Palestine and releasing the hold on Jerusalem. Riley-Smith also lists the quest for adventure as a motivation, perhaps because there was less opportunity for adventure at home, and the crusades offered an appeal for something that would bring honor as well as a chance to do something for their country and their Lord. A third motivation Riley-Smith mentions is that some of the knights had a deep desire to fulfill a vendetta in regard to the “brothers” in Palestine who had been subjected to the harshness of Islam. This was expressed in a letter to Pope Urban II in 1098 which said, “The Turks, who inflicted much dishonor on Our Lord Jesus Christ, have been taken and killed and we Jerusalemites have avenged the injury to the supreme God Jesus Christ.”[38] This was a call to avenge God, who was seen to have been “reproached, banished from his estates, crucified; whom you hear calling, desolate and begging for aid.”[39]

One motivation that critics mention, but Riley-Smith discounts, is the view that the crusaders were motivated by crude materialism. He argues that “this was an age of ostentatious and extravagant generosity,”[40] and the land, possessions, and titles forfeited by the crusaders provides good testimony that the Crusade was not viewed as a way to gain a fortune.


In regard to the call for vengeance, Riley-Smith does admit that this may have spilled over and fueled the fervor for vengeance against the Jews, whom the crusaders saw as another group of people who brought shame upon Christ (“to avenge the injury to Christ’s honour” due to the crucifixion). However, when he recounts that some of the men who supported the Crusades were men of great piety, he concludes, “A result, I think, is that we find it easier to accept the crusaders for what they were and, without endorsing what they did, can begin to understand why some of the greatest saints in Christian history – Bernard, Louis, Thomas Aquinas, Bridget, Catherine of Siena – were fervently on their side and why so many men and women were prepared to sacrifice wealth, health, life itself, in a cause which they believed to be just, even salvational.”[41]

On the other hand, Ergun Caner, who was formerly a Muslim, does not consider some of the motivations in such a generous light. In a chapter that he titles “Sanctified Slaughter: When the Body of Christ Became the Army of God,” Caner expresses his deep reservations regarding some of the motivations of the Crusaders. He considers that the “most deeply disturbing motivation for the majority of the soldiers was the explicit promise of salvation for martyrdom.”[42] This refers to the offer given by Pope Urban when he granted remission of sins, and therefore the promise of salvation, to all those who would die in the Crusade, whether through battle or through the dangers of the journey.

It is interesting to compare Pope Urban’s offer of salvation with Osama bin Laden’s promises to his followers in a fatwa he delivered to the world. In the 11th century, Pope Urban said, “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.”[43] In bin Laden’s call to jihad on February 23, 1998, he reminded Muslims that Allah said: “O ye who believe, give your response to Allah and his Apostle when He calleth you to that which will give you life. And know that Allah cometh between a man and his heart, and that it is He to whom ye shall all be gathered” (Q. 8:24). In other words, bin Laden was calling all Muslims to join in the cause of Allah and fight against the enemy without concern for their life, for Allah assures that their destiny will be with Him if they die in the battle.  These promises for eternal life would certainly motivate many people on both sides of the fight. However, Caner is offended that “the institutional representation of Christianity stooped to such a level of evil enterprise”[44] rather than appeal to a higher calling of following Christ in his example of sacrifice and love.

This last motivation, based on sacrifice and love, is one that Thomas Madden highlights in his review of Riley-Smith’s book. Madden maintains that one of the misconceptions of the Crusades is that the actions of the crusaders contradicted the teachings of Christ, who taught his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek when they were persecuted. However, the Bible also teaches that God has placed leaders in positions of authority. In Romans 13:4, the Bible states that the leaders are “God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Later, Augustine developed his just war theory, based on verses like this, which taught that in a defensive war legitimate authorities could use violence to stop or prevent a greater evil.[45]  Scholars critical of the Crusades argue that any warfare is an act of evil. However, as Riley-Smith notes, “the concept that violence is intrinsically evil belongs solely to the modern world. It is not Christian.”[46] Weidenkopf adds that “The modern world sees violence as inherently evil, but Augustine believed violence could be used for legitimate reasons including the restoration of order and property. In special circumstances, war could be a holy undertaking.”[47] Thus, “Using Augustine’s writings, the Church identified four criteria that must be satisfied: a just cause, which can involve past or present aggression; proclamation by legitimate authority; defense or recovery of rightful possessions; and right intention or pure motives of the participants. Additionally, war should be undertaken only as a last recourse and the violence unleashed must be proportionate to the threat.”[48]

Thomas Madden believes that the Crusades met Augustine’s criteria of just war since they were carried out in response to earlier attacks against Christians and their Church. According to Madden,

The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187. In each case, the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs.[49]

Madden maintains that the supreme motivation for the one who “took up the cross” was the motivation that comes as an act of love. He explains that “the faithful went to war to defend Christians, to punish the attackers, and to right terrible wrongs.”[50] These were noble motivations and were carried out as a sacrifice on the part of the Crusader, who was really fulfilling an act of penance. This is why, Madden says, the indulgence that Pope Urban II offered was a just motivation. According to Madden, “Crusaders who undertook that burden with right intention and after confessing their sins would receive a plenary indulgence. The indulgence was a recognition that they undertook these sacrifices for Christ, who was crucified again in the tribulations of his people.”[51]

In this sense, the Crusades were not just ordinary wars, but rather holy wars made holy by the sacrifices made by the pilgrim warriors. The “Crusade provided a way for them to serve God and to do penance for their sins.”[52] Without this understanding of the penitential character, Madden says that the real motivation of the Crusaders cannot be fully understood: “Take away penitence and the Crusades cannot be explained.”[53] This sacred act, supported by the indulgences granted by the Pope, explains why many believed that their salvation lay in fighting the Holy War that God had called them to. Though some may have had mixed motives, for most it was not the desire for wealth, or power, or other worldly desires, but for the love of God and the love of his people.

How to Interpret the Bible-1

Differences in the Islamic view of Holy War

For Muslims, their jihad, or Holy War, was also in obedience to Allah. However, their commands came from the Qur’an and the call was to fight against all non-believers until all submitted to Islam, as we read in Q. 8:39: “And fight with them until there is no more persecution and religion should be only for Allah; but if they desist, then surely Allah sees what they do.”

According to the biographies of Muhammad, and a number of Hadith traditions, he did not teach “peace and tolerance,” but rather led armies and ordered the assassinations of his enemies. This foundational perspective led to Islam’s own version of the “Crusades” when they invaded Syria and surrounding Christian territory in the mid-600’s and up through the middle of the 8th century until almost two-thirds of the former Christian lands were under the domination of Islam. In addition, what is known as the Islamic world today is the result of centuries of brutal warfare against the lands of the Christians and the Jews. This is perhaps why historian Steven Weidenkopf says, “The seventh-century rise of the militaristic and imperialistic movement known as Islam, and its subsequent conquest of ancient Christian territory, was the prime cause for the creation of the Crusading movement and the reason for its longevity.”[54] Weidenkopf also explains the important distinction between the Christian and Muslim views on Holy War.

This understanding of holy war differs greatly from the Muslim teaching on jihad. Jihad is incumbent upon all Muslims and is a foundational teaching of Islam. Christian holy war is not incumbent on every believer; indeed, participation in the Crusades was always voluntary, and violence is seen as a necessary evil that can only be entered into for serious and just reasons. Christian teaching even places restrictions on the nature of warfare and on the intentions of those who participate; jihad harbors no such limitations. The main purpose of jihad is offensive through the conquering of territory in order to spread Islam throughout the world; Christian holy war is defensive and primarily involves the recovery of territory lost to an aggressor.[55]

Why the Crusades Failed

As Weidenkopf indicates, Jihad, or Holy War, has been a part of Islam since its inception. In a sense, Islam cannot exist without this form of Jihad because the overarching command from Allah is for Muslims to subdue the whole world under Allah (Q. 8:39). Islam cannot fulfill this command without force. On the other hand, Christianity is to be spread by love and persuasion. This is why the Crusades, in the end, were not successful. The heart and mind have to be wooed by Christ. In the end, the Crusades failed because they represented actions that were not representative of Christ and the gospel.[56] As one author says,

While warfare is inevitable in a fallen, rebellious and sinful world, it is always a blatant blemish on the face of Christianity when it is initiated in the name of Jesus Christ! Warfare always falls woefully short of the agape love of Jesus Christ that clearly instructs us to “love our enemies” (Matt. 5:44). At best, the Crusades were largely a denial of that foundational truth of the Christian faith.[57]

The Crusades may have failed in achieving the main objective of recovering and retaining Jerusalem and surrounding lands that once belonged to Christians. However, they did initiate a new awareness of the Muslim world and its achievements in science and technology, and the translations of classical Greek works by Christians into Arabic helped jumpstart a new interest in the ideas of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, which contributed to the rise of the Renaissance. On the other hand, since the initial call by Pope Urban was for a Christian “Holy War,” carried out under the leadership of the Church rather than through civil authorities, it was doomed to failure from the start.[58] There were ample reasons for European Christians to defend themselves against the constant threat of the Islamic invasion of their lands, but this should have been the duty of the State rather than the Church. Otherwise, the tendency toward a theocracy, or a government in which God and his laws is recognized as the supreme authority over all secular institutions, would lead to a political state much like that which is present today in Islam.


A Delayed Response

There is good evidence to suggest that the Crusades were not acts of unprovoked aggression by Europe against the Islamic world, but rather a delayed response to centuries of Muslim hostility against the Christian world. First, there were the Arab conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, and Persia in the first one hundred years. Then there were several hundred years of almost continual battles along the border areas between Europe and the new Islamic empire until Pope Urban called for a unified response to the dangers present on many borders.

Some may still want to assert that the pope should not have interfered with civil matters. However, something needed to be done, and calling the response of thousands of Christians to defend their lands as well as seek to recover the former lands of Christians should not be deemed an unprovoked act of aggression. In regard to this particular criticism of the Crusades, Bernard Lewis has a word for these critics:

I would not wish to defend the behavior of the Crusaders, which was in many respects atrocious. But let us have a little sense of proportion. We are now expected to believe that the Crusades were an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. Hardly. The first papal call for a crusade occurred in 846 C.E., when an Arab expedition from Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St. Peter’s in Rome. A synod in France issued an appeal to Christian sovereigns to rally against “the enemies of Christ,” and the Pope, Leo IV, offered a heavenly reward to those who died fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders actually arrived in the Middle East.[59]

Again, the Crusades may have been a “late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad” that ultimately failed, but it was certainly not merely a “long act of intolerance in the name of God.” A response was long overdue, and many responded to the call with their honor, their lives, and their fortunes. The least that can be done is to set the record straight and let the evidence speak for itself.


Apologetic Conclusions

There are a number of apologetic issues that could be dealt with on this subject, but perhaps the most helpful path would be to deal with some of the myths that surround today’s views of the crusades so that Christians would have guidance on how to best respond to Muslims in regard to the questions that are brought up. Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch and author of a number of books opposing Islam, mentions nine myths in his book on the Crusades. Following are some of the myths that may come up in conversations.

The first myth promoted by critics is that the Crusades were an unprovoked attack by Europe against the Islamic world. This is false, as was mentioned above because the Muslims were the ones who first invaded the lands of the Christians. Damascus was taken in 635, and Jerusalem was conquered in 638. In one hundred years Muslims had conquered two-thirds of the lands occupied by Christians, and had taken control of the Middle East, North Africa, part of Spain and even parts of India. Muslims were the aggressors and Christians faced increasing persecution. During this time, Christians were often given three choices: convert to Islam, die, or submit to Islamic control and pay the Jizya, a humiliating poll tax (actually a head tax). This was not a defensive war on the part of Islam; it was a continual series of unprovoked attacks at the hands of the Muslims to seize and control the lands once owned by Christians, as well as other non-Muslims.[60]

The second myth is that the Crusades were an early example of the West’s predatory imperialism. This is also false. Pope Urban II called the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095 in order to initiate a long overdue defensive act. For over 400 years the Muslims had control of Jerusalem and at this time a group of more radical Muslims were attacking the Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Pope Urban said that without any defensive action, “the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked” by the Turks. In his speech in 1095, Pope Urban II stated,

They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for a while with impunity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends…. Moreover, Christ commands it.[61]

Pope Urban II may have been too presumptive in assuming that his call for action was the will of God, but his concern was more than justified by the evidence of prolonged Muslim aggression.

The third myth is that the Crusades were fought by Westerners greedy for gain. Though some Christians went on the crusade with hopes of becoming rich, most noblemen who gathered together armies from among their families, friends and servants lost immense sums of money, as well as their loved ones, through these very costly endeavors. Many of the men took on holy orders, such as the Knights Templar and Hospitallers, and became monks during this time and therefore turned away from worldly gain. In addition, the commitment to take up the cross often involved selling off land and other possessions in order to pay for the long journey to the holy land. There were few men who gained monetarily from the Crusades, and many gave up everything. It is estimated, for example, that many of the knights did not return home,[62] and over half of the commoners ended up sacrificing their lives to the cause.

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Another myth is that the Crusaders established European colonies in the Middle East. However, this was not an imperialistic venture to colonize the Middle East.  A colony is a land that is ruled by a far-off power. Examples would be past colonies in Virginia (Britain), Australia (Britain), and the Dutch East Indies. There were Crusader states, but they were not ruled by Western powers. Rather, they were self-ruling. They did not have any economic arrangement with any European countries, and they did not ship off any wealth from the lands that they ruled. Indeed, the states were established primarily to provide protection for Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Even the major state called “Outremer,” which means “overseas,” indicated that the new settlements were to be self-governing and with limited contact. In the end, this lack of support from Europe probably was the major cause that the Crusader states were later taken over by the Muslims.

The fifth myth brought up by critics is that the capture of Jerusalem was unique in medieval history and led to the Muslim mistrust of the West. This is also misleading. It was common practice at that time that if a city rejected terms of peace from an invading army then if the city walls were breached and the people overwhelmed by the invading army, the people of the city were at the mercy of their conquerors. The massacre by the crusaders of the Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem was brutal, but it was not unique for that time.

Another myth about of the Crusades is that they were called against Jews in addition to Muslims. Though a number of Jews were killed by crusaders on their way to free Jerusalem, the attacks were opposed by the local bishops and widely condemned at the time as a violation of the Crusades aim, which was not directed against the Jews. The main reason for the hostility against the Jews was for their complicity in the death of Jesus Christ. They were called “Christ killers” even though they were not the ones to crucify Jesus.

The final myth that needs to be dealt with is that the Crusades were bloodier than the Islamic jihads. Atrocities were committed by the Christian crusaders against the Muslims, and by the Muslims against the Christian crusaders. However, the crusades lasted less than 300 years. The Muslim jihad has continued for almost 1400 years. Both sides can recount horrific deeds done in the name of God by their opponents. However, both accounts violate the actions of those who claim to follow God. War is always brutal and this is the prime reason it should be the last resort in any confrontation.

There are several conclusions that should be considered. The teachings of Christ do not mesh with the slaughter of the Crusades. Not everything done in the name of Christ should be attributed to Christianity.

Also, Muslims will often bring up the Crusades when defending today’s terrorism. What should be the appropriate Christian response? First of all, the question should not be dodged. Christians should admit that many actions committed by the Crusaders were wrong and contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Secondly, this would be an opportune time to remind them that Jesus willingly died on a cross to set men free, while Muhammad taught his followers to kill those who would not submit to their religion.


Building Bridges to Understand

As in most apologetic controversies, understanding the truth about the Crusades helps Christians to assess both sides so that they can better appreciate the criticism of the one side and the positive points of the Christian side. For example, Muslims will often bring up the horrors of the massacres carried out by the Christian warriors. However, since there were also atrocities committed by Muslims, factual presentations of the evidence can help Christians today balance their response by upholding the valor of the Christian warriors on the one hand and admitting the consequences of sin on the other. It would not be helpful, or accurate, to blame all the atrocities on one side. Perhaps a more balanced perspective can be ascertained from the evidence when one concludes that the Crusades were not launched as “an assault on a peaceful, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and tolerant Eastern world by fanatical barbarians from the West,” nor were they “noble and righteous ventures fought by heroic and selfless Latin Christians,” but rather that they were the result of centuries of tension between two religions that are fundamentally incompatible.

Some Christians have wondered if they should apologize to Muslims in order to get past the Crusades and not let the topic shut down their witness. However, Bernard Lewis thinks this would be “political correctness run amok.” When he heard about Pope John Paul II apologizing to Muslims for the Crusades, Lewis “made the point that the Crusades, as atrocious as they were, were nonetheless an understandable response to the Islamic onslaught of the preceding centuries, and that it was ridiculous [for Pope John Paul II] to apologize for them.” [63]

Perhaps it would be better to admit that the Crusades were a belated and ineffectual response to the Muslim jihad, and that the Crusaders were imperfect men and women who were trying to fight a spiritual war with temporal weapons. This is why apologetics is so important. Christians need to realize that the real battle is “not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of darkness” (Ephesians 6:10). Therefore, in order to “have divine power to destroy strongholds… arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God,” we need to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5). The first step in this process is to understand both sides of the issue so that we can then defend what is true and refute what is in error. Thus, in regard to the topic of the Crusades, Christians need to be open with their Muslim friends about the failures on the part of the Christians, but they also need to be able to respond to the false representations brought up by others.

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[1] Donald E. Queller and Thomas F. Madden. The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople, 2nd ed. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 1.

[2] Christopher Tyerman, The Debate on the Crusades, (New York: Manchester University Press, 2011), 81.

[3] Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions – The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 6.

[4] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, (1776), ch. 61 p. 1086. Or, Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (New York: The Nottingham Society, n.d.), 6:228-30, passim.

[5] Steve Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades (El Cajon, California: Catholic Answers, 2014), 16.

[6] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951-54), 480.

[7] Thomas Madden, Jonathan Riley-Smith article. See also Robert Spencer, PC, 141.

[8] J.L. Williams, A Christian Perspective on Islam (Wake Forest, NC: Integrity Publishers, 2008), 68.

[9] Ibid., 68.

[10] Ibid., 68.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Lewis, Islam and the West, 12-13.

[13] Ibid., 12-13.

[14] Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 9.

[15] Ibid., 9.

[16] Ibid., 10.

[17] Ibid., 602.

[18] (accessed 10/8/2016).

[19] The Crusade Through Muslim Eyes,

[20] It is interesting to note that Thomas Madden, an accomplished medieval historian and specialist on the Crusades, claims there is no connection between the Crusades and the terrorist attacks today. He responds in his review of Riley-Smith’s book that, “In the hundreds of interviews I have given since that terrible day [9/11], the most common question has been, “How did the Crusades lead to the terrorist attacks against the West today?” I always answered: “They did not. The Crusades were a medieval phenomenon with no connection to modern Islamist terrorism.” Madden, Riley-Smith article

[21] Hillenbrand, The Crusades, 602.

[22] Seyyid Qutb, Milestones, 95.

[23] Paul Berman, The Philosopher of Islamic Terror, New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2003. (accessed 10/6/2016).

[24] Jonathan Finer and Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, 11 November, 2005, A21.

[25] Madden, Riley-Smith article

[26] Madden, Riley-Smith article

[27] Abd al-Sabour Shahin, MEMRI Special Dispatch, no. 296 (Nov. 2001).

[28] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, trans. John Rothschild (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), xvi.

[29] John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 3rd. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58.

[30] Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 480.

[31] Alfred Andrea and Andrew Holt, The Seven Myths of the Crusades (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 2015), xiii.

[32] Lewis, Islam and the West, 12-13

[33] Spencer, Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam, 142.

[34] Bernard Lewis, 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture,,filter.all/pub_detail.asp (accessed 10/7/2016).

[35] Steve Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades, 9.

[36] Ergun Caner, Christian Jihad (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 119, n.11.

[37] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, 11.

[38] Ibid., 16.

[39] Ibid., 16.

[40] Ibid., 14.

[41] Ibid., 256-7.

[42] Ergun Caner, Christian Jihad, 105.

[43] Ibid., 107.

[44] Ibid., 107.

[45] Ibid., 220-221.

[46] Thomas Madden, Riley-Smith article.

[47] Steven Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades, 48.

[48] Steven Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades, 48.

[49] Thomas Madden, Riley-Smith article.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Weidenkopf, The Glory of the Crusades, 36.

[55] Ibid., 48-49.

[56] See J.L. Williams, A Christian Perspective on Islam, 69.

[57] Ibid., 69.

[58] Ironically, part of the reason for this failure may have been that the Catholic Church and the State were practically intertwined at that time.

[59] Lewis, 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture.

[60] Andrea, The Seven Myths of the Crusades, 28.

[61] (Accessed 10/07/2016).

[62] Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History, 11: about 10% of the over 100,000 in the first Crusade were knights.

[63] Martin Kramer, Apologize to Bernard Lewis, Sandbox, March 17, 2007. (Accessed 10/07/2016).

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