It’s often said that winners dictate history. Not so for the medieval holy wars called the Crusades.
Muslim forces ultimately expelled the European Christians who invaded the eastern Mediterranean repeatedly in the 12th and 13th centuries—and thwarted their effort to regain control of sacred Holy Land sites such as Jerusalem. Still, most histories of the Crusades offer a largely one-sided view, drawn originally from European medieval chronicles, then filtered through 18th and 19th-century Western scholars.
But how did Muslims at the time view the invasions? (Not always so contentiously, it turns out.) And what did they think of the European interlopers? (One common cliché: “unwashed barbarians.”) For a nuanced view of the medieval Muslim world, HISTORY talked with two prominent scholars: Paul M. Cobb, professor of Islamic History at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades, and Suleiman A. Mourad, a professor of religion at Smith College and author of The Mosaic of Islam.
HISTORY: Broadly speaking, how do Islamic perspectives on the Crusades differ from those of the Christian sources from Western Europe?
Suleiman Mourad: If we wrote the history of the Crusades based on Islamic narratives, it would be a completely different story altogether. There were no doubt wars and bloodshed, but that wasn’t the only or dominant story. There was also coexistence, political compromise, trade, scientific exchange, love. We have poetry and chronicles with evidence of mixed marriages.
Do Muslim perspectives match Western ones in terms of chronology and geography?
Paul Cobb: Chronologically, Muslim sources differ from the Christians because they don’t recognize the Crusades. They recognize the events we call the Crusades today simply as another wave of Frankish aggression on the Muslim world. (I use “Franks” or “Frankish” to refer to western Christians.) For them, the Crusades didn’t begin in Clermont with Pope Urban’s 1095 speech [rallying crusaders], as most historians say, but rather decades earlier. By 1060 Christians were not only nibbling at the edges of the Islamic world, but were actually gaining territory in Sicily and Spain. And whereas most Western historians recognize the 1291 fall of Acre as the end of the main Crusades, Muslim historians don’t see the end of the Frankish threat until, I would say, the mid-15th century, when Ottoman armies conquer Constantinople.
SM: To say the Crusades started in Clermont in 1095 and ended at Acre in 1291, we are fooling ourselves. History is not that clean cut. What came before and after reflected a lot of continuity and not abrupt change.
PC: Muslims saw the Frankish threat as Mediterranean-wide. It’s not just Franks invading Jerusalem, holding it 87 years and leaving, but a long-term and consistent assault on the most exposed areas of the Mediterranean edge of Muslim world—Spain, Sicily, North Africa, and what is now Turkey—over hundreds of years.
Let’s back up. As the Crusades began, what were the physical boundaries of the Islamic world?
PC: The Islamic world—that is, those lands that recognized Muslim rulers and the authority of Islamic Law—was much bigger than the land of the Latin Christian west. It stretched from Spain and Portugal in the west to India in the east. And from central Asia in the north to Sudan and the horn of Africa in the south.
At that time, the core of the Islamic world was divided between a Shi’ite dynasty in Egypt and a Sunni dynasty in Syria and Iraq. But there was eventually a movement toward unification, right?
PC: Saladin, Islam’s most famous counter-crusading hero, was a very astute politician who knew he had to get his own house in order before he could deal with the Franks. He took over Egypt, then set about reconquering Syria and parts of Iraq. He would go on to ultimately recapture Jerusalem from the crusaders and push them back to a thin strip along the Mediterranean.
Tell me about medieval Islamic civilization. Wasn’t there a flowering in the 9th and 10th centuries?
SM: Actually, Islam’s “golden age” goes much longer, from the 9th to the 14th centuries—and it moves around, from Baghdad to Damascus to Cairo. Within that time, there were golden ages of mathematics and astronomy and medicine, with many advances. One example: A physician named Ibm al-Nafis, who lived in the 13th century in Cairo, was the first person to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood—four centuries before the Europeans discovered that.
The main accomplishment was when, on a large scale, Muslims began to creatively engage with the science and philosophy of the classical Greco-Roman-Byzantine tradition—and began to rethink those ideas. For pretty much the whole apparatus of science, mathematics and logic, Muslim scholars, along with others based in the Muslim world, provided corrections to the Greco-Roman tradition.
How would you compare European and Islamic civilizations during this time?
PC: The Islamic world was much bigger and more urbanized, with more wealth and cultural patronage, and more ethnic and linguistic diversity. Whereas the cities of western Christendom had populations measured in the thousands—Paris and London would have had maybe 20,000 each—Baghdad likely had hundreds of thousands of citizens.
So we’re talking about an invasion of peoples from a marginal, underdeveloped region of the world to one of the most urbanized, culturally sophisticated zones on the planet. That accounts for the sense of trauma from the Muslim side. How could people from the edge of the known world invade this divinely protected, culturally sophisticated and militarily triumphant region? There was a lot of soul searching on the part of the Muslims.
If the crusaders’ mandate was to reclaim the Holy Land and regain control of important Christian sites like Jerusalem, what was the importance of this territory for the Islamic world?
PC: Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest cities after Mecca and Medina, was one of its most pious pilgrimage sites. Islamic tradition built on many Christian traditions and revered many of the same figures known from the Bible and elsewhere—including Jesus. So for them, Jerusalem was at the center of a vast sacred landscape that stretched to Palestine and Syria.
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SM: There’s a lot of literature that enjoins Muslims to protect the Holy Land and safeguard it as an Islamic space. But many places—in Jerusalem, in Acre, Saidnaya and elsewhere—were claimed by more than one community. These were sacred sites for everyone, not just one group.
Wait. So they were actually sharing sacred sites that, in theory, they were supposed to be fighting over?
SM: Today we have a rigid understanding of sacred sites being for one group, and the others won’t—and shouldn’t—come near it. Back then, there was a more collective approach to sanctity of space. The Islamic theory said, “we should fight these people and protect the Holy Land.” But in practice, they were willing to share. We know for a fact that when the crusaders came, most Muslims did not raise a finger. And to a large extent, the crusaders didn’t interfere with Muslim religious space.
No sooner did the crusaders infiltrate, they were accepted into the political landscape as any others that came: with alliances, wars, treaties, commerce. We have letters from Saladin to the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin III, that convey friendship and deep alliances. The relationship wasn’t dogmatic, it was pragmatic.
What did medieval Muslims think of Europeans?
SM: The broad Muslim perception of Europeans was as cross-eyed barbarians. There were clichés that got repeated up until the 19th century—usually about their lack of cleanliness, the fact that they defecate in the street without any sense of privacy. There is a story about crusader medicine, that they blood-let in order to let the demons out. The people who knew the crusaders gave a much more refined understanding, but the positive narratives were not widely disseminated.
PC: Muslim travelers had a hierarchical world view. In the center was the Islamic world. On its margins, the people of Western Europe weren’t on the extreme edge, but were warming their hands on the fires of civilization. Europe was considered cold and dark and surrounded in mist. In ancient medieval ethnography, geography was destiny. It was believed the Franks were hairy, pale and from the dark and unwashed North. The medieval Islamic world’s view of the west is a mirror of today’s view of Islam by the west: exotic and distant, populated by a fanatical warlike population, slow to develop, economically backwards—with nice monuments and raw materials, but otherwise not much to recommend it.
What do specific accounts say?
PC: Most famously there was an Arabic author named Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub, who traveled around Europe in the 10th century, and his work was quoted by others. He left first-hand accounts of France, Italy and Germany, among other places. We learn, for example, of lushness of the land in Bordeaux, feasting practices in Germany, even whaling practices near Ireland. For all these, he was pleased by the land, but appalled by the people he met. “They do not bathe except once or twice a year, with cold water,” he wrote. “They never wash their clothes, which they put on once for good until they fall into tatters.” What you have is a classic strategy by which one society “others” another society—much as Europeans did to Muslims.
SM: Those who lived with the crusaders at close range sometimes gave a subtler picture. A diplomat named Usama ibn Munqidh went to crusader territories and befriended the leaders. He writes about visiting a court, and being very impressed with it. He liked that it wasn’t fully autocratic.
What did Muslims think of Templar knights?
PC: They were aware of the Templars’ special status as elite holy warriors and considered them their most fearsome Frankish opponents. They also saw them as principled, fanatically loyal and unwaveringly fierce. It’s a backhanded compliment that after the battle of Hattin in 1187—the great defeat of the Franks at the hands of Saladin, who was usually magnanimous—he insisted the Templar prisoners be executed because they were seen as such a dire threat.
On the other side, Usama Ibn Munqidh tells the story of a Frank, recently arrived to the Holy Land, who harassed him about how he was praying when he was in a Templar chapel. And the Templars apologized and helped Usama. Hosting him to pray was part of a diplomatic code.
SM: The Templars represented to the Muslims a model blending religiosity and militancy that was novel. To give a modern parallel, they were perceived not unlike the way Muslims today might think of Isis: that they are too fanatic for their taste. They bring to their fighting a kind of religious zeal, and they bring to their religion a kind of militancy.
Are jihad and crusade related?
PC: There is a family resemblance because they share roots in monotheism, where God is a jealous God. And both Crusades and Jihad offered martyrdom to those who die. But while they look alike, they have some important differences. Crusades were directed at the liberation of sacred land considered rightfully Christian, whereas Jihad was about rescuing souls.
SM: I personally don’t find any structural difference between the two. Jihad has an Islamic concept: religiously sanctioned aggression. The Crusades were precisely that.
What was the impact of the Crusades in the Muslim world?
SM: The legacy of the Crusades in the Muslim world is that a lot of Muslims think of where they are today in terms of Western encroachment. For some, the Crusades are seen not just as a medieval threat, but as a present one—a perpetual Western attempt to undermine Islam. It could be physical colonialism or cultural colonialism.
The groups that paid the biggest price of the crusader experience were the local (non-European) Christians. By the time the crusaders were kicked out, the dominant ruling dynasties happened to be Sunni. Many Shi’ites and local Christians felt their best option was to convert. After the crusader period, the Middle East becomes far less Christian and far less Shi’ite.
Why are the Crusades still relevant today in the Middle East?
PC: It’s a bit like what Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.” Modern ideologues might draw on the Crusades to justify contemporary conflict as part of some millennium-long continuum. But the truth is, crusaders and Muslims fought for their own goals, not for the ones that motivate us today.
SM: Three words: politics of religion.