Cover story -- The Crusades
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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

Why the Crusades still matter

Two scholars discuss a historic flashpoint and its relevance today

NCR’s Antonia Ryan conducted an e-mail exchange with two scholars of the Crusades -- one who writes about Christian perspectives and one who studies the Muslim experience of these medieval wars. Thomas Madden is the author of The New Concise History of the Crusades (2005) and is a professor and chair of the history department at St. Louis University. Carole Hillenbrand, author of The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (2000), is professor of Islamic culture at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and winner of the King Faisal Foundation prize for Islamic studies.

NCR: The Crusades began in 1095. More than 900 years later, is there any reason we should care about them today?
Of course. The Crusades were a product of the medieval world, a world that fundamentally shaped the one we live in today.

Hillenbrand: History repeats itself, and we would do well to heed its lessons so as not to commit the same errors as our ancestors.

Together Thomas and I highlight a number of important aspects of the Crusades, but neither of us thinks that what we have written constitutes anything approaching the complete historical picture. Other dimensions have to be included. Here I would stress in particular the viewpoints of other Christians -- Orthodox and Middle Eastern Armenians, Monophysites, Melkites and others who have kept the faith for over a thousand years in a heavily Muslim society -- and the Jews.

What’s the popular perception of the Crusades in both Christian and Muslim minds today? Do the Crusades still have an effect on the wars we’re fighting now?
In the West there are two popular perceptions, one born in the 18th century and the other in the 19th. The first, which gained currency during the Enlightenment, was that the Crusades were a series of unnecessary wars in which a barbaric people steeped in ignorance and superstition attacked a peaceful and sophisticated Muslim world. The Crusades, therefore, were seen as a black mark on the history of Western civilization in general and the Catholic church in particular. This view is still very popular, although it is usually glossed with the assertion that the Crusades were a form of proto-colonialism -- the West’s first attempt to subjugate the world.

The other popular perception grew out of 19th-century Romanticism. This view sees the Crusades as noble wars led by larger-than-life men motivated by honor and chivalry. Religion and the church are usually airbrushed out of this perception, leaving behind only courageous and selfless knights fighting for righteousness in far-away lands. This perception was particularly popular among colonial powers in the 19th century, but it has waned in the 20th and 21st centuries. Still, it hangs on. Run a Nexis search and see how often the word “crusade” is used to mean a noble and praiseworthy pursuit and “crusader” is used to mean a selfless and courageous individual.

Hillenbrand: As a European raised in a Christian environment, I can say that many Christians in Europe today believe that the Crusades, and especially the First Crusade, were indeed religiously inspired wars. In their view, those who took up the cross believed the pope’s promise that salvation would be theirs if they rescued the holy places from the infidel. Other contemporary Christians in Europe are more skeptical and they think that the crusading enterprise was flawed by human ambition and greed.

On the Muslim side there is a similar broad spectrum of attitudes toward the Crusades, although it has to be said that this subject, with its roots in Europe and Christianity, has not been of great interest to Muslim scholars up until now. Those Muslims who do write about the Crusades nowadays do so with a modern political agenda. Such Muslims are “jihadists” and politicians, such as Sayyid Qutb and Osama bin Laden, who see the Crusades as Christian Europe’s first attempts to “colonize” and “pollute” the Islamic world. Such Muslim polemicists, who have a somewhat inadequate grasp of medieval Western history, draw parallels between the crusading period on the one hand and modern interventions by the West in the Middle East on the other. Some Muslim activist writers, wishing to draw attention to the unresolved issue of Palestinian sovereignty, make a comparison between the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel. The fact that the latter state is not Christian but Jewish does not stop this parallel from being drawn; indeed, Osama bin Laden has spoken of the need to wage jihad against Jews and Crusaders on a worldwide scale. These and other parallels between the crusading past and the troubled present in the Middle East may not always correspond exactly to the “facts” of history and are rejected by the majority of Muslims anyway. But such rallying cries resonate in some sections of Muslim societies today.

Both of you have said that people on each side thought they were fighting in self-defense.
By 1095 when Urban II called the First Crusade, fully two-thirds of the old Christian world had been conquered by Muslim armies. Aside from the Holy Land, Muslims had conquered all of Syria, Egypt, North Africa and Spain. In addition, Asia Minor (modern Turkey) had only recently been conquered by the Turks. The Crusades were, therefore, seen as an attempt to restore those lands to Christian control. Since the Muslims were the clear aggressors, the Crusades were self-defense. Muslims who had controlled the Holy Land for more than four centuries naturally saw the Crusader conquests of the region as unjust and their own attempts to restore it to Muslim control as a matter of self-defense.

Hillenbrand: On the one hand, in the last few decades of the 11th century, successive popes and European kings had heard with increasing alarm about the disastrous defeat of the Byzantine army at the hands of the nomadic Seljuq Turks at the battle of Manzikert near Lake Van in eastern Turkey in 1071. The Seljuqs, nominally Muslim at least, advanced across Anatolia toward the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. They had come originally from the steppes of Central Asia and seemed to be unstoppable. Thus Christianity saw the loss of Constantinople, the Great City, as a real and present danger.

On the other hand, the European Christians in northern Spain had begun their inexorable march southward (the Reconquista) well before the First Crusade and were regaining lands the Muslims had taken in the conquests of the 7th century. The conquest of Toledo, the principal Muslim city of Central Spain, by the Christians in 1085 was a benchmark in this process. Similarly, a generation before the launching of the First Crusade the Normans had landed in Sicily and by 1091 had wrested control of the island from the Muslims. Medieval Arab chroniclers could therefore look back to the arrival of the Crusaders (the Franks, as they called them) in Syria and Palestine and link this event to other European advances that had preceded it.

It has been said that stereotypes of “the other side” were formed during this time. What were some of the stereotypical ideas formulated then that persist to this day?
The most common was the Muslim stereotype that the Franks were sexually promiscuous and gave their women altogether too much freedom. It should be said, though, that Muslims and Christians did not mix very much in the Crusader states. They generally kept to themselves and indeed had very little interest in each other.

Hillenbrand: Crusaders returning home from the Holy Land would speak of the exotic countries they had left behind. The phenomenon of Orientalism from the 18th century onward and its manifestations in Western art and literature, so powerfully described in recent times by Edward Said, fed on the heritage of the Crusades. The Muslim world was the place of deserts, walled cities, veiled women, harems, eunuchs, bathhouses, intrigues, outlandish animals, clothing, languages, luxuries and an alien religion; in short, a land of romantic mystery and danger.

Contact with the Muslim world gave the Europeans a taste for all kinds of commodities, including ivory, inlaid metalwork and other luxury goods that came from the Arab world. Of these the most important were textiles: damask, fustian, muslin, organdie, atlas, satin and taffeta.

For the Muslim world, stereotypes about European Christians had been formed long before the Crusades. The coming of the Crusaders only reinforced these stereotypes. In the Muslim view, the Crusaders were lacking in civilized manners, education and lifestyle, and they were unhygienic; the Western Middle Ages have been described by a French historian as “a thousand years without a bath.” Happily the knightly class, apart from the Templars, rapidly acquired the habit of visiting the bathhouse.

Carole Hillenbrand has pointed out that almost all of the sources about the Crusades -- both contemporary ones and modern ones -- come from the perspective of Western Europe. Why is this?
The Crusades are a Western Christian phenomenon with their roots in medieval Europe. From the outset, it was predominantly Western Christian chroniclers who wrote about them. Nowadays the weight of Western scholarship about many aspects of the Crusades is positively awesome -- thousands of books and tens of thousands of articles.

Not so in the Muslim world. Not a single separate account of the Crusades written by a Muslim has survived. There is abundant information about the events of the Crusades in medieval Muslim historiography, but it has to be searched for amid a welter of other accounts predominantly concerned with the dynastic history of the Islamic world itself. Medieval Muslim writers do indeed mention the coming of the Crusaders, but they evince little curiosity as to why they came.

Until recently, Muslim historians have not tended to interest themselves in the Crusades. Wherever possible, Western specialists on the Crusades use medieval Muslim sources, but, as so few of them know Arabic, they have to rely on the small number of these texts that have been translated into Western languages. It is this problem of language that has kept the two sides in their separate boxes.

Madden: I would agree that this is in part because of a lack of research in medieval Arabic texts. It is also the result of the very different perceptions of the Crusades at the times. For Europeans, the Crusades were a crucially important effort to rescue the lands of Christ. Success in the Crusades became a barometer of the soul of Christendom. They were on everyone’s minds. But in the vast Muslim world, the Crusades were a very small thing. It took several generations before most Muslims even understood that the Crusades existed. Prior to that, they simply assumed that the Crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries -- one more group in an already chaotic political landscape.

I want to read a quote from an essay by Thomas Madden: “When we think about the Middle Ages, it is easy to view Europe in light of what it became rather than what it was.” What was Europe at that time? What was the Muslim world?
Medieval Europe in the 11th century was still picking up the pieces from its numerous invasions. In comparison to the Muslim world, be it Syria, Egypt, Spain or elsewhere, medieval Europe was poor, backward, weak and chaotic. More important, it was getting smaller, while Islam and its many kingdoms continued to grow.

Hillenbrand: Just before the First Crusade arrived in the Holy Land, the Muslim world was politically weak and disunited. Not only was there no overall political and military power in the Islamic world, there was also no overarching religious leadership. Religio-legal authority in the Islamic world had been vested, after the death of the Prophet in 632, in the institution of the caliphate. On the eve of the First Crusade, two rivals, the Shi’ite Fatimid caliph in Cairo and the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, were irreconciliably opposed to each other.

Political disunity was, however, countered by an astonishing cultural unity. The vast Islamic world stretched from Spain to India. A traveler could go from Córdoba in Spain to Samarkand in Central Asia speaking only Arabic, the lingua franca, staying in Muslim houses and performing the same ritual prayers in the mosques, wherever they were.

What was happening to the Jews in the midst of the Crusades?
I am not an expert on the history of the Jews of medieval Europe or of the Jews under Crusader rule in the Holy Land. However, it is important to mention that the Rhineland Jewish communities in Europe were attacked and massacred in devastating fashion by the Crusaders in the spring of 1096. Similarly, in 1099, the Jews living in Jerusalem, including those who had taken refuge in the synagogues, were killed in the same way as the Muslims in the bloodbath that accompanied the Crusader conquest of the Holy City.

Madden: There were no Crusades against Jews. In fact, church law had long forbidden attacks on Jews of any kind. However, in the First, Second and Third Crusades there were Crusaders who either through ignorance or willful disregard of church teachings attacked Jews. They generally did so on the premise that as the crucifiers of Christ, the Jews constituted just as much an enemy as the Muslims. Crusaders were encouraged to see themselves as avenging the injuries of the crucified Christ, so it should not surprise that some took this to mean that the Jews were also a legitimate target.

Hillenbrand: There is ongoing scholarly debate on the issue of how tolerant the medieval Muslim world was toward its Jewish and Christian subjects. Called dhimmis (people with a covenant), or sometimes People of the Book, these communities were granted the protection of the Muslim state under Islamic law. Their status was clearly defined, and they were generally well treated, although there were occasional bouts of oppression on the part of rulers. Their status was lower than that of Muslims and their tax burden was heavier. The Jewish contribution to trade, medicine and scholarship was much valued. Jews also rose high in Muslim government circles and served as ministers, ambassadors and scribes. The Jewish commercial community in Cairo, whose trading horizons stretched from Spain to India and beyond, was a linchpin of Egyptian mercantile prosperity.

Generally it was the Christians of medieval Europe who gave the Jews a hard time. However, in the 14th century, after the Crusaders had left, there was a backlash, when the Mamluk government of Egypt passed discriminatory clothing decrees against Christians and Jews. The Ottomans had a much better record.

I want to ask Carole Hillenbrand about something Thomas Madden wrote: “Without the Crusades, it [Christianity] might well have followed Zoroastrianism, another of Islam’s rivals, into extinction.” Carole, do you think that’s true?
No. Firstly, Zoroastrianism is not extinct. Zoroastrians, some 130,000 in the world now, are still practicing their faith in Yazd and other parts of southern Iran as well as in Bombay (Mumbai) and the diaspora. When the Arabs conquered the Persian Sasanian empire in the mid-seventh century, that empire totally collapsed. But its state religion, Zoroastrianism, did not die; it was relegated to the status of “tolerated religion.”

Madden: Carole is quite right. Zoroastrianism is not completely extinct. Unfortunately, somewhere in the editing process my word “virtual” dropped out. Nevertheless, Zoroastrianism is no longer a major world religion, which it was on the eve of the Muslim conquests of Persia. That was my point.

Hillenbrand: I would also argue that if the all-conquering Arab armies had failed to eradicate Christianity when they were at their very strongest, it is unlikely that any other subsequent Muslim force in the Middle Ages could have done so either. The coming of the Crusades did not stem further Muslim conquest of Christian territory. The Ottoman Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries took much of the Christian Balkans and famously advanced to the very walls of Vienna. The fear of their advance terrorized much of 16th-century Europe. But they, too, failed to overcome the whole of Christian Europe, even though they captured Constantinople, the greatest of Christian cities, in 1453.

Christianity, in short, proved too hardy a growth to be extirpated by the Muslims.

Madden: The Turks failed to capture Vienna because of a run of freak rainstorms that kept the sultan from bringing his heavy artillery to bear against the city. By any reckoning, the armies of Islam were much more powerful under the Ottoman Turks than the Arabs. The people of 15th- and 16th-century Europe were terrified with good reason -- for much of Europe had already been conquered by the Turks. The Crusades were the only organized defense against these relentless attacks. Without centuries of crusading that slowed (but did not stop) the advance of Muslim expansionism, it seems likely to me that Western Europe would have succumbed, just as southeastern Europe did. In that case, Christianity would not have ceased to exist. But it would, in my estimation, have been reduced to a small minority religion -- much like Zoroastrianism today.

Carole Hillenbrand wrote, “Jerusalem occupies center stage as much today as it did in the 12th century.” Could you both comment on what’s at stake today in Jerusalem?
Jerusalem is venerated as a holy place by all three Abrahamic faiths. Over the centuries millions of pilgrims must have visited it, often praying at the holy places of each other’s religions. There could be no better example of the need for tolerance and coexistence in relation to a city so dear to the hearts of millions of people living far from the Middle East. It is a spiritual center of perhaps unique symbolic power.

Madden: I would disagree just a bit about Jerusalem being “center stage.” Jerusalem is important today. There is no doubt about that. But in the 12th century it was literally the center of the universe. Literally. Most Americans or Europeans are interested in what happens in Jerusalem today, but they do not consider the state of Jerusalem to be indicative of God’s attitude toward them and their world. In a secular world, cities like London, New York or Washington are much more important to most people than Jerusalem. Compare the general reactions to suicide bombers in London to the reactions to similar bombers who regularly plague Jerusalem.

Both of you have devoted an enormous amount of time to studying this topic. Why are you so fascinated by this subject?
I am interested in the intersection and interrelationship of different cultures. The Crusades are an excellent topic in which to study those types of dynamics.

Hillenbrand: My worldview is that of a scholar who has studied Islamic history for more than 30 years. I admire and respect Islamic society and culture in many ways. Nevertheless, my worldview is that of a Western Christian; I am not a Muslim.

How the Crusaders and Muslims got along together in times of peace and even in times of war is a fascinating story of cultural symbiosis and realpolitik; often ideological divisions gave way to pragmatic alliances and genuine interchange. The impact of the Muslim world on Crusader, and thereafter medieval European tastes, was to last much longer than the wars themselves. And the legends of Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin are etched in the popular European imagination. And to reflect that the Western European presence on Muslim soil in the Middle Ages now finds its counterpart in the presence of growing Muslim minorities in Western countries closes the circle in an interesting way.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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