StudyToAnswer | By Timothy W. Dunkin
Islam: the Religion of Peace and the Crusades
We need to discuss the Crusades in some detail, for though they were not truly a Christian affair, they are an important series event, a knowledge of which is necessary for understanding the history of interaction between Islam and “Christendom”. The Crusades were a series of military expeditions by medieval Europeans into the Middle East, and have become an object of fixation in the mind of Islam. They are the lens through which Muslims have come to view practically all of their dealings with the West. The Crusades, unfortunately, have also become somewhat mythologized by Muslims, who reinvent history to fit their own propagandistic purposes. Muslims will try to point to the Crusades as an example of “Christian” evil, and as a justification for their own jihad, but as we have seen above, there was nothing scriptural about the Crusades – they did not occur because of devotion to biblical religion.
Now let us deal with the serious deficiencies in the Muslim understanding of the Crusades. Though it is now in vogue among Muslims to portray the Crusades as savage offensives against peace-loving Muslim people in the Middle East, this view is historically inaccurate. Indeed, until around the middle of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire’s official position, taught to all Ottoman students in the schools, was that the Crusades were a great victory and triumph for Islam, which had defeated and expelled minor barbarian incursions from the west. The Muslims of the Middle East were hardly “peace-loving”. Indeed, lest we forget, the very reason why the Middle East was in the hands of the Muslims in the first place was because of a series of offensive religious wars waged by Muslims against the various Christian peoples of Asia Minor, Palestine, and North Africa.
It is necessary to understand that fact if we are to understand why the Crusades occurred in the first place. The Crusades, first and foremost, were defensive wars. They were not fought by an expansionistic, imperialistic Christendom, but rather by a Christendom that was at that time shrinking, being slowly but surely overwhelmed by the advancing Islamic empires. As Thomas Madden has written,
“Now put this down in your notebook, because it will be on the test: The crusades were in every way a defensive war. They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world. While the Arabs were busy in the seventh through the tenth centuries winning an opulent and sophisticated empire, Europe was defending itself against outside invaders and then digging out from the mess they left behind. Only in the eleventh century were Europeans able to take much notice of the East. The event that led to the crusades was the Turkish conquest of most of Christian Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The Christian emperor in Constantinople, faced with the loss of half of his empire, appealed for help to the rude but energetic Europeans. He got it. More than he wanted, in fact.
Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095. Despite modern laments about medieval colonialism, the crusade’s real purpose was to turn back Muslim conquests and restore formerly Christian lands to Christian control. The entire history of the crusades is one of Western reaction to Muslim advances. The crusades were no more offensive than was the American invasion of Normandy. As it happened, the First Crusade was amazingly, almost miraculously, successful. The crusaders marched hundreds of miles deep into enemy territory and recaptured not only the lost cities of Nicaea and Antioch, but in 1099 Jerusalem itself.” [T.F. Madden, "Crusade Propaganda", National Review Online, 2 November 2001]
The Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression. If the Muslims had not waged offensive war and continued in their plans to conquer the known world, the Crusades would never have happened. In a sense, blame for the Crusades lies at the feet of the Muslims themselves. It is doubtful, lacking the impetus provided by Emperor Alexius’ appeal and Pope Urban’s oration, that it would ever have occurred to the petty feudal nobles of Western Europe to even go adventuring thousands of miles away from home in the first place. And what of the Muslim contention that the Bible was somehow an impetus for the Crusaders to go pillaging across the Levant? Well, there is no real evidence that the Crusaders or those calling for crusade relied on the Bible as justification. For example, when we look at the actual text of Pope Urban II’s call for crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095 [See Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095], we see exactly three references to passages from the Bible: two of them from the Gospel of Matthew, one of them from the Gospel of Luke, and none of them in any way used in the actual call to crusade – all are used to reprove the “Christians” for being blind and careless. There is nothing which in any way suggests that Urban pointed to the Bible to justify or encourage the crusading. Instead, he lays out the political situation as it existed at that time, and warns that unless the Muslim aggression is stopped, more “Christians” will be conquered and enslaved.
Muslim apologists will point to the barbaric behavior of the Crusaders when they took Jerusalem in 1099. And well they ought, for these European warlords were most definitely barbaric. But, so were the Muslims. It is common for Muslims to assert that when the Muslim army reconquered the cities which the Crusaders had taken, that they did not harm the civilian population. This claim is most certainly not true. The Muslims were just as savage and brutal in the fighting during the Crusades as were the Crusaders. For instance, when the Muslims retook Antioch, they slaughtered 16,000 people in the streets and sold another 100,000 into slavery. Likewise, when the Crusader garrison at Caesaria, 2000 men, surrendered to the Muslims on the sworn promise that they would be spared, the Muslims broke their promise and instead executed them all. Indeed, one of the series of events that lead to the Crusades and likely made the westerners amenable to aiding Byzantium in the first place was the maltreatment and murder of European pilgrims to sites in the Holy Land in the 1070s. For these apologists to claim that the Muslims retook territory without harming anyone, and their apparent attempts to portray Islam as a spotless and pure victim in the tawdry affair of the Crusades, is astounding in its mendacity. Islam bears as much complicity in the violence of the Crusades as the Europeans do, both in terms of methodology and in root cause. Indeed, Islam’s march across the Middle East and North Africa in the centuries preceding the Crusades was drenched in the blood of thousands, possibly millions, of native peoples who were slaughtered and pillaged as the Arabs made their way from Egypt to Spain in the 8th century. Just as the Crusaders bear great reproach and responsibility for their conduct, so do the Muslims.
This point about the historic Muslim brutality and violence as they expanded out from the Levant in the 8th century and onward is important to remember. There is a good and strong argument to be made that the example of Islam’s behavior in war and expansion was what taught the medieval Europeans about holy war. In other words, Islam was the schoolmaster in religiously motivated violence, and the Europeans the pupils absorbing the lesson from the masters. Jacques Ellul, a scholar who has studied the theologies of both Christianity and Islam, has noted the impetus which Islamic “holy war” gave to the rise of this concept in medieval Europe. As part of a more general argument concerning the influence which Muslim theology and philosophy had on the Western statecraft and religion in the early medieval period, Ellul notes the following about the rise of the “holy war” concept in Christendom,
“In tandem with this great importance of the political power there is, of course, the importance and glorification of war as a means of spreading the faith. Such war is a duty for all Muslims. Islam has to become universal. The true faith, not the power, has to be taken to every people by every means, including by military force. This makes the political power important, for it is warlike by nature. The two things are closely related. The political head wages war on behalf of the faith. He is thus the religious head, and as the sole representative of God he must fight to extend Islam. This enormous importance of war has been totally obliterated today in intellectual circles that admire Islam and want to take it afresh as a model. War is inherent in Islam. It is inscribed in its teaching. It is a fact of its civilization and also a religious fact; the two cannot be separated. It is coherent with its conception of the Dhar al ahrb, that the whole world is destined to become Muslim by Arab conquests. The proof of all this is not just theological; it is historical: hardly has the Islamic faith been preached when an immediate military conquest begins. From 632 to 651, in the twenty years after the death of the prophet, we have a lightning war of conquest with the invasion of Egypt and Cyrenaica to the west, Arabia in the center, Armenia, Syria, and Persia to the east. In the following century all North Africa and Spain are taken over, along with India and Turkey to the east. The conquests are not achieved by sanctity, but by war.
For three centuries Christianity spread by preaching, kindliness, example, morality, and encouragement of the poor. When the empire became Christian, war was hardly tolerated by the Christians. Even when waged by a Christian emperor it was a dubious business and was assessed unfavorably. It was often condemned. Christians were accused of undermining the political force and military might of the empire from within. In practice Christians would remain critical of war until the flamboyant image of the holy war came on the scene. In other words, no matter what atrocities have been committed in wars waged by so-called Christian nations, war has always been in essential contradiction to the gospel. Christians have always been more or less aware of this. They have judged war and questioned it.
In Islam, on the contrary, war was always just and constituted a sacred duty. The war that was meant to convert infidels was just and legitimate, for, as Muslim thinking repeats, Islam is the only religion that conforms perfectly to nature. In a natural state we would all be Muslims. If we are not, it is because we have been led astray and diverted from the true faith. In making war to force people to become Muslims the faithful are bringing them back to their true nature. Q.E.D. Furthermore, a war of this kind is a jihad, a holy war. Let us make no mistake, the word jihad has two complementary senses. It may denote a spiritual war that is moral and inward. Muslims have to wage this war within themselves in the fight against demons and evil forces, in the effort to achieve better obedience to God’s will, in the struggle for perfect submission. But at the same time and in a wholly consistent way the jihad is also the war against external demons. To spread the faith, it is necessary to destroy false religions. This war, then, is always a religious war, a holy war.” [J. Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, pp. 100-101]
Hence, he recognizes that the Gospel of Christ and war are not complementary, and Ellul rightly notes that true Christians have always been at least skeptical about war, even while recognizing that a legitimate need on the part of the state may exist for armed conflict. Conversely, he also observes that the teachings of Islam are wholly consistent with a perpetual war state. The concept of “holy war” in medieval Europe rose as a result of the influence of Islamic philosophical and theological ideas, and from the direct example of the Muslims themselves, whose dealings in North Africa and Spain were readily observable to the Christendom of the day.
None of this should be interpreted as seeking to justify the Crusaders in their warfare or their atrocities – indeed, the Crusaders indulged in many great evils when they conducted their wars in the Levant. The point still needs to be understood, however, that without the input of Muslim aggression, Muslim atrocities, and Muslim theological/philosophical ideas, the Crusades would not likely have occurred.
Another error in thinking which non-Christians often make and which needs to be addressed is this: There is not, nor has there ever been, such a thing as a “Christian nation”. No nation has ever been governed solely (or even principally) by the dictates of the Bible, nor has any nation ever been made up solely or even with a large majority of truly Bible-believing born-again Christians. Given the implications of what the Bible has to say as far as commanding Christians to be submissive to the laws of their respective earthly nations insomuch as they can do so without violating Scripture and conscience (see Romans 13:1-7, I Peter 2:11-17), and that Christians are to be “in the world, but not of the world” (see John 17:15-16), it must be understood that Christians cannot partake of forcing their authority, either political or religious, upon the unbelieving world beyond those realms (such as voting, in democratic nations) in which they are lawfully allowed a voice along with everyone else.
As such, since there is no such thing as a “Christian nation”, it is not a valid argument to try to blame Christianity for the behavior of Western nations such as the United States, Great Britain or other countries that many in the Third World usually refer to as “Christian”. Even a cursory glance at the laws and practices of Western nations, past and present, shows that these were not “Christian” in the sense of abiding by the strict dictates of the Bible, even if these nations did have large or influential Christian elements in their societies. Muslims err greatly in trying to apply their understanding of the ummah to the Western situation. In Muslim lands, Islam is supposed to form the complete sum total of all the community and society. Everything is to revolve around Islam, and Islam is to establish the sole deen, the way of living, in a nation ruled by the religion of Mohammed. Muslims apply this to the West, and therefore come to the erroneous conclusion that because the United States extirpated and quarantined the Native Americans, or because Britain sold smallpox-laden blankets to the Mohawks, or because the Dutch treated the natives in their Asian holding cruelly, that all of these crimes can be laid at the feet of Christianity, rather than just individual nations or people. This is an invalid argument because Christianity, as taught in the Bible, is a private and personal relationship between man and his Maker. There is no – can be no – Christian ummah to which a nation’s actions can be attributed. While that concept may be attributable even to apostate state religionism (which teaches its own version of ummah through its belief that all people in a region are submitted to the hierarchical religious authorities and belong to the “state church”), it cannot be attributed to people who are being faithful to the Bible, which is the very definition of a “Bible-believing Christian”.
In closing, when we contrast Islam and Christianity, we see that the former belief system promotes violence, while the latter does not. The difference lies in the holy books and other religious texts used by the two systems. The Qur’an and the ahadith provide ample and straightforward justification for violence against unbelievers. In contrast to this, the Bible brings a message of peace. Only those who try to take the Biblical message out of context and twist the scriptures will see in it a “justification” for violence against non-believers.
This article is part of a study on Islam – Islam; Articles and Links About Islam, It’s Beliefs and Practice – by Timothy W. Dunkin. It’s the 7th article in the series “Ten Myths About Islam.”