By Dr. Paul Stenhouse © 2007 Chevalier Press. Used by permission.

Despite our living in the early years of the third millennium, any frank discussion and evaluation of the early mediaeval Crusade continues to labour under a number of formidable difficulties. Most of these have little or nothing to do with the reality of the complex human enterprise that was the Crusade. They are relics of anti-Catholic polemic from the sixteenth century onwards embedded uncritically in people’s memories or lying on library shelves like landmines buried by an invading army.

That they remain unacknowledged and unchallenged even now reflects poorly on modern, largely secularized, Western Societies, whose survival continues to be threatened by their refusal to confront reality.

All mediaeval Crusaders were Catholic – good, bad and in between.

It isn’t easy for someone brought up on the historical fare provided for generations in predominantly Protestant countries, to conceive of a time when all Christians were Catholic.

The first Crusade, called by Pope Urban II in 1095 AD, took place only a few years after the dubiously motivated schism that separated the Byzantine-Rite [Eastern] Catholics centred in Constantinople, from the Latin-Rite [Western] Catholics centred in Old Rome.

Had that schism not occurred, and had the momentous sixteenth century followed a different course, then the verdict of history may well have been fairer and less tainted by bias and ignorance.

In deploring partiality on the part of historians and others who treat of the Crusades, however, we in no way excuse the cruelty, avarice and excess that too often diminished the idealism of the Crusaders and tarnished the undoubted nobility of their cause.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no millennium-long, deeplyfelt outrage on the part of Muslims at the Crusade.[1] The current anti-Crusade agitation has more to do with post-Enlightenment prejudice and selfhatred on the part of some westerners, than with any smouldering resentment on the part of mediaeval Muslims.

The very words ‘Crusade,’ and ‘Crusader’ are not to be found in Muslim writings contemporaneous with the events we are about to discuss. They have no equivalent in Arabic or other languages spoken by Muslims, and appear to have been coined by Christians who wrote in Arabic at a later date.[2]

At-Tabari [died 923 AD] the most significant Muslim historian, and Ibn al-Qutiyya, one of the major historians of Muslim Spain, do not even mention the Battle for Tours and Poitiers in 732 AD which according to Edward Gibbon[3] was the decisive turning point in the early battle against Western Christendom by the armies of Islam.

In Mosul the Islamic historian Ibn al-Athir reinforces the impression that the incursions of the Crusaders were initially met with indifference by Islamic rulers. Writing after 1187 he comments tersely ‘When the year 490AH [i.e. 1096-1097AD] came, [the Franks] invaded the land of Syria.’[4]

Eventually most rulers of towns and cities that remained in Muslim hands arrived – often, it must be said, for reasons of expediency – at an entente cordiale with the Crusaders. They even entered into alliances with them against their fellow-Muslims, and engaged in trade and diplomacy with them. This trade and diplomacy between Muslims and ‘Franks’ continued after October 2, 1187, when Jerusalem fell to Saladin’s forces, and continues to the present day.

Assumptions based on Prejudice

It is claimed – assumed would be more accurate – that the Crusade was an initiative of a scheming pope; that it was aimed at acquiring land for settlement – a sort of crusading imperialism; that the Muslim populations were seeking only peace and good relations with Christianity and Christians; that the Crusade was a largescale plundering expedition; that it was an unprovoked war against Islam. None of these claims stands up to rigorous scrutiny.

At the root of many of these assumptions is the Reformers’ dismissal of pilgrimages as ‘superstitious’ and ‘of no benefit to faith,’ and an inability on the part of many moderns to comprehend how mediaevals could really care about ‘holy places,’ as well as a cynical tendency to see the Crusaders as opportunistic and heartless carpetbaggers and con-men intent merely on profiting from war.

Edward Gibbon – whom Hilaire Belloc justly described as ‘ignorant of the religious temper he attempted to judge’[5] – called the Crusade The World’s Debate. He would have done better to call it The World’s Bane, for blind prejudice against the multi-faceted human endeavour we call the Crusade threatens to break down the West’s already fragile social immune system, and render it vulnerable to attack from those with a vested interest in undermining its institutions.

A War of aggression against Islam?

I have already looked at the claim by, among others, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, that the Crusade was unprovoked and that it destroyed 500 years of peace and tolerance between Muslims and Christians. [6]

Here I should like to challenge the assumption that the Crusade was a war of aggression against Islam. It was not. It was a war of survival, whose principal goal was the freeing of the Christian Holy Places – in particular the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem – and the guaranteeing of a safe passage for pilgrims to Jerusalem.

Over the preceding 463 years since the death of Muhammad, Islamic warriors had overrun Syria, North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and much of Spain. They harried the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. They infested the Adriatic. They had succeeded in dismembering the old Eastern Roman Empire, conquering Persia, and pushing their armies and spreading their religion as far as India and the Central Asiatic steppes.

The Mongols/Turks

Just when it seemed that Islam had exhausted itself, when the Moors in Spain were in retreat, when the Georgian Christians were dominating the Transcaucasus from the Caspian to the Black Sea, when Sardinia and Sicily had been recaptured from the Muslims, and when the pagan Danish pirates – the Normans – the most feared of all Christendom’s foes, had become Catholic, and when to the east the Huns on the Dacian Plain whose kingdom was to be called Hungary had done likewise – a new enemy appeared: the Mongol hordes known as Turks.

These cousins of the Huns had been employed as bodyguards by the Abbasid Caliphs of Baghdad. Islam harnessed their militaristic and barbaric customs and they ended by usurping the Arab religious and political power and posing a new and potentially devastating threat to the survival of Christendom [and Arab dominance of Islam] not just in the East, but also in the West.

The Crusaders

Four principal Christian feudal noblemen responded to the call of Pope Urban II at the Council of Craremont in France in late 1095 to liberate the Holy Places: Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine; Raymond IV, Count of Toulouse and Marquis of Provence; Duke Robert of Normandy, son of William the Conqueror; and Behemond brother of the king of Sicily, and Tancred, Behemond’s nephew.

It was over a year from the summoning of the Crusade before these four – with their mounted knights, infantry and numerous followers – camped before Constantinople. They arrived in dribs and drabs from the middle of December 1096.

They did not commence their march towards the Holy Places until late spring 1097 because the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus spent months pressuring the western Lords to swear allegiance to him before he would ferry their 300,000 fighting men across to the Asiatic side. He had his own agenda [the retaking of Antioch] and did what he could to deflect them from their original purpose.

There is no evidence to support the view that the purpose of the Crusade was to enable Western Christians to conquer and settle up and down the coast of the eastern Mediterranean On the contrary, all indications are that the Pope and the feudal Lords expected the Crusader armies to be joined at Constantinople by a larger force commanded by the Byzantine Emperor himself, and that their joint forces would liberate the Holy Places and restore Byzantine sovereignty over territories seized from Constantinople earlier by the Arabs and the Turks. But they did not bargain on Byzantine arrogance and duplicity. Only when it became clear that the Emperor was not interested in joining or even helping them liberate Jerusalem – he wanted Antioch back – did they decide to go on alone, with all the risks that this entailed.

The Crusade was not a war against Islam

It is not our purpose here to follow the saga of the Crusaders in detail. Subsequent articles will examine a number of other controverted issues raised in connection with the Crusades, including the sack of Jerusalem, and the sack of Constantinople. Our aim here is to show why it is misleading to call the Crusade a war of aggression against Islam.

1. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam there is a strong probability that they would have succeeded. The Crusade failed, despite its impressive initial success over the period 1096-1099, precisely because the Crusaders were not primarily interested in fighting Islam.

The Crusaders fought [when necessary] to open up a safe pilgrimage route, and to repossess the Holy Places, swept away in the first heady days of Islamic jihadism after the death of Muhammad in 632.

I say ‘when necessary,’ because cities controlled by Muslims – most of which had majority Christian populations – were not attacked or occupied when they did not offer resistance. The Turkish Emir of Aleppo made no attempt to stop the crusading armies when they passed by Aleppo and so they continued on to the Orontes and Antioch – the preferred goal of the Byzantine emperor Alexius. This was a mistake.

2. Had the Crusaders really sought to destroy Islam they would have occupied Aleppo and cut Antioch off from Damascus and, thereby, from trade and military routes to Arabia and to Egypt. Everything between the desert and the Mediterranean would have been closed to Muslim forces. They did not.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that whoever controlled Aleppo held the gateway between the desert, Constantinople and the West and the sea coast of Palestine. As it was, Aleppo remained in Muslim control and as Hama, Homs and Damascus were also Muslim enclaves, this meant that Muslim armies – whether Turks from the north, Arabs from the east or North Africans from the south – were able to harass the isolated Crusader settlements by the coast, at will.

3. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would have occupied and garrisoned the whole of Cilicia – not just Antioch – and cut the Turks off from the principal land routes to Egypt and Arabia. They did not.

4. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would have captured Damascus and controlled the whole of Syria, the route to Jerusalem, and all the land routes that connected Arabia to Egypt and the West. They did not.

5. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would not have set up individual fiefdoms along the way, draining much-needed military resources to garrison them and leaving the liberation of Jerusalem to around 4% of the initial force of 300,000 men – an estimated 12,000 armed men of whom only 1,200 were mounted knights.

6. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam the majority would not have withdrawn after Jerusalem fell to them on July 15, 1099, and returned to their estates in France, Italy and Sicily. One year after the liberation of Jerusalem, there were only 300 western knights and the same number of foot soldiers in those parts of southern Palestine controlled by the Crusaders. The rest, apart from the few who were in Crusader garrisons in Syria or northern Iraq, had returned home.[7]

7. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would have ensured that the knights who remained in Jerusalem, Acre, Tripoli, Antioch, Edessa, Karak [Syriac for ‘fortress’] in Moab southeast of the Dead Sea and the numerous other Crusader citadels that stretched as far as ‘Aqaba on the Red Sea, were adequately reinforced and supplied with weapons and fresh horses. They did not.

8. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam after Jerusalem fell to them in 1099 they would have adopted a less defensive and securityconscious posture, and conquered the neighbouring countries, cities and towns dominated by Muslim rulers, instead of entering into treaties with them as they did, e.g. with the Fatamid Caliphs, and later the Mamluk Sultans, of Egypt, the Emir of Hazart [known as ‘Azar today, between Antioch and Edessa] and even with the Emirs of Damascus.

In 1104 and 1151 the Emirs of Basra allied themselves with the Crusaders against Damascus. In 1147 the Muslim commander of Hauran [the main eastwest road linking the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee with the Mediterranean] asked the Crusaders for help against Damascus.

In Hilaire Belloc’s judgment, with which I concur, had the Crusaders permanently occupied Damascus and Syria from the Mediterranean to the desert, along its whole length, they could have cut Islam in two.[8]

Because they held only the western coastal fringe – Gaza, Askalon, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Acre, Haifa, Beirut, Tripoli – they left the northern, eastern and southern sides to the Muslims, who were able to move about freely and relatively unharried by the Christian forces. Apart, that is, from the main highway of Transjordan that led to Arabia, and branched off at Ma‘an about 220 kms south of modern-day Amman in Jordan, to ‘Aqaba, and then to Sinai and Egypt. This was controlled by the Crusaders, but defensively.

9. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would have stopped all Muslim passage along this desert road to the Red Sea or Hijjaz [Arabia]. Instead – though eight of their castles and fortresses dominated the route from as-Salt to ‘Aqaba – they actually supplied military convoys [for a price] to Muslim caravans travelling to and from Mecca and claimed tolls and customs fees on the goods and persons they carried.[9]

10. Had the Crusaders sought to destroy Islam they would have almost certainly succeeded – based on earlier successes of the heavily armoured knights mounted on sturdy and well-armoured horses [provided the horses were not brought down by archers – leaving the iron-clad knight helpless on the ground] against vastly superior numbers of lightly armoured Muslim warriors mounted on fast moving ponies.

But they did not. The Crusaders, who were focused on the principal goal of liberating Jerusalem and the other Holy Places, were left with insufficient men to defend and to maintain what were virtually Christian islands in a Muslim sea.

It is ironical in the light of subsequent history that the Crusaders should be accused by their enemies – Muslim and even some Christians – of setting out expressly to destroy Islam. Had they set out with that intention, and had they received promised support from the Byzantines – which, with one or two notable exceptions, was mischievously denied them – all indications are that they would probably have succeeded.

Had they set out with that intention, and succeeded, they would not have suffered the massacre at the Horns of Hattin on Friday April 3, 1187; all the Christian citadels would not have been thereby deprived of their garrisons and would not subsequently have fallen virtually defenceless to the Muslim forces; the fragment of the true Cross of our Saviour would not have been ignominiously dragged behind a horse in Damascus by Saladin the Kurd; and Jerusalem would not have fallen for the second time to Islam in October 1187; and Pope Urban III would not have died[10] – as some chroniclers tell us he died – from grief at the news.

Had they really set out with that intention and succeeded, then world history and especially the history of Europe, the Byzantine Empire, the Middle East and the Arabian peninsular – in the aftermath of the liberation of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099 – would have been radically different.

This was not to be. The melancholy history which unfolded after the massacre of the Crusaders by Saladin at the Horns of Hattin set the stage for the modern-day confrontation between a now oil-rich and newly militaristic Islam and a secularized West.

The latter is floundering as it tries to deal with an archaic, tribalized political system that is forbidden by its religion to integrate into non-Islamic societies, and is committed to world domination, at the point of the sword if necessary.

Instead of searching for corruption and unworthy motives to explain the calling of the Crusade, and seizing on the flawed character of some of the Crusaders and their strategic mistakes to explain the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in October 1187, the world should be amazed that Jerusalem remained free of Muslim domination for as long as it did.

That so weak and tiny a Latin Kingdom, with minuscule defences and relatively few defenders, could survive and even flourish for eighty-eight years, surrounded on all sides by fierce enemies in an inhospitable and unfamiliar climate, is surely cause for wonder. The modern Jewish State of Israel which occupies much of the same territory and shares many of the dilemmas that faced the Crusaders has been in existence for only 60 years.

As I write there are valuable lessons to be learned from the way the mediaeval Crusade played out; from its remarkable successes and its tragic failures. What is needed is an open mind that can see through the mirrors, smoke and pulleys that distort so much historical writing, to what really happened, and what might or should have been done differently.


[1] '... the Muslim world would never forget or forgive the Crusaders' behavior.' From an online course by E. L. Skip Knox, from Boise State University, referring to the sack of Jerusalem.
[2] See Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1982, p. 22.
[3] Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
[4] See Al-Kamil fi ‘l Ta’rikh, quoted Bernard Lewis op. cit., p. 23.
[5] See Hilaire Belloc, The Crusade, Cassel and Company Ltd, London etc, 1937, p. 3. Belloc’s much under-rated frank analysis of the significance of the Crusade and the reasons for its ultimate failure reveal a grasp of the social, political and religious factors prevailing at the time that is too often missing from much subsequent writing on the subject. In this, as in much else that he wrote, Belloc’s judgments have the ring of truth about them. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in seeing beyond prejudices and appearances.
[6]‘The Crusade in Context’, Annals 2007/6, pp. 3-8.
[7] ‘Most Crusaders left as soon as they could’. Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 19.
[8] ibid. passim.
[9] See Joshua Prawer, Crusader Institutions, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, p. 477.
[10] But see Horace K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Middle Ages, London, Kegan Paul, 1914, vol. x, 1159-1198, p. 297.

Articles by Dr. Paul Stenhouse
Answering Islam Home Page