One of History's Hobgoblins: Revisiting the Crusades

By Unknown - Vavřinec z Březové - Husitská kronika; Píseň o vítězství u Domažlic (nakladatelství Svoboda, 1979), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17316646

By Unknown - Vavřinec z Březové - Husitská kronika; Píseň o vítězství u Domažlic (nakladatelství Svoboda, 1979), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17316646

© 2016 Robert Osburn

History matters, said Os Guinness (and, before him, George Orwell). Because American blacks endured slavery (until 1863) and then Jim Crow (1875 until 1965), you have a strong case for rectifying those great injustices.  If Christians were blockheads who blockaded Galileo’s pursuit of modern science, then you would have to wonder whether Christians have anything useful to say about science in the future.  Or, if Jesus never rose from the dead, then surely it is nonsense to talk about Him coming back a second time.

You get the idea.

So, when historians, and journalists (some of whom apparently have axes to grind), claim that Christian crusaders in the 11th through 13th centuries were violent thugs bent on stealing the wealth of peaceful, tolerant Muslims (like the 12th century Egyptian sultan Saladin of yore), then they are helping to shape a storyline that somehow justifies, or at least explains, Muslim rage over injustices at the hands of Jesus’ followers. 

You also guessed rightly: The storyline, or narrative, of Islamic tolerance is largely false, as is much of the narrative concerning Christians and the Crusades.  Boiled down to its essence, the idea that early medieval Christians were hopeless knaves and that Muslims were a scientifically advanced civilization known for its tolerance is a fabrication.  The fabricators were 18th century founders of the European Enlightenment who had an agenda: Prove that Christianity was the greatest obstacle to human advancement and knowledge, and that unbridled reason, in its place, was the true hope of humankind.  Constructing a shaky story of Christian bigotry and Islamic tolerance was a convenient tool to advance their program of rationalism.

Three volumes clear up these historical hobgoblins about medieval Islam, Christianity, and the Crusades: Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016), Rodney Stark’s God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (2010), and Jonathan Riley-Smith’s The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (2011).  Of the three, Fernandez-Morera’s work is at the head of the pack for its clarity and assembled evidence.  Unfortunately, Stark, a prolific sociology professor at Baylor University who is not shy about advocating (often very helpfully and accurately) a more positive sociological and historical interpretation of Christian faith, sometimes sounds a bit like he is glorying in Christian-fostered bloodshed.  Riley-Smith is the consummate scholar who anchors himself as a clear-sighted historian unafraid to craft a narrative that challenges ones previously received by historians.

What, in fact, are some of the historical claims about the Crusades and the early medieval period vis-à-vis Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and what alternatives do these three writers offer?

1.     Claim: Islamic rule over the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) from roughly AD 711 to 1129 (with a small Islamic holdout in Granada until 1491) was peaceful and tolerant, and afforded great liberties to Jews and Christians living under their rule.

Truth: Muslims gave three choices to the Christians of the Iberian peninsula (which they called “al Andalusia”): convert to Islam, die, or accept permanent second-class status as dhimmis.  Dhimmitude, which involved the payment of special taxes and unjust treatment in commerce, politics and every sphere of life, was an extraordinarily humiliating and bloody reality for Jews and Christians who would have had no reason to conclude their treatment at the hands of Muslim rulers was fair and just. 

2.     Claim: Christian crusaders were motivated by brazen acts of medieval violence in pursuit of Middle Eastern wealth.

Truth: The majority of those leading the Crusades were from the wealthy homes of knights, most of whom viewed the Crusades as acts of penance in pursuit of salvation. Their theologically troublesome view of salvation notwithstanding, to accuse them of being gold-diggers is the invention of those who view history through the lens of economics.

3.     Claim: For over seven centuries, Muslims have cultivated justified anger over unprovoked Crusades by Christian fanatics who were greedy and rapacious.

Truth: Until the mid to late 19th century, the Crusades were a non-issue among Muslims. It was not until the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1924 that some Muslim intellectuals began a campaign to resurrect the memory of the Crusades, using them to motivate Muslims to recover what they regard as their rightly-deserved caliphate (as, in fact, ISIS is now doing). 

Lest I be accused of creating a false narrative that replaces another, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The Bible brims with stories of failure by great and godly leaders, and so Fernandez-Morera, Stark, and Riley-Smith should not be used to suggest that medieval Christians were, in fact, all saints.  No, the era was bloody, and some Christians indulged themselves in bloody pursuits of power in contradiction to the way of the Cross.  And on a few occasions where Christians ruled, Jews welcomed dhimmi status under Muslims, in contrast to Christian demands that they convert, or else.  Stark, in particular, does not hold back on this bloody story, nor should we.  Christians must be relentless in the pursuit of truth, whether the record paints us as bloody brutes or paragons of sainthood.

But to suggest that there ever was a period of Islamic tolerance and pluralism is simply to read history wrongly.  There was no such time, quite in contradiction to the eventual development of largely tolerant and just Christian-led societies.