February 24, 2006


The Real History of the Crusades: A series of holy wars against Islam led by power-mad popes and fought by religious fanatics? Think again. (Thomas F. Madden, 05/06/2005, Christianity Today)

They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense. [...]

Urban II gave the Crusaders two goals, both of which would remain central to the eastern Crusades for centuries. The first was to rescue the Christians of the East. As his successor, Pope Innocent III, later wrote:

How does a man love according to divine precept his neighbor as himself when, knowing that his Christian brothers in faith and in name are held by the perfidious Muslims in strict confinement and weighed down by the yoke of heaviest servitude, he does not devote himself to the task of freeing them? … Is it by chance that you do not know that many thousands of Christians are bound in slavery and imprisoned by the Muslims, tortured with innumerable torments?

"Crusading," Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith has rightly argued, was understood as an "an act of love"—in this case, the love of one's neighbor. The Crusade was seen as an errand of mercy to right a terrible wrong. As Pope Innocent III wrote to the Knights Templar, "You carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, 'Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.'"

The second goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the other places made holy by the life of Christ. The word crusade is modern. Medieval Crusaders saw themselves as pilgrims, performing acts of righteousness on their way to the Holy Sepulcher. The Crusade indulgence they received was canonically related to the pilgrimage indulgence. This goal was frequently described in feudal terms. When calling the Fifth Crusade in 1215, Innocent III wrote:

Consider most dear sons, consider carefully that if any temporal king was thrown out of his domain and perhaps captured, would he not, when he was restored to his pristine liberty and the time had come for dispensing justice look on his vassals as unfaithful and traitors … unless they had committed not only their property but also their persons to the task of freeing him? … And similarly will not Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, whose servant you cannot deny being, who joined your soul to your body, who redeemed you with the Precious Blood … condemn you for the vice of ingratitude and the crime of infidelity if you neglect to help Him?

The re-conquest of Jerusalem, therefore, was not colonialism but an act of restoration and an open declaration of one's love of God.

Defenders of the Crusades oughtn't be bashful about their being offensive.

Kingdom of Heaven: What Parts Are Real? (Timothy R. Furnish, History News Network)

My expectations upon entering the theater for Kingdom of Heaven were legion. As a movie buff, I had high hopes for another Ridley Scott film. As a historian of the Islamic world, I couldn’t wait to see the portrayal of the great Salah al-Din. As a history professor who likes to send his students to write papers on such historical movies, the chariot wreck that Oliver Stone had managed to make out of Alexander was still fresh in my mind. And as a Christian (albeit of the non-Catholic variety), I fully expected yet another two-dimensional bashing of my medieval co-religionists (may my Lutheran credentials not be revoked for saying that).

Well, Scott made a better movie than Stone, but in doing so sacrificed a great deal of historical accuracy and believability on the altar of wishful thinking. [...]

[T]o paraphrase Diry Harry from Sudden Impact: “no, it’s not the wrong geography or the fictional characters or the plot foibles that get to me….what really, really makes me sick is that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, in the 12th century was giving speechs about religious tolerance.” Which is what Balian does when Salah al-Din shows up “with 200,000 men” (actually it was maybe 40,000, but who’s counting?). Of course, he was one of the few knights left after the crushing of the Kingdom’s army by Salah al-Din at Hattin in 1187, which in turn had been prompted by the brutality of Reynauld de Chatillion—a bit that Scott got right—and the military hubris of the Templars and their leader Guy de Lusignan (ostensibly King, by virtue of being married to Sibylla). Salah al-Din, the great Kurdish Sunni leader, had taken over both Egypt and Syria and so his realm surrounded that of the Crusaders. For many years he tolerated their existence, however (perhaps not least because he had his own inter-Muslim problems, such as the attempts by the “Assassins”—who were radical Shi`ites—to kill him). But when Reynauld attacked a caravan and killed his sister, Salah al-Din moved. After wiping out the Kingdom of Jerusalem’s forces at Hattin, Salah al-Din besieged the city. Balian, both in reality and the movie, led the heroic defense until finally surrendering the city to the Muslim forces. But does anyone really believe that Balian rallied the Christians by giving a 21st-century-style exhortation about the equal religious value of the Dome of the Rock, Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple of Solomon? He also sermonized that it was the people, not the holy sites, that really mattered. If that were the case, tens of thousands of western European Catholics would never have traveled thousands of miles to take Jerusalem in the first place. As much as Ridley Scott—or we—would like Muslims and Christians (and Jews) in the Holy Land to “just get along” today, what purpose does it serve to retroject this kinder and gentler monotheism 800 years into the past and pretend it motivated folks then?

That said, there are some very good aspects to this movie: the depictions of how “orientalized” the Crusaders had become; the battles (which I think compare favorably to The Lord of the Rings, especially in that they look more real); the return of Alexander Siddig (Dr. Bashir of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Nasir, one of the Muslim commanders; and perhaps most impressive, Salah al-Din’s portrayal by Ghassan Massoud. Would that a Muslim leader of his stature were around today, instead of epigones like Bin Ladin and al-Zarqawi. Kingdom of Heaven seems to be saying that the clash of civlizations between the West and Islam will only begin to end when a new Balian and a new Salah al-Din emerge. But it is the Islamic world, not Western Christendom, that riots at perceived (now indeed known to be false) slights to its holy book today. One might observe that the Muslim world is much more in need of a Salah al-Din than the West is of a Balian.

The Crusades: Understanding and Transcending "Civilization Conflict" (Justin Cave, February 4, 2005, Global Engage)
The Crusades of the medieval period serve as a difficult topic for the typical American Christian, who grows either disinterested or suspicious rather quickly if asked to dwell on the complexities of church history, not to mention the broader context of religious and political history. To many, church history seems a dusty and pointless preoccupation of up-tight, "institutional" faith. This attitude is perhaps especially prevalent among American evangelical Christians, whose emphasis on redemption, transformation, and reform tends to make them doggedly future-oriented.

Thus, when the Crusades arise in conversation or argument, the usual reaction is an earnest if vague sense of guilt, accompanied by blanket apologies that make little reference to what was happening in those battles nine centuries ago. The Crusades are often simplistically confessed as a black mark on the Church's otherwise "spotless" record. Meanwhile, irresponsible propagandists and agitators in the Islamic radical movement use twisted histories of the Crusades to maintain their simplistic worldview of Muslims as righteous victims and Westerners as infidel aggressors.

Scholars of Western civilization and its conflicts with Islamic civilization know that the historical and contemporary reality is more complicated. This is why un-nuanced Christian expressions of contrition for the sins of the Crusades, while well-intentioned, can be counterproductive to genuine reconciliation with the Islamic world if they are not informed by historical facts and guided by a commitment to real truth-telling. As John Riley Smith has argued in the journal First Things,2 accepting blame humbly when one is at fault is always proper. However, to apologize for the nearly millennium-old actions of Martel, Richard, and Constantine XI, without insisting first on a proper historical understanding on all sides, merely perpetuates the abuse of history for rhetorical purposes.

Any thorough understanding of the Crusades must put them in "civilizational" context, and at this level of analysis it is apparent that some aspects of the Crusades were clearly geopolitically defensive in nature. This was not a world of clearly defined states observing tidy rules of sovereignty. There were empires and civilizations clashing, with enormous cultural/economic/religious/political stakes. And Islamic powers were often aggressors too; Christian powers hardly monopolized that role. The Crusades functioned historically to help defend the foundations of Western society, which were at various times under threat.

What the Crusades Were Really Like: Thomas Madden Dispels Myths (Zenit.org, , OCT. 10, 2004)
A Vatican Apology for the Crusades? (Robert Spencer, March 22, 2005, FrontPageMagazine.com)
The circumstances of the first Crusade were these: Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were being molested by Muslims and prevented from reaching the holy places. Some were killed. This was finally the impetus that moved Western Christianity to try to take back just one small portion of the Christian lands that had fallen to the Muslim sword over the last centuries. “The Crusade,” noted historian Bernard Lewis, “was a delayed response to the jihad, the holy war for Islam, and its purpose was to recover by war what had been lost by war — to free the holy places of Christendom and open them once again, without impediment, to Christian pilgrimage.”

Whatever undeniable sins Christians committed during their course, the Crusades were essentially a defensive action: a belated and insufficient attempt by Western Christians to turn back the tide of Islam that had engulfed the Eastern Church. “When accusing the West of imperialism,” says the historian of jihad Paul Fregosi, “Muslims are obsessed with the Christian Crusades but have forgotten their own, much grander Jihad.” The lands in dispute during each Crusade were the ancient lands of Christendom, where Christians had flourished for centuries before Muhammad’s armies called them idolaters and enslaved and killed them. If Westerners had no right to invade these putative Muslim lands, then Muslims had no right to take them in the first place.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2006 11:04 PM

"... of the ivory tower ... " Shouldn't that be ivy tower?

Posted by: erp at February 25, 2006 2:37 PM

One of the 'difficulties' with the whole cartoon issue is that the language is foreign at every turn.

The West doesn't care to remember the Crusades, indeed the very word is like a spasm of reflux burning on the insides.

For the Muslims, the word is surely also negative, but it unites the screamers, now doesn't it?

But, 900 years ago, neither side doubted their rightness. Today, the West is unsure, and probably 80% of the Islamic world wants to live as the West does. Who will lead? And who will prevail?

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 26, 2006 10:27 PM


Kids just don't read the right books anymore:


Posted by: oj at February 26, 2006 11:59 PM