The inner struggle

Simon Bates suggests that Muslims, in following Christian historians, have misunderstood the character of the crusases

Moderate Muslims are fond of arguing that their extremist brethren have misunderstood jihad. ‘I think they are confusing jihad (inner struggle) with qital (war/fighting),’ writes Ubaid Khalid, a young architect, in Why Terror, is there no Alternative? (reviewed in ND September). He may have a point, but mine is that they have got the crusades wrong.

In 1998, Osama published a Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and the Crusaders, and in all his propaganda he refers to the Coalition forces as ‘crusaders.’ Osama’s brand of Islam is Wahhabism, a revivalist movement founded in 1744, which became allied with the military power of the House of Saud as it conquered the Arabian peninsula during the nineteenth century. Accompanying its expansion was a campaign of assassination against ‘apostates’ – whether Sunni, Shi’ite or Sufi – who did not meet their standards of religious purity.

Wahhabist ideologues were also hostile to the growing Western presence in traditionally Muslim lands. Muslim rule was collapsing wherever they looked: in the Balkans (to Slavic nationalist movements), in the Caucasus and central Asia (to Russia), and in the Arab lands of the Middle East (to Britain and France).

This was also the period in which histories of the crusades were being written. French professors made a particular contribution to this historiography. They were responsible for the numbering of the expeditions to the Holy Land familiar to us today, and also for concentrating attention on it, to the exclusion of other areas where Christian armies were active against Muslims (in Spain) but also pagans (the Baltic).

Modern historians have not been slow to criticize them for this narrowness of focus. But the reason they were not so interested in crusading in Europe is not hard to find. French colonial activity was not there but in North Africa and the Middle East. The crusades were important because they anticipated and in some measure justified these colonial ventures. There was, for example, an attempt to demonstrate that those few crusaders who chose to settle in the Holy Land constituted a ‘Franco-Syrian nation.’

Wahhabists and some other Muslims were not slow to get the message: the crusades were but the first stage of Western imperialist expansion; Europeans were just completing the work which their medieval ancestors had begun. Yet until the nineteenth century, Muslims looked back on the crusades with indifference. After all, they had won.

The crusade settlements in the Levant had been dismantled and the Ottoman Empire stretched as far as Hungary. Thus there was no Muslim history of crusading until 1899. It was a derivative work when it appeared, based on the predominantly French academic literature. It also celebrated ‘our most glorious sultan Abdulhamid II’ who had pronounced ‘that Europe is now carrying out a crusade against us in the form of a political campaign.’

Jonathan Riley-Smith, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, has sought to restore religion to crusading history. That might seem a strange comment, but broadly speaking, twentieth century historians (again mainly French) replaced the old political explanations of crusading with economic and demographic ones. Religion was relegated to a secondary factor as historians debated the effect, for example, of different systems of land holding on crusader motivation. Thanks to Riley-Smith, it is now possible to see crusading as above all a spiritual movement.

What he describes as ‘the defining feature of crusading thought’ was penance. The crusaders were undertaking a penitential pilgrimage. Many of the earliest crusaders were old men who hoped to die in Jerusalem having completed the journey ‘for the remission of sins.’ That is why, as Riley-Smith puts it, ‘after the often revolting violence, the most characteristic feature of any crusade was how liturgical it was.’

Sadly Muslims seem to have little idea about the ‘inner struggle’ of crusading, but we can only blame ourselves for that.

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