The Real History of the Crusades, Part 1: Muhammad and the Founding of Islam

Alongside the Galileo affair and “the” inquisition, the Crusades are part of the trinity (pun intended) of oft-cited condemnations of Christianity and its history. And yet, with the Galileo affair and “the” inquisition, the Crusades are one of the most misunderstand occurrences in Christian and Western history. A significant cause of this erroneous comprehension involves ignorance of the historical person of Muhammad and the actual history of Islam’s ascendancy; most individuals, including historians, are unaware (some perhaps deliberately so) of the historical context in which Pope Urban II felt the need to call upon the knights of Europe to make armed pilgrimage to the Holy Land (subsequent articles will address this further: “crusade” is a modern term – no one, even Muslims, knew these pilgrimages as crusades). This article presents the history of Muhammad and Islam, in summary, and lays the groundwork for a significant aspect of the historical context of the council of Clermont in 1095, when Urban II initiated what is known today as the First Crusade.
Pope Emeritus Benedict caught much grief in 2006 when he cited the fourteenth century Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus at a University of Regensburg lecture and asked his audience,
Benedict’s purpose was not defamatory, as many took it, but instead to address the superficial dichotomy between faith and reason. Faith and reason need each other as paths to truth. He proceeded to explain this is an essential component of Christian belief, because the God who revealed himself (i.e., faith) is also the author of the universe and the human capacity to grasp this natural order (i.e., reason). Ergo, God is reasonable and to act contrary to reason is to act contrary to God. It is this uniquely Judeo-Christian logic that presented humanity with “unalienable rights,” limited governments, free markets, science, medicine, technology, and so forth.
The Pope Emeritus then juxtaposed Christianity with Islam by inquiring if Islam has a similar understanding of God. Does Islam have the equivalent of the Divine Logos found in the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word.”)? In short, the answer is no: according to Islam, God (Allah) is not bound by a reason accessible to human beings. And therein is the root cause of what is known as the Crusades.
Muhammad was born around the year 570 in Mecca, which is present-day Saudi Arabia. His father had died prior to his birth and his mother died while he was very young. It would be his grandfather and later an uncle who would raise him.
Once Muhammad had grown into young adulthood, he worked for a rich widow (Khadīja) who was involved in caravan trade goods. Later, when he was 25 years old and she 40, the two would marry. This would be the first of Muhammad’s many wives.
The first forty years or so of Muhammad’s life were typical for someone of his background. This changed in the year 610 when he retreated into the mountains.
Muhammad recounted the angel Gabriel visited him in a cave (today known as “The Mountain of Light” and located in the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia) and tasked him with spreading an allegedly divine message (if Muhammad truly did experience something mystical, the details sound more demonic than heavenly when one examines them). Ostensibly, the message revolved around ensuring humanity knew the one God, Allah. This may seem odd to those living in 2015 looking back at the year 610 and thinking people had six hundred years of Christianity and thousands of years of Judaism by that point and would have no further need of monotheistic agitation; however, Arabia (the Middle East) was a hotspot of paganism in the time of Muhammad, so a mystical message demanding the spread of knowledge of Allah is not as irrelevant as it appears.
Muhammad began preaching in his birthplace of Mecca. It revolved around five core tenents: believe in one God, Allah; implore from Allah forgiveness of sins; pray the prescribed prayer twice a day; refrain from adultery; and abandon the Arabic custom of burying newborn girls alive. He expanded on these tenents by adding what can be called social justice components: care for the widow, the orphan, and the poor through detachment from riches. The fine print to this, though, was that Muhammad was the prophet explicitly chosen by Allah to propagate to humanity the “ultimate revelation,” which had been transmitted to him via the Archangel Gabriel.
Where did Jews and Christians fit in at this point in Islam’s history? Muhammad would often look to them for support, being “people of the book,” but given the aforementioned fine print, Muhammad found little sympathy in the Jewish and Christian communities. (One important note: by definition, “people of the book” can neither be applied to Judaism nor Christianity itself, merely to their adherents. If Muhammad is a prophet explicitly chosen by God to propagate the ultimate revelation, then both Judaism and Christianity are false.) For that matter, Muhammad was generally considered something of a flake by just about all of his contemporaries at this juncture. Eventually, though, he began to annoy the wrong people with his open attacks on polytheism and his teaching of solidarity with the outcast and downtrodden.
As his remarks on polytheism and solidarity became increasingly vitriolic, the hostility against Muhammad grew accordingly and Mecca was no longer a safe place for him to remain. Cognizant of his danger, Muhammad reached an agreement with a rival city, Yathrib, which was the second most important city in Arabia at the time (only Mecca was more powerful). Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Yathrib in 622 (from this point on the city is known as Medina) marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. It is in Medina, where Muhammad is no longer an outcast and fringe member of society, but in fact in control, where his message begins to take on a more violent and historically problematic tone that has shaped the debate surrounding Islam ever since.
After his relocation to Medina, Muhammad began raiding and pillaging to “provide sustenance” for his followers (if one contrasts such actions with that of Saint Paul and the early church, there could be no bigger “night and day” difference). These raids provided Muhammad with incredible wealth (he was “entitled” to a fifth of all booty after all). The raids also provided the secondary benefit of converts, which in turn allowed him to attack stronger and more powerful tribes on the peninsula. The net result was a materially wealthy Muhammad who was also the growing leader of something that had previously been unthinkable: a consolidated Arabia.

With his newfound power, Muhammad directed his gaze toward the group that first rejected him after his flight: the Jews. When Muhammad and his few followers (primarily family members) had fled from Mecca to Medina they initially sought aid from the wealthy Jewish tribes of Medina, who were the richest in the city. Yet as in Mecca, the Jews rejected Muhammad as a prophet. Consequently, they incurred Muhammad’s wrath once he acquired his own wealth and power independently through his raids. The Jewish tribes were expelled from Medina, their properties were confiscated, and finally at the oasis of Khaybar, the Jews were massacred. Muhammad offered this act of genocide as “proof” of the superiority of Islam over Judaism.

With a vast tract of the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad, and the Jews of his chosen city butchered for their rejection, Muslims (as Muhammad and his followers were now known) finally had the means to assault Mecca. In January 630, Muhammad entered the city without bloodshed as the inhabitants were quick to concede the odds were decidedly against them, and the city was his. Once Mecca fell, the rest of the peninsula soon came under the sway of Islam. Unlike Christianity, to be Muslim meant acknowledgement of Muhammad not simply as Allah’s prophet, but also as a secular ruler. Islam, then, as can be seen to this day with examples such as ISIS (among others), is both religion and government and the two cannot be sundered.
Muhammad would eventually die on June 8, 632, while preparing for additional military conquests.
It is this contrasting message of Muhammad, the Meccan example of solidarity and the Medinan example of hostility and violence, which Benedict XVI was referencing in his Regensburg Lecture. This is not an Old Testament versus New Testament issue, for Islam lacks a magisterium and, relatedly, a theology (recall that Allah is not accessible by human reason; to suggest otherwise places limits upon Allah’s majesty and power). As Robert Reilly documented in The Closing of the Muslim Mind, any attempts to reconcile such divergent teachings of Muhammad and rectify the absence of magisterium and theology have been short-circuited from within Islam. This problem is the broader historical context for the Crusades and will be explored in Part 2 of the series.
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