The Real History of the Crusades, Part 2: Muslim Aggression

In Part 1 of this series the history of Muhammad and the founding of Islam was presented, wherein the contrasting example and teachings of Muhammad – the Meccan message of solidarity with the outcast, impoverished, and fringes of society, and the violent, intolerant, expansive and aggressive Medinan message – bequeathed something of a schizophrenic worldview that has proven historically problematic. Exacerbating the issue is the lack of a teaching authority within Islam to synthesize these competing messages, as for instance, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church provides for what are colloquially known as the “dark passages” of the Old Testament. Here in Part 2 will be examined the consequences of Islam’s schizophrenia and the role it played in bringing about those series of armed pilgrimages known as the Crusades.

To state Islam is short a teaching authority akin to the Catholic Magisterium is somewhat misleading. Islam can be compared to Protestantism: Protestantism does not possess a teaching authority, yet to be Protestant, regardless of the denomination, carries a particular set of theological and doctrinal suppositions. Consider, all Protestants accept sola Scriptura and reject that Tradition (which means Man’s ability to reason) is an equally valid source of authority. In a perverse sense, this is a type of “teaching authority,” although a Protestant would most fervently argue otherwise. Similarly, Islam is historically tribal if not denominational, and carries certain theological and doctrinal suppositions, of which two are particularly relevant in the history of the Crusades.

Christians consider the Bible to be “inspired”; meaning, what is read in the Bible is not literally God speaking, but rather, The Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Islam, conversely, adheres to what Muhammad preached: that Muhammad merely “retransmitted” Allah’s words as directed via the Archangel Gabriel. In other words, what is read in the Qur’an is not the Holy Spirit working through an individual writer, but literally the words of Allah. Put another way: if Christians read and understood the Bible as Muslims do the Qur’an, the New Testament would have to be read as being authored by God himself and the Gospel writers nothing more than messengers to whom God said, “Record my words!” (Which would then beg the question as to why there are four Gospels. Wouldn’t God get it right the first time?)

The second supposition refers to what has come to be known as the doctrine of abrogation. This means that whenever the Qur’an contradicts itself, Muhammad’s most recent revelation always takes precedent. What does that mean? The more violent Muhammad always takes precedence over the more peaceful Muhammad if there is a contradiction because chronologically the more violent Muhammad (Medina) occurred more recently than the peaceful Muhammad (Mecca).

One important note before proceeding: as with Christians, Jews, or an adherent of any other religion, what an individual chooses to accept, or not as the case may be, is up to him or her. What is irrefutable as history demonstrates, is in order for a Muslim to behave hypocritically these are the sort of things he or she must elect to ignore.

In tandem, the historical consequences of these two pseudo-teaching authorities meant that

  1. The Qur’an cannot be interpreted, synthesized, or understood in any fashion other than a literal manner. Verses such as “Believers! Wage war upon such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous; and know that God is with those who fear him!” mustbe read literally (if you believed you were actually reading God’s words precisely, would you dare read them any way but literally?).
  2. Because the more violent Qur’an verses coincide with the latter portion of Muhammad’s life those verses always take precedence over ones of peace preached earlier.

As seen in Part 1, Islam spread through military conquest. The trend continued after Muhammad’s death. We need not delve into the succession dispute and political divisions that resulted in the Islamic groups we see today; suffice to say Islam regardless adhered to Muhammad’s example, in observance of the two aforementioned theological and doctrinal suppositions. The net result witnessed an ever-expanding Muslim empire (in succession: Syria, modern day Iraq and Iran, the Holy Land, Egypt, North Africa, Spain) increasingly imperiling the Christian world, both the Byzantine East and Latin West.

The immediate cause of the Crusades rests with the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus beseeching Latin aid against the Turkish onslaught at his gates. However, this moment was simply the latest in a long series of Muslim antagonisms toward Christianity and the Christian world. In the decades preceding Comnenus’ plea in 1095, Christians were making pilgrimages to the Holy Land in earnest. This is but a sampling of what awaited them (keep in mind the Holy Land was under Muslim control):

–       Gerald of Thouars, the abbot of Saint-Florent-lès-Saumur, was imprisoned and executed upon his pilgrimage (1022).

–       Richard of Saint-Vanne was stoned to death for reciting Mass (1026).

–       Ulrich of Breisgau was stoned to death by a mob near the Jordan River (1040).

–       Bishop Gunther of Bamberg and his retinue of pilgrims were ambushed near Caesarea; two-thirds were killed (1064).

The West wasn’t exempt from such hostilities though – Muslim armies were happy to invade Europe. Charles “The Hammer” Martel famously defended the continent in 732 at the Battle of Poitiers (or Tours, depending on the historian), containing the Muslim threat within the Iberian Peninsula until the Reconquista eventually repelled it back over the Strait of Gibraltar. While Martel’s victory ensured you and I aren’t required to learn the Qur’an today, Southern Europe was not fortunate to have such an indomitable skullcracker as The Hammer. Muslim armies would later successfully invade Rome from their conquered territory of Sicily (including Palermo in 831, Syracuse in 878, and Taormina in 902). On the mainland, Muslim armies took Taranto and Bari (841), sacked Capua, and occupied Benevento soon thereafter. Rome was pillaged in 843 and again in 846, forcing the pope to pay a massive tribute. For more than two centuries Sicily and southern Italy would be under Muslim control.

Fortunately for the majority of the West, it never had to contend with daily life under Muslim rule. The myth of Muslim tolerance is just that: myth. As dryly noted by one scholar, “It is true that the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. However, that recedes to an empty legalism given that many subject peoples were ‘free to choose’ conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement.” Whether speaking of ISIS and Boko Haram or medieval Muslim overseers, dhimmi status is the norm. As remains so to this day, death awaited anyone who converted to Judaism or Christianity. Existing Jews and Christians were prohibited from praying or reading scriptures out loud, including in their homes, synagogues, or churches, lest Muslims overhear them. Further, synagogues and churches could not be built. Dhimmis were usually taxed excessively and also conscripted into Muslim armies and other positions of service.

Unfortunately, dhimmi status also included much more. The Fatimite khalif al-Hākim bi-Amr Allāh, who ruled Egypt and Syria, is known to have ordered:

–       The abolishing of Palm Sunday (1008).

–       The punishing of Christian secretaries, hanging them by their hands and confiscating all their possessions (1009).

–       The destruction of a church in Damascus dedicated to the Virgin Mary (1009).

–       The destruction of another church dedicated to Mary, this time in Cairo, including the desecration of graves in the accompanying cemetery and allowing dogs to eat the flesh of recently buried bodies while the remaining bones of older corpses were dispersed and separated (1009).

–       The destruction of a Coptic Christian church dedicated to Saint Cosma (1009).

–       The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (1009), considered the worst offense by Europe.

What should be emerging at this juncture is the very real threat that Islam presented to Christianity and the Christian world. This threat was more than a petty political squabble; it was a true clash of worldviews in which one side (Islam) had systematically expanded for centuries through military conquest, subjugating the people of those territories, and making life miserable for them unless they converted. Although there were other factors in Europe, unrelated to Islam, that made Alexius Comnenus’ call for support a felicitous moment to act, it was the Medinan message of Muhammad that proved to be the reason for Christianity to say, “No more!” In Part 3 Europe’s motives will be explored further at the macro and micro levels as well as exactly what Pope Urban II called for at the Council of Clermont.

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.