What if the Crusades’ history was told from an Arab perspective? In fact, in 2016 al-Jazeera TV did just that. It released a four-episode documentary on the Crusades, and the trailer introduced the subject in the following words:
“In the history of conflict between East and West. The mightiest battle between Christianity and Islam; a holy war in the name of religion. For the first time, the story of the Crusades from an Arab perspective.”
It is clear that the producers of the al-Jazeera documentary wanted their viewers to understand the Crusades as one out of many episodes in the continuous clash between two civilizations: East/Islam and West/Christianity.
All three documentaries share the same plot about the clash of civilizations fuelled by the religious ideologies of holy war and jihad. The only difference is that the al-Jazeera documentary alleges to tell the story of the Crusades “for the first time” from an Arab perspective, which actually means that it is the turn of the Muslim Arabs to tell, not a different story, but rather the same story of the clash of civilisations.
Crusaders as Christian barbarians
Actually, this is not the first time Muslims have told their story of the Crusades, and the story has changed over time. In the Muslim public imagination of today, the crusaders are remembered as medieval Christian barbarians who assaulted the Muslim world and slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people before the Muslims could mount an effective jihad campaign to drive them away. They are also seen as medieval ancestors of modern Western colonialists and imperialists.
What is left out of the modern narrative – conceptualized as such by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as, for example, in Joseph-François Michaud’s Histoire des Croisades (the first volume was published in 1812) – is that the crusaders were not as fanatic as modern scholars allege, and they had good relations with the Muslims.
For example, while travelling through northern Palestine in late summer of 1184, the medieval scholar Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) described countless farming villages inhabited by Muslims who seemed to him to live in complete harmony with the Crusaders.
What irritated him the most was not only that the Crusaders were not harming them, he actually bemoaned the fact that those Muslims did not seem to be bothered by their mingling with what he described as “Christian pigs and filth”.
An ignored reality of alliances
Indeed, medieval Muslim sources tell a different story about the Crusades. No doubt they speak of countless battles, but they also describe innumerable political and military alliances, systematic sharing of sacred spaces, commercial dealings, exchange of science and ideas, etc., between Muslims and crusaders. Muslim chronicler and historian Ibn Wasil (d. 1298) spent two years in southern Italy on a diplomatic mission in early 1260s, during which he authored a book on logic, which he dedicated to emperor Manfred of Hohenstaufen.
Manfred’s father, emperor Frederick II, used to regularly write to Muslim scientists asking for scientific information, and when he led the Sixth Crusade in 1228-1229, he negotiate a peace with Sultan al-Kamil that allowed the Muslims and Crusaders to share Jerusalem. The Christians had full control of their religious places while the Muslims maintained control over their sacred places in the city and the surrounding villages.
This complex reality is generally ignored, and if modern scholars acknowledge some of it, they do so only to emphasize its abnormality. The focus on violence has dominated modern interest in the Crusades (the area most researched by scholars is crusader military orders and Holy war/Jihad).
In other words, modern scholars (and the media), inadvertently for the most part, have put at the disposal of modern hate groups and terrorists a very suitable narrative that these groups have effectively employed to anchor and spread the discourse about an inevitable clash of civilizations. The result is Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in the West, as well as “Westophobia” (hate of the West) and paranoia in the Muslim world.
Inspiring modern jihadists
Conceiving themselves adherents and protectors of “true” Islam, modern jihadists are inspired by a selective reading of Islamic foundational texts (Qurʾan, Sunna, etc.) and history, and by modern grievances (relating to direct or indirect colonial and hegemonic subjugation of the Muslims).
For them, the crusader period was not different from the current clash between the Muslim world and the Christian West. This theme has been generally adopted by Muslim scholars in the last century. We can see it clearly in Saʿid ʿAshur’s influential book on the history of the Crusades, published in 1963, and in Ahmad Halwani’s 1991 popular book that examines the role of Ibn ʿAsakir of Damascus (d. 1176) in the promotion of jihad against the Crusaders.
Both scholars draw the parallel struggle of the Muslims during the Crusader period and today. Leaders such as Nur al-Din and Saladin, and scholars such as Ibn ʿAsakir and Ibn Taymiyya are revered because they battled and rallied the Muslims to wage jihad against the crusaders and their Muslim cronies.
It is no surprise then that stories of such heroes and writings of activist scholars of the crusader period are very popular in the Muslim world today, especially among militants, as can be seen in the issues of Dabiq, the online magazine of Daesh.
Rethinking our approach as historians
Had we done our job as historians properly, we would not have counted out as anomalies the enormous evidence that speaks of co-existence between crusaders and Muslims. (Had the media done its job properly, it would not have valorised violence.)
The narrative of the Crusades should have been presented as a complicated chapter in medieval history where people fought each other and also tolerated each other. But because scholars tend to examine the past with modern eyes (theories, assumptions, conventions, biases, etc.), they could not see this complex reality of the crusader period.
The Crusades is not the only chapter misrepresented in modern scholarship and imagination. The way we think of Islam is too governed by modern agendas, so much so that every narrative we offer is a mirror of our modern concerns.
We often fail to realize that what is invariable presented as “Islam” is the collective opinion of an affluent class of male elites (mostly Sunnis) whose views did not agree with the way other groups saw and practiced Islam (Shiʿis, Sufis, women, uneducated masses, etc.).
Deciphering complex layers
We also tend to valorise certain groups, thinking that they are best suited to fit a modern garb. For instance, many today praise Sufism (mysticism) for its idea of spiritual jihad that focuses on internal struggle to become a better person. This is not what medieval Sufis, and Muslims generally, understood jihad to mean, namely the act of waging war against Islam’s enemies; some, especially the Sufis, insisted it includes a religious dimension in order for physical jihad to lead to success in this world and the next.
Saladin had in his army a brigade of Sufis who demanded that crusader captivates be turned over to them to slaughter. The Ottoman army employed Sufis, who still today practice their rituals with weapons. The point here is not to say that Sufism is violent, it is to draw attention to the fact that Sufism has also a very complex history and legacy. Saying this does not imply that Muslims cared much about jihad.
Actually, the majority of Muslims historically have refused to contribute to jihad, even when under attack. This is rather clear from the tone of many jihad advocates who blame the Muslims harshly for not fulfilling the duty, such as in the Book of Jihad by al-Sulami (d. 1105).
As historians, we might not be able to free ourselves completely from modern biases. At least we can try to listen more to what history tells us: it is always much more complex than any contemporary conclusions we derive from it.
This article has first appeared in the French Network of Institutes for Advanced Study (RFIEA)‘s publication Fellows n°41 as “Islamic interpretation of past Holy wars”. RFIEA has hosted more than 500 researchers from around the world since 2007. This article was published with the collaboration of Aurélie Louchart.