The Modern Muslim Memory of the Crusades

Above Image: Cover of issue 4 of the Islamic State’s glossy English language propaganda magazine. Many of its issues contain references to the crusades or explicit crusading rhetoric.


In 2015 I had the pleasure of co-editing (w/Alfred J. Andrea) the book Seven Myths of the Crusades (Hackett, 2015). It includes seven essays by prominent crusade historians dealing with various popular modern “myths” related to the medieval crusading movement. While recently preparing for an upcoming talk at Georgia Southern University, titled “The Modern Politics of Medieval Crusading,” I was carefully rereading the various chapters of Seven Myths, and thought it worthwhile to briefly highlight one of them here.

One of the historians who agreed to contribute to our project was the distinguished American medievalist Edward Peters, the former Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania (now Professor Emeritus). Over the course of his career, his work on medieval inquisitions has been highly influential and his translations of crusade texts have been used in college or university classrooms for nearly two decades. Consequently, when Ed agreed to contribute a chapter to Seven Myths, co-authored with his talented former doctoral student Mona Hammad (Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Jordan), Al and I were elated. The combination of the two authors was ideal in light of the topic they considered in their essay, titled “Islam and the Crusades: A Nine Hundred-Year-Long Grievance?”

The subject of their essay is a potentially controversial one, particularly as it argues that much of the Islamic world’s modern memory of the medieval crusades, a memory which frames the crusades as a largely unprovoked Christian attack on the Muslim world, serving as a constant source of division and mistrust today, was only developed in the 19th and 20th centuries during an age of western imperialism that influenced its construction.  Moreover, Ed and Mona’s essay emphasizes that it was essentially the modern imperialist west that taught the modern Muslim world to hate the crusades, as there had been relatively little concern about them expressed in texts by Muslim authors in the centuries prior.

Having a well known and highly respected medievalist like Ed, as well as Mona, who is fluent in Arabic and lives and works in Jordan, seemed like (and proved to be) an ideal pairing for the chapter. Anyone seriously interested in the topic should, of course, consult their work, but here I want to highlight only a few key parts of their otherwise much lengthier and more engaging essay.

In a section (pgs. 133-135) subtitled “Early Islamic Views of the Crusades,” Peters and Hammad highlight how “In the Islamicate itself, …interest in the crusades has been relatively recent….” This is not to suggest that medieval Islamic sources did not highlight the crusades in their histories. They certainly do mention the crusades, as Peters and Hammad point out, but in a way that was quite different from modern views. In medieval histories of the crusades written by Arab authors, the crusades are framed within a larger “triumphalist history” in which the crusaders were inevitably defeated. As Peters and Hammad note, “Muslim observers did not originally…single out the crusaders from the long series of infidel enemies whom they fought from time to time.” Indeed, usually Arab authors lumped the crusaders in with other Christian groups they warred against, such as the Byzantines, with little concern about the crusaders’ origins or unique ethic identities.

I might interject here that Medieval Muslims had, after all, been engaging a lot of “infidels” in their history up to the time of the crusades, so broad histories tend to frame the defeated crusaders as only another opponent to be vanquished while Muslim powers carved out broad empires through military force (the success of which they viewed as a form of divine approval). Christians, in all their stripes (Egyptian Copts, Latin Christians, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Christians, etc…), had long been targets of Islamic conquest prior to the First Crusade. The historic conquests of Christian lands throughout once Christian North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and parts of the Byzantine Empire, amounted to around 2/3rds of the Christian world by the 7th and 8th centuries, with continuing encroachment on Christian or other lands during the 9th through 11th centuries.map_of_expansion_of_caliphate-svg


Indeed, much of once Christian Asia-Minor had fallen to the Turks in the later decades of the 11th century, in large part inspiring the calling of the First Crusade in 1095 (See Paul Crawford’s essay on this topic in Seven Myths). But the conflicts of Christian and Muslims that predated the crusades were not unique. The once powerful Persian Empire, largely Zoroastrian in terms of faith, fell quickly to Muslim attackers in the 650s, and Muslim forces also expanded into the east, all the way to the Hindu Kush, encountering a variety of religious foes that were similarly conquered (in most cases). Thus, when the crusaders were finally defeated for good in the Holy Land by the late 13th century, it is not surprising that Muslim historians, writing large general Islamic histories in the 14th century and after, would frame the crusaders as just another opponent representing a sort of temporary speed bump on the way to triumphantly carving out a broader Abode of Islam (Dar al-Islam).

Concerning this, and returning to Peters and Hammad’s essay, they write, “By the fourteenth century the Islamic world was placed squarely on course for the successive later triumphs of the Mamluks and then the Safavids in Persia and the Ottoman Empire from the fourteenth century to the end of the seventeenth. The crusaders receded into a vast and now largely Ottoman dominated and defined past.” Indeed, the Ottoman Empire during this period became a major threat to eastern and central Europe, as its armies invaded and occupied parts of Europe leading to a number of epic clashes that collectively are known as the “Ottoman Wars” or “Turkish Wars.” The earliest conflicts from this period are represented by Ottoman efforts to conquer the Christian Byzantine Empire, effectively doing so with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. After Byzantium’s fall, Christian eastern Europe became the new frontier for Ottoman conquest, resulting in Turkish expansion into the Balkans, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, in the broader Mediterranean, and even central Europe by the 15th and 16th centuries.

In a sense, the crusades are simply sandwiched between two periods of great expansion into Christian lands by Islamic powers. The first period of expansion begins with the Arab conquests of the early Middle Ages, as described above, and the second period of expansion begins with the Ottomans in Europe after the successful conquest of the Byzantine Empire. The crusades to the Holy Land, and the states they created there, lasted for less than two centuries and serve as a dividing mark between these two longer periods of Islamic expansion. They represent a temporary push back against the long term expansion of the Abode of Islam into the Christian world. For this reason, when some modern Muslims lament the brutal history of the crusaders in the medieval Middle East, in lands they see as Islamic by virtue of their having earlier conquered them from Christians, it represents a very selective historic view of Muslim victimhood by ignoring a greater history of Islamic violence toward (and conquests of) Christians before and after the crusading movement.

Thus it is not surprising that later medieval and early modern Arab authors of broad general histories of Islam would find little that is special to say about the crusaders as historic opponents. If any non-Muslim opponent received special consideration in such histories, it would be the Mongols, who were a far greater destructive force. As Peters and Hammad note, “In any case, the memory of the crusades paled before the disaster of the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth-century and their murder of the last Abbasid caliph. The immense destruction they caused, their sacking of Baghdad in 1258, and their defeat in 1260 by the Turkish Mamluks of Egypt far outshone the crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem….”

How then did the crusades come to represent perhaps the greatest historical example of Christian injustice to Muslims in the Islamic world? After all, from modern Islamist politicians to the so-called “Arab street,” modern Muslims often lament the medieval crusades as perhaps the greatest example of religious bigotry and brutality directed toward them, with no mention of the violent behavior of medieval Muslims toward Christians that helped lead to the calling of the First Crusade in the first place. Such rhetoric has modern political uses, of course, as those who employ it typically do so in the promotion of some sort of agenda related to the modern western world, which is seen as the heir of medieval Christendom. Sometimes this rhetoric has deadly consequences, as seen in the anti-crusade propaganda of modern Islamic terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, for example, often employ the rhetoric of the crusades, framing modern westerners as “crusaders,” in their efforts to rally support for their causes.

The answer to the above question has its roots in the modern era, but dating back to the late 17th century. It was then that a once powerful Muslim world, proud of the strength of its various historic empires (as reflected in their histories), found itself in a period of decline as European powers began to reverse earlier Ottoman military gains in central Europe. The defeat of an 170,000-man Ottoman army in their attack on the city of Vienna in 1683 by united European forces that embraced their Christian identity during the conflict is often seen as a turning point in the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. Yet it was not really until the 19th century that the Ottomans witnessed the humiliating overthrow of their forces in Serbia and Greece, and a gradual withdraw from the region was finalized in the early 20th century. To add further insult to injury, the modern industrialized western world, with its new technologies, not only beat back their Ottoman foes from their positions in Europe, but began their own form of expansion into the modern Muslim lands in the form of the “New Imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was at this point, for a few reasons, that Muslim histories began to frame the medieval crusading movement in different ways than their predecessors.

To begin with, before we get to modern Muslim views of the crusades, it is important to understand that during the 19th century Europeans themselves had started to develop new views of the medieval crusades. The Protestant-Catholic division of Christians had resulted in European Protestant criticism of the medieval Church and, with it, the crusades. The European Enlightenment of the 18th century, which emphasized reason over “superstition” and made bold criticisms of traditional religion in Europe also resulted in criticism of the medieval crusading movement. But during the 19th century nationalist narratives of the past also incorporated romanticized notions of the medieval crusades into their histories, increasingly framing the crusades as not exclusively a religious venture, but a nationalist one as well. European histories and source collections of the crusades were published at an extraordinary rate during the 19th century, just as industrialized European states began to establish themselves as imperial powers in much of the non-western world. In the case of the Middle East, European powers sometimes justified their presence as a means of insuring the rights and protection of Christian minorities in those areas otherwise formally under Muslim control. With the arrival of the Europeans as imperialists in these areas, also came their histories and interpretations of the crusades (see Peters and Hammad pages 136-137 for a more detailed explanation):

European histories written during that time framed, or at least were interpreted as framing, the medieval crusades as a sort of early precedent for the types of colonization that European states embraced in the 19th or 20th century, thus fitting well into nationalist narratives of the time, even equating such efforts with material gain (or greed). Since then, crusade historians writing in the late 20th or early 21st century, in an era dominated by the influential scholarship of the late Cambridge scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith, have rejected such characterizations of the crusades. But what scholars write about the crusades is often quite different from the popular assumptions that have dominated the general public’s view of them. Modern popular narratives tend to frame the crusades as offering a prime example of religious bigotry while modern scholarship has moved so far in the other direction to even label them as an “act of love” by the participants (in the context of western Christians risking their lives for fellow Christians under attack in the east).

As Peters and Hammad argue, “…the extent to which Arab historians have used hostile Western secularist criticism of the crusades suggests that they have a bearing on the contemporary Islamicate’s understanding of its crusade past.” (pg. 138) This view is seemingly confirmed by the fact that no Arabic term for the crusades, as a unique type of warfare, existed until the mid-nineteenth century. It was only in 1865 that Maronite Arab Christians translating French crusade histories first used the term al-hurub al-salibiyyah, meaning “War of the Cross.” As Peters and Hammad note, “From that point, crusades became an object of distinct and separate interpretation in the Arabic speaking world.” (pg. 138)

How, then, did late 19th and 20th century Muslim historians come to view the crusades during this time? To begin with, it was not just European histories translated into Arabic that framed or influenced their understandings of the crusades, but also western diplomacy. Most notable is the case of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who, in an effort to thwart French and British influence in the region, took a tour of the Middle East and played the part of an “imperial pilgrim,” entering Jerusalem on a horse through a specially made gate. When he visited Damascus in Syria he paid tribute to Saladin, visiting his tomb and commissioning a restoration of it, which Peters and Hammad describe as “a key moment in the process by which the memory of the Kurd Saladin was revived and revised as that of an Arab and Muslim hero.” (pg. 139)

According to Peters and Hammad, it was in 1898 that two important historical works were published by Muslim scholars addressing the crusades. They included British Indian writer Syed Ameer Ali’s A Short History of the Saracens and Egyptian writer Sayyid Ali al-Hariri’s The Great Book of the Wars of the Cross. Ali’s account was largely based on European histories, such as those by Gibbon, Mills, Michaud, and others, and so had a familiar narrative and framework. But al-Hariri’s account’s narrative was quite different, praising the Ottoman Caliph and Sultan Abdulhamid II (r. 1876-1909) for their resistance to the attacks of Europeans. Moreover, the account framed European imperial efforts in the Middle East as a “crusade.” (pgs. 140-141) Such language would have been quite familiar to al-Hariri, or the Sultan for that matter, as the term crusade was in common usage in geopolitical rhetoric at the time and especially by diplomats representing European powers active in the Middle East, but whereas the term had positive connotations for Europeans, it quickly took on very negative ones for Muslims in the Middle East. This was to such an extent that during World War I the British put out a formal request known as the D-Notice (Defence Notice) in 1917 that referred to “the undesirability of publishing any article paragraph or pictures suggesting that military operations against Turkey are in any sense a Holy War, a modern Crusade, or have anything whatsoever to do with religious questions.” (pg. 143)

The British did this for fear that if the conflict were phrased in such religious terms, then other Muslims in the region might see the conflict as directed against Islam, an effort to victimize Muslims, rather than a political conflict with the Turks. I would add that we have seen the power of such messaging in the modern day, with the call to jihad by the modern phenomenon known as the “Islamic State,” who regularly refers to their western opponents as “crusaders” and western efforts in the Middle East as a “crusade.” Their propaganda efforts have resulted in, at last count, over 45,000 foreign combatants from 120 countries joining them on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq just since 2014. Peters and Hammad then interestingly conclude by describing how the Muslim narrative of the crusades took on a life of its own during the 20th century, due to events that include the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and the rise and spread of Salafism.

I would only add that the modern Muslim narrative is one of historic victimization and has proven useful for helping inflame Muslim distrust or hatred of the west and sometimes violence against westerners. Yet it ignores the circumstances leading up to the launching of the crusading movement in the late eleventh century and the role of violence by medieval Muslims against Christians in helping to create that very movement. It also ignores the far larger Muslim conquests of a majority of the Christian world in the era before the First Crusade and the much broader Ottoman expansion into European states that followed the crusades, instead focusing narrowly only on the geographically and chronologically limited era of the Holy Land crusades in considering historic Christian-Muslim relations. Thus, it is a very selective and misleading narrative and, more importantly, it is a dangerous one.

It is worth noting that Peters and Hammad’s essay does not claim to present new or original scholarship. These are things crusade historians have long been aware of. But it does represent one of the most recent efforts by historians to collect and layout current research on this topic in a way that it can be communicated to a popular audience. Certainly other crusade historians, as the footnotes of Peters and Hammad’s essay reveals, have written quite a bit about this topic (which one might not realize based on the current state of popular knowledge).

The above mentioned late former Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, for example, in chapter four of his 2008 work The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, highlights many of the same issues considered by Peters and Hammad. He even begins the chapter with an entertaining reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s efforts in the Middle East, then emphasizing how Muslims had “almost completely forgotten” about Saladin prior to then. He then covers much of the same ground as Peters and Hammad, with the addition of a lengthier section about the influence of Sir Walter Scott’s novels on European understandings of the crusades (an influence that still remains, as seen in the recent big budget crusades film Kingdom of Heaven). Yet Riley Smith was not bound by the same space limitations that Al and I unfortunately had to impose on Peters and Hammad’s essay for our edited volume, so he covers more ground on some important issues related to this topic. For example, Riley-Smith notes the following:

“One often reads that modern Muslims have inherited from their medieval ancestors bitter memories of the violence of the crusaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. The invasion of Syria and Palestine from 1097 to 1099 had indeed come as a shock to a region that had for fifty years been a theatre of war between a resurgent Sunnism, spearheaded by the Suljuk Turkish sultanate on behalf of the ‘Abassid Caliphate in Baghdad, and the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, a center of vigorous proselytizing Shi’ism, Both sides, however, had been gravely weakened.” (pg. 68)

Riley-Smith then highlights the extensive and brutal conflicts taking place during this time between opposing Muslim forces, who otherwise saw the crusaders mostly as just an “irritant.” He cites Ibn Taymiyya, for example, who wrote around the year 1300. Riley-Smith notes:

“[For Taymiyya, who wrote] after the collapse of the Western mainland settlements but at a time when there was still a substantial Christian presence in the region, the priority was not to wage war extraliminally [sic] in the dar al-harb, but to turn inward and purge the Sunni world itself of infidels and heretics… he condemned the Shi’ites as interior enemies ‘even more dangerous than the Jews and the Christians.’….

It was naturally the case that Muslim writers faced with the need to resist and then expel the Europeans from Palestine and Syria, devoted a good deal of space to their enemies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Crusades and jihads continued to be preached, of course, but in the later Middle Ages the focus of interest moved from the Levant to the Balkans, which were being overwhelmed by an Ottoman tide. In the Islamic world the Crusades almost passed out of mind….Very few writers…did more than mention the crusaders in passing. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that between 1500 and 1860 the most original writings on the Crusades in Arabic—Christian Maronite histories written in Lebanon- were nostalgic about them.

The fact is that the Muslims had lost interest….In their eyes they had been the outright winners. They had driven the crusaders from the lands they had settled in the Levant and had been triumphant in the Balkans, occupying far more territory in Europe than the Western settlers had ever held in Palestine and Syria.” (pg. 70-71)

Yet it is Riley-Smith’s comments on the development of understandings of the crusades in the 20th century that are perhaps most interesting. After quoting from various 19th and (especially) 20th century Muslim historical accounts of the crusades, all of them making comparisons of modern Muslim-Western relations with the era of the crusades, sometimes arguing the successful jihads of the 12th and 13th centuries can be replicated against western foes in the 20th century, Riley-Smith then offers a lively consideration of the adoption of such rhetoric by Islamists in the modern era, who viewed themselves as being in conflict with the forces of Zionism, Communism, and “crusaderism.”

Professor Paul F. Crawford of California University of Pennsylvania has also commented on these issues. In his popular 2011 article “Four Myths about the Crusades,” he notes :

Arab nationalists borrowed the idea of a long-standing European campaign against them from the former European school of thought—missing the fact that this was a serious mischaracterization of the crusades—and using this distorted understanding as a way to generate support for their own agendas. This remained the case until the mid-twentieth century, when, in Riley-Smith’s words, “a renewed and militant Pan-Islamism” applied the more narrow goals of the Arab nationalists to a worldwide revival of what was then called Islamic fundamentalism and is now sometimes referred to, a bit clumsily, as jihadism.This led rather seamlessly to the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, offering a view of the crusades so bizarre as to allow bin Laden to consider all Jews to be crusaders and the crusades to be a permanent and continuous feature of the West’s response to Islam.

Bin Laden’s conception of history is a feverish fantasy. He is no more accurate in his view about the crusades than he is about the supposed perfect Islamic unity which he thinks Islam enjoyed before the baleful influence of Christianity intruded. But the irony is that he, and those millions of Muslims who accept his message, received that message originally from their perceived enemies: the West.

So it was not the crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. Far from it. Those activities had preceded the crusades by a very long time, and stretch back to the inception of Islam. Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the crusades. The irony is rich.

St. Louis University crusade historian Thomas Madden has also commented on these issues. In his widely shared essay for First Things, he wrote:

On September 11, 2001, there were only a few professional historians of the Crusades in America. I was the one who was not retired. As a result, my phone began ringing and didn’t stop for years. In the hundreds of interviews I have given since that terrible day, the most common question has been, “How did the Crusades lead to the terrorist attacks against the West today?” I always answered: “They did not. The Crusades were a medieval phenomenon with no connection to modern Islamist terrorism.”

That answer has never gone over well. It seems counterintuitive. If the West sent Crusaders to attack Muslims throughout the Middle Ages, haven’t they a right to be upset? If the Crusades spawned anti-Western jihads, isn’t it reasonable to see them as the root cause of the current jihads? The answer is no, but to understand it requires more than the scant minutes journalists are usually willing to spare. It requires a grasp not only of the Crusades but of the ways those wars have been exploited and distorted for modern agendas.

I will more fully consider the important issues Riley-Smith, Crawford, and Madden highlight directly above in a future blog post, more narrowly focused on 20th and 21st century Islamist uses of the medieval crusades. But for now perhaps it is best to end by citing the words of the eminent crusade historian Carole Hillenbrand, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Edinburgh. Writing before the attacks of 9/11 in her 1999 award winning book The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, she notes:

“The ‘idea’ of the Crusades quietly permeates many aspects of modern life in the Arab and the wider Islamic world. For some, the concept of the Crusades is seen as a manifestation of the continuing struggle between Islam and Christianity, of which the chain reaction began with the Islamic conquests, produced a Christian counter-response in the Crusades themselves, an Ottoman revanche notably in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and Western colonializing interference in the last two hundred years. Others see the Crusades as the first stage of European colonialism (isti’mar mubakkar- “premature imperialism”) or as a combination of the effects of religious zeal and political intervention. Whatever their interpretation of the Crusading phenomenon may be, there is no doubt that if affects political rhetoric, jihad literature and more pervasively but intangibly, the way in which many Muslims view western Europe, and by extension, the United States. It is no exaggeration to say that international understanding and world peace would benefit significantly from a better understanding of this issue.”



Addendum (3/4/2017): In response, theologian Arnold Yasin Mol noted the following:

“Another possible additional reason why modern Arabs started to connect the crusades with colonialism is bookprinting. When the first official Islamic printing press, Bulaaq press in Cairo, was started in the 1850’s it printed a lot of history works on early Islam, and in those works you can find a focus on the 8-12th century fighting with Byzantium and Europeans (Andalusia). These works were now commonly available for activist thinkers, and it doesn’t surprise me it influenced them immensely.”


Addendum (3/4/2017): In response, Professor John D. Hosler notes:

“Have you yet read John France’s new book on the battle of Hattin? He finds some extraordinary connections between that battle and the 20th century–not only is Hattin mentioned in the Hamas charter, but the PLO had an army division named after it.”

Per Professor Hosler’s comments, please see article 15 of the Hamas charter. Although it does not explicitly mention the Battle of Hattin, it makes a clear reference to Saladin’s victory over the crusaders, of which most modern historians think his victory at Hattin is the key battle. Considering the subject of this blog post, it is worth quoting in full. It reads:

“It is necessary that scientists, educators and teachers, information and media people, as well as the educated masses, especially the youth and sheikhs of the Islamic movements, should take part in the operation of awakening (the masses). It is important that basic changes be made in the school curriculum, to cleanse it of the traces of ideological invasion that affected it as a result of the orientalists and missionaries who infiltrated the region following the defeat of the Crusaders at the hands of Salah el-Din (Saladin). The Crusaders realised that it was impossible to defeat the Moslems without first having ideological invasion pave the way by upsetting their thoughts, disfiguring their heritage and violating their ideals. Only then could they invade with soldiers. This, in its turn, paved the way for the imperialistic invasion that made Allenby declare on entering Jerusalem: “Only now have the Crusades ended.” General Guru stood at Salah el-Din’s grave and said: “We have returned, O Salah el-Din.” Imperialism has helped towards the strengthening of ideological invasion, deepening, and still does, its roots. All this has paved the way towards the loss of Palestine.”

Please also see Prof. Hosler’s review of France’s new book.


Addendum (3/2/2017): In response, Professor Paul F. Crawford (cited above) notes:

“One thing none of us are talking about as much as we perhaps should, is the role Lenin’s anti-colonialism played in opposition to, and denigration of, the crusades. And Marxist-Leninist thought has heavily influenced the modern Middle East. There’s a connection there that needs to be explored more explicitly, though Jonathan did touch on it at times.”