Tag Archives: crusades

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.

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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. Continue reading

The Continuing Importance of the Liberal Arts: An Interview with Dr. Cecilia Gaposchkin

Dartmouth College history professor Cecilia Gaposchkin has had an impressive career as a crusade historian. She is one of the world’s leading historians on the saint and crusading king Louis IX and one of the few crusade historians to hold a tenured position at an elite Ivy League school, the combination of which makes her a leading voice in the field. She is also a respected teacher, known for having a great impact on her students in the classroom. Continue reading

Studying Medieval History and Fighting ISIS?

Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina recently announced that her study of medieval history as an undergraduate at Stanford University in the mid-1970s would aid her as a future commander-in-chief in the war against ISIS.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2015/10/05/fiorina-my-degree-will-help-fight-isis.html?source=TDB&via=FB_Page

She reasoned that ISIS is essentially medieval, seeking to drag the people and societies it controls back to the Middle Ages before listing a number of atrocities carried out by the group including burning prisoners to death, crucifixions, and beheadings. Because she associated these actions exclusively with the Middle Ages, she argued her education in medieval history would serve her well in dealing with these problems.

Is she right?

Medieval historians, like myself, tend to cringe when they hear modern commentators refer to something particularly brutal as uniquely medieval, as if brutality defined the Middle Ages in contrast to an enlightened and more gentle modern world. The reality is that medieval barbarism, as bad as it could be at times, often pales in comparison to the horrors of the technologically advanced 20th century, which include over sixty million people killed in World War II, the first use of Atomic Weapons, tens of millions killed under communist regimes, and the Holocaust.

Yet, as recently pointed out in a much discussed piece by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic, to dismiss any connection between ISIS and medieval history would be wrong. The self-declared “Caliphate” created by ISIS claims its legitimacy, and authority, is demonstrated in its adherence to the earliest Islamic principles as reflected in the life and examples of the Prophet Muhammad and its strict adherence to the Qur’an. Muhammad’s time as a religious leader and the emergence of the Qur’an came during the seventh century, which is about as medieval as one can get.

The leaders of ISIS often point to medieval historical examples and religious texts to cite precedents that they argue justify their own extreme actions. In light of this, Fiorina is correct in the sense that a western leader well educated on early/medieval Islamic history could have a better understanding of how ISIS and their supporters interpret their actions, motivate their followers, and justify their actions.

The problem is that I have no idea how much knowledge of medieval history Fiorina picked up as an undergraduate at Stanford and has retained since then. I doubt that, as a busy CEO and businesswoman, she has had much time or interest in keeping up with medieval scholarship over the past few decades. Yet her broader point, that knowledge of the Middle Ages can be helpful for modern leaders facing some of our current challenges, is valid.

One well versed in medieval history is presumably more aware of historical understandings of the life and example of the prophet Muhammad (which still influences the actions of many Muslims today), the emergence and background of medieval religious texts like the Qur’an, the basis for the Sunni-Shia split (contributing to extensive conflict within the Muslim world even today), the historical treatment of non-Muslims in Muslim ruled lands (a pressing issue at the moment as we have recently seen step declines in Middle Eastern Christianity), the causes and consequences of the crusades (whose interpretation remains a hot button issue among many today), etc…

Fiorina’s suggestion that her study of medieval history is valuable for understanding events in the present has been mocked, but one could certainly do worse than to have a solid understanding of the medieval past as a base from which they consider some of the issues we face in our presumably “clash of civilizations” modern world.

*Updated on 10/8. ———————————–

*A 350 word version of this essay was published as a “Lead Letter” in the Florida Times Union on 10/9/2015. See http://jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2015-10-09/story/lead-letter-fiorina-has-point-suggesting-history-background

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Below are some additional thoughts of mine on a Facebook post (10/7/2015) on a thread by Paul Halsall linking to a recent essay by David Perry for The Guardian (Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/06/carly-fiorina-medieval-history-degree-fight-isis?CMP=share_btn_fb )

My comments follow:—————

I’m not entirely sure of one of David’s points. While I respect David as a thinker and writer, he seems to be hedging his bets in this piece a bit.

In one place, at least, he seems to be mocking Fiorina’s suggestion that a degree in medieval history is useful for a political leader dealing with modern problems involving the Islamic world. He writes:

“She really does seem to be claiming that her undergraduate degree [in medieval history] will enable her to make sound foreign policy decisions…”

But elsewhere he writes:

“the Middle Ages do in fact shape contemporary events all the time…”

And…

“I believe that we need to study the past in order to respond to the present…”

Based on these last two comments David clearly see’s value in studying medieval history to “respond to the present.” So in that sense, at least, he agrees with Fiorina’s larger point, even if he does not like doing so.

Let me get into the weeds a little bit here. As you all know, ISIS bases its ideology on how it interprets medieval events and medieval texts. Particularly the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century (which they cite all the time to justify their actions- e.g. “Muhammad burned apostates according to the Hadith so it’s okay for ISIS to do it.”) and the Qur’an and other texts that emerged around this time. Understanding that, to some degree, is unquestionably a huge plus for any political leader. In fact, in an ideal world, I would wish all western generals and politicians who involve themselves in Middle Eastern affairs had a solid grounding in a number of medieval topics (e.g. the rise of Islam, the evolution of Islamic beliefs and texts, etc…). Even if ISIS is somehow interpreting those medieval events and texts incorrectly, then one needs an education in medieval history to know the difference and be able to argue the point.

Also, there are so many other ways an education in medieval history can help one better understand events in the present. One of the reasons I have been called on so much by local media to comments on ISIS and events in the Middle East is because such media often has very basic questions on topics like the origins of Shia-Sunni animosity, which is rooted in the Middle Ages, or questions about crusading rhetoric often used on both sides in modern clashes between Islamists and westerners, the historic treatment of non-Muslims under Muslim rule, or many other topics. Nobody else [or at least very few] at my college really has the background in those areas (e.g. early Islam, the crusades, etc…) that I as a medieval historian have. That became a base from which I have come to analyze events in the M.E. over the past 15 months or so, doing no less than 32 interviews with local media. So I certainly know from personal experience that having a background in medieval history can help one better understand (than many people without such an education) at least some of the complexities of current events in a way that engineering or accounting majors, for example, will not understand. I admit that knowledge of medieval history alone was not enough to provide coherent commentary on current events, but it was undoubtedly a solid base from which to engage in additional studies over the past 15 months.

So on this very basic point, that a background in medieval history is useful for a leader dealing with modern relations between the west and the Islamic world, Fiorina is obviously right.

Now, whether or not Fiorina actually remembers anything about the Middle Ages from her studies at Stanford back in the 70s, or her study of the Middle Ages involved any significant focus on Islam or related topics, is entirely another topic and fair game. I doubt as a business woman and CEO she bothered to keep up with recent medieval scholarship over the past 40 years since she graduated and I have no doubt that like a good politician she is touting her degree in the most opportunist of ways. But nevertheless I don’t like seeing some commentators (not referring to David here) dismiss the value of medieval history with regard to understanding current events. Diss Fiorina all you want and question her motives, but not the value of studying the medieval past for a greater grasp of events in the present. On that point she is right, even if she is only saying it to score political points rather than maintaining any real devotion to understanding the Middle Ages.

Continue reading

Crusading Against Poor History: An Interview with Dr. Paul Crawford

In 1940, the eminent crusade historian John L. La Monte complained of how, with the possible exception of Renaissance Florence, “no field” of historical research “has been the subject of so much worthless historical trash” as the medieval crusades. Over the last fifteen years, since I first began to study the medieval crusading movement as an undergraduate, I have increasingly come to appreciate the dim view of La Monte, as many crusade historians have continued to have very similar concerns about much of what has been published on the subject in the seventy-five years since La Monte first made his claim.

Consequently, when historian Alfred J. Andrea and I began to consider the idea of a book on modern popular myths of the medieval crusades, we were not surprised by the widespread interest we found among crusade historians in the project. Indeed, since 2008, when Al and I first discussed the topic at a crusade history conference in St. Louis, a number of crusade historians have had serious questions about the project, expressed curiosity over which of the many possible myths we might address, and often also expressed an interest in contributing to the project. Thus, it is not surprising that our final effort, Seven Myths of the Crusades, to be published in September 2015 by Hackett Publishing, involves the collective efforts of ten professional medieval historians who all teach, research, and write about the crusades. One of those historians is the widely respected and well-known Dr. Paul Crawford of California University of Pennsylvania.

Continue reading

“Thou shalt not kill” vs. “Thou shalt not murder”

When I lecture on the First Crusade in my courses at Florida State College at Jacksonville, I occasionally get a question from one of my students along the lines of “How could Christians do this?”

They ask because, as modern Christians with a post-Enlightenment understanding of their faith, they find the idea of God- or Jesus more specifically- supporting warfare to be troubling. Such students tend to associate New Testament Christianity with peace as Jesus himself famously called on others to turn the other cheek when confronted with violence. Often, in such cases, students will often cite the biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) as a proof-text supporting their assumptions that medieval Christians who participated in the crusades simply did not understand the Bible.

I find I often have to restrain myself a bit when I respond. Not because I am upset with the student, of course, but because I feel tempted to cover too much in my response. There are a number of assumptions here that are either demonstrably false or (at the least) highly debatable, but among the most significant, perhaps, is the idea that Exodus 20:13 represents a biblical injunction against “killing.” There are two major problems with this assumption. Continue reading

President Obama, ISIS, and the Crusades

Since President Obama’s controversial speech at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb 5th, during which he compared the medieval crusades (as a form of religious extremism) with the religious extremism of modern terrorist groups like the ISIS, crusades historians have been busy writing a number of pieces that address the issue. Medieval historian Dan Franke has given a comprehensive overview (with links) of the various debates that have taken place. I’d suggest that those unfamiliar with these arguments and discussions start by reading his overview provided here.

Although a bit late to the party, I have also offered my two-cents on the issue in an guest column published by the Florida Times-Union. See Guest Column: Crusades were a Reaction to Islamic Militarism– Florida Times-Union.

A selection from that column is provided below.

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“Significantly, it was in large part because of a period of heightened threat to Christians in the East during the late 11th Century that the First Crusade was called, as Muslim armies had recently conquered much of once Christian Anatolia.

For more than 20 years, Byzantine emperors had been requesting (and sometimes pleading for) military aid from Western Christians until they finally received it in the form of the First Crusade as called by Pope Urban II in 1095.

As retired Cambridge University historian Jonathan Riley-Smith once noted, “The denigrators of the crusades stress their brutality and savagery, which cannot be denied; but they offer no explanation other than the stupidity, barbarism and intolerance of the crusaders, on whom it has become conventional to lay most blame. Yet the original justification for crusading was Muslim aggression…”

This brings us back to Obama’s comments. I found them problematic for reasons cited by Riley-Smith.

The president told critics of modern Islamic violence to get off their “high horse” by citing the crusades as an example of similar Christian violence. Paradoxically the crusades were largely the product of medieval Islamic violence.”

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Edit: Dan Franke continues to keep us updated on the current debate taking place online and in print. Here he links to the most recent articles, including my own, and even an online discussion I had the other night with two medieval historians, David Perry and Paul Halsall, about some of these issues. See Dan’s addendum here and my exchange (on David Perry’s website) with David and Paul here.

ISIS and the Medieval Spoils System: The Fate of Captured Women

I don’t know Arabic, but assuming the translations that accompany this widely reported on video of ISIS (or “Islamic State”) soldiers laughing and joking as they wait to receive their share of captured Yazidi slave girls are accurate, then it is deeply disturbing. Around 19 seconds into the clip, one smiling soldier exclaims, “By Allah, man, I am looking for one to get me a girl.” At this, other soldiers in the room laugh and another declares for the camera, “Today is the female sex slave market day, which has been ordained.” The video is available on YouTube here.

Beyond the revulsion one feels for their cavalier attitude toward the enslavement and sexual abuse of children, a crime that fits well with a long list of documented atrocities committed by members of ISIS, I was struck (as a medieval historian) by how well such rhetoric seems to match a twelfth-century Arabic source for the crusading era. Continue reading