Somehow the historical record of what really provoked the European crusades to the Middle East has been lost due to a combination of ignorance and out right deceit.
Ask the average high school or college student and they’ll tell you that conquest driven European Anglos snuck up on the peaceful inhabitants of North Africa and Asia Minor only to loot, kill and pillage for personal gain and glory. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The historical reality is the Western European knights who went to the Holy Land only did so after Saracens, otherwise known as Mohammedans (terms used for what we call today “Islamist”) had been slaughtering the Christians in that region of the world for almost 500 years.
To understand the violence and death that brought on the Crusades, and even the strife that occurs in the Middle East today one must know the basics of the Muslim faith, its origin and beliefs. So, let’s go back to the faith’s beginning shall we?
The Prophet Mohammad
Abul Cassim, the proper name of one who would eventually be called “Muhammad” or Muhammed, the prophet of Islam, was born in the city of Mecca in 570 A.D. His father and mother both died by the time he was six, so he was then taken in by a grandfather who died only three years later. An uncle named Abu Talib, and leader of the family clan, then reared him, using Muhammad as a camel driver for the caravans he owned.
When Muhammad reached his late-twenties he married the daughter of a wealthy traveling cloth merchant. He managed his father in laws business and it prospered. To relax and unwind he would often times meditate in a cave. When he was about 40, he came back from a visit there to report to his wife that he thought he was being possessed by demons. But she assured him that a virtuous man like himself could only be visited by angels and he should heed whatever they told him. So, he kept on having these “revelations” from God.
In 613, he began to share them with the locals in Mecca. He told of the predictions of the end of the world, a day of judgment, paradise and hell. Most thought he was mad, others listened intently. In a revelation in 619 AD, he claimed that the angel Gabriel escorted him to Mecca, and to Jerusalem where he prayed at the temple. He said he also traveled through seven heavens, and even encountered the spirits of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ and God himself, all in one evening. Of course the Roman army destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, but apparently Muhammad and his supporters weren’t aware of it.
Violent Jihad Unleashed
In 622 AD, he began to have revelations that authorized Jihad. Two years later his small band of followers began a campaign to ambush merchant caravans, capturing and hold prisoners for ransom. His wealth and power grew and he began to finance assassinations of any critics of him or Jihad. His forces would lay siege to villages and towns, killing its defenders, then raping, and holding women hostage.
In 627 AD, Bedouin tribes known as Meccans raised a 10,000 man army to try and stop Muhammad’s raids on their trade caravans. The two opposing forces met outside the town of Medina. Muhammad’s forces repealed the Meccans forcing them to retreat leaving the town’s Jewish inhabitants helpless. The men were ordered to convert to Islam or suffer death. Over 900 refused and were decapitated on the spot. Their widows were raped then sold into slavery.
Muhammad even took another wife from the captives. The unfortunate female, Raihana Bint Amr, lost not only her husband but her father in the battle. Muhammad gained dozens of wives this way. Some of them were as young as six years old. With one he consummated the “marriage” when she turned nine. He even took the wife of his oldest son for himself and justified it as a revelation to do so by Allah.
Muhammad died in 632 AD, but the violent spread of his faith continued.
The Era of the Caliphas
When Muhammad died a succession of leaders, each called a Calipha, continued his bloody rampage of religion and politics by strengthening and consolidating power over all of north Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Persia until 661 AD. Thousands who were captured were massacred, hundreds of churches were destroyed. Whole towns were put to the sword, raped and then put into slavery.
Shortly after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem, in 638, Christian pilgrims were harassed, massacred, and crucified. Muslim governors extorted ransom money from Pilgrims, and ransacked churches. In the 8th Century the Muslim rulers banned all displays of the Cross in Jerusalem. They also increased the penalty tax (Jizya) on Christians and forbade Christians to engage in any religious instruction, even of their own children!
In 712 AD they invaded India in the first of what would be seventeen invasions of that region of the world that would stretch into the 16th Century. A nation rich with culture, and fabulous architecture was reduced to cinders. The men they didn’t kill were enslaved along with all women and children. Hundreds of thousands of Buddhists and Hindus were killed, displaced, or sold into slavery. The lucky ones were those women and children considered desirable for “marriage” by their captures.
In 772, the Calipha al Mansur ordered the hands of all Christians and Jews in Jerusalem to be branded. In 923, a new wave of destruction of churches was launched by the Muslim rulers. In 937, Muslims went on a rampage in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday plundering the Church of Calvary and the Church of the Resurrection. In 1004 the Calipha AI-Hakim unleashed a violent wave of church burning and destruction, confiscation of Christian property, and ferocious slaughter of both Christians and Jews. Over the next ten years, 30,000 churches were destroyed and vast numbers of believers were forcibly converted or killed. In 1009, AI-Hakim ordered that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem be destroyed.
When the Seljuk Turks swept into Jerusalem in 1077 they murdered over three thousand people, including many Christians. It was at this point that the Christian Emperor of Byzantium, Alexius I, overseeing the effects of over four hundred years of murder, rape, slavery, and destruction appealed for help to the Western churches and they responded.
The True Goal of the Crusaders
Nowhere in the call for the launch of the Crusades was there talk about either conquest or conversion. They were merely to remove the Islamic invaders from the lands that had previously been Christian, to restore religious freedom to the Holy Lands.
The myth that the Crusades were unprovoked, imperialist actions against the peaceful, indigenous Muslim population is simply not accurate. The contention that the Crusaders were greedy for loot, only out for personal gain, is simply out of touch with reality. Those who participated in the Crusades saw it as an act of sacrifice rather than of profit. The Crusades were in fact prohibitively expensive. Many Crusaders had to sell their property to raise money for the long journey to the Holy Land and knew that their chances of returning alive were slight. Most who did manage to survive and return came back with nothing material to show for their efforts.
Similarly the modern myth that the Crusaders attempted to forcibly convert Muslims to Christianity is a politically motivated fantasy. Search all you want through the writings and records of the Crusaders and you will not find any scholastic, historically fact based proof of Crusaders seeking to convert the Saracens or the Turks. In fact, there is proof that Muslims, living in Christian Crusader occupied territories believed they lived better, more peaceful lives. Read the observations of an 11th Century Spanish Muslim named Ibn Jubayr found, in of all places, a book written by an author sympathetic to the Muslim cause:
“Whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims. They live in comfort with the Franks – may God preserve them from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All their regions, patrolled by the Crusaders in Syria, are subject to the same system: The land that remains, the villages and farms, have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the hearts of a great number of these men when they compare their lot to that of their brothers living in Muslim territories. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their co-religionists, whereas the Franks act with equity.” Anin Maalouf, “The Crusades through Arab Eyes” 1986.
The Crusaders saw themselves as Pilgrims seeking to recapture and liberate Christian lands from vicious invaders. But the Muslim slaughter and occupation of so much of the countries in the Mediterranean Ocean area did do one good thing: It gave the Western European nations time to assemble the forces necessary to repeal the Muslims when their merciless, convert or die onslaught came for them.