Crusades: Muslim Perspective

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The Muslims of Syria, who were the first to receive the assault of the Crusaders, thought the invaders were Rum, the Byzantines. Accordingly, they regarded the invasion as still another Byzantine incursion into Islamic territory, and, in fact, one inspired by previous Muslim victories in Byzantine domains. It was only when the Muslims realized that the invaders did not originate in Byzantium that they began referring to them as Franks, although never as Crusaders, a term for which there was no Arabic equivalent until modern times. Even a century later, the Arab historian Ibn al-Athīr (11601233) characterized that first invasion as a part of the general expansion of the Frankish empire that had begun with their conquests in Muslim Spain, Sicily, and North Africa a decade before the campaign in Syria. Nevertheless, the establishment of Frankish kingdoms in Islamic territory, the periodic reinforcement of troops from Europe, and the recurrence of invasion all contributed to a growing Muslim consciousness of the nature of the Frankish threat in Syria and Palestine.

This consciousness was reflected in the development of propaganda in Arabic designed to support the mobilization of Muslim forces against the infidel troops. The second half of the twelfth century saw the emergence of both a major Muslim leader and a literature to abet his efforts. The leader was Nūr al-Dīn (11181174), who succeeded in forging the political unity of the Muslims of northern Syria and upper Mesopotamia, thereby providing the basis of a military force strong enough to confront the Franks. Fatimid Egypt was brought under the control of Nūr al-Dīn's lieutenant, alā al-Dīn, known to the West as Saladin (11381193). The literature consisted of poetry, jihād ("holy war") tracts, and books extolling the merits of Jerusalem and Palestine. Cumulatively, these works celebrated a Muslim warrior for the faith (mujāhid) who would unite the believers in a jihād to drive the soldiers of the Cross from the holy places. After the death of Nūr al-Dīn, alā al-Dīn was able to build on the former's political and military accomplishments and exploit the fervor engendered for a Muslim hero as a means of achieving spectacular success against the Crusaders. Although no single Muslim leader of equal stature emerged under the Ayyubid or Mamluk dynasties that followed, literary support for prosecution of war against the Franks flourished until the very end, when the fall of Acre and the remaining Crusader fortifications on the coast was celebrated as a great victory for Islam, the culmination of a century-old struggle.

It should be emphasized, however, that with few exceptions active support for a concerted Muslim campaign against the Franks was limited to the areas threatened with occupation, namely Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Various attempts to enlist the help of the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad were futile, partly, no doubt, because the institution of the caliphate was by this time virtually defunct. Even alā al-Dīn, who was assiduous in seeking caliphal sanction for his activities, never received more than symbolic recognition from a reluctant caliph.

It should also be pointed out that war against the Franks was never total, that Muslim rulers often felt no compunctions about allying themselves with Crusader princes in order to gain their own ends, and that the call for jihād was muted when it was expedient, as in 1229 when the Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Kāmil (d. 1238) ceded Jerusalem to Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. alā al-Dīn himself did not hesitate to strengthen Egyptian ties with the Italian commercial cities in order to obtain the materials he needed from Europe for his campaigns.

With the exception of their fortresses and churches, the Franks left few traces in Muslim territory or consciousness. Although the Muslims looted columns and at least one portal from Crusader structures and incorporated them into their mosques as trophies of victory, Islamic architecture developed independently. Nor is there any evidence of significant influence of Crusader minor arts on Islamic counterparts or, for that matter, of substantial Crusader influence on any aspect of Islamic cultural and intellectual life. There are indications, certainly, in the memoirs of the Syrian knight Usāmah ibn Munqidh (10951188) and the Spanish traveler Ibn Jubayr (11451217) that Muslims observed their Frankish neighbors with interest, interacted with them on occasion, and even approved of some aspects of their behaviortheir treatment of peasants, for example. But the Muslims apparently made no effort to imitate the Franks. While it is sometimes claimed that the Crusaders contributed to the persecution of Christians in Muslim territory, the evidence for this is by no means consistent. There are clear signs that the Muslims in Egypt could and did distinguish between the Copts and the Franks and treated each accordingly. Probably the main Crusader legacy to the Arab Muslims should be sought in the field of commerce. There is little doubt that the activities of European merchants in eastern Mediterranean ports continued to be tolerated, even encouraged, by the Muslim conquerors and thus kept commercial contacts between East and West alive. However, recent Arabic historiography depicts the Crusaders as precursors of modern European infiltrations of the Arab world.


A detailed study of the Muslim response to the Crusades is Emmanuel Sivan's L'Islam et la croisade: Idéologie et propagande dans les réactions musulmanes aux croisades (Paris, 1968), which, though it focuses on the ideological reaction, relates it to political and military events as well. For a different perspective on some of the material discussed by Sivan, see Hadia Dajani-Shakeel's "Jihād in Twelfth-Century Arabic Poetry: A Moral and Religious Force to Counter the Crusades," Muslim World 66 (April 1976): 96113. See also Amin Maalouf's The Crusades through Arab Eyes (London, 1984).

Attitudes of contemporary Arab Muslims toward the Crusades can be studied firsthand in Arab Historians of the Crusades, edited by Francesco Gabrieli and translated from the Italian by E. J. Costello (Berkeley, 1969), and in Usamah ibn Munqidh's Memoirs of an Arab-Syrian Gentleman or an Arab Knight in the Crusades, translated by Philip K. Hitti (1927; reprint, Beirut, 1964). For a comparative study of Muslim and Christian concepts of holy war see Albrecht Noth's Heiliger Krieg und Heiliger Kampf im Islam und Christentum (Bonn, 1966).

Donald P. Little (1987)