The Muslim Call to Arms

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The Muslim Call to Arms

Excerpt from "Poem on the Crusades" (twelfth century)
Originally written by Abu l-Musaffar al-Abiwardi; Reprinted in Ibn al-Athir's The Perfect History; Edited by C. J. Tornberg; Published in 1851–1876

Excerpt from Book of the Maghrib (thirteenth century)
Originally written by Ibn Said; Reprinted in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain; Translated by Pascuual de Gayangoss; Published in 1840

The Crusader invasion of 1096 to 1099 took the Muslims of the Middle East by surprise. Leaders of the Islamic world were busy with internal feuds and rivalries when the Christians arrived. The Seljuk Turks, who had established an empire in the Middle East, lost their strongest sultan, or leader, Malik-Shah, in 1092. With his death the Turks, who believed in sharing the rule in the family, scrambled to find leaders for all of the empire. But other Egyptian, Arab, and Syrian Muslims took advantage of this momentary chaos to try to extend their own territories at the expense of the Seljuks. Meanwhile, Muslims were also split into two religious branches: the Sunni Muslims, who followed the Sunna, or the words and acts of the prophet Muhammad, who had founded the religion, and the Shiites, who felt that religious authority could be passed on only by direct descendants or relatives of Muhammad. The Sunnis formed their base in Baghdad under what was known as the Abbasid caliphate, a religious and political dynasty ruling from Iraq. By the middle of the eleventh century, however, this dynasty had lost real power, and the Seljuk Turks actually ran things under the Abbasid name. The other major branch of Islam, the Shiites, had their caliphate, or religious kingdom, in Egypt under the dynasty known as the Fatimids, from the name of Muhammad's daughter, Fatimah. There was also a breakaway Shiite sect (subgroup) the Nizari Ismaili, commonly known as the Assassins, who ruled in the mountains of Syria and Persia.

Thus the Muslim world was split politically and religiously when the Crusaders invaded. Fighting an enemy that was not organized, the Crusaders quickly captured the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, in 1099. The slaughter of Muslims and Jews in that city shocked the Muslim world when news got out. Slowly, as word spread, the Muslim people of the Middle East began to see the Christians as a common enemy. The Islamic faith has a principle known as jihad, which, on the personal level, is an effort to follow a religiously correct path in life and, on a more community-wide level, is a promise to protect the faith. This principle was soon adapted for a holy war against the infidel, a word used by both Christians and Muslims to indicate a nonbeliever in their particular faith.

The call to arms in the Islamic world was thus a matter of a religious message, as it was in Europe. Added to this, however, was the sense of anger at being invaded. Although the Holy Land of Palestine and Jerusalem, in particular, was sacred to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, the fact was that Muslims had occupied it for centuries by the time of the First Crusade and looked on it as their homeland. As seen in the poem by an Iraqi poet of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, al-Abiwardi, there was shock and outrage at the sacking of Jerusalem in 1099 by the Crusaders. This poet was present in Baghdad when representatives from Syria and Palestine arrived to tell of the fall of Jerusalem and to ask for help from the Seljuk Turks to battle the invaders. For al-Abiwardi, the fall of Jerusalem was a sad occasion, but he also expressed anger at the fact that other Muslims did not react to this call to arms.

Ibn Said, a Muslim writer of the thirteenth century, describes the state of Islam in Spain in another excerpt in this section. However, his observations on the divisions and lack of unity between the Muslims that allowed for Christian domination in that peninsula could also be true for the Islamic world of the Middle East. It took strong leaders, including Nur al-Din and Saladin, to unite the Muslims in the twelfth century and respond to the Christian invasions. These calls to arms by Muslims were, in fact, similar to those of Pope Urban II when he urged the knights and nobles of Europe to stop fighting one another and come together to face a common enemy. For both the Christians and Muslims there was also the sense of a holy war, of fighting for God or Allah. And both used religious leaders to help spread the message of the holy war.

Things to Remember While Reading Excerpts about "The Muslim Call to Arms":

  • When the Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, they spent two days killing all the inhabitants. Sources say that between forty thousand and seventy thousand people were killed, including women and children. After the slaughter, some Crusaders ripped open the bodies of the dead, hoping to find gold coins, which the Muslims supposedly swallowed to hide from their enemies. This massacre shocked the Muslims of the Middle East.
  • The region of Syria and Palestine was not totally Muslim at the time of the First Crusade. There were large groups of native Christians living there, who practiced the Eastern Orthodox faith, the religion of the Byzantine Empire. There were also numerous Jews living in the region.
  • When the Crusaders arrived, the Muslims at first mistook them for soldiers of the Byzantine Empire. Islam and that empire had long been enemies, so the Muslims were not too worried about such an invading force, for they thought they would not stay long.
  • Islamic literary propaganda against the Crusaders often took the form of poetry, and it was written using the classical rules of Arab poetry established hundreds of years before the Crusades. Images of loss and destruction caused by the Crusaders thus often use the literary tradition of expressed sadness over the destruction of a campsite instead of a specific city or battle.

Excerpt: "Poem on the Crusades"

Excerpt from Book of the Maghrib

Andalus [the Iberian peninsula], which was conquered in the year 92 of the Hijra , continued for many years to be a dependency of the Eastern Khalifate , until it was snatched away from their hands by one of the surviving members of the family of Umeyyah [Umayyad], who, crossing over from Barbary, subdued the country, and formed therein an independent kingdom, … During three centuries and a half, Andalus, governed by the princes of this dynasty,reached the utmost degree of power and prosperity, until civil war breaking out among its inhabitants, the Muslims, weakened by internal discord , became everywhere the prey of the artful Christians, and the territory of Islam was considerably reduced, so much so that at the present moment the worshippers of the crucified [Christians] hold the greatest part of Andalus in their hands, and their country is divided into various powerful kingdoms, whose rulers assist each other whenever the Muslims attack their territories. This brings to my recollection the words of an eastern geographer who visited Andalus in the fourth century of the Hijra [tenth century A.D.], and during the prosperous times of the Cordovan Khalifate, I mean Ibnu Haukal Annassibi, who, describing Andalus, speaks in very unfavourable terms of its inhabitants.… "Andalus," he says, "is an extensive island, a little less than a month's march in length, and twenty and odd days in width. It … is amply provided with every article which adds to the comforts of life; slaves are very fine, and may be procured for a small price on account of their abundance; owing, too, to the fertility of the land, which yields all sorts of grain, vegetables, and fruit, as well as to the number and goodness of its pastures in which innumerable flocks of cattle graze, food is exceedingly abundant and cheap, and the inhabitants are thereby plunged into indolence and sloth , letting mechanics and men of the lowest ranks of society overpower them and conduct their affairs. Owing to this it is really astonishing how the Island [i.e., peninsula] of Andalus still remains in the hands of the Muslims, being, as they are, people of vicious habits and low inclinations, narrow-minded, and entirely devoid of fortitude, courage, and the military accomplishments necessary to meet face to face the formidable nations of Christians who surround them on every side, and by whom they are continually assailed ."

Such are the words of Ibnu Haukal; but, if truth be told, I am at a loss to guess to whom they are applied. To my countrymen they certainly are not; or, if so, it is a horrible calumny , for if any people on the earth are famous for their courage, their noble qualities, and good habits, it is the Muslims of Andalus; and indeed their readiness to fight the common enemy, their constancy in upholding the holy tenets of their religion, and their endurance of the hardships and privations of war, have become almost proverbial.… As to the other imputation , namely, their being devoid of all senses, wisdom, and talent, either in the field or in administration, would to God that the author's judgment were correct, for then the ambition of the chiefs would not have been raised, and the Muslims would not have turnedagainst each other's breasts and dipped in each other's blood those very weapons which God Almighty put into their hands for the destruction and annihilation of the infidel Christian. But, as it is, we ask—were those Sultans and Khalifs wanting in prudence and talents who governed this country for upwards of five hundred years, and who administered its affairs in the midst of foreign war and civil discord? Were those fearless warriors deficient in courage and military science who withstood on the frontiers of the Muslim empire the frightful shock of the innumerable infidel nations who dwell within and out of Andalus, … all of whom ran to arms at a moment's notice to defend the religion of the crucified? And if it be true that at the moment I write the Muslims have been visited by the wrath of heaven, and that the Almighty has sent down defeat and shame to their arms, are we to wonder at it at a time when the Christians, proud of their success, have carried their arms as far as Syria and Mesopotamia, have invaded the districts contiguous to the country which is the meeting place of the Muslims, and the cupola of Islam, committed all sorts of ravages and depredations , and conquered the city of Haleb (Aleppo) and its environs … ? No, it is by no means to be wondered at, especially when proper attention is paid to the manner in which the Andalusian Muslims have come to their present state of weakness and degradation . The … Christians will rush down from their mountains, or across the plain, and make an incursion into the Muslim territory; there they will pounce upon a castle and seize it: they will ravage the neighbouring country, take the inhabitants captive, and then retire to their country with all the plunder they have collected, leaving, nevertheless, strong garrisons in the castles and towers captured by them. In the meanwhile the Muslim king in whose dominions the inroad has been made, … will be waging war against his neighbours of the Muslims; and these, instead of defending the common cause, the cause of religion and truth,—instead of assisting their brother, will confederate and ally to deprive him of whatever dominions still remain in his hands. So, from a trifling evil at first, it will grow into an irreparable calamity , and the Christians will advance farther and farther until they subdue the whole of that country exposed to their inroads, where, once established and fortified, they will direct their attacks to another part of the Muslim territories, and carry on the same war of havoc and destruction.

What happened next…

The arrival of the Franks, as the Muslims called the Crusaders, led to the concept of jihad as a holy war against these invaders. Muslim writers criticized their fellow Muslims for softness and their leaders for being corrupt and allowing the Crusaders to establish strongholds in Palestine. Although the Seljuk Turks were not eager to come to the aid of Muslims attacked by the Crusaders, later dynasties were willing. The Zangids, a Turkish line that started with Zengi, preached a holy war against the Christian invaders. Under Zengi and his son, Nur al-Din, these Muslims took over Syria, and then, under one of their generals, Saladin, Egypt, too, was captured. Thus the Islamic world was unified for the first time, and during the twelfth century the power of the Crusader states formed in Palestine was steadily worn away. Jerusalem was taken back by Saladin in 1187, and, unlike the aftermath of the Christian victory in 1099, there was no slaughter of the inhabitants. Holy war had become a way of life in the Middle East by the end of the twelfth century.

The Theory of Jihad

The idea of jihad, or holy war, was developed in works of Islamic law, such as the Sharia, and also is based on words from the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an (or Koran). It became one of the major duties of every believer in Islam. One Muslim writer noted, as quoted in Carole Hillenbrand's The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, "the jihad, and rising up in arms in particular, is obligatory [required] for all ablebodied [believers], exempting no one, just as prayer, pilgrimage, and [payment of] alms are performed, and no person is permitted to perform the duty for another."

Literally, though, the word jihad means "struggle," and on the personal level it was meant to indicate the struggle each believer in Islam went through to lead a righteous or religious life. This struggle was a very personal one against the lower instincts in each of us. Over time, though, this understanding of the concept changed. As the external threat to the Islamic world grew, the principle of jihad was adapted as a call to arms of all the faithful to fight the infidel, be they the Byzantines in Asia Minor or the Crusaders who came from across the seas. Preachers at the mosques, or Islamic places of worship, became famous for preaching the holy war, with crowds of up to thirty thousand gathered inside and out to hear them.

Did you know…

  • The Koran promotes the idea of jihad, but not always as it is thought of in the West. One quote from that holy book declares, "Prescribed for you is fighting, though it be hateful to you."
  • The Muslims fought Crusaders with more than swords and bows and arrows. Zengi, the atabeg, or governor, of the city of Mosul and the Turkish Muslim leader who first organized Islam against the Crusaders, was more than a simple warrior. He established madrassas, or colleges, of Koranic studies as well as khanqas, or lodging houses, where traveling preachers and volunteers stayed as they spread the word against the Crusades.
  • Other Muslim poets took up the need for a holy war after al-Abiwardi. Ibn al-Khayyat wrote verses for his patron, or sponsor, in Damascus that described the need for jihad against the Crusaders, and other anonymous poets similarly cry out in verse for revenge against the invading Franks. Also, the legal scholar and preacher al-Sulami wrote a report of the First Crusade in Book of Holy War, explaining the motives of the Crusaders and analyzing their goals clearly for other Muslims. Al-Sulami blamed defeat on the divided world of Islam and stated that the Crusaders planned to settle permanently in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

Consider the following…

  • Discuss some of the major divisions in the Muslim world that allowed the Crusaders to be so successful initially.
  • What arguments and pleas does the author of "Poem on the Crusades" make to arouse his fellow Muslims to fight the Crusaders?
  • The Christians and Muslims thought they were fighting for God or Allah, respectively, in the wars the West calls the Crusades. Explain how, if both parties had God on their side, there could have been a war at all. Who were the "good guys" and who the "bad guys"?

Hijra: The date when Muhammad left Mecca for Medina in 622 c.e.

Khalifate/Caliphate: General name for an Islamic state during the Crusades.

Subdued: Gained control over.

Discord: Lack of agreement.

Prey: Helpless victim.

Amply: More than enough.

Procured: Gotten.

Indolence and Sloth: Laziness.

Formidable: Powerful.

Assailed: Attacked.

Calumny: False statement.

Tenets: Laws or basic principles.

Privations: Lack of basic essentials of survival, such as food and water.

Imputation: Accusation.

Sultans: State rulers or leaders.

Khalifs/Caliphs: Islamic religious leaders.

Prudence: Caution.

Deficient: Lacking.

Wrath: Anger.

Almighty: In this context, the Muslim god, Allah.

Contiguous: Adjoining, next to.

Cupola: A rounded vault, forming a roof.

Ravages and Depredations: Acts of stealing, looting, and destruction.

Degradation: Being put in a low position.

Incursion: Invasion.

Plunder: Stolen goods.

Garrisons: Military outposts.

Dominions: Lands, territories.

Confederate and Ally: Join together.

Trifling: Small, insignificant.

Irreparable: Beyond repair.

Calamity: Disaster.

Subdue: Control, hold in check.

Havoc: Chaos and disorder.

For More Information


Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2000

Ibn al-Athir. Al-Kamil fi'l-tarikh. Edited by C. J. Tornberg. Leiden, Holland, 1851–1876.

al-Makkari. The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties of Spain. Translated by Pascuual de Gayangoss. London: Oriental Translation Fund, 1840.

Web Sites

Abu l-Musaffar al-Abiwardi. "Poem on the Crusades." Norton Anthology of English Literature. (accessed on August 4, 2004).

Fordham University. "Book of the Maghrib, 13th Century." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on August 4, 2004 ).

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The Muslim Call to Arms

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