Muslim Response to the Crusades and the Cairo/Baghdad Caliphate Split

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Muslim Response to the Crusades and the Cairo/Baghdad Caliphate Split

In the late 1090s the European Crusaders in Syria and Palestine were fighting on foreign soil and in harsh, desert conditions to which they were not accustomed. They were far from their homelands and sources of supply. Further, their numbers were not very large; perhaps twenty thousand Crusaders made it to Jerusalem. After the city fell to the Crusaders in 1099, only a few thousand remained in Jerusalem and the other Crusader states, including Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli. Jerusalem remained defended by only about three hundred knights. Muslims, meanwhile, had shown themselves to be skilled warriors for centuries, as their empire grew throughout the region, across North Africa, and into Spain. Yet the Crusaders did not face a serious threat for more than four decades.

Historians give two related answers to explain why. One is that many Muslims did not regard the Crusaders as a serious threat to them, at least initially. The other is that Islam, the religion practiced by Muslims, was too divided for Muslims to mount a serious response to the Crusades. Because of these divisions, each faction, or subgroup, within Islam tended to see the other factions as greater threats than the Crusaders. Thus, to understand fully the Muslim response, or lack of response, to the Crusaders, it is necessary to understand these divisions within Islam.

The major participants

At the time of the First Crusade (1095–99) and in the years that followed, a number of major "players" occupied the Middle East.

  • Sunni Muslims: The Sunnis were the largest sect, or subgroup, of Muslims. These were the orthodox, or mainstream, Muslims who believed that the rightful successors to Muhammad, the founder of Islam, were the caliphs (Islamic spiritual leaders).
  • Abbasids: Abbasid was the name of the ruling dynasty of Sunni Muslims. They claimed to be descendants of Muhammad's uncle, Abbas. The Abbasid caliphate (the office of the caliph as well as his domain) ruled the Muslim empire from the capital city of Baghdad in Persia (modern-day Iraq).
  • Seljuks: The Seljuks were Turks who had converted to Sunni Islam. The Seljuk Empire was ruled by a Turkish sultan (the ruler of a Muslim state) from the city of Isfahan, in western Iran. While the Abbasids were the spiritual leaders of Sunni Muslims, the Seljuks held the real political power because they had the military might.
  • Shiites: The Shiites were a dissident, or rebel, faction of Islam. Their name came from the phrase Shi'at Ali, meaning "party of Ali." They believed that Muhammad's blood relative Ali should have been named caliph after Muhammad's death. To the Shiites, the Sunni Abbasids and the dynasty that preceded them, the Umayyads, were corrupt, or false. They fought the Sunnis for control of the Islamic faith (see Chapter 5 on the division between the Sunnis and the Shiites).
  • Fatimids: The Fatimids were a Shiite dynasty that ruled Egypt. They believed they were the descendants of Muhammad's daughter Fatima. They ruled from an independent caliphate in the capital city of Cairo. The Fatimids had been in control of Jerusalem until 1071, when the Seljuks drove them out, though they retook the city in 1098.

Response to the First Crusade

As the Crusaders made their way down the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Jerusalem, they occupied a number of cities, including Antioch and Edessa. To escape the Crusaders, many Muslim refugees from these cities fled farther inland to such cities as Damascus and Aleppo, both in Syria. There they began to demand a response to the Crusaders. One leader who listened to their pleas was al-Harawi, who was the chief qadi (a position similar to mayor) of Damascus. Al-Harawi traveled to Baghdad to persuade the Abbasid caliph, al-Mustazhir Billah, to send troops to confront the Crusaders.

Al-Harawi encountered two problems, though. One was that Baghdad was a long distance from Jerusalem, so the caliph did not see the Crusaders as a serious threat. The other was that the caliph had no army to send. Military power resided with the Seljuk Turks and their sultan, Barkiyaruq, in the Iranian city of Isfahan. Isfahan, however, was even farther away from Jerusalem than was Baghdad, so the sultan was even less concerned about the Crusader threat.

Moreover, the Turkish sultan had problems of his own. He was young and inexperienced, and after the death of his father in 1094 he had to fight off rivals for the sultanate and even members of his own military. Syria and Palestine, to him, were distant outposts, so he showed little interest in helping. He was more interested in the closer cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Mosul. These cities were part of the Seljuk Empire, but they were ruled by Seljuk officers who were more concerned with maintaining their own power than in submitting to the sultan.

During the tenth century Muslims had fought against the Byzantine Christians and won some major battles in the 950s. But by the end of the eleventh century, waging war against Christians was not a priority. The Turks and the Abassids tended to see the Crusaders as nothing more than soldiers for hire of the Byzantine Christians, who had already been defeated and whose empire was shrinking.

Ironically, that is just what the Crusaders were supposed to have been. The First Crusade was called in response to pleas from the Byzantine emperor. The emperor of Byzantium, the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Christian religion, believed that he could drive the Seljuks out of Byzantine territory if he expanded his army with knights from Europe. He knew, though, that Europeans probably would not help him if he appealed to them to restore his empire. He appealed to them instead on religious grounds (see "A Cry for Help" in Chapter 4). His plan backfired, however. While Crusaders came and fought the Seljuks, they were not fighting for the Byzantine emperor. They and the pope of the Catholic Church in Rome had their own religious goals, and many of the Crusaders were driven by a strong desire to win territory of their own.

The Sunni Muslims, though, did not recognize this threat. Their main concern remained trying to find a way to put down the Shiites, who, from the Sunni perspective, were a greater threat than the Crusaders. Most, though not all, Shiites believed the claims made by the separate caliphate in Cairo, Egypt: that the Fatimids were the legitimate successors to Muhammad because they were descended from Muhammad's daughter. The chief focus of the Egyptians was fighting the Sunni Seljuks for control of Palestine and Syria. Regarding the Seljuks as their real enemy, they often formed alliances with the Christians, for they saw the Christians, at least initially, as the only allies they had in fighting the Seljuks. The key point is that at the time of the First Crusade, two independent caliphates—a Sunni caliphate based in Baghdad and a Shiite caliphate based in Cairo—were more worried about each other than they were about an unruly mob of western Christians in their lands. To the Seljuks, the Crusaders were merely a distraction from their fight against the Shiites, especially the Fatimids.

One way to measure the level of interest Muslims took in the Crusaders is to examine mentions of the Crusaders in the literature of the time. A few Arab poets condemned the Crusaders, and several decades after the First Crusade, several of them celebrated such events as the recapture of Edessa in 1144 (see "The Second Crusade" in Chapter 6). Other poets, though, wrote about their relationships with the Crusaders in more tolerant ways. Some expressed great admiration for the beauty of European women. Others wrote of friendships that they had formed with the Crusaders. Some voiced admiration for the bravery of the Crusaders and their willingness to die, though they were quite troubled by how dirty the Europeans were. They were also puzzled by the European custom of shaving their faces, for Islamic teaching dictated that men should wear beards. Still other poets ignored the presence of the Crusaders. Arab historians at the time noted the presence of the Crusaders but little else. Much of their surviving work is about the quarrels between Sunnis and Shiites rather than about the Crusaders. Had the Crusaders been seen as a serious threat, rather than a nuisance, it is likely that the Arab literature of the time would have expressed more outrage and called to expel them (drive them out).

The counter-Crusade begins

Only slowly did the Muslims of Syria and Palestine begin to recognize the religious aims of the Crusaders, who did not appear to be going home. They began to search for a leader who could drive out the Crusaders, but they knew that they could not count on Baghdad for help. The leader had to come from within Syria itself, possibly from Aleppo or Damascus.

The first effort to fight back was launched by the qadi of Aleppo, who recruited a Turkish emir (commander), Ilghazi, from a nearby town to lead the fight against the Crusaders. In 1119 his army, together with an army led by the emir of Damascus, marched on the city of Antioch, and on June 28 they defeated a Crusader army led by the Christian ruler of Antioch, Roger. This was a major blow to the Crusaders, but little came of it. Ilghazi, an alcoholic, died just three years later without having followed up on his victory.

In the 1120s another leader emerged, Ilghazi's nephew Balak. Balak inspired a great deal of fear in the Crusaders. One western historian of the time, Fulcher of Chartres, referred to him as "the Raging Dragon." In 1122 he captured Joscelin, the cousin of the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II. Then in 1123 he captured the king himself. By 1124 Balak was the ruler of Aleppo, and he began to reconquer territory held by the Christians. But fate intervened. In 1124 the Muslims of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) called on Balak to rescue them from a Crusader siege of the city. Just before he departed, he was inspecting his troops and the fortifications, or defenses, around Aleppo when a stray arrow struck him in the chest and he died. Once again, Syrian Muslims were left without a leader. In the meantime, the Assassins, a secretive Shiite sect (see "The Assassins" in Chapter 5), continued to try to overthrow the Sunnis. They assassinated the emirs of Aleppo and Mosul, further undermining any united Muslim response to the Crusaders.

Zengi, Nur al-Din, and Saladin

Serious jihad, or holy war, against the Crusaders came from another Seljuk Turk, Imad al-Din Zengi. In 1126 Zengi rose to power in Baghdad. There, the Abbasid caliph tried to free the caliphate from the Seljuks and led an uprising. Zengi was the Turkish general who put down the uprising. In the 1130s he began to reconquer lands in Syria. This effort came to a climax in 1144, when he laid siege to the city of Edessa and finally entered the city on Christmas Eve of that year.

After Zengi's death in 1146, his son, Nur al-Din, remained in charge of Aleppo. The emir of Damascus, though, did not trust al-Din, whom he saw as an ambitious Turk with the aim of conquering all of Syria. Nevertheless, he tried to keep peace with al-Din. At this point, the European Christians made a major blunder. They could have kept Aleppo and Damascus divided, but the fall of Edessa to Zengi prompted calls for the Second Crusade in Europe (see "The Second Crusade" in Chapter 6). When the Crusaders, led by French king Louis VII, arrived in the Holy Land in 1149, they attacked Damascus, the Crusaders' only ally in the region. With little choice, the emir of Damascus called on al-Din to come to the defense of the city. The Second Crusade ended in a humiliating defeat for the Crusaders and succeeded only in strengthening al-Din. In 1154 Damascus fell to al-Din's forces.

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, however, continued. Al-Din, rather than focusing his attention on the Crusaders, turned instead against Egypt and the Shiite Fatimid dynasty. To fight him off, the Egyptians formed an alliance with the Crusaders, but while fighting was going on in Egypt, al-Din successfully attacked near Antioch and captured a large number of Crusader troops, as well as their leaders.

Finally, in 1169, al-Din's forces defeated the Fatimids and entered Cairo. At their head was al-Din's nephew, Saladin. Saladin would go on to play a major role in the Third Crusade, but in the meantime he spent the next decade or so subduing other Muslim leaders in the region. Only after he patched together a shaky alliance, or union, with them was he able to confront the Crusader forces led by King Richard I of England.

In sum, it took decades for the Muslims to understand that the Crusaders planned to be a permanent presence in the region. Only then, in the mid-twelfth century, were they able to begin to recapture some of their territory. The capture of Edessa was a turning point, for it represented the first loss of a major Crusader city. From then on, the rest of the history of the Crusades was largely one of defeat, or at best stalemate, for the Crusaders. Still, because of divisions in Islam, it took nearly a century for Muslims to respond effectively to the Crusaders.

For More Information


Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Translated by E. J. Costello. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Runciman, Steven. A History of the Crusades. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1951–1954.


Irwin, Robert. "Muslim Responses to the Crusades." History Today, 47, no. 4 (April 1997): 43–49.

Web Sites

Irwin, Robert. History Today: Muslim Responses to the Crusades. (accessed on August 11, 2004).

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Muslim Response to the Crusades and the Cairo/Baghdad Caliphate Split

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