Church of Garbage

Robert Irwin

  • The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives by Carole Hillenbrand
    Edinburgh, 648 pp, £80.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 7486 0905 9

In his preface to The Crusades, Yasir Suleiman, professor of Arabic at Edinburgh University, observes that ‘the author has as her primary aim the scholarly objective of balancing the skewed picture of the Crusades in Western scholarship.’ I’m not sure what he means by this. David Hume, in his History of Great Britain (1754-62), denounced the Crusades as ‘the most signal and durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’. Gibbon considered them to be an expression of ‘savage fanaticism’. In a History of the Crusades (1820), one of the earliest studies devoted specifically to the topic, Charles Mills deplored the medieval fanaticism and popery. In The Mameluke or Slave Dynasty of Egypt (1896), William Muir, while suggesting that the Crusades had a positive role in rousing Europe from the slumber of the Dark Ages, went on to denounce them:

The Crusades aggravated the intolerance of the day and promoted deeds of bloodshed and cruelty in the Christian ranks as appalling at times as those of their enemy; while we also have the strange combination of fanatical piety hand in hand with the lowest vices of humanity. Indeed, it is often difficult to recognise the Faith of Jesus either in the religion which, throughout these two centuries, the Popes and their Councils kept sending back to the land of its birth, or in the agencies by which it sought to establish it there.

Much more recently, Sir Steven Runciman, the 96-year-old doyen of Crusading studies, has written that ‘the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.’ The wickedness of Crusading and Crusaders had established itself as one of the pieties of Crusading historiography long before the veteran Python, Terry Jones, delivered his adverse verdict on television. Even novelists like Scott, Henty and Rider Haggard have been inclined to take a remarkably severe view of the Crusading enterprise.

It is hardly surprising that modern Arab historians, besides condemning the Crusades, have also tended to present those expeditions as the forerunners or even causes of modern developments in the Middle East. As Carole Hillenbrand remarks, ‘some contemporary Arab and Muslim scholars evaluate and reinterpret the Crusading phenomenon in the light of recent experiences such as colonialism, Arab nationalism, the establishment of the state of Israel, the liberation of Palestine and the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism”.’ Medieval Arab observers of the coming of the First Crusade in the late 1090s were not at first inclined to give much importance to the coming of the Franj (or Franks). They were under the impression that they were facing just another barbarian invasion, or perhaps a new group of Byzantine mercenaries. They did not recognise that the Crusaders were driven by religious motives and gave no thought to the long-term strategic dangers posed to Islam by the establishment of the Crusader principalities. Only one man, al-Sulami, as early as 1105, wrote a treatise on Holy War, in which he warned that Muslim disunity and slackness were doing the Crusaders’ work for them. If the Muslims did not act quickly, the Franks would seize all the Syrian ports. However, al-Sulami was a little known philologist and religious lawyer in Damascus and he was for a while more or less alone in holding such alarmist opinions. The Franks went on to take all the ports on the Syro-Palestinian littoral.

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