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.

Only slowly, from the 1140s onwards, was a counter-Crusading ideology and praxis formed under the leadership of such heroic warlords as Zengi, Nur al-Din and Saladin. The military leaders were assisted in their campaigns by the growth of propaganda in verse and prose in favour of Jihad and a general moral rearmament of the Muslims. The changing moral climate brought about by the preaching of the counter-Crusade can be traced in the drinking habits of its leaders. Il-Ghazi, the ruler of Mardin, celebrated a victory over Roger of Antioch in 1119 ‘by indulging in excessive bouts of drinking’. Zengi was murdered by a slave as he lay in a drunken stupor. His son, Nur al-Din, was similarly fond of alcohol, but he repented and turned ascetic after suffering a series of defeats at the hands of the Franks. His successor, Saladin, drank nothing stronger than sherbet. Later yet, in the 1260s, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars took steps to prevent the consumption of alcohol in his army.

If Yasir Suleiman means that the history of the Crusades has been skewed by failure to make sufficient use of sources in Arabic, then he is certainly correct. Hillenbrand has performed a great service in bringing together such a mass of hitherto underused and even unused material in a single capacious volume. Nevertheless, as she notes again and again, there are problems. When they wrote about their Christian neighbours, Arab chroniclers, geographers and chancellery officials were inclined to make use of a large repertoire of conventional and rather bombastic literary tropes which often make it frustratingly difficult to discern the underlying reality. Battles and sieges were frequently evoked by stereotyped metaphors couched in rhymed prose or verse. For almost two centuries Crusaders and Muslims were neighbours in Syria, yet this did not promote mutual understanding. As Edward Said has observed, ‘there were the redoubtable conquering Eastern movements, principally Islam, of course; there were the militant pilgrims, chiefly the Crusaders. Altogether an internally structured archive is built up from the literature that belongs to these experiences. Out of this comes a restricted number of typical encapsulations.’ Western views of medieval Muslims were based on disparaging stereotypes, fuelled by fear and contempt. The same was true in reverse. Arabic sources routinely portrayed the Franks as accursed, unwashed, lascivious brutes. Contact with them was defiling. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was almost invariably referred to as the Church of Garbage. Christian priests were alleged to encourage their female parishioners into prostitution. Saladin’s encomiast, ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfa-hani, referred to the Franks as ‘a swarm of flies’ and as ‘grasshoppers without wings’. As for Christianity, the anonymous 12th-century author of the Sea of Precious Virtues announced that ‘anyone who believes that his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, and he has neither intelligence nor faith.’

In a final chapter, on ‘The Heritage of the Crusades’, Hillenbrand quotes Akbar Ahmed, a prominent Islamic writer living in the West:

The memory of the Crusades lingers in the Middle East and colours Muslim perceptions of Europe. It is the memory of an aggressive, backward and religiously fanatic Europe. This historical memory would be reinforced in the 19th and 20th centuries as imperial Europeans once again arrived to subjugate and colonise territories in the Middle East. Unfortunately, this legacy of bitterness is overlooked by most Europeans when thinking of the Crusades.

This is true. Few Westerners take account of Muslim resentment about the Crusades. In part this may be because only a small handful feel bitter about the Muslim conquest of Syria in the seventh century, of Spain in the eighth century and of the Balkans during the 15th and 16th centuries. History moves on. However, as Hillenbrand notes, it ‘is a strange irony that Western Europe lost the Crusades militarily but went on to “win the world”, whilst the Muslims won the Crusades but subsequently viewed themselves as being trapped in a subordinate position to the West’. Indeed, as early as the 16th century, an Ottoman Turkish observer of the European colonisation of America gloomily and accurately speculated that this would tip the balance against the Islamic world.

In theory, the arrival of the Crusaders in the Near East should have offered opportunities as well as dangers. Yet, as Joshua Prawer, a distinguished Israeli historian of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, lamented, for two hundred years the Frankish settlers ‘lived among the Muslims and Greeks, who had something to teach Europe’, but the Crusader Kingdom never became ‘a bridge, neither of Greek nor of Arab culture, to Europe. The bridges are in Sicily, in Spain – never in the Holy Land.’ In large part, this failure to build bridges was the result of a marked lack of cultural receptivity on the part of the Franks who had settled in the East. In fact, Europe in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries – the Europe of Anselm, Adelard of Bath, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard, Hugh of St Victor, Suger, Otto of Freising, John of Salisbury, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Hildegard of Bingen, Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Roger Bacon, Snorri Sturluson, Leonardo Fibonacci, Aquinas and many others – was not so very backward. (Moreover, Western Europe had already outstripped the Middle East in many crucial aspects of engineering and technology.) The problem was that Anselm and his intellectual peers tended not to go on Crusade or to settle in the Crusading principalities. A Paris-trained intellectual, like William, Archbishop of Tyre, was most unusual in the Outremer.

It was also the case, however, that, unless the Franks had chosen to interest themselves in the study of the Quran and the orally transmitted traditions concerning the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries, there was probably not so very much they could have learned from their Muslim subjects and neighbours in the 12th century. The Crusaders had conquered small towns which traded in soap, leather and glass. These places were intellectual backwaters and a long way from the great cultural centres of Baghdad or Isfahan. The last great age of cultural efflorescence in Syria had taken place under the Hamdanid princes in Aleppo in the tenth century. The famous poets al-Mutanabbi and Abu Tammam, the philosopher al-Farabi, the preacher Ibn Nubata and many others had flourished under the benign patronage of this great Arab dynasty. However, by the 1090s, the region boasted no philosophers, scientists, poets or historians of any real eminence or originality. Doubtless the cultural decline was exacerbated by the coming of the Crusaders, as the latter killed scholars and either destroyed libraries or redistributed their contents. (We know that they ransomed the Arabic books looted in Jerusalem to the Fatimid garrison in Ascalon.)

Although Hillenbrand’s book is a landmark, Emmanuel Sivan was the pioneer in the study of the Muslim response to the Crusades. His brilliant monograph L’Islam et la Croisade: Idéologie et propagande dans les réactions musulmanes aux Croisades (1968) presented the results of intensive research into chronicles, poems, sermons, treatises on Holy War and on the ‘excellencies’ of Jerusalem in a remarkably condensed yet incisive fashion. Hillenbrand’s bulkier study fleshes out Sivan’s arguments rather than overturns them. True, Hillenbrand believes that Sivan has overemphasised the ideological factors behind the counter-Crusade at the expense of more simple motives, such as military expansion and xenophobia on the Muslim side, and overemphasised, too, the achievement of Saladin and the climactic nature of his capture of Jerusalem at the expense of his predecessor Nur al-Din’s more dogged efforts to get the Jihad underway. She also argues that the role of the Fatimids of Egypt in resisting the Crusaders in the early decades of the 12th century has been underestimated. Sivan noted the poor quality of the anti-Crusader polemic and deduced from it that the region was culturally stagnant. Hillenbrand doubts this but, whatever the truth of this and other matters, she and Sivan differ in degrees of interpretation only.

In a concluding chapter which sketched out promising fields for future research, Sivan suggested that it might be rewarding to look into the way the Crusaders and Europeans in general were portrayed in the anonymous works of popular folk literature. Hillenbrand has done this and the results are entertaining. For example, this passage from The Tale of ‘Umar bin Nu‘man in the Thousand and One Nights:

To tell you something of the supreme incense of patriarchal excrements: when the High Patriarch of the Christians in Constantinople made a motion, the priests would diligently collect it in squares of silk and dry it in the sun. They then would mix it with musk, amber and benzoin, and, when it was quite dry, powder it and put it in little gold boxes. These boxes were sent to all Christian kings and churches.

Unlike L’Islam et la Croisade, The Crusades is not narrowly focused on ideological and literary matters. Hillenbrand devotes attention to arms and armour, warfare and details of material culture in the region. It is appropriate then that the book is heavily illustrated with colour plates, black and white photographs and line drawings of castles, mangonels, ships, mounted warriors, heraldic blazons and so forth, all drawn from the repertoire of Islamic art and architecture. The concluding survey of the political and psychological aftermath of the Crusades in the Middle East is fascinating: it includes such matters as the current use of counter-Crusade iconography in the propaganda of the Iraqi and Syrian Ba‘th Parties and the Palestinian liberation groups’ presentation of Israel as the direct heir of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Whether these and other rhetorical analogies drawn from the Crusader past can help in dealing with current problems is extremely doubtful.

Finally, Hillenbrand’s book possesses one further, rather obvious advantage over Sivan’s. It is written in English. Sadly, this is not a trivial point. Rather few undergraduates these days seem to be comfortable reading French (still less German). When I was a student in the Sixties, shops like the Malet Street Dillons in London and Black-well’s in Oxford still sold historical monographs in foreign languages, but to judge from the current monoglot stock of university bookshops in London, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Oxford, neither the students of history nor their teachers are up to reading in foreign languages any longer.