God’s Battalions

After centuries of apologies for Christian perfidy, perhaps it is time to rethink the Crusades. 
Bill Muehlenberg | Oct 16 2009 | comment  

Very few people have much good to say about the Crusades. Most think they were a terrible blight on Christian history and could never be justified. Ever since the Enlightenment Christianity has been reviled because of the Crusades; nowadays apologies are in vogue. In 1999, the 900th anniversary of the sacking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, the New York Times compared the Crusades to Hitler’s atrocities. That same year hundreds of Protestants walked in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "I apologise" in Arabic. After 9/11, former President Bill Clinton said "those of us from various European lineages are not blameless".

Rodney Stark’s new book, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, almost revolutionary. He takes head on myth after myth and makes a strong case that the Crusades were in fact in many ways justifiable. He clearly demonstrates that modern historians have distorted the historical record. This takes guts, intellectual rigour and academic qualifications. Stark is the man for the job: he has become one of our finest writers on the sociology and history of religion, and is unafraid to question the conventional wisdom. In previous books, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (1996), One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (2001), or The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (2005), he has broken new ground.

The negative image of the Crusades began with the Enlightenment about 300 years ago. Critics claimed that the Crusaders were mainly about greed for land, loot and converts. Moreover, bloodthirsty, barbaric Christians are contrasted with the peace-loving Muslims. As usual, Voltaire says it best: the Crusades, he wrote, were "an epidemic of fury which lasted for two hundred years and which was always marked by every cruelty, every perfidy, every debauchery, and every folly of which human nature is capable." But as Stark persuasively documents, almost none of this is true. The real story is that the Crusades were certainly provoked, and the Crusaders were mainly concerned to free the Holy Lands from Muslim oppression and to protect religious pilgrims. The seven major Crusades from 1095 to 1291 were, he says, episodes in "a justified war waged against Muslim terror and aggression".

To properly understand the Crusades, a lot of background information is needed. That is why Stark spends the first hundred pages of his book looking at the 600-year period of Muslim conquests and dhimmitude. The story begins in the seventh century when Muslim armies swept over the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. One Christian land after another was attacked and conquered.

Stark reminds us that Muhammad told his followers, "I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’" Therefore a century after his death vast swathes of territory hung under the bloody sword of Islam. And what of the conquered Christians? They, along with Jews, were known as dhimmis. While revisionist historians and Muslim apologists praise Muslim tolerance, the "truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different". Subject peoples had few options: death, enslavement or conversion were the main avenues open to them. Dhimmitude was no picnic. Death was the fate of anyone who dared to abjure Islam. No churches or synagogues could be built. There was to be no public praying or reading of Scripture. Christians and Jews were at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst, punished and killed.

Massacres of Jews and Christians were common in the centuries leading up to the Crusades. Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 638. The Dome of the Rock was built between 685 to 691, and churches and synagogues were levelled in the ensuing centuries. In 1032 and1033 in Morocco alone, over six thousand Jews were murdered.

The condition of Christians in Jerusalem was appalling, as was the plight of pilgrims who risked their lives simply to travel to the holy city. The bloody reign of Tariqu al-Hakim, the sixth Fatimid caliph of Egypt at the end of the first millennia was the climax to the misery and outrage of this period. He ordered the destruction or confiscation of 30,000 churches, including the obliteration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is in this light of six centuries of Islamic conquest, bloodshed and tyranny that the Crusades must be viewed. They were not always pretty, but life everywhere in the Middle Ages was harsh. Crusader excesses took place, but they were more than matched by Muslim excesses. "Granted," says Stark, "it was a cruel and bloody age, but nothing is to be gained either in terms of moral insights or historical comprehension by anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention on these times."

He looks at the various Crusades, dealing with the host of mythologies that have grown up around them. One is the depiction of Saladin as a gallant, humane Muslim resisting treacherous Christians. And it is a fact that when he re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187, the city was spared a massacre – but "half the city’s Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets". And as Stark reminds us, Jerusalem was the exception to Saladin’s normal style, which was savage butchery of his enemies. Indeed, he had been looking forward to massacring the inhabitant of Jerusalem, before a compromise was struck.

Then there is the myth that the Crusades have been a longstanding grievance amongst Muslims. Not so argues Stark: "Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the onset of actual European colonialism in the Middle East".

Christians today can well argue whether the Crusades were in fact warranted. But any such discussion about the pros and cons must be made after having a clear understanding of what exactly transpired and why. This book admirably serves that purpose.

Bill Muehlenberg is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at several Melbourne theological colleges and a PhD candidate at Deakin University.

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