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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Crusades were entirely predictable responses to medieval Muslim aggression

The Crusades 101 Jimmy Akin This article was originally published in the January/February 2002 issue of Catholic Dossier.
As conventionally reckoned, the Crusades were a set of eight expeditions to the East that occurred in just under a two-century period, from 1095 to 1270. The term crusade has since expanded to be applied to a wide variety of wars--especially ones involving religion--and even to things that are not wars at all (e.g., Billy Graham's evangelistic events). Here we will focus on the eight traditional Crusades.
Historical Background Understanding the Crusades requires an appreciation of the events that led to them. Since the legalization of Christianity in the early 300s, European Christians had been conducting pilgrimages to Palestine in order to visit the holy sites associated with the life of our Lord. These pilgrimages were major exercises of piety, for in that age travel to the Holy Land was difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and dangerous. Some pilgrimages took years to complete.
Christians also went to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in order to live ascetic lives. This was the age in which Christian monasticism blossomed, and numerous Christians were anxious to go to the Holy Land and Egypt in order to lead lives consecrated to God by asceticism. They also undertook the hardships of the journey. For both pilgrims and ascetics there was one factor ameliorating the journey: the path to Palestine went through Christian lands.
In A.D. 612, the Arabian Muhammad, son of Abdallah, reported receiving a prophetic call from God through the angel Gabriel. At first, he made few converts. However, after being driven from his native Mecca in 622, he found refuge in the city of Medina, where his followers increased. Mounting a military campaign, Muhammad conquered several pagan, Jewish, and Christian tribes and was able to seize control of his native Mecca, as well as all of Arabia. He died in 632.
Following his death, Muhammad's successors--the caliphs--continued an aggressive campaign of expansion. In less than a century they had seized control--among other lands--of Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Though today we are used to thinking of these lands as Muslim, at the time they were Christian. It has been said that the expanding Muslim empire consumed half of Christian civilization. Even Europe itself was threatened. Muslims seized control of southern Spain, invaded France, and were threatening to invade Rome itself when their advance was defeated by Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732. It had been a hard century.
After Muslim expansion in Western Europe had been checked for the moment, their attention for a time turned elsewhere, and within two more centuries they had conquered Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India. They also later advanced against Christian nations, conquering the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and encroaching as far as Vienna, Austria in 1683.
The Crusades occurred in the middle of this struggle. The immediate preparation for them took place in the eleventh century, with increases in long-standing tensions between Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land. Palestine had been under Muslim control for some time, though with concessions to the Christians who visited and lived in it. However, in 1009 the Fatimite caliph of Egypt ordered the destruction of the Holy Sepulchre--the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem--which was a principal focus of Christian pilgrimages. It was later rebuilt. The heightened danger to Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land only served to increase enthusiasm for such journeys, as they were now more difficult and thus greater acts of piety. During the eleventh century, thousands of Christians braved the dangers, often traveling with armed Christian escorts, who sometimes protected as many as twelve thousand pilgrims at a time.
The Seljuq Turks, who had embraced Islam in the tenth century, began conquering parts of the Muslim world, which made pilgrimages more dangerous, if not impossible. The Seljuqs took Jerusalem in 1070 and began threatening the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperor Romanus IV Diogenes was captured by the Seljuqs at the battle of Manzikert in 1071. His successor, Michael VII Ducas, sought the aid of Pope Gregory VII, who considered leading a military expedition to drive back the Turks, recover the Holy Sepulchre, and restore Christian unity following the de facto breach that had occurred with Eastern Christendom in 1054.
However, the Investiture Controversy frustrated these plans.The Seljuqs continued to expand, in 1084 capturing the city of Antioch and in 1092 the city of Nicaea, where two famous ecumenical councils had been held centuries before. By the 1090s, the historic metropolitan sees of Asia were in the hands of Muslims, who were now dangerously close to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, appealed to Pope Urban II for aid...
An Appraisal Many today in the self-reflective West view the Crusades as acts of unjustified aggression toward the peaceful inhabitants of the East and the Holy Land. However, even a cursory familiarity with the centuries in question makes this assessment difficult to sustain.
This may be seen clearly, for example, by transposing the roles of the forces. If the Crusades had occurred in the middle of a multi-century campaign in which Christians consumed half of what historically had been Muslim territory, few would regard Muslims as completely unjustified in striking back, in an attempt to reclaim lands lost to Christians, especially if these lands contained many of their co-religionists.
Few would expect Muslims to sit idly by if Christians seized control of and denied Muslims access to the Kaaba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. It would be fully expected that Muslims would retaliate and seek to reclaim control of or access to their holy sites.
Common sense makes it difficult not to see among the chief lessons of the Crusades "Don't conquer half of another group's civilization without expecting reprisals" and "Don't touch a people's holy sites without expecting retaliation." Far from being embarrassed by what the crusaders did, contemporary Christians should be proud that--despite their own internecine struggles in the Middle Ages--prior generations of Christians found the wherewithal to do precisely what Muslims would do in the same situation.
Christians today certainly should deplore evil acts committed during the Crusades, such as the massacres of innocent Muslims and Jews that periodically occurred, as well as the entire debacle of the Fourth Crusade. However, the enterprise of the Crusades themselves had two important goals at its core: the defense of Christian civilization against outside aggression (making the Crusades as a whole wars of self-defense) and securing access to the holy sites that commemorate to the most important events in world history.
It is also difficult to review the Crusades without thinking of them in light of recent events. In particular, one wonders whether future generations of Muslims will look back on the present time.
  • Will they see the recent Islamic terrorist campaigns as what they were: attacks on innocent, non-combatants that, like all such attacks, are intrinsically unjustifiable?
  • Will they regard the turn-of-the-millennium jihads as unrighteous "crusades"?
  • And will the Muslim world ever gain the degree of self-reflection needed to recognize the Crusades as the entirely predictable responses to medieval Muslim aggression?

Related Articles: • Crusade Myths Thomas F. Madden• Urban II: The Pope of the First Crusade Régine Pernoud• Mistakes, Yes. Conspiracies, No. The Fourth Crusade Vince Ryan• Is Dialogue with Islam Possible? Some Reflections on Pope Benedict XVI's Address at the University of Regensburg Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.• The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. • Benedict Takes the Next Step with Islam Mark Brumley• 9/11 Revisited Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.• The Molochs of Modernity Dr. Jose Yulo• Spartans, Traitors, and Terrorists Dr. Jose Yulo• Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul Dr. Jose Yulo• The Echo of Melos: How Ancient Honor Unmasks Islamic Terror Dr. Jose Yulo• Martyrs and Suicide Bombers Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.• The One War, The Real War Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.• Wars Without Violence? Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Jimmy Akin is Director of Apologetics and Evangelization at Catholic Answers in San Diego. He is the author of Mass Confusion and The Salvation Controversy (Catholic Answers), and the booklet, Islam: A Catholic Perspective. Get a daily dose of Jimmy at his weblog,

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