Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Crusades: A Response to Islamic Aggression

Academic journal article Comparative Civilizations Review

The Crusades: A Response to Islamic Aggression

Article excerpt

One of the most potent myths of our age is that the Crusades were little more than an unprovoked attack by a barbarous Europe against a quiescent and cultured Islamic world. According to conventional ideas, the seventh and eighth centuries constitute the great age of Islamic expansion. By the eleventh century - the time of the First Crusade - we are told that the Islamic world was quiescent and settled and that, by implication, the Crusaders were the aggressors. Indeed, the Crusaders are routinely portrayed as a horde of barbarians from a backward and superstitious Europe irrupting into the cultured and urbane world of the eleventh century Near East.

This at least is the populist language often employed on television and in newspaper articles. In my recent book Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, I have shown however that before the advent of Islam Christians had no concept of "Holy War" at all, and that it was from the Muslims themselves that Europeans took this idea. I showed too that the Crusades, far from being an unprovoked act of aggression on the part of Christian Europe, were part of a rearguard action aimed at stemming the Muslim advance which, by the start of the eleventh century, was threatening as never before to overwhelm the whole of Europe.

Notwithstanding the evidence presented in Holy Warriors, the consensus, until very recent times at least, among the majority of medieval historians is that the threat from Islam had very little, if anything, to do with the Crusades; the Muslims were simply the convenient targets of a savage and brutal Europe, mired in a culture of habitual violence and rapine. It is true that this picture is now coming under attack, as for example the recent comments of Bernard Lewis illustrate. In Lewis' words:

"We are now expected to believe that the Crusades were an unwarranted act of aggression against a peaceful Muslim world. Hardly. The first call for a crusade occurred in 846 CE, when an Arab expedition to Sicily sailed up the Tiber and sacked St Peter's in Rome. A synod in France issued an appeal to Christian sovereigns to rally against 'the enemies of Christ,' and the pope, Leo IV, offered a heavenly reward to those who died fighting the Muslims. A century and a half and many battles later, in 1096, the Crusaders actually arrived in the Middle East. The Crusades were a late, limited, and unsuccessful imitation of the jihad - an attempt to recover by holy war what was lost by holy war. It failed, and it was not followed up." (Bernard Lewis, 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture, March 7).

The same line has also been taken by a small group of other writers, most notably by Thomas F. Madden, who argues that the prevailing view of the Crusaders as early European colonialists (barbarous colonialists) is one that owes far more to modern American and European anti-colonialist prejudices than to the facts of history. Madden too emphasizes the defensive nature of the Crusades and is extremely critical of those historians who fail to see this. (See Madden's "Crusade Propaganda" article and book on the Crusades)

Notwithstanding these voices of dissent, the view that yet prevails in popular culture and indeed in academia is of an advanced, cultured and urbane Islamic civilization subjected to an almost entirely unprovoked attack by a backward and semi-barbarous Europe. This is the view, for example, expressed in David Levering Lewis' recently published, God's Crucible: Islam and the making of Europe, 570-1215, and it is one that is predicated upon the belief - still almost universally held - that for centuries (during the so-called "Dark Ages") Europe was a semi-literate and semi-savage backwater, a cultural graveyard mired in poverty, brutality and illiteracy.

For David Lewis, as for academia in general, the impact of Islam upon Europe was entirely beneficent; for it was precisely during Europe's Dark Age that Islam experienced its Golden Age - three centuries during which Islam led the world in terms of culture and learning. …

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