Muslim Responses to the Crusades

By Irwin, Robert | History Today, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Muslim Responses to the Crusades


Irwin, Robert, History Today


In August 1099, al-Harawi, the chief Qadi of Damascus, preached a sermon in the Great Mosque in Baghdad: `Your brothers in Syria have no home other than the saddles of their camels or the entrails of vultures'. Al-Harawi was surrounded by a throng of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who wept as he spoke, and their weeping made others in turn weep. Al-Harawi was preaching about the arrival of the armies of the First Crusade in Syria in 1097 and their successive occupation of Antioch, Edessa, and finally, in 1099, Jerusalem. Muslims from there and other places had fled to the larger Muslim cities of the hinterland, in particular to Damascus and Aleppo.

At the end of the eleventh century, Syria and Palestine were, theoretically at least, part of the Seljuk empire and as such subject to the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad and the Seljuk sultan in Isfahan. Al-Harawi's mission in Baghdad was to put pressure on the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustazhir Billah to send an army to help the Muslims against the crusaders. However, Baghdad was a long way from Jerusalem and, moreover, al-Mustazhir had no troops to speak of. Real political and military power within the territories claimed by the caliph was exercised by the Seljuk Turkish sultan. According to Muslim political theorists, the sultan was the executive servant and defender of the caliph. In practice he ran the caliphate. But if Baghdad was far from the theatre of war with the crusaders, the Seljuk capital of Isfahan (in western Iran) was further yet. The Sultan Barkiyaruq, who was precariously in control of Isfahan in 1099, had succeeded his father, the mighty Malik Shah in 1094. His enemies accused Barkiyaruq of being drunk and dissolute; he was certainly young and inexperienced. (He also suffered from piles.) In order to retain control of the core Seljuk lands of Iraq and western Iran, Barkiyaruq had to fight off rival kinsmen and Turkish officers. Syria was on the edges of the Seljuk empire and it had always been a war zone. It seems most unlikely that, from Barkiyaruq's perspective, the arrival of a Christian band of barbarians on the western edges of his empire was perceived as constituting a major problem. Rather the sultan's main goal there was to bring under his effective control cities such as Mosul, Aleppo and Damascus, which were governed in his name (but in name only) by Seljuk princes and officers.

As late as the tenth century, the jibad, or Holy War, against the Christians of the Byzantine empire was still being preached and practiced. A galaxy of soldiers, propagandists and poets celebrated the (partial and inflated) successes of the Arab Hamdanid Emir Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo against the Byzantines in the 950s. However, by the late eleventh-century, an anti-Christian jihad was no longer high on the agenda of either the sultan or the caliph. Rather, the main military and ideological threat to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate was thought to come from Shi`i Muslims.

The rift between Sunni and Shi`i Muslims went back to the seventh century, which was the first century of Islam. Sunnis believed that the leadership of the Islamic community had passed after the Prophet Mohammed's death to caliphs, drawn first from the Umayyad dynasty and later from the Abbasids. The Shi`is, however, held that only descendants of the Prophet's son-in-law, `All, were capable of inheriting any of the Prophet's authority. (Shi'at `Ali means Party of `Ali). The Shi`is venerated a succession of imams of `Alid descent. Over the centuries there were divisions among the Shi`is about the correct line of descent and many believed that their imam had withdrawn himself from the world and was in hiding until the end of time.

In the late eleventh century some were expecting the imam to emerge from occultation (and in this context the arrival of the barbarian crusaders in Syria could be seen as being like famine, plague and civil disorder, one of the bad things which presaged the end of the world). …

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