Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages

Steve Muhlberger

One of the episodes of Muslim history that is best known to people in North America is the history of the Crusades.

The Crusades have had one important result that still affects us today -- they helped to produce or solidify the idea in Christian countries that Islam was an evil, hostile force, permanently opposed to Christianity, and against which Christians would justifiably have to struggle forever, or at least until total victory was attained.

From the other side of the conflict, the Islamic side the results of the Crusades, with one big exception, were rather marginal.

How can this be?  How can the Crusades be so important for Western Christianity and rather trivial for the Muslim sphere?   This is one of the issues that we will explore in this lecture.

It is hard to put chronological limits on the Crusading era, because it took a long time to get rolling and took a long time to peter out.   From the moment that Muslim rulers took it upon themselves to conquer the world for Islam, and establish Islam’s supremacy wherever possible, they evoked hostility from Christian rulers, who saw Muslims as heretics or pagans.   From the beginning of the Arab conquests, Muslim armies were in conflict with the Byzantine armies, and the Byzantine empire took a back seat to no one when it came to enforcing God’s will on earth.  Wherever Christian rulers and Muslim rulers bordered on each other, there was potential for a rather nasty kind of war, because the two groups did not accord each other  the full courtesies that they might give to enemies with whom they shared a religion.  In particular, it was legitimate for Christians to enslave Muslim prisoners of war, and vice-versa.

Nevertheless, the religious division did not mean permanent holy war for either side. Despite the potential for holy war, nothing major developed between the early 700s and the year 1000.

What it took to turn potential holy war into the real thing was a combination of  developments, coming more or less together.  These included Western European expansion; the association, in Christendom, of the ideas of holy war and pilgrimage; and the promotion of these ideas at a crucial time.

After the year 1000, Western Europeans were expanding expansion in all directions.   In a time of expansion, people move around.  One consecrated type of travel was the pilgrimage, especially to sites where relics were found.   There were four major pilgrimage sites that outranked all others -- Santiago de Compostella, Monte Gargano, Rome, and Jerusalem.   Two of them, Santiago and Monte Gargano, were very close to the boundary between Muslim-ruled and Christian-ruled lands.   Jerusalem, of course, was deep in Muslim territory and had been since the 640s.

Pilgrim travel picked up to all these locations in the 10th and 11th centuries.   Some of the travel was peaceful -- notably the trip to Jerusalem.   But the trip to Santiago and to a lesser extent the trip to Monte Gargano came to have military associations.   Monte Gargano was  in an area of conflict between Normans, Lombards, Byzantines and Muslims (based in Sicily).  Santiago was the most important Christian shrine in Spain, and a center for Christian resistance to and aggression against the Muslim rulers of the south.  Pilgrimages to Santiago became extremely popular, and some of the biggest monastic organizations in France regularly sent big tours.  Some of the pilgrims who went were warriors, and they went to fight the infidels as well as see the shrine of St. James.

The idea of armed pilgrimage caught the imagination of Western Europe. around the year 1095.  Circumstances:   The expansion of the Seljuk Turks throughout the Middle East had resulted in a major Byzantine. defeat and the loss of Romania (now Turkey!).  Simultaneously there was an interruption of the pilgrimage routes to Jerusalem.

As a result there were appeals from Byzantine empire to Rome (meaning the pope) for help (meaning a mercenary force).
The pope saw this appeal from Constantinople as an opportunity to exert his leadership of Western Christian society.  Sending a force to the east under his direction was a way of dealing with a number of problems:

So in 1095, at a church council at Clermont in France, Pope Urban II called upon the soldiers of Europe, knights and footmen both, to cease their internecine quarrels and march against the “demon-enslaved race [the Turks]” who were oppressing the churches of the East and preventing pilgrims from reaching Jerusalem.   He told them, too, that they would do well by doing good:  they would enrich themselves by reclaiming Christian hands from infidel hands.  One chronicler recorded that the pope referred to the “land of milk and honey.”

The pope hoped to raise an organized force to help the emperor at Constantinople recover “Romania.”  What he got was a mass movement, to whom the recovery of  Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulcher -- religious images of great power -- and the conquest of the “land of milk and honey” were the primary goal.   A number of  armies, some of them more like mobs or barbarian migrations than organized armies, set out for Jerusalem, and though most of them fell apart or were destroyed, an army led by some middle-rank nobles did take Jerusalem in 1099.   A major reason  for their success:  the disunity of the Turks, whose amirs were in constant competition with each.
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This unexpected, nearly miraculous victory of the First Crusade gave people the idea that this kind of thing was a practical proposition.   There was a continuing fixation on the Middle East as a field for colonial expansion (as much the weakened Byzantine empire as Muslim lands).   Likewise there emerged the notion that the pope had the right and obligation to direct the military energies of Western Christendom against Christendom’s enemies (Muslims, pagans, heretical or schismatic Christians), which made possible international cooperation in such expeditions, not just to the Holy Land but to Spain and the Baltic.  Finally,  Muslims, as the occupiers of holy turf, were as Christianity’s public enemy #1.

Was this a practical program of reconquest?  Yes and no.   Crusading energies helped accomplish two major changes in the balance of power between Muslims and Christians in the Mediterranean basin.

Otherwise, it is easy to see the Crusades as a failure.  Christian rulers could not  hold onto the Holy Land and Jerusalem.   They Even failed to help the Byzantine Empire recover its lost territory and strength.

The main reason for this was that most Crusaders, however pious, were also looking for profit.  As a site for making potential profits, Jerusalem and the surrounding area were pretty small change.  It was not all that rich, and it was difficult to defend -- impossible, actually, unless there was constant support from overseas.  Other areas promised either greater profits or greater safety.
Despite some very flashy and expensive expeditions led by major monarchs, it proved impossible for Western Christian forces to hold onto any part of the continental Middle East on a permanent basis, and after the year 1300 there were no more armed pilgrimages to Palestine.   It turned out to be more practical to build up an island empire including Cyprus, Crete, and various Greek islands and coastal enclaves.  As for the Byzantine empire, rather than being helped by the Crusaders, it  became their prey and was severely weakened by Western attacks.

On the other hand, the Islamic world was not very much affected by Crusades in any discernible way -- with the single exception of Muslim Spain.  The loss of Muslim Spain was the loss of a vital Islamic cultural area, one that had been influential far beyond its shores.  But otherwise, the Crusades represented two things:
 

With all that, however, the Crusades were not a big issue in the world of Islam.  It was a parochial affair of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and of course Spain.

However,  the story of the Crusading era is not just the story of military ups and downs.  The Crusades were just one aspect of an even larger phenomenon.  That phenomenon might be called the engagement of  western and central Europe with the Muslim world.  The military aspect was not the whole story.

What did the Muslim world mean to Western Europe, besides the home of  infidels, the enemies of God and Christendom?

It was, as the Middle East had been for millenia, the rich, cosmopolitan center of the world, from which Europeans had received so many things in the past -- from the invention of plow agriculture, to the working of bronze and iron, to the alphabet, to Christianity, to any number of other cultural and technical innovations.   For a number of centuries, most of Europe had been cut off from easy interaction with the Middle East.  Now, with the self-confident expansion of European society, the Middle East was again accessible, and once again it had lots to offer.

This included technical and intellectual inventions I've mentioned before.  Perhaps more important than the details is the fact that   Muslim civilization, and especially Muslim courts presented an almost overwhelming image of wealth and sophistication.  As Western Europe changed from a very rough-and-ready frontier culture, to a more urbanized, commercialized one, the Islamic example was very influential.

Two examples:
 

With the growth of Europe after 1000, there quickly came a need and a demand for more sophisticated thought -- in large part motivated by a desire to reform religious life.   This led, more quickly than you might think, to a growth of schools, and the extension of the curriculum of those schools into advanced areas of logic and philosophy.   European intellectuals (religious men all) fell in love with the idea that reason and logic gave them the key to understand not just the natural and human world better, but even to understand the revealed truths of religion.

Such intellectual exploration led European thinkers back to ancient authors who had gone over the same ground.   But with their impoverished libraries and their restricted knowledge of Greek, in which some of the best work had been done, made the task difficult.   It is very hard to reconstruct entire disciplines that have been abandoned.   Then travelling scholars -- without the printing press, travelling to find teachers and books was the best tactic for a really dedicated scholar wishing to learn new things -- found that the problems that fascinated them were well-understood in Muslim schools.   The Muslims had the works of Plato and Aristotle and lesser Greek figures in Arabic translation, at a time when they were lost in the West.   Not only that, various Muslim scholars had extended the Greek tradition, creating original and valuable commentaries and syntheses.

The intellectual growth of the High Middle Ages is one of the most important aspects of that period, a key period in the development of European culture.   I won’t say that it depended entirely on Islamic learning -- that’s not true.  But the intellectual challenge of the Islamic schools was a great spur to European developments.   The philosophy, the theology, and the natural science of medieval Europe assumed the shape they did, and made the progress they did, in large part because of that challenge.

From these examples and our discussion of the military aspects of the Crusading era, we can see that the impact of the Muslim world on the Christians of Western Europe was a very complicated one.   They were the enemy on religious ground, they were people you could profitably rip off, if you could get away with it, but they were in many tangible ways superior in knowledge and wealth.   Christian views of the medieval Muslims was therefore a mixture of envy and  admiration.

And what about the Christian impact on Muslims?  It was, in fact, very limited.   In this period, Christians had very little to offer them in return, and as a result there wasn’t a lot of interest, except when the contact was direct.   The period when Muslims would look upon Christians with a mixture of envy and admirationwas still in the future.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.