The Mythistory of the Crusades

by Ibn Warraq (October 2013)

A new generation of Western scholars of the Middle Ages have been trying to put right the misconceptions that have grown up about the Cru­sades. As Jonathan Riley-Smith has argued “modern Western public opin­ion, Arab nationalism, and Pan-Islamism all share perceptions of crusad­ing that have more to do with nineteenth-century European imperialism than with actuality.”1 Muslims in particular have developed “mythisto­ries” concerning the putative injuries they have received at the hands of the Crusaders. The first point that needs to be emphasized is that the Cru­sades were proclaimed not only against Muslims, but also against many groups, and communities that the Catholic Church considered heretical, and enemies of the faith, groups such as the pagan Wends, Balts and Lithuanians, shamanist Mongols, Orthodox Russians and Greeks, Cathar and Hussite heretics.2

Second, the Crusaders were not  extremists or barbarians indulging in thoughtless violence, rather the underlying rationale of the Crusades was relatively sophisticated, elabo­rated theologically by Christian nations that were threatened by Muslim invaders who had managed to reach into the heart of Europe, in central France in the eighth century. The Crusades were a response to the desecration of the Christian shrines in the Holy Land, the destruction of churches, and the general persecution of Christians in the Near East. A Crusade to be considered legitimate had to fulfill strict criteria; one did not enter into it lightly for self aggrandizement. There had to be a legally sound reason. It was, in other words, waged for purposes of repelling violence or injury and the imposition of justice on wrongdoers. A Crusade was never a war of conversion, rather a rightful attempt to recover Christian territory which had been injuriously seized in the past. Only a recognized authority could formally declare a Crusade, and it had to be waged justly.3

The Crusaders were not colonialists, and the Crusades were not en­gaged in for economic reasons, as many Western Liberals and Liberal econ­omists assumed; most crusaders would have laughed at the prospect of material gain. In fact, crusading became a financial burden as the expenses associated with warfare increased. They were far more concerned with sav­ing not only Christendom from Islam, but also their souls. The role of pen­ance has often been overlooked in crusading thought and practice; many crusaders believed that by taking part in a crusade they were able to repay the debt their sinfulness had incurred.

Nineteenth, and even early twentieth century Europeans unasham­edly used crusader rhetoric and a tendentious reading of crusader history to justify their imperial dreams of conquest. For example, after the First World War, the French Mandate in Syria led to a considerable French historical literature, “one theme of which was that the achievements of the crusaders provided the first chapter in a history that had culminated in modern imperialism.”4 As we shall see, the newly emerging Arab nation­alists took nineteenth-century rhetoric seriously. A second strand in false, modern interpretations of crusader history was furnished by European ro­manticism, as for example, manifested in the novels of Sir Walter Scott.- the main subject of my book. As Riley-Smith summarized, “The novels [of Scott] painted a picture of crusaders who were brave and glamorous, but also vainglorious, avaricious, childish and boorish. Few of them were genuinely moved by religion or the crusade ideal; most had taken the cross out of pride, greed, or ambi­tion. The worst of them were the brothers of the military orders, who may have been courageous and disciplined but were also arrogant, privileged, corrupt, voluptuous and unprincipled. An additional theme, the cultural superiority of the Muslims, which was only hinted at in the other novels, pervaded the The Talisman [1825].”5

In a recent (December, 2008) television programme, Boris John­son, the Mayor of London, presented a rather biased programme on the Crusades, but biased against the Christians, laying the blame of the Cru­sades entirely on the Christians, who are always depicted as barbarians. He pointed out at that Christians in Spain after the expulsions of the Moors converted a mosque into a church, and called this act “vandalism.” How­ever, he failed to point out that the Crusades were a reaction against over three hundred years of jihad when the Eastern Christians were persecuted, and hundreds of churches destroyed. He also failed to mention the conver­sion of the magnificent Byzantine Hagia Sophia into a mosque, (though admittedly this took place after the Fall of Constantinople in 1453—it was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. But my point is that Islamic jihad did not end with the defeat of the Crusaders. On the contrary, in Islamic doctrine all the later Islamic conquests were seen as a part of the religious duty of carrying out jihad until the entire the world submits to Islam).

The Muslim persecution of Christians, or for that matter, all non-Muslims, varied from country to country, ruler to ruler, or century to cen­tury. Here I can only adumbrate the situation in the Holy Land a hundred years before Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 for a crusade to liberate Palestine. The cruelties of Caliph al-Hakim have been recorded by Christian and Muslim historians. In 1003, al-Hakim began the persecution of Jews and Christians in earnest. Historian Ibn al-Dawadari tells us that the first move in a series of acts was the destruc­tion of the church of St. Mark. Al-Musabbihi, a contemporary, recounts that the Christians built this church without a permit—the building of new churches was not permitted. The Al-Rashida mosque was built in its place, eventually extending over, and desecrating Jewish and Christian cemeteries; surely an act of vandalism. The height of al-Hakim’s cruelties was the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also known as the Church of the Resurrection, possibly the most revered shrine in Christendom, since it is considered by Christians as Golgotha, (the Hill of Calvary), where the New Testament says that Jesus was crucified, and even the place where Jesus was buried, and hence, of course, the site of the Resurrection. He ordered dismantled “the Church of the Resurrection to its very foundations, apart from what could not be destroyed or pulled up, and they also destroyed the Golgotha and the Church of St. Constantine and all that they contained, as well as all the sacred grave-stones. They even tried to dig up the graves and wipe out all traces of their existence. Indeed they broke up and uprooted most of them. They also laid waste to a con­vent in the neighbourhood….The authorities took all the other property belonging to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and its pious foundations, and all its furnishings and treasures.”6 According to Muslim sources the destruction began in September, 1007 C.E. “Most of the Muslim sources view the destruction as a reaction to its magnificence and the fact that it was a world centre for Christian pilgrims, among them many Christians from Egypt; to the splendid processions that were held in the streets of Jerusalem, and to the ‘Paschal fire’….”7

Similarly, Sir Steven Runciman in the conclusion to his highly influential, elegantly written The History of the Crusades,8 seems to imply that it was the Christian Crusaders who alone were responsible not only for the “growing intolerance amongst the Moslems,” but somehow also for the fading away of Muslim intellectual life, and the subsequent stagnation of Islamic culture: “…an intolerant faith is incapable of progress.” Run­ciman’s analysis is no different from so many others that write of Islamic history and culture: what are seen as positive aspects of Islamic Civilization are ecstatically praised, even exaggerated, and all the negative aspects are imputed to the arrival of pestililential Westerners, and where the Arabs, Persians and Muslims in general are seen as passive victims; they are cer­tainly not allowed any autonomy.

But, pace Runciman, this will not do as history. Even a cursory glance at the plight of Jews under Muslims before the Crusades would be enough to refute Sir Steven’s rosy picture of an earlier interfaith utopia. All the persecutions of both Christians and Jews stem directly from the precepts and principles enshrined in the canonical texts of Islam: the Koran; the Sira, that is, Ibn Ishaq’s biography of Muhammad; the Hadith, that is, the Traditions, the record of the deeds and sayings of Muhammad and his companions; and the classical Muslim Koranic commentaries. In other words, “Muslim Jew hatred… dates back to the origins of Islam.”9 It is there in the Koran, the Biography of Muhammad, and the Hadith.

Since Sir Steven argues that Islamic intolerance began after the Cru­sasdes, here are examples of the persecution of Jews in Islamic lands before 1096: the massacre of more than 6,000 Jews in Fez (Morocco) in 1033; of the hundreds of Jews killed between 1010 and 1013 near Cordoba, and other parts of Muslim Spain; of the massacre of the entire Jewish commu­nity of roughly 4,000 in Granada during the Muslim riots of 1066. Refer­ring to the latter massacre, Robert Wistrich writes: “This was a disaster, as serious as that which overtook the Rhineland Jews thirty years later dur­ing the First Crusade, yet it has rarely received much scholarly attention.” Wistrich continues: “In Kairouan [Tunisia] the Jews were persecuted and forced to leave in 1016, returning later only to be expelled again.”10

What of the putative “culture of conviviencia,” that is, the Golden Age of Tolerance in Spain before, it is claimed, it was destroyed by the intolerance of the Almohads. Unfortunately, “The Golden Age” also turns out to be a myth, invented, ironically, by the Jews themselves. The myth may well have originated as early as the twelfth century, when Abraham Ibn Daud in his Sefer ha-Qabbalah contrasted an idealised period of toler­ance of the salons of Toledo in contrast to the contemporary barbarism of the Berber dynasty. But the myth took a firm grip on the imagina­tion of the Jews in the nineteenth century thanks to the bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider and historian Heinrich Graetz, and perhaps the in­fluence of Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Coningsby, published in 1844. Here is a passage from the latter novel giving a romantic picture of Muslim Spain, “..that fair and unrivaled civilization in which the children of Ish­mael rewarded the children of Israel with equal rights and privileges with themselves. During these halcyon centuries, it is difficult to distinguish the followers of Moses from the votary of Mohammed. Both alike built palaces, gardens and fountains; filled equally the highest offices of state, competed in an extensive and enlightened commerce, rivaled each other in renowned universities.”11 Against a background of a rise in the pseudo-scientific racism of the nineteenth century, Jane Gerber has observed that Jewish historians looked to Islam “… for support, seeking real or imagined allies and models of tolerance in the East. The cult of a powerful, dazzling and brilliant Andalusia in the midst of an ignorant and intolerant Eu­rope formed an important component in these contemporary intellectual currents.”12 But Gerber concludes her sober assessment of the Golden Age Myth with these reflections, “The aristocratic bearing of a select class of courtiers and poets, however, should not blind us to the reality that this tightly knit circle of leaders and aspirants to power was neither the whole of Spanish Jewish history nor of Spanish Jewish society. Their gilded mo­ments of the tenth and eleventh century are but a brief chapter in a longer saga. No doubt, Ibn Daud’s polemic provided consolation and inspiration to a crisis-ridden twelfth century elite, just as the golden age imagery could comfort dejected exiles after 1492. It suited the needs of nineteenth cen­tury advocates of Jewish emancipation in Europe or the twentieth century contestants in the ongoing debate over Palestine….The history of the Jews in Muslim lands, especially Muslim Spain, needs to be studied on its own terms, without myth or countermyth.”13

Some scholars, such as the great historian Shlomo Dov Goitein (d. 1985), taking into account the discoveries of the Cairo Geniza, revised their ideas about the situation of Jews in Islamic lands.14 Another exam­ple of a scholar who changed his mind was Léon Poliakov, author of the monumental work The History of Antisemitism, which appeared in four volumes in French between 1955 and 1978. In Volume Two,15 Poliakov paints, on the whole, a very favorable picture of the treatment of the Jews under Islam. He finds Muhammad, a man of genius, “simple, humane, and wise” and Islam, “a religion of tolerance above all.” Astonishingly, Poliakov devotes a meagre two lines to the persecution of the Jews. Two lines in which he downplays all the acts of intolerance such as the massacre of Banu Qurayza, or the expulsion of the Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Nadir, while the political assassinations or torture of Jewish leaders and writers are not mentioned at all! Poliakov goes out of his way to contrast what he be­lieves is the essentially benign attitude of the Muslims to the intolerance of the Christians who were, according to him, far more “inclined to plunge…into bloodbaths.” He really seems to have convinced himself that the Jews and Christians lived, on the whole, “peacefully and prosperously in all parts of the Islamic Empire until our time.” However, when he was in his eighties, he came into contact with the work of Bat Ye’or on the dhimmis, or the plight, persecution and periodic massacres of non-Muslims under Islam, and changed his mind completely.16 Just a few weeks before his death in 1997, Poliakov agreed to write a preface17 to the French edition of my book, Why I am Not a Muslim, [Pourquoi je ne suis pas musulman]. Unfortunately, before he had finished his preface, Poliakov tripped on the stairs when coming down from his library, banged his head severely, and later died in hospital at the age of 87.

Many believe that modern Muslims have inherited from their me­dieval ancestors memories of crusader violence and destruction. But nothing could be further from the truth.18 By the four­teenth century, in the Islamic world the Crusades had almost passed out of mind. Muslims had lost interest, and, in any case, they “looked back on the Crusades with indifference and complacency. In their eyes they had been the outright winners. They had driven the crusaders from the lands they had settled in the Levant and had been triumphant in the Balkans, occupying far more territory in Europe than the Western settlers had ever held in Syria and Palestine.”19

The Muslim world only began to take an interest in the Crusades again in the 1890s but seen through the prism of Western imperialist rhetoric and European romantic fantasies concocted by Walter Scott. The latter encouraged the myth of the culturally inferior crusaders faced with civilized, liberal, and modern-looking Muslims, and from the former the Muslims derived the equally false idea of a continuing Western assault. Many Arab Nationalists believed “their struggle for independence to be a predominantly Arab riposte to a crusade that was being waged against them. Since the 1970s, however, they have been challenged by a renewed and militant Pan-Islamism, the adherents of which have globalized the Nationalist interpretation of crusade history….”20

Thus we now have the spectacle of the modern Islamists very of­ten invoking the Crusades. As Bin Laden wrote, “For the first time the Crusaders have managed to achieve their historic ambitions and dreams against our Islamic umma, gaining control over the Islamic holy places and the Holy Sanctuaries, and hegemony over the wealth and riches of our umma.,”21 and, “Ever since God made the Arabian Peninsula flat, created desert in it and surrounded it with seas, it has never suffered such a calam­ity as these Crusader hordes, that have spread in it like locusts, consuming its wealth and destroying its fertility.”22 The battle, according to Bin Lad­en, is between Muslims—people of Islam—and the Global Crusaders.23

As Riley-Smith concludes, “It is this vision of a continuing crusade and of resistance to it that has suddenly and spectacularly forced itself on the world outside. The language employed is often feverish, but a Muslim does not have to be an extreme Islamist to hold the view that the West is still engaged in crusading….Having less to do with historical reality than with reactions to imperialism, the Nationalist and Islamist interpretations of crusade history help many people, moderates as well as extremists, to place the exploitation they believe they have suffered in a historical context and to satisfy their feelings of both superiority and humiliation.”24

The Islamic countries, in general, and Arab ones in particular, are failures in every way possible. Here is one summary of the situation in the Arab world in 2005:

“Statistics tell an ugly story about the state of Arab civilization. According to the U.N.'s Arab Human Development Report: There are 18 computers per 1000 citizens compared to a global average of 78.3.

“Only 1.6% of the population has Internet access.

“Less than one book a year is translated into Arabic per million people, compared to over 1000 per million for developed countries.

“Arabs publish only 1.1% of books globally, despite making up over 5% of global population, with religious books dominating the market.

“Average R&D expenditures on a per capita basis is one-sixth of Cuba's and less than one-fifteenth of Japan's.

“The Arab world is embarking upon the new century burdened by 60 million illiterate adults (the majority are women) and a declining education system, which is failing to properly prepare regional youth for the challenges of a globalized economy. Educational quality is also being eroded by the growing pervasiveness of religion at all levels of the system. In Saudi Arabia over a quarter of all university degrees are in Islamic studies. In many other nations primary education is accomplished through Saudi-financed madrassas, which have filled the void left by government's abdication of its duty to educate the young.

“In economic terms we have already commented that the combined weight of the Arab states is less than that of Spain. Strip oil out of Mideast exports and the entire region exports less than Finland. According to the transnational Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), regional economic growth is burdened by declining rates of investment in fixed capital structure, an inability to attract substantial foreign direct investment, and declining productivity — the economic trinity of disaster.

“Economic stagnation coupled with rapid population growth is reducing living standards throughout the region, both comparatively and in real terms. In the heady days of the late 1970s oil boom, annual per-capita GDP growth of over 5% fueled high levels of expectations. GDP per-capita grew from $1,845 to $2,300. Today, after adjusting for inflation, it stands at $1,500, reflecting an overall decline in living standards over 30 years. Only sub-Saharan Africa has done worse. If oil wealth is subtracted from the calculations the economic picture for the mass of Arab citizens becomes dire.

“Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.”25

These failures are unbearable for the Arabs whose only explanation for them is the one that they have been taught over the last seventy five years by intellectuals and frauds like Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said, namely, Western imperialism and colonialism, seen as a continuation of the Crusades. Victimhood is exploited to the maximum to blackmail Western nations into giving economic aid, and eases the guilty consciences of the Arabs themselves: it is not their fault that they are such abject failures- it is all the fault of the Crusaders. It is the only way they are able to live with themselves and their moral, intellectual, and economic defeats. At the same time, invoking the Crusades reminds the Arabs of their past triumphs when they succeeded in routing the Crusades at, for example, the Battle of Hattin [1187].


[1] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, New York: Columbia University Press 2008, p. 79.

[2] Ibid.,.p..9.

[3] Ibid.,pp.11-12.

[4] Ibid.,.p. 60.

[5] Ibid..,p. 65.

[6] Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine: 634-1099, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 373.

[7] Ibid., p. 374.

[8] Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, Vol. III, The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951, p. 474.

[9] Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008, p. 33.

[10] Robert Wistrich, Antisemitism-The Longest Hatred, Schocken Books, New York, 1991, p. 196.

[11] Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, Book IV, Ch. X, quoted in Bernard Lewis, Islam in History, New York, 1973, p. 317 n.15

[12] Jane Gerber, “Towards an Understanding of the Term: ‘The Golden Age’ as an His­torical Reality” in ed. Aviva Doron, The Heritage of the Jews of Spain, Tel Aviv: Levinsky College of Education Publishing House, 1994, p. 16.

[13] Ibid., pp. 21-22

[14] Shlomo Dov Goitein, “Evidence on the Muslim Poll Tax from Non-Muslim Sources: A Geniza Study,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient (JESHO) 6 (1963): 278-95, repinted in Andrew Bostom, The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2008, pp. 481-488.

[15] Léon Poliakov, The History of Antisemitism, Vol. II: From Mohammed to the Mar­ranos, Trans. by Natalie Gerardi [ Original French Edn., Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1961] Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 19-81.

[16] Personal communication from Bat Ye’or.

[17] Personal communication from Léon Poliakov.

[18] Ibid., p. 68.

[19] Ibid., p.71

[20] Ibid., p. 73.

[21] Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden, Messages to the World, ed. Bruce Lawrence, trans. James Howarth, London and New York, 2005, p. 16, quoted in Riley-Smith, p. 75.

[22] Ibid., p. 59, quoted in Riley-Smith, p. 75.

[23] Ibid., quoted in Riley-Smith, p. 75.

[24] Ibid.,p.76.

[25] Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, U.S. Army Reserve: “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization.” Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute. September 2005.


Ibn Warraq's latest book is Sir Walter Scott's Crusades and Other Fantasies.


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