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Saladin and Guy de Lusignan after battle of Hattin in 1187.

Understanding the Crusades from an Islamic Perspective


What if the Crusades’ history was told from an Arab perspective? In fact, in 2016 al-Jazeera TV did just that. It released a four-episode documentary on the Crusades, and the trailer introduced the subject in the following words:

“In the history of conflict between East and West. The mightiest battle between Christianity and Islam; a holy war in the name of religion. For the first time, the story of the Crusades from an Arab perspective.”

It is clear that the producers of the al-Jazeera documentary wanted their viewers to understand the Crusades as one out of many episodes in the continuous clash between two civilizations: East/Islam and West/Christianity.

The al-Jazeera documentary was inspired by two earlier widely watched documentaries: The Crusades: Crescent and the Cross (History Channel, 2005) and The Crusades (BBC, 2012).

All three documentaries share the same plot about the clash of civilizations fuelled by the religious ideologies of holy war and jihad. The only difference is that the al-Jazeera documentary alleges to tell the story of the Crusades “for the first time” from an Arab perspective, which actually means that it is the turn of the Muslim Arabs to tell, not a different story, but rather the same story of the clash of civilisations.

Crusaders as Christian Barbarians

Actually, this is not the first time Muslims have told their story of the Crusades, and the story has changed over time. In the Muslim public imagination of today, the crusaders are remembered as medieval Christian barbarians who assaulted the Muslim world and slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people before the Muslims could mount an effective jihad campaign to drive them away. They are also seen as medieval ancestors of modern Western colonialists and imperialists.

What is left out of the modern narrative – conceptualized as such by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as, for example, in Joseph-François Michaud’s Histoire des Croisades (the first volume was published in 1812) – is that the crusaders were not as fanatic as modern scholars allege, and they had good relations with the Muslims.

For example, while travelling through northern Palestine in late summer of 1184, the medieval scholar Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217) described countless farming villages inhabited by Muslims who seemed to him to live in complete harmony with the Crusaders.

Idealized portrait of Ibn Yubair. Painted by Guillermo Muñoz Vera. (Aroconchichon/CC BY SA 4.0)

Idealized portrait of Ibn Yubair. Painted by Guillermo Muñoz Vera. (Aroconchichon/CC BY SA 4.0)

What irritated him the most was not only that the Crusaders were not harming them, he actually bemoaned the fact that those Muslims did not seem to be bothered by their mingling with what he described as “Christian pigs and filth”.

An Ignored Reality of Alliances

Indeed, medieval Muslim sources tell a different story about the Crusades. No doubt they speak of countless battles, but they also describe innumerable political and military alliances, systematic sharing of sacred spaces, commercial dealings, exchange of science and ideas, etc., between Muslims and crusaders. Muslim chronicler and historian Ibn Wasil (d. 1298) spent two years in southern Italy on a diplomatic mission in early 1260s, during which he authored a book on logic, which he dedicated to emperor Manfred of Hohenstaufen.

Manfred’s father, emperor Frederick II, used to regularly write to Muslim scientists asking for scientific information, and when he led the Sixth Crusade in 1228-1229, he negotiated a peace with Sultan al-Kamil that allowed the Muslims and Crusaders to share Jerusalem. The Christians had full control of their religious places while the Muslims maintained control over their sacred places in the city and the surrounding villages.

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (left) meets al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik (right), from a manuscript of the Nuova Cronica, between circa 1341 and circa 1348. (Public Domain)

Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (left) meets al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik (right), from a manuscript of the Nuova Cronica, between circa 1341 and circa 1348. (Public Domain)

This complex reality is generally ignored, and if modern scholars acknowledge some of it, they do so only to emphasize its abnormality. The focus on violence has dominated modern interest in the Crusades (the area most researched by scholars is crusader military orders and Holy war/Jihad).

In other words, modern scholars (and the media), inadvertently for the most part, have put at the disposal of modern hate groups and terrorists a very suitable narrative that these groups have effectively employed to anchor and spread the discourse about an inevitable clash of civilizations. The result is Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in the West, as well as “Westophobia” (hate of the West) and paranoia in the Muslim world.

Inspiring Modern Jihadists

Conceiving themselves adherents and protectors of “true” Islam, modern jihadists are inspired by a selective reading of Islamic foundational texts (Qurʾan, Sunna, etc.) and history, and by modern grievances (relating to direct or indirect colonial and hegemonic subjugation of the Muslims).

For them, the crusader period was not different from the current clash between the Muslim world and the Christian West. This theme has been generally adopted by Muslim scholars in the last century. We can see it clearly in Saʿid ʿAshur’s influential book on the history of the Crusades, published in 1963, and in Ahmad Halwani’s 1991 popular book that examines the role of Ibn ʿAsakir of Damascus (d. 1176) in the promotion of jihad against the Crusaders.

Both scholars draw the parallel struggle of the Muslims during the Crusader period and today. Leaders such as Nur al-Din and Saladin, and scholars such as Ibn ʿAsakir and Ibn Taymiyya are revered because they battled and rallied the Muslims to wage jihad against the crusaders and their Muslim cronies.

It is no surprise then that stories of such heroes and writings of activist scholars of the crusader period are very popular in the Muslim world today, especially among militants, as can be seen in the issues of Dabiq, the online magazine of Daesh.

Equestrian statue of Saladin in the Citadel, Damascus, Syria, 2008. (Graham van der Wielen/CC BY 2.0)

Equestrian statue of Saladin in the Citadel, Damascus, Syria, 2008. (Graham van der Wielen/CC BY 2.0)

Rethinking Our Approach as Historians

Had we done our job as historians properly, we would not have counted out as anomalies the enormous evidence that speaks of co-existence between crusaders and Muslims. (Had the media done its job properly, it would not have valorised violence.)

The narrative of the Crusades should have been presented as a complicated chapter in medieval history where people fought each other and also tolerated each other. But because scholars tend to examine the past with modern eyes (theories, assumptions, conventions, biases, etc.), they could not see this complex reality of the crusader period.

The Crusades is not the only chapter misrepresented in modern scholarship and imagination. The way we think of Islam is too governed by modern agendas, so much so that every narrative we offer is a mirror of our modern concerns.

We often fail to realize that what is invariable presented as “Islam” is the collective opinion of an affluent class of male elites (mostly Sunnis) whose views did not agree with the way other groups saw and practiced Islam (Shiʿis, Sufis, women, uneducated masses, etc.).

Deciphering Complex Layers

We also tend to valorise certain groups, thinking that they are best suited to fit a modern garb. For instance, many today praise Sufism (mysticism) for its idea of spiritual jihad that focuses on internal struggle to become a better person. This is not what medieval Sufis, and Muslims generally, understood jihad to mean, namely the act of waging war against Islam’s enemies; some, especially the Sufis, insisted it includes a religious dimension in order for physical jihad to lead to success in this world and the next.

Saladin had in his army a brigade of Sufis who demanded that crusader captivates be turned over to them to slaughter. The Ottoman army employed Sufis, who still today practice their rituals with weapons. The point here is not to say that Sufism is violent, it is to draw attention to the fact that Sufism has also a very complex history and legacy. Saying this does not imply that Muslims cared much about jihad.

Actually, the majority of Muslims historically have refused to contribute to jihad, even when under attack. This is rather clear from the tone of many jihad advocates who blame the Muslims harshly for not fulfilling the duty, such as in the Book of Jihad by al-Sulami (d. 1105).

As historians, we might not be able to free ourselves completely from modern biases. At least we can try to listen more to what history tells us: it is always much more complex than any contemporary conclusions we derive from it.

Top Image: Saladin and Guy de Lusignan after battle of Hattin in 1187. Source: Public Domain

The article ‘Understanding the Crusades from an Islamic perspectiveby Suleiman Mourad was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license



Looking forward to your article on Understanding WWII from a Nazi Perspective.

War is a terrible thing. It’s too bad that humans can accept someone who is different or has a different religion. What a wonderful place Earth would be if we could embrace our differences instead of persecuting them.

" All over the Middle East and North Africa there lie the ruins of abandoned cities that were out to the sword."

This is a false claim which is believed by people who is ignorant about history, economics, population dynamics, etc. Those cities were already abandoned or shrinking before Islam emerges and expansion of Arabs began. People confuse the cause and effect. Pax Romana caused the flourishing of the cities in the territories of Roman Empire. 2nd century AD Roman system reached to its peak. After 2nd century Roman system began to decline and crumble due to inner conflicts, outer pressures, etc. Economic system, trade and tax collection entered in a decline period. The settlement began to shrink or abandoned. For example most of the cities of Anatolia were abandoned after earthquakes or other natural disaster, plagues, wars, etc. because rebuilding of those settlements were impossible due to lack of economic power and breaking down of the trade routes.

When Arab expansion began after Islam, they found weak opponents, countries and cities who were shadows of their former glory, empty and abandoned cities. Centuries long Roman-Iran (Parthian and later Sassanian) conflicts wiped out power of those empires and made them ready to picked by Muslims. Long before Muslim expansion Syria, Iraq, Levantine and Egypt were already filled with non-Muslim kins of Muslim Arabs.

In short Roman and Iran were on the decline and it was all about who would be the new power that will take their place. And this new power rise form the Arabian peninsula which was close to those empires but also far enough to be safe and independent.

It's a strong point that we need to look at history without bias. It's important to remember there are many sides to great events. In the Crusades it's important to remember that even amongst the Christians, there was more than just one side. The West often only examines the Roman Catholic Christians battling Islam and "forgets" the many Eastern Orthodox who were slaughtered by the Romans even while the Muslims were killing them too. And I'm sure the Orthodox turned around and joined in the hatred and killing as well. May God Who Is Merciful forgive us all. It seems too often the Crusades are brought up by this side or that, by anyone who wants to pick and choose from amongst the truth the bits which best serve the propaganda required to suit today's challenge rather that looking at the whole. Sad, sad, sad humans.

Despite what all have to say on who did what...the point of the fact is these two nations will eventually bring WW3...Its the middle ground between musilms jews and christians that will eventually bring world peace not betweent these two radical ideologies


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