Very few people have much good to say about the Crusades nowadays. Most think it was a terrible blight on Western history, and cannot be condoned or justified in any way. Certainly during the past few centuries, Christianity has been attacked, and people have sought to discredit the faith, partly on the basis of the Crusades.
In such an atmosphere, the new book by Rodney Stark (God’s Battalions, HarperOne, 2009) is as about as revolutionary as they come. He takes head on myth after myth surrounding the Crusades, and makes the case that the Crusades not only had their place, but were in fact in many ways justifiable. He clearly demonstrates that modern histories about the Crusades are among the great hatchet jobs of recent times.
Dispelling the many myths about the Crusades takes guts, and someone with the right intellectual and academic qualifications. Stark is certainly the man for the job: he has become one of our finest writers on the sociology and history of religion, and is unafraid to go against the tide.
In this important volume he debunks the historical revisionism (which is often coupled with anti-Christian bigotry) about the Crusades to offer us a more sober and clear picture of what in fact took place. He notes that it was especially during the time of the Enlightenment and onwards that critics claimed that the Crusaders were mainly Western imperialists, those who set out after land and loot.
Moreover, the contrast is often made between the bloodthirsty barbaric Christians, and the peace-loving Muslims. But as Stark persuasively documents, none of this is close to the truth. The real story is this: the Crusades were certainly provoked, and the Crusaders were mainly concerned to free the Holy Lands from Muslim oppression and to protect religious pilgrims who travelled there.
Indeed, to properly understand the Crusades, a lot of background information needs to be considered. That is why Stark spends the first hundred pages of his book looking at the 600-year period of Muslim conquests and dhimmitude.
The story of course begins in the seventh century when Muslim armies swept over the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. One Christian land after another was attacked and conquered by advancing Muslim armies.
Stark reminds us that Muhammad told his followers, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Therefore a century after his death vast swathes of territory hung under the bloody sword of Islam.
And what of the conquered Christians living under Islamic rule? They, along with Jews, were known as dhimmis. While revisionist historians and Muslim apologists speak of Muslim tolerance here, the “truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different”.
Indeed, the subject peoples had few options: death, enslavement or conversion were the only avenues open to them. Dhimmitude was no picnic. Death was the fate of anyone who dared to convert out of Islam. No churches or synagogues could be built. There was to be no public praying or reading of Scripture. They were at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst, punished and killed.
And massacres of Jews and Christians were quite common in the centuries leading up to the Crusades. In 1032-1033 in Morocco alone, there were over six thousand Jews murdered. Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 638. The Dome of the Rock was built from 685 to 691, and churches and synagogues were levelled in the ensuing centuries.
The condition of Christians in Jerusalem was pretty appalling during this period, as was the plight of penitent pilgrims seeking to enter Jerusalem. They suffered much persecution, and risked their lives simply to travel to the holy city. The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – along with thousands of other Christian churches – under the bloody reign of Tariqu al-Hakim at the end of the first millennia simply served as the climax to all this misery and outrage.
It is in this light of six centuries of Islamic conquest, bloodshed and tyranny that the Crusades must be viewed. They were not always pretty, but life in general back then was not pretty. If Crusader excesses took place, this was just par for the course, as excesses by Muslims and others were more than commonplace.
As Stark reminds us, “Granted, it was a cruel and bloody age, but nothing is to be gained either in terms of moral insights or historical comprehension by anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention on these times.”
He looks at the various Crusades, dealing with the host of mythologies that have grown up around them. One is the fanciful depiction of Saladin as some gallant, humane Muslim resisting those bloodthirsty Christians. For example, when he re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187, the city was spared a massacre.
But the rules of warfare back then stipulated that cities would be spared if they were not forced to be taken by storm. So while bloodshed was limited, “half the city’s Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets”.
And as Stark reminds us, Jerusalem was the exception to Saladin’s normal style. Savage butchery of his enemies was his usual habit. Indeed, he had been looking forward to massacring the inhabitant of Jerusalem, but a compromise was struck which prevented this. But he had plenty of other opportunities to let the blood flow freely, often at his own hand.
Then there is the myth that the Crusades have been a longstanding grievance amongst Muslims. Not so argues Stark: “Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire”.
Today we can well argue whether the Crusades were in fact warranted. But any such discussion about the pros and cons of the matter must be made under a clear understanding of what exactly transpired and why. This book admirably serves that purpose, and must be the starting point for any future debates over the topic.