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Misconceptions About the Crusades
By Gary F. Zeolla
About 1100 AD, Muslims were living peacefully in their homeland of Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Then for no reason whatsoever, those violent Christians decided to attack them. They even declared it to be a “holy war” to do so, promising forgiveness of sins to anyone who fought in the unprovoked assault. The Crusade was successful, with the savage Christians slaughtering thousands of peaceful Muslims, who were just minding their own business, not bothering anyone.
But then those brave Muslims rose up and drove out the Christians occupying their native homeland. But then over the next several centuries, the brutal Christians declared several more Crusades, trying once again to steal the Muslim’s own land from them. But each time the valiant Muslims defended their homeland and kept their rightful possession of it. But due to the unwarranted aggression of the Christians, there have been hostilities between Muslims and Christians down to this day.
The above seems to be the conception many people have of the Crusades today. As a Christian historian put it when he was being contacted after the 9/11 attacks:
I was frequently asked to comment on the fact that the Islamic world has a just grievance against the West. Doesn’t the present violence, they persisted, have its roots in the Crusades’ brutal and unprovoked attacks against a sophisticated and tolerant Muslim world? (Real).
But is this an accurate picture of what happened? To answer that question, we need go all the back to the founding of the Christian faith.
Jesus was born, raised, and lived His entire life in Judea. His ministry was mainly “to the sheep, the ones lost from the house of Israel” (Matt 15:25; ALT3), but He also ministered to Samarians and Gentiles on occasion (Matt 15:21-28; John 4:5ff; 12:20-22). But then after His resurrection, He commanded His disciples:
19Having gone [or, When you* have gone], make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to be observing all [things], as many as I commanded you* (Matt 28:19,20a; ALT3).
8but you* will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you*, and you* will be witnesses to Me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and as far as [the] furthest [place] of the earth.” (Acts 1:8; ALT3).
disciples obeyed these commands. And despite many adversities and persecutions,
they were successful. Over the next three centuries, the Christian faith spread
from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and
Samaria, then throughout the entire Middle East, Northern Africa, and Europe. This spread was due to preaching and persuasion. The people they witnessed to freely chose to become Christians, even knowing that doing so would often bring ridicule and persecution.
The rapid success of Christianity under the most unfavorable circumstances is surprising and its own best vindication. It was achieved in the face of an indifferent or hostile world, and by purely spiritual and moral means, without shedding a drop of blood except that of its own innocent martyrs (Schaff).
But then in 313 AD, Constantine the Great, the Roman Empire, was converted to the Christian faith, and the Christians were no longer persecuted (Constantine I). Constantine’s mother Helena was also converted. She made a pilgrimage to Judea. While there, she was credited with “discovering” many sites of importance in the life of Christ, such as His birthplace and the site of His crucifixion. She even had churches built on a couple of those sites (Saint Helena). Her example of pilgrimage to the Holy land began to be followed by Christians. Over the next several centuries, multitudes of Christians would regularly make pilgrimages to the Holy Land, visiting these sites.
The Muslim Onslaught
Throughout this time, the Roman Empire fell, but there was still sufficient peace throughout the lands in which Christian lived to allow them to be free to live their lives, worship the Christian God, and to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. But all of that changed in the seventh century AD. It was then that Mohammed invented his new religion of Islam. But unlike the early Christians, his main method of spreading his new religion was not preaching and persuasion, but violence. Christian were forced to convert to Islam at the point of a sword.
After his death, Mohammed’s followers continued the practice of conversion by force. Convert or die was the mantra. Over time, the Muslims had forcibly taken over all of the land in the Middle East and Northern Africa that were formerly Christian. In the process, they killed multitudes of Christians who refused to convert to the new religion. They also burned down churches and Christian libraries and desecrated the holy sites, doing their best to wipe out all remnants of the Christ faith in these vast areas of land.
While Muslims can be peaceful, Islam was born in war and grew the same way. From the time of Mohammed, the means of Muslim expansion was always the sword. Muslim thought divides the world into two spheres, the Abode of Islam and the Abode of War. Christianity—and for that matter any other non-Muslim religion—has no abode. Christians and Jews can be tolerated within a Muslim state under Muslim rule. But, in traditional Islam, Christian and Jewish states must be destroyed and their lands conquered (Real).
The Muslims also tried to extend their onslaught into Europe, but in a couple of fateful battles, their efforts were turned back. Thus by 1000 AD, fully two-thirds of the land formerly inhabited by Christians were now in the hands of Muslims. This included Judea and all of those holy sites that Christians used to make pilgrimages to. But now Christians were either barred from those sites or molested by Muslims when they tried to visit them. In addition, the few Christians still living in the formerly Christian but now Muslim lands were being severely mistreated.
That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense (Real).
The turmoil of these years disrupted normal political life and made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem difficult and often impossible. Stories of dangers and molestation reached the West and remained in the popular mind even after conditions improved (Crusades; Britannica).
As early as the eighth century Anglo-Saxons underwent the greatest hardships to visit Jerusalem. The journey of St. Willibald, Bishop of Eichstädt, took seven years (722-29) and furnishes an idea of the varied and severe trials to which pilgrims were subjected (Crusades. New Advent).
The First Crusade
It was against this backdrop that the First Crusade was called for by Pope Urban in 1095. “… he apparently stressed the plight of Eastern Christians, the molestation of pilgrims, and the desecration of the holy places” (Crusades; Britannica). Thus the stated purposes of the first Crusade were to preserve the holy sites and to make it safe for Christians to travel to them, along with freeing Christians who were being persecuted by Muslims.
Urban II gave the Crusaders two goals, both of which would remain central to the eastern Crusades for centuries. The first was to rescue the Christians of the East. As his successor, Pope Innocent III, later wrote… “Is it by chance that you do not know that many thousands of Christians are bound in slavery and imprisoned by the Muslims, tortured with innumerable torments?”
The second goal was the liberation of Jerusalem and the other places made holy by the life of Christ. The word crusade is modern. Medieval Crusaders saw themselves as pilgrims, performing acts of righteousness on their way to the Holy Sepulcher (Real).
It should be noted that Christians were not trying to recapture the vast amounts of land they formerly held and which were forcibly taken from them by the Muslims. They were not even trying to take control of all of Judea. They mainly wanted safe access to the holy sites and for those sites not to be desecrated.
However, it is true that the Crusaders went much farther than this. They did try to regain control of select cites, like Antioch and Jerusalem, and were somewhat successful. There were also barbaric acts committed by some of the Crusaders. This was due in part to the disorganized state of the Crusaders and that for the most part they were not trained soldiers.
Preachers of the crusade appeared everywhere, and on all sides sprang up disorganized, undisciplined, penniless hordes, almost destitute of equipment, who, surging eastward through the valley of the Danube, plundered as they went along and murdered the Jews in the German cities Crusades; (New Advent.).
But none of this this was sanctioned by the pope, nor was it part of the original intents of the crusade. In the end, control was taken of Jerusalem, but then the Crusaders for the most part retuned home and little provision was made for continued governance of the city. It thus quickly fell back into Muslim control.
Several more Crusades were undertaken over the next several centuries, but none were successful, “… in five centuries of crusading, it was only the First Crusade that significantly rolled back the military progress of Islam. It was downhill from there” (Real). Muslims remained in control of the Holy Land and the vast amounts of land they had forcefully taken from the Christians. Christian continued to have difficulties in visiting the holy sites in the Holy Land. But the Crusades did have the effect of leaving bad feelings between Christians and Muslims.
Eventually, the taste for Crusades waned. Christians finally accepted that their access to the holy sites would be limited and fraught with dangers and that they would never regained the vast lands that had been forcibly taken from them. Meanwhile, Muslims seemed content to let Christians remain in control of Europe, and no more attempts were made to also forcibly take this large area of land from the Christians. Thus a cease-fire of sorts existed between the two religions. And over time, access to the holy sites become somewhat easier, and Christians were tolerated in Muslims lands, though still treated as second-class citizens, with few rights.
This brings us down to today. After centuries of relative peace between Muslims and Christians, radical Mulish groups have arisen, reviving the latent hostilities. Groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS do not tolerate Christians being on their lands. They are thus now once again persecuting Christians, beheading them, burning churches, and desecrating holy sites.
Such groups are also now beginning to make inroads into Christian lands, both through force and in subtler ways. The terrorists’ attacks are well publicized, but no so much their stated goals. These terrorists are trying to force western governments to institute Islamic (Sharia) law in their counties. These laws are at complete odds with western ideals and constitutions, but the radical Muslims do not care. They want all of the world to live their lives the way the radical Muslims dictate.
More subtly, there is now massive immigration of Muslims into western countries. In addition, Muslims have much higher birth rates than non-Muslims (Pew Research). This is mainly due to the oppression of women in Muslim societies, who have no place except to make babies. Between this massive immigration and these high birth rates, Muslims just might be able to attain what they could not centuries ago: the takeover of Europe, adding it to the already massive amounts of formerly Christian but now Muslim lands, and American could be next.
The Crusades were not the best moments for Christians. The promise of forgiveness for Christians who fight in a holy war has no basis in the teaching of Jesus, nor does the barbaric acts committed by some of the Crusaders. However, the Crusades were an understandable reaction to the Muslim onslaught and what had happened and was happening at the time. It is thus unwarranted for Christians today to condemn the Crusaders.
From the safe distance of many centuries, it is easy enough to scowl in disgust at the Crusades. Religion, after all, is nothing to fight wars over. But we should be mindful that our medieval ancestors would have been equally disgusted by our infinitely more destructive wars fought in the name of political ideologies (Real).
Today’s Christians have only seen the violence that Muslims are capable of against Christians in the last few years. But Medieval Christians had been subject to it for centuries before they retaliated. And even then, it was in far lesser amounts than what had dished out on them. It is the radical Muslims’ use of the Crusades as a reason why they desire to exterminate Christians that is unwarranted, as is the use of the Crusades by non-Christians in general to try to disparage the Christian faith.
I realize the above is a very simplified overview. But its purpose is not to give a detailed history of the Crusades. For that, I would refer the reader to the webpages linked to in the Bibliography. My purpose is to put the Crusades in perspective of what had happened and was happening at the time and how that relates to what is happening today and to today's conceptions or better misconceptions of the Crusades.
Constantine I: Roman emperor. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Crusades. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Crusades. New Advent.
Pew Research Center. Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group.
Real History of the Crusades. Christianity Today.
Saint Helena: Roman empress. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Schaff, Philip (2014-01-12). History Of The Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes In One) (Kindle Locations 3046-3048). Kindle Edition.
Misconceptions About the Crusades. Copyright © 2016 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
The above article was posted on this Web site March 1, 2016.
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