Post-classical history



In our Introduction (Chapter 1) we noted that the Crusades had an immense impact on Europe, both on those who left their homes to come east and those who stayed behind, and it cannot be denied that they continue to loom large in popular memory today. Yet what was their legacy in the Middle East? As we conclude our exploration of Muslim responses to the Crusades, we will consider their impact both at the time and in modern Muslim perceptions of the past.


As we have noted previously, the Muslims of the Levant felt the effects of the activities of the Franks in the region both on and off the battlefield. There were, of course, the battles themselves, traumatic affairs involving the death and injury of people on both sides of the religious divide. Then there were the events that came in their aftermath, including the looting and plundering of territory, the uncertain fates of prisoners, the sufferings of those who had lost loved ones in the fighting and the negotiation of the terms of truces. Yet the impact of the Crusades on the inhabitants of the region went further than this. On the political level there were the diplomatic dealings that took place between rulers. As we have seen, the Franks were quickly drawn into the realpolitik of the region, becoming participants in the web of alliances, rivalries and manoeuvrings for power that continued throughout the period, and their presence in the Levant also gave rulers such as Nur al-Din and Saladin new justifications for their own political and territorial ambitions; the subjugation of Muslim rivals could now be justified on the grounds of the need for Muslim unity in the face of the Latin threat. We have also seen that there was an expansion in the diplomacy that took place between rulers in Europe and the Levant, bringing them more closely into contact with one another. Meanwhile, on a more personal level, Muslims and Franks in the Levant attended each other’s festivals, visited each other’s homes and formed friendships, albeit ones that were restricted by limited inter-cultural understanding.

It was not only diplomacy that underwent an expansion; as we have noted, trade flourished as a result of the greater presence of European merchants in the east, despite condemnation by angry popes, and military conflict led to only limited hiatuses in the exchange of goods and money. We have also seen the transfer of technological and practical innovations, though – with the possible exception of some aspects of military technology and maybe some medical knowledge – this seems largely to have been a one-way transfer from the Levant to Europe. Of course, there were also the physical remains that the Franks left behind, especially the fortresses that had not been demolished during the counter-crusade and were now re-occupied, modified and repurposed. Meanwhile, for the Muslim peasants little on the whole seems to have changed. They continued to work their lands and pay their taxes, even though they might be paying them to different overlords. Only in a limited number of cases do they seem to have suffered at the hands of new masters, or even chosen to flee their homes.

It is important to remind ourselves of the highly localized impact of the Frankish campaigns in the Levant. The Muslim world, after all, was vast, extending at this time from Spain and North Africa in the west to Central Asia, northern India and Indonesia in the east. While in the west the Muslims of Spain and North Africa were also dealing with European aggression, their interactions with their Levantine co-religionists were limited. Meanwhile, the effects of the Crusades in the Levant were little felt in the eastern Muslim world; as we have noted in our Introduction (Chapter 1), a Muslim merchant in Samarkand, for example, probably neither knew nor cared about the activities of Europeans in lands further west, unless they disrupted his supplies of goods from that direction. Thus the impact of the Levantine Crusades, while significant for the inhabitants of the region itself, made relatively little impression on the Muslim world as a whole.

This does not mean, however, that once the crusaders had been driven from the area they were then simply forgotten. This was until recently indeed the assumption of a number of scholars, who stated that the majority of Muslims essentially forgot about the Crusades, and their interest in them was only re-awakened in the nineteenth century, as a result of increasing encounters with the European colonial powers (Abouali, 2011: 176–8). According to this narrative, two figures from the period did remain prominent after the demise of the crusader states: Nur al-Din and al-Zahir Baybars; Nur al-Din was remembered by the religious classes as the mujahid par excellence, while Baybars became the hero of a hugely popular folk epic. Notably absent was Saladin, who was regarded by modern scholars as having been forgotten in the Middle East until he was re-introduced into the Muslim world as a result of the renown that he had achieved in the West, especially in the eyes of politicians such as Kaiser Wilhelm II (r. 1888–1918), who visited the sultan’s tomb in 1898 and publicly described how famous the sultan was in Europe (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 592–4). However, in an important article Diana Abouali has recently demonstrated that this narrative is seriously mistaken, and both the Crusades and Saladin continued to have a significant presence in the consciousness of Muslims of the Levant for centuries after the Franks had been expelled from the region. This did not, however, mean that the Muslims felt insecure and that they needed to be constantly prepared for another attack from Europe, but the events remained part of their collective historical memory, and figures like Saladin became seen as models of ideal behaviour for others to follow (Abouali, 2011: 179–85). Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the region carried on with their lives, with their rulers continuing to pursue their military and political conflicts, their merchants continuing to engage in their commercial endeavours, their scholars continuing to expand and pass on their knowledge and their peasants continuing to till their fields.


On 16 September 2001 the US president George W. Bush declared, as he promised to pursue the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of 11 September, ‘This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while’ (Bush, 2001). Both Muslims and scholars of the Muslim world were aghast, for his choice of wording showed an utter lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness. The word ‘crusade’, used so often in English simply to refer to a sustained effort to achieve something, has long been associated in the Muslim historical memory with European colonialism, interference in the Muslim world and violent military action by Christians against Muslims, so in using the term Bush raised a spectre of Christian–Muslim hostility that most had hoped to have left in the past (Esposito, 2003: 74–5). In response to the outcry that followed, Bush apologized for his remark, but the damage was done, and he had by then played directly into the hands of his enemies, as we shall see.

As Carole Hillenbrand has noted, the Arabic equivalent of the term ‘crusade’, al-hurub al-salibiyya (the cross wars) began to be used to refer to the crusading period in Muslim political discourse and historical writing in the nineteenth century. The Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) repeatedly described European colonial efforts in the Middle East as a ‘crusade’, and his use of this concept was widely taken up and circulated in the pan-Islamic press of the region. The Egyptian historian Sayyid ‘Ali al-Hariri, in his pioneering Arabic history of the Crusades, al-Akhbar al-Saniyya fi’l-Hurub al-Salibiyya (the Splendid Accounts in the Crusading Wars, published in 1899) also reiterated the sultan’s comments, stating, ‘Our most glorious sultan, Abdülhamid II has rightly remarked that Europe is now carrying out a Crusade against us in the form of a political campaign’ (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 591–3).

The twentieth century saw the Crusades and the Muslim heroes who fought in them frequently invoked in Muslim political discourse. The Crusades have been presented by some as precursors to modern colonial activity and intervention in the Muslim world, with Israel being seen as a modern crusader state, planted by western powers and used as a bridgehead for their activities in the region. Meanwhile, figures such as Saladin and Baybars have become seen as models for modern leaders to imitate, or at least to associate themselves with to boost their legitimacy. A few examples will suffice to illustrate this.

An influential figure in the development of many of the ideas and rhetoric of modern Muslim radicals was the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was hanged for treason by the Egyptian authorities, and whom Esposito describes as ‘a godfather to Muslim extremist movements around the globe’ (Esposito, 2003: 56). Qutb saw the Crusades as part of a wider sequence of conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims that had begun with the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries. He asserted that the term ‘crusade’ should be understood to mean all Christian attacks on Muslims, even including Christian resistance to the early Muslim expansion. However, Qutb also expanded his view of what constituted crusading to encompass both Zionism and western imperialism. Thus in modern times it was acceptable to talk about Jewish crusading as well as Christian crusading, and he saw these as manifestations of an ongoing desire by Christians and Jews to exterminate Islam, a doctrinal aim that was disguised as conflicts over land or military or economic resources (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 600–1). Drawing selectively on the works of Ibn Taymiyya, Qutb divided the world into two sides, the good and the evil, arguing that since governments had failed to promote good, it was up to individuals to do so, through armed struggle (military jihad) if necessary, and any Muslims who refused to take up this duty were themselves apostates who also deserved to die (Esposito, 2003: 58–61). Qutb’s writings were extremely influential in the development of later movements like al-Qa‘ida (al-Qaeda) and Hamas (Bonney, 2004: 215–23).

Al-Qa‘ida (al-Qaeda): Arabic: ‘the base’. A multinational terrorist network that conducts operations against targets across the world, founded by Usama ibn Ladin (Osama bin Laden, d. 2011) in about 1988.

Hamas: (Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya [Islamic Resistance Movement]). Politico-military organization dedicated to the Palestinian struggle against Israel.

The charter of Hamas (‘fervour’, and also an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya [Islamic Resistance Movement]), which currently runs the Gaza Strip, adopts a position that very much follows that laid out by Qutb. It sees Palestine as being occupied by the ‘Zionist enemy’, essentially meaning the Jews of Israel, and the movement was therefore originally dedicated to the destruction of that state. From the charter’s perspective, the Jewish occupation is the latest episode in a sequence of western attacks on the Holy Land that include the Crusades and, again like the Crusades, will only be successfully repulsed through fighting for the cause of God in the military jihad. The charter also expresses a desire to establish an Islamic state in the area; militant sentiment and piety are seen as going hand in hand, and the religious impulse manifests in particular in the extensive social welfare programmes that the movement runs and the calls for increased piety among Muslims that it issues (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 602; Esposito, 2003: 94–7). After winning the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006 Hamas refused to sign peace agreements previously made by the Palestinian Authority with Israel and to renounce violence, though it did offer a ten-year truce in exchange for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. This is one indication of how recently more moderate figures have begun to attain prominence in the movement, though whether they or the more hard-line figures will dominate in the future remains to be seen.

Al-Qa‘ida (the Base) was founded in the late 1980s by Usama ibn Ladin (Osama bin Laden, 1957–2011) with the initial objective of co-ordinating resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, but has since become dedicated to the removal of foreign presence and interference from the Muslim world as a whole. It is now a multinational network that uses terrorist operations as a means to achieve its aims. The USA became Ibn Ladin’s primary target because, he maintained, it supported both Israel and other un-Islamic regimes in the Middle East and thus was propping up the first barriers to the establishment of true Islamic regimes (Bonney, 2004: 357–60). Like Hamas, al-Qa‘ida uses counter-crusading rhetoric. Statements issued by Usama ibn Ladin and his associates in 1998, seven years after the Gulf War undertaken to eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990–1, assert that the continuing American presence in the Middle East is evidence of an ongoing crusade intended to enable it to exploit the region’s resources, attack Islam and support Zionist efforts both to maintain their occupation of Palestine and to expand their holdings in the region [Doc. 21]. Thus one can see why it was so unfortunate that President Bush used the word ‘crusade’ to refer to his planned war on terrorism; in doing so he essentially confirmed the description that his enemies had themselves been using to describe US activities in the Muslim world.

We have mentioned that medieval Muslim religious scholars imposed a number of restrictions on the military jihad, including the forbidding of the killing of non-combatants and of deliberately killing oneself on the battlefield (see Chapter 2). Usama ibn Ladin and those who follow his views sidestep these restrictions by adopting a distorted view of how they should be understood: suicide bombings are recast as ‘martyrdom operations’, a term also used by Hamas and others, while all the people in democracies such as the USA are seen as being combatants because they participated in the elections that put their governments in place (Bonney, 2004: 314–17; Esposito, 2003: 23). Regarding the latter, in one of his statements issued in 1998 Ibn Ladin comments, ‘If their people do not wish to be harmed inside their very own countries, they should seek to elect governments that are truly representative of them and that can protect their interests’. Yet at the same time he contradicts himself, for elsewhere in the same statement he comments, ‘We, however, differentiate between the Western government and the people of the West. If the people have elected these governments in the latest elections, it is because they have fallen prey to the Western media, which portrays things contrary to what they really are’[Doc. 21.i]. Thus Ibn Ladin seems on the one hand to have wanted to make the people of the West valid targets of al-Qa‘ida’s operations through their being responsible for the actions of their governments, but on the other hand he also seems to have seen them as sheep who elect whichever governments the media tells them to. This internally inconsistent perspective defied logic for the sake of rhetoric.

As mentioned previously, modern political leaders in the Muslim world have also taken the Muslim heroes of the crusading period as models, or at least as figures with whom to associate themselves in propaganda. Since the nineteenth century the most frequently recalled of these heroes is Saladin, and a number of modern political leaders have sought to emphasize links with the famous sultan. Perhaps the most striking example is the former Iraqi president Saddam Husayn (r. 1979–2003), who had himself portrayed as a latter-day Saladin, a Sunni leader opposing both the Shi‘ites of Iran and the interference of the non-Muslim western powers (see Plate 9). Children’s books and newspaper articles depicted Husayn as the new Saladin; his birthplace was noted as being Tikrit, the same as that of the sultan, though it is actually more likely that he was born in nearby ‘Awja; and his official biographies listed his date of birth as 1937, exactly 800 years after Saladin’s birth in 1137, rather than the 1939 listed in the population register of the ministry of the interior (Bengio, 1998: 82–4). An awful irony, of course, is that Saladin was a Kurd, and Saddam Husayn wiped out hundreds of thousands of Kurds during his presidency (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 595).


As we have noted, a number of modern Muslim individuals and organizations have drawn on the memory of the Crusades to support their own political and religious agendas. Yet it is important, of course, to highlight the fact that most Muslims see the Crusades as events that happened long ago, which do not have immediate bearing on the present, and they see the rhetorical twisting of history by figures like Usama ibn Ladin and Saddam Husayn for what it is. However, the memory of the Crusades in the Muslim world is one that still carries more negative connotations than it does in the West, something that is reinforced by such rhetoric, especially in countries where there is strict government control of the media and official state hostility to western governments. Even Muslims living in the West are nervous of the term ‘crusade’, particularly in political discourse; as we have mentioned above, it conjures up negative images of Christian hostility against Muslims. In the wake of the terrible events of 9/11, Muslims living in western countries feared a backlash against them. In some cases, their fears were well founded, since they, as well as some non-Muslims who were mistaken for Muslims because of their skin colour, were hurt or killed in revenge attacks. They were also subject to racial or religious profiling that threatened their rights and liberties. Even now some Muslims are nervous each time the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks comes around, fearing further retribution. As Sumbul Ali-Karamili has noted, what is missed is that the majority of Muslims are as frightened of figures like Usama ibn Ladin as non-Muslims are, since most Muslims do not adhere to extremist, militant positions and thus in the eyes of the violent extremists are also potential targets. This is worse for Muslims living in the Middle East, as they must also live with the danger of their governments being subverted by such extremists (Ali-Karamili, 2008: 215).

In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing two major points. First, the period of the Crusades was one that, while we must acknowledge the bitter warfare and bloodshed that took place, also saw Muslims and Franks living in neighbouring states and interacting on a tolerant, and sometimes even friendly, basis for extended periods of time. Second, the counter-crusading rhetoric that receives so much attention from some western media channels today, with its representation of the Crusades as a phase in an ongoing war of Judaism and Christianity against Islam, is a modern fabrication used by some figures for primarily political reasons, and does not represent the views of the majority of Muslims living in the world today. Indeed, as we have seen, the modern rhetoric also ignores half the story; it focuses only on the wars that took place between the Muslims and the crusaders, and it completely neglects the periods of peaceful interaction that we have examined. The mixed nature of interactions between the Muslims and the Franks in the crusading period, then, has something important to teach in the modern day. Even in a world where there was overwhelming pressure to see only the divisions between Christians and Muslims, people on both sides enjoyed amicable and collaborative relations in the spaces between the battles. We must acknowledge that they saw each other as religious inferiors, and that their understanding of each other was limited, but this did not prevent them from meeting, trading and enjoying each other’s company. In the modern world there are far more opportunities for Muslims and non-Muslims to interact on a friendly basis, people have far better access to information than did their forebears in the Middle Ages and discriminating against someone on the basis of religion is forbidden by UN declaration. There is, then, no excuse for Muslims and non-Muslims not to create deep, meaningful relationships at home and abroad, despite the barriers that they encounter in the rhetoric of extremists and the distortions of some media outlets.


For useful discussions of the impact of the Crusades on both the medieval and modern Muslim world, see Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a); Emmanuel Sivan, Modern Arab Historiography of the Crusades (1973); and John M. Chamberlin V, Imagining Defeat: An Arabic Historiography of the Crusades (2007). These works should, however, be read in tandem with Diana Abouali’s recent valuable article, ‘Saladin’s Legacy in the Middle East before the Nineteenth Century’ (2011). An excellent, if now slightly dated, introduction to the topic of modern terrorism conducted in the name of Islam is John L. Esposito’s Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam (2003). For a more detailed discussion of modern use of jihad ideology see Richard Bonney,Jihad: From Qur’an to bin Laden (2004). For an American Muslim’s response to modern Muslim terrorism in general and 9/11 in particular, see Sumbul Ali-Karamili, The Muslim Next Door: The Qur’an, the Media and that Veil Thing (2008).


Plate 1 The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Completed in 691 and repeatedly restored since, the Dome of the Rock marks the place from which, according to Muslim belief, the Prophet Muhammad ascended when he visited the heavens and met God.



Plate 2 Nur al-Din’s minbar (pulpit) in the Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem. Nur al-Din commissioned this around 1168, probably intending to place it in the Aqsa Mosque once he had conquered Jerusalem. It was placed there by Saladin after the conquest of 1187, and remained there until it was destroyed by a Christian fanatic in 1969. Courtesy of the Creswell Archive, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, neg. EA.CA.5005


Plate 3 Bab al-Futuh (the Gate of Conquests) in Cairo, Egypt. Completed in 1087, his is one of a set of gates built into the walls of the Fatimid city of Cairo by Armenian architects. It bears striking similarities to fortifications constructed at about the same time in Greater Armenia.

© Vivek Agrawal and Sonit Bafna, 1992. Courtesy of the MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Libraries.


Plate 4 The Castle of Ajlun, Jordan. Overlooking the Jordan valley, this castle was built on the orders of Saladin near the crusader castle of Belvoir in 1184–85. It was enlarged during the reign of al-‘Adil Muhammad and used at times as a link in communications using beacons and pigeons and as a store for weapons and supplies.

©OPIS Zagreb/Shu­tte­rst­ock­.co­m


Plate 5 The Citadel of Cairo, Egypt. Saladin ordered the construction of the citadel in 1176. Work was continued by al-‘Adil Muhammad and later rulers. Now the Mosque of Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha (bt. 1828–48) dominates the skyline.

© Aga Khan Trust for Culture / Gary Otte


Plate 6 Source: Jonathan Riley-Smith (ed.), The Atlas of the Crusades (New York, 1991), pp. 110–111. Courtesy of Swanston Publishing.



Plate 7 Dinar of al-Malik al-Zahir Baybars. This gold dinar was struck in 1268. Note the use of Baybars’ lion/panther blazon.

©The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.


Plate 8 Jisr Jindas, Lydda (Lod), Israel. Built by Baybars in 1273, panels flanking the inscription on this bridge bear his lion/panther blazon. On each panel the lion plays with a rat, possibly intended specifically to symbolize the sultan’s Frankish enemies. Used with kind permission of Uri Zackhem.


Plate 9 Propaganda picture of Saddam Husayn as the heir of Saladin. This image was probably commissioned in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war, and hence aims to depict Husayn as the defender of Sunni Islam against what he would have regarded as the Shi‘ite heresy of the Iranians.

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