The Arab world had seemingly won a stunning victory. If the West had sought, through its successive invasions, to contain the thrust of Islam, the result was exactly the opposite. Not only were the Frankish states of the Middle East uprooted after two centuries of colonization, but the Muslims had so completely gained the upper hand that before long, under the banner of the Ottoman Turks, they would seek to conquer Europe itself. In 1453 they took Constantinople. By 1529 their cavalry was encamped at the walls of Vienna.
Appearances are deceptive. With historical hindsight, a more contradictory observation must be made. At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization. Afterwards, the centre of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the Crusades marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe—which would gradually come to dominate the world—and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization?
Although not completely false, such an assessment requires some modification. During the years prior to the Crusades, the Arabs suffered from certain Ýweaknesses’ that the Frankish presence exposed, perhaps aggravated, but by no means created.
The people of the Prophet had lost control of their own destiny as early as the ninth century. Their leaders were practically all foreigners. Of the multitude of personalities who parade before us during the two centuries of Frankish occupation, which ones were Arabs? The chroniclers, the qÁÃÐs, a few local petty kings (such as Ibn ÝAmmÁr’ and Ibn Munqidh) and the impotent caliphs. But the real holders of power, and even the major heroes of the struggle against the Franj—Zang, NÙr al-DÐn, QuÔuz, Baybars, QalÁwÙn—were Turks; al-AfÃal was Armenian; ShÐrkÙh, Saladin, and al-KÁmil were Kurds. Granted, most of these men of state were ÝArabized’, both culturally and emotionally. But let us not forget that in 1134 the sultan MasÝÙd had to use an interpreter in his discussions with the caliph al-Mustarshid; eighty years after his clan’s capture of Baghdad, the Seljuk still could not speak a word of Arabic. Even more serious, considerable numbers of warriors of the steppes, lacking any connection with Arab or Mediterranean civilizations, were regularly incorporated into the ruling military caste. Dominated, oppressed, and derided, aliens in their own land, the Arabs were unable to continue to cultivate the cultural blossoms that had begun to flower in the seventh century. By the epoch of the arrival of the Franj, they were already marking time, content to live on their past glories. Although in most domains they were clearly more advanced than these new invaders, their decline had already begun.
The second Ýweakness’ of the Arabs, not unrelated to the first, was their inability to build stable institutions. The Franj succeeded in creating genuine state structures as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. In Jerusalem rulers generally succeeded one another without serious clashes; a council of the kingdom exercised effective control over the policy of the monarch, and the clergy had a recognized role in the workings of power. Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war. Does full responsibility for this lie with the successive invasions, which constantly imperilled the very existence of these states? Perhaps the nomadic origins of the peoples who ruled this region are to blame, be they the Arabs themselves, the Turks, or the Mongols? Such a complex question cannot be dealt with in this brief epilogue. But let us at least note that in the Arab world the question is still on the agenda, in scarcely altered terms, in the latter part of the twentieth century.
The absence of stable and recognized institutions had inevitable consequences for the rights of the people. At the time of the Crusades, the power of Western monarchs was governed by principles that were not easily transgressed. During one of his visits to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, UsÁmah remarked that Ýwhen the knights render a judgement, it cannot be modified or annulled by the king.’ Even more significant is the following testimony from Ibn Jubayr about the last days of his journey in the Middle East.
Upon leaving TibnÐn (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lot to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.
Ibn Jubayr had every reason to be concerned, for along the roads of what is now southern Lebanon he had just made a discovery of vital import: although there were certain features of Franj justice that could well be called Ýbarbaric’, as UsÁmah had emphasized, their society had the advantage of being a Ýdistributor of rights’. The notion of the Ýcitizen’ did not yet exist, of course, but the feudal landowners, the knights, the clergy, the university, the bourgeoisie, and even the Ýinfidel’ peasants all had well-established rights. In the Arab East, the judicial procedures were more rational, but the arbitrary power of the prince was unbounded. The development of merchant towns, like the evolution of ideas, could only be retarded as a result.
In fact, Ibn Jubayr’s reaction merits even more attentive examination. Although he had the honesty to recognize positive qualities among the Ýaccursed enemy’, he went on to indulge in pure imprecations, for he believed that the equity and sound administration of the Franj constituted a mortal danger to the Muslims. Indeed, might not the latter turn their backs on their own coreligionists—and on their religion—if they discovered well-being in Frankish society? However understandable it may be, the attitude of the renowned traveller is none the less symptomatic of a malady from which his congeners suffered: throughout the Crusades, the Arabs refused to open their own society to ideas from the West. And this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims. For an invader, it makes sense to learn the language of the conquered people; for the latter, to learn the language of the conqueror seems a surrender of principle, even a betrayal. And in fact, many Franj learned Arabic, whereas the inhabitants of the country, with the exception of some Christians, remained impervious to the languages of the Occidentals.
Many such instances could be cited, for in all domains the Franj learned much in the Arab school, in Syria as in Spain and Sicily. What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion. The heritage of Greek civilization was transmitted to Western Europe through Arab intermediaries, both translators and continuators. In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed. Many words bear testimony to this even today: zenith, nadir, azimuth, algebra, algorithm, or more simply, cipher. In the realm of industry, the Europeans first learned and then later improved upon the processes used by the Arabs in paper-making, leather-working, textiles, and the distillation of alcohol and sugar—two more words borrowed from the Arabic language. Nor should we forget the extent to which European agriculture was enriched by contact with the Orient: apricots, aubergines, scallions, oranges,pastèque (the French name for watermelon): the list of words derived from Arabic is endless.
Although the epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these holy wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism. Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile—attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued. Henceforth progress was the embodiment of Ýthe other’. Modernism became alien. Should cultural and religious identity be affirmed by rejecting this modernism, which the West symbolized? Or, on the contrary, should the road of modernization be embarked upon with resolution, thus risking loss of identity? Neither Iran, nor Turkey, nor the Arab world has ever succeeded in resolving this dilemma. Even today we can observe a lurching alternation between phases of forced Westernization and phases of extremist, strongly xenophobic traditionalism.
The Arab world—simultaneously fascinated and terrified by these Franj, whom they encountered as barbarians and defeated, but who subsequently managed to dominate the earth—cannot bring itself to consider the Crusades a mere episode in the bygone past It is often surprising to discover the extent to which the attitude of the Arabs (and of Muslims in general) towards the West is still influenced, even today, by events that supposedly ended some seven centuries ago.
Today, on the eve of the third millennium, the political and religious leaders of the Arab world constantly refer to Saladin, to the fall of Jerusalem and its recapture. In the popular mind, and in some official discourse too, Israel is regarded as a new Crusader state. Of the three divisions of the Palestine Liberation Army, one bears the name ÍiÔÔÐn and another ÝAyn JÁlÙt. In his days of glory, President Nasser was regularly compared to Saladin, who, like him, had united Syria and Egypt—and even Yemen! The Arabs perceived the Suez expedition of 1956 as a Crusade by the French and the English, similar to that of 1191.
It is true that there are disturbing resemblances. It is difficult not to think of President Sadat when we hear SibÔ Ibn al-Jawzi speaking to the people of Damascus and denouncing the Ýbetrayal’ of al-KÁmil, the ruler of Cairo, who dared to acknowledge enemy sovereignty over the holy city. It is tempting to confound past and present when we read of a struggle between Damascus and Jerusalem for control of the Golan Heights or the Bekaa Valley. It is hard not to daydream when we read UsÁmah’s reflections about the military superiority of the invaders.
In a Muslim world under constant attack, it is impossible to prevent the emergence of a sense of persecution, which among certain fanatics takes the form of a dangerous obsession. The Turk Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to shoot the pope on 13 May 1981, had expressed himself in a letter in these terms: I have decided to kill John Paul II, supreme commander of the Crusades. Beyond this individual act, it seems clear that the Arab East still sees the West as a natural enemy. Against that enemy, any hostile action—be it political, military, or based on oil—is considered no more than legitimate vengeance. And there can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.