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The Crusades: No Innocent Parties

The Crusades are considered an enigmatic time in history for Christians and Muslims alike. While there has been much fighting between the two over the ages, no other period records such passion and military endeavors between the religions. Thankfully, the eleventh through fourteen centuries alone record Christians bearing arms and behaving so inhumanely on such a large scale. Church history reluctantly points to the Crusades as an era of heartlessness that must never be repeated.

However, it can’t go unnoticed that Islamic militants were just as vengeful in their actions, all in the name of faith. Yet their religion appears to give more leniencies to physical warfare than Christian theology. In this paper I will attempt to prove sociologically that neither group can claim they “won” the “Crusades,” as well as verify neither side was guiltless in their religious behavior. Both sides came to the same conclusion when embarking upon these wars--that it was God’s will for them to win. Both sides also violated their own beliefs and principles, thus disproving their initial motivation, and bringing reproach to the faith of the banner each raised.


Christians had faithfully voyaged on pilgrimages to the Holy Land since the fourth century. Such an endeavor was viewed as the upper echelon of Christian purity. Even though the Mohammedan Arabs took possession of the Holy Land in the 600’s, they historically treated Christian sojourners with respect. Understandably, the year 1,000 AD and the start of the new millennium ushered in an increased focus on this divine undertaking. Believers worldwide were convinced that a new spiritual age had descended. Christians in Europe were sure the Second Coming of the Lord was close at hand, preceded and confirmed by several years of miserable famine.

Due to this increased awareness, they longed to see Jerusalem and any changes the millennial arrival had created. “For ages the land route to Jerusalem had been practically barred….but about the year 1,000 the old route was opened up once more.”This stirring resurfaced thirty years later at the millennial anniversary of the crucifixion. During the first 3/4 of the eleventh century, Jerusalem had been ruled by the El-Hakim, the Fatimite (Shiite) Caliph of Cairo. His father had treated the Jews and Christian pilgrims kindly. But things began to change as the Seljukian Turks came into power.

These Turks hailed from Samarcand, led by their famous chief Seljuk. In 1038 chief Tughrul Bey established his rule in Khurasan. He led an attack on Armenia in 1050 because the Byzantines had left the entire country unprotected. “The Byzantines' annexation of Armenia was the beginning of their downfall in Asia Minor; Armenia was too weak to fight the Seljuk Turks who threatened their eastern border.” The Seljuks met no resistance until they reached Melitene, where they murdered so many civilians that some escaped death by hiding among the corpses. The Byzantine Empire decided to avenge their losses through military action. Yet, they continued to lose ground due to the feistiness of these desert warriors. The final loss came when the Seljuk Alp Arslan defeated and captured the Emperor Romanus Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. The Armenians had resisted Muslim attacks and been a buffer defending Byzantium for years. However, Byzantium had previously destroyed the strong partition wall built by Armenian warriors, ironically leading to their defeat.

The Seljuk Turks continued their advancement, capturing the Holy Land in 1073. They immediately began to persecute Christian travelers; Gregory VII responded by planning a war that would drive the Turks out and reunite the East and West. Yet the Investiture Controversy prevented him from ever carrying out his plan. The real catalyst was the Byzantine emperor, Alexius Comnenus I, who made an urgent appeal to western Christians for help against the Turks. Muslim mistreatment of pilgrims in Jerusalem had reached an all-time high. The emperor also wanted to gather support against Turkish attacks on the eastern Byzantine Empire.

Comnenus’s original plea was written to the count of Flanders, not realizing it would be relayed to the pope. Pope Urban II was immediately rallied to the cause. He gave his famous address on November 27th, 1095 at the Council of Clermont in central France. Stark records, “Standing on a podum in the middle of a field, and surrounded by an immense crowd that included poor peasants as well as nobility and clergy, the pope gave one of the most effective speeches of all time. Blessed with an expressive and unusually powerful voice, he could be heard and understood at a great distance.

Urban made a strong appeal to the lords, knights, and foot soldiers of western Europe to stop their private wars and join the ranks of conquering the Turks and regaining the Holy Land. The pope offered many benefits to those who ‘took the cross,’ including counting the crusade as penance for sin.

“Strong in our trust in the divine mercy, and by virtue of the authority of Sts. Peter and Paul, of whose fullness we are the depository, we hereby grant full remission of any canonical penalties whatever to all the faithful of Christ who from motives of devotion alone and not for the procurement of honor or gain shall have gone forth to the aid of God’s church at Jerusalem. But whosoever shall have died there in true repentance shall undoubtedly have the remission (indulgentiam) of sins and the fruit of eternal reward.:

The Pope, in referring to the cross the Crusaders stitched on the outside of their clothing, claimed it was to be a memorial that “will increasingly remind you that Christ died for you, and that it is your duty to die for Him.

Twentieth century Church History expert Jonathan Riley-Smith confers, “While holy war had had a long history, the idea of penitential war was unprecedented in Christian thought. It meant that a crusade was for the crusader only secondarily about service in arms to God or benefiting the Church or Christianity; it was primarily about benefiting himself.” Deus lo vult, or ‘God wills it,’ was the audiences’ enthusiastic response. The frantic crowd interpreted joining the crusade as the surest way to atone for the most grievous of sins.

The enthusiasm quickly spread through France and England. “Christendom became a great international community with a common ideal and a common fight against the infidel Turks.”[1]A similar resolve on a smaller scale had taken place five years earlier when many knights in Norman had rescued Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica from followers of Mohammed. European nobles saw the crusade as adventurous and a chance for glory. Those born into lower classes who dealt with the hopelessness of never seeing their lives improve now had a reason for living. Alexius was hoping for an army of well-trained soldiers, but was instead rewarded with many normal citizens.

The Crusaders set out with the goal of rescuing Jerusalem and largely ignored the Byzantine emperor’s call for help. Those in debt who left for the crusade were forgiven of outstanding accounts. Prisoners who wished to join were set free. Many came from homes of moral depravity, excited by the idea of adventure. Count Raymond of Toulouse, the most powerful prince of southern France, and Adhemar, the bishop of Puy, signed up and were subsequently labeled the Crusaders’ Moses and Aaron.

Bishops and priests advertised the crusades as equal to monastic sacrifice and took it upon themselves to recruit on behalf of the pope. “Campaigning for the crusades stimulated a spirit of devotion and a fervent, imaginative popular preaching which later found expression in the mendicant monks.” Many preparations had to be made and it was eight months before any of the armies were able to start out. During these long winter months “the voice of one preacher was heard in northeastern France urging men to fulfill the commands of God. This preacher was Peter the Hermit. He gained tremendous influence but disastrously set out ahead of time and led many of the Crusaders to a senseless grave.

Pope Urban also saw the crusade as a much-needed opportunity to root out corruption in the church, employing Robert of Arbissel, Vitalis of Mortain, and Bernard of Tiron to inspire reform in tandem with their call for taking the cross. Yet, the Church of Rome began to undermine feudalism by offering to protect the land of the knights while they were away on crusade, claiming ownership if the nobility failed to return. Because German nights and nobles refused to participate in the Crusades, they were one of the few areas who continued their feudal practices unmolested.

The First Three Crusades:

From August through December the main crusader armies set out on what would end up a three year journey to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity. From Nov. 1096 through May 1097, their crusader armies arrived at Constantinople. There they were forced to swear loyalty to the Byzantine emperor. Being from the Latin west, this was not an easy oath to yield for any of armies’ main generals: Bohemond of Taranto, Godfrey of Boullion, and his brother Baldwin. Yet this allegiance was required before Alexius was willing to supply the Crusaders with their much needed food and transportation.

The army continued on to Nicaea where they began a six week siege. “The main hosts of the Crusaders accordingly set out in five distinct bodies under different leaders and by different routes. The first started in August 1096; the last did not join its fellows till they were camped round Nicaea in the following summer.” After taking Nicaea, the Crusaders continued to Antioch, considered the gateway to the Holy Land. There they began a difficult siege that lasted nearly a year.

In June 1119 the crusader armies of around 13,000 finally arrived at Jerusalem, taking the city a month later. Godfrey was crowned the “Advocate of the Holy Sepulcher,” refusing to be named king of the city he felt had only one true King. Yet, Jerusalem was incorporated into the Latin west rather than being handed over to the Byzantines. Jerusalem would remain under the Christian banner until the rule of Saladin in 1187. Even still, Muslim domination in the surrounding region stayed intact. Hillenbrand comments, “It is noticeable, however, that even in the first flush of success the Crusaders were unable to capture either of the two major cities in the region, namely Aleppo or Damascus.

The Second Crusade was fueled by the actions of three important Muslim leaders: Imad al-Din Zengi, his son Nur al-Din (Zengi), and Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin). In 1128, the Turkish ruler Imad al-Din Zengi began to develop an empire from the fragmented Muslim city-states of northern Syria. “Syria, indeed, is marked out by nature as a meeting-place of the nations. Westward it looks towards Europe….to the east, across the desert, lies the great river on whose banks grew up that ancient Akkadian culture….in the south its inhabitants were brought into contact with the immemorial civilization of the Nile; in the north with still more mysterious races.

In July of 1144 Zengi succeeded in uniting Muslims in northern Syria and capturing the Crusader-held city of Edessa. This Muslim advancement and the resulting concern for the Holy Land instigated the Second Crusade in 1147. The armies led by Louis VII of France set out in 1148, racing to preempt Nur al-Din’s arrival to Damascus. Nur al-Din had taken over after the death of his father Imad al-Din Zengi, continuing the desire for Muslim dominance. The Second Crusade quickly ended in humiliation for the Christians with very little accomplished. Nur al-Din continued a successful reign from Syria while Saladin rose to power twenty years later in Egypt. After the death of Nur-al Din, Saladin began to further unite the Muslim factions. In 1181 he entered Aleppo and his call for a jihad (holy war) to drive out the Christians gathered momentum.

The Third Crusade was instigated in July 1187 when Saladin invaded Christian territory and defeated their armies at the Battle of Hattin. The Crusader kingdom was beginning to disintegrate. In October 1189 Saladin’s army reached Jerusalem and soon recaptured the holy city for Islam, sparking the Third Crusade. Richard the Lionheart of England headed up the new Crusader army. In August of 1191 Richard ordered the infamous massacre of 2,600 Muslim prisoners in front of Saladin’s army in the town of Acre. In October 1191 Richard’s armies began a four month march to Jerusalem.

Upon arriving, however, Richard was convinced by local knights that even if the Crusaders ended up taking Jerusalem, they did not have the manpower to keep it. After wavering nearby for the next eight months, Richard and his armies returned home in September 1192, ending the Third Crusade. However, the Christians were able to keep control of the coast from Jaffa to Tyre. Saladin passed away in 1193, considered one of the greatest Muslim leaders of all time. Six more unsuccessful crusades were to follow, including a Children’s Crusade in 1212. In 1291, Acre, the last of the Christian outposts, fell to the Muslims. Christian occupation of the Holy Land had ended after almost 200 years.

Perspective of the Crusaders:

Study of the Crusaders and their motivations in fighting what they felt were ‘just wars’ unearths as many hidden purposes as it does holy ones. Yet, there were some legitimate godly leaders, such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena, and John of Capistrano, who whole-heartedly believed in the cause. History testifies of both amazing Christian servitude and barbaric human depravity. The Seljuk Turks were only one of several enemies targeted during this period; Jews, Syrian Christians and religious ‘heretics’ became victims of widespread persecution.

Christianity in Europe, Africa and Asia had long experienced conflict since the decision of the Council of Chalcedon to split the universal church into two camps in 451 AD. The Latin West in Rome and the Byzantine Greek Empire in Constantinople became the subsequent ruling centers. Theologians spent most of their time in refutation of scholars from the opposing empire. However, with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Christianity experienced a new, dangerous enemy.

Christian sociologist Rodney Stark proclaims:

“The crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations and were sustained by western piety. They were provoked by centuries of attempts by Muslims to colonize the West and by attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places….Muslims began invading and colonizing Christian areas in the lifetime of Mohammed. Then, during the next four centuries prior to the Crusades, they overwhelmed Roman North Africa and colonized Spain, Sicily, and portions of southern Italy. Early in the eighth century major thrusts were made into France….Muslim forces had turned the Mediterranean into a virtual Islamic lake."

Yet, Stark is a western writer detailing events of a differing religious group. While history backs the Muslim’s widespread enlargement, his description seems one-sided. I can’t help but wonder how he would record the achievements of a less controversial contemporary religious group? At any rate, the Muslims were viewed as committed, yet poisonous heretics by the Christians.

Stark describes the Seljuks as “semi nomadic tribesmen untainted by city-dwelling ….unflinching particularists (in reference to their intolerance of religious pluralism)….They made it clear that Christians were fair game.” Therefore all of the Anatolian villages on the route to Jerusalem began to demand tolls from the Christian pilgrims. Many travelers were seized and tortured or sold into slavery. Thus, the Christians felt extremely justified in carrying out what they believed to be God’s will.

A few centuries of hospitality toward Christian pilgrims had been erased by the recent actions of the Seljuk Turks. It was becoming socially acceptable for Christians and even monks to take up arms in defense of their faith. Whereas before, separation from the world had been the prescribed ascetic environment, now traveling throughout the world to conquer in the name of Christ appeared to be holy living. The Crusaders not only planned to put a stop to mistreatment of Christians by the infidels (ironically a term used by both sides when referring to the opposition), but to regain God’s holy city.

It was only right, then, that spiritual benefits be rewarded to those who participated. Thus, the crusades influenced the system of absolution. Immunity from the penalty of sin was originally awarded only to those participating in the crusades. Avengers of the cross were granted full innocence for any iniquity they might commit during their service. However, Celestine III (1191-1198) granted at least partial absolution to those who contributed money to the Third Crusade. Innocent III (1198-1216) followed by granting complete forgiveness to those who sent a representative in their place to the Third Crusade.

The crusades also stimulated interest in relics and sacred places. One could argue that the Christians felt pressure by the Muslim practice of attribution to holy places and needed to identify reverent sites of their own. The Iron Lance, the Black Rood (supposedly wood from the cross of Christ) and other revered objects were credited with bringing about certain victories. The Knights Templar, one such organization notorious for holding relics sacred, developed during this era. The use of the Rosary became more popular toward the end of the crusades, possibly influenced by the Islamic worship known as tasbih.

One hurdle both the East and the West had to overcome when approaching the lands of the eastern Mediterranean was the wounds they had historically inflicted upon the Syrian and Armenian churches. The decision of the Council of Chalcedon that split the universal church into two sections, Roman Catholic and Greek churches (along with part of the Syrian Church of Antioch) adopted the outcome of the council; the Coptic, Ethiopian, and Armenian churches and another part of the Syrian church rejected their decision. The Syrian church was affected so greatly at Chalcedon that by the sixth century, only two bishops were left to serve its people.

Some have wondered, could the results of the crusades have been God using the Muslims to atone for the church’s treatment of their Syrian brothers? Moosa proclaims, “Sadly, the Byzantine emperors treated the Syrians as heretics from the fifth century onward. Some emperors….tried but failed to win the Syrians to the Chalcedonian faith, but such efforts only created more dissension, finally leading to….the rise of the Maronite church and community. The Armenians were the majority in important cities like Edessa and the province of Cilicia.

The crusades also promoted a spirit of religious intolerance, paving the way for the Inquisition. Before the Crusaders even reached Syrian topography, they had already started on the war path against the Jews. “To the early, Christians Jerusalem may well have seemed the city of the wrath rather than the love of God.” Anti-Semitism was still common during their period. Peter the Hermit’s preaching, for example, was misinterpreted and used to justify pillaging of the Jews.

In Lorraine Crusaders felt the need ‘to wipe out the race that had crucified the Lord.’ In Cologne the synagogues were destroyed and Jews were murdered. At Mayence the Jews paid the archbishop to hide in his house and were slaughtered anyway. Town after town the Crusaders attacked the Semites along the Rhine River: Spire, Worms, Mainz, and Cologne. “In all, perhaps five thousand Jews were murdered in several months by men who were preparing to march to the Holy Land.

The French abbot Abbe Pierre of Cluny stated, when promoting the Second Crusade, “What is the good of going to the end of the world at great loss of men and money, to fight Saracens, when we permit among us other infidels who are a thousand times more guilty toward Christ than are Mohammedans?” The Crusaders of Rouen proclaimed, “We desire to go and fight God’s enemies in the East; but we have before our eyes certain Jews, a race more inimical to God than any other.” Yet, the Crusaders were not alone in their persecutions of God’s chosen people. The Muslim edict of 1148 expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Islam from Spain, with the penalty of death upon refusal.

Obviously, not all Christians carried these ideologies. Francis of Assisi traveled to Damietta, Egypt in 1219 hoping to convert Sultan Malik al-Kamel and prevent the Fifth Crusade. After a week with the sultan, he returned with a proposed peace treaty. Sadly, the Crusaders wanted nothing to do with this type of appeasement. Francis later returned and spent much time in Egypt ministering to the poor before serving Muslims in the Holy Land.

St. Francis was so impressed by his time among the Muslims that he inserted a special rule for his order encouraging them to minister to the ‘infidels.’ His Regula non bullata (“Rule not ratified by papal bull”) directed them to submit themselves to the Saracens for Christ’s sake (1 Pet. 2:13), and to be wise as serpents but innocent as doves (Mt. 10:16). These instructions, covered in Chapter 16: For Brothers who wish to go among the Saracens, employ the servants “not to cause arguments or strife, but….when they have seen that it pleases God, they announce the word of God.”

For all of the justification the Crusaders employed, their slaughter of women and children in incomprehensible fashion disproved any honorable intentions. The Seljuks and Saracens, while enemies politically and even threatening religiously, were still people. Love never appeared to be the aim in the Crusades. Spreading the gospel was not proclaimed as the driving force; rather wrath was displayed in widespread fashion. Jews, fellow Christians, and those viewed as heretics were butchered without mercy.

The Islamic Mindset:

Christianity had their split between the east and the west, Latin and Greek; Islam had its split between Shicism and Sunnis.’ Two of their greatest leaders mentioned above, Nur al-Din and Saladin, embodied this clash. Nur al-Din was a leading Sunni while Saladin arose as a respected Shiite. The Muslim attitudes of the time were torn between hatred of the infidels and seeing each battle as a chance to advance their respective Sunni or Shiite agendas. For example, the news of the first Crusader victory in Anatolia over the Seljuk Sunnis in 1097 was celebrated by the ruling Shiites in Cairo. They sent an envoy to meet the Crusaders in Antioch and persuade them to abort any advances upon Cairo.

The collective view concerning the Christians was that they were polytheistic intruders bent on senseless destruction. The Muslims referred to the Crusaders as the al-Ifranj or al-Infaranj meaning ‘Franks,’ or kuffar meaning ‘infidels.’ Moosa, referring to Muslim writers during the crusades, states, “These historians, aware of Islamic codes for warfare and laws of diplomacy developed over centuries of confrontation with the Byzantines and saddened by the unnecessary suffering of the non-combatants, portray the Crusaders as barbarians since they evidence no restraint or allegiance to a war ethic that would spare the civilian population from annihilation.

Memoirs, recorded by the Muslim diplomat Usämä b. Munqidh (1095-1188), reveal the inmost thoughts of his personal experiences with the ‘infidels.’ Haddad states, “Usämä was a warrior with long experience who had been raised on the concepts of Arab chivalry, gallantry, and proper aristocratic behavior. He had been appointed by different rulers to serve on various diplomatic missions to Crusader colonies as well as to other Muslim states.

Usämä notes:

“Mysterious are the works of the Creator, the author of all things! When one comes to recount cases regarding the Franks, he cannot but glorify Allah (Exalted is He) and sanctify him, for he sees them [the Franks] as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting but nothing else; just as animals have only the virtues of strength and carrying loads.

Usämä represents the perspective of the Muslims against the Crusaders' moral system, believed to be unfit for civilized behavior. Riley-Smith declares, “The disdain of the conqueror's mores endowed the Muslims with a feeling of innate superiority and a passionate adherence to their own moral system based on the assurance of the possession of truth.

I can’t help but wondering, however, how Muslims of the day would react to the written description of ‘the Anonymous Edessan (a monk in 1234),’ “a trustworthy eyewitness to the events in Jerusalem when Saladin entered the city.” The Edessan gives a contrasting description of Shiite morality:

I, the wretched and unfortunate, was then in Jerusalem. I saw with my own eyes the havoc, abominations, and ignominious acts of the Muslims which my tongue cannot describe or express. The Muslims sold the church vessels in the city's markets. They converted the churches and temples to stables, theaters of entertainment and brothels. They savagely perpetrated reprehensible actions against the monks and chaste nuns and other women. They took young men and women as captives and sold them in far-off countries. They denuded the churches not only of their ornaments, but also of wood and iron objects, and ripped off the doors and marble tiles that covered the walls and floors. They removed all these to faraway countries. However, they mercifully spared the Church of the Resurrection. They set up guards in it, not out of respect for its sanctity, but because of their greedy desire to lay hands on the gifts the people brought upon visiting it. The Muslims imposed a ten-dinar entrance fee on every Christian who entered or worshiped at the Sepulcher of the Savior.

It is clear the writer was shocked rather than impressed with Islamic morality.

Yet, in Usämä’s writings one can later catch a subtle softening, not quite as severe as Saint Francis. “Usämä distinguished between the knights whom he held in high esteem and the later Crusaders recruited from among the common people of Europe.” The Muslims became impressed with the original Crusaders who remained for the long-term. Because they saw the foreigners as inferior, they appreciated the way the Franks adopted some of their customs, especially their Arab dress and dietary habits. The Muslims also respected the Crusaders allegiance to their faith and commitment to travel all the way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. However, they were amazed at how little the Christians knew about what they believed. They noted the difference in their disrespectful treatment of the elderly, their system of justice using peers, their lack of morality and public decency, and their viewing of Jesus as divine.

Mâlikï judicial consultant and Ashcarite theologian al-Qaräfi (1227-1285) thought the Christians to be worse than the Jews because of their practice of communion and partaking of the blood and body of Christ. To him, the Jews only crucified Jesus once while the Christians continued to glory in his torture. He vigorously studied Christianity and then argued against the incarnation, original sin, and the Christian belief in the Trinity, which he labeled a paradox. Seeing the Christians’ foundation as faulty, he accused their priests throughout history of conjuring up stories of miracles to strengthen their faith.

I have to admit, I was impressed by how well al-Qaräfi understood and explained the faith of the Christians, even in his opposition. It was clear that this Muslim writer had spent countless hours attempting to comprehend the faith of his enemies in order to develop a proper refutation. Continuing his defense, al-Qaräfi observed, “The Crusaders show great love for fighting-proving themselves to be cruel and ferocious-whereas they were commanded by Christ to ‘turn the other cheek.’ As for Muslims, they have been commanded to fight and thus abide by their revelation.

Accounts from the Islamic writers paint the Muslims as victims of barbaric and undeserved attacks. They also credit the limited success of the Crusaders to fighting within their own ranks, keeping the Muslim leaders distracted. Their total annihilation of cities on one hand, while at other moments showing tolerance to those of different backgrounds, appears to contradict their command of jihad. Yet the reader cannot ignore the fact that accounts of the Crusaders record more widespread devastation and immorality than their Muslim opponents. Considering the centuries of slaughter before the crusades, the Sunnis and Shiites lose their supposed advantage. The fact that Muslims could not wholly unite, while applauding the invasions as a chance to further their own agenda, refutes their conclusion of moral superiority.


The Crusades are a well-documented era of history depicting wonderful and horrible acts in the name of religion. Christians and Muslims of that day both were convinced they were doing the will of their respective deity. Each side invested enormous amounts of support and manpower in backing these claims. Both were so confident of God being on their side that at times they were willing to ignore their individual consciences in support of the greater good. After all, with the support of so many religious leaders, the ends had to justify the means!

When it was all said and done, neither side could proclaim permanent victory. Each had committed tremendous violations of their faith. The Muslims claimed the advantage of having more permission according to their theological beliefs. The Crusaders felt they were justified in the pursuit of cleansing God’s holy city. In the end, nothing beneficial was universally established. Scars remain to this day on both sides. Yet both camps can also be extremely edified when studying the feats of the pure-hearted of those days. Stories abound from both religions of admirable feats we can still learn from!

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