Was the First Crusade really a war against Islam?

It is widely believed that the Crusades were a clash of civilisations. But a closer examination, writes Nicholas Morton, reveals a complexity that has eluded many historians.

After more than a month of intense fighting, the armies of the First Crusade broke into Jerusalem on July 15th, 1099. Perhaps 3,000 of the city’s Muslim and Jewish population died in the bloody onslaught and further massacres took place in the follo wing days. It was an act of holy war, a symbolic cleansing of the Holy City, later remembered in medieval chronicles, which describe the victorious Franks wading in the blood of the fallen.  

These gruesome events are counted among the cruellest acts of war. They are also offered as unequivocal proof that the First Crusade instigated a clash of civilisations between Christianity and Islam, which would last for centuries. Commentators from many backgrounds, addressing a variety of audiences, have treated this verdict as fact, characterising the First Crusade as the quintessential Christian versus Muslim conflict. It continues to fuel hatred nine centuries on. Yet how far is it borne out by the evidence? Was the First Crusade a war against Islam?

To answer that question it is necessary to go back a century before the campaign and hundreds of miles east, to the great grass sea of the central Asian steppe. It was a region long traversed by nomadic tribes, grazing their herds and fighting clan wars. Various religious influences moulded their beliefs, though most practised some form of shamanism.  

Pope Urban II announces the First Crusade, 15th- century French manuscript. Bridgman Images
Pope Urban II announces the First Crusade, 15th- century French manuscript. Bridgman Images
In the late 900s several Turkic tribes began to migrate south towards the Muslim world. Some came as adventurers, others as invaders, a few as mercenaries. Over time this movement morphed into an inexorable drive for conquest. In the early decades of the 11th century, the Turks – led by the Saljuq family – advanced steadily, seizing Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, in 1055. By 1070 the Saljuq Turks had forced their way west into Syria, where the local Arab and Kurdish rulers either died on their swords or submitted to Saljuq authority. In 1077 they came into conflict with another Muslim power, the Shia Fatimid caliphate of Egypt, and almost managed to conquer the Nile Delta. In a series of invasions the Turks also pushed their way north-west into the Christian Byzantine Empire, and in 1071 they were victorious at Manzikert in eastern Turkey, defeating the forces of Emperor Romanus Diogenes IV.  This defeat and the sustained inroads made by the Turks into Christian territory over the following years provoked calls for holy war in support of an ailing Byzantium. In 1095 this culminated in the First Crusade.       

The Turks were the crusaders’ first great opponent and, though the papacy had complex motives for launching the campaign, the expedition was in part a determined counterstrike against this newly arrived enemy. By fighting the Turks, Pope Urban II was not doing anything especially novel. He was simply the last in a line of rulers, Christian and Islamic, who attempted a defensive action against them as they expanded out of the Eurasian steppe. This was no straightforward war of ‘West’ against ‘East’; it is better characterised as the latest phase in the struggle between the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and the agricultural societies around their margins. The hallmarks of this contest are to be seen throughout Eurasia and they range from the building of the Great Wall of China to the fall of the Western Roman Empire; both are manifestations of the contest between pastoral and agricultural peoples.

Following the papacy’s call to arms at the Council of Clermont in 1095, the First Crusaders began to prepare themselves for the long journey east. By this stage, their objectives had begun to shift. Though the pope had encouraged Christendom’s warriors to march against a powerful enemy, he linked this appeal to a more inspiring objective: the reconquest of Jerusalem. It was this latter goal which resonated most with Urban II’s audience. The papacy could see the benefit of fending off the Saljuqs in distant Anatolia, but for most knightly families the wars between Byzantium and the Turks lay far beyond their mental horizon. 

The prospect of retaking Jerusalem was a great deal more exciting. Western Europeans had known about the Holy Land and Jerusalem since birth and the thought of winning it back galvanised them into action in colossal numbers. Among the surviving documents produced by the crusaders during their preparations for the campaign, only about 20 per cent mention fighting an enemy when citing their purpose for departure, while all of them reference Jerusalem. Likewise, the mere presence of thousands of non-combatants among the crusading army demonstrates that, for them at least, this was a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, not a counter to the Turkish invasions. Consequently, the First Crusade began as a strange affair: a religious war launched by the pope to hold back the Turks – just as many other Christian and Islamic rulers had done during the Turkish conquests of previous years – yet waged by warriors whose participation was grounded in the desire to retake Jerusalem. 

Most of the pilgrims departed knowing virtually nothing of the Turks; the word ‘Turk’ does not make a single appearance in the sources describing the preparations for the campaign. They recognised that this endeavour would require combat, but they knew virtually nothing about the distant peoples who might bar their progress, beyond the basic fact that they would be a non-Christian enemy of some kind. A few documents, either written by the departing crusaders or on their behalf, speak of marching to face ‘Saracens’ (a loose term designating ‘Muslims’), but the majority reference the expectation of fighting ‘pagans’ (a generic term in the medieval period for non-Christians). Consequently, they knew that they would be fighting a religious war but the identity of their enemy was indistinct.  

The siege of Antioch, 14th-century French illustration. Bridgeman Images/Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon
The siege of Antioch, 14th-century French illustration. Bridgeman Images/Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon
At this stage, the concept of fighting Islam was not a major objective of the crusade. To most of the crusaders, Islam (or the ‘Saracen law’) was an almost entirely unknown belief system. For most crusaders from France, the British Isles or northern Germany, the Muslim frontier lay many hundreds of miles from their homelands and knowledge travelled slowly. Some believed  – wrongly – that it was a polytheistic belief system worshipping many gods. It is likely that many had not heard of the ‘Saracen’ religion at all. Striking testimony is offered by a later English chronicler, William of Malmesbury. He was writing several decades later, when news of the First Crusade and the ongoing wars over Jerusalem had percolated back into western Christendom. Even so, despite the availability of information about the Near East from returning crusaders, he still felt it necessary – astonishingly – to explain that there was a difference between the religion practised by the ‘Saracens’ and the spirituality of the pagan tribes living in the Baltic region. He anticipated little knowledge among his intended audience. Consequently, far from being aflame with anti-Islamic fury, contemporaries in western Christendom knew virtually nothing about Muslims, an ignorance which persisted after the crusaders’ return.   

A few among the crusaders were better informed, including the Norman warriors who had recently conquered Sicily, an island previously under Muslim rule. The Normans in Sicily presided over a multicultural society and their awareness of Islamic belief and culture was considerable. Even so, their proximity did not translate into greater anti-Islamic motivation when on the First Crusade. The southern Italian commander, Bohemond of Taranto, joined the crusade in 1096 when he and his half-brother Roger were besieging the town of Amalfi. Their combined army assaulting the city was supported by a large contingent of Muslim troops raised from Roger’s lands in Sicily. As a result, when Bohemond ‘took the cross’, he did so while surrounded by thousands of allied Muslim warriors. It is a scenario that stands at odds with the popular idea that this was a war against Islam.     

Having gathered at Constantinople, the crusaders advanced across Anatolia, into Syria and south towards Jerusalem. On the way they fought repeated battles against the numerous Turkish leaders who ruled the lands along the route. The Franks learned to respect their opponents, whose waves of mounted archers proved a challenge to the slow-moving Christian armies. Some authors who accompanied the crusaders were so inspired by the Turks’ proficiency in war that they even speculated that their peoples must be related.  

During their advance, the crusaders began to take an interest in Turkish culture and beliefs. They noticed, for example, that the Turks tended to be bearded and that many observed the call to prayer. After their conquest of the Syrian city of Antioch, the Christian warriors noted that the Turks had converted the church of St Peter into a mosque and covered its statues with cement. These accounts serve as unwitting testimony to the Turks’ changing religious beliefs. By the time of the First Crusade many Saljuq commanders and their men had begun to exchange their former shamanistic steppe faith and customs for Islamic beliefs and practices, representing a trend – common throughout history – for conquerors to become influenced by the beliefs of the people they had usurped. For example, the use of cement to obscure the statues in the church of St Peter reflects the Islamic practice of not representing the human form within sacred spaces.  

Crusader assault on Jerusalem, 1099, 14th-century French illustration. © Bridgeman Images/Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Nevertheless, the crusaders also reported distinctively un-Islamic practices. They observed that some Turks buried their dead with grave goods, such as weapons, clothes and gold. The Turks also took a keen interest in astrology and continued to incorporate the symbols of their former way of life on the steppe into their political culture. These include the central motif of the bow and arrow. There was also a tendency among some commanders to scalp their enemies. The Turkish atabeg (acting-regent) of Damascus, who fought the Franks at Antioch, later became famous for his collection of drinking cups carved from the skulls of his enemies, while other Turks were well known for their prolonged drinking binges. None of these practices have roots in the Islamic world and they speak of their former shamanistic culture on the central Asian steppe.  

Ultimately, the Turks at the time of the First Crusade were a people experiencing a period of transition. Their former steppe culture and shamanistic beliefs were merging and slowly giving way to the agricultural world and Islamic religion of the Near East. Their culture was an admixture of different influences and their identity was slowly shifting. This evolution took centuries to reach its culmination but, at the time of the First Crusade, the Turks were still at a relatively early stage in the process. In addition, the Turks seem in some cases to have held their religious beliefs lightly, allowing themselves to assume a partially Islamic identity, possibly for the pragmatic purpose of making their rule more acceptable to their Muslim subjects. Notably, once they started to suffer defeat at the hands of the crusaders, there are even reports of Turkish commanders offering to trade their (nominally Sunni) religious adherence in exchange for military assistance from other neighbouring Shia powers.  

When the crusaders fought their epic battles against the Turks, they were not instigating a conflict with Islam. It was rather a confrontation between, on one hand, pilgrims who wished only to clear the road to Jerusalem and, on the other, the Turks, whose beliefs were a mix of various religious influences, Islam being just one of them.  

As the crusaders forced their way towards Jerusalem, they also encountered a broader populace, which had been conquered by the Turks several decades previously. This region was – and is – characterised by considerable diversity, with large Christian and Muslim populations, along with minorities such as Jews, Samaritans and Druze. Each responded to the invading pilgrims in different ways, but it is notable that leading Arab Muslim families and tribes did not hurry to block their advance. Arabs were reported as fighting alongside Turks in some instances, yet there were also rebellions by some Arab groups against Turks, some of them encouraged by the crusaders’ advance. The Arabs loathed their Turkish masters, deeming them barbaric and uncouth, and many Arab groups made use of the chaos created by the crusader wars to rebel against them. Some seized their independence and held out against the Turks for many decades until they were finally brought back under control.  

Within this process, the crusaders were probably still perceived by the Arabs as a dangerous and brutal force. Nonetheless, their arrival created a window of opportunity for local peoples to resist the Turks. Several Arab dynasties took that chance and so it was in their interests not to offer too much resistance to the crusaders. Most leading Arab families chose to negotiate peace treaties with the Franks. The basic deal was generally that the crusaders would leave their lands unmolested in return for supplies and money. Such agreements served the interests of both parties. The crusaders were trying to reach Jerusalem and had no wish to fight more battles than necessary; the Arabs, for their part, profited from these diplomatic bargains by maintaining their independence.   

The most important of the Turks’ enemies in this region were the Fatimid rulers of Egypt. They had a strong stake in the affairs of Syria and the Holy Land and many other Arab leaders looked to them for guidance. The Fatimids similarly viewed the First Crusade with an opportunistic eye and in 1098, while the crusaderes were in northern Syria, they took advantage of the Turks’ continual defeats to reconquer Jerusalem from its Turkish rulers.  

The Franks, for their part, recognised at an early stage of the campaign that they and the Fatimids had a common enemy in the Turks, so for almost two years between 1097 and 1099 the two sides attempted to hammer out a formal treaty of co-operation. In these negotiations the crusaders’ best offer was that they would help the Fatimids to reconquer every Syrian city they had ever taken from the Turks if, in return, they could keep possession of Jerusalem. The talks that followed were drawn-out affairs, but they ultimately collapsed and the proposed entente never took place. Neither side was prepared to compromise over possession of Jerusalem and the Franks besieged the city soon after the abandonment of a diplomatic solution. These attempts at co-operation were ultimately a failure, but the fact that they happened at all and that they were instigated at such an early stage in the crusade reflect a willingness among both parties to work together.

Taking account of such circumstances, the First Crusade was not the simple ‘Christian versus Muslim’ conflict that is often described in the modern media. The crusaders did not know much about Islam and had little interest in learning more. If anything, they were far more interested in the ethnic identities of the Turks and Arabs they encountered than in their religious beliefs. The papacy’s goal may have been to drive back the Turks, but the crusaders were far more enthusiastic about the idea of recapturing Jerusalem. To achieve this, they were prepared, from the outset, to ally with Muslim powers or negotiate non-aggression treaties. If these could ease their journey to the Holy City, so be it. Likewise, the crusaders’ main enemies, the Turks, were only part of the way through their conversion to Islam, making it difficult to classify their encounters simply as battles fought between Christians and Muslims. 

This is not to say that the crusaders had any liking either for Islam or for any other competing religion. Indeed, they considered all such belief systems to be either dangerous errors or spiritual falsehoods that were the work of the devil. The adherents to such religions were viewed in a slightly different light, in that they were deemed guilty only of being raised or deceived into a false religion. Their beliefs might be deemed evil by contemporaries from western Christendom, but they themselves were considered capable of reform and full integration among the faithful should they choose to convert.  

Mausoleum of  Bohemond of Taranto, Canossa Cathedral, Puglia, Italy © Bridgeman Images
Mausoleum of Bohemond of Taranto, Canossa Cathedral, Puglia, Italy © Bridgeman Images
The crusaders had little compunction about killing those who barred their path, but they did not do so indiscriminately. Their most infamous acts were the massacres they perpetrated against the cities that fell to them by storm. Yet, even in such cases, caution is needed before ascribing them too directly to religious hatred. Massacres were generally only perpetrated against towns that had refused a negotiated surrender. According to the martial behaviour of the time, this was standard practice; the reasoning being that if a town should surrender to a besieging army then its people should be spared; if it is taken by force, however, then it can be legitimately sacked. The same rules applied when besieging Christian towns in western Christendom.  

Jerusalem was the exception. Here violence reached heights rarely matched elsewhere, because the crusaders saw it as an act of religious ‘cleansing’. In this context at least, the crusaders’ violence far exceeded the military customs practised in their homelands. Even so, as with so many phases of its history, Jerusalem represents an anomalous environment in which humans often behave differently from elsewhere. The crusaders had marched for years to reach the Holy City and, when that goal was achieved, they seem to have given vent to their pent-up passions. The massacre conducted in Jerusalem was an atrocity, but one that stands at variance to the crusaders’ more mixed engagement with non-Christian communities elsewhere. 

Reflecting on the First Crusade and its role within interfaith relations, the only real conclusion is that it was a mess. On the one hand there were the Turks, partially Islamified, trying to hold onto the vast territories which they had brutally conquered. Then there were the crusaders, single-mindedly seeking Jerusalem, fighting those who blocked their path, but willing to do deals with those prepared to negotiate. And then there were the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Fatimids and all the other peoples of the East. In most cases, for them, this was a war of survival: their objective being to defend their interests or, at best, to reassert their independence. The chaotic collision of these conflicting agendas underpins the history of the First Crusade and the broader events shaping the region. Religious warfare formed part of that agenda, but there was no clear-cut Christian versus Muslim war.

Recognising the messiness and convoluted nature of the First Crusade is important. Too often history is reduced to a simple matter of political slogans. It is far easier to remember and shout the mantra ‘the Crusade was a Christian versus Muslim war’ than it is to reconstruct the full complexity of these events. Recognising that complexity is essential in a day and age when there are many slogans yet little understanding.

Nicholas Morton is Senior Lecturer in History at Nottingham Trent University and the author of Encountering Islam on the First Crusade (Cambridge, 2016). 

Was the First Crusade really a war against Islam?

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