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Muslim Responses to the Crusades

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Robert Irwin on how Islam saw the Christian invaders.

In August 1099, al-Harawi, the chief Qadi of Damascus, preached a sermon in the Great Mosque in Baghdad: 'Your brothers in Syria have no home other than the saddles of their camels or the entrails of vultures'. Al-Harawi was surrounded by a throng of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who wept as he spoke, and their weeping made others in turn weep. Al-Harawi was preaching about the arrival of the armies of the First Crusade in Syria in 1097 and their successive occupation of Antioch, Edessa, and finally, in 1099, Jerusalem. Muslims from there and other places had fled to the larger Muslim cities of the hinterland, in particular to Damascus and Aleppo.

At the end of the eleventh century, Syria and Palestine were, theoretically at least, part of the Seljuk empire and as such subject to the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad and the Seljuk sultan in Isfahan. Al-Harawi's mission in Baghdad was to put pressure on the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustazhir Billah to send an army to help the Muslims against the crusaders. However, Baghdad was a long way from Jerusalem and, moreover, al-Mustazhir had no troops to speak of. Real political and military power within the territories claimed by the caliph was exercised by the Seljuk Turkish sultan. According to Muslim political theorists, the sultan was the executive servant and defender of the caliph. In practice he ran the caliphate. But if Baghdad was far from the theatre of war with the crusaders, the Seljuk capital of Isfahan (in western Iran) was further yet. The Sultan Barkiyaruq, who was precariously in control of Isfahan in 1099, had succeeded his father, the mighty Malik Shah in1094. His enemies accused Barkiyaruq of being drunk and dissolute; he was certainly young and inexperienced. (He also suffered from piles.) In order to retain control of the core Seljuk: lands of Iraq and western Iran, Barkiyaruq had to fight off rival kinsmen and Turkish officers. Syria was on the edges of the Seljuk empire and it had always been a war zone. It seems most unlikely that, from Barkiyaruq's perspective, the arrival of a Christian band of barbarians on the western edges of his empire was perceived as constituting a major problem. Rather the sultan's main goal there was to bring under his effective control cities such as Mosul, Aleppo and Damascus, which were governed in his name (but in name only) by Seljuk princes and officers.

As late as the tenth century, the jihad, or Holy War, against the Christians of the Byzantine empire was still being preached and practised. A galaxy of soldiers, propagandists and poets celebrated the (partial and inflated) successes of the Arab Hamdanid Emir Sayf al-Dawla of Aleppo against the Byzantines in the 950s. However, by the late eleventh-century, an anti-Christian jihad was no longer high on the agenda of either the sultan or the caliph. Rather, the main military and ideological threat to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate was thought to come from Shi'i Muslims.

The rift between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims went back to the seventh century, which was the first century of Islam. Sunnis believed that the leadership of the lslamic community had passed after the Prophet Mohammed's death to caliphs, drawn first from the Umayyad dynasty and later from the Abbasids. The Shi'is, however, held that only descendants of the Prophet's son-in-law, 'Ali, were capable of inheriting any of the Prophet's authority. (Shi'at 'Ali means Party of 'Ali). The Shi'is venerated a succession of imams of 'Alid descent. Over the centuries there were divisions among the Shi'is about the correct line of descent and many believed that their imam had withdrawn himself from the world and was in hiding until the end of time.

In the late eleventh century some were expecting the imam to emerge from occultation (and in this context the arrival of the barbarian crusaders in Syria could be seen as being like famine, plague and civil disorder, one of the bad things which presaged the end of the world). Many Shi'is, however, believed in the vaguely couched claims of the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt to descend from Ali and the Prophet's daughter Fatima and hence to be the predestined leaders of the Muslim community in the last days.

The Fatimids had established a caliphate in Cairo in opposition to the Sunni caiiphate in Baghdad and in the second half of the eleventh century they had been waging a war against the Seljuks and other Turkish soldiers of fortune for control of Palestine and Syria. From the Seljuk perspective, the coming of the crusaders was a distraction from the larger struggle against the Fatimids. The Fatimids, on the other hand, at first thought that the arrival of the crusaders presented them with allies and an opportunity to exploit Seljuk disarray. However, the Fatimids, who in the late 1090s held Jerusalem, were slow to realise that the conquest of the Holy City was precisely the goal of the First Crusade.

At a humbler level the First Crusade was perceived as just another transient affliction, and its marauding progress down the coastline of Syria and Palestine did not distinguish its operations sharply from the looting and fighting by Turks and Bedouin which had ravaged Syria in the 1090s. Therefore calls to jihad at first fell upon deaf ears. Al-Harawi appears to have preached to the caliph and the citizens of Baghdad in verse. Although it is possible that his versified call to arms against the Franks was an invention of later chroniclers, it is in fact likely that his preaching did take the form of poetry. In medieval Arab culture, poetry and rhymed prose were the favoured vehicles for rhetoric and propaganda. A century earlier, at the Aleppan court of Sayf al- Dawla, Ibn Nubata had preached in verse against the Byzantines. In considering the Muslim response to the Crusade, one must understand that much of that response was couched in poetry.

The conquest by the army of the First Crusade of such towns as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, and Tripoli created a generation of wandering scholars, learned and cultured Muslims who sought patron- age in the larger Muslim cities of the hinterland, where they sold their pens and their poetry to generals and politicians. Among them in the early twelfth century, lbn Munir and his rival, Ibn al-Qaysrani were looked on as the leading poets of the Arab Near East.

Abu'l-Hasan Ahmad ibn Munir al Tarabulusi was born in Tripoli in 1081, but the crusader conquest of that city in 1109 made him an exile. He began by making a career of sorts for himself as a satirical poet in Damascus, but his youthful satires aroused the wrath of Taj al-Muluk Buri, the Turkish overlord of Damascus from 1128-32. Al-Buri threatened to cut out Ibn Munir's tongue, so he fled north to Aleppo, which from 1128 onwards was ruled by a rival Turkish warlord Zenki.

Zenki presented himself as both the protector of Sunni Islam and the prosecutor of the jihad against the crusader principalities. Inspired by Zenki, Ibn Munir gave up writing satirical verse and became a serious partisan for the Muslim counter crusade and, although like many of the former citizens of Tripoli, he was a Shi'i Muslim, he went so far as to hail Zenki as Amir al-Muminin, ('Commander of the Faithful'), a term which was normally only used by Sunni Muslims to refer to their caliph. Ibn Munir wrote poems of madih, or panegyric, celebrating the jihad, especially Zenki's conquest of Edessa from the crusaders.

Ibn Munir's contemporary and literary rival, Ibn al-Qaysrani, had a more ambiguous attitude to the crusader presence. Ibn al-Qaysrani was born in the Palestinian coastal town of Acre and was educated initially in Caesarea, but, after the crusader invasion, he continued his studies in Damascus, where he was instructed in religious traditions, poetry, belles-lettres, astronomy, engineering and mathematics. His study of the last two subjects equipped him to pursue a career as a horologist and he seems to have been in charge of the maintenance of clocks in various Palestinian and Syrian towns. Like Ibn Munir, he also pursued a risky career as a satirical poet and he was eventually obliged to flee Damascus having offended al- Buri. Again, like Ibn Munir, he ended up as a pensionary of Zenki and he wrote panegyric poetry in praise of the capture of Edessa.

However, Ibn al-Qaysrani did not just write panegyrics aimed at securing him a salary, nor were the Franks for him merely the stereo- typically cowardly and villainous opponents of Zenki and his son and successor, Nur al-Din (1146-74). In 1145 or 1146, after Ibn al-Qaysrani had visited the great crusader city of Antioch nn business, he fell in love with the place and started writing poetry celebrating its churches, especially the Church of the Virgin, a 'watchtower of the Franks'. He also wrote a poem in praise of the beauty of Melkite (that is Greek Orthodox) church liturgy.

Ibn al-Qaysrani was even more struck by the beauty of Frankish women. He recommended that his fellow Muslims attend churches on days of Christian festival, for on such days the beauty and finery of the Christian women could best be contemplated. Several of Ibn al- Qaysrani's poems commemorated the wonder, longing and regret inspired by this sort of cross-cultural voyeurism. One of his favourite women was a high-spirited and graceful servant girl called Maria, who sang, accompanying herself on the tambourine. Ibn al-Qaysrani noted that she sang in such a style as was calculated to alienate the Christians in her audience and please the Muslims.

Ibn al-Qaysrani's interest in crusader manners and customs was unusual, though it was echoed in the writing of the well-known twelfth- century poet and warrior, Usamah ibn Munqidh (1095-1188). Usamah wrote a memoir, The Book of Examples, in which he reminisced about, among other things his visits to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and his dealings with the Franks there. While he regularly cursed them, his cursing seems to have a rather perfunctory character and it is clear from his book that he had friends among the infidel Franks.

Other Muslim writers, however, wilfully or inadvertently ignored the crusader presence. The great Sufi thinker, al-Ghazali (d. 1111), resigned a professorship in Baghdad to travel and pray in various holy places. Although he spent some time meditating at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem in 1096, he never mentioned the Franks anywhere in his prolific writings, preferring to concentrate on the alleged heresies and evils of the Shi'is. Some time before 1122, al-Hariri wrote the Maqamat, a picaresque series of narratives about a plausible and eloquent rogue. It is one of the major classics of Arabic literature. Although, two of its chapters are set in crusader-occupied Ramleh, the Franks are not mentioned anywhere in the book.

Contemporary historians of the region were of course obliged to take note of the crusader presence. Ibn al- Qalanisi's Dhayl Tar'ikh Dimashq (literally, Continuation of the History of Damascus), which the author was still working on when he died in 1160, is one of the earliest chronicles to take note of the crusades. Though Sir Hamilton Gibb in 1932 selectively translated and published it as The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades, such a title is misleading. The real focus of Ibn al-Qalanisi's book was the struggle between local factions for the mayoralty of the city and infighting between Sunni's and Shi'is there.

Only slowly did the Muslim counter-crusade gather ideological and military momentum, fuelled both by the ambitions of the Turkish military aristocracy and the demands of the refugees from the occupied lands. From the 1140s onwards under the leadership first of Zenki and later Nur al-Din and Saladin (1169-93), the Muslims began to reconquer lands taken by the crusaders. They came to realise that the crusaders were not mere mercenaries of the Byzantine emperor and that the crusades had religious aims. Therefore at the same time as the military offensive there was an intensification of anti-Christian polemic.

Much of this polemic concerned Christian attitudes to sex. For example, the Bahr al-Fawa'id (The Sea of Precious Virtues), a pious treatise on moral life which, though written in Persian, was composed in the Arab city of Aleppo at the time when its ruler, Zenki, was reviving the practice of jihad. Although the authorship of the treatise is obscure, the opinions it put forward are representative of the age. Chapter twenty-four of the treatise is entitled 'The Book of Refutations of the Errors of the Greeks and the Franks'. How can a God, who cannot protect himself from being crucified, protect others? asked the anonymous author. 'Anyone who believes that his God came out from a woman's privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to and he has neither intelligence nor faith'.

According to the Bahr al-Fawa'id, Christians allowed fornication with unmarried women and their judges fixed the going rate for sexual intercourse at four copper coins a time. The children of this sort of prostitution were presented to the church where they were received with joy. The women visited the churches to fornicate with priests. Christian women do not veil their faces, but they say 'We are not stingy like the Muslims'.

Similar anti-Muslim libels were, of course, produced by Christian polemicists. According to the (spurious) Letter of the Emperor of Constantinople, produced at the time of the First Crusade, the Turks perpetrated pornographic atrocities on the Greeks of Asia Minor. Greek daughters were ravished in front of their mothers and were made to sing obscene songs, and Greek clergy were subjected to homosexual rape by their Turkish captors.

Native Christians – Melkites, Copts, Jacobites, Maronites and others living under Muslim rule suffered from being tarred by association with their crusading co-religionists. Christians, who had often been employed by Muslim lords as government scribes or tax-collectors, became distrusted as potential traitors. In 1249 the sultan of Egypt and Syria, al-Salih Ayyub, in his dying testament to his son, Turanshah, counselled him to distrust the Copts in the military and tax bureaux.

The appearance of the Mongols in Syria in 1259 intensified yet further Muslim fears of Christian spies and collaborators, for some of the Mongols were Nestorian Christians and, when they entered and briefly occupied Damascus in March 1260, the Mongols had been hailed as liberators by the city's Christians. Anti-Christian reprisals followed when the Mongols withdrew from Syria later that year.

Even after Acre and the remaining crusader cities on the Palestinian and Syrian coast had been occupied by the Egyptian sultan, al-Ashraf Khalil, in 1299, fears persisted that native Christians would cooperate with a future crusader invasion of Egypt or Syria. A sermon against the Copts preached in Egypt in 1300 puts the matter plainly:

By God they are the source of all misfortune and treason. It is because of them that strangers beset us. While you are trying to destroy the enemy's country, they are building here in safety a country of their own. And major secrets will leak out to the enemy through them.

Stories circulated about native Christian involvement in arson and terrorism in Cairo and elsewhere. One such story (with no historical basis whatsoever) was posthumously attached to the heroic jihad-leader, Nur al-Din. According to this story, Nur al-Din had dreamt that he was in Medina in the company of the Prophet. The Prophet pointed insistently to two brown men. Intrigued and puzzled by the dream, Nur al-Din set out the following morning from Damascus heading towards Medina. As soon as he arrived in Medina, he set about distributing money to everyone in the city. However, the two men whom he had been directed to in his dream did not appear. Then the sultan ordered everyone in the city to present themselves before him, but with no better result. Finally, he ordered a house-to-house search of the city and through this the two brown men were located. They claimed to be wealthy and pious Muslims from Morocco, but by now, alerted by their suspiciously evasive behaviour, Nur al-Din had their house, which was near the tomb of the Prophet, searched. There, hidden under the floor, Nur al-Din.'s officers found books on explosives. The two brown men, having been tortured, confessed to being Christian agents on a mission to blow up the Prophet's tomb. Needless to say, there is no evidence to indicate that the historical Nur al-Din ever encountered such an infernal conspiracy.

Not only did fantasies about Christians, crusaders and Christendom circulate as urban folklore, such material also infiltrated its way into the literature of instruction and entertainment. According to a late thirteenth-century chronicler, Qirtai al-Khazindari, the Christians were governed by monks and priests. They knew nothing about buying and selling, or any form of commerce, but were experts only in gambling and wine. The thirteenth-century Persian cosmographer, al-Qazwini, praised the Franks as being 'mighty in courage and in the hour of combat they do not even think of flight, rather preferring death'. However, he also described them as a filthy race with an aversion to washing and he disapproved of their custom of sharing, which, he claimed, left them with an ugly stubble. But, then again, according to al-Qazwini, the Franks disapproved of the Muslim women's custom of shaving their pubic hair.

Arab and Persian writers showed surprisingly little interest in the places of origin of the crusaders. The twelfh- century geographer, al-Idrisi, who was based in Sicily, described England as a land of perpetual winter. As for Scotland, it was yet more desolate, being totally uninhabited. Abu'I-Fida was an Ayyubid prince and a descendant of Saladin who took part in the final siege of Acre in 1291. He also wrote a treatise on geography. According to this book, England was an island off the coast of Brittany. The English king who fought Saladin [Richard the Lionheart] came from that island, but the English kings were subordinate to the French king. They had to present the French king with a vessel full of food as an annual tribute. England, which had gold and silver mines, used the products of these on the purchase of French wine.

England, France, Rome, Genoa and Constantinople were all also favoured settings for the adventures of the heroes of such medieval Arab popular epics as the Sirat al-Zabir Baybars and Sirat Antar. The historical Baybars was a Turkish slave soldier who ruled as sultan over Egypt and Syria from 1260 to 127'?. Among the many real triumphs of Baybars against the crusaders were the capture of Caesarea, Krac des Chevaliers and Antioch. After his death, however, he became the hero of folk epic, the Sirat al-Zahir Baybars, which took the form of a kind of medieval Flash Gordon serial, in which his struggle against the crusaders assumed much grander proportions and became more exciting. Some of the Christians he defeats in fair and open combat. But others turn out to be masters of dissimulation, disguise, drugs and sorcery. In particular, Baybars' arch- enemy, Juwan (John) is a malevolent Portuguese Christian, who masquerades as a Muslim qadi, or judge, at the Egyptian court.

Baybars and his allies have various adventures in Europe. For example, Miriam, a beautiful Christian princess who converts to Islam, has to be rescued from Genoa after being kidnapped by Juwan. England is a land of magic.in Arab fantasy. One day a ship from England arrives at the harbour of Alexandria. Greatly curious, Baybars steps on board. No sooner has he done so, than the ship sets sail for England. The journey takes six months and, having arrived in England, Baybars is entertained for a year by the island's twelve petty kings, before being presented at the court of the high king. There he falls and passes out. When he recovers, he is back in Alexandria and only a day has passed since he left the place.

Later in the preposterous saga, Kundafarun, lord of all the English islands, attacks Aleppo. Although Kundafarun is almost invulnerable because he is solidly made of bone, like a crocodile, he is killed by a blow to his armpit by one of Baybar's officers. Towards the end of the saga, the traitor Juwan, is hunted down through the streets of Constantinople. Juwan takes refuge in one church after another. The churches are death traps, furnished as they are with poisonous snakes, quicksilver pools, death-dealing automata and other dangers, but none of these can save Juwan from the death he deserves.

The Sirat Antar is notionally set in the pre-Islamic period, but the story seems actually to have been composed in the period of the crusades and there are all sorts of muddled echoes of the conflict. The desert warrior, Antar, not only has to fight at various times against Byzantine Christians and pagan fire worshippers, but also against Kalijan, 'the terror of men and jinn', at the head of an army of 200,000 Franks who 'want to stay in Syria and visit Jerusalem'. In the end, Antar pressures the Franks to make peace by capturing Damascus and killing all the priests and monks there.

The Frankish incursions into the Near East and the establishment of the crusader states stimulated hostile polemic and bizarre fantasy about Christian aims and practices. It would be pleasant to think of local Arab scholars, stimulated by the proximity of the crusader states, taking up, say, the study of Anselm or translating the poetry of Chretien des Troyes. Unfortunately, this sort of cultural interchange did not take place in the Near East. The Arabs showed as little interest in the literary culture of the crusaders as the crusaders did in Arab literature. Only in the field of material craftsmanship and most specifically in the production of high-quality glass and metalwork are there signs of a bridging of the two cultures. Inlaid brass vessels and flasks produced in thirteenth-century Egypt and Syria quite frequently combined Christian with Muslim imagery. For example, a flask (now in the Freer Gallery, Washington) is decorated with images of what seem to be Christian saints, together with praises of the Sultan al-Salih Ayyub as leader of the jihad.

It is also clear that much high- quality Muslim metalwork was produced for export to Europe. While there are no good grounds for thinking that the so-called 'St Louis basin' (now in the Louvre) had anything to do with the French crusading king, Louis IX, this fine piece does, nevertheless, seem to have been produced for the market for exotic luxury goods in Europe. Moreover, even after the expulsion of the crusaders from the Holy Land at the end of the thirteenth century, local Arab craftsmen continued to produce glass bottles and other artefacts, decorated with Christian imagery to sell to visiting pilgrims from Europe. A thirteenth-century glass beaker (now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore), for example, is painted in enamels with the entry of Christ on a donkey into Jerusalem.

In fourteenth-century Jerusalem, there was a quarter, the Harat al- Turufiyya, which specialised in the production and sale of souvenirs. The saqati were the specialist dealers in curiosities, mementoes and antiques. It was at this level, the sale of luxury goods, kitsch souvenirs and spurious relics, that the most substantial cultural interaction between Muslim and European Christian took place in the lands once occupied by the crusaders.

Other cross-cultural influences are harder to pin down. It seems fairly clear that the crusaders learned little or nothing from Muslim military architecture, since at the beginning of the twelfth century there was nothing much in Syria of any sophistication to be influenced by. Although Nur al-Din carried out important refortification work in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, in general the Muslims relied on large garrisons, rather than stonework, to defend their cities and castles. In the thirteenth century, Ayyubid and Mamluk princes commissioned the building of larger defence works, possibly in emulation of the crusaders, and they seem to have copied the latters' use of machicolation. However, the fortifications they built seem usually to have been put up to defend themselves against each other, rather than being a response to a crusader challenge.

Again, it is tempting to speculate that the ways in which music-making developed in Christendom and the Islamic world owed something to Crusader-Muslim contacts. Although actual crusader songs, such as Marcabru's 'Pax in Nomine Domini' (119,) or Guiot de Dijon's 'Chanterai Por Mon Corage' (1189) show no particular oriental influence, it seems indeed plausible that such instruments as shawms, nakers and lutes were brought back to the West by returning crusaders (though Spain and Sicily provided alternative channels of transmission). Crusaders are not likely to have been often exposed to gentle lute solos. The sort of music they would have heard more often would have come from Muslim military orchestras. Apparently they did not like them very much. According to the French knight, Joinville, who fought at the Egyptian port at Damietta in 1249, the 'noise they made with their kettledrums and trumpets was terrible to hear'. For their part, Syrian and F.gyptian Muslims did not mention Christian music (apart perhaps from the aforementioned lbn al-Qaysrani who liked Maria's tamhourine).

Although all sorts of things, such as pilgrim souvenirs, brass trays, shawms, windmills, hoods for falcons, playing cards, ogives ancl polylobed arches seem to have entered Christendom from the Muslim world, it really is much more difficult to detect any comparable flow of devices and techniques in the opposite direction until at least the fifteenth century.

Robert Irwin was formerly lecturer in the Department of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, and is the author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion (Viking, 1994).

Historical dictionary: Crusades


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