The Muslim Crusades

Shortly after 9/11, explanations for the attacks fell into two broad categories: Terrorism is the result of a small minority of Muslim evildoers; or the US (and the West) deserved it.

Karen Armstrong, a former nun and well—spoken, prolific author on Islam, beloved by many in the Islamic community, has put herself in the second category. In the British left—leaning newspaper The Guardian, after recounting the West's atrocities in the Crusades, she writes'We should ask ourselves why we lost this [the Muslims'] goodwill.' Even the title of her article, 'The curse of the infidel,' implies the West is to blame for 9/11.

Though the Western Crusades cannot be justified, especially in view of the message of Jesus, the other side, the Islamic Crusades, must be recounted to balance out the picture. Were they peaceful? Two interpretations of this history prevail: one says that Islam's Crusades were peaceful and that they were not religiously motivated to force conversions; the other says that they were not peaceful and they were motivated, in part, to force conversions.

1. One interpretation ignores the motive of conversion by conquest.

David Dakake,* a graduate student in Religious Studies at Temple University, represents the widespread modern interpretation of the Islamic Crusades. He asserts that jihad was not calculated to force conversions, citing Quran 2:256: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' However, he defines compulsion very narrowly: jihad has been misrepresented as forcing Jews, Christians, and other peoples of the Middle East, Asia and Africa . . . to convert to Islam 'on pain of death' (p. 13).

Malise Ruthven and Azim Nanji, in their Historical Atlas of Islam (Harvard, 2004), agree with Dakake:

Islam expanded by conquest and conversion. Although it was sometimes said that the faith of Islam was spread by the sword, the two are not the same. The Koran states unequivocally, 'There is no compulsion in religion' (2:256). (p. 30).

To Ruthven's and Nanji's credit, they come up with other reasons to convert besides the sword, such as fatigue with church squabbles, similarities in a few beliefs, simplicity of the conversion process, a desire to enter the ranks of the new ruling elite, and so on.

However, even Dakake acknowledges that polytheists in Saudi Arabia during Muhammad's time were forced to convert on pain of death (p. 31, endnote #29). Therefore, it is hard to believe that Muslims did not perpetuate this policy outside of their newly acquired borders.

These three Islamologists (and many others) seem to follow this odd logic:

(1) The only forced conversions are ones that occur with swords hanging directly over necks.
(2) No 'hanging sword' conversions occur during a military conquest (because army's swords glimmer outside the city wall, not directly over necks).
(3) Therefore, no forced conversions occurred during a military conquest.

But history does not follow abstract logic. It is difficult to imagine that the citizens would have converted if the Muslim army were swordless. Did the vast majority of citizens—who could barely read or write at this time—make such fine distinctions, even if a general amnesty were granted for People of the Book? Maybe a few diehards did, but the majority? This idealistic interpretation of history paints Islam into a corner, a standard that is too high.

Indeed, military Christianity does not live up to it. Everyone agrees that Medieval Christian Crusaders did not act exemplarily or that they sometimes forced conversions. And it would be an even more serious misstep if historians believed that Christian Crusaders never forced conversions merely because Jesus said that 'if anyone would come after me . . .  (Matt. 16:24). The word 'if' shows Jesus did not force anyone; therefore, neither did his later followers. This connection between Scripture and later historical facts does not hold together. Revelations or ideals should not run roughshod over later historical facts, as if all followers obey their Scriptures perfectly.

Karen Armstrong** concedes that the Muslim Dhimmi system, which governed second—class Christians and Jews, was imperfect:

The Dhimmi system was not perfect. Later Islamic law evolved some rather humiliating legislation: dhimmis were not allowed to build without permission; their places of worship must not tower over the mosque; they had to bow when the presented the jizyah tax [special tax for Jews and Christians for privilege of living under Islam], were forbidden to ride on horseback, and had to wear distinctive clothing, although these rules were not rigidly enforced. (Jerusalem, p. 231)

Thus, despite her hesitation to criticize Islam ('these rules were not rigidly enforced'), no religion has ever established a utopia or anything close to it on earth, and to imply that Islam (or Christianity, for that matter) has done so is wrong, categorically. Humans are not that perfect.

For example, in 1009 irrational al—Hakim, Caliph (leader) of the Shiites in Egypt, ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, and persecuted the Christians. He relented before he died in 1020, and his successor finished the rebuilding project in 1027. Though this destruction was done by an unstable leader, this is not the only time when troubles erupt under Islamic domination.

Armstrong does not mention violence or conversion in those Muslims policies. Are there other reasons for conversion, besides the ones that Armstrong, Ruthven and Nanji come up with?

2. The other interpretation acknowledges the motive to convert by conquest.

Ibn Khaldun*** (1332—1406), statesman, jurist, historian, scholar, wrote a history that is still admired by historians of today: The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Says Franz Rosenthal, translator of Ibn Khaldun's history into English about Ibn Khaldun's achievement:

In rejecting idle superstition and denouncing uncritical acceptance of historical data, Ibn Khaldun adopted a scientific method totally new to his age, and used a new terminology to drive home his ideas (p. x).

Thus, his insights into his own religion and its leaders are probably reliable. Also, he spent his life mainly in North Africa (he died in Cairo), but he lived in Spain during Muslim rule. His ancestors were courtiers in the court of Islamic rulers there. So he lived out the history of the Islamic Crusades and witnessed the beginnings of their regression.

As to the religious motive of jihad or holy war, Ibn Khaldun writes as if it is obvious:

In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. (p. 183)

In these thirty—three words lies the insight that follows common sense. Needless to say, he would disagree with the syllogism, above. When an army goes out to conquer, carrying an Islamic banner inscribed in Arabic of the glory and the truth of his Prophet, Ibn Khaldun would not deny that the army's mission, in part, aside from the material reasons of conquest, is to convert the inhabitants. Islam is a universalizing religion, and if its converts enter either by persuasion or force, then that is the nature of Islam, says he. The Muslim mission is to convert everyone.

The modern scholars cited above do not deny that Islam had worldly reasons for conquest. No conqueror is exempt from that, from the Pharaoh Thutmose III and King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to the Medieval Crusader Richard the Lionhearted to Napoleon. However, these scholars seem reluctant to admit that enforced religious conversion played even a small role in the Islamic Crusades.

Ibn Khaldun explains why a dynasty rarely establishes itself firmly in lands of many different tribes and groups. But it can be done after a long time and employing the following tactics, as seen in the Maghrib (N and NW Africa) from the beginning of Islam to Ibn Khaldun's own time:

The first (Muslim) victory over them and the European Christians (in the Maghrib) was of no avail. They continued to rebel and apostatized time after time. The Muslims massacred many of them. After the Muslim religion had been established among them, they went on revolting and seceding, and they adopted dissident religious opinions many times. They remained disobedient and unmanageable . . . . Therefore, it has taken the Arabs a long time to establish their dynasty in the . . . Maghrib. (p. 131)

Using wisdom that is based on observation, the Medieval scholar acknowledges that slaughter occurred not only to establish a worldly dynasty, but also to force people to convert to the true religion, even though some of the inhabitants in the Maghrib were People of the Book, European Christians. If they did not convert, then 'the Muslims massacred many of them,' says Ibn Khaldun, matter—of—factly. This excerpt also shows that many did not want to become Muslims or go their own way as Muslims, but they 'adopted dissident religious opinions . . . and remained disobedient.' Freedom of religion was not widespread.

However, it must be said that Ibn Khaldun also describes peaceful conquests, without bloodshed, where the inhabitants were allowed to keep their own religion, provided they pay a dhimmitude tax. But the fact that he recounts both the good and the bad shows he is not prejudiced or defensive in his assessments of his own religion, always putting the best face on it for its opponents and critics.

These two interpretations of history have implications for today's war on terror:

First, modern Muslim historians and others seem to ignore the messy characteristics that inhere in any crusade that mixes religion with the military. This is somewhat understandable after 9/11. It is natural to portray one's religion in a positive light. However, if Muslims see only the positive aspects, then they will not see the need to reform the negative aspects. Ibn Khaldun was objective enough not to cover up some of the negatives.

Second, terrorist like bin Ladin and al—Zarqawi cite historical precedent. The Ottoman Turks expanded Islam to new frontiers, so today's jihadists should join their movements to repeat glorious Islamic history, say the terrorists.

Third, it is often repeated that Christians long ago embarked on a Crusade, so who are they to complain now about the extremes of Islam today? However, that observation overlooks two facts: (A) We should not compare the Crusades in the Medieval Age with terrorism today. Christianity has undergone a reform in the Fifteenth through the Sixteenth Centuries and has not undertaken a Crusade in half a Millenium. (B) Islam itself has gone on its own Medieval Crusades and committed the same atrocities that Medieval Christians did. To speak childishly, the score is even. However, the difference is this: Christianity had a reformation, but Islam has not—at least not as overtly and with far—reaching effects.

So the challenge remains: will fifty or so Islamic versions each of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Knox, despite their imperfections, arise and go through the cities and madrasas (seminaries) of the Middle East, proclaiming peace and non—violent policies? Reform of Islam from within is the longest—lasting solution to terrorism.

*David Dakake, 'The Myth of Militant Islam,' in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, ed. J.E.B. Lumbard (Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 3—37.
**Karen Armstrong, Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, (NY: Ballantine, 1997).
***Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: an Introduction to History (abridged), trans. Franz Rosenthal, (Princeton UP, 1967).

Jim Arlandson (Ph.D.) teaches introductory philosophy and world religions at a college in southern California. He has published a book Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity (Hendrickson, 1997).