Biased History

Do not buy this book! Ok, I don’t mean to sound like one of those “boycott (insert alleged anti-Islamic author/corporation)” kind of people, but it’s important to know that this book does not give you a very fair understanding of the Crusades. If you want to read it, that’s fine, but if this is the only book you will read on the Crusades, I strongly urge you to read other books! Specifically Crusades: A Reader (Readings in Medieval Civilizations and Cultures) by S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt.

It doesn’t bother me that the author, Thomas F. Madden, chooses to write from a European perspective, but when he uses dramatic narratives to paint the image of the Crusades as a period of “love” and “chivalry,” one cannot help but question his credibility and intentions. Even more so, Madden begins his book with mentioning September 11th and how the terrorist attacks were religiously motivated. He writes: “…radical Muslims, known as Islamists, have called fellow Muslims to take part in a worldwide jihad against the people of the West, who the Islamists regularly refer to as ‘crusaders’.”

What’s odd about this is the terminology. “Islamists?” It just baffles me that an author with his PhD would use an invented term coined by President Bush and FOX News. I also do not understand where he gets this “worldwide jihad against the people of the West;” this is a common misconception and fear that right-wing conservatives try to emphasize on as much as possible so that they can justify their opinions or actions. September 11th was not motivated by religion, it was motivated by the U.S. government’s relentless support of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian settlements. This terrorist attack has been brewing in the Middle-East ever since the first bombing of the World Trade Center and fanatics like Osama bin Laden have been warning the U.S. to stop funding Israel with weapons, tanks, aircraft, and military technology.

Madden also writes: “Americans were shocked not only by the brutality and bloodshed of the terrorist attacks on their country, but by the very fact that the attacks had occurred at all. Who were these people, Americans asked, and why had they done these terrible things? Why were the attacks greeted with joy and dancing in many urban streets of the Middle East? … In search of answers Americans turned to the long history of relations between Muslim and Western worlds. The Islamist themselves pointed to the crusades, asserting that the West had for centuries sought to destroy Islam and continued to do so today.”

I’m still cringing at that “Islamist” word. Imagine reading this in the preface of a book on the Crusades. One cannot help but detect a bias. Later he says the Crusades are one of the most misunderstood events in western history. I wonder what it could be “misunderstood” for? Reading through the book, I was shocked and appalled at how he says Crusaders from Europe marched to Jerusalem with “pious enthusiasm.” Pious? Anyone who studied the Crusades honestly will know that the majority of the Crusaders were no where near pious.

In 1096, Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in order to capture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Prior to the Crusades, the Christians in Western Europe (Latins) did not get along very well with the Orthodox Christians in Constantinople (Greeks). The Greek Christians thought of themselves as more sophisticated, civilized, and educated, and they perceived the Latin Christians to be barbaric, uncivilized, and unclean. They also regarded one another as blasphemers and heretics because they had conflicting theological beliefs concerning the holy spirit and/or divinity of Jesus (peace be upon him). What heightened the tension even more was that the Emperor in Constantinople wanted to speak for all Christians in the world, while the Pope in Rome wanted to do the same. There was a huge power struggle which led to many excommunications, deception, and persecutions. When the Emperor Alexius I needed assistance to defend against the Turkish forces near Constantinople, he wrote to Pope Urban II. Pope Urban II was so fed up with Christians fighting and killing other Christians that he saw this as an excellent opportunity for Christians to unite and channel their hatred towards the Muslims. What attracted Pope Urban II the most was the prize of Jerusalem — if the Christians could recapture Jerusalem, he would be remembered throughout history as the man who drove out the “infidels” and “saved” the Holy Land!

The Pope’s calling of Holy War was just that. A Holy War. He promised direct salvation; anyone who participated or fought in the Crusades would have their sins remitted and automatically be given entry into Heaven. However, if one should withdraw from the Crusades, he would be considered a coward and never enter Paradise. The Pope used verses from the New Testament to justify the war, and he also exaggerated about the “mistreatment” Christians were experiencing under Muslim rulers. This was very ill-founded since the Greek Christians felt more comfortable in the great Muslim learning cities of Baghdad and Cairo than with the Christians of Western Europe. This makes sense considering the sophistication of the Muslim Empire and the Greeks during that time. Many of the Christians who lived under Islamic rule held respectable and honorable positions, such as translating the Greek texts of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophical giants.

European peasants and knights were so excited about the Crusades because they saw it as an escape out of their brutal lifestyle. The peasant life, for example, was a very demanding and physically laborious one. They weren’t very educated, they traveled mostly for farming, and their medicine wasn’t nearly as advanced as the Islamic world. The nobles (and/or knights) lived a gluttonous and violent lifestyle, where they would not only fight other Christian forces, but also break the pledges of safe-guarding the poor and the women and children. There are accounts where knights have abused their power and raped women. When they learned about the Crusades, they saw many benefits, not just the spiritual rewards, but also the promise of treasures and wealth. To them, it was a time for change, for hope, and for success. Jerusalem was described in the Pope’s speeches as the “land of milk and honey,” “a second paradise” with “fruitful delights”. The Crusaders were so enthused that they felt empowered with divine authority and judgment. On their march towards Jerusalem, the Crusaders encountered a Jewish village, where one of the Crusader leaders, Peter the Hermit, declared them as the “near enemy” (the “far enemy” being the Muslims). The Jews were slaughtered, the women were raped, and the children were shown no mercy. Neither the Pope nor the Patriarch in Constantinople condemned this — it was God’s will.

To his credit, Madden makes a brief mentioning of this incident and he even provides a couple of accounts that confirm the massacre of Jews. However, he states that the anti-Jewish brutality “never made it to the East”. This is wrong. When the Crusaders marched onward to Jerusalem, they marched around the walls singing the psalms of Joshua from the Bible, and then they lay siege to the city. In 1098, Christian Crusaders massacred Muslims and Jews — men had their limbs and heads cut off, women were raped and burned, children were killed. One Crusader account records that the blood was “knee deep” and that body parts were everywhere. Madden leaves out the accounts where the Crusaders wrote that the massacre was a “great glory” from Jesus Christ, and that this victory would “abolish the law of Muhammad, and vindicate the Christian religion.” What is quite distasteful is how Madden tries to argue that the slaughtering of Muslims and Jews was not as bad as its made out to be. He writes:

“It is true that many of the inhabitants, both Muslims and Jews, were killed in the initial fray. Yet many were also allowed to purchase their freedom or were simply expelled from the city. Later stories of the streets of Jerusalem coursing with knee-high rivers of blood were never meant to be taken seriously. Medieval people knew such a thing to be an impossibility. Modern people, unfortunately, do not.”

That’s all he comments on regarding the historical records and accounts. He doesn’t call them accounts, he calls them “stories,” and he never mentions why these “stories” were never meant to be taken seriously. In my opinion, he makes a very poor argument. What’s even more disturbing is the paragraph immediately following the sentences I just cited:

“The dream of Urban II had come true. Against all odds, this struggling, fractious, and naive enterprise had made its way from western Europe to the Middle East and conquered two of the best-defended cities in the western world. From a modern perspective, one can only marvel at the improbable course of events that led to these victories. Medieval men and women did not marvel; they merely thanked God. For them, the agent of the crusade’s victory was God himself, who had worked miracle after miracle for his faithful knights, delivering unto them the land of Christ.”

Yes, these same heroic and faithful knights broke their vows countless times not just by slaughtering Jews, but also bringing prostitutes along with them and then raping foreign women whenever cities were captured. These same medieval Crusaders who “merely thanked God” indulged in the riches that they stole from Jerusalem and took back to Western Europe. But to author Thomas F. Madden, this all is presented as merely “God’s work.”

Probably the most insulting part of this book is how Madden tries to discredit one of the greatest leaders in the history of humankind: Salah Al-Din. The Kurdish Muslim general who united the Muslim world under his Ayyubid Dynasty about 88 years after the Crusaders captured Jerusalem. For 88 years, the Christians had ruled Jerusalem, and the Muslims were so disconnected that they could not organize a resistance against the Crusaders. Muslim survivors fled to the cities of Baghdad during the month of Ramadan and pleaded with the Caliph to organize armies to defend against the Crusaders, but the Caliph scorned these men and reminded them that it was Ramadan. These Muslims from Jerusalem then shouted, “Our city has fallen, our people have been slaughtered! — what is more important? Ramadan or Jerusalem?!” This cry for help would not be heard until about 80 years later, when the first real Islamic war or jihad against the Crusaders was led by Zengi, who captured a crucial Crusader city in Edessa.

Salah Al-Din eventually came to power when another Muslim leader, Nur Al-Din, passed away. Salah Al-Din now ruled over Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Diyar Bakr, Mecca, Hejaz, and northern Iraq. He had a massive Muslim army which consisted of Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds; Sunnis, Ismailis, and Shias. This frightened the Crusader ruler in Jerusalem, who did not want a war with Salah Al-Din. But it was the Prince of Antioch, Raynald of Chatillion who wanted a war with the Muslims. First, he attacked a Muslim caravan, which prompted Salah Al-Din to organize his army and march towards Jerusalem. The King of Jerusalem at the time was Baldwin IV, who was known as the Leper King because of his leprosy. Baldwin IV promised Salah Al-Din that he would deal with Raynald and suggested that Salah Al-Din withdraw his soldiers. Salah Al-Din agreed and retreated. Muslims in Salah Al-Din’s camp even disputed with his decision on retreating, but Salah Al-Din ordered them to be patient. Madden tries to present Salah Al-Din as a threatening man who was “looking for an excuse to attack Jerusalem.” This is absurd. If Salah Al-Din was looking for an excuse, then he already had one when Raynald attacked a Muslim caravan — why didn’t he invade Jerusalem then? The truth is, Salah Al-Din was a gentleman, he empathized and listened to his “enemies.” Unlike contemporary politicians, he is willing to listen to the opposition and consider the terms that they offer. Salah Al-Din’s retreat after agreeing on terms with Baldwin IV represents pure medieval chivalry, and respect for the Christian King.

Unfortunately, Baldwin IV the Leper King died shortly, and his opposer Guy de Lusignan became the King of Jerusalem. Guy released Raynald from prison because he too wanted a war with Salah Al-Din. This time, Raynald attacked another Muslim caravan where he killed Salah Al-Din’s sister. This was the last straw (and understandably) for Salah Al-Din. The great Sultan even swore to kill Raynald with his own hands. Salah Al-Din marched onward to Jerusalem, and he brilliantly lured the Crusaders out to a region known as the “Horns of Hattin” which contained no water wells. The Crusader army was worn out, excessively thirsty, and scorched by the brutal heat. Salah Al-Din’s army wiped out the Crusader forces and even captured Guy and Raynald. There is a famous account where Salah Al-Din offers Guy, the King of Jerusalem, a glass of cold ice for his thirst and wounds. Guy drinks it and then hands the cup to Raynald. Salah Al-Din informs Raynald that the glass was not offered to him. Raynald was decapitated by Salah Al-Din himself, as he had vowed.

Onward to Jerusalem, Salah Al-Din’s army broke through the Crusader defences, and a few moments later, the defender of the city, Balian of Ibelin, approached Salah Al-Din to offer terms. Balian said he would burn down the Mosque and the holy sites before Salah Al-Din could take over the city. Salah Al-Din astonishingly said he would grant every Christian knight safe passage to the sea, and that no Christian citizen would be harmed. No woman would be raped, no child would be killed. Madden gives no credit to Salah Al-Din’s remarkable and unusual amount of tolerance and acceptance during these Medieval times. It is true that Salah Al-Din initially threatened to slaughter all the Christians the same way the Christians slaughtered the Muslims 88 years earlier, but the truth is, a lot of these “threats” were pressured upon him by other Muslims. Other Muslim leaders would heavily criticize Salah Al-Din for being too compassionate and merciful, they criticized him for being too lenient and tolerate with minorities. Not just with Christians and Jews, but with Shia Muslims as well. His own personal physician was a Jewish man named Musa ibn Maymun (or “Maimonides” in Latin), who was one of the greatest philosophers in both Islamic and Jewish history. Regardless, the reality is that there was NO slaughter of Christians or Jews when Salah Al-Din captured the city. On October 2nd, 1187, peace and coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews was finally restored in Jerusalem — the Kingdom of Heaven. The Christian knights faced nothing worse than exile or ransom. Why Madden tries to discredit and downplay Salah Al-Din’s extraordinary act of compassion is beyond me.

After Salah Al-Din captured Jerusalem, Europe went into alarm and quickly organized another Crusade. This time led by the most famous Crusaders of them all: King Richard, the Lionhearted. What’s unsettling is how Madden paints a glorious and heroic picture of King Richard, and doesn’t even mention how atrocious it was for Richard to execute 2,700 to 3,000 Muslim prisoners when he captured Acre. Madden simply writes one sentence of it and avoids discussing it. Every historian, even those who respect Richard acknowledges this as an atrocity. Richard had conquered Acre and tried to negotiate a deal with Salah Al-Din. Salah Al-Din tried to offer a better deal, but Richard got impatient and flew into a rage and then executed the Muslim prisoners. In Medieval times, leaders would not treat their prisoners like this. They would either keep prisoners as slaves or hold them for ransom, not execute them. Clearly, what Richard did was very unorthodox and horrific. Eventually, a long distant friendship would be established between Richard and Salah Al-Din. One day, Richard was sick, and Salah Al-Din sent his personal physician Maimonides to attend Richard, along with a basket of healing fruits. Also, Richard’s horse was killed in battle, and so Salah Al-Din ordered his men to not attack Richard. Richard was allowed to walk through a Muslim phalanx without being attacked! Salah Al-Din then sent him two fresh horses!

Madden presents Richard as a stronger military force than Salah Al-Din. He states that Richard’s victories in the Muslim cities of Acre and Arsuf “wiped out Salah Al-Din’s victory at Hattin.” This comparison is really inappropriate. This again shows how Madden is trying to discredit Salah Al-Din. Madden even goes as far as stating the Third Crusade (Richard’s Crusade) was a “successful one,” despite the fact that Richard never conquered Jerusalem. He then writes about how “tempting” it is to envision Richard ruling Jerusalem, as if Salah Al-Din was some kind of tyrannical and oppressive leader. Richard was ignorant for the most part. He didn’t even know that Jerusalem was sacred to Muslims until he met with Salah Al-Din’s brother. Like most medieval European Christians during that time, a huge amount of ignorance towards Islam persisted. I personally believe that Richard was a good man at heart, and if him and Salah Al-Din were not forced to fight one another, they would have seen eye-to-eye. Madden doesn’t bother to mention this. It’s all about Christians versus Muslims; the faithful, pious Christians versus the infidel, evil Muslims.

The bottom line is that this book is extremely biased and strips so many important aspects regarding the personality, character, and policy of certain Muslim leaders, especially Salah Al-Din. European writers, scholars, and historians even state that Salah Al-Din represented the ideal knight, the ideal for medieval chivalry. One European writer even wrote that Salah Al-Din was secretly Christian, in order to explain his extraordinary and unusual amount of tolerance. Of course this is not true, but it’s funny how some of these Europeans tried so hard to explain why Salah Al-Din was so compassionate. The truth is, Salah Al-Din was a devout Muslim, a very religious man, and he was the shinning example of none other than Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. I fear that if someone is simply interested in picking up one book on the Crusades and they choose this one, they are going to miss out on this great figure in the history of humanity. And they certainly are not going to perceive the Muslims any better than how they are depicted in today’s media. I hope that I have helped balance things out a little, but if anyone is interested in what really happened, I recommend the book mentioned above. As well as “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” by Amin Malouf. I know the title makes it sound biased too, but it is actually quite objective. It is also important to read from the Muslim perspective since we often only hear about the Crusades through European eyes. We need to stop perceiving everything as a clash of civilizations — there has been dialogue throughout the centuries, and history shows us that we can communicate with the opposition. History shows us that we can come to an understanding, that we can build bridges, and that we can coexist. As depicted in the film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” directed by Ridley Scott, Balian of Ibelin is utterly astonished when Salah Al-Din promises that no Christian man, woman, or child would be harmed. He says, “The Christians killed every Muslim behind these walls when they took this city.” Salah Al-Din says, “I am not those men. I am Salah Al-Din. Salah Al-Din.”

Why write a book that reinforces the separation that plagues our world?