In November of 1095 at Clermont, France, Pope Urban II gave an impassioned speech that led to the start of the First Crusade. It touched off a series of military actions that spanned more than two centuries, in which Christian knights—mostly of French and German origin—pushed into the Holy Land to do battle with the forces of Islam.
Today, many people point to the Crusades as the first great example of Christian imperialism, in which greedy western knights invaded peaceful Muslim lands to enrich themselves and spread Christianity by force. Those people will also tell you that modern-day Muslim distrust—and even hatred—of the West has its roots in the Crusades. Finally, they’ll conclude that such hatred is justified. After all, the Christians started it, right? Well, no.
The truth about the Crusades is actually quite different. Rather than being unprovoked acts of greedy imperialism, the Crusades were actually desperate acts of self-defense.
Were all of the crusaders innocent and pure? No. Did they sometimes commit barbarous acts? Yes, they absolutely did commit some atrocities that were not in accordance with the teachings of Christianity.
However, the Crusades were not acts of Christian imperialism, greedy treasure seeking, or missions of forced conversion. They were launched in an attempt to protect Christian lands from ongoing violent invasions by Muslim forces. The Crusades did not cause Muslim violence against the West. They were a response to it. Let’s take a look at the history leading up to the Crusades and analyze the causes.
Predominantly Christian Lands
Christianity was founded as an offshoot of Judaism early in the first century, A.D. in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Specifically, it began in the area that is now Israel (or Palestine). At first, Christianity was a small, persecuted religion. However, it spread rapidly throughout the Empire—via peaceful means—because it presented a compelling and attractive alternative to the dominant pagan religions at the time.
In 313 A.D., Christianity finally became legal in the Roman Empire, thanks to the Edict of Milan, which was decreed by the Emperor Constantine. By the year 400, Christianity had become the dominant faith across the Roman world. The eastern part of the Roman world in particular became heavily Christian, including the areas that encompass modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and large portions of extreme North Africa. Today, those areas are heavily Muslim, with the exception of Palestine (modern-day Israel), which was then—and is now—heavily Jewish. Islam, which claims these lands today as if by birthright, hadn’t even been founded yet.
During the fifth century, the western half of the Roman Empire dissolved as a functioning state and gradually evolved into a feudal system. In that region, Christianity was the dominant religion and remains so today. As we’ll see later, Christianity in Western Europe later faced dire threats from Islam.
The eastern half of the Roman Empire continued on as a functioning state for many centuries, and later came to be known as the Byzantine Empire. This was a Christian empire, with its capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), and it encompassed Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, the Holy Land, Egypt, and more. It seems strange today to think of these places as having strong Christian populations and as being under Christian administration, but they were.
Islam’s Arrival and the Principle of Jihad
Islam was a latecomer to the scene, as it was founded in Saudi Arabia by Mohammed early in the seventh century A.D. (in the year 610, according to tradition). From its earliest days, Islam was a religion that was to be spread by the sword.
Islam teaches that its adherents are to preserve and expand the religion through jihad. The term, jihad is translated as “to strive” and it refers to both a personal, inner struggle to do Allah’s will and an outer—often violent—struggle against the “enemies” of Islam.1 The principle of jihad has been used since Islam’s inception to spread the faith by force.
During the life of Muhammad, Islamic jihad began with raids into non-Muslim lands. Islamic conquests included far more than the simple killing of “enemy” fighters in battle. Towns and villages were looted, women were raped, and children were enslaved. Conquered survivors were often given a threefold choice: 1.) Convert to Islam, 2.) Die, or 3.) Become a dhimmi.2 This practice was prescribed by Muhammad himself and is still followed by Muslim terrorists today.
The term “dhimmi” is translated as “protected person” and it refers to a non-Muslim person living in a Muslim-controlled state. The term “protected person” sounds nice, and many misguided people today refer to dhimmi status as evidence of the religious tolerance exhibited by the Islamic conquerors. However, the term does not accurately describe what dhimmi status entailed. Dhimmis were considered second-class people. They were forced to pay a special tax known as the jizya, which is akin to paying mafia “protection money”. Their religious rights (and other civil rights) were severely restricted, and they were often subjected physical abuse by the Muslims who ruled them, with no recourse.3
Islamic Conquests Accelerate
Very soon after the death of Muhammad, Islamic forces accelerated their military actions against non-Muslim lands, pushing further and further into the Christian territories of the Byzantine Empire. This sustained period of Islamic conquest lasted for many centuries. It ultimately resulted in the fall of the last remnant of the Byzantine Empire—the city of Constantinople itself—in April of 1453. This was a massive defeat for Christendom that laid open more of Europe to unfettered Islamic conquest. This article will not cover that full span of time. However, we’ll rely on historian Rodney Stark to provide an overview of the major conquests that ultimately led Pope Urban II to call for the First Crusade in 1095:
…Muslims began raiding Christian areas in the lifetime of Muhammad. Then, a year after his death…their forces entered Syria, then a Christian province of the Eastern Roman Empire. Muslim forces soon won a series of battles, taking Damascus and some other cities in 635, and by 636 the Byzantine army was forced to abandon Syria. Next, Arabs marched into the Holy Land: Jerusalem was taken in 638, Caesarea Maritima in 640. From there Muslim armies invaded Christian Egypt, taking Cairo; Alexandria fell to them in 642. A major Muslim empire now ruled most of the Middle East and was spreading along the North African Coast—then a major Christian region. Thirty years later the empire stretched past Tangier and reached the Atlantic.4
Given the sad state of history education today, many people are not aware that Islamic invaders also pushed far into Western Europe and stayed there for a very long time. As they pushed across North Africa, conquering Christian lands, they eventually crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and entered Spain.
During the 8th century, Muslims conquered the vast majority of Spain, then pushed into France. It wasn’t until the Battle of Tours in October of 732 that Christian forces, led by Charles “The Hammer” Martel, stopped their advance. If not for Martel’s armies, France would likely have fallen to Islam.
Muslim forces also held Sicily from 831 until 1072. They even sacked Rome in 846.
As for Spain, it remained in Muslim hands until the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) was finished in 1492. During that year, Christian armies retook Granada, the last Islamic state in Spain, reclaiming the Iberian Peninsula for Christendom.
Christianity on Defense (and Losing) for Centuries
So, we must now consider the historical backdrop in the Holy Land and the broader Byzantine Empire during the eleventh century, right before the First Crusade. Christian lands had been under continuous assault for more than 450 years. Villages were destroyed, people were killed, raped, or enslaved. Territory after territory had fallen. Christian pilgrims had been attacked and killed off and on for centuries.5 The Holy Land had been invaded and precious pilgrimage sites had been destroyed by Muslim invaders, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and tomb of Christ in 1009. In short, the situation was bad and the Byzantine military was unable to handle it. Eastern Christendom had been fighting a centuries-long defensive action, and it was not going well.
It was against this backdrop that the Byzantine emperor, Alexios I Comnenus, put aside the differences between his Eastern Orthodox Church and the Pope’s Catholic Church, and begged for help. It was also against that backdrop that Pope Urban II heard the call, and urged the knights of Europe to take up arms in defense of the Holy Land.
The Christian Knights
The Christian knights who answered the call of the First Crusade primarily came from French kingdoms, though some came from Germany. Some revisionist historians have painted them as greedy people, bent on personal gain.
While there are good and bad individuals in any cohort of people, the above characterization is an unfair one. For example, greed was not a motivator for the crusaders. In fact, it was incredibly expensive to go on crusade, as a knight needed armor, weapons, horses, support personnel, supplies, and more. Many had to sell lands and possessions to raise the funds to pay for the journey…and it could easily have been a one-way trip.6
Conversion of others was not a key goal, either. In the vast majority of cases, the objective was to reclaim Christian lands from invaders, and protect Christians living in those lands.
Instead, most knights viewed crusading as an act of service to Christ, and—perhaps misguidedly—as an act of personal redemption. In fact, Pope Urban II appealed to this sense of service at Clermont, saying:
For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians…7
The Crusades and the Crusader States
Historians disagree as to how exactly many crusades there were, and when they actually ended. One thing is beyond debate: The First Crusade (1096-1099) was the most successful. This Crusade routed Muslim forces in the Holy Land and resulted in the establishment of the first four Crusader states:
- The County of Edessa (1098-1149)
- The Principality of Antioch (1098-1268)
- The Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291)
- The County of Tripoli (1109-1289)
The two centuries or so that these states were in existence were difficult ones, as they were under constant threat from Islamic forces, and they suffered numerous sieges and attacks. Christian forces were far from their power bases in Europe, and needed continuous support from back home. Multiple crusades were launched over a two-century period in an attempt to hold the gains made during the First Crusade. The key ones included:
- The Second Crusade (1146-1148): A disastrous and failed attempt to recapture the County of Edessa, which had been retaken by Islamic forces.
- The Third Crusade (1188-1192): Failed attempt to retake the city of Jerusalem after its capture by Saladin.
- The Fourth Crusade (1201-1204): Ridiculously failed crusade in which crusader armies got tangled up in an internal dispute with the Byzantines and ended up sacking Constantinople!
- The Fifth Crusade (1218-1221): Partially successful operation in Egypt.
- The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229): Basically, a continuation of the Fifth Crusade, which also helped to regain Jerusalem. Islamic forces later violated a truce and retook the City.
- The Seventh Crusade (1248-1250): Another partially—and temporarily—successful push into Egypt that ultimately came to nothing.
Failure of the Crusader States
Ultimately, the people back in Europe lost the motivation to continue supporting the crusaders with money and materiel. After all, it was an expensive proposition to project power across that kind of distance during those times.
Gradually, the crusader states began to lose strength and to fail. The County of Edessa, the first crusader state established, was the first to fall. The others were overtaken in time, and the last to go was the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It went down for good when the City of Acre succumbed to Muslim forces in 1291. As stated earlier, the Islamic advance continued, succeeding in conquering the last of the Byzantines in 1453.
Today, all of the eastern lands of the former Byzantine Empire (except for Israel) remain under Islamic control. In many of those lands, such as Egypt and Syria, non-Muslims have, to varying degrees, long been persecuted minorities. In many parts of the Middle East, Christians are being harassed or exterminated. Contrast that with today’s predominantly Christian nations, the vast majority of which respect the freedom of religion, and many of which are accepting Islamic refugees.
When a revisionist historian tries to “inform” you that the Crusades were brutal acts of Christian imperialism and western greed, you should tell them to read a bit more on the topic. In reality, the Crusades represented the first time that Christendom really stood up to Islamic imperialism. In the grand scheme of things, the two-century-long crusader period was short-lived compared to the ongoing aggression that Christendom had suffered from Islamic forces. In summing up the proper attitude towards the Crusades, Rodney Stark said it best:
The Crusades were not unprovoked. They were not the first round of European colonialism. They were not conducted for land, loot, or converts. The crusaders were not barbarians who victimized the cultivated Muslims. The Crusades are not a blot on the history of Christianity. No apologies are required.8
- Morgan, Diane, Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice, Praeger, 2009 p. 87
- Sahih Muslim, Book 19, Hadith Number 4294
- Stark, Rodney, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, HarperOne, 2011, p. 207-208
- Ibid, p. 217
- Stark, Rodney, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, HarperOne, 2009, p. 85
- Cazel, Fred A., “Financing the Crusades,” in N.P. Zacour and H.W. Hazard, eds., The Impact of the Crusades on Europe, 1989, pp. 116-49, online
- Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, according to Fulcher of Chartres, Reproduced in Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook, accessed on 18 Oct. 2015 at http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/urban2-fulcher.html
- Stark, Rodney, The Triumph of Christianity, p. 234