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The Significance of Jerusalem: Crusades and the Struggle Between Islam and the West - Part 2

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Map of the various European Crusades

Map of the various European Crusades

The general public, not versed in historical detail, but who have a baseline, broad and vague knowledge of the history of the world believe that the Crusades were fought by religious Europeans bent on barbarically and forceful acquisition of the city of Jerusalem and other areas of the Ottoman Empire in the name of God. The mystique of the Knights Templar, believed to be holy men protecting innocent pilgrims to the Holy Land is a prime example of fact that has gone into legend and molded the beliefs of history. The idea that Europeans alone were the aggressors and that Islam was passive is another prime example of the skewed nature of the understanding of the Crusades.

However, what is not normally talked about is the conquest mindset of the Muslims, even beginning at the time of the prophet Muhammad. In 630 CE, two years before Muhammad’s death, the Tabuk Crusades, in which Muhammad led 30,000 jihadists against the Byzantine Christians, took place. The Byzantines were defeated and informed that they could enjoy the "privilege" of living under Islamic "protection", if they paid a tax. This tax sets the stage for Muhammad’s and the later Caliphs’ policies. If the attacked city or region did not want to convert to Islam, then they paid a jizya tax. If they converted, then they paid a zakat tax. Either way, money flowed into the Islamic empire.

In 634 at the Battle of Yarmuk in Syria the Muslim Crusaders defeat the Byzantines. Former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden drew inspiration from the defeat, and especially from an anecdote about Khalid al-Walid, whom Muhammad nicknamed the “Sword of Allah” for his ferocity in battle. In Khalid’s day an unnamed Muslim remarks, "The Romans are so numerous and the Muslims so few." To this Khalid retorts,

How few are the Romans, and how many the Muslims! Armies become numerous only with victory and few only with defeat, not by the number of men. By God, I would love it . . . if the enemy were twice as many.

Osama bin Laden quotes Khalid and says that his fighters love death more than we in the West love life. This mindset was typical of early Islam. They would rather die than to live in a world not dominated by Islam. This thirst for domination would continue unabated with the fall of Jerusalem in 638 CE, the capture of the Byzantine capitol, Constantinople in 678 CE, the capture of Spain in 713 CE and finally with the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher and persecution of Christians in Jerusalem by al-Hakim in the first century.

After capturing Jerusalem in October 1187, Saladin's civilized act in signing the peace treaty and saving Christian blood was indeed a pious act.

After capturing Jerusalem in October 1187, Saladin's civilized act in signing the peace treaty and saving Christian blood was indeed a pious act.

James Arlandson states in his article on Islamic Imperialism that there were potentially five reasons for the Islamic Crusades prior to the European Crusades. The first is as stated, world religious conquest. Islam is expansionist and must conquer the whole world to express Allah’s perfect will on this planet. Secondly, he discusses the idea of “unruly” energies in Arabia. The concept here is that the power struggle within the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire had grown so weary from years of fighting that it left a power vacuum that Islam quickly filled. Thirdly, he mentions religion, economy, and political control as reasons for an aggressive demeanor. These ideals are not self-defensive in nature, but imperialistic and conquering in nature. Early Islam was merely being aggressive without sufficient provocation from the surrounding Byzantine and Persian Empires. Fourthly, he mentions the idea of sheer thrill of conquest and martyrdom. An example of this can be seen in the actions of people such as Khalid al-Walid. And finally the fifth reason is for improvement of life over that in Arabia. Khalid al-Walid stated,

Do you not regard [your] food like a dusty gulch? By God, if struggle for God’s sake and calling [people] to God were not required of us, and there were no consideration except our livelihood, the wise opinion would [still] have been to strike this countryside until we possess it.

The idea of a better land that was theirs for the taking because they believed the entire Earth was theirs because of Allah is a strong case against the passiveness of Islam. Islam cannot be looked at as being the only aggressors; however, history clearly shows that they should be considered the first in the line of barbaric crusades in the name of God and religion.

The European Crusades began much later and under vastly different circumstances, however, these Crusades are the ones most people know about and have used as their reasoning for animosity towards the west. European warriors had first set out on the road to Jerusalem after Pope Urban II made an appeal for troops at Clermont, France, on November 27, 1095. The pope was responding in part to rumors, mostly false, of Muslim atrocities committed against Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and he also sought a means of uniting Europe's contentious kings and lords in a common cause. A group of peasant crusaders on their way to Jerusalem led by Peter the Hermit became so unruly that they were set upon by the Byzantine soldiers who were ostensibly to have escorted them to Constantinople. Thousands of others were slaughtered in their first encounter with the Seljuk Turks, at Civitot on October 21, 1096. This initial response to the Popes call, considered a Crusade of the Poor People was a poor start to the First Crusade. However, a second wave, that was more professional and led by such hardened campaigners as Raymond IV of Toulouse, Count of St. Gilles; Raymond of Flanders; Robert of Normandy; Godfrey of Bouillon; Bohemund of Taranto; and Adhémar of Monteil, bishop of Le Puy, saw a far better outcome, marching into Syria and taking the fortress of Antioch in June 1098.

Once Jerusalem had been captured by the European Crusaders that is where their lack of piety and true ambitions became apparent. The Crusaders spent at least that night and the next day killing Muslims, including all of those in the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Bohemund's Norman-born nephew, Tancred's banner should have protected them. Not even women and children were spared. The city's Jews sought refuge in their synagogue, only to be burned alive within it by the Crusaders. They cut open the stomachs of the dead because someone said that the Muslims sometimes swallowed their gold to hide it. Later, when the corpses were burned, Crusaders kept watch for the melted gold that they expected to see flowing onto the ground. While the slaughter was still going on many churchmen and princes assembled for a holy procession. Barefoot, chanting and singing, they walked to the shrine of the Holy Sepulcher through the blood flowing around their feet.

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Even with the horrors that were committed by the Crusaders, they were still able to maintain what they believe a perfect balance between duty to God and the harsh realities of medieval warfare. Their struggle to reconquer Jerusalem was not mainly powered by any real, deep-seated allegiance to the Church, or even a dutiful desire to defend Christianity. The reason for enduring such horrors and hardships was to fill an intimate and ultimately self-serving need to overcome their desperate fear of damnation and emerge, pure, clean and holy, at the gates of heaven. The Crusaders were no different than their Islamic counterparts. They had a fervent desire to do “God’s Will” and to ensure that their actions would be seen as righteous, not in the eyes of any man or prophet, but in the eyes of God. All this could be accomplished by occupying and controlling Jerusalem, or so the Christians and Muslims both believed.

When Saladin retook Jerusalem from the European Crusaders on 2 October 1187 CE (the precise anniversary of, according to the Qu’ran, Muhammad’s Nocturnal Journey) they entered in a far different manner than their European counterparts had seized the city 88 years before. Saladin had vowed to take Jerusalem as the Crusaders did, in fire and blood, but he was persuaded by Balien of Ibelin to let the surviving Crusaders go in peace if they could pay the ransom he demanded. The contrast is striking between the two entrances into the city. Saladin assigned 150 of his own men to escort groups of Crusader refugees, 50 to a group led by the Knights Templar, 50 to a group led by the Hospitallers, and 50 to a group led by Bailen. He initially closed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but reopened it a few days later and even allowed pilgrims to come to the church and worship after paying a fee of ten bezants. This act of gracefulness by the Muslim leader is primarily one of the reasons that the European Crusaders are still considered the villains of the whole on and off again occupation of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the background the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Jerusalem, Dome of the rock, in the background the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Crusades impinged on the modern world in many ways. The Greeks have never forgiven the Latin’s for the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the bitterness between Catholic and Orthodox is still present today. The Jews were persecuted to the brink of annihilation in 1096. However, our taxation and banking system owes its existence to the Crusades. It should come as no surprise that much of the world of the crusaders is still evidently present today. They altered the world and ours by a movement that lasted almost 700 years and touch the lives of countless millions in Europe, Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. But were they necessary? Necessary is probably not so much the word as inevitable. As stated earlier, the vacuum left by the constant fighting between the Byzantines and Persians and the ensuing filling of that vacuum by Islam may or may not have been something that could have been controlled. History has a way of sometimes just happening, and the wheels that are in motion, whether you believe that to be man driven or divinely driven, will continue to spin regardless of our actions. The Crusader period was indeed brutal, hostile and yet also had moments of chivalry, compassion and valor. However, the power struggle over the holy city of Jerusalem during the Crusades is just another chapter in the history of nations seeking power and glory.

In the continuing cycles of Jerusalem violence that have lasted nearly four thousand years, one constant stands out clearly; the vast majority of the serious conflicts in or about the Holy City were inspired by a desire to control its holiest site – the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sherif and the rock it stands upon it. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all claim Jerusalem as their holy city. Each claims justification in that they are part of the Abrahamic covenant and each cites scriptural authority to justify their command of the city. If history is any indication, the conquest of the city at the expense of another of these groups by one religion would be temporary at best because the others will not sit idle. It is likely that the history of Jerusalem will continue to be used and misused by political and military leaders in the propaganda of present and future conflicts. Jerusalem will continue to be a city besieged.

Someday it may be possible to claim these words from the Book of Isaiah: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended…” (Isaiah 40:2). Unfortunately, for now it seems, the history of Jerusalem will continue to play itself out over and over again.


Arlandson, James M. Islamic Crusades vs. Christian Crusades: Who should own the "Kingdom of Heaven"? 2005. 25 February 2012 <>.

—. Timeline of the Islamic Crusades: The Truth about Islamic Imperialism. 2005. 25 February 2012 <>.

Asbridge, Thomas. The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Billings, Malcom. The Cross & The Crescent: A History of the Crusades. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. , 1987.

Cline, Eric H. Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Hull, Michael D. "First Crusade: Siege of Jerusalem." Military History Magazine June 1999.

Janin, Hunt. Four Paths to Jerusalem. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2002.

Nicolle, David. The First Crusade 1096-99: Conquest of the Holy Land. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003.

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