History of the Church Part Three: Islamism and the Crusades

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy., M.A. Theology

Trouble from Islam

Christianity is saddled with guilt regarding the Crusades, defending the false claim that they were unprovoked attacks fueled by religious intolerance. In AD 636, Muslims captured Jerusalem, Alexandria, Egypt, and Spain. Gonzalez says Christians, faced with the safety and order of the state, developed the Just War theory (1). In 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II declared that some wars could be deemed as not only a bellum iustum (“just war”), but could, in certain cases, rise to the level of a bellum sacrum (“holy war”). Regarding Just War, Augustine noted “[H]e to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill (2).'” In any event, it is likely the Crusades would not have gone forth without revolution in Church thinking concerning violence.

The meaning of the sixth commandment must be exegetically determined: the wording is best translated You shall do no murder. In this manner, murder specifically refers to willfully taking a life—e.g., premeditated murder, or killing as an act of revenge. Gonzalez intimates that Augustine condemned any war whose purpose was “to satisfy territorial ambition, or the mere exercise of power (3) [Italics mine]. Islam, for example, has a centuries-long tradition of grabbing land and power in order to dominate neighboring nation-states. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or “daesh”), provides us with a modern-day example. Their quest to form a new caliphate led to immeasurable violence. Augustine was “[A]t his most positive when writing about the right intention required of those who authorized and took part in violence,” adding, “only use as much force as necessary” (4). Just Cause, legitimate authority, and right intention must be followed in determining the use of military might. The Crusades were to be reactive only, not wars of conversion.

Islamism /isˈläˌmizəm/
noun: Islamic militancy or fundamentalism.

Muslims have a not-so-just policy of holy war (jihad), a solemn duty of every Muslim. The Bible forbids blanket use of military might, such as forcing unbelievers to convert or be killed. When Muhammad died (AD 632), caliphs who succeeded him prosecuted a series of wars whose aim was conquest: religious and geopolitical. These invasions had an egregious impact on the ancient centers of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “Islam presented itself as a constant threat to be held back only by armed force” (5). As a result, Christianity became radically militarized. Expansion of Islam eventually threatened Western Europe. Unwavering violent takeovers by Islamic forces had to be defeated. At the Battle of Tours near Poitiers, France (AD 732), Frankish leader Charles Martel, a Christian, defeated a large army of Spanish Moors, halting the Muslim advance into Western Europe.

Of paramount importance was the need to recover and hold Jerusalem, containing the two most secure locations in Christendom: the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary. Expeditions to the Levant, or to North Africa, were thought to be justified as a “just” or proper response to Muslim aggression. The intent was to recover Christian territory seized through Muslim conquests. These extended military raids stemmed from expansion changes which took place outside Europe before the age of the Crusades, principally the growth and expansion of Islam. Indeed, Christian holy wars such as these bear a striking resemblance to jihad. Out of these conflicts rose the notion of a holy warrior—a crusader, or “knight for Christ.”


Muhammad was born in Mecca in AD 570. Islam teaches that the angel Gabriel called Muhammad to become a prophet of Allah. As Islam spread in Mecca, the ruling tribes began to oppose Muhammad’s preaching and his condemnation of idolatry and polytheism. Going against existing faiths, he preached monotheism. The Quraysh tribe controlled the Kaaba* and drew their religious and political power from its polytheistic shrines. They began to persecute this new group, and many of Muhammad’s followers became martyrs. When Muhammad’s wife Khadijah and her uncle Abu Talib both died in 619 CE, Abu Lahab assumed leadership of the Banu Hashim clan and withdrew the clan’s protection from Muhammad. In AD 622, Muhammad and his followers migrated to Yathrib in the Hijra to escape persecution, renaming the city Medina in honor of the prophet.

After the death of Muhammad in AD 632, Islamism flourished. This seems to have been an unavoidable development given Muhammad’s doctrine of expansionism. Islam has a triple imperative: conversion, subjugation, or death! Spencer writes, “Things will go badly for the non-Muslims who choose not to convert or pay the tax [levied upon non-believers]. Muslims must ‘make war upon them, because God is the assistant of those who serve Him, and the destroyer of His enemies, the infidels” (6). Ibn Khaldun, a Maliki jurist, historian, and philosopher, said, “…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” (7) [Italics mine]. Muslim forces sacked Jerusalem in AD 636. They captured Alexandria, and prosecuted subsequent conquests in Egypt. They invaded Spain shortly thereafter. Caliph Umar II took up arms in the name of Allah, and began persecution of non-Muslims. Caliph Mutawakki forced non-believers to wear yellow patches; in the same manner, Hitler insisted the Jews wear yellow arm bands. Muslims went on a spree, destroying all non-Muslim churches. Caliph Hakim destroyed the Holy Sepulchre in AD 1009.

There is no period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful existence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims with Muslims, or the obsolescence of jihad warfare: no Era of Good Feeling; no Golden Age of Tolerance. Spencer writes, “There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad” (8). Muhammad boasted, “I have been victorious with terror” (9). The soldiers of Islam went forth in jihad for the sake of Allah (jihad fi sabil Allah) in order to establish the hegemony of the Islamic order: i.e., leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.

At its core the true nature of Islam is, was, and always will be, a hegemonistic inhumane tyrannical political ideology based upon hatred, having the sole purpose to annihilate all other civilisations [sic] using deceit, fear and violence. Islam’s core is martial, expansionist, belligerent and imperialist. It directly threatens the cohesion and culture of any society that it infiltrates. Within Islam there is the core belief that Allah created the religion of Islam in perfect form, it can neither be improved nor modified. In effect this creates a divine dictatorship directed by fixed religious imperatives all aimed at installing Islam into the position of absolute dominance, no matter what. This creates institutionalised [sic] discrimination — an extreme ‘them and us’ dynamic, between ‘believers’ (Muslims) and ‘unbelievers’ (the infidel, the takfir) — namely (but not only) the Judaeo-Christian West. Muslim believers believe they have a divine responsibility and right to subjugate infidel unbelievers by any means (10).

The Crusades

The first Crusade (AD 1095-1102) was undertaken to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim domination. At least to some degree, the First Crusade hardly required a casus belli (act or situation provoking or justifying war). The Holy Sepulchre had been vandalized in 1009 on the orders if Fatimid caliph Kakim. The cave where Jesus was laid to rest had been leveled almost to the ground. Muslims were marching toward global domination, seizing land, and taxing or murdering non-Believers. This is a religious duty built upon universalism inherent in the Muslim mission. Aggression is a matter of Islamic theology. It has been implied that Islam is a religion of peace. However, the word Islam means “submit.” Riley-Smith says the Crusades were not only fought in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean region, but also along the Baltic shoreline, in North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Poland, Hungary, the Balkan, and parts of Western Europe, proclaimed not only against Muslims but also pagans, Balts, Lithuanians, shamanist Mongols, Orthodox Russians and Greeks, and Catholics. Riley-Smith says, “The crusading movement generated holy leagues, which were alliances of front-line powers, bolstered by crusade privileges, and military orders, the members of which sometimes operated out of their own order-states” (11).

Among the many developments that captivated the imagination of believers in the early centuries, none was as dramatic, as overwhelming, or as contradictory, as was the crusading spirit. The hope was to defeat the Muslims who threatened Constantinople, to save the Byzantines, to reunite the Eastern and Western branches of the church that Islam had previously taken. Holy places had been in Muslim hands for centuries. Arab conquests were on the rise. Justification solidified under the battle cry, “God wills it” (Deus vult). One cannot help but to compare the battle cry of Christians to the obligation for jihad. Godfrey of Bouillon headed to Jerusalem to take back the city. Those defending Jerusalem were not Turks, but Fatimite Arabs from Egypt—so named because they claimed descent from Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter.

The Second Crusade was incited by the capture of Edessa at the hand of Sultan of Aleppo in AD 1144. Led by Louis VII and Conrad III, an army of nearly 200,000 set out for the Holy Land. Jerusalem barely got off the ground under the Crusading forces when the Muslims began to regroup and, with Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt at the helm, Muslims took Jerusalem in AD 1187. The fall of Jerusalem required intervention once again. A Third Crusade set out for the City of David under the direction of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Richard the Lionhearted, and Philip II Augustus of France. The Crusade failed miserably. This prompted Innocent III to call for the Fourth Crusade. This mission was an even greater disaster. The Byzantines did not accept matters so easily, and stubbornly went about founding various independent states that refused to accept the authority of the Latin emperors. I find it fascinating how religion is capable of completely change the politics and geography of a region. Many of the provinces had broken down into smaller units with ties to individual castles. Knights terrorized their neighborhoods, violent, arbitrary and demanding. The Fifth Crusade (led by the “King of Jerusalem”) accomplished very little. The Sixth Crusade led to peace talks and an agreement between Frederick II and the Sultan. The Seventh and Eighth were major disasters.

Mistakes Were Made

The Muslim invasions, and Christian reaction to them, continued, thereby accelerating the militarizing of Christianity. Gonzalez said, “The earliest Christians, following the teachings of Jesus, had been strict passivists” (12). The events of the Crusades, and the blood spilled, would not be forgotten easily. The consequences are still being felt in the twenty-first century. The “crusading spirit” was used also to confront heresy, which Gonzalez called “…a cosmic struggle between equally powerful forces of good and evil” (13). One cannot deny that many of the crusaders were extremely violent. While trekking to their targeted region, the Crusaders fed on the land, devouring everything like a plague of locusts. They had to fight other Christians who were merely defending their land. The crusaders unofficially added the killing of thousands of Jews to the campaign because of their unbelief regarding the Messiah. Gonzalez writes, “Women were raped [by crusaders}, and infants thrown against walls. Many of the city’s Jews took refuge in the synagogue, and the crusaders set fire to the building with them inside” (14). Gonzalez notes that Christianity had made its way into the ranks of the military. The Crusades focus on stopping Islam’s globalization led to Christianity became radically militarized.

The church-sanctioned targets of the Crusades were the Muslims who had settled in the Middle East.  However, the Crusades also sparked some of the earliest cases of violent anti-Semitism. As they traveled, the crusaders rationalized that Jews were also enemies of Christians.  Despite papal commands, some groups broke away and started attacking Jewish communities in both Europe and the Middle East.  In 1096 crusaders attacked prosperous and peaceful settlements on the Rhine and gave their victims a choice to convert or die.  Many Jews killed their own families rather than convert.  Jews living in Jerusalem in 1099 when the crusaders took hold slaves. At the outset of a new crusade, a new wave of death swept over the Jews. Consequently, the Crusades were responsible for the destruction of over 100 Jewish communities and the cause of thousands of senseless deaths.

Concluding Remarks

As is often true of history, the Crusades are more telling in their failures than their successes. Because of the Crusades, the credibility of the Pope as the agent of God on earth suffered irreparable damage in the Middle Ages, especially when a particular Crusade did not fair so well. Even the ones that did succeed in some respect accomplished little positive change. When the Crusades ended, regional violence of the type associated with this era stopped. Although the Crusades began from a position of defense, many questionable liberties were undertaken in the name of the church. Ranks among the crusaders included Knights Templar, military personnel, opportunists, and “penitent” Christians. The Papacy provided the means through which Christians could “work off” punishments and penalties.

Christians have held diverse views toward violence and non-violence throughout time. Currently and historically, there have been four views and practices within Christianity toward violence and war: (i) non-resistance; (ii) Christian pacifism, (iii) Just War, and (iv) preventive war. The Crusades represented one of the most interesting, yet most controversial, eras in the history of Christianity. Although Islam was not the only reason for the Crusades, I think it can be argued that without Islam there would have been no Crusades. It is difficult for modern Christians to identify with their predecessors during the time of the Crusades. The idea that Christians would consider it their religious duty to slaughter people in God’s Name is an alien concept in current times.



(1) Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 293.
Augustine of Hippo, City of God (New York, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890), 13.
(3) Gonzalez, Ibid., 13.
Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 12-13.
(5) Gonzalez, Ibid., 293.
(6) Robert Spencer, The History of Jihad: From Muhammad to ISIS (New York, NY: Post Hill, 2019), 13.
(7) Ibn Khaldun, The Muqa: An Introduction to History, trans. by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton University Press, 1967), 183.
(8) Spencer, Ibid., 11.
(9) Ibn Sa’d, Kitab Al-Tabaqat Al-Kabir, Vol. 2, trans. S. Moinul Haq and H.K. Ghazanfar (Kitab Bhavan: Delhi, India: n.d.) , in Spencer, Ibid., 15.
(10) Eirik Bowman, Islamic Hegemony: The Fact-Based Truth About the Tolerant Religion of Peace (London: U.K., 2015).
(11) Riley-Smith, Ibid., 9.
(12) Gonzalez, Ibid., 293.
(13) Ibid., 354.
(14) 354.

* The Kaaba, also spelled Ka’bah or Kabah, sometimes referred to as al-Kaʿbah al-Musharrafah, is a building at the center of Islam’s most important mosque, the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is the most sacred site in Islam.

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