Book Review: The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam

by Scott Manning on May 11, 2013

TheCrusadesChristianityandIslam-coverRiley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

In The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam, Jonathan Riley-Smith has provided a succinct, powerful work that helps us understand the historical memory of the Crusades in both the Western and Islamic worlds. Given the sensitivities over the Crusading era with both Christians and Muslims, the author does a remarkable job at correcting common misperceptions in both groups.

The author begins with the misperceived uniqueness of the Crusades, that is, the sanctioning of holy war was not an aberration in the history of Christianity. Instead, Riley-Smith demonstrates that Christian leaders had struggled with the use of violence through the first millennium of Christianity’s existence, as men such as St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) sought to reconcile the conflicting peaceful and violent overtones throughout Scripture. Augustine eventually conceived of “holy war” where men could take up arms given a certain set of circumstances. The Crusades used the same logic to sanction violence, but with the added features of military orders such as the Templars, the taking of vows, and “collective acts of penance, repayments through self-punishment of debts owed to God for sin” (pp. 28, 33).

The most fascinating aspects of the first two chapters are the methods the popes and Church leaders used to recruit participants of the Crusades. Traveling from city to city and coordinating their arrivals with local feasts, Church leaders came through with great pomp and show, giving fiery messages about the need to liberate the Holy Land. As the Crusades continued, preachers added drama through music, public vows, and elaborate props (p. 38).

In the third chapter, Riley-Smith skims over the Enlightenment where men such as Voltaire and Gibbon clearly condemned the Crusades and the men who participated in them while praising Islamic culture. Yet, as he shows, the notion of crusading was alive and well among some inspired men in the nineteenth-century. As such, paracrusading efforts came through men of the Church and through governments. Men such as Charles Lavigerie (1825-1892) sought to reinvigorate the militaristic spirit of the Crusades. After failing to inspire the then peaceful Hospitallers to take up arms once again, he went through several efforts to recruit men willing to take up arms to help black slaves in Africa. The efforts stalled and fizzled with his death, but the verbiage of Crusading was always there.

Also during the nineteenth-century, European governments saw the opportunity to seize upon a failing Ottoman Empire in North Africa and in the Balkans, which again led to more Crusader verbiage. As Riley-Smith puts it, “the association of a crusading past with the imperialist present was a feature of” European empire-building (p. 59). Even during World War I, commentary on British success in the Middle East invoked Richard I’s crusade (p. 60).

All of this leads to the final chapter where Riley-Smith provides the largest revelation, which is worth the price of the book. Prior to the nineteenth-century, the author demonstrates that the Muslim world had nearly forgotten about the Crusades, or least did little reflection of it. Even Saladin remained an obscure figure (p. 64). Yet, as Europeans continued invoke the crusades while promoting imperialism, the Crusading era once again found a foothold in the collective memory of the Islamic World. The twist was that Muslims adopted the perspectives of the Enlightenment historians (and those inspired by them), which diminished the value of the crusaders while celebrating the advanced civilization of the Muslims (pp. 67, 71). Muslims began writing histories of the Crusades once again, which flowed into the twentieth-century. However, Muslims, like nineteenth-century Europeans, merged the concept of crusading with European imperialism.

While fascinating, this twist on historical memory has repercussions in today’s world where “a Muslim does not have to be an extreme Islamist to hold the view that the West is still engaged in crusading” (p. 76). Yes, there is no direct lineage of imperialism with crusading with the West’s modern-day involvement in the Middle East, but “the West has not tried to counter the Muslim reading of history” (p. 76). Frankly, Westerners would not know where to begin nor would they want to risk a perception of defending the Crusades.

The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam is a short read with only 80 pages of content. However, it is invaluable for demonstrating that the world’s perception of the Crusades has “more to do with nineteenth-century European imperialism than with actuality” (p. 79). Riley-Smith believes Westerners and Muslims must fact up to this “fact” if they ever hope to understand today’s circumstances.

He is right.

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