When the First Crusade began at the end of the 11th century, the Islamic world was fragmented, suffering from a vacuum of both strong leadership and states. The incursions of the Franks were an unexpected attack from an unexpected quarter, and resulted in an unbroken string of military victories for the Crusader armies, culminating with the capture of Antioch in 1098 and of Jerusalem in 1099, and the establishment of four Latin Christian kingdoms in the Near East. The next quarter century saw the Islamic states forced to accommodate an alien presence in the Levant, and further Christian military victories in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa.

The following period saw a revival of the Islamic doctrine of jihad and gradual attempts to reunite the Islamic world into a coherent political unit that could repel the invaders. Three prominent Islamic military leaders, Zengi, Nuradin and Saladin, managed to accomplish these goals. The tide of the war turned with the capture of Edessa, in Syria, by forces commanded by Zengi in 1144, and in 1187 Saladin routed the Latin armies at the Battle of Hattin, and finally retook Jerusalem, ending the Crusader States and the first two Crusades. This paper will be an examination of the changes of attitude and politics that took place in the Islamic world over the course of the century between the start of the First Crusade and Saladin’s re-conquest of Jerusalem.

During the 11th century, the Islamic world was divided between two major powers in the Near and Middle East, the Fatimid Caliphate, governed by Egyptian Isma'ili shi'is and based in Cairo, and the old sunni Abbasid Caliphate, now under the control of the Seljuk Turks, and based out of Baghdad. Both states were weakened at the end of the century by years of inconclusive fighting between them, and by the catastrophic deaths, between 1092 and 1094, of most of the significant leaders of both states, leaving some commentators with a feeling of impending doom (Hillenbrand 33). Syria and Palestine were under the domination of vassals who owed nominal fealty to the Seljuks in Syria and the Fatimids in Palestine, but in practice were more or less ignored; the area was treated as a backwater.

The medieval Muslim historian Al-'Azimi believed that that the Franks chose to invade because "The people of the Syrian ports prevented Frankish and Byzantine pilgrims from crossing to Jerusalem. Those of them who survived spread the news about that to their country. So they prepared themselves for a military invasion" (Hillenbrand 50). Ibn al-Athir believed that it was an outgrowth of Christian military gains in Spain and Sicily (Gabrieli 5). Both views remain fairly valid, historically.

The first military encounter between the Crusaders and Muslims, the Battle of Antioch in 1098, went disastrously for the Muslims. Abassid forces trying to retake the city from the Crusaders had surrounded and besieged the city, and the numerically inferior Frankish armies were slowly starving to death, but managed to sally from the city, break the siege and route the Abassid army utterly. Hillebrand attributes this to disunion and bickering between Arab and Seljuk elements in the army (58-59). The Fatimids, presumably still nursing old grudges against the Abassids, made no effort to at all to engage the Crusaders.

The Crusaders continued to advance in the face of Islamic disunity, marching down through Syria and into Palestine without encountering substantial resistance. When the Abassids collapsed at Antioch, the Fatimids finally committed themselves – by attacking Jerusalem themselves, presuming correctly that the Abassids would be unable to hold it. They couldn't hold the city for more than a few months themselves, though, and on July 15, 1099, it fell to the Franks.

This seems to be the event that finally drove home in the Islamic imagination that the Franks represented a serious threat to everyone in the region. The Islamic histories of this period seek to outdo each other in describing the atrocities the victorious Crusaders committed on taking the city. They were, no doubt, extreme, but the figures became exaggerated in recounting; Ibn al-Athir gives a figure of 70,000 people, mostly religious scholars, killed in the al-Aqsa mosque alone (Gabrielli 11).

The fall of Jerusalem ushered in a disorganized period. The next 25 years were marked by feuding and short-lived alliances, with the Crusaders marking down a series of military successes, most notably the conquest of Tripoli, but spending almost as much time fighting each other as the Muslims, a favor that Muslims seemed happy to return. The local Islamic military leaders often made temporary alliances with one or another of the four Crusader kingdoms to keep their own local rivals in check. On the face of things, Dar al-Islam, the House of Islam, was at least as disunited as it had been for the last century.

The Fatimids offered little more than perfunctory resistance to the Crusaders, something for which the Muslim historians criticized them intensely. Hillenbrand hypothesizes that they had become isolationist following their defeat in the Levant, and actually preferred the existence of Frankish kingdoms there, as a buffer state between them and the Abassids (77-78). The Seljuks made a series of desultory sallies into Crusader territory, none of which accomplished anything at all.

However, an ideological transformation was taking place as a direct result of the Frankish military victories, which had manifestly been a result of Islamic disunion and unwillingness to fight as a coherent unit. The concept of jihad, or literally, struggle, is one that dates to the foundation of Islam as a religion. Atiya describes it as a binding communal duty, one that had been elevated almost to the level of a Sixth pillar of Islam, to defend Islam from its enemies and fight to conquer and convert polytheists (131-132). However, in the period before the Crusades, it had been relegated to a relatively subordinate ideological position, as the justification for constant but inconclusive fighting between the Seljuks and Byzantines, but little else. The Frankish conquests, particularly that of Jerusalem, caused Muslim thinkers and religious leaders to rediscover it as a driving force.

Hillenbrand notes that in the beginning of the 12th century, Muslim religious leaders began to take a definite leadership role in Syria, and preaching a definite message of jihad. She makes note of a preacher, ibn al-Kashshad, who actually led troops on the battlefield at the Battle of Balat, or the Field of Blood, in 1119, one of the first Muslim military victories (109).

It was in this context that the first major Islamic military leader of what would evolve into the Counter-Crusade emerged, 'Imad al-Din Zengi, or simply Zengi, a Seljuk atabeg, or governor, and military leader. He was later eulogized as a mujahid, or holy warrior, but it’s unclear how much of this was grafted on to his character after the fact. Even medieval Islamic historians disagree on whether Zengi was a hero and holy man, or simply an efficient and competent warrior and player of the power politics that were endemic to the region (Gabrieli 40-48).

What is certain is that Zengi re-conquered the Crusader Kingdom of Edessa in Syria, in 1144, the first significant territory that the Muslims would regain, and the catalyst for the catastrophically ill thought-out Second Crusade. This is widely considered to be the turning point of the Islamic-Frankish conflict. Zengi died soon after, leaving his power to his son Nur al-Din, or Nuradin.

If Zengi’s status as a mujahid is historically uncertain, Nuradin’s certainly is not. Nuradin collaborated closely with holy men and Hanbali jurists throughout his career, employing them in his army to improve morale and keep them focused on the goal of their struggle. Nuradin’s goals throughout his military career were twofold, to turn back the Franks, and unite as much of the Islamic world under one banner as possible. Each one helped him to accomplish the other, as his victories over the Franks earned him more and more respect, and his campaign for unification helped him to ring the remaining Crusader States in.

Nuradin was a skillful user of propaganda, and was the one who cemented the status of the war against the Crusaders as a jihad, and thus collectively incumbent on the Islamic world as a whole. This was also the period when Jerusalem became most central and longed-for in the Islamic imagination, as a particularly holy city, and one of the prime goals of the new Counter-Crusade.

Jerusalem was already a holy place for Islam by this point, and had been for some centuries. It was the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and had been identified by this point as the site of the Prophet’s Night Journey. It was considered an acceptable goal for pilgrims who could not make the full pilgrimage to Mecca, and had become the center of a number of mystic schools of Sufis. A significant genre of Islamic literature, fada’il al-Quds, was specifically occupied with praising Jerusalem.

Hillenbrand relates a particularly striking example of Nuradin’s use of the desire for Jerusalem as a propaganda tool, his commissioning of a minbar, or pulpit, that was to be placed in the al-Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s reconquest (151-161). The minbar was consistently described as the most beautiful ever made, and became a powerful symbol of Nuradin’s ultimate goal of retaking Jerusalem and re-sanctifying the al-Aqsa Mosque, which was the most potent symbol of Jerusalem’s holiness during this period. It was one he was fated not to attain, but one of Saladin's first actions on finally taking the city would be to have the minbar brought to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Nuradin’s propaganda war also extended to the literary field. His time saw a revival of fada'il al-Quds literature, and he had them read publicly. He also attracted a devoted following of poets who wrote verses praising his character and the holy war he fought, and sponsored schools of Islamic jurisprudence that produced texts specifically analyzing the nature of jihad and the cases when it was incumbent on Muslims (Hillenbrand 165-166).

One of the most significant campaigns in Nuradin’s reign was in Egypt; the Fatimid dynasty was on the verge of collapse by the middle of the 12th century, and both the Franks and Seljuks invaded it to take advantage of the growing power vacuum there. Nuradin’s lieutenant in Egypt was Salah al-Din, a Kurd, and better known to the west as Saladin, the most famous Muslim figure of all of the Crusades. Saladin won the complex power struggle for Egypt and became Sultan in Cairo in 1170. Following Nuradin’s death in 1174, he became the most powerful Muslim leader in the Near East, and gradually consolidated his power until, ten years later, he was the unquestioned successor to Nuradin.

His contemporaries described Saladin as being incredibly devout and devoted to religious orthodoxy, and speak glowingly of his character (Gabrieli 89-93). He continued Nuradin’s practice of courting intellectuals and the ulema, and keeping poets with him to praise his accomplishments (Hillenbrand 181). He was already, in many ways, the ideal Islamic ruler, but his military campaign would cement his reputation forever.

In 1187, in response to an abortive Christian effort to attack the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, he massed his forces against the Crusaders, and routed their armies at the Battle of Hattin, breaking the back of the Frankish kingdoms’ military power. The same year, he retook Jerusalem, entered it in triumph, and forced the Crusaders to retreat to the coast, provoking the largely unsuccessful Third Crusade.

The reconquest of Jerusalem is the central element of Saladin’s myth, and in most ways, the climax of the Counter-Crusade. The day Saladin entered the city, 17 Rajab, was, by coincidence or calculation, the anniversary of the Night Journey, and the re-entry of Muslims into the city was treated as a religious event (Gabrielli 160-161). The entire Islamic world became seized with religious joy as news of the victory spread.

Jerusalem, despite being of such central symbolic importance, was strategically unimportant. Saladin, and the Ayyubid Dynasty he founded kept their capital in Damascus, with Jerusalem relegated to a distinctly secondary position. It was a religious center, but not a military one, and later Ayyubid rulers actually signed a treaty with the Crusaders that ceded control of the city to them, so long as Muslims were allowed to remain on the Temple Mount.

The Crusades, intended to unseat Islam from the Near East and eventually defeat it altogether, had an opposite effect. The Muslim world, fragmented politically and ideologically at the start of the Crusades, had been forced to assume a stronger and more coherent shape in response to the Franks. Strong leaders came to power on the back of fighting the Franks, and formed a powerful military response to the Crusaders.

The ideological effects of the Crusades on Islam were even more significant and long lasting. The doctrine of jihad, which had come to occupy a relatively secondary place in Islamic thought, returned to prominence in a much more defined way. The Muslim political leaders used it as a powerful tool to provide both a context for the conflict and an ideological justification for the Counter-Crusade.

This newly refined version of jihad has had a significant effect on the history of Islamic thought. It provided and provides an important way of contextualizing conflict between aggressive non-Islamic powers and the Islamic world, one in which it is the collective duty of all Muslims to resist aggression against any.

The effects of this can still be seen in recent history, in the tendency of Muslims to close ranks in conflicts such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the ethnic wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, and the conflict with Israel, which while hardly universal, still represents an unusual degree of unity for a modern religion. The memory of the Crusades still looms large in the Islamic collective memory.

Another effect was to cement the role of Jerusalem in the Muslim imagination. The Muslim attitude towards Jerusalem was previously an ambivalent one – it was a holy city, but the most peripheral of the three, removed from the centers of Islamic power and importance, something of a backwater. It was never ignored, but it would be fair to say that it was taken for granted to a certain extent.

After the Crusades and the Counter-Crusade, though, Jerusalem had come to be a more central symbol. Coveted by both sides during the war, and used as one of the most powerful propaganda symbols for the Islamic leadership and the campaign for unity in the Islamic world, its significance had been assured through the massive amounts of ink and blood shed over it.

In some ways, the current conflict in Israel and Palestine can be seen as a direct extension of the Crusades, at least from the Muslim perspective. From their point of view, the situation must seem eerily similar – a foreign, western and non-Muslim power occupies Jerusalem, and holds it by force of arms. In this context, the Muslim hostility to Israel and its western supporters, and the specifically anti-Christian tenor that pervades some of the more radical Islamic organizations is hardly puzzling.

The Crusades and the Counter-Crusade represent one of Islam’s defining moments; its response to one of the most significant challenges the religion has ever faced. The First Crusade was a devastating attack, from an unexpected quarter, when the religion was at its lowest ebb of unity and strength, and was followed by a century of struggle and conflict before victory and the retaking of Jerusalem. Historically, it is one of the most significant moments for both cultures that were protagonists of the conflict, and its effects can still be felt today.


Works Cited

Atiya, Aziz S. Crusade, Commerce and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.

Gabrielli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Trans. E.J. Costello. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1969.

Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999.


They say node your homework. Usually I don't, which is something you ought to be grateful for, since my homework is very rarely on anything of general interest. This research paper that I recently wrote, however, seems relatively relevant, both in the sense of connection to current events, and filling a gap in information here, so I have broken my own rule.

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