Islamic interpretations of past Holy Wars

18/05/2018

In 2016, al-Jazeera TV released a four-episode documentary on the crusades. The trailer introduces the subject in the following words: “In the history of conflict between East and West. The mightiest battle between Christianity and Islam; a holy war in the name of religion. For the first time, the story of the crusades from an Arab perspective.” It is rather clear from this short text that the producers understood and wanted their viewers to understand the crusades as one out of many episodes in the continuous clash between two civilizations: East/Islam and West/Christianity.

Al-Jazeera documentary was inspired by two earlier widely watched documentaries: The Crusades—Crescent and the Cross (The History Channel, 2005) and The Crusades (BBC, 2012). They all share the same plot about the clash of civilizations fuelled by the religious ideologies of Holy war and Jihad. Therefore, the claim that al-Jazeera documentary represents the “first time” the crusades is told from an Arab perspective simply means that it is now the Muslim Arabs who get their turn to tell the same story.

Actually, this is not the first time Muslims have told their story of the Crusades, and the story has changed over time. In the Muslim public imagination of today, the crusaders are remembered as medieval Christian barbarians who assaulted the Muslim world and slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent people before the Muslims could mount an effective jihad campaign to drive them away. They are also seen as medieval ancestors of modern Western colonialists and imperialists. What is left out of the modern narrative – conceptualized as such by Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries – is that the crusaders were not as fanatic as modern scholars allege, and they had good relations with the Muslims.

Indeed, medieval Muslim sources tell a different story about the Crusades. No doubt, they speak of countless battles, but they also describe innumerable political and military alliances, systematic sharing of religious sacred spaces, commercial dealings, exchange of science and ideas, etc., between Muslims and crusaders. This reality is generally ignored, and the emphasis on violence has dominated modern interest in the Crusades (the area most researched by scholars is crusader military orders and Holy war/Jihad). In other words, modern scholars (and the media), inadvertently for the most part, have put at the disposal of modern hate groups and terrorists a very suitable narrative that these groups have effectively employed to anchor and spread the discourse about the inevitable clash of civilizations. The result is Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments in the West, as well as Westophobia (hate of the West) and paranoia in the Muslim world.

Conceiving themselves adherents and protectors of “true” Islam, modern jihadists are inspired by a selective reading of Islamic foundational texts (Qurʾan, Sunna, etc.) and history, and by modern grievances (relating to direct or indirect colonial and hegemonic subjugation of the Muslims). For them, the crusader period was not different from the current clash between the Muslim world and the Christian West. Thus, they look to the crusader period for inspiration: leaders such as Nur al-Din and Saladin, and scholars such as Ibn ʿAsakir and Ibn Taymiyya are revered because they battled and rallied the Muslims to wage jihad against the crusaders and their Muslim cronies. It is no surprise then that stories of such heroes and writings of activist scholars of the crusader period are very popular in the Muslim world today, especially among militants.

Had we done our job as historians properly, we would not have counted out as anomalies the enormous evidence that speaks of co-existence between crusaders and Muslims. (Had the media done its job properly, it would not have valorised violence.) The narrative of the Crusades should have been presented as a complicated chapter in medieval history where people fought each other and also tolerated each other. But since scholars tend to examine the past with modern eyes (theories, assumptions, conventions, biases, etc.), they could not see this complex reality of the crusader period.

The Crusades is not the only chapter misrepresented in modern scholarship and imagination. The way we think of Islam is too governed by modern agendas, so much so that every narrative we offer is a mirror of our modern concerns. We often fail to realize that what is invariable presented as “Islam” is the collective opinion of an affluent class of male elites (mostly Sunnis) whose views did not agree with the way other groups saw and practiced Islam (Shiʿis, Sufis, women, uneducated masses, etc.).

We also tend to valorise certain groups, thinking that they are best suited to fit a modern garb. For instance, many today praise Sufism (mysticism) for its idea of spiritual jihad that focuses on internal struggle to become a better person. This is not how medieval Sufis, and Muslims generally, understood jihad to mean, namely the act of waging war against Islam’s enemies; some, especially the Sufis, insisted it includes a religious dimension in order for physical jihad to lead to success in this world and the next. Saladin had in his army a brigade of Sufis who demanded that crusader captivates be turned over to them to slaughter. The Ottoman army employed Sufis, who still today practice their rituals with weapons.

My point is not to say that Sufism is violent. My point is to draw attention to the fact that Sufism has also a very complex history and legacy. Saying this does not imply that Muslims cared much about jihad. Actually, the majority of Muslims historically have refused to contribute to jihad, even when under attack. As historians, we might not be able to free ourselves completely from modern biases. At least we can try to listen more to what history tells us: it is always much more complex than any contemporary conclusions we derive from it.

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