First a confession. Like many modern British readers, I have contracted a severe case of Jihad Overload Syndrome. Symptoms of this unhappy condition include bouts of despair, melancholy, lassitude, irritation and impatience, and an ostrich-like tendency to pretend none of it is really happening. These can be regularly triggered by Muslim taxi drivers attempting to convert infidels to the true faith, newspaper headlines about the latest suicide bombing in Syria/Iraq/Turkey, and pious homilies from western leaders that Islam is a religion of peace.
An Amazon search for books with ‘jihad’ in the title reveals 6,256 dispiriting choices. A deep breath may therefore be called for before embarking on Crusade and Jihad. Fortunately, the reader is in extremely good hands. Malcolm Lambert is an accomplished medieval historian, the author of an acclaimed study of medieval heresy.
His focus here is broad and comprehensive, a survey of Muslim and Christian understandings of jihad and crusade over the centuries, prefaced with a potted history of early Islam. For those of us suffering from JOS, this could be hard going. That it is instead gripping stuff owes much to Lambert placing the principal characters of their age front and centre in his narrative. Here in all their pomp are Richard the Lionheart, the Zengid ruler of Syria Nur al Din, Saladin, Sultan Baybars of Egypt and Genghis Khan, the Mongol Scourge of God.
Lambert argues that jihad, which literally means ‘striving’, is predominantly referenced in the Quran in the sense of spiritual self-improvement and submission to God. He acknowledges, however, that its alternative definition of fighting for the faith against unbelievers quickly came to prominence both during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed and throughout the 7th-century Arab conquests that followed. The current dominance in popular perception of jihad as holy war is a product of our time, boosted by attention-seeking terrorists who find their ambitions glamourised by the attention-giving media.
After a damp-squib attempt by Pope Sergius IV in the early 11th century, the concept of Christian crusade was fully ignited by
Pope Urban II at Clermont in 1095. The proposition he offered to an assembled crowd of clerics and knights was quite clear. Go on an armed pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem, retake it from the ‘base and bastard’ Turks (his geography was not what it could have been) who were ‘a race utterly alienated from God’ and all your sins will be forgiven.
The First Crusade ended in a crescendo of blood-spilling in Jerusalem, Christian knights hacking down Jews and Muslims by the thousand in the name of God. Henceforth, Jerusalem assumed enormous importance for Muslims, third only to Mecca and Medina in holiness and as a place of pilgrimage. Western Christendom’s military triumph resulted in a tapestry of Crusader states that Saladin began to unpick with his conquest of Jerusalem in 1187. By the time Acre fell in 1291, though further crusades would follow, the messianic movement in the Middle East had imploded.
Lambert acknowledges the great difficulty as a 21st-century historian in trying to understand the minds of the men who exulted in this extraordinarily violent expedition, an 11th-century combination of piety and savagery. Perhaps they saw themselves as agents of the wrath of God. When David Hume described the crusading movement as the ‘most signal and most durable example of the folly of mankind in the history of any age or nation’, he was unwittingly demonstrating that he was as much a product of his time as the crusaders were of theirs. One man’s fanatic is another man’s Scottish Enlightenment empiricist and philosopher.
Lambert is right to highlight as a lacuna in modern studies the lamentable absence of attention given to massacres by Muslims of Muslims in the 11th century. ‘Crusades had no monopoly of atrocities.’ Lambert does not mention it, but if further evidence of the abuse of jihad is required, the career of the 14th-century Turkic conqueror Tamerlane, whose countless holy wars killed infinitely more Muslims than infidels, provides it in abundance. ‘Readers deserve better of their Muslim historians,’ writes Lambert in a crusaderly swipe at his
counterparts. One might add that Muslims deserve better of their leaders.
This is an important point. Centuries of autocracy have taken their toll on the Muslim world. ‘The message of Mamluk and Ottoman alike was that only despotism paid, to the great detriment of Muslims down to modern times.’ Power has been absolute and monopolised rather than limited and shared, a tragic failure of political development that has unleashed a new generation of jihadis onto the world, otherwise impotent young men with few prospects of advancement.
While the crusades were a finite phenomenon, jihad lives on as a part of Islam. Literalism and fanaticism have served the faith poorly, despite valiant efforts by a handful of Muslim scholars in recent years to emphasise the peaceful sense of jihad. Perhaps it is only when they start to turn a more critical eye on the Quran and the earliest histories of the Prophet, written around 120 years after Mohammed’s death, that the gates of ijtihad, or intellectual struggle, summarily closed around the beginning of the 10th century, can be reopened. Don’t hold your breath.