The Crusades

When the armies of Islam established an empire that stretched from Spain to India, the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople managed to hold on to Anatolia (that piece of land in western Asia that is today the country called Turkey) and the Balkans (southeastern Europe). Roman civilization and Christian teachings remained vibrant among the Byzantines while they also continued under different forms in western Europe. Three hundred years later, the Muslim empire was strengthened by an incursion of Turks from central Asia. (The Turks have not always lived in Turkey.) The Turks left the Abassid emperor on the throne but came to control the bureaucracy of the government and the army. They converted to Islam, adopted aspects of Persian culture, and sought to reclaim north African lands that had been lost to Abassid control, and also to conquer new lands for Islam.

The Byzantine Christians, now called Orthodox, had recently been declared outside the Church by the Pope and western Christians, now called Catholic. In spite of that division, Byzantine Emperor Alexius begged for reinforcements from western Europe to protect his land from the Muslim Turks. Pope Gregory, although willing to help, was distracted by the politics of the Investiture Controversy and his showdown with Holy Roman Emperor Henry. Gregory’s successor, Pope Urban, was even more willing to help. He declared a Crusade—an army of Christian soldiers who would wear the cross on their armor and would fight to defend the Christian faith against “infidels,” people unfaithful to Jesus Christ. (Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but deny that he is the Son of God or is anyone’s Savior.)

Preachers declared the glory of fighting for Jesus Christ in the Holy Land and overthrowing nonChristian governments. Many Christians answered the call. The first to arrive in Constantinople were peasants seeking glory, untrained and unequipped for war. The Byzantine Emperor was not impressed, but he sent them to the front lines, where they were quickly overwhelmed by the Turks. Then, in 1095, the First Crusade arrived. The Emperor was still unimpressed, but he prepared to send these European knights to the front as well. To his surprise, they refused his command. They said that they had not come to defend Anatolia, but to capture Jerusalem and make it a Christian city. The Emperor had them sign an agreement that any land they captured from the Muslims would be part of the Byzantine Empire. They signed the agreement, but they did not keep it. Instead, they defeated the Muslims along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and established western-style kingdoms in Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.

The Abassids and Turks were also not impressed by the Crusaders. They were willing to cede these lands to Europeans if the Europeans would help them fight the Muslims in Egypt. Not to be outdone, the Egyptian Muslims offered to recognize the Crusader kingdoms if they helped to fight the Abassids and Turks. The Crusaders signed agreements with neither Muslim government. They clung to their conquests and ruled them for fifty to two hundred years (Edessa being the first to fall and Jerusalem the last).

When it became clear that the Crusaders were not strong enough to hold their kingdoms, European leaders called for additional crusades. The Second Crusade was sent in 1146, but did little to help the Crusader kingdoms survive. The Third Crusade, which began in 1201, was the Crusade of legendary proportions. The Muslim leader was Kurdish general al-Malik al-Nasir Salah el-Din Yusuf, known in Europe as Saladin. European leaders included Richard the Lion-Hearted of England, Phillip Augustus of France, and Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire. Each of these primas donnas expected full command of the Crusade and resented the presence of the others. Frederick died on his way to the Holy Land. According to legend, while wearing full armor he fell off his horse into a river and drowned, pulled to the bottom by all that metal. Phillip and Richard both made it to Jerusalem, but quarreled incessantly over leadership of the Crusading soldiers. Eventually Phillip took his French knights and went home. Richard finally also had to withdraw. Traveling through the Holy Roman Empire to avoid entering France (where he expected trouble from Phillip), Richard was captured and held for ransom. His mother was able to raise the money to set him free, even when his brother John and King Phillip of France offered a bribe to the Germans to keep Richard in prison.

The Fourth Crusade set out for Jerusalem but never arrived. Stopping in Venice, they were promised transportation to the Holy Land if they would first attack Constantinople. (Venice and the Byzantines were competing for trade along the Silk Roads, especially in the Mediterranean Sea.) The Crusaders agreed, attacked Constantinople, and set up a western-style kingdom that lasted more than fifty years until their capital was retaken by the Byzantine army. The Fifth Crusade was no more successful in preserving the Crusader kingdoms in western Asia.

King Louis IX of France, the famous Saint Louis, attempted two crusades that would surprise the Muslims by landing in Egypt and working their way along the coast. Both attempts failed. In 1212, a rumor spread through Europe that the failure of the Crusaders was due to their sinful nature, being adult men, but that younger innocent boys could defeat the Muslims. Many boys left their homes and families to march to the Holy Land. Most became tired and turned back. A few were captured in port cities and sold elsewhere as slaves. None of them made it to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, some Christians in Europe asked why they had to travel a thousand miles to fight the infidel when enemies of the Church could be found closer to home. The reconquest of Spain and Portugal was described as a Crusade. Battles against groups of Christian heretics (including the Albigensians) were called Crusades. Persecution of the Jewish communities in Europe grew more intense at this time; these attacks were also called Crusades. Even in 1518, the Holy Roman Emperor was hoping to form a Crusade to drive the Turks away from Vienna and to reclaim parts of southeastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire. This potential Crusade collapsed under distractions from Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

For centuries, Muslim historians treated the Crusades as little more than a minor inconvenience. Only in the twentieth century, after the Ottoman Empire fell and Britain and France gained control in western Asia, did Muslims begin to list the Crusades among events when European Christians had been enemies to Islam. As the Muslim lands gained independence after the Second World War (but had to accept the existence of Israel among them), memories of the Crusades grew in significance for Muslim leaders. Christians today might be scolded about the evils of the Crusades, but while they were happening they were scarcely even noticed in the Muslim world. J.

The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

The history of Islam: part two

Muhammad’s insistence that he was receiving messages from God met skeptical ears and minds in Mecca, just as any claim to have messages from God meets skeptical ears and minds today. A few did believe Muhammad, though, and then a few more believed. This growing group of believers prompted resistance from the authorities in Mecca. For years the determination of both sides increased. A turning point came when the leaders of a nearby town (then named Yathrib; today called Medina) invited Muhammad to come to their town and settle disputes among their leaders. Muhammad’s clandestine journey to Medina became the first year for the Muslim count of years, as the assumed date of the birth of Jesus is the first year in the Christian count of years. (Because Muslims begin a new month every new moon and have no leap days or leap months, the Muslim year is ten or eleven years shorter than the Christian years. As a result, Muslim observances drift through the seasons, falling sometimes in summer and other times in winter.) Relations between Muhammad’s followers in Medina and his opponents in Mecca led sometimes to armed battles and sometimes to negotiations and compromises. In the end, Muhammad claimed authority in Mecca; he had the altars of false gods removed from the city center, but he kept one meteorite in Mecca, designating it as sacred to God. Observant Muslims treat that stone with reverence; it stands at the center of their pilgrimage ceremonies in Mecca.

When Muhammad died, he left no instructions about who was to continue leading the Muslims in Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding area. His followers understood that Muhammad was the last of the prophets; there would not be a next prophet. But they needed someone to guide their movement. Therefore, they designated a Caliph, a man who could speak in place of the prophet. Four Caliphs were selected in the thirty years after Muhammad died—a new one was chosen when the last one had died. Some Muslims believe that the fourth Caliph—Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad—should have been the first Caliph. This controversy began the split among Muslims that continues as a division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Other groups also had variant understandings about how Islam should be governed. After the death of the fourth Caliph, the Umayyad family gathered control of Muslim government, ruling from the city Damascus for almost a century. They eventually gave way to the Abbasid family, who built a new capitol city in Mesopotamia, the city of Baghdad, from which they continued to rule Muslim lands.

For, within a century of Muhammad’s death, Muslim Arabs had spread as an army across north Africa and into Spain, and also into western Asia as far as the western part of India. They permitted religious freedom to “People of the Book,” but they demanded that polytheists acknowledge the one God or die. The Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids determined Sharia for the many people living in these lands. Already, though, Islam was splintering, as Shia and other groups resisted some of the interpretations of the central Islamic government. Muslims in Spain and Morocco never acknowledged the Abbasid government in Baghdad, recognizing their own local leaders as successors to the Umayyads. Other north African groups developed their own Muslim governments, including the Fatimid government in Egypt, who claimed that their leaders were descended from Ali and from his wife Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad.

Meanwhile, invaders were entering west Asia from the central part of the continent. The Saljuq Turks invaded the Abbasid Empire, leaving the Abbasid Caliph as a figurehead but dominating the government of Baghdad. The strength of the Saljuq Turks caused the Byzantine Emperor to call for reinforcements from western Europe, conjuring the Crusades. Turks were no more impressed by Byzantines by the European fighters, but they offered an alliance if the Christian Crusaders would help them battle the Fatimids in Egypt. The Fatimids offered a similar alliance. Reluctant to sign a treaty with either group, the Crusaders held their kingdoms for a bit more than a hundred years before they were overwhelmed by the Turks, led by the Kurdish general Saladin. Later the Mongol Empire, including additional Turks among their soldiers, seized Persia and Mesopotamia, including Baghdad. Mongols and Turks who remained in west Asia converted to Islam and continued to rule as their predecessors the Umayyads and Abbasids had ruled.

By 1500, Muslim rule was divided among three Empires, along with smaller kingdoms. In India the Moguls ruled, a Turkish group drew their name from the Mongol Empire. In Persia the Safavids held power. Further west the Ottoman Empire appeared. This Empire grew to claim much of the land that had belonged to the Byzantine Empire, overthrowing the final Byzantine government in Constantinople in 1453. At their peak, all three of these empires were mightier than any comparable power in Europe.

The balance slowly changed. European explorers and colonists brought wealth from other nations into Europe, while the Muslim empires remained stagnant. Technology and invention flourished in Europe, but not among the Moguls, the Safavids, or the Ottomans. Vibrant new ideas about democracy and human rights arose in Europe, but the Muslim empires held to their older ways. Eventually, the empires withered. British power displaced the Moguls in India. Austria and Russia pushed back the borders of the Ottoman Empire (which still survived until after World War I ended.) Many reasons have been proposed for this shift of power, and most of them probably contain some truth.

Some Muslim leaders tried to learn from European powers and imitate their successes. Muhammad Ali, a viceroy serving the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, practically created an independent country using European methods and technology. A group called Young Turks tried to do the same in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Many Muslims imitated European culture, European music and clothing, and European philosophy regarding human rights. Others resisted. Movements calling for rejection of European ways, for a return to the vital principles of Islam, arose in all the Muslim Empires.

Meanwhile, Islam was spreading during these centuries in non-military ways. Merchants worked trade routes into Africa and across India to southeastern Asia, as well as into central Asia. When merchants built houses and mosques and brought their wives and children, their example often won converts to their religion. The peaceful Muslim incursion into the islands of Indonesia outlasted Dutch Christian influence in most of those islands, which is why the country today with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia (not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran).

In my next post I will look at Islam in the world today and how it relates to other ideas, both religious and secular. J.

The history of Islam: part one

When I began college (a great many years ago), my first dormitory roommate was a young man named Mohamed; he was from the country of Jordan. After we had shared a room for a few weeks and had talked about other things, one day out of the blue he asked me, “We Muslims have great respect for your prophet Jesus; why don’t you Christians have any respect for our prophet Muhammad?”

No one could identify the difference between our two religions more distinctly.

Islam could be considered a Christian heresy, like Arianism and Nestorianism, or like some of the newer developments in Christianity. Both religions believe in one God. Both consider him eternal and unchanging, all-powerful, knowing all things, present everywhere. Both consider him good and holy and merciful and the source of all that is good. Both regard the one God as Creator of all that exists, and both define evil as corruption of the good things made by God. Both look to him as the giver of all laws, the One who has the right to tell people how to behave and to punish people for breaking his laws. Both religions await a Day of Judgment with a resurrection of all people, followed by heaven for God’s people and eternal punishment for God’s enemies. Both believe that God has spoken to his people through prophets. Indeed, when the teachings of Christianity are reduced to the verbs, “Trust and Obey,” no distinction remains between Christian teachings and Muslim teachings.

Muslims believe that Islam is the first and original religion, the only true religion, and that all other religions are corruptions of that true religion. Muslims believe that Adam and Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, but that their message was changed by their followers. Muhammad’s prophetic messages, received as the Qur’an, teach that God is one and has no equal. The Qur’an clearly states that God has no Son. God sends messengers, but God has never sent a Savior. Each person is required to work out his or her own salvation by obeying God’s commands. As in Christianity, the commands can be reduced to two laws: be faithful to God, and love and help your neighbors. Anyone who can say—and truly believe—that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet is a Muslim.

Muhammad was born in Mecca, a city in Arabia, around the year 570. The city of Mecca contained many religious people: some worshipped many gods, others were Jews, and others were Christians. Even the Christians were divided into groups that argued with one another. Muhammad wanted to know the truth, so he sought God in prayer and meditation, asking to be sent the truth. Evidently, Muhammad never heard or heeded Saint Paul’s warning in Galatians 1 to avoid anyone, even an angel, who brings a different gospel. A being of light appeared to Muhammad, telling him to recite, and began passing on to Muhammad messages the being said came from God. Those messages, when written, were preserved as the Qur’an.

More than half the people in the world today are either Christian or Muslim, although both religions include many nominal followers who are labeled as Christian or Muslim according to culture and family tradition, not according to their top priorities. In some places, the two growing religions confront one another violently, as in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. At first, Muhammad and his followers had greater respect for Jews and Christians than they had for polytheists. “People of the Book,” as they were called, were allowed to continue to practice their religion, although they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were barred from most government jobs. Some converted to Islam because they saw no difference between the two religions; others converted for economic reasons. Islam quickly became a majority religion in many parts of west Asia and north Africa.

Observant Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. They donate two percent of their net worth (not their income) every year to assist the poor. They fast during daylight hours one month of the year, showing their commitment to God and their awareness of the problems of the poor. They seek, at least once in their lifetime, to take part in a pilgrimage to Mecca. They try to obey the commandments of God, which are encompassed in a legal system called Shariah. This system can vary from region to region, because religious questions (for most Muslims) are answered in a four-step process. First: what does the Qur’an say? Second, what do the history and traditions about Muhammad reveal? Third, what precedents have been set when the question has been asked before? Fourth, what does common sense (guided by the Qur’an and the traditions) suggest? Religious experts provide answers according to this path, and even governments are expected to follow the understanding of the experts. Muslim countries vary considerably in the amount of influence Shariah has over national and local laws. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran under the Ayatollah, and Saudi Arabia are more tied to Shariah as declared by the experts than are Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries that are largely Muslim in population.

Muslims agree about God, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. They disagree about many other things—for example, about whether God created the world quickly a few thousand years ago or worked through evolution through many millions of years, about the place of women in society and government, and about the use of violence to overthrow worldly and unholy entities in the world. Like Christianity, Islam is divided into competing groups that sometimes are more rigorously opposed to one another than they are to groups outside of Islam.

In two coming posts, I will describe the political history of Islam and the Muslim understanding of the world today. J.

Defeating terrorism

I intended to write a post about problems in Europe and about its changing relationship with the United States. That topic is so complicated, though, that I shall have to break it into several pieces. One of those pieces is terrorism, particularly as it relates to the Muslim world.

Many Muslims are fleeing war and poverty, seeking safety and a chance for a new life in Europe. Many more have died attempting to reach Europe. The crisis is a humanitarian problem not directly related to terrorism. On the other hand, many Europeans and North Americans have linked the problems of human migration and terrorism, using the religion of the migrants as a linking factor.

Muslim terrorist organizations claim that they are fighting in a war between Islam and western civilization. They view this violence as valid because they have been exposed to the decadence that freedom of expression has allowed in western nations. Fundamental Muslims are not so much opposed to Christianity or the Constitution of the United States as they are opposed to Jersey Shore and the Kardashian family. This decadence is what they believe they are attacking when they explode bombs and engage in acts of violence in public places.

Americans serve no good purpose when we agree that the war being fought is a war between Islam and western civilization. All we accomplish by agreeing with that idea is greater success for the recruiting efforts of terrorist groups. A far better approach is to label terrorism as the actions of a few deranged individuals, actions that are opposed to the principles of Islam as well as to the principles of western civilization. The more North American and European governments cooperate with North African and West Asian governments to battle terrorism, the better all these governments can persuade Muslim populations that western civilization is not at war with Islam; it is combating terrorism, which is the right thing to do.

Ironically, one method for governments to respond to terrorist threats is to reduce human rights—those very rights to which the terrorists object. To catch all the terrorists before they cause harm, governments must closely monitor communication, internet usage, and other aspects of our lives that are not generally the government’s business. European and North American governments have tried to find a balance between respecting personal rights and protecting citizens from harm. Most government decisions—and most government controversies—are a balancing act of this kind, trying to maintain two good things that contradict each other. The governments are probably doing as well as they can when some citizens are complaining that the governments are not doing enough while other complain that they are doing too much.

When President Franklin Roosevelt received letters from Jewish citizens of the United States asking why the U.S. was not doing more to end the Holocaust in German-held lands, Roosevelt said that we were doing everything we could to end the Holocaust. The only way to end it, Roosevelt said, was to win the war and defeat the German government. The same approach is needed today. Eliminating the conflicts that migrants currently flee would relieve a lot of pressure on European governments regarding those migrants. Seeing capable governments established in Libya, Iraq, and Syria would make it easier to eliminate cells and training institutions of terrorists in those countries. Overcoming the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria while cracking down on other terrorist groups would make the world far safer. The United States cannot do this alone, or even with help only from our European allies. Winning the war against terror requires the help of governments in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and their smaller neighbors. Even Israel has a role to play and a strong motive to play that role.

We can and should expect leaders of governments throughout the world to communicate and cooperate in order to defeat terrorism. Complete victory will not happen in our lifetime, or probably any time before Judgment Day. Marginalizing terrorist groups and stifling their opportunities and motives to cause harm will bring improvement, though, and improvement is a worthy goal. J.