Did the Crusades Really Ever End? - Part 1
The first of three parts detailing my thoughts on Amin Maalouf's The Crusades Through Arab Eyes
Since October 7th and the conversations I’ve been having with friends since then, I gained the desire to do a fresh reading of the history of the Crusades. Since my childhood, and that of most Muslim children, I’ve heard mostly of the heroic and magnificent stories of masculine ascent that came out of that dark period for the Ummah. However, in many ways, it parallels the tragedy we’ve been experiencing for the past 75 years, that of the modern crusader state of Israel.
Though this comparison is nothing new — it was exhaustively used as political rhetoric for decades in the Arab world by nationalist politicians who were not even worth the dirt under the boots of Sultan Salahudin or Emir Nur al-Din Zengi — many are unfamiliar with the political and social parallels and almost one to one comparisons that can be drawn not from politician to emir, but to the trends and waves of political establishment, betrayal, and decline on both the Frankish and Muslim sides in a total of 194 years of invasions and wars of reconquest that came about as a result. These are all worth looking at not just for hope and pleasure in knowing this is merely a cycle repeating itself, as Ibn Khaldun would put it, but to settle our expectations and strategies as we move forward, knowing that after October 7th especially a great shift has overcome the Palestinian cause that it’ll never turn back from.
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Around my time wondering when to get into this reading, my dear friend Waqar had just finished reading The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf, who very enthusiastically recommended it to me. I was aware of Maalouf due to another friend, but hadn’t gotten to reading him at all yet. Needless to say, due to the fact I’m writing this now, the book impressed me quite a bit. It’s a mid-length detailed history of the events using solely Muslim sources (pieced together on a timeline using mainstream Western books, which I found acceptable), yet the way Maalouf writes you wouldn’t think it was a history book at all. The volume is structured the way a novel is, and you get absorbed so quickly into the events that are described with such stylistic excellence that even the very expected, oriental happenings of Arab and Islamic history seem like fairytales - even though the sources, like Ibn al-Atheer and Ibn Munqidh, were all primary witnesses to these true events and held close relations, sometimes no more than one degree of separation, with the heroes and central figures described.
Maalouf isn’t a Muslim, yet it’s clear from his writing he’s an unbiased writer with great admiration for the history of the era and sees the modern-day connection and implications. I didn’t expect him to lean in favor of the Islamic perspective, but just through his insistence on using the sources honestly with a matter-of-fact eye, I found the book to be very conducive to showing much of the true, positive Islamic attitude and its resurgence in the Ummah as the invasions went along, especially as the Muslims were making their great riposte in Imad al-Din Zangi’s (Nur al-Din’s father’s) time, which we’ll come to in a moment.
A Loss of Zeal
Abdullah ibn Amr reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, the faith of one of you will wear out within him, just as a shirt becomes worn out, so ask Allah to renew faith in your hearts.”1
As any student of Islamic history knows, by the beginning of the 11th century the Abbasid caliphate had become a desolate shadow compared to the glory days of Harun al-Rashid. Even though it was Muslims who still ruled and occupied much of the same land mass, the caliphs gradually then all at once lost their spiritual and political fortitude — secluding themselves in the palace harems and gardens as the real power was taken by the Turkic and Persian warlords, who controlled nearly all the military; and Egypt and most of North Africa had fallen in the hands of heretical Shia known as the Fatimids. The “Arab” Muslim empire was no longer Arab, and wouldn’t be until the dissolution of the system of the caliphate altogether by the nation-state of Turkey in 1923.
The Seljuks, the new rulers of most of the Ummah, were still Sunni Muslims who relied on the same class of scholars and clerics to lay down the religious law. However, what both they and those who look in retrospect miss (especially those who undermine the importance of a caliphate) is that the station of a caliph is not merely a monarchic or hereditary role, even if that’s how it changed hands for most of Islamic history. A caliph, as the name implies, is one who “steps in” not just politically, but religiously to fill in the role of distributor and enforcer of Allah’s law in place of their predecessor — it is the blend of both the political archetype and the inheritor of a spiritual chain that goes back to the Prophet ﷺ. Very often, the spiritual health of the Muslim citizenry was directly correlated to the religious commitment and benevolence of the caliph, which of course heavily affected his policies. Whenever the caliph was a drunk hedonist who busied himself with women, poetry, and obsession with material luxury, even if in a time of peace and relative prosperity, that would reflect in the Muslim masses; and the same held when they were virtuous.
Thus, by the time the crusader invasions were approaching, the caliphate as a “spiritual center” of the Muslim world was nearly dead. The term jihad didn’t mean anything to most Muslims anymore, like something arcane and strange that, much like today, heats people’s nerves with its strangeness when it’s spoken. The people would hear it, but the word no longer meant a constant zeal and drive for conquest and Islamic expansion, and instead to the warrior classes became a convenient card pulled by Seljuks who wouldn’t stop slaughtering one another to justify their claims over each other's lands and inheritance every decade. Even later on throughout the crusader invasions when it was crucial to have uninterrupted and quick succession, it was an absolute disaster each time an effective emir who was just starting to win against the Franks passed away, as immediately every notable in the region would scrape their riches and men to run, or fight their fellow Muslims for the rest, often even allying with crusaders against the Muslims to do it. It’s easy to look at the early history of the magnificent Rashidun caliphate and whine about Muawiyah’s decision to establish a dynasty that’s hard to interrupt through succession claims; however, even though he was in the wrong in his time due to the claim of a far more worthy man contemporary to him, it turns out he had the right idea. He was just way ahead of his time.
It was this level of turmoil that the first crusaders first bore witness to upon arriving in the Levant. Almost immediately after their first couple of victories, petty and treacherous Seljuk princes were drawing and quartering their little kingdoms for themselves (which today don’t make up more than a city or two), groveling to the new invaders and assisting them almost unprompted to gain their favor. I find it comical that critics of Islam and its beginnings like to point out that the initial rise of the caliphate “only” occurred because the Byzantine and Sassanid empires had destroyed one another and experienced widespread famine and plague beforehand, yet themselves love the crusades and see it as a grand Christian adventure and conquest, which only survived more than a decade due to the direct interventions and help of heretical sects, treacherous warlords, and a religious and social fabric that had been worn out and barely kept together by a foreign elite. The Shi’i Fatimids and Order of Assassins (whom you’re led to believe by popular media to have been antagonistic to the Crusaders and their religious orders) also appeased the Crusaders as well after a few fruitless skirmishes and united instead on undermining Sunni Islam (their only true ideology) to prevent it from gaining a foothold in the region again. It’s all quite interesting, isn’t it?
The first 50 years of the Crusades feel like a slog to get through, and painful to read as a Muslim because you’ll just keep seeing more of the same story. Over and over: most Muslims are left clueless, and a few gather the courage under a dedicated emir to wage jihad against the Franks. They struggle heavily at the beginning but start to win, but then one of the following happens:
A Shia Assassin kills them, and the cause of Shi’ism/Ismailism gains nothing from it. They continue to repeat this act despite this.
A rival Seljuk prince fights and undermines them with Crusader funding/troops.
They’re betrayed by one of their ethnic minorities who were originally under their protection.
You can’t make any of this up.
The Wasted Winner
There’s this strange belief modern Muslims have, I’m assuming due to their general desperation, that the victors who will destroy our enemies will show up one day the way one flicks a light switch or turns on a generator. Reality is it’s more like tumbling a small snowball from the top of a large mountain. Things reach their bottom at some point, and then the climb back up is led by a minority of Muslims who, despite enormous criticism from the entire world, including most Muslims, persevere anyway; numb to all things but hope for either an advancement in the cause or a good death that pays itself off eternally. Then, after decades and decades of this occurring, you start to get some winners. Most get genocided by the enemy, but one or two come out of the pile of mud and manage to deliver some fatal blows.
The thing is, by the time this happens, Muslims will have lost so much hope that they’re not even thinking of total victory in their lifetime. They just want improvement and the return of guardians of the Ummah who don’t crumble or become corrupted at the first temptation. It’s only when you reach this point does the very long march to victory occurs.
In our case, we’re looking at Imad al-Din Zangi, father of the most notable Nur al-Din. Ibn Atheer describes him as an immense gift to the cause of Islam, but he was also honest about who he was. As Muslim and dedicated to reviving the meaning of Jihad as he was, the guy wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. He was a gigantic drunk (a sin that would lead to his death). Barely spoke to men of knowledge in Islam. Excessively cruel for petty reasons; during one of his victories where he captured a city, he slaughtered many of its prisoners purely because he felt they’d annoyed him and his army too much during the siege. Not exactly a Friend of God when it came to showing people their rights in wartime.
Yet — he was just enough to be accepted by Allah as the man who started the long march to, after a generation, see the blessed Jerusalem freed at the hands of Salahudin.
The reason was simple. His harshness came in handy when it came to disciplining even his closest deputies. He stuck to tradition, and despite his sins, it was clear he had much deeper concerns than most people would assume:
Zangi, the Mosul historian says, was also very concerned about the honor of women, especially of the wives of his soldiers. He used to say that if they were not well looked after, they would soon be corrupted, because of the long absence of their husbands during campaigns.2
He wasn’t a traitor. When he’d take a city, he’d refuse to go into its palace and enjoy the luxuries he’d just earned. Imad al-Din loved the tent life, a man always on the move who spat in the face of the wahn3 that the Prophet ﷺ told us we’d be consumed by. When crusaders and traitor princes united to take a city full of Muslims, they assumed Imad wouldn’t come, but as Maalouf put it, they didn’t know the man. He came to their aid and struck fear in the hearts of his enemies not with the image of a man fighting for his riches, but one fighting for the establishment of a grand project that would outlast him.
And, as his reputation spread, the people would gather to sing his praises and support him. It was in his lifetime did a real sense of “Muslim unity” go from fantasy to reality. It’s worth noting here that the masses were fully aware of who he was. They know he wasn’t anywhere near the ranks of the high and pious, but they united behind him anyway. This stands in sharp contrast to many fools today concerning the Palestinian cause (and beyond) who think the norm is to sit on your hands and wait for the perfect, untouched Mahdi to come and save us all, and spend their time doing propaganda for the enemy as they criticize the only men doing resistance. There is zero historical precedent for what these people are suggesting out of fear that our enemies will see as nihilistic and “worse” than what we are. Pre-modern Muslims didn’t have this ridiculous miasma and were far more pragmatic about who they supported because they understood what worked whether it “looked bad” or not. Today, those who are in a position far more unique have no time for this childish thinking.
Of course, this does not contradict the need for good propaganda, but this is something I’ll have to address in the next part (I expect there to be three, as there are many aspects of this I’d like to discuss) where I discuss the victory era, as well as the hurdles that came along with that until the eventual expulsion of the last Franks in the Mamluk era. Stay tuned for that.
al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr lil-Tabarānī 14668, Sahih
Maalouf, pg. 114
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: The people will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their dish. Someone asked: Will that be because of our small numbers at that time? He replied: No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be scum and rubbish like that carried down by a torrent, and Allah will take fear of you from the breasts of your enemy and cast enervation into your hearts. Someone asked: What is wahn (enervation)? Messenger of Allah (ﷺ): He replied: Love of the world and dislike of death. Sunan Abi Dawud 4297, Sahih