An Islamic View of the Crusades

A take on The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades by Paul M. Cobb.

The ways in which medieval Muslims understood the Crusades and how they dealt with the form of religious backed aggression brought by Europeans is the subject of The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades by Paul M. Cobb (8). The goal of Cobb’s book is to show that there is not a single shared Muslim experience of the Crusades because there was not one single movement specifically against the Franks in which Muslims had the same motivations and goals. Instead, Cobb proves to the reader that the fighting before, during, and after the Crusading years of 1095 through 1272 had little to do with religion and everything to do with territory and monetary gain.

One of the most notable concepts in Cobb’s book is the constant turmoil between Muslim communities. Cobb begins to document the turmoil from when the Abbasids over threw the Umayyads in Syria, taking Bagdad in 750 AD (24). However, a member of the Umayyad clan escaped the Abbasids and went on to rule the Al-Andalus (Spain) from the capital of Cordoba during the 10th Century until 1031 when Hisham III, the last Umayyad caliph, was expelled from Cordoba in 1031 (25 & 61). During this same time, the Fatimids, leaders of the Shi’ite movement, expanded their territory to include Sicily, western Arabia, Yemen, and a large portion of Syria and Palestine by the year 1000 (25). Cobb’s book is not limited to the discussion of the Umayyids, the Abassids and the Fatimids, as it includes the Seljuqs, the Mirdasids, the Almoravids, and the Almohads, all who were at odds with each other at some point during the crusading years. This political unrest amongst the Muslim communities only exacerbated the issues with the Franks.

Cobb describes the turmoil on multiple occasions, however the most important may be that of the goal of the First Crusade and the Christian liberation of Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. Cobb presents the idea that the battle for Jerusalem was lost to the Franks in 1099 because of issues that began in Aleppo in 1064 and continued well after when the Seljuq’s won control of Aleppo from the Fatimids in 1086 (84). The Fatimids returned the favor in September of 1098, when they retook Jerusalem from the Saljuqs, just shy of the Frank invasion of Jerusalem in July of 1099 (99). Had the Saljuqs and the Fatimids joined together to keep Jerusalem under Muslim control, the outcome may have very well been much different. Interestingly enough, Cobb also mentions the extent that the Muslims used the Franks as allies against other Muslims. The first of many such instances includes the Frankish Lord of Antioch marching with Muslim troops in order to confront the Muslim Lord of Mosul with his own Frankish allies from Edessa (115). Muslim leaders used the Franks for their own personal benefit, whether it was in war or treaties.

The most famous Muslim leaders include Zangi, Nur al-Din and Saladin, who all were able to maintain their position throughout their rule. Zangi of the Ayyubids, took back Sarjuq, and all Frankish lands east of the Euphrates, minus al-Bira, energizing the Muslim communities to demand responses to the Frankish invasions (135). This continued under Nur al-Din who continued Zangi’s jihad in Syria against the Franks (136). It is noted that the conquering of these Frankish lands pales to his conquest of lands in Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt that he took from his Muslim rivals (144). In contrast, Saladin disregarded the Franks and went for the Zangid territory in Syria. In fact, Saladin spent his first 33 months of rule going after his fellow Muslims (194). During his rule, Franks and Muslims continued with their joint commercial interests so much so that the treaties and alliances during Saladin’s reign is considered a high point during these so called holy wars (172). Again, make notice of how these great leaders conquered their own peoples.

Muslims and Christians during the Crusades went to war on their own accord, for their own reasons. Cobb writes that the events that unfolded are due to the actions of individuals and not that of a majority (279). The Crusades were not an Islam versus Christianity issue, it was a political issue, an issue of territory, wealth and superiority in which holy war and jihad were not at the forefront.

Source: Paul Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2014.

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