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Christianity, Islam, Missions and the Crusades …
Christian History has some great moments and also some terrible moments. The Crusades (from roughly 1096 to 1291, though there were some ‘minor’ crusades after this time period) are a period of history that Christians are often denigrated and made to feel guilt over. Christians will readily agree with their opponents that many disgusting and barbaric things were done in the name of Christ during the Crusades against the Muslims and Jews. “But the crusaders were real Christians. They deplored their sins. They longed for forgiveness. They loved fellow Christians in the East. They yearned to do something noble and lasting for their Lord. They prayed and fasted before battles and praised God after victories. Their devotion and courage make ours look juvenile.”
This paper will explore the factors and events of the Crusades briefly with a focus specifically on how missions and the desire to win the unsaved for Christ are related to the Crusades are related. While there were no large missionary movements (at least during the first four Crusades), there were some who had the desire to lead the Muslims and others to Christ during this time period.
The most significant person to attempt to win the Muslims for Christ was St. Francis of Assisi. Prior to this time period the missions of Christians to Muslims was fairly insignificant and unorganized. St. Francis of Assisi is the most famous individual to attempt missionary work among the Muslims. Others would later follow his example, and many would die over the centuries as martyrs while ministering among the Muslims.
There are many background events that led to the crusades. Christianity during its infancy was spread by individuals sharing their faith and belief in Christ with others. Islam by contrast very quickly began a history of using the sword (warfare) to spread its beliefs.
Is it fair to blame Islam for contributing to the Crusades? Many people like to blame only Christianity: "Five centuries of peaceful coexistence elapsed before political events and an imperial-papal power play let to centuries-long series of so-called holy wars that pitted Christendom against Islam and left an enduring legacy of misunderstanding and distrust." Those ‘scholars’ and authors who hold Christianity responsible for all the ills of the Crusades conveniently overlook or disregard the hundreds of years prior to the first Crusade that involved the Muslims attacking and subjugating thousands of Christians.
The truth is that for the five centuries before the Crusades, Islam had been slaughtering and enslaving whole nations and groups of Christians. During this time period large numbers of Christian churches were wiped out, forced to convert, or forced into dhimmitude (a way of life similar to slavery and being second class). Tucker states that the Catholic Church had lost significant lives and land to the “… invading armies of Islam. … They conquered Damascus (635), Antioch (636), Jerusalem (638), Caesarea (640), and Alexandria (642).” In fact, the the nations of the west very possibly would have been defeated and subjugated to Islam in 722 A.D. if Charles Martel had not repelled the invading Muslims.
Western Christians stopped the Muslim advance into their territory in 732 at the Battle of Tours (or Poitiers), France. Charles of Heristal, Charlemagne’s grandfather, led a Frankish army against a large Muslim raiding party and defeated them, though Muslim raiders would continue attacking Frankish territory for decades. For his victory, Charles became known as the Hammer—in French, Charles Martel.
The Christians during the 11th century were living during a time when Islam was threatening to take over the known world (as they had been of and on for hundreds of years). Christians were being attacked and subjugated all across the Middle East. In the early 11th century alone during a 10 year period "thirty thousand churches were destroyed, and untold numbers of Christians converted to Islam simply to save their lives."
In March 1095 Pope Urban II received an ambassador from the Byzantine Emperor (Alexius I Comnenus) asking for help. The Byzantine Emperor needed the Popes help to fight back against the Muslims. At the Council of Clermon (November 1095), part of Pope Urban’s speech (Appendix A) in part states:
. . . For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity [impunity], the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them.
Pope Urban II believed that if the Church did not answer the cry for help from Christians in the east, those professing Islam would be more likely to increase their attacks against Christian nations. The Pope never mentioned the conversion of the Muslims as a reason to participate in the Crusades. His goal was not to convert the Muslims, whether forced or by preaching.
Spencer states that in the years prior to the Crusades, ". . . Muslims may have stoked that "millennial hostility" by seizing Christian lands, which amounted to two-thirds of what had formerly been the Christian world- centuries before the Crusades." Muslims had been attacking Christian churches and countries for hundreds of years, it was time for Christians to defend their brothers and sisters in Christ.
There were other influences in addition to defending Christians against Muslim attacks that contributed in varying degrees to the Crusades. One reason often given by secular authors is that the Crusaders were just greedy for money and gain.
"Undoubtedly the diversion of the warlike impulses of knights to external enemies played a role, as did also, as we see from many districts in France, the prospect of ensuring for many younger sons of nobles a patrimony of their own. Finally the love of adventure was also a factor."
Research though shows that Crusading was very, very expensive. Many Crusaders had to sell their land and belongings in order to make the journey. Many also knew they were facing the likelihood that they would not live to enjoy any wealth they did find. Most were not "second sons" and most returned to Europe with nothing material.
The desire to reach the lost through missions or sharing Christ with the Muslims though does not appear to have been an important reason or cause for the Crusades. While it is possible that some Crusaders may have desired to share Christ, the vast majority were going off to war and to rid the Holy Land of Muslims who were killing and torturing pilgrims and other Christians.
The best explanation for the first crusade was not monetary lust, but the attack of the Seljuk Turks upon Christians and the Byzantine Empire (not to mention the attacks and subjugation of so many Christian lands for many hundreds of years prior to this). Many, such as the Duke of Lower Lorraine did not give up the title to his properties before going off to war, even though he sold many of his possessions. He did not plan on staying in the East and keeping land there.
The Seljuk Turks were persecuting and forcing into dhimmitude many of the Christians in the Byzantine Empire. Christians were not allowed to worship openly. They were not allowed to build new Churches, nor to wear certain clothes. Christians also could not share (and to this day in many Islamic Countries) the Gospel or Christ with the Muslims. If they did, they could be stoned or sentenced to death. They also were forced to pay jizya (a tax). If this was not paid when requested they could quickly lose their lives. They were constantly humiliated and degraded. The Muslims also destroyed many historical Churches and places that Christians would travel on pilgrimages to visit.
Many authors who write about the Crusades appear to be biased in their viewpoints. Shelley, whom has many good things generally to say states:
"Unfortunately the popes never held two basic truths that we must never forget: Christianity’s highest satisfactions are not guaranteed by possession of special places, and the sword is never God’s way to extend Christ’s church. This fault assured the religious collapse of the whole structure."
First, Pope Urban II never said in his speech that he wanted to convert the Muslims to Christ (that is to extend Christ’s Church). He emphasized the need of the eastern Christians for help. He also understood that if these attacks went unchecked, the Muslims would be emboldened to destroy and plunder more cities and Christians. Pope Urban, unlike the Muslims, did not attempt to force the Muslims to become Christians. In fact he did not mention the need for the Muslims to be saved, or for Missions to be conducted to the Muslims in an effort to save them.
The Christian belief in love and non-violence was put to the test when confronted with a religion that called for the death or subjugation of those that did not follow its (Islam’s) teachings. Many felt that it was ok to go to war to defend the helpless brothers and sisters in Christ in the East.
"Pope Urban II and other preachers of the Crusades wanted to defend Christian society. In launching the First Crusade, Urban reportedly exhorted his listeners, "You must carry succor to your brethren dwelling in the East. The Turks have attacked them, occupying more and more the lands of those Christians." They have "destroyed the churches and devastated the kingdom of God." If Christians permitted them to go unchallenged, "they will extend their sway more widely over many faithful servants of the Lord." Furthermore, Christians of the time believed that violence, if used rightly, was a proper means of defending Christians. Augustine had laid down the principles of a "just war": it was conducted by the state; its purpose was the vindication of justice, meaning the defense of life and property, and it respected noncombatants, hostages, and prisoners. For Augustine, a just war’s purpose was to achieve peace. Even in waging war, a follower of Christ must "cherish the spirit of a peacemaker."
Missions Before St. Francis of Assisi
Scholars generally agree that there was little formal missionary effort to the Muslims prior to St. Francis of Assisi. There are many reasons this may have been including:
There was significant hostility and anger between many of the Muslims and Christians. The Muslims had for hundreds of years prior to the first crusade, conquered and subjugated Christians in the North African and other countries. The Christians had conducted at least four major crusades prior to when St. Francis of Assisi joined the fifth crusade. The Christian nations (at least nominally) were at war with their enemies, the Muslims. Christians who might have been interested in ministering to and sharing the Gospel with the Muslims also realized that their chance of being martyred was very high.
Another reason for a lack of missions to the Muslims was that the Catholic church of that time period had no real organized missionary effort. Most were content to stay where they were and did not appear to be concerned about reaching non-Christian countries for God.
During the time that Crusades were being carried out, the Christians were often more concerned about destroying and repelling their enemy rather than witnessing to them. Some felt the Muslims were beyond being saved. There was also group pressure to treat their enemy in a hostile and combative manner rather than attempt to reach them through love and compassion as St. Francis did later during the fifth Crusade.
The Crusaders had various motives for becoming a part of the Crusades. While some did so for selfish or unchristian reasons, the majority desired to help protect Christians traveling to the Holy Land and to drive back the attacking Muslims. Participating in the Crusades was a very expensive proposition (with many having to sell land and a lot of what they owned in order to afford the weapons, horses, and other items needed for war.
Pope Urban II and other preachers of the Crusades wanted to defend Christian society. In launching the First Crusade, Urban reportedly exhorted his listeners, “You must carry succor to your brethren dwelling in the East. … The Turks have attacked them, … occupying more and more the lands of those Christians.” They have “destroyed the churches and devastated the kingdom of God.” If Christians permitted them to go unchallenged, “they will extend their sway more widely over many faithful servants of the Lord.”
Some of the Crusaders might have felt towards the Muslims the same or similar to how many Christians view Islamic Terrorists today. Christians today often agree that the terrorists need to be stopped, even if it takes military force and killing the terrorists. There is less concern (by most Christians) with sharing Christ with the Terrorists than there is with stopping the murder of innocent individuals. Before and during the first Crusade Pope Urban called them together to form an army to repel the Muslims. The Pope never mentioned or stated as a purpose the need to save or minister the Muslims.
The Missions of St. Francis of Assisi
Almost the first Christian, however to attempt to act on these more liberal principles was Francis of Assisi. Convinced that, if the the Paynims had not been converted, this was because the Gospel had not been presented to reach them in its simplicity and beauty, he himself made three attempts to reach them. The first two, to Morocco in 1212 and to Spain in 1214, came to nothing, but in 1219, when the soldiers of the Fifth Crusade were encamped in Egypt, Francis joined them, and was successful in making his way into the presence of the Sultan of Egypt.
St. Francis did not always desire to carry out missions to the Muslims. In 1202, Francis was one of the City of Assisi’s armed elite knights (one of the few that could afford the high cost of having a horse and armor). In November 1202, many of the men of Assisi were killed in battle with Perugia. Francis was taken prisoner and held till ransomed almost a year later. This was a turning point in St. Francis’ life. After being released, St. Francis eventually received a revelation to rebuild San Damiano. St. Francis eventually went on to rebuild several churches.
St. Francis had several teachings that set him apart from most clergy of his day. One teaching was the need for absolute poverty. He expected those who emulated him to also live in ‘radical’ poverty. St. Francis believed it was better to act out, or live the truth rather than just teach or preach about poverty. His followers were expected to renounce possessions and temporal goods and items. “Anyone who decided to join Francis had to give away all possessions to the poor and live as the poorest of the poor.”
St Francis attempted three different missionary endeavors to the Muslims. The first time was in 1212. St. Francis left with one companion from the port of Ancona in Italy. They goal was to reach Syria to preach the Gospel. The ship they were in though experienced very unfavorable winds and had to turn into a port. They were unable to find another ship to take them so they returned home.
One year later (1213) St. Francis left for Morocco by land. He attempted to get there on foot and appeared to be very enthusiastic in getting there (often leaving his co-worker very far behind). On the way he experienced health issues and was forced to return for medical care.
St. Francis third (and first successful) missionary endeavor to the Muslims began in 1219 during the same time period that the fifth Crusade was being carried out against the Muslims. St. Francis and 12 other Friars accompanied him on one of the Crusader’s ships. St. Francis was with the Crusaders for the battle of Damietta. St. Francis had warned the soldiers about not going to battle on a particular day, but they still did and were defeated by the Muslims.
St. Francis attempted to meet with the Sultan (The Muslim leader of Egypt, Syria, and the Palestine) during a pause in the fighting (a temporary truce) in September 1219. St. Francis of Assisi was able to meet with the Sultan and other Islamic leaders. While they allowed him to share his faith and to challenge them to see who served the true God, in the end there was very little fruit from the meeting. Some believe that the Sultan was ‘moved’ by St. Francis’ arguments, but was afraid to convert because he was afraid his own people would stone him.
St. Francis died in October 3rd, 1226 in the city of Assisi. While his missionary work to the Muslims had accomplished little, his life as a whole significantly impacted many people. He was named a “Saint” by the Catholic Church less than two years after his death.
The Crusades were a complicated affair. There were many different factors and events that influenced individuals to take part in the Crusades. Some reasons were Godly, and others were selfish. It is important to understand the context and history that preceded the Crusades:
Many secular and religious "scholars" attempt to paint Christianity during this time period in a negative, selfish, and brutal light. They have their own motives for wanting to look only at the negative aspects. Other Scholars prefer to see a flawed, yet godly group of Christians trying desperately to save other Christians from slaughter and the slavery of dhimmitude.
During the Crusades, missions to the Muslims did not truly begin until St. Francis of Assisi attempted to reach the Muslims for Christ. St. Francis inspired future generations of Missionaries to risk their lives to share Christ with the Muslims. Many were martyred by the Muslims while trying to tell them about Christ.
Mark Galli, The Crusades: From the Editor – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, vol. 40, Christian History Magazine (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1993).
Originally the thesis of this paper was to be that there were Christians who desired to take the message of the Gospel of Christ to the Muslims during the time period of the Crusades. This writer though did not find any significant data to support that thesis. The first major individual to try to minister to the Muslims during the time period fo the Crusades was St. Francis of Assisi and his missionary endeavers had very little impact upon the Muslims.
Robert Spencer, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the Worlds Most Intolerant Religion (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, INC., 2006), 145.
John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 58.
Serge Trifkovic, The Sword of the Prophet: Islam History, Theology, Impact on the World (Boston: Regina Orthodox Press, Inc., 2002), 97.
Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 56.
Elesha Coffman, Christians & Muslims, vol. 74, Christian History Magazine (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2002), 47.
Robert Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and The Crusades (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, INC., 2005), 124.
Thomas Madden, Crusades: The Illustrated History (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2005), 36.
Fahlbusch and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999), 513.
Spencer, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and The Crusades, 121.
Fahlbusch and Bromiley, The Encyclopedia of Christianity, 1:738.
Efraim Karsh, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, n.d.), 4.
M. A. Khan, Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism, and Slavery (New York: IUniverse, Inc., 2009), 112.
George W. Braswell, “Four Faces of Islam: Before and After the Terrorist Attack Upon America,” Faith and Mission 19, no. 2 (2002): 5-6.
Bruce L. Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Dallas: Word Publishers., 1995), 186.
Henlee Barnette, “War and The Christian Conscience,” Review and Expositor 66, no. 5 (May 1969): 78.
Bruce L. Shelley, How Could Christians Do This? : Why Followers of the Prince of Peace Waged War., vol. 40, Christian History Magazine (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1993), 48.
Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (England: Penguin Books, 1986), 99.
Mark Galli, St. Francis of Assisi, vol. 42, Christian History Magazine (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1994), 64.
Frank M. Rega, St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2007), 43.
Fulcher of Chartres
"Most beloved brethren: Urged by necessity, I, Urban, by the permission of God chief bishop and prelate over the whole world, have come into these parts as an ambassador with a divine admonition to you, the servants of God. I hoped to find you as faithful and as zealous in the service of God as I had supposed you to be. But if there is in you any deformity or crookedness contrary to God’s law, with divine help I will do my best to remove it.…
"Although, O sons of God, you have promised more firmly than ever to keep the peace among yourselves and to preserve the rights of the church, there remains still an important work for you to do. Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it.
"All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested. O what a disgrace if such a despised and base race, which worships demons, should conquer a people which has the faith of omnipotent God and is made glorious with the name of Christ! With what reproaches will the Lord overwhelm us if you do not aid those who, with us, profess the Christian religion! Let those who have been accustomed unjustly to wage private warfare against the faithful now go against the infidels and end with victory this war which should have been begun long ago. Let those who for a long time, have been robbers, now become knights…"
Why Join The Crusades?
In talking about why the Crusaders went to war, Galli states:
“They went because they feared Muslims, the fierce and aggressive devotees of a heathen religion. Still entrenched in southern Spain, Muslims had also recently swallowed large chunks of land in Asia Minor and were now an easy march from Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine (Eastern) Christianity.
They went because they were outraged. For 400 years, Muslims had controlled the most sacred of Holy Land sites. Though Christian pilgrims were generally permitted to visit sites, their Lord Christ was not, in fact, Lord of his manor, Jerusalem. Worse, he was not Lord of the most sacred church in Christendom, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the place where Christ was buried and resurrected, the scene of the greatest miracle in history.
They went because they hungered for forgiveness. Vows and pilgrimages to the Holy Land—to touch sacred history and receive partial remission of sins—had become increasingly popular. Now the pope announced a pilgrimage of extraordinary importance. Not only would Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher be delivered from defiling infidels, “Remission of sins will be granted to those going.” All past sins would be forgiven!
And so they left—men, women, children—a few out of lust for money and adventure, a few to fight someone besides fellow Christian knights, most because they felt something larger calling them. Some went on horseback, some on foot, some glimmering with chain mail and armaments, others in rags.”
Bongars, A Source Book for Medieval History, Trans. Oliver Thatcher. (New York: Scribners, 1905), 513-517.
Mark Galli, The Crusades: Bloody Pilgrimage, vol. 40, Christian History Magazine (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1993).
Rodney Stark, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 4.
© 2010 – 2011, Matt. All rights reserved.
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