Faith and the flag

July 5, 1996

Bernard Hamilton finds that even when the West fought the forces of Islam 800 years ago, secular respect managed to survive religious hate

The crusades were one episode in an ongoing war between Muslim and Christian powers for control of the Mediterranean, which began in the seventh century, with the rise of the Arab empire, and has lasted almost until the present day. Much has been written about the military consequences of the crusades, but to what extent did western people come to understand the religious faith of their opponents, particularly in the years 1100 to 1300, when crusading was at its height? This theme of the similarities and differences between western and Islamic societies remains an important feature of the world in which we live, so an awareness of the way in which those societies developed may help us to understand the present more clearly.

Before the first crusade, although educated clergy had been aware that Muslims were monotheists, many lay people believed they worshipped idols. The crusade conquests, by bringing substantial Muslim populations under Christian rule in Spain, Sicily and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, enabled western people to obtain a more accurate knowledge of the Islamic faith. Western churchmen therefore had ample opportunities for studying the Islamic religion - but the result was not entirely satisfactory.

Part of the problem was the lack of any interest on the Muslim side about Christian belief: Muslims were sure that the Koran provided a more accurate picture of what Christianity should be like than Christians themselves could do, which did not foster meaningful discussion. But the main hindrance to a full western understanding of Islam arose from the warmth with which the Koran spoke of Jesus as a prophet and by the immense respect which Islam accords to Mary his mother. This led western theologians to measure Islam by Christian standards instead of viewing it as a different religion. In theological terms Islam was considered to be either a defective form of Christianity, or a diabolically inspired parody of it. Yet although this theological position was not challenged, it did not entirely satisfy some churchmen, and it certainly did not satisfy many lay people.

The crusaders came to know the Muslims as warriors, diplomats, and rulers of neighbouring states, while western scholars who came to study in the newly conquered lands formed a high opinion of Islamic learning and of Muslims, many of whom did not appear to be minions of the antichrist.

An example of the way in which clergy and laity reacted differently is provided by Saladin, who reconquered Jerusalem in 1187 and held it against the third crusade. Although some churchmen viewed him as a key figure in the spiritual war between God and Satan, among Christian laymen a quite different picture emerged. The story was told during his lifetime that Saladin had been knighted as a young man by a crusader prince. It is difficult to judge whether this was true, but it could have been: Richard I, for example, knighted Saladin's brother al-Adil while on crusade.

In any case, this idea caught the imagination of western Christians. A 13th-century romance, the Ordene de Chevalerie, explained how Saladin had received the accolade of knighthood. These stories proved popular and by the mid-14th century a new cycle of crusade epics evolved of which Saladin, shown as a crypto-Christian knight from his youth, was the hero. Although it is sometimes argued that these imaginative developments were an attempt by western Europeans to put a good face on failure, I do not find this plausible.

The knighting of Saladin was reported during his lifetime when the West was deploying huge numbers of men to regain the Holy City from him. I would argue rather that contacts between western Christians and Muslims at the time of the crusades led in some cases to a degree of respect which could not be expressed in terms of Christian orthodoxy, but which could be signified in lay terms by admitting Muslims to the order of knighthood both in fact and in literature.

Bernard Hamilton is professor of crusading history, University of Nottingham.

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