Christian Leadership Center







on the Crises in the Middle East

and the Plan of God Revealed in the Scriptures


Part I  Part II  Part III  Part IV  Part V  Part VI )


IV.  The Islamic and Christian Wars

Jihad and Crusades



General Background


The concept of “holy war” is becoming well known in the world, thanks to the media coverage of the current crisis with militant Islam.  But the subject of Islamic wars takes us back hundreds of years; and a knowledge of this history will go a long way in helping us understand the difficulty of the current crisis.

Popular coverage, and certain Islamic communications, would have us believe that Islam is a religion of peace, that life for Christians under Islamic rule is perfectly acceptable and free, that Islamic men can convert to Christianity if they wish, and that the Christians, along with the Zionists, on the contrary have been the ruthless enemies of Islam and throughout history, and certainly during the crusades, savagely slaughtered Islamic people.  Anyone traveling in Islamic countries, especially in the Middle East, will sooner or later hear this take on the crusades, and on the modern so-called Christian nations.  We cannot do justice to this issue in such a brief survey, but we can take a general look to help us think through the matter.

The concept of “holy war” is found in both Islam and Christianity; and in both religions it has been variously interpreted as a spiritual war, or by the militants as a physical war.  The period of the crusades is certainly a dark period in Church history, and we with the privilege of looking back can see the problems, biblically and historically.  But we also know that the crusaders truly wanted to help Christians in other parts of the world who were in distress, wanted to do something noble for Christ, prayed and fasted before many of the battles, desired forgiveness of sins, and for what it is worth demonstrated real devotion and courage.  And this makes the assessment more difficult--of them then, and of the modern events now.

The subject of the crusades usually focuses on a period of a couple of hundred years, from 1095 to 1291 A.D., in the Holy Land.  But crusading occurred over a longer period, and continued even to the 17th century.  But more importantly, it is just one part of the religious animosity and warfare that stretched back a millennium.  We have already surveyed how the Islamic wars dominated that part of the world for a number of centuries before the crusades.  A Byzantine, predominantly Christian, empire had been driven out by the forces of Islam, to create an Islamic empire.  But they continued to spread along the seabord, and up into southern Europe. Their expansion was stopped, though, in a number of European places.  And the Byzantine Empire was reduced to Asia Minor.

For some time there was peaceful co-existence in the Holy Land between religious groups, albeit under Islamic Law and tribute.  But there were tensions, and one major crisis came with the ruler al-Hakim (“the wise”, but really “the mad”).  He was fanatical, bringing terror to Jews, Christians, and even Moslems; he burned the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009.  One night he went on a nocturnal ride and was never heard of again, to the relief of many.  His son gave permission to rebuild the church.                  

A significant turning point in the frequent struggle for power came with the invasion of Turkoman nomads, called Seljuks, from central Asia.  They were converts to Islam, and therefore more zealous than others; they began an inter-Moslem war, quickly taking over Persia, Iraq, Armenia, and Egypt.  They seized the land routes and harrassed Christian pilgrims, controlled Jerusalem, and suppressed Christian worship.  It was if Hakim had returned from the dead.


The Crusades


There were many reasons: concern for the spread of this new and feared religion, outrage over the occupation of Christian holy sites, persecution of Christian pilgrims and worshipers, and destruction of churches.  There were also elements that prompted people to crusade: the militarization of society at that time with a militant papacy, a hunger for forgiveness, a quest for honor, and a certain amount of restlessnesss.  Arabs usually say that the Crusaders were simply restlessness, needing somewhere to fight, and were barbaric, and that the Moslems were fighting a defensive war.  That is surely one-sided propaganda--but it is what the people believe. There were legitimate and illegitimate reasons for the wars, on both sides; and there were atrocities on both sides.


First Crusade (1095-1099) 

The vision for the crusade came from Pope Urban II; it was preached by Peter the Hermit (the sermons had to persuade the people of the vision and call them to service), and waged under the leadership of Baldwin of Boulogne and various other Frankish lords.  It started with the disastrous “People’s Crusade,” but ended with the military conquest of Jerusalem.  Along the way German knights slaughtered Jews in Worms, Mainz, Trier, Neuss, and Prague, reasoning that they too were enemies of Christianity (who often sided with Islam). 

The outcome of the first crusade was the conquest of Jerusalem and the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, under Baldwin I.  The defeat of Jerusalem was not easy, but eventually achieved--a major bloody slaughter (under rules of warfare, if a city surrendered it was given peace or passage; if not, there were no prisoners; because the city did not surrender, it was utterly put to the sword).  This is remembered by Arab history tellers.  

But gaining the victory was one thing, holding the land was another.  After the defeat of Jerusalem, most of the crusaders went home, leaving the conquered lands defenseless for the new king. An order of knights, the Order of the Hospitallers of St John, was established to care for the sick and defend the pilgrims.  It lasted some 600 years, moving out of the land to Malta when the land fell (then known as the Knights of Malta).  Also, the Order of the Templers was formed with their headquarters on the temple mount in Jerusalem.  Their charter was written by Bernard of Clairvaux.

Second Crusade (1145-1148)

Edessa in Syria had fallen, so this crusade was planned to take it back.  Bernard preached this one, supporting the “fighting friars,” or Templars.  There was far less interest for this crusade than the first, especially since the first crusaders returned and found their lands and families gone.  But even after it started it did not turn out well. In this campaign the Germans could not get along, and were defeated in Asia Minor; the crusade could not take Edessa, and so tried to take Damascus back.  But they were defeated in that attempt, and therefore criticized, and very disillusioned. 

Third Crusade (1187-1191)

Jerusalem had now fallen back to Islam, so this crusade sought to re-capture it.  The holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Phillip II of France, Richard Lionheart of England and Pope Gregory VIII were behind it.  Their main opponent was Saladin, a Muslem Kurd from northern Iraq.  Over the course of these fights Saladin defeated them, the major blow coming at the Horns of Hattin, a disaster for the knights.  On a hill west of the Sea of Galilee Saladin cut off the route of the nights to the water in the sea, burned the fields where they were, and them too in their armor.  Saladin went on to capture 50 castles that the crusaders had built. 

But in the battle for Jerusalem the people threatened to destroy Islamic shrines if they were not given a peace treaty, and so a compromise was reached.  Saladin’s empire stretched from Turkey to Egypt, but he had to leave the crusaders some cities, such as Acre, on the Mediterranean coast near modern Haifa, thanks to the victories of Richard.  Out of this the Order of the Teutonic Knights was formed, remaining in later times in the Germanic states.

Fourth Crusade (1198-1204) 

This was an attempt to defeat Egypt and regain control of that part of the land.  But there was conflict before Egypt was ever on the horizon.  Pope Innocent III launched the struggle against German opponents; the Cistercians preached it against the sect known as Albigensians, who were massacred.  When the crusaders finally focused on their mission, they arranged a deal in Venice to transport the troops to Egypt, but could not pay, so they agreed to conquer a city in the Adriatic for the Venetians.  After this they got into a war in Constantinople, and relations were ruined.  It was a disaster.

Fifth Crusade (1217-1221)

Another plan was launched to defeat Egypt.  A children’s crusade of all things in 1212 was a disaster; those who made it to the southern coasts of Europe and found passage to Egypt either ended up enslaved or died in shipwrecks.  The real crusade managed to take a strategic tower in Egypt, and so the Moslims offered to give up Jerusalem.  Then inland attacks failed and the crusaders retreated.  St Francis accompanied them on this crusade, preaching to both sides. Afterward the Teutonic Knights were commissioned to take Prussia.

Sixth Crusade (1228-1229)

The pope, Gregory IX, and emperor, Frederick II, wanted to retake Jerusalem and the holy land, because the other crusades had not succeeded.  Frederick vowed to go, then backed out; so the pope excommunicated him for failing his vow. He made a treaty to obtain Jerusalem instead, but not the temple mount.  He was excommunicated again for not gaining total victory.  He staged a crown wearing ceremony at the church, but the pope placed Jerusalem under interdict.  This was not a true crusade, but a struggle for religious power over Jerusalem. 

Seventh Crusade (1248-1250) 

This was a purely political crusade to defeat Egypt finally,  the center of Islamic power.  Louis IX of France (St. Louis) and Pope Innocent IV were the leaders.  But in the battle the crusaders were surrounded, Louis was held for ransom, and malaria and other diseases decimated the troops.  But the invasion led to the change in leadership within Islam to the Mamlukes--their leader was Baybars.

Eighth Crusade (1267-1272)

Baybars took Nazareth, Jaffa, and Antioch by 1271.  The crusade sought to re-capture the holy land fortresses.  In the process King Louis was sidetracked at Tunis in a war, and died of disease; Edward of England arrived too late to help Louis, but went to Acre to help save it.  In 1291 Acre fell to the Mamlukes, and the Christian presence in the land came to an end.




The crusades were a bad idea, but in the times understandable, and probably unavoidable.  But the errors of those days do not mean devout Christians were not involved, or that they were only interested in land and power.  The Christians learned a lot about crusading from jihad--the promise of forgiveness of sins for crusaders, guarantee of heaven if they died, and making the wars “religious” or “holy” when they were often merely conquests. The crusades did stop the spread of Islam into Europe, and gave western Europe a new identity.  After all, they started as a response to jihad.

The preaching and the music that came from the period remain a wonderful window on devotion and piety.  Country churches (for the friars) sprang up everywhere.  Art, manuscripts, and architecture spread throughout the world. But the problem never went away, and the people of Islam have a long memory.