A Brief History of Islam: Part 2 Christendom Strikes Back

In less than 80 years, Islam expanded from the Arabian Peninsula to encompass nearly all the Middle and Near East and all of North Africa. On the 30th of April 711, Muslim troops under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straights of Gibraltar and landed on mainland Europe for the first time. The invasion took everyone in Spain completely by surprise. Within 8 short years the Muslims had occupied most of Spain. As part of their subjugation, the Spanish were forced to hand over 100 white virgins a year to the Muslims be used in their harems.

The first Muslim invasion of Sicily took place in 652 but failed, as did repeated attempts in 667 and 720. Between failed attempts and a civil war among the Muslims, it took them 70 years to finally succeed. After the fall of Sicily, they crossed into Southern Italy. Rome was pillaged twice, and the Pope was forced to pay a huge tribute. Several major Mediterranean islands were also conquered, including Cyprus, Rhodes, Sardinia, Majorca, Crete, and Malta. These islands became a strategic importance to Muslim fleets.

Pushing the Muslims out of Europe was no easy task. The Reconquista, which means Reconquest, was a slow and long process lasting 750 years. The Reconquista began with the first Christian victory at the Battle of Covadonga in 722, and lasted until 1492 with the fall of the last Muslim stronghold during the Grenada War. The Reconquista would prove to be a source of encouragement for another Christian reconquest, the Crusades.

By 700, Muslim invaders had conquered nearly half the territory in the Near East that comprised the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. Twice they had attempted to siege Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire, but failed due to the great city walls that protected the city. This second failure would save Constantinople for another 700 years from Islamic conquest.

The pendulum of power swung back several times between the Byzantines and the Muslims. The Battle of Manziker in 1071 would prove to be a major turning point. The Byzantine Empire had suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the newest Islamic power, the Seljuq Turks, and for the first time a Byzantine Emperor had become captured by a Muslim commander. This defeat allowed the Turks to advance into central Anatolia. From there the Sunni Turks set their sights against a rival Shiite caliphate in Cairo. In doing so, they gained possession of the Holy Land.

When the Islamic Turks were within one hundred miles of Constantinople, the emperor of Byzantine, Emperor Alexius Comnenus of Constantinople, wrote a letter to Robert Flanders asking for help. In his letter he details many atrocities committed by the Turks including, abduction of girls, sodomizing of bishops, gruesome tortures of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, and desecration of churches, altars, and baptismal fonts. He talks of the wealth and holy relics the Turks would pillage should Constantinople fall. It was this letter that was read by Pope Urban II that inspired the crusades.

"From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople, a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage, and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion." -Pope Urban II

There were many reasons why Emperor's plea and the Pope's speech could have fell on deaf ears. The Western Europeans didn't always get along with the Byzantines, as evident by the Fourth Crusade. For one, they had different heritages. The Western Europeans were Roman while the Byzantines were Greek. The Romans viewed the Greeks as decadent, while the Orthodox Greeks held Rome's Latin Catholicism in contempt. This brings us to the motivation for the crusades. It wasn't about the idea of acquiring great wealth from the Holy Land, many spent their entire fortunes to get there, and the trek was long and arduous. Nor was it about acquiring new converts to Christianity, although the motivation was a religious one. The primary motivation was to make a pilgrimage to the Holy land as penance for personal sins and to liberate it from the Muslims. They were also aware of the Muslim invasions into South Western Europe several centuries earlier. A brief summary of the crusades follows:

The First Crusade:

The First Crusade was began in 1095, after Urban II gave a rousing speech in response to Alexius Comnenus' letter. The first siege by the crusaders against the Muslim-held city of Antioch lasted from October 21, 1097, and fell to the crusaders in June 2, 1098. Next they marched to Jerusalem. After an exhaustive siege and heavy losses on both sides, the crusaders took the city and killed the remaining Muslims and Jews inside. This laid the foundations for several crusader states, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Two important points should be made here. First, the rule of war of that day was if a city forced a siege instead of surrendering, which resulted in many causalities, then everyone inside was usually slaughtered. Secondly, the Jews chose to fight alongside the Muslims against the crusaders, and frequently they did side with the Muslims.

The Second Crusade:

Slowly the Muslims regained their strength, and by 1144, they had retaken the city of Edessa. The fall of Edessa led Pope Eugene III to call for a second crusade, which ultimately ended in failure. The two European armies led by Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany were defeated by the Suljuk Turks. This failure would set the stage for the Third Crusade. Some blamed the Byzantine Emperor for secretly hindering the crusader army. Often the Byzantine's and crusaders would compete for control of territory for prestige and power. The animosity between the two camps would eventually boil over during the Fourth Crusade.

The Third Crusade:

In 1187, Saladin, sultan of Egypt, recaptured Jerusalem. Saladin’s victories shocked Europe. Pope Gregory VIII called for a new crusade, which was led by several of Europe’s most important leaders: Philip II of France, Richard the Lionheart of England, and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The Third Crusade was semi-successful in capturing the important cities of Acre and Jaffa, but they were unable to capture the main prize, Jerusalem. This would ultimately lead to the Fourth Crusade. The Third Crusade ended with a treaty between Saladin and King Richard I which allowed unarmed Christian pilgrims and merchants to visit Jerusalem.

Fourth Crusade:

The Fourth Crusade was initiated in 1202 by Pope Innocent III, with the intention of capturing the Holy Land from Saladin. However, it went completely off course due to internal politics. On the way to Jerusalem, the majority of the crusader leadership entered into an agreement with with Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to divert to Constantinople to help him restore his disposed father as emperor. In return the crusaders would be given financial and military support to take Jerusalem. Alexios Angels was crowned as co-emperor with the support of the crusaders, but he was quickly ousted from power during an uprising within Constantinople and murdered a short time later. This left the crusaders without their promised payment. In frustration, the crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople.

Fifth Crusade:

The Fifth Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III and his successor, Pope Honorius III with the goal of capturing Jerusalem by first conquering the Ayyubid state in Egypt. The crusaders captured Damietta in Egypt in 1219 but were defeated at Cairo and failed to capture Jerusalem. It ended with Sultan Al-Kamil agreeing to an eight-year peace agreement with Europe.

Sixth Crusade:

The German emperor, Frederick II, launched a crusade in 1228, and through diplomacy achieved unexpected success: Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem were delivered to the crusaders for a period of ten years. The treaty allowed Christians to rule over most of Jerusalem, while the Muslims were given control of the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aksa mosque.

Seventh Crusade:

A lesser known fact of history is the Mongol invasion of the Muslim world. The grandsons of Genghis Kahn, Mongke and his brother Hulagu, set out to completely destroy Islam, and they nearly succeeded. In 1244 the Khwarezmians, who were recently displaced by the Mongols, took control of Jerusalem. Support for the crusades in Europe begin to wane,  and despite calls from Pope Innocent IV there was no great enthusiasm for another crusade. The only one interested was Louis IX of France. King Louis organized a crusade against Egypt from 1248 to 1254, but it ended in complete failure. King Louis and his army were captured and held for ransom. Louis spent much of the crusade living at the court of the Crusader kingdom in Acre.

Eighth Crusade:

The second to last crusade was also organized by France’s Louis IX in 1270, with the idea of coming to the aid of what was left of the Crusader states in Syria. However, the crusade was diverted to Tunis, where Louis spent only two months before dying. His disease-ridden armed dispersed back to Europe shortly afterwards.

Ninth Crusade:

Edward I of England undertook another expedition against Baibars in 1271. The The Ninth Crusade saw several impressive victories for Edward over Baibars. However Edward had to withdraw, due to pressing concerns at home and didn't feel he could resolve the internal conflicts within the Crusader states. By now enthusiasm for the crusades had dried up. Many Europeans began to resent the taxes imposed on them to support the crusader kingdom. After nearly two centuries, the crusader kingdoms in the Holy Land were abandoned. Antioch fell in 1268; Tripoli fell in 1289; and Acre was seized in 1291. Those Christians unable to leave these cities were massacred or enslaved and the last traces of Christian rule disappeared. Eventually, Constantinople itself would fall to the Muslims in 1453.

While the crusades proved to be a mixed bag of successes and failures, it did however halt the Muslim advance into Europe. As the historian Viscount John Julius Norwich noted: “Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe—and America—might be Muslim today.” It should also be noted that the Crusader kingdoms along the coast survived nearly as long as the United States has been a nation. In the final part 3, we will explore the rise of Islam in modern times.

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