Nothing put the brakes on eastern Mediterranean evangelism like Islam's spread. When Islam spread into the Byzantine Empire, Christianity crumbled before it. Nominal believers found it convenient to transfer loyalties because social acceptance and upward mobility came with submission to Islam.
On this page, I examine Islam's beginnings and growth. Further, I look at Christianity's reaction to Islam with particular attention to the Crusades.
I. The rise and spread of Islam.
You cannot understand Islamic religion without recognizing Arabian conditions prior to Mohammed. Arabia is the largest peninsula in the world. A continuation of the Sahara Desert, the peninsula rises as a plateau some 12,000 feet above the Red Sea. Before Mohammed, the region's natives had only tribal or clan organization with no central structure. A Sheik chosen from a socially prominent family ruled each tribe. Without any central structure the tribes warred constantly. The Kaaba, a stone structure in Mecca, served as the basis for all tribal worship. Inside the Kaaba was a red stone which supposedly fell from heaven. Arabian worship included human sacrifice and the adoration of stones and stars.
No one knows Mohammed's actual birth date, although estimates place it at about A.D. 570. He faced an extremely difficult early childhood because his mother died when he was six. A grandfather and an uncle raised him. While these two relatives surrounded him with affection they did not provide him an education. In all fairness, reading and writing were not highly valued skills at the time. Tradition tells us Mohammed's family took him to Syria when he was about 12. In Syria he came in contact with both Christians and Jews. Christian morality and Jewish monotheism impressed and attracted him; an attraction you can see in the Koran. When he was 25-years-old, Mohammed married Khadija, a 40-year-old wealthy widow with several children. Evidently the marriage was a good one; he lived with her for 26 years.
Mohammed took notice of the Arabian political and religious circumstances. He believed religion was the tool which could unite all Arabian tribes. Jewish messianic hopes influenced the Arabs and they looked for a messenger from God. One Arabian group rejected the Kaaba and preached a universal god. When Mohammed neared age 40, he became increasingly absorbed with religion. He retreated to a cave where he spent much time fasting, praying and meditating. Finally, in 610 he had a tremendous religious experience. Other experiences followed until he declared himself Allah's prophet.
Soon after his declaration, Mohammed preached the material advantages of his new faith. Most Arabians considered him a half-wit. One doctor even tried to cure him of his madness. His wife, Khadija, became his first convert. A cousin soon converted and a servant also accepted his teaching. By 615 Mohammed's followers reached sufficient strength to attack the Kaaba as idolatry. That same year, 615, Mohammed converted his most outspoken and violent opponent giving him a measure of prestige.
Mohammed's religion suffered several setbacks on its way to general acceptance. In 619 Mohammed's wife died and he moved to the city of Taif where the citizens pelted him with stones. Later, when Mohammed was living in Mecca and suffering persecution, Medina merchants heard of Mohammed in 619 and invited him to their city in 622. Meccans plotted to kill Mohammed before he could leave the city. Mohammed heard about the plot and fled to Medina for safety in July, 622. Muslims now refer to that flight as the Hegira, the beginning of the Muslim era.
When Mohammed finally came to power he immediately organized a military. Conquests followed! His followers quickly overran Palestine, Syria and Egypt. Constantinople almost fell twice, once in 668 and again in 717. The eastern empire, weakened by controversy, corruption and invasion, stood as an easy mark. Persecuted Christian parties supported Muslims in their fight against their more orthodox opponents. Once Muslims took control, they tolerated both Christians and Jews. North Africa fell in 707 and by 711 Muslims controlled southern Spain. The Muslims might have overrun most of Europe were it not for Charles Martel's victory at Tours. Finally, Islam overran Persia, Afghanistan and even made inroads into India.
II. Christian response to Islamic invasions.
Christians first tried to evangelize the Muslim invaders but met with little success. I think the whole iconoclastic controversy resulted in an effort to provide fertile soil for evangelization. Islam proved more attractive to Christians than vice versa.
When evangelism proved futile, the Christians set out to recapture the Holy Lands. The Crusades resulted. Crusaders left Europe for many reasons. Let me list some motives for the crusading spirit.
First, European rulers realized Islam was not a monolithic structure. Islam had its own divisions. Further, Muslims spread out over a wide area making control difficult for one powerful ruler. So, there was political division. Religious factionalism also afflicted Islam. The Shi'ite and Sunnite Muslims fought over Mohammed's successors. Without these divisions any military venture stood no chance of success.
Second, Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land increased substantially during the period. Constantine's mother, Helena, reputedly made the first pilgrimage. By the fourth century on it is certain a lively tourist trade flourished. When the Seljuk Turks gained control of the Holy Land in the eleventh century they cut off this travel. They harassed, robbed and killed pilgrims with regularity. Western Christians, angry over these actions, knew reconquest would reopen the Holy Land to pilgrims.
Third, western Christians wanted to stop Muslim western conquests. Islamic presence in western Europe resulted in creating a natural hatred.
Fourth, the Byzantine Empire repeatedly appealed to the west for assistance. Western rulers and popes felt aiding the Byzantine rulers would help heal some of the division and provide help to Christian brethren.
Fifth, overcrowding in Europe and a worsening agricultural picture led to shortages throughout Europe. Crusades encouraged movement east which settled masses into different regions and alleviated overcrowding. It also offered new avenues for trade. The increased trade stimulated economies and made food importation possible.
Sixth, European princes dreamed of booty, territory, prestige and power.
Seventh, the church encouraged the Crusades. When Pope Urban II preached the first Crusade, he thought it would successfully reunite divided Christendom. He also believed its successful conclusion would add to papal prestige. He also dreamed of a politically reunited east and west.
Whatever the motives, thousands left on a number of Crusades. Each Crusade met with varying degrees of success.
The First Crusade (1095-1099). Five different peasant groups left before the military expedition got underway. One group travelled down the Rhine killing Jews wherever they went. Another group reached Hungary where they ran out of money and food. They then set about looting food and goods. Authorities mobilized and slaughtered the lot. Another group, numbering about 12,000 led by two monks, Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, started their Crusade but it quickly ran out of funds. This group, too, resorted to looting but added rape to their atrocities. This group arrived in Constantinople in the summer of 1096. Authorities quickly ferried them across the Bosporus but Turkish archers annihilated them near Nicea. Philip I of France and William II of England, along with Henry IV of Germany, led another contingent. All three were excommunicated Christians at the time. They arrived in Constantinople in 1097. They first considered capturing the city but resisted. These leaders crossed the Bosporus and forced Nicea's surrender. They then moved against Antioch. They reached Jerusalem on June 7, 1099 with their numbers reduced from 30,000 to 12,000. One thousand Muslims held Jerusalem for 40 days. When the city fell, Crusaders killed 70,000 Muslims. They also herded numerous Jews into a synagogue and burned them alive. After their victories, these Crusaders established a series of Latin Kingdoms which lasted only a few years.
The Second Crusade (1146-1149). Bernard of Clairvaux preached this Crusade. Conrad III of Germany and Louis VII of France led it. Louis's wife, the beautiful Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her court accompanied him. Conrad and Louis reached Jerusalem with about 10% of their force whereupon their efforts collapsed.
The Third Crusade (1188). Urban III called for this Crusade when Saladin took Jerusalem on October 2, 1187. Some of Europe's most famous rulers took part. Philip Augustus of France, Frederick Barbarosa of Germany and Richard the Lionhearted of England marched off to the Holy Land but none of these great leaders could get along. Richard reached the Holy Land and negotiated a peace with Saladin securing a 10 x 90 mile Christian principality with a guarantee of full access to holy sites for Christian pilgrims. When Richard returned to England, Germany's Henry IV detained him for ransom allowing the infamous King John to rule England during his absence.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). Innocent III preached the fourth Crusade. Crusaders paid Venetian merchants $3.8 million plus half their spoils for transportation. Unknown to the Crusaders, the Italians had also made a deal with the Egyptians to send them elsewhere. In Constantinople a palace revolt led to an urgent request for western aid. The west equipped an army of 10,000 and dispatched it to Constantinople on 480 ships. The Crusaders reached the city in the summer of 1203. Instead of rescuing the city, they declared war on the Byzantines and placed Constantinople under siege. In a month the city fell. Crusaders pillaged the city establishing a feudal kingdom lasting 57 years.
The Children's Crusade. Without a doubt, the Children's Crusade is the most pathetic. A French lad conceived the Crusade believing children's purity would succeed where adults failed. As many as 100,000 European children left on the Crusade. The Crusader's average age was 12. They set out believing the Mediterranean would open up for them allowing them to walk to the Holy Land. When the children arrived in Marseilles, they saw the sea would not part for them. Merchants agreed to transport them. Rather than taking them to Jerusalem, however, they transported them to Tunis where they sold them into slavery.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). Crusaders from Germany and Hungary attacked Egypt in this Crusade. They met with little success. This was the last church sponsored Crusade.
The Sixth Crusade (1227-1229). Emperor Frederick II led this Crusade because of his marriage to Isabella, the 14-year-old daughter of the exiled King of Jerusalem. Frederick cut short his first effort when he became ill and returned home. A second effort resulted in an agreement with Muslim rulers which put the coast of Palestine, Bethlehem, Nazareth and all Jerusalem except the Temple area into Christian hands. Frederick then became Jerusalem's King in 1229. By 1244, however, Muslims again controlled the city.
The Seventh Crusade (1249-1250). Louis IX of France led this Crusade against Egypt. His first battles ended successfully. When they headed inland up the Nile the Muslims surrounded and soundly smacked Louis' forces. The Crusaders retreated but were hounded all during the retreat. On April 6, 1250 Louis surrendered his army of 10,000 ransoming himself for $3 million. He then spent four years visiting holy places. He returned to France in 1254 with nothing to show for his efforts.
The Eighth Crusade (1268). Crusaders launched this effort when Egyptians took Caesarea in 1265 and Antioch in 1268. When these cities fell (Antioch had been in Christian hands since 1098) Muslims killed or enslaved captured Christians. Antioch's fall led Louis IX to consider another Crusade. He planned to defeat Tunisia, then march against Egypt. Louis reached North Africa where he died at age 53. Louis' army called a truce and returned home. England's Prince Edward arrived too late for Tunisia but sailed to Acre attacking the city in 1271. When his father died in England, Edward returned home. Acre became the strongest Christian outpost in the Holy Land with 20,000 residents, 40 churches and a double wall. Even at that, it fell to the Muslims in 1291 after a 40 day siege utilizing over 100 siege machines. Inside the walls were 60,000 Christians who fled there from the surrounding area. Muslims killed many of them once they breached the walls.
What results do we attribute to the Crusades? There are at least four. First, the papacy received added strength after the first, and most successful, Crusade. Second, we see the beginning of military orders within the church. Members of the orders were basically armed knights assuming monastic vows. Three of these orders are the Templars, founded in Jerusalem in 1118 and devoted to protecting pilgrims, the Hospitallers, organized in Jerusalem in 1023 to protect travellers, and the Teutonic Knights, founding at the siege of Acre in 1190 by German Knights. Third, the Crusades contributed to the indulgence system (a system of extended penance). Fourth, the Crusades created an awareness of world geography coupled with fantastic trade expansion.
| Home | Where to Go |