Monday, December 1, 2008

Review: Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam

Recently, the lovely people at Columbia University Press sent me a copy of Jonathan Riley-Smith's The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam for review.

Buy it here or here.


It's probably not too much to say that Jonathan Riley-Smith (recently retired from Emmanuel College, Cambridge) revolutionized the study of the crusades. For example, his The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, 1986) is foundational and certainly was the spark that set my interests towards things medieval. His numerous articles and books -- much too many to list -- are required reading for anyone interested in the topic and the core of many students' education on the crusades, the Latin East, the military orders, etc.

Now, building off the 2007 Bampton Lectures he delivered at Columbia University, Prof. Riley-Smith has aimed to summarize much of his work on the topic and bring forth its relevance to today's world -- to rebut those who believe "that the crusading movement was an aberration, a departure from the norm in Christian history" (4). Only then, can we understand the world we live in after 9/11. Studying the Crusades will allow us (meaning the West?) to comprehend and confront "those who hate us so much...; and this involves opening our eyes to the actuality -- not the imagined reality -- of our own past" (4). A tall task.

The first 2 chapters are on the medieval crusade itself. They're masterfully written -- as concise and precise a summary of a complex web of ideas as you're likely to find anywhere. Chapter 1 is on "Crusades as Christian Holy Wars." Although Riley-Smith begins by conceding that crusading is notoriously hard to define (Norman Housley recently described this as similar to trying to catch an eel with your hands), Riley-Smith proceeds to do just this. He first traces the early Christian ambivalence towards violence through Augustine, who's ideas about "just war" are preeminent here. Violence itself was conceived as ethically neutral; intention was what really mattered. In this sense, because the crusaders were thought to have right intention (killing non-Christians in the name of liberating Christian lands [often, but not always, Jerusalem), the crusades fit nicely into an established tradition. Chapter 2, "Crusades as Christian Penitential Wars," shows how the connection of holy war with penitential pilgrimage was, in fact, something quite different/ new though. Killing/ fighting saved your soul because it expiated your sins. This is the meat of Prof. Riley-Smith's life's work, succinctly summarized in ~ 15 pages.

The last 2 chapters move out of the Middle Ages, a trend Prof. Riley-Smith has taken in a number of more popular publishing venues (examples here and here). Chapters 3 and 4, relying (as he freely admits) heavily on Elizabeth Siberry's work, looks at the resurrection of (or, perhaps better, continued proof of existence of) crusading under European imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries and how those ideas moved into the Islamic world of the Middle East. The examples here verge between the really rather frightening (Archbishop Lavigerie of Algiers' attempt in the 1880s to re-form a military religious order in the Sahara, which had some support from Pope Leo XIII) and the really weird (Kaiser Wilhelm II's 1898 tour, organized by Thomas Cook, of Syria and Palestine, complete with costume).

This latter incident is Riley-Smith's bridge to a discussion of the memory of the Crusades in the Islamic world (Chapter 4), "because the newly emerging Arab nationalists took 19th-century imperialist rhetoric literally. They came to belive that the West, having lost the 1st round of the Crusades, had embarked on another" (61). Wilhelm II's tour praised his Germanic forebearers as kings of Jerusalem as well as Islamic cultural superiority to medieval Christianity, embodied by the "chivalric" Saladin, who had been more-or-less forgotten in the Middle East by this time (though maybe not -- see Diana Abouali's recent work on the memory of Saladin in Ottoman Jerusalem). European imperialists "reintroduced" the Crusades to the Arabs.

Before the late 19th century, Riley-Smith points out (following Carole Hillenbrand's work) that jihad came relatively late to the Crusades, only becoming really prevalent during the reign of Nur al-Din (d. 1174) and his successor Saladin (d. 1193). Then, again, it faltered until ca. 1250, where it was revived under the reigns of the Mamluks as a motivating force against the Latin settlements. After that, the Islamic world more-or-less forgot about the crusades. They had, after all, won.

Arab nationalism, Riley-Smith continues, began to see this new European intervention into their affairs and the eventual formation of the state of Israel as "revenge" for medieval history. For the successors of Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), Egyptian nationalist who became a fervent Islamist, "Zionists and Marxists, and now Hindus [are] surrogates of crusaderism, employed to subvert Islam and destroy believers" (74). A purified Islam will eventually lead to world domination. Ultimately, this peculiar ("warped" in Riley-Smith's view?) understanding of crusade history allows many people "to place the exploitation they believe they have suffered in a historical context and to satisfy their feelings of both superiority and humiliation" (76). This, I think, is meant to help us understand al-Qaeda.

The West, however, has moved on -- perhaps, he suggests, because of the shock of World War I and the overt crusading rhetoric sometimes attached to how it was justified. But we shouldn't be so complacent, Riley-Smith warns at the end of the book. This kind of religious violence, both medieval and modern, might seem utterly alien to us but "secular ideological violence... has manifested itself recently in wars waged in the names of imperialism, nationalism, Marxism, fascism, anticolonialism, humanitarianism, and even liberal democracy" (80, my emphasis). (Let us then return to religion?)

Overall, this is a tremendous book and I'd highly encourage any non-specialist (academic or general reader) to pick it up. This kind of clear, crisp academic writing can't be found often enough. I hope it's made available in paperback soon, perhaps even with some publicity to go with it. Then, I hope that the reader goes out and finds more academic work on the crusades to fill out their picture of the phenomenon.

Here, for example, (and very understandably, given its original format and how short each chapter remains) there's too much of a tendency to lump, rather than separate. "Crusading," in reality, isn't a phenomenon, it's phenomena -- it seems important to me, for example, that medieval Christians didn't have a word for the activity until the 13th century, well after the "First Crusade" in 1095. They used many words and phrases to describe what was going on, suggesting (I think) a recognition that there was great variety in the experience and conceptualization of armed violence in the name of Jesus Christ against His enemies. The First Crusade was different from the Albigenisan Crusade, which was different from the Crusade vs. the Wends, etc. Why do they have to be linked in our minds, when it seems rather clear that there were only tenuous and sporadic links between them in the minds of our medieval ancestors?

Finally, and this is more of a general thought than a criticism per se, I wonder about Prof. Riley-Smith's suggestion that the "newly emerging Arab nationalists took 19th-century imperialist rhetoric literally" (61). What does that really mean? I ask because it has implications for both the medieval period (crusade historiography, following Riley-Smith, suggests that the reform papacy "conned" the lay aristocracy into fighting on their behalf in 1095, much like the Arab nationalists were "conned" by the neo-crusade rhetoric) but also for today. Doesn't Prof. Riley-Smith's claim, to a degree, minimize the legitimacy of Arab resentment against the colonial powers -- they didn't understand why the Europeans were really there? Do these Arab nationalists have any agency in this situation? Couldn't these tropes -- of jihad, Saladin, etc. -- have already been there, perhaps manifested primarily in different guises up until that time, but still retaining their older, more explosive connotations, simply waiting for a spark to ignite them? Can Saladin, for example, ever not mean 1187 and the recapture of Jerusalem?

1 comment:

bre said...

I am a middle school teacher in NC and came across your site while researching the Crusades for my history class this year. I just wanted to thank you for the great information and articles.

We would love it if you could write a couple articles for us, link to us to help us spread trusted resources to other teachers, or even if Tweet or "Like Us" on Facebook. Anything is much appreciated in our quest to spread trusted resources.

Thanks and keep the great resources coming

Bre Matthews