Thursday, June 7, 2007

The Problematic Crusades

The crusades as an historiographical (sub-)field have become increasingly problematic. Much of this has to do with 9/11 and the new emphasis on, and interest in, holy war and/or religious violence. But, in fairness, it was trending the way it's now going for a while now.

Take, for example, this recent interview with Dr. Marco Meschini, who is a professor at the Universittà Cattolica del Sacro Cuore ("Catholic University of the Sacred Heart) in Milan and has published a few books on the Crusades. Meschini has a new book out (in Italian) comparing jihad and crusade, in which he argues that they're fundamentally incomparable. Indeed, that's true but not for the reasons that Meschini says. Instead of saying that, to compare crusade and jihad, you're really comparing apples to oranges, Meschini gleefully seems to be arguing that these red apples are nothing like their orange counterparts and aren't they really pretty strange tasting to boot? Best example:
There are... other more significant asymmetries [between crusade and jihad].

First of all, jihad, whether defensive or offensive -- that is, as the instrument of the spreading of the Islamic religion -- means "submission" to Allah.

The crusades, instead, were born only after a millennium of Christianity and with a limited purpose: to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which were unjustly occupied by the Muslims.
Most of this is true but it's also really misleading. First of all, "unjustly occupied by the Muslims?" In what sense? Arab Muslims took Jerusalem in 638 CE. The First Crusade was launched over 400 years later, in 1095 CE. Does anyone really talk about the "unjust" seizure of California from Mexico? That was less than 200 years ago. The crusades were an act of aggression to retake a land that was perceived -- perceived -- in the 11th century to be Christianity's patrimony. We should acknowledge that 11th-century perception but it doesn't make it reality.

This quotation also brings up a larger issue though. Crusading was born "after a millennium of Christianity" but Christian holy war wasn't. This is the apple to which Meschini (and we all) should be comparing jihad -- Christian holy war. Meschini doesn't make this distinction though and continues:
As was said, holy war is a prescription of the Quran -- and the Quran is the word of Allah, eternal and immutable -- practiced by Muhammad and furnished with a whole series of accompanying rules that define forms and conditions.

Still today, for all Muslims, jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, that is, one of the precepts that constitute the identity of their religion.

On the contrary, there is no sacred Christian text that speaks of war in a similar way, and to say the least, the model of Christianity, Christ, does not foresee it!

For this reason, crusading, which certainly arose in a Christian context, need not be present in other Christian contexts; nor, above all, does it have anything to do with the kerygma, the core of Christian revelation.
There is no Christian text that speaks of holy war? What about the biblical books of Joshua, Judges, Kings, Maccabees, etc.? What about Revelations? What about Augustine, Eusebius, the Pseudo-Methodius, the Tiburtine Sibyl, Adso of Montier-en-Der? Even the Gospels are more ambivalent on the subject than you might think (Look specifically at the events in Gethsemane and Peter's use of the sword there. What does Jesus mean when he talks to Peter after he strikes the High Priest's servant's ear? It's not clear-cut.). And these are all before the First Crusade.

Moreover, Meschini's statements are particularly striking for a Catholic to make (I'm assuming he is. My apologies if that assumption is wrong.) because it casts off the weight of tradition -- the saints and fathers of the Church -- and argues that the "core of Christian revelation" exists solely in the Bible (and perhaps even more specifically in the Gospels). Huh? Isn't that what Luther, Calvin, et al. argued?

I don't mean to suggest that jihad and Christian holy war are the same. They're not. Historical context, among other things, matters. They arose in different circumstances, from different cultural traditions, and took different developmental paths. But just be sure you're comparing apples to apples. Or, if you're intent on comparing apples to oranges, at least be honest about it.

PS -- Dr. Meschini, jihad is often called the "6th pillar of Islam" but there are still really only 5 pillars. One need not practice jihad in order to be a good Muslim. Similarly, there are many things that many religious people ordinarily do, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a central tenet of the faith.

UPDATE: Slight edits made for clarity.


Another Damned Medievalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew Gabriele said...

I was going to respond, but I guess I'll save my tongue...

Another Damned Medievalist said...

please -- Respond! It's a good conversation to have, without the accidental personal details I let slip!

Matthew Gabriele said...

I was just going to say that it's interesting to recommend the Oxford History, since the editor/ coordinator is the foremost historian in the school that Dr. Meschini seems to belong to. They so dominate the discourse that it's hard to get a word in edgewise...

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post. I agree, definitely, that jihad needs to be compared to Christian ideas of holy war rather than to the Crusades specifically, and that there are clear models of holy war in early Christian texts. (And "jihad" means submission to Allah? Isn't that what "Islam" means, i.e. the central tenet of the religion? jihad = struggle, not just submission.) It's interesting, too, that it wasn't until the Crusades were well under way that the Muslims started using "jihad" to describe what they were doing in fighting Europeans - it seems that initially they see the conflict as the ordinary political-military kind, not some kind of religious battle. So in that specific context, you can say that the Crusades beget jihad.

Besides which, it also seems disingenuous to emphasize that the Crusades were born with the specific, limited purpose of recovering the Holy Land, when so quickly the term "crusade" gets used to cover a much, much wider range of activities. If you *do* want to compare Crusade and jihad - which seems unavoidable - then it's worth bringing up the Albigensian Crusade, the Northern Crusades, and the various papal crusades against their local rivals. I don't know if I'd say it shows greater similarities between crusade and jihad than using the limited definition, but at least it's going to give you more accurate grounds for comparison. (I belong to the Riley-Smith school of defining "crusade" as going beyond the Holy Land, in case it wasn't clear. ;-D)

I do get annoyed when people talk about Islam as a "fundamentally" violent religion, and Christianity as automatically peaceful - I get students saying all the time that the various churchmen writing in favor of Crusading are hypocrites because Christianity (esp. the clergy) is supposed to be peaceful. I think I'm going to have to dig up some contemporary examples of warrior-priests to show them. (Isn't there one in _Roland_?)

Matthew Gabriele said...

New kid,

Sure, plenty of "warrior-priests." Archbishop Turpin in the Song of Roland, the crusading priest who forced his way into Constantinople in 1204 (according to Robert of Clari's account), the bishop of Norwich (in real life) from the English Peasants' Revolt in 1381, etc.

I agree that this is a difficult subject to argue though, since so many are utterly convinced of what Christianity "is" before they even come into the classroom. Just problematizing that certainty is something I strive for.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it less that `medieval Christianity was violent and modern Christianity is peaceful' (despite the actions of some of its current espousers) and more that at the time the three schools of thought (roughly clerical purist, secular military and clerical compromise, rejecting violence, living by it or directing it usefully, respectively) hadn't
settled who was boss as they have these days. You can find clerics in the Peace of God literature (or Hincmar of Rheims) arguing that all violence is sinful, no problems. And you can also find warrior bishops charging off to fight Muslims, or indeed just anyone--Odo of Bayeux being my most immediate thought. It's not really safe to generalise from any of the three sets, but the Crusades involved the latter two because the first stayed out of it of course. So we only see the violence-friendly priesthood when we look at the Crusades.

How this works in the classroom is another matter. I met a person teaching in Texas a while ago who complained that their pupils kept either defaming them or congratulating them for `defending Catholicism', rather than taking on board that non-religious and the Middle Ages just actually were Catholic...

Matthew Gabriele said...

Jonathan, generally I agree but I think you can argue that "medieval Christianity" (whatever that is) always had a way to justify violence, especially if carried out by the person in power. Constantine and Augustine stood over everyone's shoulder. Moreover, I think there's a recognition back then that violence is the natural state of things. That peace was actually an anomaly and that peacefulness was what distinguished the next world from this one.

Also, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a cleric anywhere in Europe around 1099 who would've condemned the 1st Crusade. Sure, you get criticisms of crusading (and its associated violence) that pop up, but that's not until the later 12th century.

Josh said...

Okay... and who did the Arabs take it from? (I'm assuming it wasn't an unihabited piece of land before then).

One could argue on this tack all the way back to when the Hebrews took Jerusalem from the Jebusites with God's blessing. One's view of od depends on how they will interpret that.

One's reading of the Bible also will determine how they interpret Jesus saying "I come not to bring peace, but a sword." An exclusive historical interpretation will likely lead one to conclude that Jesus meant literal holy war.

But a spirtual interpretation (within the context of the rest of Scripture) will lead one to the interpretation that Christ is referring to a number of spirtual battles: 1) faith in Him will cause rifts in personal lives (family, friends) into society (the Reformation, politics), and 2) Christ has been given the authority to judge our sin (the sword) and this will result in His declaring war on our sinful natures causing inner battles between our soul and sin.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Josh, thanks for visiting. The tradition of biblical exegesis is long and complicated and you're exactly right that you can read Jesus' admonition in multiple ways (indeed, there's a long, complicated scholarship on the sword pericope in particular).

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you know this, but using California as an analogy shows a poor understanding of history. California was not "seized" as you describe. California won it's independence from Mexico in the Bear Flag revolt. Then proceeded to join the US union once it's independence had been established. Unlike California, every where on earth where Islam dominates is in a fact conquered territory. Stop being an apologist for the aggressors.