The Jihad: Comparisons and Contrasts with the Crusades

In the last post we discussed the uses of scripture to justify the crusades. Let’s turn now to the jihad. How similar are the Christian and Islamic holy wars?

The crusades and the jihad are often viewed in parallel, but there are significant differences. Christopher Tyerman contrasts:

“Unlike the crusade, under Islamic law derived from the Koran, jihad, struggle, is enjoined on all members of the Muslim community. Unlike the crusade, according to classical Islamic theory, the jihad takes two forms, the greater (al-jihad al-akbar), the internal struggle to achieve personal purity, and the lesser (al-jihad al-asghar), the military struggle against infidels. Both were obligatory on able-bodied Muslims… Unlike the crusade and Christian holy war, to which the Islamic jihad appears to have owed nothing (and vice versa), jihad was fundamental to the Muslim faith, a sixth pillar.” (Fighting for Christendom, pp 115-116)

The jihad had been formulated during the early years of the Abbasid caliphate (7th-9th centuries) and was prosecuted regularly but by the 11th century had become somewhat dormant. It took the crusades to prompt the 12th-century jihad revivalism, and even this didn’t happen overnight. Tyerman again:

Jihad rhetoric and action came partly in consequence of a religious revival, partly because it was good politics. The qadi of Aleppo, Ibn al-Khashshab, who organized resistance to Frankish attacks in 1118 and 1124, urged a principled stand against the infidel. During the campaign leading to the defeat of Roger of Antioch at the Field of Blood in 1119, Ibn al-Khashshab rode through the Muslim lines ‘spear in hand’ preaching the virtues of jihad, the novelty of such clerical interference causing some resentment. A generation later, such clerical cheerleading would have seemed normal.” (God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, p 271)

“Normal” in the sense that from the 1140s to 1186 the jihad gained momentum as the crusaders lost their territory. The warrior Zengi demolished the crusader County of Edessa (1144) (prompting the Second Crusade), and some contemporaries portrayed him as a champion of the jihad; his son Nur al-Din at least once invoked the jihad in his own war against crusaders. Saladin brought the jihad to its fruition, taking back Jerusalem (1187) and most of Syria and Palestine (1187-1190), calling forth the Third Crusade.

Yet we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that even in the period of the 1140s-1186, Islamic warlords could be dragged into the jihad kicking and screaming. The heart of Islam lay in the Middle-East (Baghdad), Mesopotamia (Mosul), and Egypt (Cairo), and it was in these theaters (i.e. inter-Islamic conflict) that real prizes were sought and fought over. By comparison, Syria/Palestine was a minor frontier (cities like Aleppo, Damascus, and Jerusalem notwithstanding), territory contested but secondary in importance. And even in this area Muslims remained hell bent on fighting each other (especially between Aleppo and Damascus) as much as Christians, often entering into temporary alliances with crusaders instead of prosecuting the jihad demanded by post-1140s rhetoric. When they did attack crusaders, it was sometimes a means to an end, as in the case of Nur al-Din’s campaign in the region of Antioch in 1149; his victory over the Latins at Inab gave him control over territory paving the way to the coveted prize of Damascus (controlled by rival Muslims). Even by 1186, Saladin himself had made only a limited contribution to the jihad, having spent 33 months fighting against Muslims (since his conquest of Shi’ite Egypt in 1171), and only 11 months fighting against crusaders. Scholars have suggested that if Saladin had died in 1186 he would be remembered not as a jihadist but as a soldier and dynast who used Islam for his own purposes of aggrandizement, and that he may have only launched his final war against the Latin kingdom to pay off debts and promises in return for support. Thomas Asbridge explains:

“At a fundamental level, Saladin’s empire had been forged against the backdrop of jihad. Unity beneath his banner may have been bought at a heavy price, but he argued that it was directed at one sole purpose: the jihad to drive the Franks from Palestine and liberate the Holy City. This ideological impulse had proved to be an enormously potent instrument, fueling and legitimizing the motor of expansion, but it came at a near-unavoidable cost. Unless Saladin wished to be revealed as a fraudulent despot, all his promises of unbending devotion to the cause of jihad must now be fulfilled… Real questions remain about the true extent of his determination to combat the Franks in the long years between 1169 and 1186, but regardless of what had gone before, in 1187 Saladin brought the full force of his empire to bear against the kingdom of Jerusalem.” (The Crusades, pp 340-341, 342)

To wrap up: the crusades were designed and launched by a Christendom in dire straits, and were voluntary, while the jihad had been formulated centuries earlier by an Islamic world at the height of its power, and were obligatory; the crusades reignited a strong enthusiasm for the jihad, and Muslim clerics worked hard at fanning the flames. For all the differences between the crusades and jihad, however, they shared the fundamental commonality of being grounded in religious zeal. Crusaders fervently believed in the virtues of sacred violence, that holy war was a penitential act offering warriors a sure way to heaven, just as jihadists maintained that war against infidels was their own ticket to paradise.

In the next post, we’ll look at the six kings of Latin Jerusalem (1100-1187).


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