The Islamic World's Response to the Latin Crusades

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  • 0:03 Islamic Reaction to…
  • 0:26 First Encounters
  • 2:11 Outrage
  • 3:25 A New Hero
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Few in the Muslim world could have imagined that in 1095, a series of wars would start that would not only change their world, but continue to impact foreign relations almost a thousand years later.

Islamic Reaction to the Latin Crusades

When the first Crusaders, those Western Europeans determined to reconquer Jerusalem, showed up in the Middle East in 1096, the first Muslims to encounter them were more than a little confused by the group that came towards them. Within 100 years, however, Muslims in the Middle East, as well as Jews and Orthodox Christians, would drastically change not only the way they approached those Europeans, but also each other.

First Encounters

The Crusades were ordered by Pope Urban II in 1095, and within months the first Europeans had arrived in the Middle East to rid the Holy Land, the area surrounding the sacred sites of the Bible, of the Saracens, the name Europeans had collectively given the Muslim residents of those regions.

When the two sides met for the first time in 1096 in what is now Turkey, the Muslims were not impressed. For starters, the Europeans were poorly dressed for the subtropical heat of the desert, wearing heavy armor and carrying weighty swords. Additionally, they stank. The idea of bathing had yet to really catch on in Europe, and as a result, those first Crusaders really reeked.

The Muslims continued to think of the Crusaders as a bunch of smelly foreigners, and a rather homogenous bunch at that. Just as the Crusaders had called all Muslims in the region the name Saracens, so too had the Muslims decided to call all Western Europeans Franji, or Franks. They did this because they thought that all Crusaders came from France. And it wasn't just that they smelled bad. These new arrivals ate pork, a forbidden meat for both Jews and Muslims, and drank copious amounts of alcohol, which was against Islamic law. In short, the Crusaders showed up looking like ill-kempt hung-over college kids in the middle of a fancy event.

The Middle East, just prior to the Crusades, may have not been in its glory days, but it was still doing relatively well compared to anywhere else in the world. Granted, new governments reigned in many places, but they valued the aspects of culture that had spurred the Islamic Golden Age, especially education and, to some degree, plurality. While local leaders struggled against the new Crusaders, those who had not encountered the Europeans simply were not interested.


That is, until 1099. In that year, the Crusaders reached their goal, the city of Jerusalem. Laying siege to the city, they killed more than 20,000 civilians - effectively, everyone found within the city walls who wasn't Catholic.

This wanton destruction outraged the Muslim world, but the fact was that there was no power capable of responding to the attacks. While the Abbasid Caliphate, the technical rulers of the Islamic world, were still in power, it was more of a force on paper, having long since given real authority to a number of regional rulers who had been too busy fighting each other to focus on any real external threat. A balance of power between the major players meant that it was in no one's best interest to allow a rival to recapture the region. The Seljuks, who ruled in much of Iraq and Syria, were Sunni, and therefore opposed to the Fatimids in Egypt. Striking fear into both were the Assassins, a group of Shia Muslims, exiled by the Fatimids, who used assassination to weaken their Muslim enemies.

Clearly, anyone who was going to be able to help the Muslims prevail over the Crusaders could not be someone already in power, as they had too much to lose.

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