The crusades are so ubiquitous these days that it is hard to imagine anyone ever forgetting them. People play video games like Assassin’s Creed (starring the Templars) and Crusader Kings II in droves, newsfeeds are filled with images of young men marching around in places like Charlottesville holding shields bearing the old crusader slogan “Deus vult” (God wills it!), and every year books about the crusades are published in their dozens, informing readers about the latest developments in crusader studies. And the news these books deliver from the frontlines of research can come as a bit of shock to our crusades-saturated systems: for the longest time, many historians believe, there was little to no interest in the crusades in the Islamic world. At a time when reminders of the crusades are everywhere, these experts ask us to imagine a world from which memories of Christian holy war had all but vanished.
How could Muslims have forgotten about the wars they fought with medieval Latin Christians for some 200 years? The argument runs something like this: although the initial conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 came as a shock, the crusaders never managed to make themselves much more than a nuisance to the Muslim superpowers of the day—first the Great Seljuk empire and then the Mamluk sultans of Egypt—whose real ambitions (and therefore rivals) lay elsewhere. Once the last crusader stronghold of Acre had fallen in 1291, the crusades could be quickly forgotten, with Ottoman conquests in the Balkans now taking center stage. In any case, it was believed that Muslims had never been all that curious about the non-Muslim world. It was only in the mid-19th century that an Arabic term for the crusades (hurub al-Salibiya, or “Cross Wars”) was coined, while what is sometimes described as the first history of the crusades written in Arabic by a Muslim (Sayyid ʿAli Hariri’s Book of the Splendid Stories of the Cross Wars) appeared in 1899. By then, under the gentle prodding of European imperialism, Muslims were beginning to recall earlier encounters with their neighbors to the west. According to a popular textbook on the crusades that is now widely assigned in US colleges, therefore, “The ‘long memory’ of the crusades in the Muslim world is in fact a constructed memory—one in which the memory is much younger than the event itself.”
When crusades historians teach undergraduates that modern Muslim memories of crusader violence are essentially false, we need to consider the consequences. There is a message here about Muslim curiosity that comes through loud and clear: pre-modern Muslims were apparently so disengaged with Europe that they could forget about the crusades for centuries at a time. More provocative still is the point made about the legacy of Latin Christian holy war. If Muslims could forget the crusades, they must not have done much long-term harm and consequently cannot be blamed for fueling current conflicts.
Regardless of its implications, if this claim is right, then it’s right. That’s how history as a discipline has to work. The problem is that as things currently stand, the argument that “Muslims forgot about the whole thing anyway” is a thesis in search of evidence. Most crusades historians learn the relevant European languages, but do not work directly with Arabic or Ottoman Turkish sources. As a result, the research that could confirm this collective bout of Muslim amnesia—combing through the hundreds of histories, geographies, biographical dictionaries, travel narratives, inscriptions, and poems that Muslims wrote in the Middle East and North Africa between about 1300 and 1900 for references to the crusades—has yet to be done.
Even the briefest dip into Arabic sources offers up tantalizing clues of a more complex Muslim encounter with crusading. Ibn Khaldun was a North African scholar who recounted in a single sweeping narrative a series of wars between Latin Christians and Muslims that feature centuries of fighting in North Africa and the Near East and end in Muslim victory. No, he did not use the modern term hurub al-Salibiya, but why would he? He lived in the 14th century, not the 21st. Shaykh Muhammad al-ʿAlami lived in 17th-century Jerusalem, a time and place that is supposed to have been ignorant of the crusades. But he recalled enough about them to write a poem describing his son as a second Saladin. These may be isolated examples, or they may speak to broader trends. We should find out one way or the other before we embrace a historical argument that risks stereotyping Muslims as uncurious and prone to nursing baseless grievances.
Featured image credit: Taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, 15th July 1099. Painting by Emile Signol, c.1847. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.