The Curmudgeonly Review of Books: Crusade and Jihad

Malcolm Lambert’s Crusade and Jihad traces 1600 years of the history of Islam and Christianity, and the clashing ideologies of jihad and the Crusader movement. In particular, Lambert examines why the latter faded away, while the former remains a dynamic and often violent force in the world.

Crusade and Jihad: Origins, history and aftermath

Malcolm Lambert

Profile Books

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“Crusade and Jihad”, Malcolm Lambert

When I was a boy, I read a fairy-tale in which the hero spirits the maiden away with the aid of a pair of magic beans which, when heated in a pan, each croak a single word: nevertheless and notwithstanding. Listening from the next room, the watchful father assumes the two are carrying on a long, if rather dull and repetitive conversation.

Too many geopolitical discussions in this age of a supposed “Clash of Civilizations” seem to follow a similar pattern: one person croaks jihad, to which the other automatically responds, crusade. And so it goes.

Malcolm Lambert’s book attempts to address both sides of this interminable circular argument. Because while it is argued (and not unfairly) that too many Westerners are ignorant of the complexities of history and of “the other”, as Lambert shows, exactly the same is true of too many Muslims.

The bulk of Crusade and Jihad consists of a 1600 year historical summary of both Islam and the crusade movement – what is often ignored is that the crusades were triggered, in part, in response to the rapid expansion of Islamic power from the 7th century – although, being aimed primarily at a Western audience, the book obviously assumes a certain degree of familiarity with European history.

At times , though, Lambert’s narrative can be oddly detached. After finishing his account of the Fourth Crusade, for instance, I had to re-read, and then cross-check dates to make sure that that was the Sack of Constantinople he’d just described. What was a devastating, world-altering event read almost as a mild spat between the Byzantines and the Franks. Atrocities by Muslim leaders are dealt with in a similarly cursory fashion, such as the offhand mention of Frankish captives being slaughtered like ritual animals at Mecca, while the Muslim conquests themselves – the bloody wave of jihad that shook much of the world for centuries – are glossed over in particularly anodyne fashion, merely ticked off as if everyone more or less easily submitted.

Possibly Lambert is wary of over-indulging in “atrocity porn”, which has sometimes been used by writers with an ideological agenda, whether anti-Christian, anti-Muslim, or just anti-religious in general. Certainly he does an excellent job of explaining how some particularly infamous episodes, such as the crushing of the Templars, had less to do with the often-exaggerated Inquisition than it did the pure greed of secular powers (in fact, Lambert shows, Pope Clement privately established the Templars’ innocence, but was politically powerless to stand up to kings who wanted the Templars’ fortune).

The long slog of 1600 years of potted history is necessary groundwork, though, for the concluding chapter, “Reflections”, in which Lambert analyses the crucial differences between crusade and jihad, and how the former petered out, while the latter continues to flare up in renewed violence even today.

Moving rapidly from the Enlightenment to the 19th century, Lambert traces how the idea of crusade, in the Western imagination, gradually became one of either derision (philosopher David Hume scorned the Crusades as the “most signal and most durable example of the folly of mankind in the history of any age or nation”, while a statue of the Lionheart was mocked in the Victorian press) or long-vanished romanticism, such as in the novels Sir Walter Scott, which were in any case as likely to reverse previously accepted roles, contrasting a virtuous Saladin with ignoble Crusader knights. Military orders, meanwhile, either vanished altogether, or abandoned their military roles in favour of purely missionary and hospital work. In 1831, the Knights Hospitaller, the ancient Catholic military and hospital order long associated with the Crusades, was revived in England as the Venerable Order of St. John, best known for the St. John Ambulance brigade.

At the same time, a new force was stirring, almost unnoticed, in Islam, which would contribute to the ongoing phenomenon of jihad as a potent call to violent action. As Lambert says, “over and over, fresh impetus in the Islamic world has come from the bare expanses of the desert”. So it was that in the mid-18th century an obscure reformist scholar began preaching a doctrine of extreme and uncompromising puritanism that today often carries his name: wahabbism. Scorned by most other scholars, wahabbism was nonetheless adopted by the ruler of a then-small tribal group in Arabia, ibn Saud. Although suppressed by the Ottomans, wahabbism was never eliminated and, “in the view of its enemies lived on as a virus in the desert wastes of Arabia through the 19th century”.

Lambert also reminds the reader of other ancient traditions in Islam, long quietened, which might in their turn quell the fury of violent jihad – Sufism, ascetic Islamic mysticism, and, related, the concept that violence is the “lesser jihad”, only to be used as a last resort, whereas the “greater jihad” is the inner, spiritual and intellectual struggle each person must wage with themselves. Also related is the concept of itjihad, the exercise of critical thinking and independent judgement, usually applied in Islamic jurisprudence.

Yet Sufism is often violently persecuted throughout Islam, and despite the best efforts of a small group of scholars, the concept of “greater jihad” remains subordinate to the injunction to violence, especially when the latter so often serves the interests of tyrants and fanatics. Too often, the “greater jihad” is at best invoked as a self-serving whitewash for Islamic violence. Likewise, while it is often wrongly claimed that “the gates of itjihad were closed” in the 10th century, it is nonetheless true that since that time Sunni orthodoxy has long rigidly suppressed critical thinking.

Two other recurring subtexts are noticeable through the histories of each: long-standing anti-Semitism in the Christian world, resulting in recurrent progroms and expulsions, and near-universal use of slavery in the Islamic, often as a source of imperial power, as Seljuks, Ottomans and others built up formidable slave armies – a phenomenon unique to the Islamic world and persisting into modern times even as the Christian world fought to abolish it, even at the cost of ruinous internecine wars. Yet, while Lambert rightly highlights the stain anti-Semitism left on the Christian world, he passes over the continuing blight of slavery in Islam.

Why such an abhorrent institution should continue in the Islamic world when it was repudiated by the Christian is also left unexamined, which highlights what is the major shortcoming of Crusade and Jihad: its failure to inquire into what core doctrinal differences might lie at the heart of the divergent evolution of the two worlds.

Lambert rightly examines the historical and political circumstances of each: for instance, that papal struggles with kings, the Reformation, and the rise of Enlightenment thinking, all lead to a clear separation of church and state. Meanwhile, in Islam, religious and political power remained indelibly intertwined, almost invariably in absolute authorities such as caliphs and sultans, who were all-too ready to appeal to the Quran, and to jihad.

Yet he fails to look any deeper, as to how it was that each of these could come to pass. On what grounds, for instance, did popes disentangle papal power from that of kings? What is there in Christianity that has allowed the separation of church and state, where Islam has not?

While it could be argued that Crusade and Jihad is a historical rather than theological work, nonetheless that doesn’t prevent Lambert at least briefly discussing the internal theological schisms of each faith, such as between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, or Sunnism and Shiism, or “Twelver” and Ismaili Shiism. After all, without understanding why different sects split, much subsequent history wouldn’t make sense. The similar reluctance to explore the fundamental doctrinal differences between the two warring faiths, then, ultimately leaves a hollow core in the book.

Taking the position, as he states at the outset, that Islam and Christianity worship the same god, Lambert simultaneously blinds himself to any rigorous examination of the deep doctrinal differences between Christianity and Islam which have lead to the divergent paths taken by the respective civilizations founded on each, and why the crusades were a finite phenomenon, while jihad is still very much a living force in Islam.

Nevertheless, Crusade and Jihad is a valuable book, for both non-Muslims and Muslims. It brings to light much history, of which many on each side have for too long been ignorant. As Lambert points out, historians and autocratic leaders in the Muslim world have for centuries exploited the memory of the crusades, while assiduously ignoring the similar atrocities of Muslims – often committed against fellow Muslims. For instance, the 14th century Muslim conqueror Timur slaughtered far more Muslims than the crusaders ever did. But while the crusades provide a convenient scapegoat for the decline of Muslim power and prestige, especially through the past century or so, the cross and the word crusade are still invoked as epithets in the Islamic world.

Notwithstanding this flaw, Crusade and Jihad ought to be read by anyone wishing to understand, in part, how we got to where we are today. Maybe if the two beans can cease their endless, repetitive croaking, the conversation can move forward.

Crusade and Jihad is available from Profile books.

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