This was a paper I wrote for a history of Western civilization class December 1, 2008. The discussion of the strained relationship between Muslims and Christians is just as valid today as it was 1,000 years ago.
The Build Up and Aftermath of the Crusades in the Christian and Muslim Worlds
The crusades were not only a series of wars, but a clash of cultures. The Christian west and Muslim east were just as different a thousand years ago as they are today. The first crusade occurred at a time when Islam was rapidly expanding and Christian Europe was experiencing economic growth. For both worlds the time was ripe for battle. Unlike most wars, the crusades lasted for several hundred years. This prolonged conflict left many lasting effects such as the large population of Muslims in the Balkans and the tensions between the two ideologies that is still present today. To truly understand the effects of the crusades it is important to compare the cultures of the Christian and Muslim worlds before and after.
This story starts with the Prophet Mohammad’s message; it was so inspiring that almost all of Arabia was converted to Islam within his lifetime. The Arabs of the east had a much different culture than the Christians of the west. Christianity had been established for over six hundred years by the time of Mohammad’s death in 632. Islam took off the ground running. Within a generation the close knit kinships of the Arabs became a powerful force rising to the call of conquest.
The earliest converts to Islam were viewed as the most faithful to the religion and were promised governing positions in new lands. The economy of Arabia was very fragile. Desert farming was unpredictable and frequent droughts made a very unstable food supply. Trade of luxury goods such as spices, incense, and perfumes were vital to ensure enough food was available for the livelihood of the region. Trade was dominated by the largest tribes, and it was often poorly distributed. Raiding was often necessary for survival. Amid the dry desert a violent and often brutal society arose. The seventh century successors of Mohammad urged Arabs to invade the Roman Empire, and they were more than happy to comply. The call for Islamic conquest created the opportunity for a new political elite to arise. It didn’t take much persuasion to attract and gain the support of the majority. Conquered peoples were taxed while Arab settlers paid no taxes and actually received salaries to live and work these new lands. Arabs who didn’t move to new lands were taxed; this paints a very clear picture that the Islamic conquests were supported by the Arab people. Massive armies of volunteers were not hard to construct.
The Muslims agreed that there would be no compromise for the complete conversion of pagans, by the sword if need be. Convert to Islam or die. Luckily for many Arab pagans, Islam was very attractive so many converted by choice and not force. It was more so during the conquests that people were forced to conform. It is interesting that the Muslims did make compromise for the “People of the Book,” Christians and Jews were seen as heretics of the Word, but nonetheless were not ostracized like the pagans. Submission held a core position in the faith. A good Muslim must submit to Islam-which literally translates to submission in Arabic. Islam is right, opinions that strayed from it were wrong. It is important to note that most people who heard about Islam converted willingly. Whether it was the message or the lower taxes for Muslim converts it is uncertain, but that really wasn’t the point when the goal was to create large Islamic states. A fully converted state meant true submission was achieved.
The religion of Islam set strict standards for Muslim treatment of each other. With no fighting allowed towards another Muslim, in addition to the religious fervor that was running rampant, it seemed almost natural for the violent society to lash outward. Conquests became the outlet for a fierce aggression that ran through the veins of every Arab man passed down from one generation to another. Within a hundred years Islamic forces marched all the way around North Africa conquering the Roman provinces of Carthage and Tangiers, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Spain, and almost pushed through Gaul all the way to Paris. Islam spread faster in one century than Christianity had in seven, and this was frightening. (more…)