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A review of God’s Battalions. By Rodney Stark.

Oct 11, 2009

HarperOne, 2009. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

Very few people have much good to say about the Crusades nowadays. Most think it was a terrible blight on Christian history, and cannot be condoned or justified in any way. Certainly during the past few centuries, Christianity has been attacked, and people have sought to discredit the faith, partly on the basis of the Crusades.

In such an atmosphere, this new book by Rodney Stark is about as revolutionary as they come. He takes head on myth after myth surrounding the Crusades, and makes the case that the Crusades not only had their place, but were in fact in many ways justifiable. He clearly demonstrates that modern histories about the Crusades are among the great hatchet jobs of recent times.

Dispelling the many myths about the Crusades takes guts, and someone with the right intellectual and academic qualifications. Stark is certainly the man for the job: he has become one of our finest writers on the sociology and history of religion, and is unafraid to go against the tide.

Image of God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades
God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark Amazon logo

In this important volume he debunks the historical revisionism (which is often coupled with anti-Christian bigotry) about the Crusades to offer us a more sober and clear picture of what in fact took place. He notes that it was especially during the time of the Enlightenment and onwards that critics claimed that the Crusaders were mainly Western imperialists, those who set out after land and loot.

Moreover, the contrast is often made between the bloodthirsty barbaric Christians, and the peace-loving Muslims. But as Stark persuasively documents, none of this is close to the truth. The real story is this: the Crusades were certainly provoked, and the Crusaders were mainly concerned to free the Holy Lands from Muslim oppression and to protect religious pilgrims who travelled there.

Indeed, to properly understand the Crusades, a lot of background information needs to be considered. That is why Stark spends the first hundred pages of his book looking at the 600-year period of Muslim conquests and dhimmitude.

The story of course begins in the seventh century when Muslim armies swept over the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. One Christian land after another was attacked and conquered by advancing Muslim forces.

Stark reminds us that Muhammad told his followers, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Therefore a century after his death vast swathes of territory hung under the bloody sword of Islam.

And what of the conquered Christians living under Islamic rule? They, along with Jews, were known as dhimmis. While revisionist historians and Muslim apologists speak of Muslim tolerance here, the “truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different”.

Indeed, the subject peoples had few options: death, enslavement or conversion were the only avenues open to them. Dhimmitude was no picnic. Death was the fate of anyone who dared to convert out of Islam. No churches or synagogues could be built. There was to be no public praying or reading of Scripture. They were at best treated as second-class citizens, and at worst, punished and killed.

And massacres of Jews and Christians were quite common in the centuries leading up to the Crusades. In 1032-1033 in Morocco alone, there were over six thousand Jews murdered. Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 638. The Dome of the Rock was built from 685 to 691, and churches and synagogues were levelled in the ensuing centuries.

The condition of Christians in Jerusalem was pretty appalling during this period, as was the plight of penitent pilgrims seeking to enter Jerusalem. They suffered much persecution, and risked their lives simply to travel to the holy city. The destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – along with thousands of other Christian churches – under the bloody reign of Tariqu al-Hakim at the end of the first millennia simply served as the climax to all this misery and outrage.

It is in this light of six centuries of Islamic conquest, bloodshed and tyranny that the Crusades must be viewed. They were not always pretty, but life in general back then was not pretty. If Crusader excesses took place, this was just par for the course, as excesses by Muslims and others were more than commonplace.

As Stark reminds us, “Granted, it was a cruel and bloody age, but nothing is to be gained either in terms of moral insights or historical comprehension by anachronistically imposing the Geneva Convention on these times.”

He looks at the various Crusades, dealing with the host of mythologies that have grown up around them. One is the fanciful depiction of Saladin as some gallant, humane Muslim resisting those bloodthirsty Christians. For example, when he re-conquered Jerusalem in 1187, the city was spared a massacre.

But the rules of warfare back then stipulated that cities would be spared if they were not forced to be taken by storm. So while bloodshed was limited, “half the city’s Latin Christian residents were marched away to the slave markets”.

And as Stark reminds us, Jerusalem was the exception to Saladin’s normal style. Savage butchery of his enemies was his usual habit. Indeed, he had been looking forward to massacring the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but a compromise was struck which prevented this. But he had plenty of other opportunities to let the blood flow freely, often at his own hand.

Then there is the myth that the Crusades have been a longstanding grievance amongst Muslims. Not so argues Stark: “Muslim antagonism about the Crusades did not appear until about 1900, in reaction against the decline of the Ottoman Empire”.

Christians today can well argue whether the Crusades were in fact warranted. But any such discussion about the pros and cons of the matter must be made under a clear understanding of what exactly transpired and why. This book admirably serves that purpose, and must be the starting point for any future debates over the topic.

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13 Responses to A review of God’s Battalions. By Rodney Stark.

  • Brilliant post this and so true, I’m so glad that someone has had the bravery to stand up against the propaganda!
    Stuart Mackay, UK

  • Thank you Bill, for bringing this book to my attention.

    I am tired of this false accusation. There are so many levels at which the “what about the crusades” myth is untrue and so many simple truths that dispel it.

    How did Christianity conquer the Roman Empire?
    Through conversion under persecution.

    How did Islam conquer the Roman Empire?
    By the sword.

    How did Jesus build up a following?
    By teaching and suffering.

    How did Mohamed build up a following?
    By teaching and the sword.

    etc etc etc.

    Thanks Bill,
    Michael Hutton, Ariah Park

  • Thanks Bill.
    The Crusades have indeed become a convenient rod for the Christians’ backs in recent times. In this connection I could also mention Madden’s book, “The New Concise History of the Crusades”, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, which makes much the same points as you make above. His observation on the very recent use of the Crusades as a weapon against Christianity is worth quoting:

    “The simple fact is that the crusades were virtually unknown in the Muslim world even a century ago…The first Arabic history of the crusades was not written until 1899. Westerners may be surprised to learn that Muslims in the Middle East have only recently learned of the crusades. How, one might ask, is that possible? How could they not remember centuries of Christian holy wars waged against them? It must be remembered that although the crusades were of monumental importance to Europeans they were a very minor, largely insignificant thing to the Muslim world… A Western traveller in the eighteenth century would have been hard-pressed to find a Muslim in the Middle East who had heard of the crusades. Even in the nineteenth century they were known only to a handful of intellectuals. In the grand sweep of Islamic history the crusades simply did not matter.” (pp.217-8)

    Another point which Madden makes is regarding the alleged massacre in the wake of the capture of Jerusalem in July 1099: he debunks the myth that such a massacre took place. Battle casualties were high, indeed, but reports of soldiers going “knee-high in blood” after they went berserk through the city were later exaggerations of gloating and bravado, and Mediaevals did not take them all that that seriously. Moderns unfortunately do.

    In all, Stark’s book is a welcome addition to the recent literature on the Crusades, along with Thomas Madden and Jonathan Riley-Smith. Together they should, when absorbed, overthrow the long-held distortions of Runciman and Barraclough, and their popularisers in the pulp market and Hollywood, which have infested popular conceptions of this period.

    Let me conclude thus:
    1. Let it never be forgotten that the Crusades were a very belated Western response to four and a half centuries of Muslim aggression and oppression.
    2. The war aims of the Crusades were limited: to ensure safe passage and protection for Christian pilgrims; to recapture control of the Christian holy sites; to establish a Christian rule in the Holy Land to serve to those ends. There was never a plan to eradicate Muslim rule from the entire Middle East and North Africa. The Crusades were never a full-scale ‘holy war’ against Islam as such.
    3. In the light of the recent Islamic push into the West, and their thinly-veiled intent to bring Sharia law into the West, it is my considered view that if the Crusades of 900 years ago had been more successful we might not now have this major threat right on our doosteps.

    Murray Adamthwaite

  • Thanks for the review. I have read most of Stark’s books but was not aware of this one. He’s an agnostic and sociologist who is prepared to go against the current fashion of bashing Christianity. Another author worth reading is the agnostic Guenter Lewy whose “Why America Needs Religion” is a gold mine of sociological data about Christianity in the USA. I think he started out with the intention of finding compromising information but changed his mind when confronted with the facts.

    With regard to the Crusades, both sides were capable of savagery. But they were rank amateurs compared to modern secular states.

    Michael Hutton’s post is nicely put. Christianity, of course, came off the rails at times. Islam, in contrast, never had straight rails to begin with.

    John Snowden

  • Quite right John. And thanks Murray for your insights a well.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Does the book also discuss why the western-chrsitians slaughtered their eastern brethren….

    I do believe the book does right in giving attention to this forgotten background on the causes of the crusades, but how are we to regard this aspect of the crusades?

    Peter Boswijk

  • Thanks Peter

    Yes he does deal with this, specifically the Fourth Crusade, and its culmination in the sacking of Constantinople. He certainly does not gloss over the many downsides of the Crusades, and he is willing to let the historical record speak.

    But again, he does seek to at least set this in its historical context with proper perspective, including the “prior sacks on the city by the Byzantines themselves during political coups”. Then there were the “centuries of Orthodox brutalities against Latin Christians”. Also, the “instances of Byzantine treachery that occurred during each of the first three Crusades and that cost tens of thousands of crusaders their lives”. This may well not excuse the behaviour of the crusaders, but at least it helps to explain it, and set it in some sort of perspective.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • You might also be interested in reading the interview we did with Rodney Stark about this book: http://www.medievalists.net/2009/09/03/interview-with-rodney-stark/

    I think a lot of what Stark says is over the top – he seems to uses the worst examples of Muslim hostility and antagonism of Christians or Jews, and then passes this off as if it was their day to day existence. I personally find the idea that the Crusades were provoked into crossing across Europe to fight an enemy they knew nothing about seems to me ludicrous at best.

    Peter Konieczny

  • Thanks Peter

    I find Stark’s answers to be quite informed, reasonable and balanced – more than I can say about your comment.

    “They knew nothing about” Islam?? Who is the one being ludicrous here? Countless Christians had been killed, imprisoned and reduced to the status of dhimmitude for centuries under Islamic tyranny. They certainly did know about Islam, which is exactly why so many of them got involved.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It is my understanding that the dhimmi tax actually funded a lot of Islamic crusades. Furthermore, a lot of what Islamic culture is credited for in its golden age was produced by captive Christians and Jews. For years after the Moslem conquest, countries like Syria were largely Christian. But later generations realized that to get ahead, they had to convert to Islam, or get out of the country. When that happened, a lot of these countries became poor.

    Hank Halle, Redmond, Washington, USA

  • Thanks for the post. Great review of an incredible book. As you rightly point out, too often today there is an “anti-Christian bigotry” that colors much of scholarship leading to historical revisionism. I really appreciated the even handedness in your review as well as your helpful summary.

    I really hope that the book receives the wide readership and acclaim that it deserves.

    Mark Powell

  • I just finished reading “God’s Battalions” – very informative indeed.

    After having read the collected works of Max Weber, and those of Carl Jung, I was quite aware that there is a very serious imbalance in fair treatment many things related to the West and particularly about Christianity – especially Catholicism.

    As years passed and I read a great many history books I came to believe such things all the more. Rodney Stark, with his sociological training combined with deep research and an obvious gift in writing ability, has taken these matters head on in many of his works. The two volume set ending with “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery” is a very important work, and one which quite frankly is WAY overdue. It is about time such works are being flung in the face of those whose so-called “intellectual” enlightenment hinges upon letting the research go out the window in favour of what amounts to little more than hate.

    The present work, “God’s Battalions”, as I understand it, started as a chapter on the history of anti-Catholicism – a book which I very much hope his publishers let him publish as soon as possible. I hear people talk about the Da Vinci Code, believing as they do that Christianity bent over backwards to suppress women rights and it makes me sick. Its time that a gifted writer, a man worthy in the field of sociology, honest to the facts as they are known, undertakes the task of setting the recorded straight.

    Of course there will be those like Peter Konieczny who left a post above, but they really have not much of a leg to stand on. Today one can go on-line to places like the “Internet Medieval Source book” and actually read many of the accounts taken from the time period involved in Starks book and discover directly that he is quite on the mark with his assessments and treatment, for example they have a copy of the Gesta Francorum, which Stark points to quite often, here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gesta-cde.html In addition one can get the books by Jonathan Riley-Smith (recognized world wide as one of the leading experts in Medieval History) and Thomas Madden (A leading expert in Medieval History in the United States) and discover that Stark is quite in line with these highly noted historians. But like he states, they are not widely read by the general public, thus Stark helps there big time. When one does such homework, one learns rather fast that the “belief” of people like Peter Konieczny are, well, just that, “beliefs”.

    Troy Large

  • I know of at least one library in Melbourne that hold this book, very handy to me in fact. I’ll put it on my must read list.

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