CRUCIBLE: High Horse of Crusades (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/28 February)– In a recent National Prayer Breakfast at the White House, President Barack Obama tried to rationalize the innate tendency in man to engage on acts beyond the pattern or natural order of life. He created an angle into the view regarding the worsening crisis in many areas in the Middle East. Yet, he warned: “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

“In our home country,” President Obama said, “slavery and Jim Crow are too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

“Modern extremism,” the US President remarked, “is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.”

As a result of his remarks, President Obama received criticism from many quarters as they dug the history of Crusades while pointing fingers on usual object of Islamophobia.

Fitrah and Crusades

We thought these remarks of President Obama and the criticism generated out of his supposed contextualization of the crisis in the Middle East ought to be reflected not only to understand that bloody episode in human history; but to reflect as well the current state of world affairs and the shadow the Crusades had continuously created like a phantom or ghost.

When we raise this subject, it is not to bring back the past or to scratch old wounds. It is to highlight the fragility of human spirit: how it can be distorted beyond the supposed fitrah (pattern) or natural order of life.

It’s a long subject. What we could do is highlight the major points of the Crusades since its beginning in 1095 when Pope Urban II rallied the whole Christendom particularly in Europe to regain Jerusalem from the hands of Saracens, the term used to describe Muslims that time.

Scholars varied with their description and periodization of the Crusades even differing with their narratives. What is constant in their stories is the spilling of blood and the dawning of chaos and mayhem in that “sacred space” in Palestine.

What made the Crusade project ironic is that, no less than great religions were used as justifications of destruction in the quest to control Jerusalem. Although war and destruction had almost been innate since the beginning of time, the Crusades surfaced one of the most ironic episodes of human history.

When we said that period of Crusades was not exceptional in the history of war and violence, we say even before creation, the angels, as we’d alluded in our previous discourses, had already seen the pitfalls of humankind when they remarked:

“Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood (Baqarah: 30)?”

And since the quarrel between Habil (Abel) and Cabil (Cain), mischief and shedding of blood had long defined the grim history of the world perpetuating quagmire and quarrels amongst mankind.

We say the Crusades reflected the highest irony because no less than world religions, the supposed source of highest ideals and peace were used, as we said, in the destruction, control and counter-control of Jerusalem creating immense impact in many parts of Asia and the rest of the world.

Petty crusades?

To say the least, scholars are not unanimous in determining the number or stages of Crusades. Some would say there were ten Crusades; some say fourteen, and so on. Anyhow, the eventual capture of Constantinople in 1453 ended accordingly the Crusades. According to some scholars, that would have been the last before the 14th Crusades.

Incidentally, there were also some transitions from the supposed religious mission that became an economic adventure eliciting the opening of the East to the West and led eventually into the period of Western adventurism beginning with the rivalry between Portugal and Spain; then the rise of succeeding colonial powers like the Dutch, Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. In sum, the Crusades lasted for around 350 years.

Some historians would even include the Inquisition as noted by President Obama. It was the time when the Moors together with the Jews were repulsed from the Iberian Peninsula or Spain. From then on, that started the search for other territories including the launching of expeditions to reach the Spices Island, which is now part of Indonesia. All this constitutes grim reminder of the Crusades with tremendous effects in the meeting of East and West.

If the Inquisition, if we follow President Obama’s view, is part of the Crusades and thus the search for territories or what is referred to in conventional history as the Age of Discovery, we can thus assume that the Crusades actually continued beyond the Inquisition as some of them were reflected in petty Crusades that were not included in Western history.

We have to note, for instance, that the rise of Spain in the West did not only repulse but also block the spread of Islam from the Maghrib to the Iberian Peninsula and other parts of Europe. In the same manner, the advent of Spain in the Philippines also thwarted the spread of Islam in the East that was actually moving quite steadily in many parts of Southeast Asia towards the Sulu Archipelago and other parts of Mindanao and the rest of the Philippine Islands. So that, in both East and West, the role of Spain was crucial in foiling the Islamic advance. The main difference is that, while the Moors in Spain were repulsed or pushed back to the Maghrib or North Africa, the Moros in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were able to stand their ground until the end of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines.

What is rather missing in the discourse on Crusades beyond what is generally known is the fact that wars continued in the Philippine islands for many centuries even longer than the number of Crusades happening in many parts of the world. Ironically, it is simplified and known merely as Moro-Hispanic wars. While Crusades and their effects have already been accepted or resolved centuries ago, until these days, the effects of Moro-Hispanic wars in the Philippines are continuously haggled both in battlefield and in negotiating table between the Moro movements and the Philippine government.

This is to show the difficulty in identifying the periods of major Crusades and their attendant effects – situations that, in many instances, were rather unattended by big powers these days, but whose impact continues to reverberate until our time.

Richard and Saladin

When we highlight the notion of fitrah or the natural order as that which is constant yet has continuously been agitated because of human weaknesses or excesses, which are most often reflected in wars and conflict, we say that there is actually a constant in the pattern or order of things that ought to be recognized. Thus, it should be viewed as that which is permanent. The Qur’an says:

So thy face steadily and truly to the Faith: Establish God’s handiwork according to the pattern on which He has made mankind; no change (let there be) in the work (wrought) by God: that is the Standard Religion. But most among mankind understand not (Rum: 30).” 

One of the crucial parts of the Crusades was the encounter of two great leaders: one from Islamdom; the other from Christendom. They were Salahuddin (Saladin) al-Ayyubi and Richard the Lion Heart. They were great leaders from their respective faith communities. They slugged it out to control Jerusalem. Although Saladin was successful in taking over Jerusalem from earlier Crusaders, the response of Richard the Lion Heart was equally commendable in terms of displaying his unparalleled valor and tenacity.

Moreover, although Richard saw Jerusalem at near distance but was not able to reach the Holy Land while he took Jaffa and Acre, at certain point, there was a realization from the two leaders: while what they did was an expression of values like bravery and determination, they, too realized their own excesses, their egotism and fanaticism. Thus after realizing their pitfalls, Saladin and Richard entered into a treaty agreeing, among others, that while Jerusalem should be under Muslim rule, Christians were allowed to trade and pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

Human frailty

What we’d like to emphasize is that there are moments in history where men tread beyond what is supposedly the fitrah or natural order. Every time they slug it out and try to finish off each other as they could be gripped by the vociferation of their “high spirit,” it is in those moments, too, where they would see their frailty and their folly convincing them to return and embrace what is normal and live in peace with the other.

But it is such that history, as it has been said, continues to repeat itself. In fact, the Crusades did not end despite the Treaty of Saladin and Richard. It became eventually an economic aggression of Europe against Asia, wherein at one point, due to desperation, deployed children as marching Crusaders if only to satisfy the West’s Imperial urges.

Of course, other petty crusades did not end and continued even until the birth of nation-states rendering passé the old and imperial order of relation between Islam and Christendom while evolving a new relation especially with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

This period redefined the relationship of the West with Islamdom while creating conditions that are actually similar to the period of the Crusades, but whose ideology and strategy differ considerably; that is, European powers in the name of colonialism rode the high horse of Crusades, albeit not in conventional sense. Through neocolonialism, they took the rein over the Muslim world, divided them and made them quarrel amongst themselves until these days.

The allusion of President Barack Obama is such that, the rampage of the ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Levant brought to fore the memory of the Crusades. Not only the fact that the area – Iraq and the Levant – was practically the battle ground of the Crusaders in those time; what is ironic [is that] there are new forces in high horses trying to replicate the Crusades of old. Big Powers could not wash off their hands as they represent, as it were, big horses galloping even higher over the Middle East and elsewhere than any period of history.

Defense and strategy

There are two hadith (sayings) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) reminding humanity that war is not the end of any endeavor to struggle. If there is a way with which non-engagement can be an option, then jihad should rather be restrained. A hadith reads:

“Do not seek an engagement with the enemy, but if you come into a clash with the enemy then be firmed.”

This suggests that war in Islam is defensive even restraining combatants or non-combatants not to engage the enemy, although when war is brought to them then they have to respond accordingly.

There is another hadith: “war is the name of stratagem and cleverness.” From this view, war is not the end of any struggle. If one could get his objective without necessarily engaging in war by using, say, certain strategy or cleverness, then, that would be the best form of struggle.

As those radical quarters of the Muslim world wage war relentlessly, yet, since they are not getting anywhere, their condition or situation is used against them while pitting them against each other and pressing them even harder.

This view gives us insights about natural order of things and how, at times, we could be subject of our own selfishness and egoism. Over-righteousness against our perceived excesses and ill will of the other could be our pitfalls. The irony is, we won’t usually realize it unless we reach the peak of our folly. We have seen this in many instances especially during war. The devastating effect of World War I and World War II led Big Powers to realize that they could not afford to slug it out continuously.

By reflecting on the Crusades and knowing how early leaders from both Islam and Christendom (like Saladin and Richard) realized their pitfalls in waging their fanatical wars, I guess we could also learn immense lesson especially in calling those with high tendency to violate their own fitrah to restraint their mettle and folly in their high horses.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with some editing) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 20 February 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].