Crusade and Jihad by Malcolm Lambert
Profile Books, £20
“The past exerts its sway both to bane and to benefit,” says Malcolm Lambert half-way through his new study of religious war and, in particular, the entwined notions of crusade and jihad. Both terms are common currency these days, as likely to be heard from the mouths of presidents as from news reporters or terrorists. Lambert, author of Medieval Heresy, has bravely tried to disentangle these concepts from the warp and weft of the past.
The book is structured in three parts. The first details the history of Islam and Christianity leading up to the First Crusade. The second, and longest, section is a new account of the Crusades themselves, focusing on both Christian and Arab points of view. Finally, Lambert looks at modern iterations of crusade and jihad and how relevant they are to the modern world narrative.
The early history of Islam is both fascinating and incredibly complex. Lambert guides us through the revelations of Mohammed, his war with polytheistic Mecca and, more importantly, the bloody succession battle which resulted in the Shia-Sunni split.
Islam was a tidal wave sweeping across the Middle East in the 7th century, its armies conquering huge swathes of land, including Jerusalem (AD 638) which had only recently been taken back by the Byzantine empire from the Persians. Lambert is great at tracing the rise of Islam – the deadly internal disputes, civil wars and rampant fratricides.
The fierce Fatimid caliph al-Hakim destroyed Constantine’s original Holy Sepulchre basilica in 1009 and Pope Sergius IV immediately issued an encyclical calling on Christians to restore the church. Unfortunately, no one responded. Europe was then embroiled in myriad petty wars and territorial disputes and had no time for foreign excursions.
Almost a century later, however, it was a different matter. When Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095, Europe had changed and, after the Council of Clermont, the enticement of total remission of sin made the notion of crusading extremely popular.
There have been many narrative histories of the Crusades and Lambert does a good job of condensing this intricate subject. After the appalling behaviour of the People’s Crusade, which slaughtered most of the Rhineland’s Jews, the First Crusade was unexpectedly triumphant, capturing Jerusalem in 1099. The Crusader kingdoms that emerged in the aftermath play out like an episode of Game of Thrones, replete with petty bickering, wanton slaughter and snaky allegiances.
Lambert overturns the common belief that these kingdoms were weak and destined to failure. He suggests it was the constant lack of male heirs that ultimately doomed them. But they also finally faced a superior foe in Salah al-Din (Saladin), a Kurd who united the disparate Islamic factions and retook Jerusalem in 1187. The rest of the Crusader kingdoms fell shortly thereafter.
Lambert’s final section details the history of Christian-Muslim recourse to holy war in the centuries since. President George W Bush’s declaration of a “crusade” against terror turned the word into political ammunition, with many Muslims now seeing any Western intervention as a repeat of the Crusades. Lambert is right to urge caution in using words that are attached to a specific historical context to explain a modern one. The setting of medieval Europe/Arabia is an entirely different one to the political realities of the early 21st century and, as Lambert warns us, the use of these terms is both misleading and dangerous. Tackling a complex subject, Lambert has produced a dense, thought-provoking and extremely readable book.