Saladin and the Problem of the Counter-Crusade in Medieval Europe
By Jay Rubenstein
Historically Speaking, Vol.13:5 (2012)
Introduction: In 1105 a Muslim Damascene scholar named Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami argued in a treatise that Muslims needed to learn anew the practice of jihad. A wicked race of unbelievers, polytheistic Christians who insisted on worshipping three gods instead of one, was waging war—their own version of jihad—against Islam. After centuries of wrangling, the faithful needed finally to set aside differences and together drive out the invaders.
The enemies of whom al-Sulami wrote, the “Franks,” which included but was not limited to the crusaders, had made significant incursions into Muslim territory. From al-Sulami’s perspective, these Franks had together orchestrated a worldwide conspiracy. Only recently they had captured Sicily and southern Italy, and for years now they had been attacking Muslim lands in Spain. But worst of all and most shamefully, they had conquered Jerusalem and its two great shrines, the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. In response, the Islamic world had done nothing. Muslims needed to awake from their torpor and wage war, a focused jihad, against Christianity.
But the disunity that al-Sulami decried was simply too ingrained—an attribute of the Islamic world rather than an anomaly. Most obviously there was the great Sunni-Shia confessional divide, given political form by the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo. But there existed also smaller sects and rivalries, both political and religious, that had made unified Islamic action against the crusade impossible.
A disputed succession to the Fatimid Caliphate in 1094, for example, had led to the birth of the Ismaili sect, better known as “the Assassins” and best remembered for their expertise at political murder. As for the Abbasids, they were under the domination of Seljuk Turks, who had seized power in the 1050s and inaugurated an era of loosely organized military expansion. The western frontier of the Sunni Caliphate had become exactly that: a frontier society run by small-minded territorial princes and peopled by Muslims, Jews, and Christians of a variety of traditions, languages, and ethnicities.