Holy Wars of the Crusades

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Over the centuries both Muslims and Christians have aggressively been engaged in war, the most common reason is because they believe they will be rewarded for waging war in the name of God. In recent decades, terror attacks have brought the Islamist militancy to the central interest of the world’s security concerns. After the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11th began the emergence of judgment towards how legitimate the Islamic message was in addition to the jihad addressed by Osama bin Laden.

Coinciding with this assumption are the misconceptions of the jihad, which many interpret as a “holy war”, to kill or covert those who are not believers of the Islamic faith. However, what many fail to realize is that Islam is not the only religion that has committed violent acts in the name of God. Christianity, has its history of violent encounters of Holy Wars in which Christians called the Crusades, whose sole purpose for crusading was to support the Christian Church and taking back the Holy Land of Jerusalem from the Muslims [1].

During the medieval period, both the jihad and the Crusades were conceived as Holy War regarding both Islam and Christianity. However, in the case of this paper, I feel the relevance lies in examining the degree in which they appropriate the category of a Just War, especially considering the motives of calling for crusading and the jihad. Arguably, both the Crusades and the Counter-Crusades during the medieval period provides examples of religious justification for violence however, while both movements cover elements that are conservative by nature, the extent in which the Crusades are classified as defensive acts are doubtful.

Upon closer inspection, it is evident that there is more to the Crusades than the religious duty of gaining back the holy land. There are numerous accounts in which the cause of the Crusades was established, such as the economic decline and the overpopulation of Europe, therefore, a crusade to Jerusalem would have provided the necessary resources needed to maintain society. [2] This provides evidence to show that the Crusades were not just holy quest to regain the Holy Land, that the Pope’s speech clearly indicates that the Crusade is also about the material gain of the people in Europe.

Therefore, bringing me to the core of my paper, in which I imply that the meaning of the Crusades was commonly misconstrued and that its purpose is more so concentrated on the idea of material and monetary gains rather than of a holy quest, thereby justifying my stance of Just War. I will first introduce the concept of what I believe qualifies as a Just War from both a Christian and Islamic perspective, by examining this phenomenon, it should help of gain a better understanding of religiously justified violence from a historical contexts with examples Saint Augustine’s development of the Christian theory of Just War.

With the attempt to define a corresponding theory in Islam, I will be taking into account Islamic jurisprudence. In addition, I will attempt to provide a better understanding of the fundamentals of the Crusades on an individual and institutional level and of jihad within the Islamic tradition. Making these distinctions between these factors will expand one’s knowledge of this largely one-side view of the Crusades justifications and motivations.

From my understanding the concept of Just War suggests that under any given circumstance, it is both acceptable and obligatory to wage a war. This idea has penetrated philosophical traditions in both Western and Eastern cultures in addition to the theological discourse in Christianity and Islam. In modern thought, the criteria of a Just War are primarily known, including, legitimacy, good intentions and military necessity. In contrast to the medieval concept of Just War in which European Christians justified the Crusades.[3]

It is obvious that the medieval idea of this theory could be seen as barbaric when compared to the idea of present-day and it is clear that the concept changes as it continues to develop over time. Devising a process for theological doctrines differs significantly between both religions due to obvious reasons such as religious authority, value and structure. European Christians faithfully followed their leaders within the Church with the conviction that the papal carried as much weight as the biblical word itself.

On the other hand, the leadership regarding Islam since the end of the first fitna, civil war that created the divisions within Islam. The Shi’a Muslims hold that the only legitimate leader was Ali due to the direct connection the Prophet’ bloodline. [4] According to the Shi’ite belief, without legitimate caliphate, there is no legitimate authority for declaring any sort of jihad, whether it be the lesser or greater jihad, besides that of defense. In order to better understand this stance, it is best to look through or focus on the tradition of war justification by jurisprudence within Sunni Islam.

There are four schools of classical jurisprudence in Sunni Islam whose major contribution was institutionalizing in the fiqh, which is describes as the practice of shari’a reasoning and the ‘ulama with the purpose of determining how to live in accordance with the will of God. The Qur’an is one of the elements within the fiqh and it is a book of divine revelation as resulted through the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to be “prophetic literature”, otherwise known as God’s own speech. [5]

The shari’a is essential to Islam and the importance of the Qur’an to shari’a is observed in its stated purpose of the divine revelation of forbidding those wrong and the command of good. Sunna simply meaning custom, this symbolizes precedents set by the Prophet as primarily transmitted through the hadith, the records of his many sayings and travels. Ijma’, the compromise of the Muslim community, the umma, lastly, the qiyas in essence carries more debate on reasoning by similarity due to reliance on human judgment.[6]

Greek and Roman philosophy embarked on the Western discourse on the morality of war and homicide. The term “just war” was first coined by Aristotle, to born the idea of was as way of securing and stabilizing the peace and prosperity through self-defense against conquest of invading civilizations. Under the Roman Law, it is safe to say that war had become nearly a legal practice therefore, leaving the notion of “just cause” as the primary contribution to the Just War. With the combination of Christian morality and Roman the principles, it allows emperors to seek the guidance for every aspect governance, including war. Thus establishing Roman Law as the political support of the Just War Concept while Christianity provided the basis for the moral elements of the doctrine.

Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the first to present this the comprehensive concept of Christian Just War form. Augustine essentially wanted to reconcile the Christian values of the New Testament  substituting values of peace and patience with violence of the Old Testament. The Church promoted taking the cross and going to the Holy Land thus demonstrating love Insisting that punishment is an act of love in order to reconcile the guilt of a transgressor through the Old Testament as a sense of divine justice, in other words, spiteful justice describes positive acts of violent of necessary which is intended to restore the order. [7]

Therefore, making Augustine’s concept of spiteful justice stumbles on the fringe of aggression, at the same time acting as a reactive response. The requirement that a just war can be defensive innately developments much later with the evolution of the Western Just War tradition. Having said that, the observation of Augustine’s just war doesn’t necessarily attempt to differentiate between offensive and defensive warfare but that of just and unjust. [8]

Although there is a need to protect other out of love and responsibility for them logically justifies the defense for violence in order to resist enemy aggression and offensive warfare finds legitimacy through believing that this logic is a divine commandant. Augustine’s role as a theologian who first connected the beginnings of western just war theory is widely recognized in review. The influence of his doctrine transpired near the end of the 5th century when political policies pursued by the Church became even more significant.

The most sacred source of divine teachings in Islam is the Qur’an, also, acting as the fundamental source of the guidance in shari’a. The revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet occurred partially during his time in Mecca and after his flight to Medina in 622 to seek refuge from persecution. [9] Muhammad became more than a religious leader while in Medina, he was also a statesman in addition to a military commander. The Qur’anic verses regarding war, mostly referring to the Sword verses, in addition to the Sunna of Muhammad’s wartime actions sanction violence within a context of warfare.

Meaning, these elements of holy sources of Islamic text establish the basis of the Just War concept within Islam. For example, Sura 3, verses 190-193 commands Muslims to: “fight in the way of Allah those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed, Allah loves not aggressors…But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. Fight the until there is no fitnah and worship is for Allah. But if they cease, them there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.”[10]

This fundamental doctrine f restraint commands Muslims to engage in defensive acts of warfare when they are attacked.  The controversy and complexity on the subject of war doctrine increases within Islamic jurisprudence is that of jihad and waging offensive campaigns. Within a military context, jihad, does not mean fighting as it is commonly misconceived, the majority of its usage in the Qu’ran and Sunna is within a military nature. However, there are peaceful notions of jihad that should not be overlooked. The Prophet refers to spiritual struggle to purify one’s self as the “higher” or “greater” jihad  in contrast to the “lesser jihad.[11] Therefore, raising the question of whether or not jihad can be regarding as a both violent or no-violent efforts.

In order to understand the Crusades more fully, its best that we take a look at some of their motives and justifications both on an individual and intuitional level. Many people had different reasons for joining this movement, ultimately, this movement of individuals from various societies, economic classes and backgrounds, one’s motives of the crusades was certainly not uniform. Arguably, the personal motivations of the knights in addition to the lay people who participated are open to debate.

On an institutional level of the Church, expressed by Pope Urban II at the campaign’s inception is also up for speculation and where most of the implication will be drawn from. The misconceptions regarding the Crusades are too common and are generally portrayed as a series of holy war against Islam.[12] The Crusades meets the criteria of a “just war” in a defensive nature, therefore, having already discussed the developments of Just War traditions it could be possible to study the degree in which such doctrines were adhered to in the decision to embark on the conduct of the warfare of the Crusades briefly.

Pope Urban II ‘s sermon at the Council of Clermont clearly made the call for the military expedition known as the Crusades. There is no existing transcript of the Popes speech, however, there are four different accounts that refer to the Pope’s speech, most of which date after the fall of Jerusalem to the Crusades in 1099.[13] The purpose of Urban’s address was to summon Christians of Europe to a holy wat on the behalf of Christ thus making it possible to see the parallel between Urban’s purpose and the appeal of Just War traditions.

Suggesting that Urban did not overturn the teachings of the Augustine but rather her merged the theory of Just War with the principles such as charity and pilgrimages.[14] Urban clearly establishes his reasoning for consenting to the Crusades in accordance with Augustine’s doctrine of just cause: that Muslim was the directly responsible for the plight of Christians in the East and the desecration of the Holy Sepulcher. Urban’s declares that these were intolerable injuries not only to those effected but to both Christianity and Christ. Urban also made the goals of the campaign explicit, which was liberation. Liberation from the oppression and effects of the Muslims and freeing the city of Jerusalem from its enslavement.

The first goal of liberation can be considered including Christian people within the context of protecting the Church from Muslim conquest as a whole. Initially, the Crusades was Urban’s response to the plea for aid by the Byzantine Empire, Alexius Comnenus, by encouraging the faithful Christians to come to the aid of their Eastern brethren suffering at the hands of Muslim conquerors. [15] Thus, the idea of Christian charity becomes the gripping argument behind the campaign of liberation, arguably in accordance with the Augustinian Just War doctrine.

Urban also appealed to the practice of pilgrimage to the Jerusalem, with Just War principles in his justification for the Crusades. The religious importance of holy sites was crucial to the sanctification of the movement to seize the lands back from the Muslim counter-parts. Liberating the Church was concerned with the plight of the holy lands as Christians themselves. Through the Crusades, Pope Urban II offered Christian Europeans an opportunity for remission of sins in return for their fulfillment of their vows. At the time of the Crusades. The Church taught that ones sins could be remedied due to acts of penance which in turn demonstrated remorse and the desire of forgiveness. The promising of this spiritual reward for military service became both convincing and popular once the risk of the holy war was contextualized with the risk of involved with the tradition of pilgrimage.

In a sense it is clear to see that Urban offers penance for participation in the Crusades, therefore one can suggest that this was more of a strategic decision in which he sought to limit composition of crusading armies to the warrior class of Christian knights with religious motives. Urban also acknowledge the prospect for material gain and as the crusade progressed both the Church and political leaders acknowledge that they inevitably had to promise additional benefits that went beyond the spirit, inducing forgiveness of debts and accumulated interest, protection of family and property and different aspects of justice.

There is much debate about the idea that the crusades were moved by the desires for wealth and glory, however, the evidence supporting this statement is supported by historical circumstances during the time of the sermon in 1095. Europe during this time suffering economically from an agriculture depression due to a series of droughts causing poor harvest and the expansion of famine, in addition to the increasing death rate, Europe was on the declined. A feudal system in which there was no land inheritance appeared to encourage a number of European to join the movement with the ambitions of territorial acquisition.[16] Serfs were freed from their role within the feudal system, taxes was to be paid by the Church with the cancellation of all debt.

One could suggest that many of the participant’s hand very little to lose, however, had everything to gain took the cross as a religious pretext to enrich themselves with stolen loot and in modeling a new home in a new environment. Therefore, concluding most of the participants of the crusades were either poor Europeans or member of the nobility. The financial expenditure to join the crusades was enormous. The estimated cost of the journey is just about four to five times the knights annual cost.[17] Even the wealthy knights were forced to sell their land in order to finance the crusading. Therefore, participating in the Crusades offers those an opportunity to gain personal wealth by claiming the riches in the Holy Land given the fact that their resources, material and land was lost.

Ultimately, war was more appealing to those within the nobility such as knights, they saw this as an opportunity for personal gain whether it was political or economic. Religious convictions encouraged many to participate; believing that this was their sole duty as Christians. Pillaging gave many an opportunity to receive an income who solely has careers in combat. However, that wasn’t possible until a substantial amount of sacrifice were made which was nearly impossible for most as previously stated, however, given the outcome of the Crusades the economic and political gains worked in the favor of the Christians in addition with promises of remission and forgiveness.

The Crusades were a holy war by given definition, however, maintain the position that the Holy war is to be or should be considered a Just War because of the Crusaders intensions, which were more so based on political and economic gains with very little regard to the religious aspect. In conclusion Distinguishing between Just War and Holy War can be observed in relation to the dissimilarities between moral and religious doctrine. There is a strong influence amongst Christian ethics on Western principles and the natural religious nature of the Muslim political authority, these distinctions are often hard to define but not impossible.


  1. Nikolas Jaspert. The Crusades (New York: Routledge, 2006), 37
  2. Dana Munro, “The Speech of Pope Urban II at Clermont, 1095,” The American Historical Review 11:2
  3. Jaspert, The Crusades, 14
  4. Ibid., 6
  5. Jonathan Brockopp, “Islam and War”, Lecture, The Crusades, Michigan State University, East Lansing, January 16, 2018
  6. Khalid Owayghah “The Concept of Self Defense in Islamic Jurisprudence”, Journal of Arts & Sciences, Vol.9 Iss. 4 (2017): 21
  7. Jaspert, The Crusades, 15
  8. Frank Russell, The Just War in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 21
  9. Brockopp, “Islam and War”, Lecture, January 16 2018
  10. Qur’an 2; 190-193
  11. Jonathan Brockopp, Jihad and Islamic History, 2
  12. Jonathan Phillips, The Crusdaes, (Great Britain, Pearson Education, 2002), 14
  13. Munro, “The Speech of Pope Urban”, 11:2
  14. Jaspert, The Crusades, 20
  15. Phillips, The Crusdaes, 17
  16. Ibid., 20
  17. Jaspert, The Crusades, 19

Cite this paper

Holy Wars of the Crusades. (2021, Nov 23). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/holy-wars-of-the-crusades/

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