The Rise of Islam

To fully understand the reasoning behind Pope Urban’s call to Holy War in 1095, one must understand the historical events that took place in the centuries leading up to the late eleventh century. Those historical events were essentially the rise of Islam.

Islam was born in around 610 AD when a man named Muhammad started receiving revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel. Muhammad bears much resemblance to Jesus in that he was from a poor family and he was also illiterate.

After he started receiving these revelations, Muhammad had his family and a few others converted to Islam, but the people of Mecca clung to Zoroastrianism — the ancient, pagan religion Mecca adhered to. Like Jesus, Muhammad was forced to flee his hometown (which was Mecca) and seek refuge in a neighboring city. For Muhammad, that neighboring city was Medina. Unlike Jesus who traversed the Holy Land peacefully, preaching the word of God and performing miracles, Muhammad took up the sword and waged war against Mecca. The war was long and bloody, but it finally fell to Muhammad and his followers in 632, just a few years before Muhammad’s death.

Muhammad took what he learnt from the teachings of Christianity and Judaism, but made a new religion that was much more refined and profound: Islam.

‘Islam’ means total submission to God’s (Allah’s) will.

Islam took root in Medina during Muhammad’s life, but much more so after his death thanks to his ardent, loyal followers.

Caliph and common Arab alike believed that Islam was the one and only true religion; the only path to salvation. Every man — Islam regarded women as second class citizens and still does to this day — must submit themselves to the will of God (Allah). This ultimately resulted in an insatiable desire to unite the entire world under the banner of Islam.

From the mid seventh century until the early eighth century, the Muslim armies were unconquerable. Within the second half of the seventh century, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, most of Persia,  and the entire north coast of Africa fell to the Muslims. Then, in 711, Islamic forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula which is Spain and within two decades, they conquered most of Iberia.

The booty and slaves captured from conquered territory brought the Muslims immense wealth. They were also united under one Caliph and their armies, organized. That is what enabled them to keep on expanding. They would have taken over Europe—the whole world for that matter –had not Charles “The Hammer” Martel roundly defeated them at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 AD. Badly beaten and significantly mowed down in size, the Muslim army retreated back to Spain and never again set foot on French soil.

It should also be noted that, as early as the eighth century, Muslim unity had begun to splinter into several factions; another reason why Muslim expansion westward was halted. They began to direct their conflict inwards, against each other, rather than against the ‘infidel’.

What happened to Christians and Jews in conquered territories?                                             

Ironically, the Muslims did not force immediate conversion upon the Christians and Jews. In fact, the Muslims referred to them as “Peoples of the Book.” For this reason, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion, but not without consequence. They were considered as second class citizens, so were required to pay a heavy poll tax. Having to choose between poverty, other forms of persecution, and their faith, many Christians and Jews chose to convert to Islam.

The Treatment of Christians Under Muslim Rule Deteriorated

Christians were never treated well under Muslim domination, but under the rule of Caliph al-Hakim in the early eleventh century, they faced severe persecution.

“The Christians were ordered to dress in black and to hang wooden crosses from their necks, half a metre long, half a metre wide, weighing five ratls. Several people were flogged for playing chess. Churches were destroyed and their contents pillaged as also were their tenement houses and the houses pertaining to them,” wrote Egyptian Scholar, Al-Maqrizi in the fifteenth century.

When pilgrims and other Christians living within the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire heard of al-Hakim’s persecution of Christians, they were horrified. Stories inevitably found their way back west and fuelled Christian hatred of the Muslims, especially among the clergy.

In the early eleventh century, Pope Sergius IV attempted to start a crusade against al-Hakim.

“Let all Christians know that news has come from the east to the seat of the apostles that the church of the Holy Sepulcher has been destroyed from roof to foundations at the impious hands of the pagans…With the Lord’s help we intend to kill all these enemies and to restore and Redeemer’s Holy Sepulcher,” wrote Pope Sergius IV.

However, it wouldn’t be until the end of the eleventh century that this call to arms, call for Holy War, would take on more vigor and intensity. Only one man would set Christendom on fire with crusading zeal: Pope Urban II.

The Byzantine Empire on The Brink of Destruction

News of al-Hakim’s ruthless persecution of Christians wasn’t the sole event that triggered hatred in the west. The Byzantine Empire, in the eleventh century, was on the brink of destruction. In the 1040s, Turkish warriors migrated from the steppes of central Asia and conquered Persia, then invaded Armenia and Iraq, and conquered Baghdad in the year of 1055.

The Turkish invasions jeopardized the safety of pilgrims and threatened to sever Europe’s ties with Jerusalem. To make matters worse, Byzantium was severely weakened by the Bubonic Plague. Many people had died, leaving the emperor unable to protect the pilgrims and his people from Muslim raids.

In the summer of 1071 Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes decisively chose to fight back with two goals in mind: recapture all territory lost to the Turks and crush Sultan Alp-Arslan and his armies for good. However, it was not so. The Emperor’s army numbered approximately 40,000 troops, but Caliph Alp-Arslan’s army held the upper hand in strategy. At the battle of Manzikert, Emperor Romanus was captured and his armies, defeated.

Romanus was not held captive for long, but shortly after he returned to his people, he was “deposed, and then blinded and finally killed after great torture and torment.”

When Alexius I Comnenus took the imperial throne in 1081, only a few coastal towns in the north belonged to the Byzantine Empire. Not only were his coffers empty, Alexius was bombarded with perpetual threats from the Turks. At the same time, ferocious Pecheneg and Cuman nomads from the Russian steppes raided the Danube frontier. It was at this crucial moment that Emperor Alexius decided he needed help.

In 1093, Alexius wrote a letter to Robert, Count of Flanders, requesting military aid against the Seljuk Turks. In his letter, Alexius wrote of all the horrible deeds the Seljuk Turks had committed. Emperor Alexius feared — no, he knew — that all of Byzantium would fall to the Turks and Christianity in the East would be stamped out. These fears weren’t imagined; they were very real, and they were certainly spelled out to Count Robert. 

Alexius also took the extra measure to provide Count Robert with other reasons why Robert should send military aid to Constantinople:

“Remember that you will find all those treasures and also the most beautiful women of the Orient. The incomparable beauty of the Greek women would seem to be a sufficient reason to attract the armies of the Franks,” Alexius wrote.

Beautiful women! That would have provided any man with enough incentive to travel a long distance and fight in a foreign land. However, Emperor Alexius needed only a small army of barons and their strongest knights to fight the Turks. That’s what he wanted. He had not anticipated the enormous armed force that would arrive at the shores of Constantinople three years later.

Sources Used:

Alexius I Comnenus: Byzantine Emperor: http://www.rdsinc.com/pdf/samples/sp691771.pdf

The Battle of Manzikert (1071 A.D.): http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/imperialism/notes/manzikert.html