Vol. XVIII of the series The Light and the Dark – a cultural history of dualism is the fourth on the Middle Ages. With the exception of Ch. II its subject is the always very difficult, mostly hostile and even dualistic relationship of the Christian and Muslim worlds during the Middle Ages. Both parties found that the other should not be there. The Arab and Turkish offensives were enormously successful, but there were Christian counteroffensives, in Spain and Sicily, and the Crusades.
Ch. I, Part I, relates the last Arab conquests, mainly the conquest of Sicily during the ninth century.
Part II discusses the problem of Muslim unity. Theoretically or ideally all Muslims and all Muslim nations are one; this is the so-called ummah. The caliph is the supreme head of the Muslim world, both in spiritual and in temporal affairs. However, the Muslims never were one; there have been only two undisputed caliphs, Abu Bekr (632-634) and `Umar (634-644). After 634 there were civil wars. Unity was restored, when the Umayyah dynasty (660-750), based on Damascus, came to power; already during the reign of the first Umayyah caliph the great and definitie split in the Muslim world occurred, that between Sunnites and Shi`ites. A caliph had to be a legitimate descendant of the Prophet, but a minority of the Muslims did not recognize the Umayyah rulers as legitimate. There were many Shi`ite revoly\ts, especially in Iraq. The end of the Umayyah dunasty in 750 also meant the end of Muslim unity, which was never restored. From 750-1250 the Abbassid dynasty, based on Baghdad, ruled the eastern half of the Muslim world (with Harun al-Rashid (768-809) as its most famous caliph). However, the last Umayyah prince escaped to Spain and founded the Spanish Umayyah dynasty, which did not recognize Abbassid rule. These Spanish Umayyahs ruled not only Spain, but also North Africa and Egypt. In the tenth century Egypt became an independent caliphate. In the Spain of the Later Middle Ages there were several caliphates.
Part III has the Turkish Empire as its subject. The Turks were great conquerors; their medieval conquests must be divided into two periods: that of Seljuqs and that of the Ottomans. The Turks belong to the Finno-Ugrian language group. We first hear of them in the sixth century, when they were still pagans. Their habitat then – they were nomads – was Central Asia. In the eighth century the Arabs conquered their southern territories, with the important result that the Turks became Sunnite Muslims. The Seljuqs, a nomad Turkish tribe, appear on the historical stage shortly before 1000; once in Arab territory they too became Sunnites and conquered domains for themselves. In the eleventh century they conquered Afghanistan in the east and Iran in the west. All the territories east of the Euphrates, with Iraq, were under Seljuq rule before 1100. But they did not stop at the Euphrates; around 1070 already Palestine with Jerusalem and Syria with Damascus were conquered. They also began to successfully penetrate Byzantine Asia Minor, the western part of which remained in Byzantine hands. The period of Seljuq conquests was interrupted by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.
The western marches of Seljuq Asia Minor, opposite the Byzanntine Empire, were controlled by semi-autonomous beys, the most important of whom was Osman (+ 1326) , the energetic founder of the Ottoman dynasty; he was a warrior constantly fighting the Byzantines around 1290. Osman’s son Orkhan (1326-1362) went on conquering Byzantine territory. Marching to the east he defeated the Seljuq rulers. Under Murad I (1362-1389) the Turks appeared on European soil; in 1362 they captured Adrianopel. In 1366 he reached the Balkan range; Serbia and Macedonia were occupied. Murad was succeeded by his son Bayazid I, who conquered the last Byzantine possession in Asia Minor and extended Turkish territory in the Balkans; Saloniki fell in 1394. A last attempt to restore the situation by means of a crusade ended disastrously in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396.
The situation of Constantinople was hopeless now. It fell in 1453 to the sultan Mohammed II (1451-1481), after a truly heroic defence under the leadership of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI (1449-1453; he fell when the Turks penetrated into the city). What remained of Christian principalities in the Balkans was conquered by the Ottomans in the last decades of the fifteenth century. Rhodes was occupied in 1522. Suleyman I (1520-1566) conquered four-fifths of Hungary in 1526.
Ch. II is about deviant tendencies in Islam. Its mainstream is Sunni Islam. The word Sunnah means `method, custom, path, example’. Sunni Islam follows the tradition of the Prophet. In so far as the Shi`ites also do this, they too are `people of the Sunnah’ .
Part I is about Sufism. In Arabic it is called at-Tasawwuf, which means `to wear wool’= sufi. Perhaps the first Sufis walked about in woollen garments. Sufis have an inner vision – batin – of Islam, to be acquired through direct contemplation of the divine realities. Sufis have to be initiated; ordinary circumcision is not sufficient. They accept the Koran as the basic text, but find that it has a hidden meaning, which the Sunnites do not understand. Visionaries abound among them. One aspect has become fairly well-known in the West, nanely the dervishes; these are Sufis concentrating on ascetism, meditation and prayer. They can work themselves up to a state of trance by swirling around in a dance (a spectacle that can be seen once a year in the Turkish town of Konya).
Part II is about the Shi`a. People in the West use to think that the difference between Sunnites and Shi`ites is something like that between Catholics and protestants, but there are no great theological differences between the two branches. It is all about the succession of the Prophet. According to Shi`ite opinion it is Allah who decides on the succession, and what he decided is that only direct descendants of the Prophet can be caliphs; the Umayyahs were not his direct descendants and were, in consequence, not entitled to rule the umma. Mohammed’s daughter Fatima was married to his adopted son `Ali; therefore, `Ali’s descendants are the only legitimate leaders of Islam.
Part III is about Yazidism. Although the Umayyah dynasty is since long extinct, it still has its adherents; these are called the Yazidis; there are some sixty thousand of them, Kurds living in North Iraq. They have a Supreme Emir. Orthodox Muslims consider them as heretics.
Part IV is about the Nizariyya. The namegiver is Nizar, a Fatimid prince who was robbed of his right to the Egyptian throne by his brother. The Nizaryya became a religious-political order, which still exists. It can hardly be called a Muslim sect. In the West they become known as the `Assassins’, because they considered all others as infidels, who had forfeited their right to live. Today they are more peaceful; there are Nizari communities in many countries. Their original Imams have a successor in the person of the Agha Khan. The present Agha Khan is Shah Karim. The main body of the Nizari are the Khodjas, who live in India.
Part V describes the Islamic Gnosis. Orthodox Islam was hostile to it and persecuted the Muslim Gnostics. The most important Muslim Gnostic sect are the Nusairi-Alawites; they form about 12 % of Syrian population. The ruling president of the Republic of Syria, Bashar al-Asad, is an Alawite.
Ch. IIII is about `How the West viewed Islam’. Both sides fed mainly on misunderstandings and misconceptions about each other. Islam was to the Christian West an unfathomable phenomenon. How was it possible that six centuries after Jesus Christ yet another monotheistic religion originated, with another prophet? Christianity was supposed to have no competitors. But now many Christians in the Middle East converted to the new religion. The Middle Ages experienced Islam as a permanent threat, because it made such enormous conquests. The Christians had a distorted picture of it. Their main objections were: 1. Islam is a lie and a deliberate distortion of the truth; 2. Islam is a religion of violence; 3. Islam is a religion of love of pleasure and lawlessness; 4. Mohammed was the Antichrist. More accurate notions were rare.
Ch. IV is about the first part of the Christian counteroffensive. Part I: Normans coming from South Italy conquered Sicily on the Arabs in the second half of the eleventh century. The Arabs lost their last possessions in 1091. Part II: The Reconquista of Spain was a much longer process. It began with the Frankish conquest of the so-called Spanish March, the region between the nether course of the Ebro and the Pyrenees, around 780, with Barcelona as the main price. The northern part of the peninsula, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque country, had remained in Christian hands; it was from there that the reconquest began. It never was a smooth process; the Christian-Muslim frontier often went to and fro. Around 1100 this frontier ran along the river Tagus; Toledo was in Christian hands then. In often very heavy fighting, with bloody battles, the Christians pushed on south of the Tagus. The last part of Spain to remain Arab was the Kingdom of Granada. This was finally conquered in 1492.
Ch. V is about the Christian counteroffensive II, the Crusades, 1096-1144. It should be understood that the West never had the intention to conquer the whole of the Turkish Empire; there was a limited war aim, namely, the liberation of the Holy Places in Palestine. The initiative was taken by Pope Urban II in 1096 in Clermont-Ferrand, who summoned the Latin Christians to march out; his call was widely responded. The First Crusade consisted in fact of two crusades, the Popular Crusade and the Seigneurial Crusade. The popular army, led by Peter the Hermit, was a loose group of enthusiasts and adventurers. Soon after its arrival in Asia Minor it was entirely destroyed by the Turks. The Seigneurial Crusade was composed of noblemen and knights with their militias; it consisted in fact of four crusader armies. It made its way through Asia Minor and conquered Antioch in 1097 and Jerusalem in 1099; in both cases the crusaders caused a bloodbath among the inhabitants. True to western feudal custom, the conquered territories in Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine were divided into four principalities: the Principality of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripolis and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
The fall of Edessa in 1144 caused the Second Crusade of 1147, consisting of a German and a French army. The German army was completely routed by the Turks in Asia Minor. Of the French army only half of the effectives reached Antioch, which did not accomplished very much.
Ch. VI is devoted to the Christian counteroffensive II, 1144-1291. The existence of the three crusader states in Syria and Palestine always was a precarious affair, especially when great Muslim chiefs arose, the most successful of whom was Saladin, sultan of Egypt. He conquered Jerusalem in 1187. This triggered off the Third Crusade, consisting of German, French and English armies. The German army was led by the German Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, who drowned in the river Selef in Asia Minor. Only a few soldiers reached Jerusalem. The French and English armies, led by resp. King Philip II August and King Richard Coeur de Lion, came along the sea route. Their main success was the reconquest of Acre, henceforward the seat of the Kings of Jerusalem. (The Fourth Crusade of 1204 was deflected to Constantinople and never reached the Holy Land.)
The Fifth Crusade attacked Egypt, considered the true seat of Muslim power; Damietta was won and lost, 1218-1221. Then followed the solo crusade of the German Emperor Frederick II; he went to Palestine without an army; thanks to his diplomatic gifts he succeeded in concluding in 1229 the Treaty of Jaffa with the Egyptian sultan al-Kamil. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were ceded to the Christians for the time of ten years. Jerusalem was reconquered by the Muslims in 1244. Meanwhile the Sixth Crusade had already taken place in 1239, achieving almost nothing. One city after the other was lost to the Muslims. In 1248-1254 the Seventh Crusade took place; a French army under King Louis IX invaded Egypt, captured Damietta and marched on Cairo, but finally coming to grief. After this the Egyptians went on conquering Christian cities, Antioch in 1268, Tripoli in 1289, Acre in 1291. With this the Christian presence in the Holy Land came to an end.
Ch. VII, an assessment, discusses the question of the crusades having been really necessary. This question is answered in the negative. The bad effect of the crusades on the Christian-Muslim relations is felt to this day.
Published in 2003 by Gopher Publishers.