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US President Barack Hussein Obama has raised the issue of the Crusades as “evil done in the Name of Jesus Christ” as some kind of justification, or distraction, from Islamic Jihad today. It is impossible to understand the Crusades without first understanding the five centuries of Islamic Jihad that preceded it.
The Invasion of Syria
Syria was the first Arab conquest. At that time Syria was a province of the Byzantine Empire. The capital of Syria, Damascus, was the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. The land of Syria was far more fertile than the land of Arabia. After centuries of Byzantine rule Syria had fallen to the Persians in 611 and were retaken by Byzantine in 630. As the Persians had destroyed the institutions of Byzantine rule, a leadership vacuum had developed.
Betrayed from Within
As the Byzantine Empire employed many Arab mercenaries to guard against their raiding kinsmen from the south, the defection of most of the Arab defenders left huge gaping holes in the defences of Syria. During key battles, the defection of Arab mercenaries, who were meant to be fighting for Byzantine, was decisive in turning the tide of battle against the Christians. Soon the Muslim Caliph established Damascus as the capital of the growing Islamic Empire.
The next target was Persia, which at that time included Mesopotamia, what is today known as Iraq. Here as well, whole units of the Persian cavalry consisted exclusively of Arab mercenaries. The Muslims managed to exploit the conflict of loyalties by persuading whole units of Arab mercenaries to turn traitor and join the Muslim side. Soon even the heartland of Persia, what is today known as Iran, was conquered by the Muslims. Yet, the Persians continued to rebel against Muslim rule for at least another century.
Caliph Al-Mansur moved the capital of the Muslim Empire from Damascus to Baghdad. From this base, Muslim armies moved out to conquer the Indus valley of India (what today is known as Pakistan).
Arming their Enemies
Recognising their great naval weakness, the Muslims turned to the Egyptian shipyards and commissioned Christian workmen to build them a fleet. They hired Christian mercenaries to do their navigation and sailing. In 649 this entirely mercenary fleet enabled the Muslims to invade Cyprus, Sicily and the island of Rhodes.
At this point an opportunity arose that would have enabled the Christian Byzantine Empire to regain all their losses as the Muslim world erupted in a vicious civil war. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, waged war against Muawiyah, the cousin of the murdered Caliph Uthman. Ali was murdered and Muawiyah became Caliph. From this point Islam was divided into the Sunnis and the Shiites. However, the Christian world failed to take advantage of this opportunity to regain their lost territories.
In 711 an army of 10,000 Muslims from Morocco crossed the Mediterranean at its narrowest western point to land at Gibraltar on the southern coast of Spain. King Rodrigo marched a hastily assembled army south from his capital in Toledo and was defeated in a battle at the river Guadalete. The king was drowned and the Berber Tariq Ibn-ziyad sent the king’s head to the Caliph in Damascus. Within 7 years the Moors (as the Spanish called the Muslim invaders from Morocco) had brought most of Spain, which they called Al-Andalus, under their control. The Muslims called Spain the Emirate of Cordoba. On the site of a Christian cathedral in the city of Cordoba the moors built a large mosque.
There were numerous Muslim invasions of Sicily, in 652, 667 and 720 - each of which were defeated. In 827 the Muslims invaded again with 10,000 troops. The local Christians fought back furiously and it took more than 70 years for the Muslims to conquer Sicily, after “much fighting and many massacres.” After a prolonged siege, Palermo fell in 831. Cyracuse held out until 878. Taormina held out until 902.
Cyprus was invaded and conquered by the Muslims in 653. Rhodes in 672. Sardinia in 809. Majorca was conquered in 818. The island of Crete was invaded by the Muslims in 824. Malta fell in 835. Plainly, the popular propaganda line that Islam only advanced peacefully, and that Jihad was only a defensive concept is fiction. What were Saudi Arabians defending in Spain and Cyprus?
Overstretched and Undertrained
It should be noted that, at that time, most of the armies of Persia and the Byzantine Empire were poorly trained. Most were used for static defence of strong points such as garrisons and walled cities. Very few were trained in manouvres for battle. The Byzantine Empire was particularly overstretched with insufficient soldiers to maintain their vast empire. Most of the soldiers employed by both Byzantine and Persia were foreigners who served mainly for pay, and many of these were Arabs, most of whom ended up deserting to the Muslim side.
The use of camels provided the Arab invaders with superior mobility, particularly across the deserts. Even the Arab cavalry rode between battles on camels, leading their horses. The camels enabled the Muslims to outflank imperial forces by using desert routes. When confronted by superior forces the Arabs withdrew into the desert to avoid battle. This much greater mobility allowed the Arabs to select and attack smaller forces and destroy them before reinforcements could be sent. The imperial forces of Byzantine made themselves vulnerable by spreading out and trying to defend everywhere at once, or wore themselves out marching in fruitless pursuit of a battle. These battles the Arabs normally avoided until they greatly outnumbered their enemies.
The immensity of the Byzantine Empire stretched the Byzantine forces far too thin. However, the Arabs concentrated their forces to attack specific areas at a time.
Official Islamic policy was that Dhimmis must feel “inferior” and subjugated. Laws were passed that Christians and Jews were not allowed to ride horses. Jews and Christians were compelled to wear marks of their religion when they were amongst Muslims. Non-Muslims were prohibited from wearing clothing similar to that of Muslims. Non-Muslims were forbidden to be armed. Non-Muslims were severely taxed (Jizya). No new churches of synagogues were allowed to be built. Jews and Christians were prohibited from praying aloud, or even reading the Scriptures aloud, not even in their homes or churches – lest a Muslim accidently hear them.
Massacres of Christians
In 705 the Muslim invaders of Armenia assembled all Christian nobles in a church and burned them to death. Massacres of Jews and Christians were common. In Morocco over 6,000 Jews were killed in 1033. Even more were murdered in Grenada. Tens of thousands of Christian civilians were massacred by the Muslim invaders of Cyprus in 1570. Any Muslim who converted to any other faith was condemned to death. Those today who attempt to portray Muslims through the ages as enlightened supporters of multi-cultural tolerance are either ignorant or dishonest.
Despite Muhammad’s assurance that it was impossible for Islamic armies to ever be defeated by “infidels”, Muslim armies have suffered numerous defeats throughout the centuries. In 672, the Caliph Muawiyah attempted to conquer the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople. With the massive fleet he had built up by the Egyptians, he transported 50,000 fighting men through the Dardanelles, (the narrow straight linking the Mediterranean with the Black Sea).
Clash of Civilizations at Constantinople
The Islamic assault on Constantinople in 672 was described as “the fiercest, which had ever been launched by the infidels against a Christian stronghold…” Numerous historians hailed the Christian victory over the Muslims assailing Constantinople as “A Turning point in the history of mankind.” “The fact that it held saved not only the Byzantine Empire, but the whole of European civilisation.” As another historian put it: “Had the Muslims captured Constantinople in the 7th century, rather than the 15th, all Europe – and America, might be Muslim today.”
Despite modern myths about the supposed superiority of Islamic culture and technology, the fact is that the Christians possessed superior technology and used it to defeat the Muslim invaders on numerous occasions. The walls of Constantinople were an engineering marvel, a massive outer wall with towers and superb battlements, and behind it an even stronger inner wall, 40 feet high and 15 feet thick.
Defeats at Constantinople
With their fleet burned to a cinder the Arab invaders were soon stranded and starving. Discouraged and demoralised Muawiyah surrendered and agreed to pay an annual tribute of 300 pounds of gold to Byzantine. In 717, the Muslims once again tried to conquer Constantinople. A massive fleet of 1,800 galleys attacked Constantinople. The Greek Christians rode out and with their Greek fire, pumps destroyed virtually the entire fleet. Most of the Muslim attackers were either burned up or downed. The next year, 718, the Muslims tried again with a new fleet and this was again defeated by Greek fire. Most of those galleys that managed to flee were destroyed in a devastating storm. Only five Muslim galleys survived the attack of 718.
Defeat at Toulouse
While the Muslim ambitions of conquering South Eastern Europe were frustrated by the apparently impregnable Constantinople, Muslim armies had attained far greater success on the Western edge of the Mediterranean, subjugating Spain. In 721, Al-Samah Ibn-Malik al-Khawlani the Caliph of Aldover (Spain), led his forces north of the Pyrenees Mountains to sack the city of Toulouse. For three months the city resisted his siege. Then Duke Odo of Aquitaine mobilised an army of Franks to lift the siege of Toulouse. The Muslims were taken by surprise and most were slaughtered as they fled before the Christian cavalry.
When the Muslims heard that some Franks had broken into their camp, they fled from the battlefield to protect their loot. At this the Franks unleashed their cavalry and inflicted even more severe casualties on the fleeing Muslims. At least 10,000 more died that afternoon, fleeing from the field. Among the dead lay the Caliph Abd-al-Rahman. Even at this point, Charles Martel maintained the discipline of his infantry, leaving the pursuit to the cavalry. Prepared to face a renewed onslaught the next day, the Franks slept in their ranks. The next morning scouts reported that the Muslims had fled leaving their empty tents and siege engines behind. The invaders fled back beyond the Pyrenees to Spain.
That was not the end of the Islamic threat to France. When the Muslims tried to invade Gaul again in 735, Charles Martel and the Franks gave them another severe beating. Many historians recognise the decisive victory at the Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, as one of the most important battles in world history, a turning point, absolutely essential to the survival of Western civilisation. In 759, the last foothold of Islam in South Eastern France was retaken. The Muslim armies never crossed the Pyrenees after that. In fact they began to be defeated even in Spain.
Christian Victories over Islam
These are but a few examples of Christian victories and Muslim defeats before the Crusades even began. The myth of Islamic invincibility was plainly propaganda. Before the Knights of Europe marched, or sailed, to the Holy Land, they already knew a lot about their Muslim enemies. Most importantly, they knew how to beat them.
Dr Peter Hammond is the author of Slavery, Terrorism and Islam – the Historical Roots and Contemporary Threat.
Dr. Peter Hammond
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