The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades

The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades by Paul M. Cobb. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Paul Cobb’s account of the clash between Moslems and Franks in the medieval world argues that there is an alternative way of looking at the crusaders. Rather than Christian holy warriors, Moslem sources portray these Franks as fanatical, unkempt, intolerant, and untutored. They are barbarians who are disrupting life on the fringes of the more civilized Moslem lands.

The Franks were intent on liberating the cities and lands in Palestine associated with the life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the same time they were also extending Christendom into the Baltic region and the British Isles and aiding Christian forces in Iberia (Arabic, Al-Andalus). The Normans, a branch of the Germanic Franks, invaded Moslem Sicily, and, for a brief period, they were a threat to North Africa. Cobb, however, denies that this was a clash of civilizations, à la Samuel Huntington.  Christians and Moslems, he points out, also joined with each other to fight mutual opponents, Moslem and/or Christian.

Neither the Islamic states nor the Franks had a navy. But the Italian cities, particularly Venice and Genoa, did and had long functioned as middlemen in the Mediterranean trade in luxury goods from Asia. While the first wave of Frankish crusader-warriors reached Palestine on foot, later armies were transported and their military operations provisioned primarily by Genoese shipping. This dependence upon Italian shipping allowed the Italians to influence which cities would become crusading targets.

One of Cobb’s themes is that it was the persistence of Moslem anarchy that allowed Frankish opportunity. This instability was partly the result of growing differences between Shi’i and Sunni. It was also the consequence of the rise and decline of Islamic warriors and unsettled rules for succession. Some historians have argued that the Frankish challenge resulted in the establishment of a more permanent state system in the Near East and North Africa. Cobb is uncertain about which is cause and which effect.

Cobb doesn’t insist on assigning numbers to the several periods of Frankish activity in the Near East. The Moslems looked upon the armed warfare in Syria and Palestine to “protect” Christian pilgrimage as the latest episode of a much longer history of the Frankish assault on Islam. Sacred to three religions (Judaism included), Jerusalem and other sites in Palestine should be open, Moslems contended, to all pilgrims. Besides pilgrimage was a profitable business.

While there are similarities, Cobb does not equate jihad with the Christian crusading effort. Jihad is an inner struggle of the faithful to acquire holiness that involved different obligations in different situations. In Dar-al-Islam (abode of Islam) the Moslem faith was recognized as the dominant religious practice; other religions were tolerated. Within the Dar al-Harb, (abode of war). the faithful jihadi was obliged to purify the land, offering to the non-Moslem the option of conversion. Should that be rejected, the Moslem warrior was obliged to rid the land of the heathen.

Short of armed conflict, Islamic law also allowed for the possibility of negotiation. Christian and Jewish communities, with the payment of special taxes, could live peacefully under the reign of an emir and supply him with administrators. Though literate and skilled, they did not pose a threat to the emir as did Moslems recruited from within the power structure.

Constantinople was the center of Greek Christianity as Rome was Latin Christianity. In 1095 Pope Urban II issued a call for western lords to provide armed assistance to the Greek Christians. Constantinople was threatened by the Seljuks, a Turkish tribe that had established a vast empire centered on Persia and extending into Anatolia and Palestine. The response was overwhelming. The “people’s crusade,” led by Frankish lords, began its trek to the Holy Land.

Those lords who volunteered and their retainers were promised indulgences, which, with the blessing of the Church, reduced the length of punishment for one’s sins. The Papacy had no army nor sufficient resources to finance the armed pilgrims; the lords who volunteered were ‘self-financed.’ Their wealth in the eleventh century was still primarily landed wealth. They could raise the cash necessary for their armed pilgrimage by borrowing from wealthy monasteries and churches, mortgaging their lands as collateral. Urban II urged religious establishments to make loans at favorable terms to those volunteering.

Cobb argues that the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean was dramatically altered by the expansion of the Ottomans (Osmani Turks) in the early fourteenth century. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople and made it their capital. From there they dominated much of the Balkans, Egypt, and the Near East. The rise of the Ottoman Empire gradually reduced the anarchy within Islam, and thus the opportunity for the expansion of Western Christendom into the Eastern Mediterranean, according to Cobb.

Paul Cobb’s The Race for Paradise; An Islamic History of the Crusades  was required reading for a class on the Holy Wars taught by Professor Nina Caputo, UF, a specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.



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