Post-classical history


The Muslim world before the Crusades

By the time that the crusaders arrived in the Levant, Islamic civilization was almost 500 years old. The Muslim faith had become a highly diverse tradition, practiced in a number of different ways; Muslim culture and science had become highly advanced; and the Muslim world itself had spread to cover the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia and north-west India. Here we will provide a brief discussion of the history, theology and practices of Islam, before considering the state of the Levant before the Crusades.


Allah: The Arabic word for God, meaning the god worshipped by followers of all the major monotheistic faiths.

Qur’an (Koran) The Muslim holy book, believed to record the actual words of God revealed to Muhammad starting in 610 and ending shortly before the Prophet’s death in 632.

Ka‘ba The shrine of the Black Stone at Mecca. The Ka‘ba is believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael, and is the holiest site of Islam.

Muslim tradition states that in 610, in a cave on the outskirts of the Arabian city of Mecca, an orphaned merchant named Muhammad began receiving divine revelations. He was instructed to preach to the people of Mecca, who were mostly pagans, encouraging them to abandon idolatry and worship only the one true God (‘Allah’ in Arabic), the same God worshipped by the Jews and Christians. The new faith was to be known as ‘Islam‘, a word meaning submission of one’s will to God, while the revelations themselves would eventually be gathered into the Qur‘an (recitation), the Muslim holy book. Muhammad’s message was not well received by the inhabitants of Mecca, which was an important trade centre that profited from pilgrims visiting the Ka‘ba, the shrine of the Black Stone, at the time a popular pagan religious site. In 622, in response to increasing pressure, Muhammad emigrated to Medina, about 200 miles to the north, where his message was more favourably received. Muhammad then fought an eight-year war with Mecca, culminating in his conquest of the city in 630. The Ka‘ba was confirmed as the holiest site of Islam, being seen as a shrine built by Abraham and Ishmael (Abraham’s oldest son and the ancestor of the Arabs) that had been taken over for pagan use, and most of the inhabitants of Mecca converted to Islam. By the time that Muhammad died in 632 his message had spread across the Arabian Peninsula, and most of the pagans of the region had converted.

An important teaching in Islam is that Muhammad was the last prophet, so no other Muslim could now take over this position. Leadership of the Muslim community passed instead into the hands of a succession of figures known as khalifas (caliphs, ‘successors’). The first three of these were chosen by approximate consensus of the Muslim community, but the fourth, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–61), faced opposition throughout his reign and was killed in the course of a civil war over the caliphate. Thereafter power passed under the control of a dynastic succession of caliphs, the Umayyads (r. 661–750), who ruled from Damascus. They were in turn ousted by the ‘Abbasid family, who founded the next caliphal dynasty and soon established their seat of power at Baghdad. In the meantime, the Islamic polity had continued to spread, through a mixture of armed conquest, acquiescence of local populations and voluntary conversion. By the time of the ‘Abbasid takeover in 750, the Muslims had dismantled the Persian Empire, taking over territories as far east as Transoxania and north-west India; had conquered much of the Levant, North Africa, and Spain; and had even conducted raids into what is now France. At the same time, many of the administrative structures of the state had been set up, including the establishment of Arabic as the major language of the administration and the standardization of the coinage into a distinctive form bearing Arabic inscriptions and no iconography.

The early ‘Abbasid caliphs enjoyed a heyday of power, and the first century of their rule saw the Muslim world prosper economically and intellectually. Lucrative trade networks were established across the Muslim world and to places beyond. Literature, both prose and poetic, flourished, and advances were made in science, law, philosophy and theology. Scholars took works from the Classical, Persian and Indian traditions and translated them into Arabic; many of both these texts and books by the scholars who worked on them subsequently passed into Europe, mainly through the Iberian Peninsula. However, this age of prosperity did not last, for the ‘Abbasids at least. Economic problems, rebellions and the increasing domination of the caliphs by their troops starting in the later ninth century resulted in many of the provinces becoming independent from Baghdad’s control. The final insult, from the ‘Abbasid point of view, came in the mid-tenth century when Baghdad itself was taken over by the armies of the Buyids, a Shi’iteclan from Persia. Forced to accept the Buyid conquerors as their ‘deputies‘, the Sunni caliphs became for the most part figureheads, maintained in power only to give legitimacy to the decrees of their theoretical subordinates (for the distinctions between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, see below).

Khalifa: See Caliph.

Caliph: Anglicization of the Arabic term khalifa (deputy, successor). The caliph was, in theory if not always in fact, the spiritual and political ruler of the Muslim world.

Umayyads: The first dynasty of caliphs to establish a hereditary succession. They reigned at Damascus from 661 until 750, and at Cordoba in Spain from 756 (taking the title of caliphs from 929) until 1031.

‘Abbasids: Dynasty of Sunni caliphs reigning at Baghdad at the time of the Crusades. After the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258 the caliphate was reestablished, at Cairo, in 1261, and reigned there until the Ottoman conquest of 1516–17.

Buyids: Dynasty of Persian Shi‘ites who ruled as caliphal ‘deputies’ (wielding effective power) at Baghdad from 945 to 1055.

Shi‘ites: Followers of a variety of forms of Islam who trace their spiritual origins to early Muslims who advocated that a member of the family of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–61), should be the caliph.

Sunnis: Followers of the majority form of Islam, currently constituting about 85–90 per cent of the total Muslim population of the world. The name derives from the Sunna, a word used to refer to the sayings and actions of the Prophet and his Companions, which act as a guide to Muslim conduct and are preserved in the hadith.

Seljuks: Clan of Sunni Muslim Turks who entered the Muslim world in the late tenth century. In 1055 they ousted the Buyids from Baghdad and took control of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, subsequently establishing two sultanates based in Persia and Asia Minor.

Sultan: Arabic: ‘power’. Originally used by the Seljuk ‘deputies’ of the ‘Abbasid caliph, the term ’sultan’ came to be used as an honorific mark of political power by a number of Muslim rulers, with or without caliphal approval.

Mamluk: Arabic: ‘owned’. A slave. The term is used in particular for slave-soldiers. The capitalized term is also used to refer to the Mamluk Sultanate, the sequence of oilers who controlled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517.

Turkmen: Free nomadic Turks who served in the armies of the Seljuks and later dynasties. They generally travelled with their families and flocks, at least initially, though many then settled in the new lands taken by the Seljuks. They were esteemed for their abilities as highly mobile horse-archers, though they were also often seen as undisciplined.

Turcomans: See Turkmen.

Rum: The Arabic word for the Byzantines. The term was also used to refer both to eastern Christians and to Asia Minor.

The late tenth century saw the beginning of the immigration into the Muslim world of large numbers of Turks from Central Asia. Most of these converted to Sunni Islam, and one Turkish clan, the Seljuks (Saljuqs), led their armies in a series of campaigns that enabled them to take control of much of the Middle East. In 1055 Seljuk troops took control of Baghdad, and the Buyid caliphal deputy was now replaced by a Seljuk one, known as the sultan. Although the caliph now had a Sunni deputy, this did not mean that the caliph regained significant power, and periodic conflicts between the caliphs and the sultans would take place in the twelfth century.

The Seljuk armies were largely composed of two major groups: mamluks (slave-soldiers) and Turkmen (Turcomans, free nomadic Turks). The mamluks were normally used as the backbone of the Seljuk armies, while the rather less disciplined Turkmen, who brought their families and flocks with them, were used in a supporting role or allowed to engage in their own raids, which could prove to be a convenient way to distract enemies from major Seljuk campaigns. During the reign of the Seljuk sultan Alp-Arslan (r. 1063–73), Turkmen tribesmen conducted raids against Byzantine territory in Asia Minor and northern Syria. Tensions between Alp-Arslan and the Byzantine emperor Romanus Diogenes (r. 1068–71) mounted, and in 1071 they met in battle at Manzikert (Malasjird), near Lake Van. The Byzantine army was defeated and the frontier collapsed. The Turkmen raids into the region now became a flood of immigrant settlers, and a relative of Alp-Arslan set up a new sultanate, based at Nicaea (Iznik); this became known as the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, to distinguish it from the so-called Great Seljuk Sultanate that we saw established previously. In the meantime, the Byzantine emperors sent appeals for aid to western Europe, contributing to the build-up of support for the crusade that would eventually manifest itself in military action at the end of the eleventh century.


The Muslim faith centres on the belief that there is only one God, omnipotent, omniscient and with no associates, partners or offspring. This is the same God as that of the Christians and Jews, who are presented in the Qur‘an as having received the divine revelation previously, but also as having mis-understood or distorted it. Thus the scripture that was revealed to Muhammad is seen as a corrective and clarification. Muhammad himself is understood to be the last and ‘seal’ of a long line of prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus (who is regarded as having been born of a virgin by divine will, and is explicitly noted as being a great prophet but not the son of God).

Muslims believe that at a time known only to God all who have lived will be resurrected and a Last Judgement will take place. All will be judged individually according to their good and bad deeds. Those who are judged worthy will then achieve the lush gardens of Paradise, while those who are not will be condemned to the burning fires of Hell. Thus Muslims should seek as far as possible to be righteous in their beliefs and actions. The first source of wisdom for Muslims is the Qur‘an, understood to be the words of God, dictated to the Prophet. It contains material addressing a wide range of topics, including accounts and explanations of the stories of the prophets, vivid depictions of Paradise and Hell, stern injunctions to right belief and good conduct, and practical teachings on social and personal interactions. Muslims expand their understanding of the Qur‘an through examination of the hadith, accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet and his Companions, who are seen as the foremost interpreters of theQur‘an’s teachings. Over the centuries following the death of the Prophet, a number of groups of scholars of Islamic law came into being, each of which developed its own understanding of Islamic teaching depending on its own interpretation of the Qur‘an andhadith. The four most prominent of these schools of Islamic law are the Sunni schools known as the Hanafis, the Malikis, the Shafi‘is and the Hanbalis. Muslim religious scholars also developed other methods for interpreting Islamic teaching when even thehadith did not yield a clear answer, including the use of analogy and the establishment of consensus (of the Muslim community, or of particular groups within it).

Probably the most distinctive Muslim ritual practices are the five so-called ‘Pillars of Islam’:

1.Shahada (profession of faith): Muslims use a two-part declaration of faith, ‘There is no god except God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, in various ritual practices. For example, the shahada is recited when converting to Islam.

2.Salat (ritual prayer): Most Muslims perform ritual prayers five times per day, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and in the evening. Prayer is preceded by ritual ablutions and involves changes in bodily posture, from standing, to kneeling, to prostration, accompanied by ritual recitations and invocations. A mosque is a place specially designated for prayer, but the salat can be performed anywhere, though it should be conducted facing Mecca if possible; in mosques, a niche called a mihrab indicates to worshippers the direction in which they should face. Travellers may perform an abbreviated prayer, even doing so while in their seats if necessary. Muslims are encouraged to go to the mosque on Friday for the noon prayer, when the communal practice of prayer is supplemented with a khutba (sermon).

Hadith: Accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The hadith are used alongside the Qur‘an to assist in understanding the holy book’s teachings.

Hanafis: Followers of the Sunni legal school named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767). Well-known Hanafis from the crusading period include Sibt ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1257) and the Zangid sultan Nural-Din (r. 1146–74).

Malikis: Followers of the legal school of Malik ibn Anas (d. 795). While there were a significant number of Maliki scholars in the Levant in the crusading period, the school was much more prominent in Spain and North Africa.

Shafi‘is: Followers of the legal school of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820). The most famous Shafi‘i of the crusading period is Saladin (r. 1169–93).

Hanbalis: Followers of the Sunni legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Probably the most famous Hanbali scholar of the crusading period is IbnTaymiyya (d. 1328).

Pillars of Islam: Five major ritual practices that characterize the religious observances of a Muslim: (1) shahada (profession of faith); (2) salat (ritual prayer); (3) zakat (almsgiving); (4) sawm (fasting); and (5) hajj (greater pilgrimage).

Shahada: Profession of faith. A ‘pillar of Islam‘. The two-part declaration of faith, ‘There is no god except God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God‘, is spoken regularly by Muslims as part of their ritual observances.

Salat: Ritual prayer. A ‘pillar of Islam‘. Most Muslims perform the salat five times a day, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and in the evening.

Mihrab: A prayer niche in a mosque, oriented to-wards Mecca and hence indicating the direction of prayer.

Zakat: Almsgiving. A ‘pillar of Islam’. Muslims are required to donate a portion of their wealth to suitable charitable causes each year. The money is used, for example, to support the poor and travellers, and to ransom prisoners.

Sawm: Fasting, especially fasting during Ramadan, which is a‘pillarof Islam’. Muslims, except for those for whom dispensations are made due to age or illness, fast from dawn until sunset during the Muslim month of Ramadan. This comme-morates the first revelation of the Qur‘an and ends with the‘Id al-Fitr (feast of the breaking of the fast).

Ramadan: The ninth month of the Muslim year, and the month during which the revelation of the Qur‘an to Muhammad began. Muslims observe the sawm (fast) during Ramadan in commemoration of this.

Hajj: Arabic: ‘greater pilgrimage to Mecca’. A ‘pillar of Islam’; every Muslim is expected to undertake the hajj at least once during their lifetime, if they are able.

Jihad: Arabic: ‘striving’. A struggle undertaken on the behalf of the religion. This struggle is intended to be undertaken against one’s own inner sinfulness, and to defend the faith with speech, writing or Of absolutely necessary) military action.

3.Zakat (almsgiving): Muslims are required to donate a portion of their wealth to good causes each year. Good causes include supporting the poor and travellers, or ransoming prisoners.

4.Sawm (fasting): Muslims fast from dawn until sunset during the Muslim month of Ramadan; this includes abstinence from food, drink, smoking and sexual activity. The fast is observed by all except children, the old, and others who are excused for health reasons (including pregnant women and the sick). Travellers may postpone their fast. The Ramadan fast commemorates the first revelation of the Qur‘an and ends with the ‘Id al-Fitr (feast of the breaking of the fast) on the first day of the Muslim month of Shawwal.

5.Hajj (greater pilgrimage): At least once during their life, if possible, every Muslim should perform the hajj, the greater pilgrimage to Mecca. This takes place on the lst-10th of the Muslim month of Dhu‘l-Hijja and involves a number of ritual activities, including circumambulating the Ka‘ba and throwing stones at pillars representing Satan. The hajj ends with the ‘Id al-Adha (feast of sacrifice), which is celebrated across the Muslim world and commemorates Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Ishmael (as opposed to Isaac in the Judaeo-Christian version). An important part of the celebrations is the slaughter of animals, with the meat being eaten and distributed to the poor.

An often-misunderstood concept in Islam is jihad, striving on behalf of the faith. The term is frequently translated as ‘holy war’, a translation that only conveys one aspect of the teaching. The Qur‘an itself demonstrates a mixed attitude towards violence. A survey of its verses shows that at times the text seems to encourage forbearance from the Muslims in the face of opposition, while at other times it advocates warfare, albeit within limits (for examples see Doc. 1.i). Muslim scholars resolved the apparent contradictions in the text using theories of abrogation, whereby one teaching was seen as being superseded by another, and in the case of warfare they related the various teachings to various stages of the Prophet’s career, during which he was initially encouraged to turn away from conflict, but was later allowed to engage in defensive and then offensive warfare as the ongoing conflict between Mecca and Medina developed. After the death of Muhammad, the Muslim campaigns out of the Arabian Peninsula were fought in the name of the military jihad. However, as the pace of conquest slowed, the obligation to fight for the faith became less of a universal concern and instead began to take the form of periodic raids made on enemy territory, often by volunteers living on the borders of the Muslim state. At the same time, under the influence of Muslim religious scholars, jihad teaching became increasingly sophisticated. Various regulations became formalized, including the prohibition of attacks on non-combatants or destruction of property, and guidelines on who was obliged to take part and under what circumstances. The former bipartite division of the world into dar al-islam (the Abode of Islam) and dor al-harb (the Abode of War) came to be nuanced with the addition of dar al-‘ahd(the Abode of the Treaty) or dar al-sulh (the Abode of Peace), non-Muslim territory that remained autonomous provided that its people recognized Muslim authority and paid tributes. Peace agreements with states in the dar al-harb were also made, facilitating trade and diplomatic exchanges (Hillenbrand, 1999a: 98). While fighters in the holy war were promised Paradise if they were killed in action, deliberate self-destruction was forbidden as part of the wider prohibition of suicide in Islam. In addition, by the twelfth century a number of Muslim religious scholars, particularly Sufis (Muslim mystics), had conceived a division of the jihad into al-jihad al-akbar (the greater jihad) and al-jihad al-asghar (the lesser jihad). The military jihad was viewed as the lesser of the two; the greater jihad was a spiritual struggle waged both externally – speaking or writing in defence of the faith – and above all internally – against one’s own inner sinfulness – something that was seen as a prerequisite before one undertook the lesser jihad. Although the timing is a matter of some debate, the doctrine was probably crystallizing during the first decades of the crusading period (Morabia, 1993: 256–7 and 293–336; Cook, 2005: 32–48; Bonner, 2006: 13–14 and 169–70).

Dar al-Islam: Arabic: ‘the abode of Islam’. Territory where Islam is the dominant religion, and in particular the religion of the oilers.

Dar al-Harb: Arabic: ‘the abode of war’. In Islamic law, dar al-harb is non-Muslim territory, against the inhabitants of which Muslims were expected to fight.

Dar al-‘Ahd: See Dar al-Sulh.

Dar al-Sulh: Arabic: ‘the abode of peace’. Also known as dar al-‘ahd (the abode of the treaty), dar al-sulh is non-Muslim territory, the inhabitants of which are allowed to retain their autonomy, provided that they pay tribute and recognize Muslim authority.

Sufi: A Muslim mystic. Sufis seek to gain a direct, higher-state experience of God through a variety of means, including asceticism and group rituals involving prayer, chanting, music or dance.

From the earliest days of Islam it was recognized that the Muslims could not realistically expect all people to convert to their faith. Indeed, the validity of some other religions is explicitly noted in the Qur‘an. However, it was also recognized that there would be conflict with members of these other faiths; indeed, Muhammad himself had to deal with opposition from three of the Jewish tribes inhabiting Medina. The Qur‘an again provided some guidance; for example, Qur‘an 9: 29 states the following:

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor in the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and his Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

[Doc. 1.i.g]

Jizya: Poll tax paid by non-Muslims living in Muslim territory.

On the basis of passages like this the Muslim leadership gradually developed a policy stating that Christians and Jews could remain in the Muslim community, and enjoy rights of protection by the Muslim rulers, in exchange for acknowledging Muslim authority, paying a poll tax and accepting certain social restrictions such as wearing distinctive dress, not bearing arms or riding horses, and not building new places of worship. As the Muslim conquests proceeded, this policy was extended to followers of other faiths who could not practically be expected to convert en masse to Islam. Non-Muslims under Muslim rule became known as ahl al-dhimma (the People of the Pact) or dhimmis. The enforcement of these social restrictions on dhimmis was uneven, and treatment of them was highly variable; at times non-Muslims rose to high ranks within Muslim courts or were even involved in the defence of cities against other Muslims or non-Muslims; at other times they suffered persecution or came under intense pressure to convert or emigrate.

Ithna ‘Ashari Shi‘ism: See Twelver Shi‘ism.

Twelver Shi‘ism: Forming the majority of the Shi‘ites in the world today, Twelver Shi‘ites maintain that history has witnessed a line of 12 imams, the last of whom has entered ‘greater concealment’ and will return as the mahdi at the end of time.

Imam: At the basic level, the Arabic term for a prayer-leader. It is also the term used to refer to the spiritual leader of the Muslim community, especially in Shi‘ite Islam, where the identities and precise attributes of the imams are often defining features of each different strand of Shi‘ism.

Mahdi: In both Sunni and Shi‘ite Islam, a messianic figure who will return to restore truth and justice. Belief in the mahdi is particularly prominent in Twelver Shi‘ism, where he is identified as the Twelfth imam Muhammad al-Muntazar, who is regarded as currently being in ‘greater concealment‘.

Fatimids: Isma‘ili Shi‘ite dynasty of caliphs. The Fatimids first established themselves in North Africa in 910, then in Egypt in 969, from the second of which they reigned until the abolition of their cali-phate by Saladin in 1171.


Although most Muslims accepted the authority of the Umayyad caliphs after the death of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in 661, many of his supporters continued to advocate for the right of the family of the Prophet, as represented by the line of ‘Ali, to hold the caliphate, and they and their successors proved to be an ongoing source of opposition to the caliphs in the following centuries. They became known as shi‘at ‘Ali (the party of ‘Ali), or Shi‘ites. Over time the majority of Muslims became known as Sunnis, a word deriving from the Sunna, a term used to refer to the sayings and actions of the Prophet and his Companions (as depicted in the hadith) that act as a guide to Muslim conduct. As the centuries passed various different Shi‘ite movements developed, each with its own distinctive theology and practices. Three were particularly prominent in the Levant on the eve of the First Crusade:

1.The ithna ‘asharis (Twelvers, Imamis): The Twelver Shi‘ites are so called because they acknowledge a dynasty of 12 imams (divinely inspired leaders; the word is also used among Muslims in general to mean a prayer-leader), of whom ‘Ali was the first. Even though these imams did not hold political leadership in the Muslim world, they were still seen by their supporters as being the rightful leaders of the Muslim community. According to Twelver belief, in the tenth century the last of these imams went into ‘greater concealment’, from which he will return as the mahdi (‘the rightly guided’, a Messianic figure) at the end of time to restore peace and justice. On the eve of the Crusades Twelver Shi‘ism was popular among both the Bedouin of the Levant and important members of the community in Aleppo.

2.The Fatimids: In the eighth century a major split occurred within Shi‘ism as a result of the death of the imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765). Ja‘far’s son Isma‘il, whom Ja‘far had designated as his successor, had predeceased him, so the Shi‘ites were unsure who their next imam should be. The group who would become the Twelvers claimed that the rightful imam after Ja‘far was Isma‘il’s brother Musa al-Kazim (d. 799), but not all agreed. Some maintained that Isma‘il’s son, Muhammad, was the rightful imam after Ja‘far; even though Muhammad ibn Isma‘il had also appeared to die, he had in fact been hidden by God and would eventually return as the mahdi. For these Shi‘ites, who became known as Isma‘ilis, Muhammad ibn Isma‘il was the seventh imam, and so they were also referred to pejoratively by their opponents as ‘Seveners’. The Isma‘ilis gradually transformed into a hierarchical and highly secretive movement, with teachings that emphasized inner, hidden truths found in Islamic texts that were only taught to those who had attained an appropriate rank. They were very active as missionaries and attracted many converts.

In 910 an Isma‘ili leader called ‘Abd Allah (or ‘Ubayd Allah) took control of Qayrawan, in modern-day Tunisia. ‘Abd Allah was regarded by his supporters as the rightful Isma‘ili imam and became the first caliph of a new, rival caliphate, reigning with the significant title of al-Mahdi (r. 910–34). The dynasty that he founded became known as the Fatimids, after Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet and wife of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Fatimids quickly established a strong presence in North Africa, then in 969 they took control of Egypt. They built a new city, Cairo, which became the seat of the Fatimid caliphs in 973, and then concentrated their efforts on expanding their influence in the Holy Land, Syria and Arabia. In the meantime they allowed North Africa to slip from their control into the hands of the family who had formerly governed it on their behalf. Possibly the best known of the Fatimid caliphs was al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996–1021), who is depicted by non-Fatimid sources as a dangerous eccentric. Al-Hakim caused resentment among some western Europeans after he ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, though this did not transform into a military response at the time [Doc. 2].

3.The Nizaris: In 1090 an Isma‘ili missionary of Persian origin named Hasan-i Sabbah took control of the fortress of Alamut, to the south of the Caspian Sea. From there he and his supporters began a campaign of political assassination, aimed in the first instance at the Seljuks. Hasan and his followers became known by their critics as the hashishiyya (‘hashish-users’, or ‘low-life’). This term, in its meaning of ‘hashish-users’, led to the circulation in medieval Europe of exotic tales of their use of this substance in training or operations, as well as forming the origin of the term ‘Assassins’ used by modern historians to refer to the movement and in more general parlance to refer to killers (Daftary, 1994: 89–94). Soon after, at the time of the death of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (r. 1036–94), the heir apparent to al-Mustansir’s throne was the caliph’s son Nizar. However, the caliph’s vizier (deputy of the ruler), al-Afdal Shahanshah, instead installed Nizar’s younger and easier to manipulate brother, al-Musta‘li (r. 1094–1101). Nizar was killed in the conflict that followed, but Hasan-i Sabbah and his followers maintained that Nizar’s son had been brought to Alamut. Thus they now claimed to have the rightful caliph and imam in their midst. Hasan and his successors ruled as the deputies of the imam, who was never seen. In the meantime they extended their territory until they held a network of castles in Persia and Syria. The Assassins would prove to be a force with which the various other political factions in the Levant would have to come to terms as the period of the Crusades progressed.

Nizaris: Isma‘ili Shi‘ite movement that split from the Fatimids in 1094. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Nizaris engaged in a programme of political assassination, as a result of which they are also sometimes referred to as the Assassins.

Assassins: See Nizaris.


Ifranj: Arabic: ‘Franks’. The term used by the Muslim sources to refer to the Europeans.

A survey of the Muslim sources for the period before the Crusades suggests that the Muslims of the Levant knew very little about the Franks. Mentions of them in the Muslim sources are sporadic, and the most helpful passages tend to come from the Muslim tradition of geographical writing. As indicated previously, before the Crusades the Muslim writers use the term ifranj to refer principally to the inhabitants of the region roughly corresponding to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne, and the Frankish capital is variously identified as Rome or Paris. The Franks themselves are depicted as warlike and violent, and are sometimes described as a particularly unified people, while at other times they are represented as being divided and feuding with one another. At the same time, the Franks have a somewhat blurry relationship with the Byzantines, who are sometimes identified as their neighbours, and at other times seen as their overlords, with Frankish lands being part of the Byzantine Empire. Most sources agree that the Franks and the Byzantines have a shared religion, Christianity (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 267–74; Christie, 1999: 10–27).

This image of ignorance is open to question, however. It is apparent from the Muslim sources that Frankish merchants and pilgrims visited Muslim lands, and we also know that Franks served in the Byzantine armies as mercenaries. We also have evidence of embassies exchanged between Frankish and Muslim rulers. Perhaps most telling are the two different accounts of the Franks given by the traveller and geographer al-Mas‘udi (d. 956). In one of his works, Muruj al-Dhahab wa-Ma‘adin al-Jawhar (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gemstone; 1965–79), he gives us an account of the Franks that is unusually well informed, even to the point of providing a list of the Frankish kings [Doc. 3.i]. However, in another of his works, Kitab al-Tanbih wa-l-hhraf (The Book of Instruction and Supervision; 1894), he presents an account that gives a radically different depiction of the Franks, presenting a rather fanciful image of them as sluggish, blue-skinned brutes [Doc. 3.ii]. Given that the Kitab al-Taribih was written after the Muruj, it would be nonsensical to suggest that al-Mas‘udi’s knowledge of the Franks got worse. Instead, it would seem that al-Mas‘udi wished to convey a sense of Muslim superiority over the uncivilized, non-Muslim barbarians, and to do this he exploited stereotypes of bestial nature and religious inferiority through his presentation of the Franks. Al-Mas‘udi’s position is in some ways a salutary reminder for us of the wider tendency of medieval sources to privilege moral messages over factual accuracy, as well as the fact that most of the Muslim writers were first and foremost religiously trained scholars, which naturally affected the emphasis of their literary output. Thus before the Crusades the Franks often only appear in Muslim sources when including them serves the agendas of the writers, and such appearances are sparse enough to suggest a level of ignorance that may actually be over-estimated.


In the wake of the aforementioned Seljuk takeover of Baghdad, as the Seljuks and their allies spread their influence further west, the area known to Muslim writers as Bilad al-Sham (or simply al-Sham, roughly corresponding to modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian autonomous areas and the edge of south-east Turkey) became contested between the Seljuks and the Fatimids. It is important to note that this conflict had religious as well as political dimensions. This was not merely a conflict over territory fought between two Muslim powers. The Seljuks, as Sunnis, sought to present themselves as the defenders and promoters of the true faith against dangerous heretics who had taken control of a disturbingly large amount of territory and posed a real threat to the ‘Abbasid caliphate; indeed, a pro-Fatimid general had briefly taken control of Baghdad, imprisoning the ‘Abbasid caliph, in 1057–58. The Fatimids, in the meantime, saw themselves as the representatives of the true line of caliphs, and saw the Seljuks as supporting a heretical pretender whose ancestors had usurped power in the eighth century. Thus the Levant was the site of a struggle between two powers, each of which regarded the other as a legitimate target of holy war fought on behalf of Islam.

Bilad al-Sham: Arabic: ‘the country of Syria’. The term used in the Arabic sources to refer to, approximately, modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian autonomous areas and the edge of south-eastern Turkey. Sometimes the region is simply referred to as al-Sham.

Al-Sham: See Bilad al-Sham.

The regional instability resulting from this conflict was exacerbated when a number of strong leaders died at the end of the eleventh century. In 1092, the famous Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk was killed by the Assassins as their first high-profile ‘hit‘. His death was followed about a month later by that of Malik-Shah (r. 1073–92), the son and successor of the Great Seljuk sultan Alp-Arslan; Malik-Shah’s death marked the end of Seljuk unity, and as the various Seljuk claimants to the sultan’s throne fought with each other, the Great Seljuk state fragmented. The major cities of Syria and the Holy Land passed into the hands of either the governors who had been appointed to them, who set up their own dynasties there, or young Seljuk princes whose affairs were overseen by military regents, known as atabegs, some of whom subsequently usurped the thrones of their charges. At the time the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum was also not an entirely secure realm; its rulers shared Asia Minor with a Turkmen dynasty, the Danishmendids, who had established themselves in the region in the wake of Manzikert, and with whom the Seljuks of Rum had mixed relations.

Atabeg: Turkish: ‘father-lord‘. Atabegs were military regents, ruling on the behalf of a (usually underage) Seljuk prince. They were normally originally mamluks. Needless to say, in a significant number of cases atabegs usurped power from their charges.

The power vacuum also extended to Egypt. In the mid-eleventh century factional fighting within the Fatimid army had caused devastation in Cairo and the countryside. Some degree of order was restored in 1074 when the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir called in the governor of Palestine, Badr al-Jamali, to be his new vizier, but in the process of taking firm control Badr al-Jamali reduced the caliph to an effective figurehead like his ‘Abbasid rival. Both Badr al-Jamali and al-Mustansir died in 1094, and one of the first actions of Badr al-Jamali’s son and successor, al-Afdal Shahanshah, was to set aside the heir apparent, Nizar, in favour of the latter’s younger brother al-Musta‘li, as described above. This schism within the Fatimid caliphate only further damaged the power of the state. The instability in Egypt was also exacerbated by repeated outbreaks of plague in the country at the turn of the twelfth century (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 37–8).

Isma‘ili Shi‘ism: Isma‘ili Shi‘ites support Muhammad ibn Isma‘il’s claim to be the rightful imam of the Muslim world. At the time of the Crusades, the Isma‘iliswere a hierarchical, secretive movement.

Iqta‘: Arabic: ‘assignment’. A grant to an emir of the right to collect taxes from a particular area of land, given in return for a promise of military service.

In our survey of the Muslim Levant it is also important to remember that the region was one in which populations were ruled by people who were in the minority, and often ethnically or religiously different from them. In Egypt, the Fatimids, who were Isma‘ili Shi‘ites, ruled over a population that was mostly Sunni Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The Fatimid armies, in the meantime, consisted of a mix of Nubians, Berbers, Turks and Armenians, all of whom had been imported at one point or another and thus were foreigners in the eyes of the Egyptian population. The Sunni Muslim Turkish Seljuks, in the meantime, based their power above all on Turkish mamluk and Turkmen troops, using them to maintain power over a population that in the Levant consisted largely of Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and Jews from a wide range of ethnicities including Turks, Kurds and Arabs. In taxing their territory the Seljuks made use of a system inherited from the Buyids, in which a Muslim emir would be assigned an iqta‘, the right to collect taxes from a particular area of land in return for military service from himself and his retinue. The result of this was that the populations of areas assigned as iqta’s would have mixed feelings towards their overlords, who would on the one hand tax them heavily but on the other provide them with security. Given the fact that in both Seljuk and Fatimid territory the populations often had religious or ethnic affiliations that differed from those of their rulers, concerns about security and levels of taxation probably had the most impact on the loyalties that the common people would feel towards them. This meant that the amount of support that any given ruler could expect from the majority population of the territory that he controlled was limited.

Given the prevailing instability in the Levant on the eve of the Crusades, coming just as the Muslim calendar was approaching the year 500 (1106–7), it is not surprising that we see some hints of apocalyptic sentiment among the Muslims of the time. Some saw in astral phenomena indications of impending misfortune; some felt that the Day of Judgement was approaching; and others awaited the appearance of a figure who would renew the faith (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 36–7). It was into this unstable social, religious and political environment that the crusaders would make a startling intrusion.


Not surprisingly, given that this chapter covers a historical period of almost 500 years, the scholarly literature for the topics that we have addressed in this chapter is plentiful and wide-ranging. A clear and accessible overview of the Muslim faith in both its historical and modern forms is Andrew Rippin’s Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (2011). On jihad in particular, see David Cook, Understanding jihad (2005) and Michael Bonner, jihad in Islamic History: Doctrines and Practice (2006). On Shi‘ism, the classic overview is Heinz Halm’s Shiism (1992), but see also Moojan Momen’s An Introduction to Shi‘i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi‘ism (1985) and two works by Farhad Daftary: The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma‘ilis(1994) and The Isma‘ilis: Their History and Doctrines (1990). For the history of the period in general, readers may wish to consult Vernon O. Egger’s A History of the Muslim World to 1405 (2004) or, for a more detailed account, Hugh Kennedy’s The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century (2004). For more on the Middle East immediately before the Crusades, see, in addition to Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a), Taef Kamal el-Azhari’s The Saljuqs of Syria during the Crusades, 463–549 A.H./1070–1154 A.D. (1997); and David Morgan’s Medieval Persia, 1040–1797 (1988).

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