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Thursday, March 8, 2018

Saracen Society in the 12th Century Middle East

Now that the lengthy excursion on the role of the Knights Templar has concluded, Dr. Schrader returns to the main focus of this blog: the crusader states. A short essay on the world surrounding the crusader states seemed like a good transition back to the main topic. Today's entry is based primarily upon the article "Arab Culture in the Twelfth Century" by Nabih Amin Faris of the American University of Beirut.*

By the time the first crusaders arrived in the Middle East to re-take Jerusalem and re-establish Christian rule over the territories know in the West as "the Holy Land," Arab domination of the Levant had lasted roughly 450 years.  More important, driven by religious fervor, the Arabs had conquered North Africa, most of the Iberian peninsula, the islands of the Mediterranean, and had spread Islam to the Caucuses and Persia as well. (For a timeline of Muslim conquests see: Jerusalem Forgotten?)

Alongside these military victories, Arab elites adopted and spread a new Islamic culture.  This culture awakened a surge of creativity and produced great works of art, literature, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. In urban centers such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus there were centers of learning and education, as well as great hospitals, including teaching hospitals where medical practitioners were trained. Great mosques, palaces, fortresses, and markets were built. Indeed, the 9th and 10th centuries are often viewed as a "golden age" of Islamic culture.

In the 11th and 12th centuries, however, a number of factors had begun to undermine and shatter that Arab dominance and with it the confidence that had fostered the flourishing of intellectual and artistic achievements. Indeed, the diversity of peoples now united in the Dar al-Islam make the crusader term "Saracen" (which literally just means "easterner") a justifiable description of their foes. Faris notes that "the crusaders, in spite of their various origins, were more homogeneous than the [Saracens], who were deeply divided racially, linguistically, and culturally....The Arab elements...had already lost their hegemony, and were bitterly pitted against such neo-Moslems as the Turks, Persians, and Kurds."

Arguably even more disruptive to Islamic society of the twelfth century was the dangerous strength of two Shia states in the heart of the Middle East.  The largest and most successful was the Fatimid Caliphate, established in Cairo in 969, which had rapidly spread its influence across North Africa and the Levant. The Turks, recent converts to Islam, pushed the Fatimids back into Africa -- but at the price of seizing political control of the Caliphate of Baghdad. Thereafter and for the next two hundred years, the Caliphs of Baghdad were virtual prisoners of their protectors. Meanwhile, a smaller and more fanatical Shia sect established itself in the mountains of what is now Lebanon: the Assassins. Sunni Muslim leaders felt actively threatened by both of these Shia states, and wars against the Shia generally commanded more popular support than wars against the Christians, the former being heretics, the later simply misguided.

Yet this was not the only threat or conflict of the period. Faris summarizes the situation like this: 
The twelfth century witnessed struggles between Moslems and Franks, between Sunnites and Shiites, between Sunnite caliph and Sunnite sultan, between Sunnite princes in the various urban centers and those in the outlying districts, between ambitious dynasts and predatory viziers, and between the mass of the population, mostly Arabs, and the foreign elements, mostly Turks. Each of these struggles was sufficient to disrupt the normal course of life and to ravage the general good of society. Together, they wrought havoc throughout the empire, rendered communications unsafe, increased lawlessness and gave rise to various forms of brigandage. (p. 4)

Indeed, Faris notes further that when in when in AD 1111 the sultan of Baghdad, at last, answered the pleas for assistance from the Moslem states facing Frankish incursions, "his troops, in the words of a Moslem chronicler, 'spread havoc and destruction throughout the land, far exceeding anything which the Franks were wont to do.'"

The constant conflicts shattered the economy and disrupted trade. Trade with the Far East stagnated and declined at the same time that the Mediterranean came increasingly under Christian domination.  Not surprisingly, declining security and prosperity had an impact on intellectual and artistic development as well.  Faris characterizes the period as one of "preservation rather than innovation, compilation rather than creation." (p. 19) Meanwhile, the threat of the Shia heresy resulted in a more rigid orthodoxy among the majority Sunnis. The space for theological discourse and discussion narrowed, and these states, being theocracies, conflated heresy and treason.

The trends toward greater orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation which affected the elites had an arguably even more profound impact on the most vulnerable segments of society. According to Faris (p. 16), "...Arab women had lost the greater part of their freedom and dignity. ....[and] the system of total segregation of the sexes and stringent seclusion of women had become general" even before the 12th century, but it was in the 12th century that, feeling threatened, non-Muslim communities became subjected to increased discrimination.  Non-Muslims were expelled from government employment, including employment in hospitals, and forced to wear distinctive clothing. It is important to remember that non-Muslims still represented a very large minority in those parts of the Middle East that had been part of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim invasions of the 7th century. Historians now estimate that maybe as much as 50% of the population in these areas were still Christian. Certainly, Christians represented at least 30% of the population.

Added to all these man-made difficulties, the 12th century also saw repeated epidemics of small-pox, plague, and malaria, as well as earthquakes and famines that affected the Muslim world at least, if not more, dramatically than the crusader states. In fact, visitors from Muslim Spain reported that the Muslim subjects of the crusader kings were, on the whole, better off than their brothers in the Muslim states around them. Food for thought.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

* Faris, Nabih Amin. "Arab Culture in the Twelth Century" in Zacour, Norman P. and Harry W. Hazard. A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.


  1. "Sunni Muslim leaders felt actively threatened by both of these Shia states, and wars against the Shia generally commanded more popular support than wars against the Christians, the former being heretics, the later simply misguided." -- Professor Helena Schrader

    And that sums it all up . . . today. It always amazes me how many people simply cannot fathom that fact.

    I know it is a complicated issue, but to summarize it more simply, I always tell people that Shia and Sunni having been killing each other for some 1600 years because they cannot agree on who Muhammad's heir was; a.k.a. Islam's "Pope."

    As 'misguided unbelievers,' "we" cannot solve that dilemma for them. In fact, they would resent us even more -- if that's possible -- for even trying to.

    We have no business sending military forces to the Middle East to "stop the fighting." They are going to murder one another until they find their own solution.

    Posted to two sites! I'm surprised that people subscribed to your channel aren't also subscribed to the Real Crusades History channel and vise versa.

    1. I agree fully. And i also find it difficult to understand how people still think we can solve the split in islam or even build the mid east into something resembling western republics and democracy


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