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Monday, March 27, 2023

Diplomatic Relations with Muslim Powers

Diplomatic relations with the Muslim world were complicated by theological and strategic issues, yet they were a fundamental feature of politics in the Holy Land throughout the crusader era. Indeed, the first diplomatic exchanges between crusaders and Muslims predate the fall of Jerusalem to the armies of the First Crusade. Diplomacy with Muslim powers continued throughout the existence of the crusader states and were characterised by sophistication and nuance, more often resulting in success than failure.


This is surprising when one remembers that while Islam preaches the ideal of peace, the definition of peace is the absolute victory of Islam. To obtain that ideal, Muslim leaders were obliged to wage war against any part of the world not already absorbed into the ‘dar al-Islam’, the realm of Islam. Indeed, the very term used for regions not governed by Islamic law is ‘dar al-harb’ — the realm of war. 

Thus, unlike their Christian counterparts, Muslim leaders needed no justification for bringing war to infidels. Instead, they needed to justify making peace with them. Furthermore, the Muslim theology of this period viewed permanent peace with the ‘dar al-harb’ as anathema and specified that truces should not extend beyond ten years and ten months. Added to this ideological barrier to peace was the fundamental strategic one that both parties sought control over the same territory, the Holy Land. This meant that long-term foreign policy goals were inherently incompatible and mutually exclusive.

Yet practical considerations served to soften and blunt the seemingly irreconcilable differences and deflect some conflict. Then as now, wars were costly and their outcomes unpredictable, creating a natural reluctance on the part of responsible leaders to risk it. This bias towards peace was reinforced in medieval society by the fact that agriculture was extensive, vulnerable and produced less surplus. This meant that if wars destroyed successive harvests or damaged agricultural assets such as irrigation systems, terracing or orchards, it took years to replace them and famine became a serious possibility. Finally, the economic argument for peace was made more compelling in the Near East by the fact that both the Franks and their Muslim neighbours profited enormously from trade and travel (pilgrim) networks that cut across the religious divide. If trade or pilgrim traffic were significantly disrupted, the urban population in both the Christian and Muslim states suffered reductions in their standard of living. Only with the advent of the fanatical Mamluks, who were prepared to do without the revenue generated by trade through the ports of the Levant, did this compelling argument for finding diplomatic accommodations disappear.

The crusader states also gained temporary peace by diplomatically exploiting the incessant wars between the Islamic powers, dynasties and princes. These created countless and nearly continuous opportunities for the Franks to play Muslim rivals against one another. Over time, the Franks exploited the conflicts between Fatimid Egypt and Abbasid Syria, the Zangids and the Ayyubids, and between various princes within these different entities, such as the rivalry between the viziers Shawar and Dirgham, or between al-Kamil in Egypt and his brother al-Muazzam in Damascus. Tellingly, there is only one case in which the Muslims succeeded in driving a wedge between Christian powers, namely the treaty between Saladin and Constantinople.

The willingness of both sides to deal with one another — at a tactical rather than strategic level — went back to the First Crusade itself. The Fatimid caliphate tried to divert the crusade from Jerusalem into attacks on their Sunni Seljuk rival in the north. Although the crusaders had no interest in concluding such an agreement with the Fatimid state, they were perfectly willing to come to terms with the many local Fatimid leaders in control of coastal towns and fortresses along the route to Jerusalem. For their part, the semi-autonomous rulers of the region ‘were all, when it suited them, prepared to form alliances that cut across the religious divide, rather than submit to suzerainty of a greater [Muslim] power’.[i]

The willingness on both parts to treat with the religious and strategic enemy on a short-term tactical basis meant that de facto peace reigned in the crusader states far more frequently than war. One hundred and twenty treaties between the Franks and their Muslim opponents have been identified in the historical sources, of which 109 were implemented. The initiative for truces varied considerably over time. The Muslims were more likely to seek truces in the early period (1098-1124), and the Franks were desperate for truces after 1250. In the century and a quarter in between, neither side was preponderant in seeking peace, suggesting an overall balance of power.[ii] Notably, until the Mamluk period, both sides negotiated in good faith and, for the most part, abided by the terms of the agreements concluded.

While the First Kingdom expanded primarily by force of arms, the Second Kingdom expanded primarily through diplomatic success. The latter was assuredly due primarily to the fact that Saladin’s successors were constantly fighting with one another and hence too fragmented to undertake a major campaign against the Franks. Furthermore, these Ayyubid princes were all enjoying the benefits of trade and not terribly interested in jihad. Nevertheless, it is to the Franks’ credit that they effectively exploited the rivalries of their opponents and played upon their love of luxury to obtain one concession after another, more through the threat of force than the use of it. 

The incremental growth of the Second Kingdom culminated in the so-called ‘Baron’s crusade’, an absurd campaign ironically characterised by Christian disunity and a single disastrous battle. Yet it was this crusade that resulted in the near complete restoration of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the borders of pre-Hattin 1187 — including Sidon, Ascalon and Jerusalem itself — by diplomatic means. In short, during the first half of the thirteenth century, the Franks proved themselves masters of diplomacy in dealing with their Muslim neighbours — until they fatally backed the wrong side leading to the disaster at Le Forbie.

Perhaps even more astonishing than these diplomatic successes, however, are the number of instances in which Franks and Saracens concluded alliances across religious borders. The Sultan of Damascus countered Zengi’s growing strength and efforts to displace him by forming an alliance with King Fulk of Jerusalem. It was this alliance that was broken during the Second Crusade with no positive result. Yet, the alliance was soon in place again because it served the interests of both sides. Likewise, Frederick Barbarossa, intent on the restoration of Jerusalem to Christian rule at the start of the Third Crusade, had no qualms about concluding a temporary non-aggression pact with the Sultanate of Rum. During the War of Antiochene Succession (1201-1210), Bohemond sought and received the assistance of Muslim leaders in both Aleppo and Iconium to help him against his (Christian) Armenian rival. The most fateful instance of an interfaith — and offensive — alliance, however, was the backing of as-Salih Ismail of Damascus and an-Nasir Daud of Transjordan against as-Salih Ayyub of Egypt, which ended in the disastrous defeat at Le Forbie in 1244. What is consistent across all these various treaties, however, is that ‘each side dealt with the other as fellow politicians, not devils incarnate’.[iii]

Yet here were limits to such dealings. While a head of state might strategically conclude an alliance with a Muslim counterpart, any attempt — and there were several — to pull the Saracens into the crusader states’ internal politics was viewed as treason and consistently failed. When Hugh le Puiset, Count of Jaffa, called in Egyptian help for his rebellion against Fulk d’Anjou, he instantly lost the support of his vassals, a fact that led directly to his defeat. Princess Alice of Antioch made the same mistake in 1132, completely alienating her barons by appealing to Zengi for support; they turned at once to the King of Jerusalem to intercede and remove her from power. Likewise, in 1160, Gerard de Grenier, Lord of Sidon and Beaufort, isolated himself and lost his barony when he sought aid from Nur al-Din in a dispute with Baldwin III. The most famous instance of such an alliance between an individual Frankish lord and a formidable Muslim leader was the separate truce Raymond of Tripoli concluded with Saladin after refusing to do homage to Guy de Lusignan in 1186. This move nearly tore the kingdom apart and resulted in a devastating Frankish defeat at the Springs of Cresson. Only Tripoli’s remorse and the diplomatic efforts of Balian d’Ibelin enabled the Franks to patch up their differences and face the Saracens united at Hattin a few months later.

Overall, the inter-religious negotiations were similar to truces throughout the West, yet they had some unique features. In the West, for example, there was a well-established custom of meetings directly between leaders. One needs only to think of the frequent meetings between Henry II and Louis VII. But summit diplomacy had no tradition in the East. In the West, gifts were usually symbols of submission and homage; something offered at the end rather than the beginning of negotiations. In the East, in contrast, the exchange of gifts usually signaled the desire to open negotiations and seek a truce.

Such differences in practice led to a number of misunderstandings in the early years. With time, however, both sides learned to read the other better, and rituals evolved that prevented unnecessary confusion. In this sense, the crusades contributed to the professionalization of diplomacy, including the practice of granting envoys safeguards against harm and retribution, something we know today as ‘diplomatic immunity’.

Lastly, unlike the West, where the terms of treaties were mostly concerned with the control of territorial assets such as cities and castles, peace agreements between Franks and Saracens usually contained a human component. The free passage of pilgrims of both religions through territory controlled by the other was an important feature of most treaties. A more important — and poignant — element was the return of captives.

Throughout the crusader era, the Franks and their Orthodox Christian allies faced slavery every time they were taken captive, whether in battle, siege or raid. Only the highest noblemen were excepted, as they could be held for ransom. While we hear the most about noblemen’s ransoms, they were the exception. For every nobleman held for ransom, there were scores of knights, hundreds of turcopoles and sergeants, and thousands of peasants, women and children sold into slavery. The latter were often the victims of small-scale raiding, a perennial phenomenon even during official truces.

At any one time, thousands of Christians, former subjects of the Frankish kings and princes, were held in captivity by the Muslim enemies of the Franks. Some of these were Frankish settlers; more of them were native Christians. Surprisingly, they were not forgotten. On the contrary, in truce after truce, the Franks remembered their captive subjects. The return of captives – not just noble or knightly prisoners – was a component of negotiations with the enemy. There are recorded incidents when the Franks leveraged a Muslim desire for peace to secure the release of thousands of captives. In one instance – viewed as an example of Frankish ‘arrogance’ – the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir records:

The Franks sent to review those male and female slaves of their people who had been taken from all the Christian lands and bade them choose whether they would stay with their lords or return to their homelands. Anyone who preferred to stay was left, and anyone who wanted to go home went there.

 This clearly refers to women, which highlights the fact that such agreements were not confined to the release of fighting men. Furthermore, this particular agreement was extremely comprehensive as it applied to the entire city of Damascus. Again, thousands of captives must have benefited from the negotiated settlement. 

Yet, such agreements were only possible if the Franks held good cards, i.e., if they were negotiating from strength. As a result, many captives languished for years in slavery before a change in fortune enabled the Franks to extract concessions from their opponents. The fact that some captives waited a long time for release does not diminish their importance. On the contrary, even years later, relatives, friends and comrades were determined to obtain the release of those they loved. The fact that Frankish negotiators -- always members of the Frankish elite – recognised and respected this is to their credit. 

In summary, the Franks maintained sophisticated and largely effective diplomatic relations with all the major players in the Eastern Mediterranean. The exact opposite of the religious fanatics depicted in film and fiction, the Franks readily and frequently concluded truces with their Muslim enemies and were also willing to ally themselves with individual Muslim leaders in the pursuit of tactical objectives. Frankish diplomacy was based on respect for their enemies and a profound appreciation of their differences and rivalries, which belies portrayals of the Franks as racist. Although the Franks were not always successful at navigating the tricky waters of shifting Muslim power politics, they were not insensitive to them. Likewise, they understood Byzantine perspectives and prejudices and ultimately found ways to exploit Byzantine vanity for their own advantage. Meanwhile, their relations with the West remained rooted in the common recognition that the crusader states were the guardians of Christianity’s most sacred sites. Despite superficial differences in lifestyle, language and tactics, the crusader states retained solid ties with the papacy and the leading Western European powers throughout their existence, ties which they exploited a much as possible to their advantage without ever surrendering their sovereignty.

[i] Andrew Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States (London: Pearson Longman, 2004), 106-107.

[ii] For details, see Yvonne Friedman, ‘Peacemaking: Perceptions and Practices in the Medieval Latin East’, in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories (London: Routledge, 2010), 229-257.

[iii] Christopher Tyreman, The World of the Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 222.

The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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1 comment:

  1. "obliged to wage war against any part of the world not already absorbed into the ‘dar al-Islam’," or accept Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib as Muhammad's heir. Or was it Abu Bakr Abdullah ibn Uthman Abi Quhafa who was heir?

    I tell ya, those murderous Sunni and Shia can get confusing at times. ;-)


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