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Monday, February 28, 2022

Jerusalem under Islam - A Re-Examination

  Much has been made of the fact that the Crusaders prohibited both Jews and Muslims from settling in Jerusalem after the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem. This is usually contrasted with the tolerant attitude of the Muslims in the years preceding the First Crusade. But just how tolerant were the Muslims?

Most of what has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic world focuses on the theories propounded by Muslim scholars of the golden age and anecdotal case studies of non-Muslim, especially Jews, who rose to positions of privilege and power. Certainly, the Islamic jurists developed sophisticated theories about the treatment of "peoples of the book." Furthermore, some privileged dhimmis enjoyed wealth, status and even (indirect) power. 

However, a more thorough examination of the sources -- Arab, Turkish, Coptic and Syriac -- demonstrates that there was a gigantic discrepancy between the fine-sounding theories of the legal texts and the reality on the ground. While a comparatively small elite of non-Muslims enjoyed comparative immunity from discrimination and oppression, the vast majority of Christians, particularly the rural peasantry that made up the bulk of the population was systematically decimated by massacres, reduced to slavery or -- at best -- impoverished by taxation (tribute), arbitrary theft of land and moveable property, pillaging, raids, and often saw their children carried away as slaves.

Thus, while for most of the years of Muslim occupation, the Christians were allowed to live in and visit Jerusalem, they were consistently subjected to various forms of oppression and humiliations and periodically subjected to more extreme persecution from the destruction of churches and monasteries to outright slaughter.

Professor Rodney Stark in his excellent work: God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades,(Harper, 2009) lists the following incidents:

  • In the early 8th century, seventy Christian pilgrims were executed in one incident and 60 others were crucified in Jerusalem itself.
  • In the late 8th century the monastery of St. Theodosius near Bethlehem was attacked, the churches destroyed and the monks slaughtered.
  • In 796 Muslims burned 20 monks to death at the Mar Saba Monastery.
  • In 809 there were multiple attacks on many churches, convents and monasteries in and around Jerusalem, involving mass rapes and murders.
  • In 813 the same happened again.
  • In 923, on Palm Sunday, “a new wave of atrocities” occurred, in which many churches were destroyed and people were killed.

As for every day life for Christians under Muslim rule, I strongly recommend Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam which documents in detail (supported by hundreds of Arab, Turkish, Coptic and Syrian documents) the bitter reality of “dhimmitude.” In addition to land expropriations and the payment of annual tributes — including slaves (read people being forced to surrender their own children into slavery), it catalogues the discrimination in clothing, housing, transportation and employment as well.

Another excellent book is Professor Dario Fernandez-Morera’s book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (ISI books, 2016). Although the book focuses on Spain rather than the Holy Land, it provides a wealth of detail and evidence. The chapter on “The Christian Condition: From Dhimmis to Extinction” is particularly informative.

For those who do not have the time or inclination to read either of these book's here is an excerpt from Stark:

A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance — that, in contrast to Christian brutality against the Jews and heretics, Islam showed remarkable tolerance for conquered people, treated them with respect, and allowed them to pursue their faiths without interference…The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different.

It is true that the Qur’an forbids forced conversions. However, that recedes to an empty legalism given that many subject peoples were “free to choose” conversion as an alternative to death or enslavement….

In principle, as “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians were supposed to be tolerated and permitted to follow their faiths. But only under quite repressive conditions: death was (and remains) the fate of anyone who converted to either faith. Nor could any new churches or synagogues be built. Jews and Christians were prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud — not even in their homes or in churches and synagogues — lest Muslims accidentally hear them.

... from very early times Muslim authorities often went to great lengths to humiliate and punish dhimmis — Jews and Christians who refused to convert to Islam. It was official policy that dhimmis should “feel inferior and…know ‘their place’… (Stark, pp.28–29).

Compared to systematic humiliation and oppression, maybe the right to live in Jerusalem wasn't the mark of a particularly "tolerant" policy after all?

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



Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states is available for pre-order on 

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Monday, February 21, 2022

The Christian Doctrine of "Just War" and its Impact on the Crusades

 For many people nowadays any war, particularly a war that is not obviously defensive in nature, appears incompatible with Christianity. Yet this was not the case at the end of the eleventh century when the First Crusade was launched. Although Christianity never had a concept similar to Islamic jihad that justified and encouraged wars of aggression and conversion, St. Augustine had articulated the concept of ‘just war’ in the early fifth century. This theory that provided the ideological underpinning for the crusades. The summary below is an excerpt from "The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations."

The theory of "Just War" was a theological defense of wars declared by Christian leaders to oppose aggression and oppression. St. Augustine was explicit in condemning wars of religious conversion and also prohibited the use of ‘excessive force,’ but that was the theory. In practice, medieval Christians viewed wars against pagans as legitimate wars. This included the wars against the Vikings in Britain and Ireland, the wars of Charlemagne against the Saxons, and, of course, the war of the Visigoths against the ‘Moors’ (Muslims) in Spain. All these wars were perceived as ‘defensive’ and specifically as a defense of Christendom. Thus, by the eleventh century, Western Europe had a tradition that honored, glorified and even sanctified Christian fighting men, who fought non-Christians.

When Pope Urban II, in response to the request from Emperor Alexis, appealed to knights under his jurisdiction (i.e. knights of the Church of Rome) to go east to liberate Jerusalem, he built upon these traditions. His appeal stressed the fundamental elements of just war (fighting oppression and aggression) by drawing attention to the suffering of fellow-Christians in the Muslim-occupied Near East and by stressing the threat posed by the pagan Seljuks to the New Rome, Constantinople. Yet, Pope Urban expanded on this familiar theme by adding to his appeal the need to liberate Jerusalem.

In contrast to Jerusalem’s peripheral place Islam, Jerusalem was at the very center of Christianity. Islamic scholars might debate about theoretical spiritual ties to Jerusalem, yet it is certain that Mohammed never set foot there. Jesus, on the other hand, had lived and died there. More important, the defining event of Christianity, Christ’s resurrection, occurred in Jerusalem. While the Muslims had Mecca and Medina as their primary and secondary holy sites, for Christians (and Jews) Jerusalem was the unquestioned central and paramount holy site of their respective religions. Period.

It was undoubtedly to inspire men to undertake such an enormously dangerous operation across such vast distances that Pope Urban introduced a startling innovation. He offered spiritual rewards to those who undertook to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule. Contrary to popular myth, Urban did not promise the remission of all sins — certainly not for ‘killing Muslims.’ Nor did he sanction genocide or forced conversions. On the contrary, church documents explicitly state that participation in an armed expedition to liberate Jerusalem would replace already assigned penance for confessed sins. Furthermore, the church carefully conferred benefits only on those who undertook the armed pilgrimage out of piety — but not on those who sought honor or wealth. Yet regardless of what the theologians thought they were offering, many people undoubtedly believed that the armed expedition to Jerusalem would bring them spiritual salvation. 

The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations is available for pre-order on and

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