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Still Standing for Islam - and against Terrorism (Continued I) By: Mustafa Akyol
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 08, 2004

Berbers and Spain

Another episode of violence that Mr. Bostom quotes about is the Almohad violence in Spain, which included the slaughter of some Jews and Christians.

Who were the Almohads? They, and their precedors, the Almoravids, were Muslim Berbers who came from North Africa in order to benefit from the wealth of the already Muslim ruled Spain, also called Andulisia. Actually the Almoravids, another Berber dynasty, came to Spain first to help the Muslims there against Christians, but quickly became tyrants on the former. In her recent book, The Ornament of the World, a term referring to the medieval Muslim city of Cordoba, Maria Rosa Menocal tells us that,

The Almoravid attempts to impose a considerably different view of Islamic society on the Andulisians provoked relentless civil unrest: in 1109, not even twenty years after these newcomers had been invited in as allies, anti-Almoravid riots broke out in Cordoba following the public burning of a work by al-Ghazali, a legendary theologian whose humane approach to Islam, despite its orthodoxy, was too liberal for the fanatical Almoravids. Such violent disagreements about the nature of Islam were far from unique.[i]

Mr. Bostom tells about the cities that these fanatical Berbers sacked, but he fails to mention that they sacked Muslim cities as well. In 1009, the beautiful city of Madinat al-Zahra, "one of the most fabled architectural and urbanistic achievements of the Islamic world," was destroyed by "marauding and rampaging Berbers ferociously venting all manner of resentments."[ii] There was no Islamic sentiment in destroying an Islamic city; it was brutal politics as usual.


It was a standard Western view to attribute the motive of the Berber invaders in Spain and other coasts of the Mediterranean to Islam. Mr. Bostom reiterates that view. However, that is a mistake. According to Italian historian Franco Cardini,

The Berber Arabs, with their raids, were part of a complex political struggle to which religious motives were ascribed only tens of years later, when collective memory, fuelled by epic poetry, had worked its transformation.[iii]

Cardini points to the misunderstanding in labeling such conflicts as the outcomes of jihad, i.e. war for religion:

The incursions made by the Muslims and their attempts at establishing themselves have been too often interpreted as the outcome of expansionist ambitions fired by deliberate choices. This was not always the case. On the contrary, the Saracens [Muslims] frequently became involved in local disputes . . . For example the Saracens who were in the process of conquering Sicily and who had recently captured Palermo were on several occasions invited by the rulers of the city of Naples to help them in their struggle against the Longobardi and the Byzantines.[iv]

The overall picture about the Muslims of the Mediterranean is much different from that depicted in Mr. Bostom's article. Franco Cardini tells that the reality was much more complex and accounts about Muslim violence was based on exaggerations:

. . . The Muslims were not, therefore, the sole perpetrators of the continual raids carried out along the coasts of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean islands during the final two centuries of the early medieval Europe . . . they were occasionally also the victims of raids. Nevertheless, the Western Europeans considered the Hagarenes [Muslims] to be largely and most directly to blame. As time passed, memories of the Mediterranean raids and the wars in the Iberian Peninsula seem to have become exaggerated out of proportion.[v]

Mr. Bostom seems to be misled by that exaggeration.


The Jihad against Edessa


Mr. Bostom also writes about "the jihad destruction of the Christian enclave of Edessa in 1144-1146 C.E., during the Crusades" and quotes historians who tell about horrible episodes of massacre in the city. Yet, when we look deeper, a somewhat different picture emerges.


First of all, Mr. Bostom does not tell us that Edessa's Christian communities had been existing peacefully in a Muslim environment for several centuries. What changed the situation was the Crusades. Bernard Lewis explains to us how the idea of perpetual military jihad was abandoned by Muslims in the ninth century, but it was revived when Crusaders invaded the Muslim Middle East:

By the ninth century the rulers of Islam were becoming reconciled to the fact of a more or less permanent frontier subject to only minor variations, and a more or less permanent non-Muslim state beyond that frontier, with which it was possible to have commercial, diplomatic, and at times even cultural relations. The interruption of hostilities . . . became in fact a peace agreement, no less stable and no less permanent than the treaties of eternal peace that European states were wont to sign with one another. So far had the idea of jihad faded from Muslim consciousness that when, at the end of the eleventh century, the Western crusaders occupied Palestine and captured Jerusalem, their presence and their actions aroused hardly a flicker of interest in the surrounding Muslim countries.[vi]

Why were the Crusaders so provocative? The answer is their bloodlust. According to historian P. M. Holt, "The taking of a town during the First Crusade was usually followed by the slaughter of its inhabitants."[vii] The greatest slaughter was in Jerusalem, in the year 1099. When the Crusaders roamed in, they killed all its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, sparing neither women nor children. The city was soaked in a lake of blood, pouring from the men, women and children put to the sword of the Crusaders – or "Franks" as the Muslims called them.


The military campaign against Edessa was in fact the first step of the Muslim jihad to liberate the Middle East from the Franks, the barbarians from the West. As Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian living in France and writing in French tells us, "Edessa was no more than an outpost of the Frankish presence."[viii] Moreover, the native Christians in the city were so unhappy about their Frankish rulers, that some were willing to be liberated by the Muslim army. Maalouf writes,

The most stirring account of the conquest of Edessa was bequeathed to us by an eyewitness, the Syrian Bishop Abu' l-Faraj Basil, who was directly involved in the events. His attitude during the battle graphically illustrates the tragedy of the Oriental Christian communities to which he belonged. Since his city was under attack, Abu' l-Faraj actively participated in its defence; but at the same time, his sympathies were more with the Muslim army than his Western 'protectors', whom he did not hold in high esteem.[ix]

Before attacking Edessa, the Muslim ruler, Zangi, "constantly sent peace proposals to the besieged," yet "was answered with stupid rodomontade and insult."[x] Then the Muslim army attacked the city, and when they breached the walls, yes, unfortunately, massacred some of its unarmed citizens.


Mr. Bostom tells us about the details of that horrible massacre. However, that is not the whole story:

 Zangi intervened personally to halt the killing, and then dispatched his top lieutenant to see Abu' l-Faraj. 'Venerable Abu' l-Faraj', he said, 'we want you to swear to us, on the cross and the New Testament, that you and your community will remain loyal. You know very well this city was a thriving metropolis during the two hundreds years that the Arabs governed it. Today, the Franj have occupied it for just fifty years, and already they have ruined it. Our master Imad al-Din Zangi is prepared to treat you well. Live in peace, be secured under his authority, and pray for his life.[xi]

After the battle, "the Syrians and Armenians were brought out of the citadel, and they all returned to their homes safe and sound."[xii] M. W. Baldwin, an authority on crusades, also mentions that Zangi "spar[ed] the native Christians and their churches to the best of his ability".[xiii]


However, all valuables of the Franks were taken and after their priests and notables were spared, all their soldiers, a hundred men, were executed.


The episode still looks unacceptably violent for us today, but at that time, when Crusaders were killing all Muslims indiscriminately, this was actually seen as a just response.


Antioch, Cannibals and Seljuk Turks


Mr. Bostom also tells us about "two devastating jihad attacks (1144 and 1146 C.E.) by the Seljuk Turks to Antioch." We should put those event into their historical context, too.


Those "jihad attacks" were in fact a payback for the capture of Antioch by the Crusaders some fifty years before. The Crusaders captured Antioch in 1098 and massacred all its inhabitants so that "there was not a Turk left alive in the city."[xiv] The native Christians who had been co-existing peacefully with Muslims until then were also hit: "In their bloodlust, the invaders killed many Christians too." [xv] Muslims were also horrified to learn a most inhumane savagery had been done in Antioch: Cannibalism. Radulph of Caen, an embedded reporter in the Crusader army, wrote that "our troops boiled pagan adults in cooking pots; they impaled children on spits and devoured them grilled." The official excuse, offered in a letter to the Pope, was that the troops were hungry.[xvi]


Seljuk Turks were, in their mind, avenging these horrific memories when they brutally hit Antioch in 1144 and 1146. In fact, Islam wouldn't even condone that, but Seljuk Turks were hardly perfect representatives of this faith. As Italian historian Cardini notes, "Seljuk Turkish militia were newcomers to Islam and somewhat heavy-handed".[xvii] In fact, their brutality had hit fellow Muslims, too: Seljuk invaders captured Jerusalem from Arab Muslims in 1070 and "massacred a large part of the remaining Moslem population when they rebelled in 1076."[xviii]


The "heavy hand" of Seljuk Turks and other Turkish or Turkic peoples of the time was inherited from the atrocious pagan practices of Central Asia. Such practices are well known from the horrible mass slaughters of Genghis Khan, one of the most ferocious conquerors the world has ever seen.


Nevertheless, the civilizing impact of Islam transformed the Seljuks and other Turks by time. That's why the Seljuks were much more civilized and humane when compared to Mongols like Genghis Khan. Historian A. K. S. Lampton, in a book edited by Abraham L. Udovitch, a real authority in medieval Islamic history, compares Muslim Seljuks with pagan Mongols:

The circumstances of the Seljuq invasion had been very different from those of the Mongol . . . The Seljuqs were converted to Islam before their invasion of Khurasan. Their leaders were familiar with settled life and had inherited the existing traditions of Islamic society. Under their rule Islamic civilization flourished . . . The Mongols, on the other hand, were pagans, and their invasion was accompanied by the destruction of many cities, the massacre of many thousand of their inhabitants, and the devastation and abandonment of much cultivated land.[xix]

Yet, in some cases, the Mongolian tradition of violence posed as Islam. This was very evident in the life — and killings — of Temur.


A Closer Look at Temur's "Jihad" Campaigns


Mr. Bostom is interested in Temur, too. He tells us about "Amir Timur [who], during his jihad campaigns through Northern India (1397-99 C.E.) conducted what may have been the greatest mass slaughter of prisoners ever chronicled." I completely agree with him that Temur — also known as Tamerlane, a derivative of "Temur the Lame" in Persian — was a brutal, wicked, bloodthirsty tyrant. Yet, his slaughters were hardly "jihad campaigns."


In a very recent book, titled Tamerlane, British historian and journalist Justin Marozzi tells us a lot about Temur's real motives. Although the book's subtitle reads Sword of Islam, Conqueror of The World, Marozzi explains that the man was indeed a sword for his blood lust, not Islam:

Temur drew freely from both Islam and the laws of Genghis to justify his actions, be they military conquest or domestic political arrangements. He was, above all else, an opportunist . . . That Islam and wholesale slaughter were incompatible bedfellows was beside the point.[xx]

Temur's horrific violence did not stem from an observance of Islam. On the contrary, his militancy was directed mainly at fellow Muslims:

Temur's interpretation of jihad, or holy war, cast further doubt on his credentials as a good Muslim. In his eyes it justified the use of force and savagery against virtually anyone . . . As high-born leaders, lowly soldiers, desperate women and innocent children all discovered to their cost, professing the faith of Islam was no guarantee of safety from Temur's armies. Muslim Asia, after all, was their stamping ground. They swept through its heartland . . . raining down death on the sons and daughters of the Koran. Who could count the nameless millions of Muslims who perished at their hands? These were the people who suffered his worst atrocities, Two thousand were piled on top of one another and cemented alive into towers of clay and bricks in the city of Isfizar in 1383. In Isfahan, holy city of Persia, seventy thousand were slaughtered in 1387; the sacking of Baghdad in 1401 left ninety thousand dead, their heads cemented into 120 towers. Damascus and Aleppo witnessed unimaginable horrors. And yet this was a man who aspired to the title of Ghazi, Warrior of the Faith.[xxi]

While labeling Temur's bloodshed as "jihad campaigns," Mr. Bostom tells us about the 100.000 Hindu POWs he mercilessly put to the sword. That is horrible indeed. However, in fact, according to Justin Marozzi, from the wrath of Temur, "Christians, Jews and Hindus . . . escaped lightly by comparison. Only occasionally, as though to make up for his massacres of brother Muslims, did Temur unleash his wrath on them."[xxii]


It is true that Temur sometimes referred to Islam to justify his conquests, but his "observation of the Muslim faith was based on pragmatism rather than principle."[xxiii] In fact,

Temur was a chameleon. Whatever worked or furthered his cause in any way was good. This was a cynical interpretation, certainly, but what his message of jihad lacked in intellectual coherence and consistency, it made up for in the sheer protection of force. It was, quite simply, the creed of conquest.[xxiv]

That Temur was not a sincere follower of Islam was evident in his life:

Temur dipped freely into the laws of Islam, picking up and retaining those aspects of the faith he found useful, disregarding those which were inconvenient. He had no time, for instance, for the Prophet's recommendation of a maximum of four wives for a man. More important, despite a lifetime's wanderings, he never found time to honour one of the five pillars of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca, a badge of honour for dutiful Muslims who can afford the journey.[xxv]

His inner circle was quite hypocritical, too. Marozzi tells us about the "orgies" of Temur's men:

The Spanish ambassador Clajivo was one of the witnesses among many to bacchanalian orgies which owed more to the heathen traditions of Genghis Khan and the Mongols than the strictures of Islam. A beautiful cup-bearer was assigned to each man at the feast, the Spaniard noted . . . Feasts invariably ended in a drunken blur. Those warriors who could still stand would grab a companion for the night and stagger back to their tents. There was nothing Islamic about that.[xxvi]

However, Temur was careful to look as if Islamic. "It was in the public displays that Islam shone brightest."[xxvii] Temur loved to lead prayers in public and give the impression of a pious ruler. According to Marozzi, "in his understanding that appearances were everything, and with his instinct for choreographed expressions of piety, Temur demonstrated a profoundly modern approach to the politics of his day.[xxviii]


One modern figure that resembles Temur is undoubtedly Saddam Hussein — the butcher of hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who had no glimpse of faith in his life, yet was careful to pose before cameras in mosques and cynically wrote "God is Great" to the Iraqi flag when he needed to foster popular sentiment.


That Mr. Bostom uses Temur, this medieval Saddam, as evidence for the supposedly inherent violence of Islam is neither appropriate nor convincing.




To continue reading this article, click here.

[i] Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2002, p. 44

[ii] The Ornament of the World, pp. 36, 37

[iii] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, p. 9

[iv] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, p. 19

[v] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, p. 16-17

[vi] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, p. 235-36

[vii] P. M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517,Longman Inc., New York, 1993,  p. 34

[viii] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, Shocken Books, New York, 1984, p. 133

[ix] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p. 134

[x] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p. 134

[xi] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p. 135-36

[xii] Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p. 136

[xiii] Setton, Kenneth Meyer, (ed.-in-chief). A History of the Crusades, 6 vols, Madison, Wis., 1969-89, vol. I "The First Hundred Years", edited by M. W. Baldwin, pp. 448-462. Available online.

[xiv] Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, Crusades, Penguin Books, London, 1996, p. 41

[xv] Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, Crusades, p. 41

[xvi] Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, Crusades, p. 45

[xvii] Franco Cardini, Europe and Islam, p. 57

[xviii] Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, Crusades, p. 49

[xix] A. K. S. Lambton, "Reflections on The Role of Agriculture in Medieval Persia", The Islamic Middle East, 700-1900: Studies in Economic and Social History, (ed.) A. L. Udovitch, The Darwin Press, Inc., Princeton, NJ, 1981, p. 300

[xx] Justin Marozzi, Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2004, p. 90-91

[xxi] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 92

[xxii] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 92

[xxiii] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 93

[xxiv] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 94

[xxv] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 91

[xxvi] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 96-97

[xxvii] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 94

[xxviii] Marozzi, Tamerlane, p. 96

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