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Book Commentary/Review – The Crusades, Christianity and Islam by Jonathan Riley-Smith October 12, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in anti-colonialism, book review, history, Jonathan Riley-Smith, modern Islam, religious tolerance, the crusades, Uncategorized.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Jonathan Riley-Smith has been writing definitive reference materials about the crusades for many years. The book I will discuss here is a short book, from 2008, eighty pages, derived from a series of lectures. What makes this book different from a standard authoritative text on the subject (which Riley-Smith has written, see below) is the discussion of the crusades in the context of current events. Present-day Muslim fanatics have invoked the crusades as justification for their hostility toward their perceived enemies in the West. Some Western apologists have actually adopted the Muslim fanatic line, apparently ignorant of the true history, and accepting the misappropriations of history. Others try to rationalize the crusader period, arguing that no negative judgments should attach to the actions of western Christians in the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Ages. Having these comments from an expert like Jonathan Riley-Smith helps enlighten the discussion.

Here are key points made by Riley-Smith:

  • “The perception modern Muslims have of the crusades dates only from the end of the nineteenth century.” He argues, citing solid historical evidence, that crusader actions of the Middle Ages have been projected onto the actions of later western imperial powers. This development was set up by some “crusades” rhetoric used by those western powers during the age of European colonial empires. He argues that at the time of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, “the crusades passed almost out of mind” of Muslims.
  • He also discusses how western apologists try to minimize the role of religion in the crusades, fashioning anachronistic, pseudo-imperialistic motives to Christians of the Middle Ages, who were, by-and-large, fanatically devoted to their religion. Crusading was not a chance to gain riches. It was “for most laymen… a serious business, dangerous, debilitating and impoverishing.” Nobles died at a rate of 35%—the rest certainly at higher rates. But for human beings living as western Christians during the Middle Ages, penance, the opportunity to gain forgiveness of sins and escape the searing agonies of hell, was a very real concern.

The book is separated into four chapters followed by a brief conclusion:

  • “Crusades as Christian Holy Wars”
  • “Crusades as Christian Penitential Wars”
  • “Crusading and Imperialism”
  • “Crusading and Islam”

In the two-page conclusion, Jonathan Riley-Smith brings the material to the present, ending with another slant on the concept of crusades, that a fanatic dedication to a “religious or cultural or even pseudoscientific ideal” is a concept that could be universal to civilization, manifesting in “wars waged in the names of imperialism, nationalism, Marxism, fascism, anticolonialism, humanitarianism and even liberal democracy.”

The book is a short, quick read, packed with a lot of material shining the light of historical accuracy on the historical aspect of debates that rage today over centuries-old events that still have meaning for some of the most pressing issues of our times.

The Crusades, Christianity and Islam

The Crusades, Christianity and Islam

The Crusades, a History

The Crusades, a History

Atlas of the Crusades

Atlas of the Crusades


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