Sunday, June 27, 2010

God's Battalions: The Crusades for Christ - First Impressions

God’s Battalions by Rodney Stark is a fascinating read. I’m just over half way and I can’t put this book down. I’ve never read much on the crusades but I’m quickly learning that I’ve been duped by the all too common misperception of the crusades as a ruthless conquest by greedy and heartless Christians who wanted to plunder and pillage the land of peaceful Muslims. According to Stark, and most contemporary crusade scholars, this is as absurd as it is wrong. He says, “A great deal of nonsense has been written about Muslim tolerance . . .” (28) This caricature of the crusades probably “began with Voltaire, Gibbon, and other eighteenth-century writers who used it to cast the Catholic Church in the worst possible light. The truth about life under Muslim rule is quite different.” (38)

Stark begins not with the initial call for the crusades by Pope Urban II in 1095 but rather with “the rise of Islam and the onset of the Muslim invasions of Christendom. That’s where it all started—in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory.” (9)

Stark carefully traces the invasion of the Muslims throughout established Christian territories. Some have asked how could a “bunch of desert barbarians roll over the lard, trained armies of the ‘civilized’ empires?” (23) Stark provides a couple of reasons. First, “the more ‘civilized’ empires did not posses any superior military hardware, with the exception of siege engines, which were of no use in repelling attacks.” (24) (This would change dramatically in later centuries when the ‘civilized’ empires developed more advanced weaponry.) Second, the troops of the empire by this time were not very dedicated or disciplined. Rather “these forces were recruited from hither and yon, and mostly drew ‘foreigners’ who served mainly for pay, which placed limits on their loyalty and their mettle.” (24) Third, and perhaps most important was the use of the camel by Muslim invaders. “The use of the camels made the Arabs the equivalent of a ‘mechanized force,’ in that they so greatly outpaced the Persian and Byzantine armies traveling on foot.” (25) As Stark explains, “given the geography of the area, the Muslims could always outflank the imperial forces by using desert routes, and, should it be necessary, they could always withdraw into the desert to avoid battle.” (25)

Once the Muslims were in power “Jews and Christians were prohibited from praying or reading their scriptures aloud—not even in their homes or in churches or synagogues—lest Muslims accidentally hear them.” (28) “In 705 Muslim conquerors of Armenia assembled all the Christian nobles in a church and burned them to death.” (29) But there is plenty of blame to go around. Stark observes, “This is not to say that the Muslims were more brutal or less tolerant than were Christians or Jews, for it was a brutal and intolerant age. It is to say that efforts to portray Muslims as enlightened supporters of multiculturalism are at best ignorant.” (29)

In chapter three, “Western ‘Ignorance’ versus Easter ‘Culture,’” Stark defends the thesis that the Dark Ages “never took place.” (54) Not only did this period see huge advancements in European culture but the alleged advancements in the Muslim culture can virtually all be traced to the assimilation of conquered populations. For example, “Avicenna, whom the Encyclopedia Britannica ranks as ‘the most influential of all Muslim philosopher-scientists,’ was a Persian.” (59) Furthermore, “Al-Uqlidis, who introduced fractions, was a Syrian, Bakht-Ishu’ and ibn Ishaq, leading figures in ‘Muslim’ medical knowledge, were Nestorian Christians. Masha’allah ibn Athari, the famous astronomer and astrologer, was a Jew. . . What may have misled so many historians is that most contributors to ‘Arabic science’ were given Arabic names and their works were published in Arabic—that being the ‘official’ language of the land.” (59) Stark goes on with several pages with more details. “The so-called Arabic numerals were entirely of Hindu origin.” (59) “‘Muslim’ or ‘Arab’ medicine was in fact Nestorian Christian medicine; even the leading Muslim and Arab physicians were trained at the enormous Nestorian medical center at Nisibus in Syria. . . In fact, prior to the ninth century, nearly all the learned scholars in the [Islamic area] were Nestorian Christians.” (60) It was natural then that “when in the fourteenth century Muslims in the East stamped out nearly all religious nonconformity, Muslim backwardness came to the fore.” (61)

Consider also “that following the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the rest of North Africa, and Spain, the wheel disappeared from this whole area!” (67) Everything was hand-carried or packed on camels, donkeys or horses. Why? Because the Arabs thought it was of little value. Wheels require streets and roads. Camels and pedestrians don’t. The “Dark Ages” saw huge advancements in transport, agriculture and military might for Europeans. The comparisons between European and Muslim advancements during this time are like night and day.

The book is not only full of revelations for me it is incredibly well written.  It is in many places truly a page turner.  I can't wait to finish. 


Anthony Gill said...

Stark discusses his new book on the new podcast series "Research on Religion" hosted by Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Hear it at

Louis said...

Thank you Dr. Gill,

I listened to it and enjoyed it very much. I'll make another post featuring your interview.