On Wars Thought Holy: Interview with Marco Meschini

11-05-2023Weekly ReflectionMarco Meschini

Marco Meschini, a professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, explains in his book "Il Jihad e La Crociata" (The Jihad and the Crusade) published by Edizioni Ares, says that jihad and the Crusades are asymmetric. In this interview he explains why.

Q: In what sense are jihad and the Crusades "holy wars"?
Meschini: A "holy war" is understood to have two characteristic elements: First of all, for those who are believers, it is a war willed by God and promoted by his legitimate representatives; secondly, participating in this war opens the gates to paradise. In the case of jihad it is important to recall an important passage from the Quran: "Fight those who do not believe in Allah and who do not take as illicit what Allah and his messengers have declared to be illicit." It is Allah who wills jihad. Allah is holy and therefore jihad is holy, a holy war. In regard to the second aspect, a "hadith" of Muhammad -- a saying of Muhammad with normative value -- must be recalled: "Know that paradise is in the shade of the sword. "Furthermore, the "mujahid," or warrior of jihad, is considered a martyr if he dies. The word for martyr, "shahid," means "witness," just like the literal sense of the Greek word martyr. The mujahid is so holy that […] he can transmit part of his holiness to his relatives.

Q: You, however, distinguish jihad and the Crusades as "asymmetric." What distinguishes them?
Meschini: The Crusades too, for medieval Christians, were willed by God, in the sense that the Popes wanted them and preached them, connecting them with the forgiveness of sins committed by the participants. The battle cry of the Crusaders was "God wills it! "A first asymmetry, however, is this: Jihad is understood to open the gates of paradise directly, but the Crusades were not, because they were understood as part of the process that could lead sinful man to paradise. There are, however, other more significant asymmetries.

First of all, jihad, whether defensive or offensive -- that is, as the instrument of the spreading of the Islamic religion -- means "submission" to Allah. The crusades, instead, were born only after a millennium of Christianity and with a limited purpose: to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Land, which were unjustly occupied by the Muslims. It should be added that in the course of centuries there were also crusades of expansion but the original idea was not completely lost in these.

Q: You also maintain that, while jihad is essential for Islam, crusading is not essential for Christianity.
Meschini: This is the most radical difference. As was said, holy war is a prescription of the Quran -- and the Quran is the word of Allah, eternal and immutable -- practiced by Muhammad and furnished with a whole series of accompanying rules that define forms and conditions. Still today, for all Muslims, jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, that is, one of the precepts that constitute the identity of their religion. On the contrary, there is no sacred Christian text that speaks of war in a similar way, and to say the least, the model of Christianity, Christ, does not foresee it! For this reason, crusading, which certainly arose in a Christian context, need not be present in other Christian contexts; nor, above all, does it have anything to do with the kerygma, the core of Christian revelation.

Q: Would a kind of Christian crusade have any sense today?
Meschini: I do not believe so. Yet, steadfast resistance, which does not need to, but may have recourse to force -- would make sense, to countervail those who threaten, "manu armata," international peace. Q: Does speaking of jihad today run the risk of making dialogue between Christianity and Islam more difficult? Meschini: What is the purpose of dialogue? I think: knowing each other better, reaching a higher level of truth. Thus, truth, or intellectual honesty, is at least a premise. Indeed, it is an essential condition of dialogue. For this reason I wanted to unmask some commentators who, behind verbal contortions, disguise the historical, juridical and theological truth embedded in the theme of jihad.

Q: What did the Pope intend to say in Regensburg when he spoke of the discourse of Manuel II Palaeologus on these themes?
Meschini: Benedict XVI was very clear: Faith and truth can be proposed and diffused from the intellect to the intellect and from heart to heart, in a reciprocal exchange of reason, I believe. Thus, to expand one's religion "by the sword" is a monstrosity antithetical to the Logos, to Reason, that is, to God. And the violent response to his words was -- dramatically -- an involuntary but "perfect" confirmation of his speech.

Myth #4: The Crusades Taught Muslims to Hate and Attack Christians.

Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before Pope Urban declared the First Crusade. They needed no incentive to continue doing so. But there is a more complicated answer here, as well. Up until quite recently, Muslims remembered the Crusades as an instance in which they had beaten back a puny western Christian attack. An illuminating vignette is found in one of Lawrence of Arabia’s letters, describing a confrontation during post–World War I negotiations between the Frenchman Stéphen Pichon and Faisal al-Hashemi (later Faisal I of Iraq). Pichon presented a case for French interest in Syria going back to the Crusades, which Faisal dismissed with a cutting remark: “But, pardon me, which of us won the Crusades?”

This was generally representative of the Muslim attitude toward the Crusades before about World War I—that is, when Muslims bothered to remember them at all, which was not often. Most of the Arabic-language historical writing on the Crusades before the mid-nineteenth century was produced by Arab Christians, not Muslims, and most of that was positive. There was no Arabic word for “Crusades” until that period, either, and even then the coiners of the term were, again, Arab Christians. It had not seemed important to Muslims to distinguish the Crusades from other conflicts between Christianity and Islam; nor had there been an immediate reaction to the Crusades among Muslims.

As Carole Hillenbrand has noted, “The Muslim response to the coming of the Crusades was initially one of apathy, compromise and preoccupation with internal problems.” By the 1130s, a Muslim counter-crusade did begin, under the leadership of the ferocious Zengi of Mosul. But it had taken some decades for the Muslim world to become concerned about Jerusalem, which is usually held in higher esteem by Muslims when it is not held by them than when it is. Action against the crusaders was often subsequently pursued as a means of uniting the Muslim world behind various aspiring conquerors, until 1291, when the Christians were expelled from the Syrian mainland. And—surprisingly to Westerners—it was not Saladin who was revered by Muslims as the great anti-Christian leader. That place of honor usually went to the more bloodthirsty, and more successful, Zengi and Baibars, or to the more public-spirited Nur al-Din.

The first Muslim crusade history did not appear until 1899. By that time, the Muslim world was rediscovering the Crusades— but it was rediscovering them with a twist learned from Westerners. In the modern period, there were two main European schools of thought about the Crusades. One school, epitomized by people like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, and in the twentieth century Sir Steven Runciman, saw the crusaders as crude, greedy, aggressive barbarians who attacked civilized, peace-loving Muslims to improve their own lot. The other school, more romantic and epitomized by lesser-known figures such as the French writer Joseph-François Michaud, saw the Crusades as a glorious episode in a long-standing struggle in which Christian chivalry had driven back Muslim hordes. In addition, Western imperialists began to view the crusaders as predecessors, adapting their activities in a secularized way that the original crusaders would not have recognized or found very congenial.

At the same time, nationalism began to take root in the Muslim world. Arab nationalists borrowed the idea of a long-standing European campaign against them from the former European school of thought—missing the fact that this was a serious mischaracterization of the Crusades—and using this distorted understanding as a way to generate support for their own agendas. This remained the case until the mid-twentieth century, when, in Riley-Smith’s words, “a renewed and militant PanIslamism” applied the more narrow goals of the Arab nationalists to a worldwide revival of what was then called Islamic fundamentalism and is now sometimes referred to, a bit clumsily, as jihadism. This led rather seamlessly to the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, offering a view of the Crusades so bizarre as to allow bin Laden to consider all Jews to be crusaders and the Crusades to be a permanent and continuous feature of the West’s response to Islam.

Bin Laden’s conception of history is a feverish fantasy. He is no more accurate in his view about the Crusades than he is about the supposed perfect Islamic unity which he thinks Islam enjoyed before the baleful influence of Christianity intruded. But the irony is that he, and those millions of Muslims who accept his message, received that message originally from their perceived enemies: the West. So it was not the Crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. Far from it. Those activities had preceded the Crusades by a very long time, and stretch back to the inception of Islam. Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the Crusades. The irony is rich.