When Muslim Knights Were Held in High Esteem, by the Crusaders

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An image painted in around 1337 (MS Fr. 22495), showing a battle between Crusader knights on the left, led by Godfrey of Boullion (one of the leaders of the First Crusade), and similarly armed and garbed but bearded Muslim knights on the right, wearing white turbans on their heads.
Crusader knights (left) take on very similarly depicted Islamic knights, featuring beards, white turbans and bare feet - but note the similarities in their weaponry and shields.Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Anti-Muslim sentiment in the West has become so overt that this month, Germany’s rightwing party Alternative für Deutschland approved a manifesto banning the call to prayer and baldly stating that "Islam is not part of Germany." Yet one historic class of enemies to Islam actually held the adversary in high esteem – none other than the Crusaders.

The dim view typical of European histories describing the Islamic armies during Crusader times fails to capture the complex, respectful view the Crusader knights had of their enemy. In fact, while Christian accounts of the Crusades typically emphasized the perceived depravity of the Muslims as a race and the Crusaders too portrayed their enemy as monstrous, barbarous, and barely human, they were also deeply impressed by the Muslim tactical skill and courage on the battlefield, and devotion to their leaders. The Christian warriors were more than willing to bestow their enemy with the worthy title of “knight.”

It was for good reason that the chroniclers of the Crusades often admitted the tactical superiority of the Muslim forces, emphasizing that it was only with the "help of God" that the Christians were able to defeat their enemy, not, that is to say, by the Christians’ superior skill: “I shall speak the truth, which no one will dare denyno one could have found more powerful, braver, or more skillful fighters than they.” So describes the anonymous author of the Gesta (the first complete account of the first Crusade) describing the Battle of Dorylaeum against Turkish forces in Anatolia (1 July 1097), taking the time to describe his enemy.

The same account of the first Crusade described Curbara, one of the leaders of a Turkish army, as “mighty in battle, and valiant and resourceful, and that no host of Christians or pagans can have any courage before your face, but are wont to flee at the mention of your name, as sheep flee before the wrath of a lion” (from The First Crusade, The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres and Other Source Materials, edited by Edward Peters).

This positive portrayal of the Turkish and Muslim leaders as worthy adversaries was deliberate. The chroniclers wanted to show that the Holy Land was not gained with ease. The defeat of the Muslim enemy would be all more impressive when the foe encountered was portrayed as fierce, skilled, and characteristically quite like the European knight.

The Battle of Dorylaeum, painted by Gustav Dore some 800 years after the event: Note that all the warriors are equally armed, with spears and shields.Credit: Gustav Dore, Wikimedia Commons

Like sheep before a lion

And the actual skill and formidability of the Muslim forces, as demonstrated by their victories against the Crusaders in battles and skirmishes, not to mention their weaponry, made this task simple.

Even if their ultimate goal was to highlight the heroism of their own champions, the Christian chroniclers were even willing to admit when and how the Crusaders were spectacularly demolished by Muslim soldiers.

At one point, for example, in 1098, the invading Crusaders met a Turkish host outside Antioch. The chronicler describes them as “encircling us on all sides, hurling, shooting, wounding [our men], and cruelly cutting them down with the sword. For so fiercely did they attack our forces that the latter took to flight over the top of the mountains, and wherever a passageway was open. He who could advance at rapid pace escaped alive, but he who could not flee, met death. There were martyred on that day more than a thousand of our knights” (Gesta, and The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants).

Such descriptions of the fleeing and overwhelmed Christians before Antioch made the eventual Christian capture of the city all the more glorious.

The artistic rendering of Muslim soldiers in battle with Crusaders could be equally as flattering. Muslim forces were often depicted as almost indistinguishable from the Christian forces. In a 13th century depiction of the attack on Shaizar, the only distinguishing feature of the Muslim forces on the right side is the moon on the shield of one of the knights, and the curving end of their swords.

Otherwise, both Christian and Muslim forces are equally matched and armed. Sometimes the Muslims had other defining artistic characteristics, usually a turban or kerchief on their head, and large beards.

The 'witnessing centurion' as Muslim

Possibly the most fascinating positive portrayal of the Muslim knight in Crusader art is Crucifixion scenes.

The Crucifixion scene, Church of the Resurrection, Abu Ghosh.Credit: Michael Eisenberg
At a church in Abu Ghosh, showing Christ; an angel with her back to the Crucifixion, a female labeled "Synagoga" beneath whom are soldiers, and, with white turban on his head, the Witnessing CenturionCredit: Michael Eisenberg

Many Crucifixion images created in or around the Crusader realm (though not elsewhere in Europe) portrayed the Witnessing Centurion, that is, the Roman soldier, who at the moment of Christ’s death proclaimed, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Matt. 27:54, Mark 15:39), thus becoming the first pagan to witness Christ divinity. He is often seen to the left of Christ, with his hand raised towards the Crucifixion.

In Crusader-era examples, the centurion is dressed not as a Roman soldier, but as a Muslim knight, wearing a turban and carrying a shield, typical of the Muslim soldier.

Placing a Muslim knight in the role of the witnessing centurion may be the most telling sign of the true respect in which the Christians gave to their Muslim enemies. Also - as the witnessing centurion, the Muslim knight is, indeed, an adversary to Christ as the Roman soldiers were, but also a knight that may, in the end, be converted to recognize Christ’s divinity, as was the hope of many Crusaders.

A Crusader-era image from the church in Abu Ghosh, Israel, shows the entire crucifixion scene. Beneath Christ's arm are two small figures: an angel with her back to the Crucifixion, and a female figure labeled "Synagoga." Underneath the angel expelling Synagoga are several soldiers, one haloed (note worthy), with a white cloth over his head, wearing a blue tunic and raising his right arm towards Christ: this is the Witnessing Centurion. Note the white head gear on the soldiers painted above the centurion, and the soldier with a prominent beard, while the painted thieves are shown without facial hair.

We tend to generalize the relationship between the crusading Christians and defending Muslim armies as hateful and pejorative. Instead, it seems that the Crusaders had a great respect for their enemy as a formidable foe, respected enough to be called a knight, skilled enough to be deemed “powerful and brave”, and worthy enough to be placed by Christ’s side at the Crucifixion.

The author is a doctoral candidate at the University of Haifa.

A statue of Godfrey of Bouillon, a medieval Frankish knight and among the leaders of the First Crusade from 1096 until his death in 1100, in Brussels.Credit: Eugène Simonis, Wikimedia Commons