Religion, Culture; Continent: Europe, Africa, Asia

Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad by Brian A. Catlos

  • Terms like “jihad” and “caliphate” get batted around Western media; this book offers some context for those ideas
  • 390 pages (324 without Glossary, Notes and Background Reading)

Oof! This book felt dense after breezing through The Zookeeper’s Wife. Author Catlos crams a lot of information about an enormous subject into just over 300 pages. He prevents the length from becoming intimidating, but the trade is that he needs to be succinct and keep the ideas coming. Do read this book, but arrange to take in the first thirty or so pages in one quiet sitting. Save it for your next flight or the week the kids are at camp. Once you get going with Catlos’ style and wrap your head around some of the geography of the eleventh century, you’ll be able to pick your way through it in the usual ten- or twenty-minute sittings most adults have to read.

Crusades in Context

Here’s why you should bother, even if you have read other books about the Crusades: Catlos offers better context for the Crusades than I’ve seen anywhere else. The first part of his book discusses the Iberian Peninsula — what is now Spain — during the same time as the First Crusade. Until picking up this book, I hadn’t seen a good discussion of Islamic history in this part of the world. In this part of his work, the author introduces — or reintroduces — the reader to El Cid. Forget what Old Hollywood has told you about a heroic Christian figure. El Cid was a mercenary, nominally Christian, but really a landless knight who sold his services to anyone who could pay, including more than one Muslim. The author then moves on to Sicily, where Christian king Roger II avoided hiring Christian scribes and did a great deal of business with the Muslim power centers in Africa.

For much of the time around the Crusades, Muslims and Christians had fairly amicable relations. If religion popped up at all, it was generally being used by a leader as an excuse to oust some flunkie who had become a problem.

When all those Normans showed up outside Constantinople for the First Crusade, Emperor Justinian must have groaned. His uninvited “rescuers” were going to make a mess of the countryside and disrupt commerce between his huge Christian city and Muslim trading partners in the region. All those folks from Europe brought their horses and armor to Constantinople for one reason: they smelled the money, all the way from their own small, filthy cities (Paris was a fraction of the size of Constantinople). Justinian had to get rid of them. He never quite did, as the Normans established a few of their own smallish kingdoms in the Middle East.

Revisiting Familiar Terms

Another idea new to me? The Spanish city of Cordoba had been a caliphate at one time. Catlos offers up a vivid and careful description of caliphate Cordoba in its heyday. It had been regarded throughout the Muslim world as a center of not only theology, but arts and sciences generally. Christian visitors to its magnificent palace reportedly gasped with delight to see it, and ideas of all kinds flowed in its refined courts. Only a handful of cities have ever been declared caliphates, and having read a bit about it, the significance of the news story about ISIS declaring a caliphate in Raqqa gives me a better sense of that group’s attempts to aggrandize and legitimize itself inside the Muslim world. With apologies to the war-weary citizens of Raqqa, comparisons to the glittering legend of Cordoba seems like a reach. The Raqqa caliphate has since been declared over by Islam’s leadership.

Catlos will also clear up some other terms rather vaguely batted around Western media. For example, I think I had heard once before that jihad wasn’t necessarily violent, but Catlos, a professor of religious studies, makes a point of saying so. He also does a nice job of clarifying all the different religious groups in play around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East — Sunni and Shia Muslims, Moors, Orthodox and Coptic Christians, and (although given much less attention) Jews — and their respective differences.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Catlos does a brilliant job of discussing the historical relations among three of the world’s major religions while resisting the urge to get preachy about modern tensions. All the terms batted around on the evening news become clearer, but this author isn’t pushing a particular political or religious agenda: he honestly is talking about Crusades. If anything you read seems relevant to present-day issues, well…you’ll draw your own conclusions.

Image: waldominguez on The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is currently used by Christians, although it was controlled by Muslims at one time, as the architecture reveals.

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