Defenders of the Christian People: Holy War in Byzantium

Defenders of the Christian People: Holy War in Byzantium

By George T. Dennis

The Crusades from the Perspective of Byzantium and the Muslim World, edited by Angeliki E. Laiou and Roy Parviz Mottahedeh (Dumbarton Oaks,  2001)

Introduction: For most civilized people the term holy war is a contradiction in terms. What religious motive could possibly transform the widespread destruction and the slaughter of thousands of human beings into a holy and meritorious act? But, as we know, religion has all too often served as a pretext for violence. Before going any further, however, we should agree upon a definition of holy war. Three criteria, I think, are essential. A holy war has to be declared by a competent religious authority, the obvious examples being a Christian pope or a Muslim caliph. The objective must be religious; again, two obvious examples are the protection or recovery of sacred shrines or the forced conversion or subjection of others to your religion. There could, of course, be other goals. Finally, those who participate in the holy war are to be promised a spiritual reward, such as remission of their sins or assurance of a place in paradise.

In the world around the Mediterranean, two forms of holy war did emerge. First, the Muslim jihad. Much has been written about this, and I wish only to point out its salient features. Jihad is a religious duty for the Muslim community to propagate Islam, employing coercion of various sorts as needed, until the whole world professes Islam or is subject to its laws. At times, especially when the caliph, or other religious authority, proclaims it, this obligation takes the form of armed conflict. Those who die in the struggle are acclaimed as martyrs and are believed to go straight to paradise. The doctrine of jihad may be traced to the earliest days of Islam, although maybe not directly to Muhammad himself.

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