Conflicts of Ideology in Christian and Muslim Holy War

Conflicts of Ideology in Christian and Muslim Holy War

By David Levine

Binghamton Journal of History (Spring 2002)

Introduction: The holy wars of Christianity and Islam, crusade and jihad respectively, represent a conflict of ideology between two Abrahamic faiths that would be reignited with the First Crusade in 1096. What makes them different is not the wars’ necessity in their respective societies, but their origins. Jihad is explicitly referred to and justified in the Qur’an and crusading came into thought nearly a thousand years after the beginning of Christianity. Practice and execution also differentiate them. For a religious contrast, where Christians viewed Muslims as worshipping a false god through a false prophet, the Muslims were more concerned with the Christians’ use of anthropomorphic imagery for veneration. Thus the difference in these two ideals can be seen: crusading ideology began to take shape in the late 11th century, and was driven by a politically minded, centralized papacy; jihad existed from the beginnings of Islam, and was driven by secular leaders using religious means to their political ends. The parallels of these respective holy wars as unifying forces in otherwise fragmented societies obscure the differences in origin and execution between them, and if not for this fragmentation and various other factors neither may have been employed at all.

Historians have defined crusading broadly. For Jonathan Riley-Smith, there must be vows taken by the crusaders with papal authorization that are fulfilled through penitential warfare. Similarly, Partner argues that crusading is defined by the focus on Jerusalem and the support of Christians in the east. Prior to the formation of semi-official crusading patterns, other popes had made calls for one or more aspects of crusade that would later be compiled into official crusading guidelines by Pope Innocent III. Pope John VIII, in defense of Rome from Muslim armies, promised spiritual rewards for those who would die in defense of the church. Pope Leo IV did the same, as did Pope Alexander II. The ideology of Christian holy war was also abortively proposed by the Byzantine Empire over a century before the first Crusade, failing due to inopportune political changes and the clerical resistance.

Remission of sins was a particular focus of pre-crusading ideological patterning. According to Cowdrey, “In the eleventh century…penance was still being imposed under an older system [from] Carolingian times.” There was little differentiation between what penances were appropriate for what sins, and often the masses were unsure of the remission of their sins. For the upper classes, there was a choice between endowment of a monastery, becoming a monk, or pilgrimage to holy sites like Rome and Jerusalem.

Click here to read this article from Binghamton Journal of History

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine