The revival of crusading rhetoric in the past two decades, and the concomitant rise in the language of jihad, evoked by self-proclaimed Western conservatives as well as by Islamic fundamentalist and militarist movements, is probably the most momentous and problematic aspects of the medieval legacy’s direct impact on our world. But, how much of this rhetoric is actually medieval?
Wars in the Name of God
How closely do these 21st century calls for crusade and jihad align with the waging of holy war in the distant past? Why is it dangerous to use these concepts without a better understanding of the historical contexts in which they arose?
The idea of holy war, as we have come to understand that term, is actually a medieval invention and differs from the ancient—and probably universal—human impulse to fight in the name of a god (or gods), or a numinous ideal, or under divine protection of some kind.
In ancient Egypt, for example, where the pharaoh was worshipped as a god on earth, any battle fought for the state was sanctioned by that god. One of the earliest Mesopotamian empires, that of the Akkadian ruler Sargon (whose reign began around 2350 BCE), was partly dependent on Sargon’s clever idea of merging the deities of his city with those of the cities he conquered in order to mitigate rivalry and promote at least an aspirational sense of belonging to a greater whole.
The Babylonian king Hammurabi, who ruled in the first half of the 18th century BCE, consolidated his conquests by promoting the worship of Babylon’s patron god, Marduk, as the ruler-god of his entire empire. The idea that political power derives from divine approval was hardly new, but Hammurabi’s innovation was to use Marduk’s supremacy to legitimate his own claims to rule in Marduk’s name, because he was king of Marduk’s city.
Hammurabi, thus, became the first known ruler to launch wars of aggression justified in the name of his primary god.
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Military underdogs of the ancient world also called upon their gods to justify and aid them. The Hebrews, for example, were at an extreme military disadvantage vis-à-vis their neighbors, the mighty Philistines, who explicitly targeted the Hebrews’ holy sanctuary at Shiloh. This was where the sacred Ark of the Covenant—said to contain the original tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai—was kept. And according to Hebrew tradition, the tribes of Israel had once carried the Ark into battle against the Philistines, only to lose it in the fray and to witness the destruction of Shiloh.
When King David built a new Hebrew capital in the conquered Canaanite settlement of Jerusalem—deliberately choosing a location between the tribes of Israel and those of Judah and avoiding all traditional Hebrew holy places—he exalted the city as a religious center by housing the Ark there and elevating the priesthood of the god Yahweh, in an effort to forge a new collective identity centered on his own family and its connections to that god.
Neo-Assyrian Doctrine of Imperial Expansion
In the 7th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrians claimed that their god, Assur, demanded the constant expansion of his worship through military conquest, as well as the ritual humiliation of a defeated city’s gods, whose images would be taken as hostages; meanwhile, the image of Assur would be installed in the defeated city and the conquered people required to worship him.
In ancient Greece, individual heroes and whole city-states fought in the name of patron gods, and the gods themselves were imagined as waging war among themselves, in support of their chosen champions.
The Neo-Assyrian doctrine of imperial expansion in the name of Assur is the closest comparison to the medieval idea of holy war—an example wholly unknown to medieval people, of course.
Collectively, all of these ancient paradigms reveal a primal need to invoke a higher power during times of warfare as an incentive to encourage bravery, as a justification for atrocities, and as a unifying mechanism. That primal need is certainly in evidence during the Middle Ages, too, but there a few other elements that were needed to make a medieval war holy, at least in theory.
Theory of ‘Just War’
One of those ingredients is supplied by Greco-Roman and Christian theories of the ‘just war’. Such theories often encompass justifications for the motives undergirding the declaration of war as well as for the proper conduct of war. Aristotle’s theory of the ‘just war’ was very broad. He argued that wars were justified if they were waged to avoid the enslavement of a Greek polis, but they could also be justly waged to enslave those whose nature suited them to be slaves, by which he meant any barbarian or non-Greek peoples.
In ancient Rome, by contrast—at least in the theories advanced by noncombatant authorities—warfare was always a potential evil and risked the defilement of those who perpetrated it. For that reason, wars fought in the name of the Roman state had to be divinely sanctioned and authorized by the official priesthood. Moreover, warfare had to be conducted in accordance with the ius gentium, the ‘law [of all] nations’, the ancestor of human rights law and of the (very recent) idea that there can be such a thing as war crimes.
Common Questions about Crusades and Jihad
The Babylonian king Hammurabi, who ruled in the first half of the 18th century BCE, consolidated his conquests by promoting the worship of Babylon’s patron god, Marduk, as the ruler-god of his entire empire.
A higher power was invoked during times of warfare as an incentive to encourage bravery, as a justification for atrocities, and as a unifying mechanism.
Aristotle’s theory of the ‘just war’ was very broad. He argued that wars were justified if they were waged to avoid the enslavement of a Greek polis, but they could also be justly waged to enslave those whose nature suited them to be slaves, by which he meant any barbarian or non-Greek peoples.