Political Disaster during the First Crusade: Conflicts among Fatimids, Saljuqs, and the Saljuqs of Rum

By Cayman Frendt




The First Crusade has been a popular subject for medieval historians, but western scholarship has mostly excluded medieval Arab accounts. This research contributes to the debate by focusing on how Arab accounts can better inform our understanding of the First Crusade. Most western scholars contend that the result of the First Crusade was due to European military success. By drawing from the Arab accounts, I argue instead that it was due to political failings amongst the Islamic nations.

Keywords: Political History, Crusades, First Crusade, Saljuqs, Fatimids, Islamic Lens


         The crusades are a popular topic in the field of medieval history. Western scholars and historians, from the 11th century through today, seem particularly interested in the First Crusade. Its events read like an epic tale of good triumphing over evil, but this is merely one version of the story. According to medieval Arab chronicles, there is no event known as the First Crusade. There is recognition of “Franks” entering the Levant in the late 1090s, but the chroniclers had little to say about them. Instead, the Arabic accounts focus on seemingly more pressing matters, such as famine and civil war. When we consider all accounts, we uncover a more comprehensive and significant version of the events. Differences in perspective between east and west continue to this day and, after the events of 9/11, it is more important than ever to be openminded and considerate to the experiences of others.        


Literature Review

         Countless books about the First Crusade have been produced in the English language, perpetuating a western narrative of the so-called “conquest of the Holy Land”. Such scholarship has rarely strayed from its Eurocentric lens, but in the last decade there have been a few commendable efforts to correct this. Critical inquiry into the perspectives of medieval Arab chroniclers is now at the very forefront of historical debate. This paper furthers these discussions by focusing exclusively on how Islamic sources can better inform our understandings. In doing so, I contribute new details on how major political events in the Middle East – which occurred decades before the arrival of the crusaders – played a pivotal role in the outcome of the First Crusade.


Differing Perspectives

The First Crusade (1096-99) is often considered to be the most, if not the only, successful crusade in the Levant. By capturing Jerusalem and establishing the Latin kingdoms in the East, the First Crusade was undoubtedly a great victory for the Europeans who participated in it. For the Islamic groups who encountered the first Franj (the Muslims’ term for the crusaders), however, the result of the First Crusade was a disaster.[1] Moreover, Muslim losses throughout the First Crusade came as a great surprise. The arrival of the Franj was viewed as little more than a minor nuisance; indeed, Muslims generally did not consider the Franj to be a powerful foe – let alone capable of capturing and holding land east of the Mediterranean.

The success of the Franj at the First Crusade was not due to a series of military triumphs. Instead, the Franj arrived at an opportune time and (mostly) unintentionally exploited the weaknesses of a fragmented umma (Islamic world). Attributing Islam’s defeat to disunity, however, is an over-simplification. In the centuries leading up to the eleventh, political revolutions, a religious schism, and economic struggles transformed the golden-age of the Abbasid Caliphate (centered around Baghdad) into a fragmented region made up of political groups who battled themselves as often as their non-Muslim neighbors. The three major Islamic political groups during the 1090s included the Saljuqs of Rum, the Great Saljuqs, and the Fatimids. All of these factions were far more interested in obtaining political dominance in the region than they were in uniting against the Franj. Moreover, their disunity led to even worse results than the lack of unity. Underestimations of the Franj and poor communication led to misunderstandings and the inability to mount a formidable defense. These factors enabled the Franj to swoop through the Levant relatively unhindered. By analyzing the perspectives, circumstances, and events that surrounded the three major Muslim political states in the Levant, this paper will demonstrate that Islam’s defeat at the First Crusade was not a military failure, but rather a political one.


The Franj’s Success in the Literature

         The First Crusade is a popular topic among medieval and crusade historians. As a result, a myriad of scholarship on the subject has been produced throughout the last century. After much research, two major generalizations can be made about the literature. First, most scholarship (at least what is available in English) unsurprisingly focuses on a Western perspective when writing about any crusade that took place in the Levant from 1096 to 1291. Second, most authors include a narrative that offers insights into why the first crusaders were successful (regardless if it is central to the argument or not). In response to the Eurocentric lens, some historians have contributed invaluable Islamic perspectives to the secondary literature as well as extensive English translations of medieval Islamic chroniclers and historians. As for the second generalization, authors have proposed numerous reasons for the initial success of the Franj. The most prominent of these proposals, all of which shall be discussed, include: assistance from Byzantium, superior forces (in comparison to Muslim armies), religious zeal, and disunity in the umma. Interestingly, the latter two are discussed significantly more often than the rest, being addressed in the majority of literature.

         Although not commonly referenced as a major source of the Franj’s success, the aid of Byzantium played at least somewhat of a role in determining the First Crusade’s outcome. Steven Runciman, a popular historian in the West for his three-volume narrative on the crusades, is perhaps the greatest advocate for the significance of Byzantium’s support during the late 1090s. His words speak for themselves: “the extraordinary success of the First Crusade had been largely due to the help given by Byzantium.”[2] Runciman’s narrative also considers other factors to explain the Franj’s success, but it is clear that he gives the Byzantines most of the credit in his work. Runciman’s claim is supported in Christopher Tyerman’s expansive and groundbreaking work titled God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Tyerman describes the Byzantine’s role in the First Crusade as pivotal.[3] Indeed, the Byzantines committed troops, supplies, much needed leadership, and also provided valuable insight into the political divisions of the Muslims.[4] Significantly, however, Tyerman’s narrative also includes the limitations of Byzantium’s aid; their supplies proved insufficient by the winter of 1097, the Byzantine troops abandoned the Franj at the battle of Antioch (1098), and the Byzantines exploited the crusade for personal gain.[5] In short, the aid of Byzantium was only beneficial for a time. Fortunately, this is recognized in Runciman’s and Tyerman’s books, and both appropriately argue that there were also other causes for the Franj’s success.[6]

         Another less common argument (albeit made far more often than the aid of Byzantium) is that the Franj fielded a superior force in comparison to the Muslim armies. The meaning of this argument is often divided – some claim that the Franj’s soldiers were better fighters than Muslim troops, others suggest that the Franj were superior in number. An example of the former is found in Arnold’s and Guillaume’s early edition of The Legacy of Islam, where their narrative on the First Crusade strongly suggests that the Franj succeeded due to fielding a strong force of armed pilgrims.[7] Another argument of Tyerman’s work supports this notion by providing details on how the Franj learned to adapt and, ultimately, counter Turkish and Arab tactics by early 1098.[8] Another narrative that supports Arnold’s and Guillaume’s claim is found in Susan Wise Bauer’s substantial two-volume history of the middle ages. Bauer’s commentary on the First Crusade is very descriptive and suggestive - underlying themes of the Franj’s military superiority as well as their ability to easily defeat their foes is embedded throughout.[9]

         Of significance is the fact that Bauer also supports the other interpretation of a ‘superior force’ – that is, superior numbers. As before, her narrative is very suggestive of this by consistently pointing out the arrival of reinforcements or the large presence of troops whenever the Franj achieved a victory.[10] Similarly, the popular historian Johnathan Riley-Smith centers his narrative on the Franj’s large army. For instance, a strong claim in his book The First Crusaders 1095-1131 is that the First Crusade was a success primarily because of how many Europeans undertook the endeavor.[11] Alternatively, the historian Jay Rubenstein claims that the Franj fielded a smaller force.[12] Whether or not the Franj had a larger army certainly appears to be a point of contention among historians, but perhaps the answer depends on if one considers the umma’s armies as one massive host or, more accurately, a divided region of separate forces.[13]

Another strong claim of Riley-Smith’s work is that the Franj succeeded because of their religious zeal. In Riley-Smith’s The First Crusaders 1095-1131 and The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading, he claims that zeal was equally important as (if not more so than) the superiority of the Franj’s army. For instance, The First Crusaders argues that the ability to rally such a large number of participants was due to a unification through faith. Furthermore, it mentions that the crusade was entirely dependent on the Franj’s cooperation (which was, again, a factor due to a unification through faith).[14] Meanwhile, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading lays the foundations of these claims by describing the concept of crusading as an ideology that promoted many faithful Christians to enthusiastically participate in the First Crusade (ultimately enabling their success).[15]

Tyerman’s work also strongly supports the significance of religious zeal during the First Crusade. During his analysis of the result of the First Crusade, Tyerman effectively writes: “Although it is misleading to assume that all recruits and followers shared a similar intensity of religious motivation and zeal, without the element of ideology and spiritual exhilaration there would have been no march to Jerusalem, let alone a successful conquest.”[16] Tyerman’s words speak for themselves and it is obvious that he agrees with Riley-Smith’s assessment on the importance of Christian ideology. Another historian, Jay Rubenstein, recently constructed a similar narrative that emphasizes the importance of religious zeal even more greatly than both Tyerman and Riley-Smith. In the brief introduction to his book on primary sources from the First Crusade, Rubenstein makes his argument clear: “An army of tens of thousands of warriors with no single leader, united only by religious fervor, journeyed two thousand miles to Jerusalem, along the way triumphing again and again over numerically superior enemies.”[17] Rubenstein’s more comprehensive work, titled Armies of Heaven, also favors this same argument.[18] Attributing the Franj’s success solely to religious zeal is generally a claim of much older scholarship, although this wouldn’t be the only case where Rubenstein’s claims have been contested by other recent historians.[19]

Rom Landau’s claims closely align with those of Rubenstein. Although his narrative is largely focused on the umma, it is rich with discussion of the arrival of the Franj. In particular, Landau dedicates a portion of his book to the crusades and claims that the first was won because the Franj’s army was unified in the name of the cross.[20] Although this is similar argumentation to that of a superior force, the core of Landau’s narrative deals with the unifying capability of fervor and zeal. Similarly, the great historian John France claims that zeal was the sole source of victory. In his military history of the First Crusade, France writes: “There can be no doubt that religious enthusiasm was fundamental to the success of the First Crusade.”[21] His words are reminiscent of Riley-Smith’s and echo those of Tyerman.

Although the concept of zeal is a popular argument for why the Franj were successful, it should be noted that it is probably best argued as one of many factors (as opposed to the only factor). Moreover, the claim that zeal was the only reason that the Franj succeeded is primarily found in much older scholarship, as more recent literature tends to include other factors as well (although this is not always the case). Perhaps an important author to address on this matter is Mike Foss, who is quick to recognize the presence of zeal and even quicker to question how much influence it had over the First Crusade.[22] Going forth, Foss’s questioning is best kept in mind especially while Islamic disunity, the most widely accepted and most commonly argued reason for the Franj’s success, is discussed.

Nearly all modern authors of the First Crusade at least recognize the significance of Islamic disunity and how it affected the war’s outcome. For instance, a myriad of authors’ scholarship states clearly and simply that fragmentation of the umma was the defining factor that lead to the Franj’s success.[23] This has such an ample presence in the literature that Islamic historian H. A. R. Gibb stated that it is a fact accepted by all modern historians.[24] Even Runciman, despite his emphasis on the aid of Byzantium, states that disunity in the umma was still more significant to determining the outcome of the First Crusade.[25] Similarly, Tyerman recognizes the impact of Islamic disunity and another historian, Thomas Asbridge, notes in his own work that the crusaders could not have succeeded had the Muslim armies united.[26] For the most part, however, these works are limited because they often do not include deeper analysis of what ‘Islamic disunity’ meant for the umma in the 1090s. Although their scholarship often offers examples of fragmentation and disunified armies in their narratives, when their claim is made the specifics are often left out (and little analysis is made on these specifics). In most cases, the reason for excluding the specifics of Islamic disunity is likely because the particular book’s focus isn’t on how the Franj succeeded, but more so on highlighting the events that occurred. In other cases this likely occurs because the narrative only describes some of the specifics of the umma’s political state. It is then left to the reader to decipher how that may have affected the armies of Islam. A final reason is that narratives available in English are almost exclusively focused on the Western perspective.

There is, however, scholarship that strays from these traditions. First there are the exceptional works of Nicolle and Tyerman – great historians who have contributed valuable information on the state of the Islamic political groups on the eve of (and during) the First Crusade.[27] Next there is the particularly insightful work of P. M. Holt. In Holt’s groundbreaking book titled The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517, an in-depth discussion is given to describe the political conditions of the umma during the 1090s. From here, a clear framework and analysis for how these political conditions affected the First Crusade is established.[28] Greater still, the works of Ansary, Cobb, Hillenbrand, and Maalouf have enriched the available scholarship in English by writing books specifically on the Islamic perspectives of the crusades. As would be expected, their works include invaluable analyses and in-depth discussions on the political state of the several Muslim groups in power at the time of the First Crusade.[29] Finally, some modern scholars have translated the many Islamic chronicles from the crusade period into English. Of particular relevance to this research are the invaluable translations of Richard, Gabrieli, Gibb, and Cobb.[30] In short, there is more scholarship available on the medieval umma today than ever before (and more opportunities for it due to this primary source availability). The efforts of all these phenomenal scholars forms the basis of this research, and has enabled the clarity of analysis to follow.


The Saljuqs of Rum and the Danishmendids

         Around the year 1000 the Saljuq Turks, migrants from farther east, swarmed into Iran, Iraq, and parts of Syria; within fifty years they made up an integral part of the umma.[31] Throughout the 1050s and 1060s the Saljuqs continued pushing westward into the eastern realm of the Byzantines – a region known as the province of Anatolia. In 1071 near the town of Manzikert, the Saljuqs obtained a decisive victory over the Byzantine forces. The battle (and its aftermath) left the rest of Anatolia open for conquest and it was not long until the Saljuqs officially settled there.[32] Although the Great Saljuqs were indeed made up of fragmented power bases, the Saljuqs of Anatolia were perhaps the most separate and distinct from the rest of the Turks.[33] For instance, the Great Saljuqs (at least in principle) were all under the rule of the sultan in Baghdad. The Saljuqs in Anatolia, on the other hand, established their own sultan – one who officially operated independently from the Great Saljuqs. As a result, the Anatolian Saljuqs were deemed a completely separate faction and were dubbed ‘the Saljuqs of Rum’ to accentuate this distinction.[34]

         The first sultan of the Saljuqs of Rum, Sulayman, faced many threats from the Great Saljuqs for establishing his government based out of Iznik (formerly Nicaea) in 1077. Sulayman endured many power struggles with the Great Saljuqs throughout his reign, and was ultimately slain during a territory dispute in 1086.[35] Sulayman was succeeded by his son, Kilij Arslan, who obtained a secure sovereignty for the Saljuqs of Rum in 1092 after the sultan of the Great Saljuqs, Malikshah, died and left his domain split between four sons.[36] While this event ensured independence for the Saljuqs of Rum, as was desired by Sulayman and Kilij Arslan, it also meant that they would have to face the future invasions of the Franj alone.

         In 1096 an enormous host of Franj was reportedly making their way to Constantinople. Although the Byzantines posed little danger to the Saljuqs of Rum alone, they could have become a threat if they employed auxiliaries - a common practice for the Byzantines.[37] Kilij Arslan feared that the Franj were indeed Byzantium’s latest mercenary cohort, and that his Turkish forces would stand little chance against the combined armies of his western enemies.[38] To make matters worse, the Sultanate of Rum was still newly established. The citizenry still viewed the sultan’s father as their conqueror, and most of Kilij Arslan’s subjects were still loyal to the Byzantine emperor.[39] Indeed, a war with Byzantium (and with the Franj) meant facing threats from within as well as the dangers of being heavily outnumbered.

         Once the Franj crossed into Anatolia, Kilij Arslan’s fears were validated. As the Franj plundered the countryside and terrorized the coast, their message became clear: they had come to kill every last Muslim.[40] Kilij Arslan had spies report on every move of the Franj, and perhaps hoped that they would pass through his lands and become Syria’s problem. His hopes diminished, however, once the Franj set up camp in Civitot – a location less than a day’s march from Iznik.[41] The Franj pillaged the surrounding countryside and eventually made their way to Iznik, violently acquiring supplies along the way. Kilij Arslan was informed too late, and could only muster a small band of troops to defend his home capital. The Turkish host was swiftly slaughtered, but the Franj were incapable of overcoming Iznik’s formidable walls.[42] This gave Kilij Arslan an opportunity to counter-attack and, after a few weeks of conducting strategic warfare, the young sultan destroyed the entire Franj host. Greater still, the Saljuqs of Rum suffered minimal casualties in return.[43] This first Franj invasion would eventually be called the Peasant’s Crusade.[44]

         After achieving such an easily-won victory against the Franj, it is no wonder that Kilij Arslan cared little when his spies reported that another mass of Franj were travelling to Constantinople in 1097.[45] The sultan was far more concerned with the encroaching Danishmendids, a less prominent group of Turks who seized eastern Anatolia after Sulayman died years earlier. The Danishmendids were some of Kilij Arslan’s greatest adversaries so, when word spread that the Danishmendids had besieged Malatya, the sultan quickly responded with a sizable force.[46] The armies clashed in numerous skirmishes, each more deadly than the last. In May of 1097, tensions continued to rise as the Saljuqs of Rum and the Danishmendids fought what became a full-scale battle. During the fighting, Kilij Arslan received word from a messenger that the second wave of Franj were besieging Iznik and that the city would soon fall. The sultan desperately called a truce with his rival, which was accepted, and then swiftly returned home. By then, however, it was too late: the Franj’s new army was far better equipped and far larger than the previous one. In short, the sultan’s forces would not stand a chance at saving the city from capture and so they fled.[47]

         After a short recovery, Kilij Arslan mustered his remaining troops and even convinced the Danishmendids to aid his cause.[48] Near the town of Dorylaeum, a great clash between Franj and Turks took place. By the end of the battle, the Saljuqs were routed and the Franj continued south towards Palestine.[49] Once the Franj entered Syria and invaded Antioch (having departed from Anatolia and, thus, out of the sultan’s way), Kilij Arslan established a new capital at Iconium and his war with the Danishmendids resumed as if nothing had interrupted it. The rivalries amongst the Anatolian Turks were once again deemed more important than dealing with the invading Franj and, as a result, Antioch received no aid from the Saljuqs of Rum.[50] This makes sense, because the Saljuqs of Rum disliked the Danishmendids and the Great Saljuqs to about the same degree as they did the Franj – perhaps even more so. Antioch was controlled by a Great Saljuq so, from Kilij Arslan’s perspective, the siege of Antioch was a good thing – it pitted his two foes against one another. As Hillenbrand points out, the Saljuqs of Rum would have never considered joining forces with any Great Saljuq faction.[51]

         From the beginning, the circumstances surrounding the Saljuqs of Rum left them very vulnerable to first Franj invasions. The Franj armies were made up of forces from numerous European kingdoms, whereas the Saljuqs of Rum had only their own troops to rely upon. Due to their history of bitter rivalries and quarrels with the Great Saljuqs to the south and the Danishmendids to the east, the Saljuqs of Rum had no allies to call upon. Even after convincing the Danishmendids to temporarily lend support, the sultanate needed many more allies before they could have been able to put forth a formidable resistance (allies that simply did not exist due to the conflicts between the political groups in the Levant). Moreover, the Saljuqs of Rum and the Danishmendids spent a good deal of time destroying each other’s armies before the main force of Franj arrived in 1097. Their war left them weak: even if the Kilij Arslan had possessed the forces to fend off the Franj alone initially, this would have no longer been the case after constantly battling the Danishmendids. Furthermore, because Kilij Arslan’s citizenry were still Byzantine, the Saljuqs of Rum had no people to draw militias from (being instead reliant on Turkish militants loyal to Kilij Arslan). This also meant that the cities of the sultanate would have been happy to be recaptured by the Byzantines – a factor suggesting that they did not resist nor oppose the Christian invasions. Finally, Kilij Arslan underestimated the Franj. After easily defeating the first Franj invasion of 1096 (the Peasant’s Crusade), he understandably saw no reason to be concerned when the Franj returned a year later. The sultan certainly did not expect the Franj to be vastly more formidable the second time, and that factor led him to continue his war with the Danishmendids instead of sending aid to Iznik. By the time he finally realized his mistake, it was too late; his armies were now weak and his capital was on the brink of capture.


The Division of the Great Saljuqs

         The invasion and integration of the Turks into the umma has already been established, as has their status of disunity, but further details are required to fully understand the political disarray of the Turks. Beginning in 1055, the Abbasid Caliphate was officially controlled by the Great Saljuq sultan, Tughril, who ruled from the Abbasid capital of Baghdad.[52] Tughril was succeeded by Alp Arslan in 1063 who continued to strengthen and expand the sultanate until his death in 1072. The Great Saljuqs were then inherited by Malikshah, a very successful ruler who controlled a strong and unified state made up of Iraq, Syria, and Palestine.[53] Upon his suspicious death in 1092, however, tragedy befell the sultanate.[54] For the first time, the Great Saljuqs lacked a strong ruler and its domain became split between four inheritors who violently clashed with one another until the sultanate fractured into four sovereign realms (Syria, Persia, Kirman, and Khorasan).[55] Moreover, several regional powers (such as the city states of Tripoli, Mosul, Aleppo, Antioch, Damascus, and Jerusalem) emerged during this time of confusion, further weakening the Great Saljuq state.[56]

The newly independent regions were primarily controlled by Turkish atabegs (military commanders) who collected taxes and enforced their rule through loyal Turkish militants.[57] The atabegs often ruled over peoples very different than they (in ethnicity and religion), and this led to many power struggles throughout the Great Saljuq regions.[58] For instance, formerly dominant Arab tribes initiated numerous revolts against the atabegs.[59] Even after being quelled, the Arabs and the other ethnic groups unhappy with Turkish rule remained volatile. Syria and Palestine were particularly rife with civil wars during the 1090s (such as the conflicts between Damascus and Aleppo) and were consequently in a constant state of war throughout the period.[60] Another example of civil unrest can be found at the siege of Antioch in 1097 and 1098 (a major battle of the First Crusade). According to ibn al-Qalanisi, a 12th century Muslim chronicler, one of the city’s armorers felt that he was treated unfairly and decided to open the gates and let the Franj in; this enabled and resulted in a quick Franj victory.[61] Finally, the atabegs also faced the threat of external foes. The most prominent of these were the Fatimids – a powerful Islamic state that was based out of Egypt. The Fatimids viewed the death of Malikshah as an opportunity to reconquer their previous-held lands in Syria.[62] Although the Great Saljuqs managed to fend off the Fatimid invaders, the warring states certainly weakened one another and a future of continual war was certain. 

Meanwhile, in western Iran, two of Malikshah’s sons (Barkyaruq and Muhammad) battled for supremacy of that region. The war between them drained nearly all of the military resources available to the Abbasid Caliphate and lasted until Barkyaruq died in 1105.[63] Consequently, their war greatly impacted the Great Saljuqs’ ability to resist the Franj during the First Crusade (which ended in 1099) in a number of ways. First, as mentioned, it depleted all of the available military resources throughout the lands of the Great Saljuqs. This undoubtedly hemorrhaged the fighting ability of all their regions. Second, warring until a few years after the First Crusade, the two brothers were too preoccupied with their own conflicts to concern themselves with the Franj’s invasion. As a result, the primary forces of the Abbasid Caliphate (and, thus, of the Great Saljuqs) did not even participate in the First Crusade.[64] Finally, the brothers’ in-fighting left the Great Saljuqs (as a whole) battered and weak. Any military support they may have received from the various city states would have returned home weakened and, consequently, incapable of repelling the Franj.

As a whole, the Great Saljuqs were a powerful state. However, after the first three great sultans (Tughril, Alp Arslan, and Malikshah) died, the sultanate became fragmented and weak. With the Great Saljuqs caught between virulent civil wars from within and bloody conflicts with the Fatimids, it is no wonder that the Franj swept through Palestine and Syria with little effort. One by one the Saljuq city states fell as the Franj conquered the stretch of land along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. Of interest, some of the Great Saljuqs did not fully understand the purpose of the Franj, viewing them merely as ‘another new ethnic group’ rather than a band of warriors intent on waging ‘holy war’ and killing Muslims. Tripoli, for example, sought to ally themselves with the Franj in order to bolster their chances at defeating the Fatimids. Meanwhile, the rest of the Palestinian city states were too weak from in-fighting to resist conquest (they also lacked the support of their neighbors); indeed, the Franj’s conquests occurred because of the aforementioned political turmoil afflicting the sultanate throughout the 1090s. Hillenbrand describes the situation well: “had the First Crusade arrived even ten years earlier, it would have met a strong, unified resistance from the state then ruled by Malikshah”.[65] Instead, because of unfortunate circumstances, the Franj did battle with a myriad of independent city states who had spent the past few years destroying one another. 


The Fatimids and the Religious Schism of Islam

         There are three schools of Islam: the Sunni, the Shia, and the Kharijite. At first they were merely the result of a religious schism; eventually, however, they served as foundational barriers between the major Muslim powers. For example, the great Abbasids of Baghdad were Sunnis, whereas the Caliphs of al-Andalus (Spain) became Kharijites in order to establish a greater independence from the Abbasids.[66] Meanwhile, the Fatimids of North Africa (named after Fatima, the daughter of the prophet Muhammed) firmly identified as Shias.[67] These well-established religious barriers ensured that the three aforementioned states remained separate and, in the case of the Abbasids and the Fatimids, openly hostile with one another.[68]

The conflict between Sunnis and Shias escalated in 969 when the Fatimid Caliphate conquered Egypt and moved its capital to Qahira (Cairo).[69] Afterwards, the Fatimids and Abbasids shared periods of both coexistence and violence (although primarily the latter, especially after the destabilization of the Abbasids in 1092).[70] The Fatimid Caliphate, at its height, stretched across North Africa (including Tunisia, Maghrib, and Egypt), Sicily, Western Arabia, and a large portion of Syria and Palestine.[71] Syria and Palestine served as the border regions between the Fatimids and the Abbasids; naturally, this meant that they were rife with the aforementioned wars between Shias and Sunni. These border conflicts escalated further once the Saljuqs took control of the Abbasid Caliphate, leaving Palestine war-torn and politically fragile. Such a state would have certainly been easy for the Franj to conquer, and the hatred between the Fatimids and the Saljuqs meant that an alliance between them was even less likely than an alliance with the Franj.[72]

Interestingly, an “alliance” between the Franj and the Fatimids did occur – at least that is what the latter believed until the Franj attacked them. Since at least the 1070s the Fatimids and Byzantines shared a common enemy who threatened their lands: the Saljuqs.[73] When the Franj arrived, the Fatimid Caliphate assumed they were mercenaries and congratulated the Byzantines on the arrival of reinforcements; for the caliph, these new forces meant that he and the Byzantine emperor finally had a chance to drive out the Turks.[74] The 13th century Muslim chronicler ibn al-Athir wrote that the Franj’s conquest of Antioch significantly weakened Syria and gave the Fatimids a fighting chance against their rivals.[75] Once the Franj descended upon the Levant from the north, particularly during their attack on the Tripoli region, the Fatimids made a coordinated assault from the south and captured Jerusalem.[76] Still assuming that there was an alliance amongst each other, the Fatimids then extended a warm welcome to the Franj by offering hospitality and protection within the walls of Jerusalem.[77] As the Franj conquered the Palestinian territories between them and the Fatimid Caliphate, their primary goal was, indeed, to reach Jerusalem. However, as the Fatimids soon discovered, the Franj intended to conquer it; by the end of the siege of Jerusalem in 1099, nearly every Muslim in the city was slain.[78]

Beyond their wars with the Great Saljuqs, the Fatimids were also weak from lacking a strong, unified state (not unlike their neighbors). The rulers of Arabia, for example, offered little-to-no support to the Fatimids despite being under their yolk. The Fatimid Caliphate paid tribute to Arabia, and in return the Arabians promised to recognize Cairo as the true government of the Umma rather than Baghdad.[79] This meant that Arabia was technically Fatimid controlled, but that the Arabians were relatively independent – this is because their “support” was merely bought, not earned. Moreover, the Fatimid Caliphate’s hold on western North Africa was waning in the 11th century. The Zirids, a Berber dynasty in Tunisia and Maghrib that once strongly supported the Fatimids, were facing difficulties of their own and eventually sided with the Great Saljuqs. For the remainder of the century their allegiances continued to shift between Cairo and Baghdad, picking the side that suited their needs best, until both caliphates were sick of allying with the Zirids.[80] To make matters worse, a nomadic Arab group from Egypt known as the Banu Hilal invaded Maghrib until the Zirids were nearly wiped out. The Zirids assumed that the Banu Hilal were Fatimid mercenaries and, in the 1060s, they pushed out the remaining Fatimids in their lands.[81]

         Even Egypt was not safe from political turmoil. The Fatimid’s early 11th century caliph, al-Hakim, was a poor ruler and greatly weakened the state.[82] Then, after his likely assassination, a period known as ‘the Great Calamity’ occurred which was marked by two decades of famine, reduced tax acquisition (leading to an inability to pay the troops), and pitched battles between rebellious and unpaid soldiers on the streets of Cairo itself.[83] Caliph al-Mustansir finally quelled the unrest in 1073, but his death in 1094 (along with the death of his vizier that same year) brought another wave of chaos to the Fatimids Caliphate. His sons fought a civil war to vie for his title, and another religious schism divided the Shia Muslims further.[84] By the time the Franj arrived a few years later, the Fatimids were a shell of their former glory. Conflicts with their religious and political rivals (the Great Saljuqs) left them weak, and civil wars ripped apart their empire. To top it off, they thought that the Franj were an ally until Jerusalem was threatened. In essence, the Fatimids were in a similar state as their Muslim neighbors during the First Crusade – a state so divided and weak that it is no wonder that the Franj defeated them.


The Extent of Islamic Disunity and its Impact on the First Crusade

Islamic disunity has become an important piece of the master narrative on the First Crusade, but ‘disunity’ is an oversimplification. Indeed, the Umma east of al-Andalus was made up of three separate major political states: the Fatimids, Saljuqs, and Saljuqs of Rum. However, these states faced far greater struggles throughout the 1090s than merely lacking a united front once the Franj invasions began. The Saljuqs of Rum struggled for independence from the Great Saljuqs and simultaneously fought their political adversaries the Danishmendids. Moreover, they underestimated the real threat of the Franj because the Peasant’s Crusade was so easily defeated. Meanwhile, the lands of the Great Saljuqs were rife with civil wars during a succession crisis. These wars drained the Saljuqs of their troops and resources, and enabled Turkish atabegs to establish independent city states throughout Palestine and Syria.[85] Finally, the Fatimids were recovering from a twenty-year famine and the loss of their western regions, but were then returned to a state of political turmoil after their caliph was murdered. The Fatimids also believed that the Franj were their ally, having committed coordinated attacks against their mutual enemy the Great Saljuqs, until the Franj betrayed them at the siege of Jerusalem. In essence, the Franj succeeded during the First Crusade because they did not fight a unified Umma. Instead, they invaded a land full of numerous Muslim groups that were too busy destroying each other, and themselves, to worry about the seemingly insignificant arrival of the Franj.






Primary Sources with Annotations

Ibn al-Athir. Al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Translated by D. S. Richards. London: Routledge, 2005.


                  Ibn al-Athir, although writing much later than the First Crusade, provides several useful accounts on the subject. Although the Franj viewed the First Crusade as a major event, it was not a significant phenomenon for the Umma. As a result, there were not nearly as many Muslim accounts on the first Franj invasion as there were Franj accounts on the event.


Ibn al-Athir. Al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Translated by Francesco Gabrieli. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984.


                  Richards’ and Gabrieli’s translations vary in style, but their works produce the same meaning. While Richards provides a complete account of ibn al-Athir’s chronicles, the advantage of Gabrieli’s translations is that he includes works from other Muslim chroniclers as well (although not in his translations concerning the First Crusade).


Ibn al-Qalanisi. The Chronicle of ibn al-Qalanisi. Translated by H. A. R. Gibb. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002.


                  Ibn al-Qalanisi was another writer with valuable chronicles on the First Crusade. As stated, there simply was not much written on the First Crusade in the Umma, so ibn al-Qalanisi’s work is invaluable.


Ibn Munqidh, Usama. The Book of Contemplation. Translated by Paul M. Cobb. London: Penguin Group, 2008.


                  The Book of Contemplation focuses on significant events in ibn Munqidh’s life, and appropriately is primarily about his time spent with Zangi and the Fatimids (all during the 12th century). His accounts, however, are still relevant because they provide insights on the Islamic perspectives of the Crusades and, interestingly, how the people of the Umma viewed the Franj.


Secondary Sources

Ansary, Tamim. Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through the Islamic Eyes. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2010.


Arnold, Sir Thomas and Alfred Guillaume, eds. The Legacy of Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931.


Asbridge, Thomas S. The First Crusade: A New History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010.


Cahen, Claude. “An Introduction to the First Crusade.” Past & Present 6 (November 1954): 6-30.


Cobb, Paul M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


Cobb, Paul M. Usama ibn Munqidh: The book of Contemplation Islam and the Crusades. London: Penguin Group, 2008.


Foss, Michael. People of the First Crusade. New York, NY: Arcade Publishing, 1997.


France, John. Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


Gabrieli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984.


Gibb, H. A. R. The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.


Heath, Ian. Byzantine Armies 886-1118. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1979.


Hillenbrand, Carole. The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.


Hillenbrand, Carole. “The First Crusade: The Muslim Perspective.” In The First Crusade: Origins and Impact, edited by Jonathan Phillips, 130-141. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.


Holt, P. M. The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517. London: Routledge, 2013.


Landau, Rom. Islam and the Arabs. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1959.


Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1989.


Nicolle, David. Saracen Faris 1050-1250. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1994.


Nicolle, David. The First Crusade 1096-99: Conquest of the Holy Land. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003.


Phillips, Jonathan, ed. The First Crusade: Origins and Impact. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.


Richard, D. S., trans. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Part 1. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.


Riley-Smith, Johnathan. The First Crusaders 1095-1131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


Riley-Smith, Johnathan. The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986.


Rosenwein, Barbara H. A Short History of the Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.


Rubenstein, Jay. Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.


Rubenstein, Jay. The First Crusade: A Brief History with Documents. New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015.


Runciman, Steven. The First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.


Stevenson, William Barron. The Crusaders in the East: A Brief History of the Wars of Islam with the Latins in Syria during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Cambridge: BiblioLife, 2009.


Tyerman, Christopher. God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.




[1] The crusaders shall be referred to as the Franj throughout this paper to reflect the focus of an Islamic perspective. This is customary in most scholarship dealing with the Islamic perspectives of the crusades.

[2] Steven Runciman, The First Crusade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 192.

[3] Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 162.

[4] Ibid., 118-119.

[5] Ibid., 120, 136.

[6] Runciman’s and Tyerman’s other points will be made as they arise in this literature review. Of worthy note here, however, is that Runciman views the aid of Byzantium as a major contributor to the Franj’s success, whereas Tyerman states that it was one of a myriad of reasons.

[7] Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), 45.

[8] Tyerman, 163.

[9] There are two important notes to bring up about Bauer’s work. First, the mentioned claims are never stated directly, but are implied throughout her narrative. Second, her other volume of this work is entitled The History of the Renaissance World, should it be needed. This is not to be confused with the early modern period, rather it is referring to a medieval renaissance. Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2010), 656-662.

[10] See the preceding foot note. Bauer, 656-662.

[11] Johnathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders 1095-1131 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 189.

[12] Jay Rubenstein, The First Crusade: A Brief History with Documents (New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015), 2.

[13] As will be demonstrated in this paper, the Umma was, indeed, made up of several fragmented forces that were too busy killing one another to be a unified army. It is a common mistake to assume that the people of the Umma were united through Islam during this period.

[14] Riley-Smith, First Crusaders, 153.

[15] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), 153.

[16] Tyerman, 163.

[17] Rubenstein, 2.

[18] Jay Rubenstein, Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011), xiii.

[19] As mentioned, Rubenstein argues that Muslim rulers fielded larger armies than the Franj during the First crusade. As discussed, many authors have argued that this was not the case.

[20] Rom Landau, Islam and the Arabs (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1959), 83.

[21] John France, Victory in the East: A Military History of the First Crusade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 24.

[22] Michael Foss, People of the First Crusade (New York, NY: Arcade Publishing, 1997), 1-2.

[23] Great examples of such works include: Claude Cahen, “An Introduction to the First Crusade,” Past & Present 6 (November 1954): 9. Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1984), xii. David Nicolle, Saracen Faris 1050-1250 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1994), 27-28. Carole Hillenbrand, “The First Crusade: The Muslim Perspective,” in The First Crusade: Origins and Impact, edited by Jonathan Phillips, 130-141, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, 131. Foss, 181. Jonathan Phillips, The First Crusade: Origins and Impact (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 181. David Nicolle, The First Crusade 1096-99: Conquest of the Holy Land (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003), 88. Paul M. Cobb, Usama ibn Munqidh: The Book of Contemplation Islam and the Crusades (London: Penguin Group, 2008), xx. William Barron Stevenson, The Crusaders in the East: A Brief History of the Wars of Islam with the Latins in Syria during the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Cambridge: BiblioLife, 2009), 2. Barbara H. Rosenwein, A Short History of the Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 155, 171.

[24] Depending on how ‘modern’ is defined, this literature review has surveyed many (at least somewhat) modern historians who have made arguments that stray from Islamic disunity. However, Gibb’s claim is still valid. Most modern scholarship (primarily 1970s and 1980s to the present in this context) does recognize the significance of Islamic disunity, and many of those authors recognize it as the sole (or at least primary) cause of the Franj’s victory (see footnote 22 for an extensive list of such authors). H. A. R. Gibb, The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades: Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn Al-Qalanisi (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002), 14.

[25] Runciman, 192.

[26] It should be noted that despite recognizing Islamic disunity, Tyerman seems to favor the impact of zeal more greatly. Tyerman, 162-63. Thomas S. Asbridge, The First Crusade: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 334.

[27] Of note, David Nicolle is a leading Islamic scholar in the West and has produced numerous works relating to medieval Islamic history. His book on the First Crusade is of most relevance to this research, but his other works have also contributed substantially to the scholarship on the medieval umma for decades. Nicolle, First Crusade, 8. Tyerman, 12-13.

[28] P. M. Holt, The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517 (London: Routledge, 2013), 9-15.

[29] Hillenbrand’s book on Islamic Perspectives is perhaps the greatest contribution to the literature on Islamic disunity to date, being rich with details unparalleled in other works. On another note, the following page numbers provided represent a section of the book that contributes significant information to the political state of the umma in the 1090s (but is not necessarily the only example from the work). Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 33-49. Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through the Islamic Eyes (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2010), 139-140. Paul M. Cobb, The Race For Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 81-94. Amin Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes (New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1989), 3-11.

[30] Cobb, Book of Contemplation. Gabrieli, Arab Historians. Gibb, Damascus Chronicle. D. S. Richard, trans, The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh Part 1 (New York, NY: Routledge, 2010).

[31] Rosenwein, 156. Holt, 10. Cobb, Paradise, 71.

[32] Rosenwein, 157. Holt, 11. Nicolle, First Crusade, 7. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 18.

[33] Rosenwein, 157. Holt, 11. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 18.

[34] The Byzantines were also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. Appropriately then, the Saljuqs of Anatolia came to be known as the Saljuqs of ‘Rum’ (or ‘Rome’), having settled in a province captured from the Romans/Byzantines.

[35] After Sulayman’s death, some Turks in Eastern Anatolia broke off from the Saljuqs of Rum and created their own lesser political groups. Of note were the Danishmendids, who often quarreled with their former sultanate in hopes of obtaining regional dominance. Holt, 14.

[36] With the power of the Great Saljuqs divided, the Saljuqs of Rum were no longer greatly threatened. Bauer, 652. Cobb, Paradise, 72.

[37] The Byzantines often hired mercenaries and had even hired Turkish troops prior to the 1090s. Maalouf, 4-5. Ian Heath, Byzantine Armies 886-1118 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1979), 23.

[38] Maalouf, 3. Ansary, 137.

[39] Maalouf, 3.

[40] This message was portrayed through example (by killing all Muslims they encountered), but was also literally relayed as the Franj made their way through Anatolia. Maalouf, 5. Ansary, 137.

[41] Maalouf, 5. Cobb, Paradise, 74.

[42] Maalouf, 6.

[43] Maalouf, 6-8. Bauer, 656-57. Cobb, Paradise, 74. Ansary, 138.

[44] The Peasant’s crusade was made up primarily of ill-equipped peasants. This is significant, because it led Kilij Arslan to believe that all Franj were poor fighters. Such a misunderstanding, as will be demonstrated, ultimately led to Kilij Arslan’s defeat.

[45] Nicolle, First Crusade, 30. Ansary, 138.

[46] Maalouf, 11-12. Cobb, Paradise, 72. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 41.

[47] Maalouf, 11-12. Nicolle, First Crusade, 33. Ansary, 138.

[48] The alliance between the Saljuqs of Rum and the Danishmend was a very unlikely prospect due to their history of rivalry. Ultimately the Danishmendids were persuaded to join the fight on the principle that they would likely be the Franj’s next target. As Hillenbrand points out, such alliances were rare and meant little – the political groups were quick to resume their quarrels. Maalouf, 15. Cobb, 76. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 41.

[49] Nicolle, First Crusade, 47-48. Cobb, Paradise, 76. Ansary, 138.

[50] Nicolle, First Crusade, 47-48.

[51] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 41.

[52] The Abbasid Caliphate was a major Islamic power of the 11th century. Its caliph (or sultan once it came to be ruled by the Great Saljuqs) ruled from Baghdad and presided over much of the umma. Tyerman, 12. Rosenwein, 156-157. Cobb, Paradise, 71.

[53] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 33. Cobb, Paradise, 81.

[54] Malikshah’s death was sudden and followed shortly after the death of his vizier. The damage his death caused to the Great Saljuqs (as well as the opportunities presented to those who took power afterwards) is too great to ignore. In short, he was most likely murdered. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 33. Nicolle, First Crusade, 8. Ansary, 132. Cobb, Paradise, 85.

[55] Bauer, 652. Ansary, 132. Holt, 11.

[56] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 47. Ansary, 132.

[57] Tyerman, 12.

[58] Tyerman, 12. Nicolle, First Crusade, 11.

[59] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 47. Holt, 13.

[60] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 47. Cobb, Paradise, 85. Maalouf, 22.

[61] Ibn al-Qalanisi, The Chronicle of ibn al-Qalanisi, translated by H. A. R. Gibb (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2002), 44. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 57. Nicolle, First Crusade, 56. Maalouf, 31.

[62] Nicolle, First Crusade, 11.

[63] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 38.

[64] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 40.

[65] Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 33. Cobb, Paradise, 78.

[66] It is worth noting that there were four major powers in the Umma during the 1090s: the Great Saljuqs, the Fatimids, and the Caliphate of al-Andalus. The latter is excluded in the analysis of this research because the caliphate in Spain played virtually no role in the Franj’s conquest of the Levant (this is because they were so greatly displaced from the conflicts of the Near East). Ansary, 118, 120.

[67] Ansary, 120. Cobb, Paradise, 45.

[68] Each of the three mentioned caliphates each claimed to be the “one true caliphate” on the basis that their school of Islam was best. Indeed, such beliefs naturally made them in conflict with one another. Ansary, 121. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 47.

[69] It is likely that persecution from the Abbasids prompted the Fatimids to attack. Ansary, 120.

[70] Ansary, 121, 140. Holt, 13. Cobb, Paradise, 45.

[71] Cobb, Paradise, 45.

[72] A common misperception is that the many peoples of the umma shared a comradery with one another. As will be discussed, this was so far from reality that some Muslims sought to fight alongside the Franj to defeat their political rivals.

[73] Ansary, 140.

[74] The Fatimids were certainly more concerned with the Turks than they were concerned about the Franj. Ansary, 139-40. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 46.

[75] Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh, translated by D. S. Richards (London: Routledge, 2005), 21.

[76] Interestingly, after the crusaders took Antioch, the Fatimids formally offered support to the Franj. Afterwards, the Fatimids had little trouble retaking Jerusalem because the fragmented Abbasids/Great Saljuqs were still in disarray from the northern harrying of the Franj. Cobb, Paradise, 140. Maalouf, 46. Hillenbrand, Islamic Perspectives, 44-45.

[77] Ansary, 140.

[78] Maalouf, 47, 51. Ansary, 140.

[79] Cobb, Paradise, 47.

[80] Cobb, Paradise, 47.

[81] Cobb, Paradise, 47.

[82] Cobb, Paradise, 48.

[83] Ibid., 49.

[84] Nicolle, First Crusade, 8.

[85] Although the atabeg city states were a part of the Great Saljuq state, being independent and small made them easily conquered during the First Crusade. This is because they often quarreled among each other, and because it hindered their ability to assemble a combined force (due to lacking communication, having rivalries, etcetera).


Cayman Frendt