Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Citing history—or, as shall be seen, pseudohistory—is one of the main ways Islam’s apologists try to ennoble Muhammad’s creed and its adherents. As a sort of counterbalance to purportedly noble Muslims, premodern Christians are in this regard regularly presented as the epitome of hypocrisy, intolerance, and greed. Commonly leading the pack are Vlad the Impaler, Ivan “the Terrible,” and Tomas Torquemada (all featured in the 2002 book, The Most Evil Men and Women in History).
In reality, however, these three men—and the culture they lived in—were significantly influenced by Islam; all three were surrounded by and fought against Muslims their entire lives. This inconvenient fact is rarely cited.
The historic figure of Vlad III (1430-1476)—whom the fictional, bloodsucking character of Dracula is based on—is portrayed in the West as a sadistic monster who loved nothing better than to impale his own people and drink their blood—often while listening to monks sing hymns, no less. CNN even claims that the Islamic State learned its sadistic methods of torture and execution from Vlad.
Reality tells a different story: the Romanian prince’s “beastly little habit” of impaling his enemies, as one historian characterizes it, was picked up from and almost exclusively used against the Turks and their agents. During his youth, Vlad was hostage to one of history’s most depraved sultans—Muhammad (or “Mehmet”) II, who also kept Vlad’s younger brother as a catamite. Vlad was first introduced to the “art” of impalement from this Ottoman sultan, who regularly employed it.
Eventually, and as part of his strategy to break away from Muslim rule, Vlad resorted to impalement as a sort of tit for tat—to show the Ottomans that he and his people could give as good as they got. Hence the irony: if Vlad is seen as a blood drinking monster in the West, he is a national hero in Romania, for fighting and resisting Islam for as long as he did.
Then there’s Tomas Torquemada (1420-1498), Catholic Spain’s grand inquisitor, and face of the apparently much misunderstood Spanish Inquisition. As historian Thomas Madden explains, “The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly.” The popular view that Torquemada was an evil fanatic who was determined to force non-Christians to convert, or else, is almost always presented in a vacuum.
For starters, one of the primary reasons that prompted the Spanish crown to institute the Inquisition and appoint Torquemada in the first place is rarely acknowledged: the last bastion of Islam in Granada had been brought under Christian rule as the Reconquista came to a close; the half million Muslim citizenry were given lenient terms, including the right to travel abroad and practice Islam freely. But they abused them, including by launching many hard-to-quell uprisings—several “involving the stoning, dismembering, beheading, impaling, and burning alive of Christians”—and regularly colluded with foreign, mostly Muslim, powers.
When push came to shove, and to ward off suspicion, half-a-million Muslims feigned conversion to Christianity, regularly attended church, baptized their children, and learned all the ins-and-outs of Christian culture, while clandestinely working to subvert Spain, or at least Granada, back to Muslim rule. “With the permission and license that their accursed sect accorded them,” one frustrated Spaniard remarked in reference to the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya, “they could feign any religion outwardly and without sinning, as long as they kept their hearts nevertheless devoted to their false impostor of a prophet. We saw so many of them who died while worshipping the Cross and speaking well of our Catholic Religion yet who were inwardly excellent Muslims” (Sword and Scimitar, p.201-202).
The Inquisition, spearheaded by Torquemada, became the only way to determine, not so much if they were “good” Catholics, but if they were clandestine and subversive Muslims (contrary to popular belief, significantly more Muslims than Jews were tried). Moreover, just as neighboring Muslims had influenced Vlad’s penchant for impalement, so neighboring Muslims influenced Spain’s penchant for inquisitions and deportations. In the preceding centuries, Muslims—particularly the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties—tried countless Spanish converts to Islam by torture, deported them to African slavery, or killed them outright, on the belief that they were not true Muslims but fifth columnists aiding their Christian coreligionists of northern Spain.
Finally, Ivan IV (“the Terrible,” 1530-1584) is another oft cited example of a Medieval Christian—a piously observant Orthodox one this time—who was a bloodthirsty monster, the quintessential tyrant. Left unsaid is that some two centuries earlier, beginning around 1300, Russia had been under—and heavily influenced by—the yoke of Islamic Tatars, who brutally treated and enslaved the Russians in the name of jihad.
Even after 1480, when the Russians formally overthrew the Tatar Yoke, and all throughout Ivan’s reign, the Crimean khanate launched numerous devastating slave raids into Russia; during Ivan’s rein alone, hundreds of thousands of Slavs were abducted and sold into Islamic slavery. “Centuries of tyranny and brutality at the hands of the Islamicized Mongols and their Turkish agents rendered Russia a land where despotism came to be seen as normal and where human life was cheap,” observes one historian. “It is perhaps no coincidence that these things insinuated themselves into the Russian character”—including Ivan’s.
Such is the rarely acknowledged backdrop of Ivan the Terrible, this “monster” whose behavior—like that of Vlad III, Torquemada, and many others—is often presented in a vacuum, and meant to be a commentary on the hypocrisy and intolerance supposedly innate to premodern Christians. (As a side note, and due to their long and intimate history with Islam, Eastern Europeans—Russians, Romanians, Poles, Hungarians, etc.—remain wary of Islam and resist Muslim immigration.)
Not only did Islam influence the personal behavior of individual Europeans; it had a molding impact on entire cultures (including mafia culture). For example, during the Crusades, it was not uncommon for the Franks to decapitate Muslims (and hurl their heads by catapult onto Muslim fortifications). The contemporary historian Guibert of Nogent (d. 1124) wrote that they “learned” this uncharacteristic tactic from their enemies—that it was a sort of tit for tat, to show Muslim fighters that the Crusaders could give as good as they could get. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the brutality and fanaticism of the Spanish Conquistadors vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the Americas without tracing it back to Spain’s existential struggle with Islam, which necessitated the creation of a piously militant culture to resist and eventually turn the tables on jihad. Once Islam was gone, Spain’s holy warrior mentality—forged as it was over nearly eight centuries of warfare—could not simply disappear overnight and found new outlets under the old context of Christian versus infidel.
None of the aforementioned is meant to “exonerate” Medieval Christians from their own actions—in the end, individuals are responsible for their behavior—but rather place them in context. After all, it is a staple for Middle East Studies, and by extension media and “experts” of all sorts, to present Western influence—from the crusades to colonialism—as fundamentally responsible for the Islamic world’s modern day problems. As such, surely exploring the question from a vice-versa standpoint is warranted.
The very least takeaway from all this is that the pseudohistory of barbarous Christians and noble Muslims needs to undergo serious reconsideration.
Note: For more instances of Islam’s subtle—and not so subtle—impact on the West, see author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West, which CAIR did everything it could to prevent the U.S. Army War College from learning about.