Not only is truth stranger than fiction, but it is often more dramatic and inspiring as well. This is the thought I had while doing research for my latest book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. From start to finish, virtually every military encounter in this perennial history could be turned into an epic movie — replete with heroism, betrayal, faith-driven courage, unbridled ambitions, treacheries of all sorts, and, of course, violent warfare. But unlike Hollywood’s major motion pictures — which are largely if not entirely fictitious — these events really happened and need little doctoring.
For instance, the conspiracies, adulteries, jealousies, betrayal, and sadistic murder that permeate the following true account would give even Game of Thrones a run for its money. (In an effort not to spoil the suspense of anyone who plans on reading Sword and Scimitar, the identities of the players and other details are intentionally omitted.)
An empress once wed a handsome but not-so-royal general, thereby elevating him to the emperorship. He, a staunch enemy of Islam, decided to put an end to jihadi incursions against the empire — then at an all-time high — and set off to engage the Muslims at the head of a massive army made up of Europeans from everywhere. He nearly succeeded, inciting his men with “words of extraordinary violence” and himself fighting savagely, even after being unhorsed. Then treachery struck: a large chunk of his army marched off the battlefield, abandoning him to his fate. They had been bribed by the empress and her new favorites.
As one court historian who personally knew both emperor and empress explained: “The more she tried to dominate him, to treat him, who was really her master, like a lion in a cage, the more he fretted at her restraining influence and glared at the hand that kept him in check. To begin with, he growled inwardly, but as time passed his disgust became obvious to everyone.” This would not do for the empress; and so the same woman who made unmade him.
Amazingly, however, he managed to return to his kingdom, causing his faithless wife to hide in the cellar. But her relentless co-conspirators sent “cruel and harsh men” to ambush the unwanted returnee. They “gouged out his eyes pitilessly and inhumanely,” writes a contemporary. “Carried forth on a cheap beast of burden like a decaying corpse, his eyes gouged out and his face and head swollen and full of worms and stench, he lived on a few days in pain and smelling foully before his death.” According to another account, after he was blinded, the emperor spent his final days “hit[ting] his head against a wall until he died.”
Or, consider the life and times of Konon. Born and bred on fighting Muslims, he rose to the highest echelon of the empire’s military — until the emperor that favored him was deposed, and he was ignominiously exiled to command a garrison in the backwoods. When the caliphate sent a countless throng of Muslims to conquer the empire, he intercepted them with a vastly smaller force, playing a cat-and-mouse game for months. He eventually met and made a deal with the Muslim commander: the latter would allow Konon to return to his empire, and even support him in a bid to become the new emperor — but only on condition that the general open the gates of the city to the Muslims.
Once the charismatic general did indeed become emperor, the overjoyed Muslim commander sent an emissary enquiring when he would lower the gates. “Never,” said he. The emissary asked if he really meant to renege on his more powerful ally. “I am of the opinion that in breaking faith with him lies the exaltation of Christianity, and the defense of that is the best of rewards,” responded the new emperor. Furthermore, unless the Muslim commander left forthwith, “he will meet with real war, very different from that in which he has been engaged.” The emissary was devastated: “If the emir does not learn of this except through me, by Allah, he will kill me!” “Your death is of less consequence to me than the loss of my kingdom,” coolly replied the new emperor and left the negotiation table.
Sure enough, when the Muslim commander heard of this “great calamity,” his “wrath was extreme,” and as the hapless messenger had predicted, he was crucified. As for the Muslim commander, he became known in Islamic history as the jihadi who turned out to be no better than “a plaything of a woman” in Konon’s hands.
As for faith-driven courage and death before dishonor, the book is replete with examples. After Islam invaded and conquered one European nation, one of its noblemen fled to the uncultivated mountains. Soon, a following of people who preferred to eke out a bare existence rather than accept Islamic lordship joined him. Such defiance provoked the Muslim governor to send a massive army to surround their mountain.
One of the nobleman’s countrymen, something of a sellout, was sent to convince him to drop his arms and “take advantage of many good things and enjoy the partnership of the Arabs.” “I will not associate with the Arabs in friendship nor will I submit to their authority,” he responded. “Christ is our hope that through this little mountain [our freedom] … will be restored. … I despise this multitude and am not afraid of it.”
War ensued, the rebels won, and as predicted, Islam was eventually expelled.
Similarly, after the Islamic conquest of Jerusalem in 637 — itself worthy of a film — the Muslims besieged a Byzantine garrison in nearby Gaza. There, 60 valiant soldiers “fought day and night” but were eventually captured. Impressed by their prowess, Amr, a companion of Muhammad, offered them their lives and freedom on condition that they renounce Christianity for Islam. They all refused. Thereafter unfolded a several-month-long drama, as Amr did everything he could to get them to embrace Islam: promise them great honors and wealth, torture them, even ritually behead ten of them as a warning.
“How stiff-necked you are in your refusal to submit to us,” cried Muhammad’s companion. “If you submit to us, behold, you will have your wives and sons, and will be like us, and will be honored just like one of us; but if you do not, you too will suffer what your fellow soldiers have suffered.” The defiant prisoners responded: “No one can separate us from the love of Christ, neither wives, nor sons, nor all the wealth of this world … [W]e are prepared to die for Him who died and rose for us.” On hearing this, Amr “was filled with anger,” notes the chronicle, “his face changed, and he ordered the holy martyrs of Christ to be surrounded by a crowd of Saracens,” who slowly executed them “by means of various tortures.”
One can go on and on: rather than seek safety outside his doomed city’s walls, as his advisors insisted, another emperor chose to hurl his crown off and fight at the gates of his overrun city, dying alongside his men, “like any commoner.”
After being bombarded by 130,000 cannonballs — the aftermath was described as “worse than hell” — a tiny Mediterranean island still managed to defeat and repel a vastly larger Muslim force.
And who could forget the jihadi who was so fierce in combat that he girded himself with several swords, as the force of his blows reportedly broke them on his enemies? Islamic history remembers him as the “Sword of Allah.”
Why haven’t any of these historical events become large-budget movies? Simple: they all strongly contradict the prevalent narrative concerning Christian and Islamic history, one meant to offer “lessons” for the modern West.
Those “lessons” are that pre-modern Europeans and Christians were always hypocritical and evil, and pre-modern non-Europeans and non-Christians — in this case, Muslims — were always their hapless victims. The practical lesson is that if you dare to stand up for and defend your culture, heritage, religion, or nation, you risk emulating the “sins” of your forefathers; better to embrace “multiculturalism” and welcome millions of Muslim migrants to show that you’re better than they were.
This is also why the only historical movies dealing with Muslim/European clashes — think Kingdom of Heaven — always revolve around the crusades. But unlike the overwhelming majority of encounters between Islam and the West, which largely feature the inconvenient fact of Muslims marching onto Christian land, the crusaders left their homes to march onto Muslim territory. That ostensibly fits the “lessons” well — if you ignore that the crusaders did so to alleviate the sufferings of their eastern co-religionists, which had reached an unbearable high.
Obsession over the crusades is further ironic in that, contrary to popular belief, the crusades were among the least decisive of the many military conflicts between the West and Islam. Unlike the battles highlighted in Sword and Scimitar — especially Yarmuk (636), Tours (732), the sieges of Constantinople (717 and 1453) and Vienna (1683), all of which feature invading Muslims and world-altering outcomes — the crusading in the Middle East culminated in the status quo. After Muslims first conquered Jerusalem in 637, the Franks managed to reconquer it in 1099, before it fell right back to Islam less than a century later, in 1187.
But the crusades are the only instances in a millennium of warfare between Islam and the West that feature Christians marching onto Muslim territory. The crusades are the exceptions; century after century of Muslim invasion was the rule. So the crusades will remain a favorite subject for Hollywood, and all other true, instructive, illuminating stories challenging their “lessons” go unproduced.