My comments on Islam in my Kingdom of Heaven review have been tweaked, politely and correctly (I assume), by an attentive reader. Thanks, Kurt! Clearly, I have more to learn on these subjects….

Jeffrey

Dear Mr. Overstreet,
I follow Christianity Today’s film discussions often, and as an Islamic historian and evangelical Christian, I have been looking forward to the inevitable discussion of the film and its depiction of the Crusades. The film just opened here in Egypt, where I am currently doing research, and unfortunately I haven’t yet had the opportunity to get across Cairo to see it — so my apologies that I am not yet able to dialogue with you on the film content itself.

I agree absolutely with your criticism of the heavy-handed message of tolerance taking precedence over genuine historical grappling with issues of faith- no one anywhere in the medieval world (at least not in the land between Iran and Britain) would have dreamt of a pleasant land where all faiths could join hands and sing in perfect harmony!

However, I do want to respectfully respond to a couple of your assertions regarding the portrayal of Muslims and the Islamic “reading” of the Crusades here–not as an apologist for Islam, but rather as a historian of the region and religion.

1) You state: “We’re also steered away from the fact that Muslims believe someday their prophet will return and crush Christianity (whereas Christ’s gospel, properly interpreted, is a gospel of grace and mercy).” In fact, Islamic theology teaches that in the final days, Jesus (as beloved and revered prophet) will return to earth on the Last Day and preside over the Judgment. Islam believes itself to be an extension and fulfillment of Christianity and Judaism, and while the spread of early Islam sought to subdue and convert Christendom, it rarely did so in the rhetoric of “destruction.” War was meant to be carried out against kingdoms antagonistic to the Islamic state, and after the initial wave of conquests (completed by the late 7th century), it was very rare that Muslims would again turn to a widespread drive to overtake the world. By the time of the Crusades, the various Islamic dynasties were much too consumed with their own vying for supremacy in the region, and few states were interested in expansion into the Christian West. Furthermore, while non-Muslims were subject to extra political and social pressures under medieval Islamic rule (extra taxation, clothing requirements, occasional church attacks, restrictions on evangelism, etc.), they were generally tolerated and received far more security than non-Christian ever received under medieval Christendom.

2) “We are kept far away from Muslim women, for example, so we don’t have to wonder about how they’re treated.” In fact, the comparative state of women under medieval Islam and under medieval Europe were not that far off–in legal terms, women actually had it better in the Islamic world (in terms of inheritance and divorce laws, for example). Even today, the status of women under Islam is incredibly diverse and can in no way be described in universal terms.

3) “Instead, we see Christians staring at Muslim prayers with a mix of bewilderment and admiration, while a Muslim warlord respectfully rights a fallen cross. Hmmmm.” I presume this to be a reference to Saladin… Now, he was by no means a saint, and such an image as this is obviously overplayed. However, Saladin was in fact a tremendously complex leader, embodying the traits of a talented diplomat, shrewd politician, brutal warlord, and – yes – chivalrous dignitary. If you read through some of the Muslim and Frankish Christian sources of the Crusades, both sides had plenty of awe-struck things to say about his leadership on the battlefield as well as his generosity and mercy in person. Criticisms, likewise, were also made by other historians of both Christian and Muslim backgrounds.

There are more areas to discuss, but I feel that’s the extent to which I can contribute without having yet seen the film. I hope you accept my comments here as having been given in respect and friendship, and I look forward to your ongoing work in film criticism from a Christian perspective.

In Him,

Kurt Werthmuller

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Kurt J. Werthmuller
Fulbright-Hays Fellow, Cairo, Egypt
Ph.D. Candidate (ABD), Dept. of History
University of California, Santa Barbara

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