One of the most popular misconceptions about the crusader kingdoms is that the crusaders were a tiny Christian elite ruling over predominantly Muslim population. It is time we stopped perpetuating this (among other) myths. The Muslims in the crusader states were a minority -- and they lived according to Sharia Law.
Starting with the basics, Christ was born, lived, died, and ― according to the Christian faith ― resurrected in the Holy Land; he did not simply dream of going there. The oldest community of Christians was founded in the Holy Land by the Disciples of Christ. Despite Roman persecution, this community continued to exist and expand. In 313 AD, Roman oppression ended, and by the middle of the 4th century AD, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. With the Jews already driven into the diaspora by Rome in 135 AD, Christianity also became the dominant, indeed almost exclusive, religion of the inhabitants of the Holy Land.
A Persian invasion of 614 AD did major damage to infrastructure, particularly churches, of the Holy Land. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was destroyed, and 25,000 Christians slaughtered, while an additional 35,000 were enslaved. Although the Byzantine Emperor Herakleios liberated the Holy Land thirteen years later, the region was still depopulated and weakened, when Muslim invasion came ten years later. Despite its weakened state, Christian Jerusalem resisted a Muslim siege for a full year before capitulating in 638.
As Islam continued to expand ― by the sword ― Jerusalem and the Holy Land was subjected to Muslim rule for the next four hundred years. That rule was at times more, and at other times less, oppressive. Muslim rule always included extra taxation as well as official, systematic humiliation of Christians and Jews, who ― although “people of the book” ― were still as a matter of policy made to feel inferior to the adherents of Islam. At times, persecution included the execution or enslavement of Christian pilgrims, the slaughter of monks and nuns, and the destruction of churches and monasteries. (For more details and evidence on this see: Professor Rodney Stark’s excellent summary in God’s Battalions and Professor Dario Fernandez-Morera’s outstanding book based on Arab sources The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.)
Blissfully ignoring the fact that even 1,400 of Muslim rule has not eliminated all Christian populations throughout the Middle East, scholars and novelists for centuries assumed that a mere four hundred years of Muslim rule was enough time to make the population of Holy Land predominantly Muslim. The assumption was that the persecution and economic disadvantages of remaining Christian would have induced the majority of inhabitants to embrace Islam before the crusaders arrived in 1099.
Aside from the fact that this narrative was contradicted by contemporary sources that stressed the plight of native Christians and noted that Christians welcomed and aided the Crusaders on their arrival, meticulous research based on archaeological and documentary evidence had demonstrated beyond doubt that large parts of the Holy Land were still predominantly Christian when the crusaders arrived. Furthermore, this research has demonstrated that Muslims were concentrated in specific areas, and for the most part were not converts but immigrants. (For more on this see: Feudalism in Outremer)
But how did the minority Muslim population live? How were they treated by the Christian overlords?
On the whole, the Muslims in the Holy Land were peasants and nomads because the Islamic elite had been killed or (more often) allowed to emigrate on surrender. In short, whether they had come with Abbasids, Fatamids or Seljuks, the wealthy and educated Muslims who had formed the ruling-class during the four hundred years of Muslim dominance were pushed out of the Holy Land by the Christian invaders. They returned to territories still controlled by Muslims. Left behind were the poor, the poorly educated, the non-political, those who had no place to go and no expectations of being powerful somewhere else since they had never had power.
These simple people were, based on Arab accounts, treated better by their Christian overlords and landlords than they had been treated by their Turkish overlords. For example, Ibn Jubair, who visited the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1183 from Grenada, noted that the Muslim peasants he saw in Galilee “seemed more prosperous and content than those living under Islamic rule outside the Kingdom of Jerusalem.” (Jotischky, p. 129)
Certainly, whether better treated or not, they were not rebellious. There is not one recorded instance of widespread Muslim revolt or even riots. Indeed, even during Saracen invasions of Christian territory there is no evidence of widespread cooperation and collaboration by the Muslim inhabitants of the crusader states with the Saracen invaders. Furthermore, the archaeological evidence of isolated farms and manors as well as the many towns and villages built without any kind of fortification is evidence that the Christian elites did not fear the Muslims living in their midst.
This was because, as Jotischky notes, “the First Crusade was a war of liberation and conquest; it was not a war for the extermination or conversion of Muslims.” Furthermore, as Hamilton notes, “once their rule had been established the Franks proved remarkably tolerant in their treatment of non-Christian subjects.” He stresses that “the Franks allowed complete religious freedom to all their subjects.” (Hamilton, p. 49.) While Hamilton stresses that Jewish synagogues and rabbinic schools existed in many of their towns, contemporary Muslim sources noted with surprise that mosques were allowed to function in the crusader states (albeit not in Jerusalem itself), and Muslim subjects were even allowed to participate in the haj.
Far from being forced to convert, the Muslim villagers were run by a council of elders who in turn appointed a “rayse” to represent the community to the Christian lord, while all spiritual and social matters were regulated by the imams in the community in accordance with Sharia law! (Jonathan Riley-Smith, Atlas of the Crusades, Swanston Publishing Ltd, 1191, p. 16 among others.)
Other factors contributing to a sense of well-being sufficient to inhibit hostility and rebellion were the exemption from military service and overall economic prosperity. The Franks did not trust their Muslim subjects sufficiently to trust them in battle against their fellow Muslims. This meant that Muslim peasants in Christian territory (unlike their Christian neighbors) were free from conscription, while Muslim farmers living on the other side of the border were obliged to serve as the infantry for the armies of Islam. Finally, the Franks brought a number of innovations to farming and invested extensively in infrastructure from roads to irrigation and mills. This combined with the revival of the ports made the Frankish territories substantially more prosperous during the crusader period than they were before or afterwards. The Muslim population in the crusader states benefited from the increased prosperity of the region, particularly the increased trading opportunities, no less than the native Christian population did.