Raymond Ibrahim, A look at the circumstances that gave rise to Vlad the Impaler and Ivan the Terrible.
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, medieval Christians are regularly presented as the epitome of intolerance and violence. Commonly leading the pack are Vlad the Impaler and Ivan “the Terrible” (both featured in the 2002 book, The Most Evil Men and Women in History).
In reality, however, these men—and the culture they lived in—were significantly influenced by Islam; they were surrounded by and fought against Muslims their entire lives.
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 so long.
Similarly, 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. Indeed, his moniker, the “terrible” (grozny, more literally, “fearsome”), is actually a reference to how his vanquished Tatar foes saw him).
Such is the rarely acknowledged backdrop of Ivan the Terrible, this “monster” whose behavior—like that of Vlad III and many others—is also regularly presented in a vacuum. (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 the mafia’s). 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) suggests that they “learned” this 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 analysts 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.
Note: Quotes in this article were sourced from and documented in the author’s book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West.