Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes starts off with an Arab description of the barbarism and savagery of the high point of the Franj invasions (as the Muslims called the Crusades), the capture, sack and slaughter of Jerusalem. Precisely because it is from the Arab/Muslim perspective, it is a striking reminder of how savage the Western crusaders could be.

Then comes the first false note
The sack of Jerusalem, starting point of the millennial hostility between Islam and the West … (p.iv).
The book concludes on the same note (p.266):
And there can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades …
This is complete crap. After all, how did Palestine get to be Muslim in the first place? Indeed, how did Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Spain—all previously Christian lands—get to be Muslim? By conquest of Arab (or later Turkish) armies in the name of Islam. Less than thirty years before the sack of Jerusalem, the main field army of the Eastern Roman Empire had been crushed at Manzikert and Turkish warriors under the banner of Islam had occupied most of Anatolia, all the way to the Aegean Sea, setting up the Sultanate of Rum (Rome) to make clear their occupation of (yet more) Roman lands.

The border between Christendom and Islam had wavered back and forth after the initial Islamic surge which had reached as far as major raids into France, one of which was famously defeated at Tours by the grandfather of Charlemagne. Sicily had recently been recovered. The border in Spain fluctuated back and forth.

It used to be said that the attitude of the Soviet leadership was
what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.
Muslims perfected that outlook 13 centuries earlier. After all, the high point of Islamic territorial expansion was not even close to being reached in 1099. Maalouf records the horror of a noted Islamic traveller (Ibn Jubayr), visting Palestine a century after the Franj occupation had begun, that Muslims would ever stoop to remaining where unbelief ruled (Pp iii-iv).

Yet the rest of the work is a very informative and engaging rendition of the Crusaders from Arab perspectives. Maalouf tells the Crusades in the Levant as an exciting story, filling out the reports of Arab and other Muslim chroniclers via Western scholarship on the Crusades. He conveys particularly well the homicidal religious bigotry of the various waves of Franj crusaders (a homicidal religious bigotry which later became a point of frustration and despair for the resident Franj of the Crusader states). It makes understandable the second part of the concluding sentence of the book I quoted above
…deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.
Though one wonders about a culture inclined to angst over things that happened 950 years ago, done by folk whose descendants were expelled over 700 years ago—the phrase get a life! comes to mind.
But, of course, as the epilogue of the book makes clear (p.265), the image of the Crusades is now also about Israel, also seen as a crusading state—one division of the Palestine Liberation Army is named after Saladin’s great victory over the Crusaders, another after the Mamluk’s great victory over the Mongols. But Israel-as-crusader-state is an analogy that misleads as much as it informs.

I was also struck by how congruent the pictures conveyed of events and, even more, particular characters could be by Christian and Muslim chroniclers. So a Muslim chronicler (Ibn al-Athir) describes the 1204 sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade as one of the most reprehensible acts of history. While the renditions of history’s most famous Kurd, Salāh al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (Saladin), and everyone’s favourite Franj villain, Reynald de Chatillon, from Arab chroniclers seem very similar to that one gets from Christian chroniclers.

It is perhaps typical of the man that aspects of Frederick II’s character which Muslims who met or wrote about him clearly found engaging were precisely what worried a lot of Christian chroniclers about Stupor Mundi.

Maalouf is far from shy in pointing out Muslim failures and problems. Hence Malouff writes (p.218)
Saladin had the same immediate successor as all the great Muslim leaders of his time: civil war.
He makes the point even more explicitly in his epilogue. Having (quite reasonably) dwelt on the homicidal untrustworthiness, the ignorance, the lack of culture of the Franj invaders in the body of the text, Maalouf also makes the point that the Franj immediately set up state institutions in their Crusader states that clearly worked better than the political arrangement of the Muslims (p.262):
Nothing of the sort existed in the Muslim states. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war … Let us note that in the Arab world the question is still on the agenda, in scarcely altered terms, in the latter part of the twentieth century.
Nor were observers at the time unaware of the contrast. Ibn Jubayr may have been horrified by Muslims accepting rule by infidels, but he also wrote (p.263):
Upon leaving Tibin (near Tyre), we passed through an unbroken skein of farms and villages whose lands were efficiently cultivated. The inhabitants were all Muslims, but they live in comfort with the Franj—may God preserve us from temptation! Their dwellings belong to them and all their property is unmolested. All the regions controlled by the Franj in Syria are subject to this same system: the landed domains, villages, and farms have remained in the hands of the Muslims. Now, doubt invests the heart of a great number of these men when they compare their lots to that of their brothers living in Muslim territory. Indeed, the latter suffer from the injustice of their coreligionists, whereas the Franj act with equity.
As Maalouf notes,
In the Arab East, the judicial procedures were more rational, but the arbitrary power of the prince was unbounded. The development of merchant towns, like the evolution of ideas, could only be retarded as a result.
Of course, the contrast Ibn Jubayr drew between Franj and Muslim states in C12th applies even more emphatically between Israel and Arab states in the C21st. Similarly, reading about the Assassins, or batanis
those who adhere to a faith other that that which they profess in public (p.102)
as Maalouf calls them, using a contemporary usage, one is powerfully reminded of al-Qaeda.

While Maalouf notes the twin threat of the Franj and the Mongols clearly leads to a hardening of Muslim attitudes and a turning inwards, he also notes that Arab civilisation was already dwelling on past glories before the Crusaders arrived and that, while Arabs retained religious authority, political power in the Arab world was already held overwhelming by non Arabs (mainly Turks). Bernard Lewis once cruelly observed to a Jordanian friend:
Excuse me, but you've got your history wrong. The Turks got rid of the Crusaders. The British got rid of the Turks. The Jews got rid of the British. I wonder who is coming here next.
Maalouf further notes that the West found the Crusaders a greatly enlivening and learning experience, taking back all sorts of ideas and techniques that enriched its civilisation. By contrast, the Arab world saw the Franj as appalling barbarian invaders from which nothing was to be learned. Even Ibn Jubayr saw the benefits of Franj rule as a threat to Islam, rather something to learn from (an attitude that is still very common).

I can certainly recommend Maalouf’s highly readable book as enriching one’s understanding of the Crusades in the Levant and, sadly, contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

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