The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

Forum USA – Ahmet Tarık Çaşkurlu

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by renowned Arab author Amin Maalouf is a non-fiction account of the Crusades through the eyes of the Arab-East. The book, originally written in French, which the author calls a ‘true-life’ novel is the first work of the famed Lebanese-French intellectual. Maalouf compiled the writings of Arab chroniclers detailing two hundred years of the Crusades, starting with the Peoples’ Crusade during the First Crusade and ending with the Mamluk al-Ashraf Khalil’s expulsion of the last Franks from Acre in 1291. Works span from eyewitness accounts such as the recordings of Usamah ibn Munqidhto later chronicles such as the history of Ibn Athir.

Maalouf also added his own historical hindsight and the insight of modern scholarly compilations, such as one from the Italian orientalist Francesco Gabrieli, to create this non-fiction narrative of the Crusades. The compiled Arab accounts of this period demonstrate the complex ethnic and religious makeup of the Holy Land and Asia Minor with Sunni, Shia Muslims and the Assassins, Armenians, Greeks and the Franks, as well as the domination of non-Arab Turkish, Kurdish and Persian elements of the Muslim world in the state of Arab-Muslim affairs.

Maalouf narrates how the Arab world perceived the Crusades totally differently than the West, which sees them as an epic effort to conquer the Holy Land. According to his account, Arabs, saw the Crusades -or as they called them the “Frankish Invasions”- as “brutal, destructive, and unprovoked invasions by barbarian hordes”. Maalouf refers to the Franks often as Occidentals, thus characterizing them in a similar fashion to the Western characterization of “the Orientals”.

He focuses on demonstrating the stark differences between the Franks and the Muslims in socio-political organization, culture and science, and underscores the Franks’ perceived barbarity, but also underlines the underlying division of both religious societies. Maalouf echoes the Arab chroniclers’ in his breakdown of the crusades into the Frankish invasion, occupation, riposte, and victory, and ties the unexpected success of the Arabs to the agency of individuals such as the qadi of Damascus, Ibn al-Khashāb, as well as individuals such as Nur al-Din Zangi and Saladin. The successes of the Franks, on the other hand, is explained with their martial superiority, for instance being “men of iron”, in spite of their perceived moral-cultural depravity. In the epilogue he establishes his own distinct thesis about the aspect of the Crusades posing a still relevant “unfinished business” to the minds of “failing” Arabs today.

I think the book succeeds in giving the Western reader a concise narration of the Crusades through the eyes of Arabs. Maalouf successfully displays the diversity and friction amongst Christian Franks and Oriental Christians and within Muslims themselves, who are often referred as the Saracens or the Turks in Western narratives of the Crusades. The book is a short, easy, and enjoyable read and is accessible for laymen with sufficient background on obscure historical personalities such as the atabeg of Mosul Karbuqa. The book also does a good job at exhibiting the mentality of Muslims at the time of the Frankish invasions and their own analysis of the failure and later success of the Muslims in defeating the “barbarian” Franks.

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