Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Crusades through Arab Eyes

I read this book and I joined its book discussion. I then wrote this book review and it was published in issue #5 of The Art Review (December 2006). It is a really enjoyable historical treat.. especially that it is written by Amin Maalouf, who is in my humble opinion one of the most talented writers in our contemporary times.


The Crusades through Arab Eyes

Amin Maalouf, winner of France's Prix Goncourt in 1993, is very well known for his captivating and spellbinding portrayal of history and fiction, with no lack of historical accuracy. Samarkand and Leo the African are two books written by him that have gained a lot of readership and enjoyed sound reputation.

The Crusades through Arab Eyes starts with the first Crusade in 1096 – when most of the Islamic empire was under the Seljuks ruling – and ends in 1291 when the Franj (Occidentals) finally left the region. During these two centuries, a lot of goings-on and episodes have taken place, and they have shaped the psyches of the people living in this region till this very day.

We cannot talk about the Crusades without focusing on religion. While the Crusades were endorsed by the Church in the territories of the Franj, how the Franj actually behaved when they captured many cities had nothing to do with Christian teachings. The book mentions the many instances when the Franj captured a city, and how they plundered it and massacred the local population, regardless of whether the victims were women, old men or children. Frankish armies captured Arab soldiers and beheaded them, despite the fact that their actions violated many of the treaties and truces they signed with the Arabs. Incidents of cannibalism had also taken place. On the contrary, when Arabs captured soldiers and citizens, they did not harm them, and they even set them free in return for collecting a ransom from the Franj (an act that was very common at the time), just like Salah el-Din did when he reconquered Jerusalem. He even set many of them free without requesting a ransom when he was requested by the Franj to do so; an act of generosity, which bestowed respect on Salah el-Din among the Franj as being a man of honor.

In another scene, religious freedom had been unconditionally enjoyed by the Arab Christians and Jews during Muslim rule, while, as Maalouf mentions, Muslims did not enjoy the same freedom during the Franj occupation. In fact, it was common for a Franj to attack a praying Muslim by turning him towards the east, away from Mecca – an incident that was recorded by the Arab chronicler and emir Usamah Ibn Munqidh as it happened to him inside al-Aqsa mosque. Even Arab Christians were not spared the wrath of the Franj.

The book doesn’t only touch on the Islamic-Christian conflicts, but it also acknowledges the internal conflicts among the Muslims, such as the Sunni and Shi’ite conflict. While the Muslim emirs and leaders at the time were resisting the Franj, the Assassins – Hashshasheen – (a sect of Ismailia Shi’a) considered this a danger since it could strengthen the Sunnis, which would subject them to mounting Sunni persecution. In many incidents the Assassins assisted the Franj against the Seljuks.

This book is a masterpiece that should be read and considered carefully as it holds within its folds a great amount of historical knowledge that is skillfully written and presented, and which imprints and lessons resemble, and transcend to, the current times.


Anonymous nousha said...

Hey Khaled, it was a nice discussion (despite the few surprises of that night) :-)
I liked ur review. See u in the next discussion.

11:24 PM

Blogger Eve said...

kifak inta? :)

3:00 PM

Blogger Khaled said...

ana mnee7 ya Eve.. mashi el-7aal.. keefek enty? :)

3:07 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amin Maalouf Website

9:13 PM

Blogger Khaled said...

Anonymous: thank you so much..

12:34 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, but the Crusades were initiated in response to Muslim attrocities against Christian pilgrims. While there is no question that many crusaders took the opportunity to avail themselves of the opportunity for excess; this was sadly all to common in medievel empires of all religions.

6:17 AM

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