Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Crusades through Arab eyes

Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise, an Islamic History of the Crusades, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp335. Reviewed by David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Popular attempts to write the history of the European Crusades in the mediaeval period from the perspective of the Arabs have been made before, among them The Crusades through Arab Eyes, an essay by the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf that appeared in the 1980s. However, few of these books have met scholarly standards even in cases where, as with Maalouf’s book, their authors have used Arabic source materials along with the now vast historiography on the Crusades in European languages.

US historian Paul M. Cobb aims to fill this gap with his The Race for Paradise, an Islamic History of the Crusades published last year. While the book does not replace the many more elegantly written accounts of the Crusades available, notably the classic books on the subject by the English historian Steven Runciman, its emphasis as an “Islamic history” of the Crusades means that it is a useful addition to the marketplace.

Cobb defines an Islamic history of the Crusades as being one based on “the original Islamic sources,” by which he chiefly means works originally written in Arabic, and he warns that previous histories of the Crusades by western historians have suffered because their authors have sometimes not been able to read that language. “Historians of the Crusades tend to be trained in the history of the medieval West, do not know Arabic, and therefore have trouble navigating the rather sophisticated historiographical traditions of the medieval Islamic world,” he warns. Modern Arab historians of the Crusades, of which there have been fewer, are also not read in the West, meaning that their contributions to historiography are not taken into account by western historians.

Perhaps realising that he is on shaky ground, as a glance at modern works on the Crusades in French and English reveals that their authors make abundant use of the Arabic sources, most of which have long been available in translation, Cobb adds that “ultimately the question is one of perspective.” Most histories of the Crusades, he says, have been written from the “traditional perspective,” meaning that they tend to address the Crusades as being part of European, and not Arab, history. How would things look, he asks, if instead of seeing the Crusades as part of European history, one looked at them from the point of view of the Arabs? This was also Maalouf’s starting point in his essay.

Answering this question means taking in a broader field than may traditionally have been examined, Cobb says. Whereas traditional western accounts of the Crusades have narrowed the field to the Levant and the fortunes of the Crusader states in the eastern Mediterranean, an alternative way of looking at things would be to examine the Crusades from a more fully Mediterranean and Middle Eastern perspective, seeing them as related to challenges to Arab civilisation at the same time in the western Mediterranean, chiefly in Spain and Sicily, and in Asia, where the Mongol invasions were threatening it from the east. The attitudes of the Seljuk Turks in Anatolia also need to be examined.

Employing this method has advantages, Cobb writes, not least because it helps to put the Crusades in proper perspective. While they cost the European states a deal of blood and treasure along with the deaths of several kings, from the Islamic perspective they were more like temporary annoyances, never threatening the heartlands of Islam. The Mongols were a far more serious threat, sacking Baghdad in 1258 CE, evicting the Abbasid caliphate and for a time threatening to spread havoc as far as Cairo. In comparison, the Crusader States, small, isolated, and confined to the Levantine seaboard, were irritating, but hardly significant, and they collapsed one after the other once the Mongol threat had been eliminated.

Casting around for medium and longer-term impacts of the Crusades in the Middle East, Cobb finds it hard to find many, if one excludes the picturesque fortifications that still exist in Lebanon and Syria and on the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. “What the Crusades did lead to was Muslim state formation,” he says. But “even there their impact is indirect.”

“The presence of a proximate, tenacious Frankish foe in Al-Andalus and the Near East provided a pretext for ambitious military commanders like Zangi and Saladin, reformers like the Almoravids [in Morocco], and military juntas like the Mamluks, and all the diverse states that they founded. In each case jihad against the Franks became a plank in their platforms, from which otherwise illegitimate power-grabbers publicly proclaimed themselves to be the defenders of the faith.”

One thing that Cobb’s history does not do is indulge in hagiography, with the Turkish and Kurdish military commanders Imad al-Din Zangi and Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin), founders of the dynasties that bore their names, being described as “power-grabbers” along with Egypt’s Mamluk slave soldiers. “The post-Saljuq military regimes that held sway over much of the Muslim Mediterranean do not owe their existence to the Frankish threat, but they probably owe something of their longevity to it.”

Cobb begins by reviewing the relative situations of the Arab and Islamic and European and Christian worlds at the dawn of the Crusades in the 11th century CE. The picture was an unequal one. According to mediaeval Arab writers, the Franks, identified with the Europeans generally, “were believed to hail from a region of nearly perpetual darkness and cold [and] their climate meant that they tended towards brutishness, being generally dull-witted, sluggish, and corpulent.” Possibly also as a result of climatic influences, they were thought to be characterised by religious fanaticism and hypocrisy.

The greater economic prosperity of the Arab world, along with its far greater urbanisation, meant that for the Arabs the Europeans were backward as well as physically ill-favoured. Much would have been known about their religion given the large Christian communities across the Arab world and trading and other links with the Italian city-states and the Byzantine Empire, but Arab writers did not interest themselves in the theological issues that distinguished the Franks from the Byzantines or eastern Christians. What was at issue for them was that a new burst of European aggression had brought Frankish soldiers to the Levant where they mounted raids and took over territory.

Western histories of the Crusades number them in order to help readers make sense of a period of several hundred years and perhaps close to a dozen military campaigns. The Fifth Crusade, for example, was carried out after 1218 and the Seventh in 1249/50. However, Cobb’s history could hardly be expected to retain the same numbering, and so it is divided into chapters that do not follow the conventional narrativisation. After his description of the relative European and Middle Eastern situations, Cobb turns to Christian attacks on Muslim Spain and on Muslim rule in Sicily, for example. Only then does he deal with the first incursions of the Franks into Syria at the end of the 11th century.

Here the method comes into its own, and rather than beginning with the well-worn story of Pope Urban II’s speech at Clermont in 1095 calling upon Europeans to come to the aid of the Byzantine Empire, threatened by the Seljuk Turks, and to occupy Jerusalem, he instead invites readers to consider the situation in Syria. “The fact is that for most Syrians at the time of the first Frankish conquests Syria had already been invaded,” Cobb comments. “In fact, it had been invaded twice, by the same army, that of the Great Saljuqs [sic]” from Anatolia, with “the political situation in Saljuq lands [having] become so poisonous that a concerted response to the Franks was impossible.”

What the account brings out is the divisions in the Middle East that made Crusader successes possible. Looked at this way, the taking of Jerusalem and other cities and the establishment of Crusader states were not so much evidence of European successes as of Middle Eastern failures, with this pattern only being definitively reversed with the emergence of military commanders able to ride roughshod over their rivals and establish regimes having the manpower and resources to defeat the often poorly led and ill-equipped Crusaders.

The fact that it took them some time to do this, the Crusader states finally disappearing at the end of the 13th century, was because for much of the interim co-existence was the rule, with Muslim and Christian rulers sometimes allying with and sometimes making war on each other in a pattern that had much to do with jockeying for advantage and outbursts of ideological fervour. In the case of Saladin, for example, eventually responsible for startling victories against the Franks including the retaking of Jerusalem, the priority at least at first was to remove all possible Muslim rivals.

Having eliminated the Shia Fatimid caliphate in Egypt on the instructions of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, he signed a treaty with the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem since, in Cobb’s words, “the collection of rump states governed by some leper boy-king and his minders simply did not present as great a threat or as important an obstacle to his ambition as did Zangid Syria.” Saladin wanted to destroy his rivals in Syria and what is now Iraq before turning his attention to the Franks and their “leper king,” crowned as a boy of 13 at about the same time as his illness became apparent, Baldwin IV of Jerusalem.

Perhaps few people writing on the Crusades today can avoid referring to the ways in which they have been used for contemporary purposes. Cobb mentions the uses that have been made of Saladin, for example, noting that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein liked to refer to himself as the “new Saladin.” Cobb’s overall conclusion is that such uses have often been misuses, not usually supported by the evidence, and least of all justified by those who see in the Crusades the “birth moment of some allegedly epochal clash between ‘Islam and Christianity.’”

“For all that Frankish and Muslim ideologues liked to cast their conflicts as total war with the enemies of God…the realities were rather different,” Cobb concludes. “This was not a clash of Islam versus Christianity. It was at best a clash of specific Frankish polities warring with specific Muslim ones, where universal claims to religious truth or holy war almost always took a backseat to specific regional and political interests.”

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