Monday, 2 June 2014

Usama ibn Munqidh and the Crusaders

The fortress of Shaizar[i]

     When the Crusaders arrived at Antioch, they and the peoples the subjugated were in for a cultural shock. The newcomers had had their experiences during their march through Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Especially Constantinople (Istanbul) must have made the Westerners wonder. No city in the West was like it. It was simply glorious. However, they had never had the Muslims and Eastern Christians as their neighbours.
     To the inhabitants of Antioch the Europeans or Franks, as they called them, were different from earlier invaders. They were familiar with Persians, Arabs, and Turks, and they had at least heard about the Huns, but the Franks were different.
     The Easterners had their intellectual inheritance from ancient civilizations. The Franks had in their head a curious mixture of Catholicism, Central European feudal culture, and Norse aggressiveness. After all, many of them were Normans, descendants of the Vikings.
     It would be a mistake to believe that the conflict was between culture and Barbary. The nobility on both sides were to a large extent cultured people with the sort of education offered then. That European Middle Ages were not altogether dark is understood from philosophers as Roger Bacon (Doctor Mirabilis), from the builders of the great cathedrals and from musicians like Walter von der Vogelweide and Bernart de Ventadorn. However, the common soldier, Muslim and Catholic alike, were mostly driven by a blind faith, teaching them that ‘the end justifies the means.’
     It is therefore not surprising to see educated Muslims and Catholics understanding one another, while the common soldier, who until that point had had no contact with the enemy, acted in visionless fanaticism.
     One of the educated Muslims at that time was Usama ibn Munqidh, who was born in 1095, three years before the arrival of the Franks.  He was born in Shaizar, about 100 miles south of Antioch. When the Crusaders after taking Antioch proceeded south towards Jerusalem the emir of Shaizar assisted the Crusaders and helped them on their way.
     The young Usama was well educated. Besides learning the Qur’an by heart, he was trained by scholars and learned the martial arts as well. As an adult he became a diplomat and travelled extensively in the Arabic lands. There he got acquainted with the Crusaders and their strange culture.
     Here he tells us about a Frank he met in Palestine and wonders at the Europeans’ relaxed approach to sex:

One day this Frank went home and found a man with his wife in the same bed. He asked him, “What could have made thee enter into my wife’s room?” The man replied, “I was tired, so I went in to rest.” “But how,” asked he, “did thou get into my bed?” The other replied, “Well, I found a bed that was spread, so I slept in it.” “But,” said he, “My wife was sleeping together with thee!” The other replied, “Well, the bed is hers. How could I therefore have prevented her from using her own bed?” “By the truth of my religion,” said the husband, “if thou should do it again, thou and I would have a quarrel.”  Such was for the Frank the entire expression of his disapproval and the limit of his jealousy.[ii]

     Today the Muslim part of the world regards the Western sexual mores as promiscuity and resent its cultural imperialism. They may admit that they have the same vices as people in the West, but admitting to it publicly is a disgrace.
     Naturally, neither the Europeans nor the Muslims understood the religion of the other part. And, as it is today, they hardly did any effort to try.
     Usama relates:

I saw one of the Franks come to al-Amir Mu’in-al-Din (may Allah’s mercy rest upon his soul!) when he was in the Dome of the Rock, and say to him, “Dost thou want to see God as a child?” Mu’in al-Din said, “Yes.” The Frank walked ahead of us until he showed us a picture of Mary with Christ (may peace be upon him!) as an infant in her lap. He said, “This is God as a child.” But Allah is exalted far above what the infidels say about him![iii]

     We may wonder at the stupid insensivity of the Frank. The Middle East has a word for it: jehâle (Turkish: cehalet), oafish obscurantism. The same mindset is often seen today when people are confronted with a religion they do not understand.
     The following story of Usama beautifully illustrates how mutual understanding prevents confrontation and how lack of understanding acts the opposite way:

Whenever I visited Jerusalem I always entered the Aqsa Mosque, besides which stood a small mosque which the Franks had converted into a church. When I used to enter the al-Aqsa Mosque , which was occupied by the Templars[iv] . . . who were my friends, the Templars would evacuate the little adjoining mosque so that I might pray in it. One day, I entered this mosque, repeated the first formula, “Allah is great,” and stood up in the act of praying, upon which one of the Franks rushed on me, got hold of me and turned my face eastward saying, “This is the way you shouldst pray!” A group of Templars hastened to him, seized him, and repelled him from me. I resumed my prayer. The same man, while the others were otherwise busy, rushed once more on me and turned my face eastward, saying, “This is the way you shouldst pray!” The Templars again came in to him and expelled him. They apologized to me, saying, “This is a stranger who has only recently arrived from the land of the Franks and he has never before seen anyone praying except eastward.” Thereupon I said to myself, “I have had enough prayer.” So I went out and have ever been surprised at the conduct of this devil of a man, at the change of his colour of his face, his trembling and his sentiment at the sight of one praying towards the qiblah.[v]

     The Crusaders stayed in Antioch until they were defeated by the Mameluke Sultan Baybars in 1268.  Usama’s account illustrates beautifully how the educated had respect for one another and the lack of understanding that prevailed between common Muslims and Crusaders.
     Unfortunately we find the same attitude among certain religio-nationalistic people today.


[i] “Shaizar,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2, 2014,
[ii] James Bruce Ross & Mary Martin McLaughlin ed. The Portable Medieval Reader (Kingsport, Tenessee: Penguin Books, 1977), 451, 452.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] A Catholic military order.
[v] Ross & McLaughlin ed. The Portable Medieval Reader, 450.
qiblah is the direction towards Mecca in Saudi Arabia.