Book Review: Muslim Sources of the Crusader Period: An Anthology


By Charlie Ough

Western conceptions of the Crusades are traditionally formulated around a Christian vs. Muslim dichotomy and bounded chronologically between Pope Urban II’s declaration of the First Crusade in 1095 and the fall of the last of the mainland Latin Christian, or “Frankish”, strongholds – Acre – in 1291. However, more recent scholarship utilising Arabic sources has demonstrated how “Holy War” soon became subsumed by regional political rivalries, pitting Muslim-Christian coalitions against opposing alliances also crossing confessional boundaries for dynastic and territorial advantage. Furthermore, this new anthology, Muslim Sources of the Crusader Period, translated by James Lindsay and Suleiman Mourad, extends the timeline of the period to place this apparently aberrant Latin Christian incursion into the region more firmly into its Middle Eastern and Mediterranean contexts.

Indeed, the authors’ professed aim in collaborating on this work was to demonstrate to their own History and Religious Studies students the “complexity of interaction between Franks and Muslims in the broader context of Islamic history” (xi). The most useful way to do this, they believed, was simply to collect and translate the documents that they would wish to use in their own classes. Broadly speaking, they have achieved their aim as the sources themselves, many previously unavailable in English and ranging from more traditional historical chronicles to poetry apostrophising on the beauty of Frankish women (79), succeed in superseding their sometimes narrow presentation to constitute an invaluable primary resource for scholars and general readers alike.

After an introduction setting out the authors’ intentions and reasons for selecting the material they did, mostly on account of the sources being contemporaneous to events and hitherto unpublished in English, the book is divided into six chapters based around the form of the texts included in each. Chapter 1 is comprised of “Travel Literature and Geographical Guides” and succeeds in presenting the by no means-uniform, and often conflicted, views of Muslims toward the Crusader states described as “dirty” but also possessing “marvellous” fortifications (21). The sources included in this part also beautifully demonstrate the ease of movement and ideas across the Muslim and Mediterranean worlds at this time with the Valencian-born Ibn Jubayr spending much of his journey from Grenada to Mecca at sea on Venetian ships (15). Chapter 2, on “Jihad Books and Juridical Directives”, then serves to corroborate the editors’ argument against the opinions of “modern apologists” who downplay the importance of violent, military jihad (xvi). Still, they assert that, although many authors in the Middle Ages did stress the importance of warfare against Islam’s enemies, death in this cause did not constitute a sure-fire guarantee for acceptance into heaven (47). The useful biographies the translators provide further foreground that, though jihad may have been forcefully encouraged by Sunni religious scholars, the political needs of the day meant that many Muslim rulers would sooner side-line and ignore more “fanatical” jurists than fight inexpedient or suicidal conflicts with Christian neighbours (48).

By far the longest in terms of both pages and chronological scope, however, is Chapter 3 which includes the more traditional Islamic writing forms of “Chronicles, Memoirs and Poetry”. This section pushes the boundaries of the established narrative of the period by beginning with the assertion of the historian Ibn al-Athir that the Crusades in the Holy Land were part of a much larger Christian “march against the lands of Islam” starting with the capture of Toledo in 1085 (59), often treated separately in the West as part of the Spanish “Reconquista”. The sources then cover events in the Middle East itself right up to the sacking of Alexandria in 1365 by Peter of Cyprus (149). However, while the sources are given in chronological order regarding the events they describe, authors writing at different times but concerned with the same events are, therefore, presented alongside one another enabling useful comparisons between the way different contexts and positionalities influence the information given. The questions the translators provide at the end of each source further highlight this, for example when comparing the reasons given by Ibn al-Qalawisi for the success of the First Crusade with those offered by Ibn al-Athir writing roughly a century later (68). Moreover, this chapter challenges the Muslim-Christian dichotomy by accentuating the importance for Sunni rulers in re-establishing Orthodox practice in formerly Shi’i-ruled cities (84), the differentiation by certain scholars between “Syrian” and “foreign” Franks (86), and the overwhelmingly positive view given of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (119) who was often openly opposed to the Pope.

The last few chapters are shorter and consist of: Chapter 4 on “Biographies”, including Ibn ‘Asakir’s on Jesus used to suggest similarities between the need, in both Muslim and Christian eschatology, to occupy Jerusalem before the end times can begin; Chapter 5 on “Correspondences, Treaties and Truces” highlighting the cordial, and often affectionate, letters between Christian and Muslim rulers and both sides’ habitual use of the religious language of their recipient in which to couch their letters; and Chapter 6 detailing the “Inscriptions” both Shi’i Fatimid and later Sunni rulers used to assert their legitimacy and ownership of castles, mosques and cities. The addition of several appendices – including Appendix B entitled “Quranic Verses on War and Peace” – further serve as useful educational tools providing necessary cultural context for students and other uninitiated readers.

The way the editors have presented and couched the documents in the collection is, however, also the source of the book’s most significant shortcomings. Much is made by Lindsay and Mourad in the introduction about how they reject the terms “Muslims” and “Crusaders” as “analytical categories that reflect unvariegated unity, cohesion, common approach” (xiii) in order to evince more accurately the complex and changing political relationships of the era. While many of the sources themselves do, indeed, speak of the Realpolitik that superseded religious divisions, the whole collection, in presenting only “Muslim” sources, is predicated on the assumption of a strict divide between a homogenous, wholly-Muslim Middle East viewing the “other” of intruding Christians. Their reinforcement of this dichotomy is then corroborated by the inclusion of a source on the Christians of Mount Lebanon (15) who had lived in the region for centuries and had no connection to the Crusaders besides their religion and before the latter’s arrival in the “Holy Land”. The translators’ choice to include this piece instead presents these Christians more as objects of study for an otherwise homogenous Muslim world than as fellow inhabitants of the region also reacting and adapting to the arrival of “The Crusader Period”.

The presentation of only Muslim documents, moreover, ignores one of the central problems identified by the authors i.e. that Crusades scholars predominately lack knowledge of Arabic (xiv). This is in spite of the tantalising admission by Ibn Jubayr that the Christian scribes of Acre wrote in Arabic (19) which demonstrates that the language should not be equated solely with Muslim intellectual production and that the translation of non-Muslim sources from the region would also serve to counterbalance scholars’ fixation with European-language sources. Indeed, this would provide a much richer and more accurate account of the reaction of the region’s peoples to the Crusades as non-Christians still made up a large proportion of the population throughout the period, even constituting a majority in Egypt until well into the fourteenth century.[1]

Still, this anthology does reinforce the case that sources written by Muslims, and the existing inhabitants of the Middle East in general, are vital to a fuller understanding of the reality of the Crusades which continues to be distorted for political gain by both the Western far-right and Muslim extremists. The questions posed by the editors at the end of each source also highlight important points and challenge the unconscious biases of Western readers and students. Though it by no means constitutes the last word on providing a balanced account of the period, while their rendering of the Arabic term din as “religion” seems to ignore recent decolonial debates, Lindsay and Mourad’s translations are otherwise clear and up-to-date. This then, largely, allows the sources to speak for themselves in terms of their interest and accessibility for the reader and their publication constitutes a valuable addition to the primary material available in English. Therefore, this volume constitutes another step on the way to enabling those lacking knowledge of Arabic to broaden their knowledge of the period and counter their preconceptions of Medieval Islamic society. At the same time, its not insignificant shortfalls and omissions should serve as a call for additional translation work to be done to provide a more diverse and representative body of material.

[1] Robert Holland, In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 168.