Muslim perspectives on the Crusades - through western eyes

The Crusades: an Islamic perspective by Carole Hillenbrand. Pub: Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK, 1999. Pp: 648. Pbk: UK29.95.
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Laila Juma

Jumada' al-Akhirah 06, 1420 1999-09-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 14, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1420)

The Crusades are traditionally defined as the series of western expeditions against the Muslim lands of Palestine and the Levant which begun with Pope Urban’s call to arms at Clermont in 1095AD, and all but ended with the Muslim liberation of Acre in 1291. The initial western offensive was sudden and effective. By 1099, Jerusalem was in Christian hands, and remained so until 1187, when it was liberated by Salah al-Din (‘Saladin’). From then on, European power in the region was very limited, although Frederick II of Sicily briefly conquered Jerusalem again in 1228. But effective power was restricted to the Frankish coastal city-states, which operated as local war-lords among others similar. The ‘fall of Acre’ in 1291 marked the end of the European presence in the region.

In western studies of the Crusades, scholars have traditionally highlighted Christian desire to rule the ‘holy lands’. However, this is a limited definition which - perhaps deliberately - avoids the reality that the Crusades were concerned as much with countering the rise of Muslim power as with ‘liberating’ any holy lands.

The clearest possible sign of this lies in Urban’s own actions at the very start of the crusading movement: knights who ‘took the cross’ in Spain and Italy were encouraged to fight the Muslims of those areas rather than travel to the ‘holy lands’, as such wars were just as holy. This was a time, it should be remembered, when Muslims ruled Sicily, had settled parts of lower Italy, and had threatened areas north of Rome itself. Later, the same crusading symbolism would be used to raise support against the rise of Ottoman power in central and south-eastern Europe, and against Tartar power in Russia and eastern Europe.

The importance placed on the Crusades in Europe is a direct reflection of the fear of Islam at the time, and its overwhelming presence as a superior civilization and power. And this aura survived until at least the beginning of this century; Allenby’s oft-quoted statement on entering Jerusalem in December 1917 may be apocryphal, but the facts that one of his officers wrote a book of his experiences called The Romance of the Last Crusade, that Punch magazine famously portrayed him as Richard I, and that numerous First World War memorials in Britain are designed on crusader themes, are undeniable.

The presence of the crusades in Muslim history and society, by contrast, is relatively low-key. Islam may have dominated European thinking; but for the Muslims, the Europeans were just another minor pest of an enemy, even allowing for the occupation of Jerusalem. This is a point which Hillenbrand, in this otherwise excellent book, fails to appreciate, particularly when she comments on the relative lack of work done on the crusades in Muslim historiography compared to European. This failure is all the more surprising as she specifically highlights and recognises another aspect of the same point: the increased awareness of the crusades in modern Muslim thinking, which she correctly attributes to the west’s recent rise as a dominant factor is Muslim affairs, including the loss of Palestine again.

Without noting the reason, however, Hillenbrand does begin by pointing out the lack of high-quality Arabic historic works on the crusades from a Muslim perspective (and as a Reader in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University, she is qualified to judge), and states her object as being to address the resulting imbalance in western views of the crusades. If her book is as widely read as it deserves to be, it should certainly go some way to achieving this object.

The book begins, usefully for non-experts on the period, with a brief account of the crusades in Palestine, and the Muslim response to them. Hillenbrand then goes into a more detailed study of the crusades from a Muslim perspective, looking at the unfolding of Muslim rule and politics at the time, how Muslim rulers responded to the Christian attacks, and how Muslim historians and writers recorded the events. Her narrative is smooth, her grasp and usage of Arabic language sources impressive, and her combination, organization and presentation of various materials impeccable. She seems to address both the scholar and the lay reader simultaneously, and leave no question unanswered.

At 648 pages, this is not a short book, and Hillenbrand succeeds in presenting admirable detail on each issue she covers, without boring the reader. Simply listing some of the sub-heading of her chapter on the First Crusade gives an idea of her thoroughness: The General State of the Islamic World on the Eve of the First Crusade; The Devastating Events of the Years 485-487/1092-1094; The Debilitating Effects of Religious Schism; The Eastern Perspective - Seljuq Disunity, 485-492/1092-1099; Anatolia in the late eleventh century; The Egyptian Perspective; Syria and Palestine on the Eve of the First Crusade; Why Did the First Crusade Come? - Muslim Interpretations; The Course of the First Crusade: Muslim Accounts; The Fall of Antioch; The Conquest of Jerusalem; The Role of The Byzantine Emperor; Muslim Reactions to the Establishment of the Frankish States in the Levant; Displacement of Muslim Population; Crusader Expansionism and Muslim Disunity; The Egyptian Response; The Syrian Response; The Local Response to the Frankish Presence; etc...

These are just some sub-heading to the first chapter, which looks at the political history of the early part of the crusading period (up to 1100). The next two chapters treat the 1100-1174 and 1174-1291 periods with only slightly less detail. Lay Muslim readers will find the sections on Nur al-Din Zengi and Salah al-Din particularly interesting and useful. Throughout, Hillenbrand takes a broad view of events, placing the crusader wars in the wider context of Islamic history at the time, and constantly looking to see how contemporary Arab chroniclers understood the events of the day. A Muslim reader may not agree with all her interpretations, for example on matters of jihad and doctrinal differences between different Muslim dynasties but, bearing in mind that she is writing for a non-Muslim audience, there can be no doubt that Hillenbrand presents a face of the crusades which most people - even Muslims - will never have seen.

After her political history of the period, which covers only some 250 pages of the book, Hillenbrand then moves on to thematic chapters on How the Muslims saw the Franks: Ethnic and Religious Stereotypes; Aspects of Life in the Levant in the Crusading period; Armies, Arms, Armour and Fortifications and The Conduct of War.

The first of these is perhaps the most problematic part of the book. Hillenbrand appears at times altogether too sensitive of Muslim criticisms of the Europeans, and too quick to jump to negative conclusions about Muslim intentions; to put the worst possible slant on critical Muslim statements about the Franks. She finds herself defending the Franks instead of allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. Perhaps there is simply a limit to how far one can see oneself as others do.

Elsewhere, however, Hillen-brand’s writing returns to its usual high standard. The wealth of information she provides on Muslim society, culture, architecture, military organization, weaponry, warfare, strategy, military and political literature, and a host of other similar topics, all drawn from Arabic sources, is quite stunning. Although it is designed for a non-Muslim reader, there is perhaps no good-quality equivalent for the English-speaking Muslim either.

It must also be noted that throughout the book, her text is supported by a fantastic collection of photographs, illustrations, sketches, details, diagrams and maps. The pictures and details of the interior of the Al-Aqsa mosque, including details of the Nur al-Din minbar burnt by the Zionists in 1969, are priceless on their own. There are also examples of Muslim armour, weapons, architecture, coins, clothes, artistic representations of jihad and other scenes, and too much more to mention. Even without the text, this would be a picture book of rare quality.

In her conclusion, Hillenbrand looks briefly at the heritage of the crusades in the Muslim world. Here too she is sympathetic, but her analysis is sometimes simplistic, for example in presenting the thought of Syed Qutb, Imam Khomeini and other Islamic thinkers and groups. She states that she has deliberately presented a one-sided view of the Crusades, "from the Muslim side alone". This is only partly true - she has shown how the Muslim side appears to a westerner. But that is still an improvement on most western writings; and the sheer amount of information, and the quality of the presentation, make this book invaluable.

Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999

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