Post-classical history


Relations Between Muslims and Franks in the Levant, 1099–1187

In the decade after the capture of Jerusalem the Franks set up four states in the Levant: the kingdom of Jerusalem; the county of Tripoli (roughly equivalent in area to the modern Lebanon), the principality of Antioch (coastal Syria), and, inland, astride the River Euphrates, the county of Edessa. The religious and ethnic mix of these regions was bewildering: Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Maronites, Jacobites, Nestorians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Muslims, splinters within the Shi’a such as the Nizari (known as the Assassins), as well as the Jews and the Zoroastrians. The fact that the Franks imposed their authority on such a polyglot society was one of their most remarkable—and often ignored—achievements. The early years of the Latin East were marked by a series of sieges and battles as the newcomers sought to carve out their territories but, by 1109, with a couple of exceptions on the coast (Tyre did not fall until 1124 and Ascalon in 1153), they had established the full extent of their lands. A detailed narrative of these conquests is the purview of textbooks and, in most cases, gives the Frankish perspective; the writings of three contemporary Muslim writers will give us an alternative viewpoint. They may not provide a complete picture of the period—and they certainly contain comparable levels of bias and prejudice against their opponents—but they can offer a thought-provoking insight into the impact of the Christian invasions and a glimpse of the priorities and concerns of the Muslim population. Our three sources are Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, an irate Damascene preacher; Usama ibn Munqidh, a melancholy old poet and warrior; and Ibn Jubayr, a perspicacious Spanish Muslim who visited the Levant in the course of a penitential pilgrimage.


The caliph of Baghdad offered little assistance or direction to the Syrian Muslims at the time of the First Crusade, and this lack of leadership provoked outrage among those directly affected by the Christian invasion and sparked angry protests in verse (the conventional medium for such communication at the time):

The unbelief of the infidels has declared it lawful to inflict harm on Islam, causing prolonged lamentation for the faith.

What is right is null and void and what is forbidden is [now] made licit.

The sword is cutting and blood is spilt.

How many Muslim men have become booty?

And how many Muslim women’s inviolability has been plundered?

How many a mosque have they made into a church!

The cross has been set up in the mihrab [prayer niche].

The blood of the pig is suitable for it.

Korans have been burned under the guise of incense.

Do you not owe an obligation to God and Islam,

Defending thereby young men and old?

Respond to God: woe on you! Respond!1

In time, jihad became the driving force of Islam’s response to the events of 1099. Jihad means “struggle” and, as we shall see, it has numerous parallels with the concept of a crusade; there is, however, a fundamental difference in their origins. The crusade was invented by Pope Urban II in 1095, but the jihad was a part of the Islamic faith from its foundation in the seventh century. The notion of holy war is found in both the Koran and the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad, and they both stress the virtues and celestial rewards of the jihad.2 One Hadith, for example, states that “The Gates of Paradise are under the shadow of the swords”—a sentiment comparable to the crusading idea of a holy warrior finding a place in heaven.

The jihad itself has two elements, the “greater” and the “lesser” jihad. The former (al-jihad al-akbar) is the struggle against an individual’s lower self; it is a personal fight against immorality and sin. This is of paramount spiritual value, and seen by many as a necessary precursor to the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar). The latter is a perpetual obligation on all Muslims to strive to extend the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) until all mankind accepts the faith or submits to Muslim government. Non-Muslims within the House of Islam must be protected—unless they are polytheists—and should follow formally recognized religions such as Christianity and Judaism; these people must, however, pay a tax. Land outside the House of Islam is the House of War (Dar al-Harb) and there exists a permanent state of hostility between the two houses until the former is triumphant. Truces of up to ten years could be permitted.


Within this basic framework, however, some flexibility is possible. First, safe conducts enable trade and diplomacy to take place between Muslim and non-Muslim regions. Secondly, in the centuries before the crusades, political reality caused theorists to evolve an intermediate area between the House of War and the House of Islam: the House of Peace (Dar al-Sulh). This reflected a period of stability across Islamic lands that, at that time, stretched from Spain to central Asia. This is not to say that the concept of jihad disappeared entirely; in the mid-tenth century there was a period of holy war against the Byzantines in Asia Minor and numerous holy warriors (ghazis) flocked to join the fighting. By the time of the crusades, however, there is little evidence of the sermons and propaganda intended to incite Muslims to perform their religious duty: faction and disunity were rife, perfect conditions for the ideologically driven westerners to force their way to Jerusalem.

With no direction from their spiritual head in Baghdad the secular leaders of the Near East showed little enthusiasm for jihad. The crusaders, of course, represented a fusion of secular and spiritual interests and therein lay one of their great strengths. But in the Islamic world it took decades for this combination to form a shared agenda that would inspire Muslims to cohere in sufficient numbers to expel the Christians. It would be wrong to say that no one invoked the idea of jihad against the Franks immediately after the First Crusade, and among those who tried to stir his people was the Damascene legist al-Sulami, who preached around 1105–6. Parts of his treatise Kitab al-Jihad (The Book of Holy War) survive to give a razor-sharp image of the religious classes’ perception of recent events; the text is no less interesting for its similarities with crusader writings.3

Al-Sulami often spoke from the elaborately carved pulpit (minbar) in the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a magnificent building that remains one of the splendors of medieval Islam. He used Hadith to remind people that the holy war was the duty of all Muslims; he then offered an acute overview of the problems of the Islamic world. To him, the failure to prosecute the jihad was one cause of the present situation; it was a disgrace that such a state of affairs had been allowed to develop and now God punished such laziness and dereliction of duty through the breakup of the Muslim world. Al-Sulami also showed an awareness of the wider world when he (correctly) reminded his audience that the Christians had already captured Sicily and parts of Spain. Now, al-Sulami argued, the Christians perceived the divisions among the Levantine Muslims and set out eastward with Jerusalem as “their dearest wish”: an accurate appraisal of the crusaders’ primary target. He was also perceptive enough to describe the westerners as fighting a jihad themselves; in other words, he understood that religion was the crusaders’ dominant motive.

His speech was directed at the ruling military classes, the sultans: those men with a responsibility to protect and defend the people. He lambasted them for their inactivity: “drive away insignificant things and sluggishness and go to fight the jihad with your wealth and yourselves.” He regarded their present moral laxity as the cause of the crusader invasion: “the Franks acted as they did because of the Muslims’ blame of God. . . . He warned you with a punishment the like of which He did not warn you with before. . . . If only you would desist from sin! Otherwise He will make you fall into the hands of your enemy. . . . May God hasten your waking up from the sleep of neglect.”4

His appeal for action was couched in remarkably similar terms to contemporary calls for the crusade; in fact, it may be only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the removal of the word jihad and the modification of names would allow this to pass off as a crusade sermon. Al-Sulami’s emphasis on the duty to act, the defensive nature of the warfare, the need to protect one’s coreligionists, the divine opportunity granted by God, the prospect of heavenly rewards, and the terrible consequences of lax behavior were all concepts used by Christian preachers. There was, however, no question of one set of ideas feeding the other; the texts simply display the shared principles of a monotheistic faith working through the concept of a holy war to arrive at many of the same interpretations and justifications for such actions. Al-Sulami wrote:

Prepare, God have mercy on you, to strive hard at the imposition of this jihad and the obligation to defend your religion and brotherhood with aid and support. Take as your booty an expedition that God, who is exalted, has arranged for you without great effort. You will gain from it a finest winner [God] and a glory which . . . [will] remain on you for many ages to come. Beware with all watchfulness that you avoid disgracing yourselves or you will arrive at a fire with flames, which God, who is exalted, has made an evil place and your worst final destiny.5

One distinctive feature of the Islamic approach emerges: in direct contrast to Pope Urban II’s words at the Council of Clermont where he warned the crusaders to act out of devotion alone, rather than striving for honor or glory, there was an offer of both secular and spiritual rewards: “God and his Prophet promised to whomever fought the jihad in His cause to gain their [enemies’] wealth, women and lands;” a more realistic approach, perhaps.6

Al-Sulami chose to interpret the arrival of the crusaders as a divine challenge to the ruling classes and a task they had been specially chosen to face: “Know that God, who is praised, only sent this enemy to you as a trial, to test your steadfastness with it. He, who blesses and is exalted, said: ‘Let us test you so that We will know those of you who fight hard and are steadfast.’”7 The notion of a test was frequently used by Christian preachers, as was al-Sulami’s next suggestion—the need for a moral regeneration to provide the proper preparation for holy war.8 In both cases, spiritual purity, or “right intention” was requisite: “Give precedence to jihad of yourselves over jihad of your enemies, for if yourselves are among your enemies. . . . Make right what is between you and your Creator, and what is wrong with your [current] state of being will be made right for you.”

Toward the close of his tract, al-Sulami called for a restoration of unity in the Muslim world and repeated his injunctions directed at the region’s leadership to fulfill their Koranic responsibilities to guide the people and to guard the faith. He was well aware that the fragmented condition of the Islamic Near East had aided the crusaders’ cause. Al-Sulami was not entirely pessimistic, however; he made a terse and accurate critique of the Franks’ position at the time (c.1105–6) and mentioned “the paucity of their horses and equipment and the far distance of their reinforcements and support.” These were perpetual difficulties for the settlers and proved core reasons for their eventual defeat.

Again in his closing comments the writer castigated his audience; he complained of the shame in delaying opposition to the Franks and the disgrace in fearing them. In spite of the power of this call to jihad, the most telling indicator of its failure to resonate with the people of Damascus was the size of al-Sulami’s audiences—on one occasion just six people attended. Divisions among the warlords of the Muslim Near East were so profound that it was decades before the religious classes could exert sufficient influence on the ruling elites to make the jihad the primary rallying call against the Christian colonists. As we shall see, it was Imad ad-Din Zengi’s capture of Edessa in 1144 that marked the first major advance for the counter-crusade, and it was his devout and powerful son, Nur ad-Din (1118–74), who brought faith and fighting together to pose an even greater test to the crusaders.


Our next guide to twelfth-century Islam led a truly remarkable life: Usama ibn Munqidh was born on July 4, 1095, just four months before Urban II launched the First Crusade, and he died aged ninety-three on November 17, 1188, a little over a year after Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem.9 He lived through a vast spectrum of events that encompassed Muslim defeat and revival, warfare among his coreligionists, and conflict with the Franks. His family held the fortress of Shaizar, a castle that still clings to a spine of rock overlooking the River Orontes in central Syria. The Banu Munqidh were one of the numerous small lordships that emerged from the chaotic events in the late-eleventh-century Muslim Near East and, as such, Usama’s people had to navigate between the competing pressures of the incoming crusaders and the larger local power centers of Aleppo, Hama, and Damascus. They also had to deal with less predictable forces such as the Assassins, a group who lived within ten miles of Shaizar and whose uncompromising negotiating techniques brought them notoriety across the medieval world.10

Usama’s father, Murshid, was a man of immense piety who combined an enthusiasm for the hunt with intensive study of the Koran. He created more than forty copies of the text himself and composed commentaries on its meaning and style. He managed to conduct his two passions simultaneously, as Usama recounted: “On the day he went forth to the mountain to hunt partridge, while he was on the way there, yet still distant from it, he would tell us, ‘Go, split up. Any of you who still hasn’t done his recitation should now go and do it.’ For we, his children, had memorised the Koran. And so we would then disperse and recite the Koran until he arrived at the hunting spot and ordered someone to summon us. He would then ask us how much we had recited. Once we had informed him, he would say, ‘Me, I’ve recited one hundred verses,’ or something close. My father (may God have mercy on him) could recite the Koran just like it was when it was first revealed.”11

Murshid was not, however, interested in heading the family and when he stood aside for his younger brother, the tensions generated among the Banu Munqidh clan led to Usama leaving home in June 1131: a moment of profound sadness for him and, in several senses, an event from which he never recovered. Throughout the remainder of his adult life he hoped to return to Shaizar and become its lord, yet this never happened. He began a career that took him across the courts of the Muslim Near East and brought him service with a cosmopolitan series of rulers: at Hama he worked for the brutal Zengi (with whom he stayed until 1138), then to Unur of Damascus (1138–44), the Fatimid court in Cairo (1144–54), then back to Damascus and Nur ad-Din (1154–64), next to the remote Upper Tigris city of Diyar Bakr (1164–74), and finally to Damascus a third time under the patronage of Saladin (1174–88). He was not, however, employed solely as a military man, and it was his celebrated reputation as an individual of learning and culture (adab) that enabled him to attract such a powerful and varied range of employers and to crisscross the Sunni–Shi’a divide. Adab required good manners, great prowess as a writer and orator, and the ability to memorize a huge store of verse; at its most developed, Usama’s task was to provide an intellectual focus to a court, as well as a sense of refinement. Usama even wrote a manual of ideal male conduct, The Kernels of Refinement, which stressed ideas of honor and military strength. Skill as a hunter, a pastime that interested him enormously, was also helpful. Finally, it was desirable to be thin and handsome: needless to say, gifts possessed by Usama himself.12

Usama was a prolific writer and gained a great reputation in his own lifetime as a poet. Poetry was probably the most important method of communication in medieval Islam and was used to entertain, to impress, and to propagandize the jihad.13 Poetry was also employed to conduct affairs of state and when, on behalf of Nur ad-Din of Damascus, Usama conducted lengthy diplomatic negotiations with the vizier of Egypt, they were in verse.

Among the many items in Usama’s oeuvre was a hugely popular collection of poetry; Saladin himself kept a copy with him. He also composed works on sleep and revelatory dreams and on women; a history of recent events; a Counsel to Shepherds; an anthology of Dwellings and Abodes (an analysis of the erotic prelude, a genre of classical Arabic literature); a study of especially ornate poetry, The Creator of High Style; and finally, a book on the lore of the stick, The Book of the Staff.14 The last of these was written around 1171–72 and was a collection of verse and prose incidents connected with the symbol of Usama’s old age—his walking stick. Some were tales of famous sticks, such as that of Moses; some told of his own experiences (a few involving the Franks); others were designed simply to amuse. In one incident, a man complained to his local qadi (judge) that his wife had beaten him with a stick so fiercely that it broke. The qadi looked sad, which prompted the man to say that there was nothing to worry about—she had done this from her evil nature and lack of education. But the qadi responded, “I would not grieve, even if she killed you. My only worry is that she may think that all men are like you.”15

His best-known book in modern times is his Kitab al-I’tibar, The Book of Contemplation—partly because it contains so many lively anecdotes and partly because it has been translated from Arabic. As the title suggests, it was not a narrative history but principally a work of instruction. Through The Book of Contemplation we can glimpse much of Usama’s view of the world and his thoughts on the Franks. In the broadest sense he reflected the widely shared feeling of Muslim cultural superiority over the Christians. The latter were brave—in the way that animals could be brave—but lacked modesty and sophistication. “Glory be to the Creator, the Maker! Indeed, when a person relates matters concerning the Franks, he should give glory to God and sanctify Him! For he will see them to be mere beasts possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting, just as beasts have only the virtues of strength and the ability to carry loads.”16 The latter years of Usama’s career overlapped with the efflorescence of the jihad under Nur ad-Din and Saladin, yet his writings lack a sustained polemical thrust against the Christians, perhaps an indication that the author’s own concerns and personality were largely secular in nature.

Usama grew up with many indigenous Christians in the vicinity—in fact, at Shaizar in 1114 the Banu Munqidh menfolk joined the local Christian villagers in their Easter celebration. Yet he obviously disapproved of their morals, as shown in this tale told to him by a bath-keeper:

I once opened a bath in al-Ma’arra to earn my living. Once, one of their knights came in. Now, they don’t take to people wearing a towel about their waist in the bath, so this knight stretched out his hand, pulled off my towel from my waist and threw it down. He looked at me—I had recently shaved my pubic hair. . . . Then he moved in closer to me. He then stretched his hand over my groin, saying, “By the truth of my religion, do that for me too.” He then lay down on his back: he had it thick as a beard in that place. So I shaved him and he passed his hand over it and, finding it smooth to the touch, said: “Salim, by the truth of your religion, do it to Madame!” . . . meaning his wife. The attendant brought her. . . . She lay down on her back and the knight said, “Do her like you did me!” So I shaved her hair there as her husband stood watching me. He then thanked me and paid me my due for the service. Now, consider this great contradiction! They have no sense of propriety or honour, yet they have great courage. Yet what is courage but a product of honour and disdain for ill repute.17

Understandably Usama found Christian theology to be deficient and, on many occasions, he ends an anecdote with an almost reflexive imprecation: “May God curse them!” In spite of this stereotypical invective, his writings reveal that he had much to do with the Frankish elite, particularly during his service to Unur of Damascus around 1140. As well as giving us colorful information about Usama’s career and personality, these episodes may reveal some pertinent features of Frankish rule and Christian–Muslim relations.

In the course of one embassy to Jerusalem, Usama was permitted to visit the Temple complex of the holy city. This contains the Dome of the Rock and, more importantly, the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is the place the Prophet led the other prophets in prayer during his Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem.18 During his stay Usama observed the difference between those Franks settled in the Levant and their coreligionists who had just arrived from the West:

Anyone who is recently arrived from the Frankish lands is rougher in character than those who have become acclimatised and have frequented the company of Muslims. Here is an instance of their rough character (may God abominate them!). Whenever I went to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, I would go to the al-Aqsa Mosque . . . where the Templars, who are my friends, were. They would clear out that little mosque so that I could pray in it. One day, I went into the little mosque, recited the opening formula “God is great” and stood up in prayer. At this one of the Franks rushed at me and grabbed me and turned my face towards the east saying, “Pray like this.” A group of Templars hurried towards him, took hold of the Frank and took him away from me. I then returned to my prayers. The Frank, that very same one, took advantage of their inattention and returned, rushing upon me. . . . So the Templars came in again, grabbed him and threw him out. They apologised to me, saying, “This man is a stranger, just arrived from the Frankish lands . . . he has never before seen anyone who did not pray towards the east.” “I think I have prayed quite enough,” I said and left. I used to marvel at that devil, the change of his expression, the way he trembled and what he must have made of seeing someone praying towards Mecca.19

This dramatic vignette shows the sharp contrast between those accustomed to dealing with Muslims on a daily basis, both as inhabitants of their own lands and as political neighbors, and the new arrival, stirred up by the inflammatory rhetoric of crusade preachers and lacking any sense of tolerance toward his religious opponents. The story also demonstrates the diplomatic courtesies extended to a high-level ambassador and proves that even in Jerusalem itself, during the mid-twelfth century at least, a Muslim was permitted private prayer. Perhaps the most surprising remark in his testimony was the description of the Templars as Usama’s friends. As we will see below, these men were usually the most implacable opponents of Islam, sworn to its destruction, yet in this case they evidently felt it appropriate to protect Usama.

Friendship could find a basis in the shared interests of an equestrian elite. Usama and the Frankish knights were both products of a culture in which the horse was a status symbol, an essential companion in battle and on the hunt. While each could admire the other’s bravery in warfare, they might also, in the case of the hunt, enjoy a pastime together. In the early 1140s Usama was in the company of Unur of Damascus when the Muslim ruler went hunting with King Fulk of Jerusalem—another great devotee of the chase—on lands near Acre. Unur was quite taken with a large falcon that had been trained to bring down cranes and even to attack gazelles; he asked the king if he could have the falcon and Fulk duly obliged. Such diplomatic niceties helped to seal an alliance between Damascus and Jerusalem when both parties feared the growing power of Zengi, atabeg of both Aleppo and Mosul, and deemed it prudent to make such a deal: just one of many examples of a Christian–Muslim pact.20 Given the basic parameters of the Crusades, on the surface at least, arrangements of this sort seem unlikely, but the day-to-day realities of living in close proximity to each other meant that such relationships—be they personal, like Usama’s, or political, as in this case—were not impossible. The zeal of the First Crusaders, wading through Jerusalem in the blood of their enemies, had become tempered by basic practicalities and the settlers’ lack of numbers. We can see a recognition of this from a Christian perspective too; Fulcher of Chartres, a First Crusader who chose to remain in the Levant, wrote a famous assessment of the inhabitants of the Frankish lands around 1120: “We who were once Occidentals have now become Orientals. . . . He who was of Rheims or Chartres has now become a citizen of Tyre or Antioch. We have already forgotten the places of our birth; already these are unknown to many of us or not mentioned any more. Some already possess homes or households by inheritance. Some have taken wives not only of their own people, but Syrians, Armenians, or even Saracens who have achieved the grace of baptism. Words of different languages have become the common property known to each nationality, and mutual faith unites those who are ignorant of their descent. . . . He who was born a stranger is now as one born here; he who was born an alien has become a native.”21 Thus, the Franks had become “easternized” and acculturated to their new surroundings, the local people and their practices. It would be a grave exaggeration to claim that anything approaching a “rainbow nation” had emerged, but indications of assimilation and interaction do exist and suggest a fuller picture and more nuanced version of the standard “Christian fights Muslim” dichotomy.

Usama himself was obsessed with hunting. The land near his native Shaizar was a mix of woods and marsh, home to gazelles, boar, hares, and, most challenging of all, lions. It may be no coincidence that Usama actually means “lion” and his Kitab al-I’tibar is packed with stories about his adventures. Pride of place is held by his single-handed killings of the beast; he claimed that he had more experience with lions and knowledge about fighting them than any other person. He told of a hunt with his father:

I mounted my horse with my spear by my side and charged at the lion. The lion faced me and let out a roar. My horse reared and my spear, because of its weight, fell out of my hand. The lion chased me for a good stretch, then turned back to the foot of the hill and stood there. It was one of the biggest lions I had ever seen, like the arch of a bridge, and ravenous. Every time we approached it, it would come down from the hill and chase after the horses. . . . I saw it leap onto the haunches of the horse belonging to an attendant of my uncle, tearing the man’s clothing and leggings with its claws. Then it returned to the hill. There was thus no way of getting at the lion until I climbed above it on the slope of the hill and rushed my horse down upon it and thrust my spear at it, piercing it. I left the spear sticking in its side. The lion then rolled over onto the slope of the hill with the spear still in it. The lion died. Usama was so devoted to the hunt that he even imported dogs and falcons from Byzantium.22

The finer points of warfare were also of interest to Usama. His terse assessment of Frankish strategy reflected their need to preserve men and horses: “The Franks (God curse them) are of all men the most cautious in war.”23 This was also a strategy born out of bitter experience. On several occasions the Christians’ excitement caused them to chase Muslim forces, apparently fleeing in disarray, only for the “defeated” enemy to turn, encircle their pursuers, and slaughter them. On a personal level Usama was keen to inform his audience about his own heroic achievements and to pass on tips; the list of “my favourite lance thrusts” is—to a nonexpert—perhaps a little self-referential, but it shows one measure of esteem among the military classes of the Muslim Near East.24

Usama was also a keen recorder of medical practice. Sometimes he used his observations to ridicule the barbaric Franks—although it is striking that he often followed a ghastly or risible example of ill-treatment with something more sober or practical; in other words, he wrote in a series of antitheses that should not be broken up.25 Usama reported that a Frankish physician intervened in the treatment of a knight with an abscess on his leg and a woman afflicted with “imbecility.” He asked the knight,

“Which would you like better: living with one leg or dying with both?” “Living with one leg,” replied the knight. The physician then said: “Bring me a strong knight and a sharp axe.” The physician laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood . . . and [the knight] struck him—I’m telling you I watched him do it—with one blow, but it didn’t chop the leg all the way off. So he struck him a second time, but the marrow flowed out of the leg and he died instantly. He then examined the woman and said: “This woman, there is a demon inside her head that has possessed her. Shave off her hair.” So they shaved her head. The woman then returned to eating their usual diet—garlic and mustard. As a result her dryness of humours [“imbecility”] increased. So the physician said, “That demon has entered further into her head.” So he took a razor and made a cut in her head in the shape of a cross. He then peeled back the skin so that the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman died instantaneously.26

Easy as it is to mock these episodes they were followed by two stories of successful treatments: first, for the healing of wounds using vinegar; second for dealing with sores caused by scrofula, using a Frankish recipe.27 In fact, the physician who told Usama of these excruciating treatments was an Eastern Christian himself; indeed, it was often the indigenous Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, who had the most advanced medical knowledge. The works of the great classical author Galen had survived in Arabic, rather than Latin, and formed a basis for much contemporary treatment. It was undoubtedly true that, initially at least, the Franks lagged behind the locals; indeed, they often employed them at their own courts. Yet the newcomers began to assimilate eastern practices with their own techniques and in the case of the great hospital of the Knights of Saint John in Jerusalem (which could accommodate up to two thousand people in extreme emergencies), there was a marked improvement in the standards of medical practice, which, in turn, found their way back to Europe.28

By the mid-1170s Usama had joined Saladin’s service and the poet’s son, Murhaf, became a close companion of the sultan and joined him on campaign. His aging father was, initially at least, very well treated. The sultan showed him great generosity, and Usama, in return, wrote in praise of his military strength, his achievements as the champion of Sunni orthodoxy, and his benevolence: “the sultan of Islam and the Muslims! Unifier of the creed of faith by his light, subjugator of the worshippers of the cross by his might, raiser of the banner of justice and right. The reviver of the dynasty of the Commander of the Faithful.”29

Saladin sought Usama’s advice on warfare and, of course, adab. It is an interesting thought that some of the sultan’s famously courteous behavior could have been learned from the well-traveled poet of Shaizar. Usama’s work was popular at court and he regaled gatherings of the ruling household with his compositions. It was in this period that Usama wrote his major poetry anthology—The Kernels of Refinement—and The Book of Contemplation.30 Yet all was not well. If one reached the age of forty, then one was esteemed in the Islamic world, but by this time Usama was into his eighties. He felt that he had overstayed his time: “my life has been so prolonged that the revolving days have taken from me all the objects of pleasure.” He continued:

Even as I write, my lines seem troubled
Like the writing of one with hands terror-stricken, palsied
I wonder at this feebleness in my hands as they lift up a pen
When previously they had shattered spears in the hearts of lions.
If I walk, it is with cane in hand, bemired
Are my legs as if I waded through a mud-soaked plain . . .
Destiny has forsaken me, leaving me like
An exhausted ack-camel abandoned in the wastes . . .
A journey is coming, and its time is nigh.31

In his final years Usama seems to have been sidelined from the court and was confined to his own house, reduced to looking back at his exciting youth and lamenting his decline. He acknowledged that God had spared him on countless occasions but now he prepared to meet his destiny. Examples of divine power suffused his writings. God intervened to save a person from death because it was not his or her time to die. God determined the destiny of all and there was no way to avoid one’s fate—Usama finally met his end in Damascus in November 1188.


Just a few years before Usama’s death another celebrated poet of the Islamic world had passed through Damascus. Ibn Jubayr’s legacy offers a fascinating blend of religious devotion and sharply observed travelogue, the product of his pilgrimage to Mecca.32 His homelands were in Muslim-controlled Andalusia, but he left the great court of Granada in February 1183 and over the next two and a quarter years he passed through Ceuta in North Africa, then Sardinia, Alexandria, Cairo, down the Nile to the Red Sea, across to Mecca and Medina, over the Arabian Desert to Baghdad, up the Tigris to Mosul, over to Aleppo in northern Syria, and on to Damascus. He then stayed for thirty-two days in the kingdom of Jerusalem where he sought and secured passage home on a Genoese ship. This sailed via the Greek islands toward Sicily, but was shipwrecked outside Messina. Ibn Jubayr and his fellow passengers survived and he was able to complete his journey home on another vessel.

One attraction of his book is its candid style: Ibn Jubayr was highly critical of numerous aspects of the Islamic Near East and scorned many of its rulers—the notable exception being Saladin, whom he regarded as a man of many splendid virtues. To read a Muslim visitor’s view of the Frankish East would be of interest in its own right but the fact that Ibn Jubayr was present in late 1184, just as the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was in the throes of an internal political crisis and facing immense pressure from the ascendant power of Saladin, makes it especially compelling. Ibn Jubayr’s book became widely admired in the Muslim world and it was copied and incorporated into the work of many later writers. They also praised his other compositions in poetry and prose; one wrote: “His reputation was immense, his good deeds many, and his fame widespread; and the incomparable story of his journey is everywhere related.”33

Ibn Jubayr’s original career was as an administrator. One day in 1182 he was summoned by his master, the governor of Granada, who wished to dictate a letter to him. The governor offered him a glass of wine, but Ibn Jubayr followed the example of the Prophet and refused alcohol. His master was infuriated and roared: “By Allah! You will drink seven glasses!” Ibn Jubayr protested in vain but, fearful of the governor’s rage, he swallowed the forbidden liquid. Seeing his secretary’s acute distress the governor was overcome with remorse and called for some gold dinars. Seven times he filled Ibn Jubayr’s goblet with the coins and then tipped them into his gown. In spite of the fact that he had been coerced into the shameful act, the secretary resolved to use the money to make a penitential pilgrimage to Mecca to expiate his sins. As a devout Muslim Ibn Jubayr would have made this journey once in his lifetime in any case; this traumatic incident provided him with the motive and the means to accomplish it.34

There is much in Ibn Jubayr’s writing that has the feel of an enthusiastic tourist, albeit a deeply religious one. He loathed sea travel and found parts of the land journey arduous as well; his description of luxury camel transport is heartfelt: “The best and most comfortable camel litters used are the shaqadif, and the best of those are made in the Yemen, for the travelling seats are covered with leather and are roomy. Two of them are bound together by stout ropes and put across the camel. They have supports at each corner, and on those rest a canopy. The traveller and his companion in counterpoise will thus be veiled from the blaze of the midday heat and may sit reclining and at ease beneath its covering. With his companion he may partake of food and the like, or read, when he wishes, the Koran or some other book; and who so deems it lawful to play chess may, if he wish, play his companion, for diversion and to relieve the spirit.”35 On the other hand, his comments on the heat of the Arabian Peninsula convey a tone of grim suffering: “We had lived between air that melts the body and water that turns the stomach from appetite for food.”36

Ibn Jubayr provides a remarkably detailed description of Mecca and its environs. He took part in numerous processions and religious events and visited countless mosques, shrines, tombs, and colleges while fulfilling his spiritual obligations. Throughout these episodes one senses his devotion and can share in his pride when, for example, in the house of the Prophet’s birth he was able to press his cheek onto the marble basin that marked the place of nativity.37

While he marveled at the heartlands of Islam, he cared little for some of its inhabitants: “This is the country of Islam most deserving a hisbah [flogging] and in this case the scourge employed should be the sword.”38 While it is true that Saladin, temporarily at least, managed to bring a semblance of political unity to the Muslim Near East, Ibn Jubayr’s comments indicate that there remained—then as now—a huge degree of sectarian tension:

“The greater number of the people of these Hejaz and other lands are sectarians and schismatics [Shi’ites] who have no religion and have split into diverse schools of thought.”39 He also felt that women were poorly treated in Mecca: “On the whole, in comparison with the men they are wretched and cheated. They see the venerated house and may not enter it, they gaze upon the blessed Stone, but cannot touch it, and their lot is wholly one of staring and feeling the sadness that moves and holds them. . . . May God, by His grace and favour, advantage them for their sincere intentions and their faith.”40

Ibn Jubayr was unimpressed by Baghdad, a huge city, some sections of which were in ruins. He regarded its citizens as vain and exploitative, although he admired the beauty of the women and praised the quality of the preachers and clerics. Next he traveled northwest and in the course of his journey saw flaming bitumen pits, evidence of the presence of oil in the region. It seems that he felt more comfortable in Syria, both emotionally and physically. Damascus was easily his favorite city: “the Paradise of the Orient” as he described it.41 Ibn Jubayr offers a vivid description of the Great Umayyad Mosque with its refulgent gold and green mosaics depicting buildings and plants (Islamic art should not represent humans). Even today, these entrancing works, in restored form, decorate the front of the main prayer hall. He climbed onto the great dome above the hall and marveled at its technological sophistication, and he venerated a definitive recension of the Koran, owned by the “Uthman, the third caliph of Islam and a companion of Muhammad, and sent by him to Syria.”42

It was in Damascus that Ibn Jubayr came into close contact with members of Saladin’s court. His treatment of Saladin is, of itself, highly interesting. He was not in the sultan’s employ, unlike several other contemporary writers, such as Beha ad-Din ibn Shaddad or Imad ad-Din. The author was an outsider who had no prior obligation either to praise or to condemn the man. In the event, his opinion was overwhelmingly positive. The sultan was a gift from God, a righteous man, and Ibn Jubayr praised him for “his zeal in waging holy war against the enemies of God.”43 Saladin was energetic: never retiring to a place of rest, always ready to make his saddle his council chamber. Ibn Jubayr did not meet him in person because the sultan was besieging Kerak while the author was in Damascus; he did, however, talk to a jurist and a gathering of learned men about their leader.44 Notwithstanding his primary purpose as a travel writer Ibn Jubayr was pleased to set out stories regarding the sultan’s virtues and he provided episodes that demonstrated his magnanimity, his generosity, his impartiality, and his belief in the importance of law and justice. “May God, by His favour, grant that Islam and the Muslims may long enjoy his preservation of them.”45 Ibn Jubayr was also careful to note that the setting of the tale concerning generosity was a poetry symposium, a matter close to the author’s heart and, of course, an indication of the sultan’s cultivation and interest in adab. These positive aspects of Saladin’s rule and personality are familiar to us from the writings of other Muslim commentators and also from western sources, such as the Old French Continuation of Archbishop William of Tyre, the most important historian of the Frankish East. But Ibn Jubayr helps to confirm, if further evidence was needed, the reality of such character traits.46

After leaving Damascus, Ibn Jubayr traveled into the kingdom of Jerusalem where he encountered a few surprises. As we shall see, in the mid-1180s Saladin launched ever more serious attacks on the Franks; indeed, as Ibn Jubayr departed from Damascus he met a returning raiding party that carried money, furniture, cattle, and huge numbers of Christian prisoners for the slave markets. This was the jihad in action and the author abandons his usual equanimity and launches into a tirade against the Franks. Of Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem he wrote: “at this place [Tibnin], customs dues are levied on the caravans. It belongs to the sow known as Queen who is the mother of the pig who is the lord of Acre—may God destroy it.”47 Yet, much to the author’s amazement, in spite of these ferocious cultural and religious confrontations, trade and pilgrimage continued.

One of the most astonishing things that is talked of is that though the fires of discord burn between the two parties, Muslim and Christian, two armies of them may meet and dispose themselves in battle array, and yet Christian and Muslim travellers will come and go between them without interference. . . . The Christians impose a tax on the Muslims in their land which gives them full security; and likewise the Christian merchants pay a tax upon their goods in Muslim lands. . . . The soldiers engage themselves in war, while the people are at peace and the world goes to him who conquers. Such is the usage in war of the people in these lands. . . . The state of these countries in this regard is truly more astonishing than our story can convey. May God by His favour exalt the word of Islam.48

Most disturbing to him was the Franks’ treatment of Muslims within their lands and the attitude of those Muslims who lived under Christian rule. As he moved toward the port of Acre, “our way lay through continuous farms and ordered settlements whose inhabitants were all Muslims, living comfortably with the Franks. God protect us from such temptation. They surrender half their crops to the Franks at harvest time, and pay as well a poll tax for each person. Other than that they are not interfered with, save a light tax on the fruits of trees . . . their hearts have been seduced, for they observe how unlike them in ease and comfort are their brethren in the Muslim regions. . . . The Muslim community bewails the injustice of a landlord of its own faith and applauds the conduct of its opponent and enemy, the Frankish landlord, and is accustomed to justice from him.”49

Ibn Jubayr could barely reconcile this state of affairs with the contemporary strategic situation and he roundly condemned his coreligionists. The Franks had generally treated Muslim farmers well since the earliest years of the conquest—in large part, simply as a matter of expediency. They had tried to persuade westerners to come and settle in the Holy Land; agents toured Europe and offered advantageous deals on tax, ownership, and status: in effect an appeal to “Go East, Young Man.” While these efforts had drawn some to a new life, the majority of the population remained either indigenous Christian or, in some districts such as that near Acre, Muslim. If the Franks had slaughtered or purged these peoples there would have been no one to farm the land and no one for them to tax; within months the economy would have collapsed. In one instance we know that Tancred of Antioch arranged for the wives of native laborers to return to their farms (now under his control) from Aleppo, where they had fled for safety. Had the Franks systematically abused their Muslim tenants there would have been a real prospect of rebellion. In fact, as Ibn Jubayr’s outraged description demonstrates, as landlords and farmers the Franks ruled the Levant successfully and, until the autumn of 1187 when Saladin’s victory was certain, only one Muslim revolt was recorded.

Our guide described the city of Acre, one of the premier ports of the Frankish East, but at this time, a place of little distinction to him. Even allowing for Ibn Jubayr’s bias the picture is not flattering: “Its roads and streets are choked by the press of men, so that it is hard to put foot to ground. Unbelief and impiety burn there fiercely, and pigs [Christians] and crosses abound. It stinks and is filthy, being full of refuse and excrement.”50

Amid this olfactory assault, however, the writer noted that one part of the central mosque remained for use by Muslims. In order to keep some semblance of order, the Franks allowed individual prayer by Muslims throughout their lands. What was banned, however, was the khutba, the Friday prayer meetings—in other words, communal gatherings that could have provided a primary forum to preach and to stir up discontent. From Acre, Ibn Jubayr went north to Tyre, a place that he found cleaner and friendlier to Muslims. There he witnessed a Christian wedding and, in spite of his prejudices, he could not help but be drawn into the celebration. The rich detail with which he described the event brings the ceremony vividly before us: the noise, the color, the sense of everyone sharing a joyous occasion, almost regardless of their faith. The author’s attraction to the bride was a source of particular concern to him; one can feel his cultural and religious principles reassert themselves over his more earthly emotions; a victory for the greater jihad.

An alluring worldly spectacle deserving of record was a nuptial procession which we witnessed one day near the port in Tyre. All the Christians, men and women, had assembled and were formed in two lines at the bride’s door. Trumpets, flutes, and all the musical instruments were played until she proudly emerged between two men who held her right and left as though they were her kindred. She was most elegantly garbed in a beautiful dress from which trailed, according to their traditional style, a long train of golden silk. On her head she wore a golden diadem covered by a net of woven gold, and on her breast was a like arrangement. Proud she was in her ornaments and dress, walking with little steps of half a span, like a dove or in the manner of a wisp of cloud. God protect us from the seduction of the sight. Before her went Christian notables in their finest and most splendid clothing, their trains falling in behind them. Behind her were her peers and equals of the Christian women, parading in their richest apparel and proud of bearing in their superb ornaments. Leading them all were the musical instruments. The Muslims and other Christian onlookers formed two ranks along the route, and gazed upon them without reproof. So they passed along until they brought her to the house of the groom; and all that day they feasted. We thus were given the chance of seeing this alluring sight, from the seducement of which may God preserve us.51

When Ibn Jubayr arranged passage home he chose to board a Christian ship. This particular vessel was Genoese and it was from there, as well as Pisa and Venice, that the bulk of western European shipping originated. The three Italian cities were bitter rivals, both at home and abroad. Their commercial web stretched across Europe and the Middle East, from Iberia and the Balearics, to North Africa, Constantinople, Alexandria, and the Holy Land. As Ibn Jubayr had observed, commerce rarely respected lines of religious demarcation, although outsiders were often picked upon at moments of extreme tension. The Italian traders played a crucial role in the subjugation of the coastal cities of Syria because without their ability to defeat Muslim shipping and to besiege and blockade settlements by sea, the Franks would have been unable to consolidate their hold on the Levant. Ongoing commercial traffic and, even more importantly, the transport of pilgrims, were both vital for the economy and, in the case of pilgrimage, fundamental to the raison d’être of the Christian presence in the region. This military assistance was not, however, given freely. The Italians were devout Catholics whose cities were full of churches and relics; they were, therefore, pleased to help recover Christ’s patrimony. Yet they saw no contradiction between this and securing generous commercial privileges from the rulers of the Frankish East and continuing to pursue trade with the Islamic world.52 For this very reason, Ibn Jubayr and fifty other Muslims were able to board ship at Tyre. The presence of Christian pilgrims on the same boat caused mild concern to our writer, who commented, “The Muslims secured places apart from the Franks. Some Christians called bilghriyin [pilgrims] came aboard. They had been on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and were too numerous to count. May God in His grace and favour soon relieve us of their company and bring us to safety.”53 The writer’s journey home proved dramatic. He hated the sea, and quoted a poem to prove the point:

The sea is bitter of taste, intractable:
No need of it have I.
Is it not water and we earth?
Why then do we endure it?

When the vessel ran aground in Messina harbor it was only through the generous intervention of King William II of Sicily that the passengers were saved. Ibn Jubayr finally reached Granada on April 25, 1185. He made one further journey to the Levant—between 1189 and 1191—before settling in Alexandria, where he died in 1217.

By the time of Usama ibn Munqidh’s demise in 1188, the jihad had reached its climax with Saladin’s recovery of Jerusalem. Yet, strangely, neither Usama nor Ibn Jubayr made much reference to holy war in their writing. The former was certainly not a theologian, but a pious poet who performed all of his devotional obligations. Perhaps he had spent the most active decades of his career at a time of relative—and the word is used with caution—calm between the Frankish settlers and the Muslims. As he recognized, there was a possibility for a modus vivendi, but by his twilight years such days were passed and the ideas of al-Sulami—ironically the earliest of our sources here—had come to prevail. The Damascene cleric was no longer the lone voice, way ahead of his time; his message had become the clarion cry for his people. By the 1180s, the call for the jihad had taken firm root among the political elite of Muslim Syria and Egypt. The Islamic Near East had caught up with al-Sulami’s stirring cry for action; the desire to remove the Franks was paramount. Yet even within this impassioned rhetoric, as Ibn Jubayr shows us, pilgrimage, a basic devotional act for both faiths, could continue as well. This blend of trust, admiration, and occasional respect, alongside anger, hostility, disdain, and suspicion, makes relations between Christians and Muslims in this period so intriguing and so full of contradictions.

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