Post-classical history



In this year [1096] there came a sequence of reports [telling] of the appearance of Frankish troops from the sea of Constantinople, the number of which was too great to be counted. News of that continued to arrive, and the people were disturbed to hear it and became alarmed as it spread.

(Ibn al-Qalanisi, 1983: 218)

Few historians would deny that the Crusades to the Middle East were of immense importance in the development of medieval Europe. From the thousands who marched east to the many more who were left behind to deal with the consequences of their departure, most people of medieval Europe felt the impact of crusading activities on some level. However, we should not forget that the Crusades also had a great impact on the peoples against whom they were waged. This book seeks to present the Crusades from the viewpoint of the Muslim peoples of the Levant, providing the reader with an understanding of the most significant issues that coloured their responses to both the crusaders from Europe and the descendants of these crusaders who were born and lived in the Latin Christian states that were created in the region. Through both a survey of the major topics that emerge from study of the period and the presentation of a wide range of sources that allow the people of the time to speak to us in their own voices, this book aims to act as a supplemental and counterbalancing work to the numerous books that tell the story of the crusading period from the European point of view, enabling readers to achieve a broader perspective on the period than they might do otherwise.


Study of the Muslim perspective on the Crusades is a relatively young scholarly field, and there are few major works that deal with the subject as a whole, particularly when compared with the immense number of works that tell the European side of the story. A pioneering work is Emmanuel Sivan’s L’Islam et la Croisade. Written in 1968, Sivan’s book examines the development of the Muslim counter-crusade, thus presenting an important study of the topic, albeit one that only focuses on one aspect. A broader vision is found in Amin Maalouf’s The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1984). This is an evocative, engaging treatment of the theme, though it self-consciously privileges storytelling over academic rigour. P.M. Holt’s The Age of the Crusades (1986) is an excellent scholarly treatment of the history of the Levantine region at the time that concentrates primarily on the complex political developments that took place within the Muslim states of the region. Finally, the most important recent work is Carole Hillenbrand’s magisterial The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a). This weighty tome (704 pages) presents a detailed survey of the major themes and questions with which those seeking to study the period must grapple, providing a vivid illustration of the breadth of sources and wide range of lines of enquiry that require further exploration by modern scholars. At the time of writing a number of additional important studies are in press. Paul M. Cobb’s The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (2014) will examine the Muslim response to the Crusades in the Levant, Spain and Sicily. Alex Mallett’s Popular Muslim Reactions to the Frankish Presence in the Levant, 1097–1291 (2014 b) will discuss the responses of the ‘non-elite’ inhabitants of the Levantine region to the activities of the crusaders. Finally, Alex Mallet’s edited volume, Medieval Muslim Historians and the Franks in the Levant, 1097–1291 (2014 a), will provide a detailed overview of the Muslim sources for the crusading period.

Muslims and Crusaders aims to provide students, scholars and interested laypersons with a manageable and accessible entry into the topic of Muslim reactions to the Crusades, combining chronological narrative, discussion of important areas of scholarly enquiry and evidence from primary sources to give a well-rounded initial survey of the period, from which further study may proceed. Readers who want to know more about the subject after reading this work are encouraged to consult the texts mentioned above, as well as those highlighted in the Further reading sections at the end of each chapter in this book. Readers who would like to compare what is contained herein with works on the western side of the Crusades are encouraged to consult the extensive literature on the latter topic; excellent introductions to the current state of scholarship on the subject are Palgrave Advances in the Crusades, edited by Helen Nicholson (2005); and Norman Housley’s Contesting the Crusades (2006).


This is a short book, and as such it can only offer a brief introduction to the major topics that the student of the Muslim side of the Crusades might wish to consider. Modern scholarly understandings of the Crusades have expanded both the geographical and the temporal scope of the topic to encompass, for example, crusading activity in the Iberian Peninsula, but page limits will not allow us to address these here; thus we will be focused only on the Muslim response to the Crusades in the Levant during the ‘core’ period of crusading. In addition, again given the limits of space, we will, regrettably, not be able to consider the perspectives of the sizeable and important native Christian and Jewish communities that existed in the Middle East at the time that the Crusades were taking place. While our focus on the Muslim perspective might be regarded as one-sided, it is justifiable given the huge amount of attention that has been paid to the Muslims’ opponents, the crusaders from Europe, and their descendants in the Latin East.


The Muslim sources, most of which are in Arabic, occupy a broad range of different genres, many of which had a long and distinguished history by the time that the Crusades themselves began, and we have sought to present a representative sample of these in English translation in the Documents section of this work. Chief among the Muslim sources are annalistic chronicles, intended to recount events on a year-by-year basis. Such chronicles take a number of forms, including universal chronicles that seek to present a history of the world from its origin to the author’s own time, and city- or country-based chronicles, telling of events taking place in a particular location. Other works adopt a biographical basis: we have biographical and autobiographical works focused on one individual; dynastic histories, telling of the lives of members of a particular family; and also (sometimes very large) biographical dictionaries that seek to record the lives of individuals, collected on the basis of a shared theme, often a shared geographical origin, profession or importance to the Muslim community. We also have descriptive geographies and travel literature, including descriptions of the known world and accounts of journeys from one end of the Muslim lands to the other. There are also Muslim religious and legal texts, which take a variety of forms including, of course, the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book; the hadith, accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions, used to assist in understanding Islamic teachings; fada’il(merits), works praising the virtues of a place or activity, including particular books devoted to the jihad in all its legal and religious aspects; texts of fatwas (legal judgments); and records of treaties. It is worth noting that these enjoyed particular longevity of influence, and thus we find authors of the crusading period drawing heavily on works of these types from previous centuries. Other texts were intended to entertain or instruct their listeners, including works of poetry, folktales and epic sagas.

It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list of the types of sources available for the crusading period, nor should the genres detailed above be seen as neatly divided from each other. In many cases sources combine genres; for instance, a legal text might have some of its ideas illustrated by quotations from the Qur’an and hadith, but also make use of poetry and historical anecdotes to prove its points. In theory at least, a cultivated Muslim nobleman of the time was expected to have, in addition to expertise in fighting and riding, a deep knowledge of the most important works of literature so that he could, where warranted, drop a Qur’anic or poetic quotation into a speech or conversation. The ability to compose literature was also highly respected; the Muslim emir Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188), although better known to modern historians for his anecdotes about the quirky characteristics of the crusaders, was most famous in his own time for his talents as a poet.

The Muslims referred to the crusaders and their Levantine descendants as the ifranj (Franks). Before the Crusades this term was used in a vague fashion, but it often referred to the inhabitants of the area of the world that corresponded roughly to the Frankish empire of Charlemagne (r. 768–814), thus occupying modern-day France and also parts of Spain, Germany and Italy. However, with the onset of the Crusades the term came to be used by the Muslim sources in a more widespread fashion, referring to western Europeans in general, a practice that persists in the sources even after the Muslim writers begin to show knowledge of the various different geographical origins of those about whom they write. In the sources the Franks are seen as being distinct from the ram (the Byzantines, though the term was also sometimes used to refer to eastern Christians), though they are usually recognized as sharing the same religion. That said, the Muslim sources do not dwell on the differences between the Christianity of the Franks, who were Catholic, and the Byzantines, who were Greek Orthodox.

Few of the Muslim sources take events of the wars with the crusaders as their primary subject matter. It is far more common to see Muslim interactions with the Franks forming part of a wider narrative. The Damascene chronicler Ibn al-Qalanisi (d. 1160), for example, has left us a history of the city in which he tells of the arrival of the crusaders and their subsequent activities in the Levant, but at the same time his perspective is limited, for his accounts of these are only a small part of a wider narrative in which he recounts various events that took place in and around the city. Sources such as these remind us of two things. First, for the inhabitants of the Muslim world as a whole, the impact of the Crusades was actually quite limited. We cannot deny that for those who lived in areas where such conflicts between Muslims and Europeans were taking place – primarily the Levant and Spain – events could be at times politically, economically and personally devastating. However, at the same time the Muslim world stretched from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghrib in the west to Central Asia and north-west India in the east; a Muslim merchant in Samarkand, for example, was probably unaware of or unconcerned by events in the Levant, assuming that they had no impact on his suppliers in the region. Even these events’ impact on a city much closer to the Levant, such as the caliphal capital of Baghdad, was minimal, despite the feelings of some of its residents, as we will see. Second, given that they show that Muslim interaction with the Franks was a continuous process, rather than something that happened in distinct phases, the Muslim sources for the period are a salutary reminder that the neat division of the Crusades into numbered expeditions, like so many terms employed by historians, is a modern invention, a labelling used to impose a structure on the period in order to assist in discussions. No Muslim or crusader at the time numbered the expeditions that had been made from Europe to the Middle East, and for them terms such as ‘Second Crusade’ would have been meaningless. This in turn reminds us of the importance of seeking, as far as we can, to cast aside our own preconceptions and prejudices when we read the historical sources from the period, so that our understanding of them will be as unimpaired as possible. This will allow the writers of the past to speak to us on their own terms, permitting us to see their world as they would have us see it, rather than as we might wish to from our modern perspective.

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