Baghdad, August 1099.
Wearing no turban, his head shaved as a sign of mourning, the venerable qÁÃÐ AbÙ ÑaÝad al-Íarawi burst with a loud cry into the spacious dÐwÁn of the caliph al-MustaÛhir BillÁh, a throng of companions, young and old, trailing in his wake. Noisily assenting to his every word, they, like him, offered the chilling spectacle of long beards and shaven skulls. A few of the court dignitaries tried to calm him, but al-Íarawi swept them aside with brusque disdain, strode resolutely to the centre of the hall, and then, with the searing eloquence of a seasoned preacher declaiming from his pulpit, proceeded to lecture all those present, without regard to rank.
ÝHow dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety’, he began, Ýleading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of vultures? Blood has been spilled! Beautiful young girls have been shamed, and must now hide their sweet faces in their hands! Shall the valorous Arabs resign themselves to insult, and the valiant Persians accept dishonour?’
ÝIt was a speech that brought tears to many an eye and moved men’s hearts’, the Arab chroniclers would later write. The entire audience broke out in wails and lamentations. But al-Íarawi had not come to elicit sobs.
ÝMan’s meanest weapon’, he shouted, Ýis to shed tears when rapiers stir the coals of war.’
If he had made this arduous trip from Damascus to Baghdad, three long summer weeks under the merciless sun of the Syrian desert, it was not to plead for pity but to alert Islam’s highest authorities to the calamity that had just befallen the faithful, and to implore them to intervene without delay to halt the carnage. ÝNever have the Muslims been so humiliated’, al-Íarawi repeated, Ýnever have their lands been so savagely devastated.’ All the people travelling with him had fled from towns sacked by the invaders; among them were some of the few survivors of Jerusalem. He had brought them along so that they could relate, in their own words, the tragedy they had suffered just one month earlier.
The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of ShaÝbÁn, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty-day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city: they stared into space as though they could still see the fair-haired and heavily armoured warriors spilling through the streets, swords in hand, slaughtering men, women, and children, plundering houses, sacking mosques.
Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques. Among them were many imÁms, ÝulamÁ’, and Sufi ascetics who had forsaken their countries of origin for a life of pious retreat in these holy places. The last survivors were forced to perform the worst tasks: to heave the bodies of their own relatives, to dump them in vacant, unmarked lots, and then to set them alight, before being themselves massacred or sold into slavery.
The fate of the Jews of Jerusalem was no less atrocious. During the first hours of battle, some participated in the defence of their quarter, situated on the northern edge of the city. But when that part of the city walls overhanging their homes collapsed and the blond knights began to pour through the streets, the Jews panicked. Re-enacting an immemorial rite, the entire community gathered in the main synagogue to pray. The Franj barricaded all the exits and stacked all the bundles of wood they could find in a ring around the building. The temple was then put to the torch. Those who managed to escape were massacred in the neighbouring alleyways. The rest were burned alive.
A few days after the tragedy, the first refugees from Palestine arrived in Damascus, carrying with them, with infinite care, the Koran of ÝUthmÁn, one of the oldest existing copies of the holy book. Soon afterwards the survivors of Jerusalem duly approached the Syrian capital. When they glimpsed the distant outlines of the three minarets of the Umayyad mosque looming up from its square courtyard, they unrolled their prayer rugs and bowed to give thanks to the Almighty for having thus prolonged their lives, which they had thought were over. AbÙ ÑaÝad al-Íarawi, grand qÁÃÐ of Damascus, welcomed the refugees with kindness. This magistrate, of Afghan origin, was the city’s most respected personality, and he offered the Palestinians both advice and comfort. He told them that a Muslim need not be ashamed of being forced to flee from his home. Was not Islam’s first refugee the Prophet MuÎammad himself, who had to leave Mecca, his native city, whose population was hostile to him, to seek refuge in Medina, where the new religion had been more warmly received? And was it not from his place of exile that he launched the holy war, the jihÁd, to free his country of idolatry? The refugees must therefore consider themselves mujÁhidÐn, soldiers of the holy war, so highly honoured in Islam that thehijra, the Prophet’s Ýemigration’, was chosen as the starting point of the Muslim calendar.
Indeed, for many believers, exile is a duty in the event of occupation. The great traveller Ibn Jubayr, an Arab of Spain who visited Palestine nearly a century after the beginning of the Frankish invasion, was to be shocked when he found that some Muslims, Ýslaves to their love for their native land’, were willing to accept life in occupied territory.
ÝThere is no excuse before God’, he would say, Ýfor a Muslim to remain in a city of unbelief, unless he be merely passing through. In the land of Islam he finds shelter from the discomforts and evils to which he is subjected in the countries of the Christians, as, for example, when he hears disgusting words spoken about the Prophet, particularly by the most besotted, or finds it impossible to cleanse himself properly, or has to live among pigs and so many other illicit things. Beware! Beware of entering their lands! You must seek God’s pardon and mercy for such an error. One of the horrors that strikes any inhabitant of the Christian countries is the spectacle of Muslim prisoners tottering in irons, condemned to hard labour and treated as slaves, as well as the sight of Muslim captives bearing iron chains round their legs. Hearts break at the sight of them, but they have no use for pity.’
Although excessive from a doctrinal standpoint, Ibn Jubayr’s words nevertheless accurately reflect the attitude of the thousands of refugees from Palestine and northern Syria who gathered in Damascus in that July of 1099. While they were sick at heart at having been forced to abandon their homes, they were determined never to return until the occupiers had departed for ever, and they resolved to awaken the consciences of their brothers in all the lands of Islam.
Why else would they have followed al-Íarawi to Baghdad? Was it not to the caliph, the Prophet’s successor, that Muslims must turn in their hour of need? Was it not to the prince of the faithful that they should address their complaints and their tales of woe?
In Baghdad, however, the refugees’ disappointment was to be as great as their hopes had been high. The caliph al-MustaÛhir BillÁh began by expressing his profound sympathy and compassion. Then he ordered seven exalted dignitaries to conduct an inquiry into these troublesome events. It is perhaps superfluous to add that nothing was ever heard from that committee of wise men.
The sack of Jerusalem, starting point of a millennial hostility between Islam and the West, aroused no immediate sensation. It would be nearly half a century before the Arab East would mobilize against the invader, before the call to jihÁd issued by the qÁÃÐ of Damascus in the caliph’s dÐwÁn would be celebrated in commemoration of the first solemn act of resistance.
At the start of the invasion, few Arabs were as perspicacious as al-Íarawi in weighing the scope of the threat from the West. Some adapted all too rapidly to the new situation. Most, bitter but resigned, sought merely to survive. Some observed more or less lucidly, trying to understand these events, as unexpected as they were novel. The most touching of these was the Damascene chronicler Ibn al-QalÁnisi, a young scholar born of a family of notables. A witness to the story from the outset, he was twenty-three when the Franj arrived in the East in 1096, and he assiduously and regularly recorded all the events of which he had some knowledge. His chronicle faithfully recounts, in a fairly detached manner, the advance of the invaders as seen from his native city.
For him it all began during those anxious days when the first rumours drifted into Damascus.