Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, by Carole Hillenbrand

I finally got around to reading this 1999 book, a thorough, and perhaps uniquely so, survey of what Islamic sources tell us about the Crusade to the Holy Land in the 12th and 13th centuries. Its chief value is that it not only summarizes sources unavailable to people who cannot read Arabic or don't have access to rare books and manuscripts, but carefully evaluates those sources for reliability and usefulness.

A second valuable characteristic is that it is profusely illustrated with visual material derived from Syria, Palestine, Anatolia, Egypt and to some extent farther eastern countries, so as to give the reader a notion of what the era and area looked like to Muslim eyes. Brilliant, even though I am sure that doing so drove up the price of this book substantially.

Reading this book confirmed my judgment (not one necessarily one Hillenbrand would agree with) that the Muslim memory of the Crusades is something that has emerged in the last two centuries. I'm not saying that it is a "false" memory (is my memory of the First Crusade, derived from European books of the 20th century, "false?"), but simply as Hillenbrand documents, not a continuous one. Back in the period of western European occupation, the importance of that occupation was not given the same evaluation by all living Muslims. Some, especially those who had been personally affected, were zealous to reclaim Jerusalem. However, the behavior of most local and regional Muslim leaders most of the time indicates that Realpolitik was their main motivation. They fought who constituted a threat or a source of profit and where there was danger or opportunity. Obviously some rulers were allied with preachers of jihad, but it wasn't an overwhelming motivation.

Hillenbrand shows that Muslim observers and scholars began to visualize the Crusades as a unified phenomenon, and a really bad period in the history of Islam, during the 19th century, when intervention in the Middle East became a serious problem. The Arabic name for Crusades was adopted from European sources, and Saladin's reputation got a big boost from his place in Christian historiography (as opposed to the reputations of Zengi and Baybars, perhaps more famous in the Islamic tradition).

This makes me feel a bit more confident in saying that when modern Muslims get upset about the occupation of the Holy Land way back when, they are probably more upset about more recent occupations of any number of Middle Eastern countries now, or at least since Napoleon landed in Egypt.

I wonder what unhappy Muslims say about the Mongol destruction of Baghdad? Now there was a huge catastrophe.

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