Amin Maalouf: The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

When Kingdom of Heaven premiered in 2005, the character that made the biggest impression on me was Saladin. Although I expected the film to be highly fictionalized, I hadn’t realized how much of it was true based on eye-witness accounts that survived from that period! From the writings of Ibn al-Athīr (1160-1233) to Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217) and others including a few Western chroniclers, Amin Maalouf condenses the events of 1099-1291 and gives us The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Published in 1984, this work questioned and redrafted the prevalent narrative of who the world thought of as barbarians. The reader is made mindful that, “At the time of the Crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was the intellectual and material repository of the planet’s most advanced civilization,” and it was only posterior to the Crusades that the trajectory of intellectual advancement and world history would shift to the West.

It was the era of Assassins, Seljuks, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Mamluks, the Crusaders, Templars, and eventually, the Mongols. Needless to say, Game of Throne-ish details abound! But what I value most about this book is how it defines the chronology, succession, and the characters of the Crusades in a gripping way that will not easily slip into the lapses of my memory; and more valuable is the epilogue where we are made to understand the repercussions and a seeming collective trauma nearly a thousand years later.

— “What they learned from the Arabs was indispensable in their subsequent expansion… In medicine, astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, and architecture, the Franj drew their knowledge from Arabic books, which they assimilated, imitated, and then surpassed.”

— “The epoch of the Crusades ignited a genuine economic and cultural revolution in Western Europe, in the Orient these wars led to long centuries of decadence and obscurantism.”

— “Assaulted from all quarters, the Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile — attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution, a process from which the Muslim world felt excluded, continued.”

— “The Arabs refused to open their own society to ideas from the West. And this, in all likelihood, was the most disastrous effect of the aggression of which they were the victims.”

— “The Arab world… cannot bring itself to consider the Crusades a mere episode in the bygone past. It is often surprising to discover the extent to which the attitude of the Arabs (and of Muslims in general) towards the West is still influenced, even today by events that supposedly ended some seven centuries ago.

— “There can be no doubt that the schism between these two worlds dates from the Crusades, deeply felt by the Arabs, even today, as an act of rape.”

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