Islamic Sources and the Crusades: An Incomplete Picture?
The First Crusade set the course for the relationship between Christians and Muslims for the following two centuries. Yet, we have few sources on these expeditions as they are heavily one-sided. Much of what is known of the First Crusade comes from Christian sources, as the Muslim chroniclers did not understand the expedition. Indeed, it was an event that the Muslims did not understand. They did not grasp the religious zeal of the invading army. Afterwards, it led to the establishment of the crusader states: the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa, the County of Tripoli and the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Much can been learnt from Christian and Muslim sources regarding the period of cohabitation between 1095 and 1291. Historians are now starting to utilise a new set of sources, mainly from the Islamic world to gain a more holistic understanding of the Crusades.
Historian Francesco Gabrieli, in his Arab Historians of the Crusades (1984), utilizes no fewer than fifteen authors. Of the fifteen a few stand out: mainly Ibn al-Athir, Ibn al-Qalansi, Usama ibn Munqidh and Ibn Wasil. Ibn al-Qalansi stands out in particular as his work appears to be the earliest Arabic source that is available, his eyewitness accounts of the First and Second Crusades attest to his plain and dry manner in which he presents facts. Ibn al-Athir is, in Gabrieli’s words, ‘the chief historian of the later Crusades.’ The works of Ibn Wasil and Usama focus on the period of the thirteenth and twelfth century crusades respectively.
During the crusading period, the Europeans who settled on newly conquered lands became neighbors to the Muslims of the East. We know from Christian chronicles there were various aspects of settling: some settled as so-called Franks., term that was given to the settlers by Muslim chroniclers, to Europeans who did not acclimatise to the new culture, and others, who grew accustomed to the Arab lifestyle. However, few sources exist on the Muslim perspective, which would provide a more accurate account. Studying the period today, we call tell the Arabic influence on the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Jerusalem was significant. Yet a liveable solution was important, as otherwise both cultures were at odds with one another. Most importantly, a lasting market and an economy had to be built between the two cultures.
Unfortunately, there is a very limited ranges of sources available to modern crusading historians. From the earlier expeditions we have a rather one-sided image mostly painted by the Christian sources. With the later expeditions, however, we see a greater emphasis placed on the relationship between the Christians and the Muslims. Muslim chroniclers are especially focused on the period that surrounds Nur ad-Din and his successor Saladin (see: Third Crusade). In an account from Ibn al-Athir, a picture of a disunited kingdom in Jerusalem is painted, one that Saladin uses to his advantage. Jerusalem was much coveted by the Muslims, and Saladin would use any means necessary to see it returned to their hands.
Today, crusading historians also face the issue of translation. There are many sources out there that are still to be translated from their original language into one that is more accessible. These sources, along with others that are yet to be discovered (hopefully), would provide a more complete picture of the Islamic side. It would only aid the study of the crusades, allowing historians to put together a historiography that offers a wider range of sources. The restricted number of the sources limits what can be discerned about the crusades from Arabic sources. Until further developments are made from medieval Arabic sources historians will be unable to piece together a complete historiographical picture of crusading events.
Further reading: Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives offers perhaps the greatest contribution to the Islamic view of the crusading era in recent times.