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Mackenzie Shay

Global Encounters to the 1600


Prof. Gaydukova
24 April 2013
Usama ibn Munqidh
Usama ibn Munqidh, the author of The Book of Contemplation, is responsible for a great
portion of the knowledge gathered regarding the Muslim experience during the Christian
crusades. Usama was born in north Syria in July of 1095. During November of that year, Pope
Urban II delivered a speech that ultimately led to the first Christian crusade. The Pope promised
the people of the west salvation in return for their military services in the east. These crusades
eventually perpetuated into a century long series of attacks on the eastern Islamic people and the
western Christians.1 In Cobbs introduction, he states, Usama was known among his
contemporaries as a warrior, courtier and distinguished man of letters.2 In other words, Usama
had been heavily involved in the war efforts from the beginning of the attacks. He was involved
in all sides of the war whether it be a solider or military adviser. Due to these unfortunate
circumstances, Usama was constantly surrounded by these feuds practically since birth, which
created a stigma towards Christians in his writing. Also, due to his fathers influence, Usama has
an extremely religious background. All of these factors lead to his perception of how the Islamic
people viewed the crusaders at the time. Overall, due to Usamas strong religious background,
1 Usama Ibn Munquidh, The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, trans. Paul M. Cobb
(London Penguin Classics, 2008), xv.
2 Usama Ibn Munquidh, xv.

his upbringing under Christian warfare and his fathers influence, Usumas stories imply that
Muslims view Christians in a negative light.
Due to Usamas intense admiration for his father, Usama entered the war efforts against
the Franks as a result of his fathers influence. Usamas high regard for his father is apparent
from the first mention of him in his writings. In his first description of him Usama says, My
father (may God have mercy upon him) was very experiences at warfare. His body bore dreadful
wounds, but he died in his bed.3 Usama then proceeds to describe war stories where his father
displayed great courage. For instance, Someone hurled a javelin at him and hit him right on the
spot that the servant had left uncovered, above his left breast, and the spear struck out just above
his right breast.4 Usama then goes onto say that His survival was a wonder of the divine will5.
Throughout all of these war stories of his father Usama never seizes to mention the influence that
God had in his survival. In a way, Usama feels that his father was constantly being protected by
the divine. This detail further adds to Usamas high respect for his father. It is this very respect
for his father that caused him to first enter in the war against the Franks. Usama tells the story of
when his father and uncle came across the army of Tripoli. His uncle immediately went to cross
the ford in the direction of the Franks, who watched him all the while. As for my father, he also
went on, while I, just a youth, went with him.6 This quote displays Usamas devotion to his
father, and his willingness to follow him into battle from a very young age. Due to his devotion
3 Usama Ibn Munquidh, 62.
4 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 63.
5 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 63.
6 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 67.

to his father, hatred of the Franks was forced upon him from a very young age. These feelings of
disdain are clearly reflected in his writing. Therefore, Usamas stories solely portray the Muslim
view of the Christian crusaders as Usama interprets it.
Usamas strong religious background also plays a role in his harsh portrayal of the
Christian crusaders. As mentioned previously, Usama held his father in high esteem. Usamas
father was also extremely religious. When he was close to death, he said In that chest there are
some copy-books, and in each one I have written a complete text of the Quran. Put them
(meaning the copy-books) under my cheek in the grave. We counted the copy-books and there
were forty-three of them.7 His father went so far as to also include analysis of its variant
readings, its obscure terms, and grammar and style8 and research on several other aspect of the
Quran. Due to his father influence, Usama shared this strong belief in Islam. His religious
nature is apparent throughout the entirety of the text. As mentioned in Paul Cobbs introduction,
Usamas primary purpose in writing this text was to show that God works in mysterious ways,
and nothing we can do will hasten or slow the fate that He has decreed for us.9 A common
example of Usamas devotion to Islam is how he references God consistently after mentioning a
name. For instance whenever he mentions his father it is followed by (may God have mercy

7 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 64.


8 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 64.
9 Usama Ibn Munqidh, xxxv.

upon him).10 Also, after every mentioning to God himself Usama follows by writing (glory be
to Him) .11
Although he uses religion to support his father and many of his allies, he also uses his
beliefs as a tool to curse the Franks. For example, at any mention of the Christian he follows with
a condemning statement such as (may God confound them).12 Usamas strong religious views
further lead to his negative portrayal of the Christian crusaders, which then clouds the readers
impression of how the Islamic people as a whole viewed the Franks. At one point in the reading
Usama goes so far as to ask God to extinguish the Christian crusaders completely. In one of his
anecdotes he tells of a Christian family who converted to Islam, but shortly after the family
betrayed Islam by rejoining the Franks, and retuning to Christianity. Usama responds to their
actions by writing May God (may He be exalted) purify the world of these people!.13 This is
yet another example of how Usamas strong Islamic views contribute to the harsh depiction of
the Christian crusaders. Therefore, the reader may interpret these negative descriptions as a
reflection the views of Islamic views as a whole towards the Franks.
One of the most influential reasons why Usamas writing is mainly negative towards the
Franks is because a majority of his life he was surrounded by warfare. Since the crusades began
shortly after his birth, Usama had the misfortune of experiencing them throughout his lifetime,
which further contributes to his hatred of the Franks. In several of his stories Usama recounts
10 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 62.
11 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 93.
12 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 76.
13 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 143.

many acts of violence the Franks committed against the Islamic soldiers. For instance, Usama
tells the story of an Islamic soldier who was captured by the Christian crusaders. According to
Usama, he was brutally tortured by the Franks. Usama recorded that Tancred, the Christian
crusader who had captured the soldier said, Take out his right eye; that way, when he carries his
shield, his left eye will be covered and he will no longer be able to see anything.14 This is
merely one act of brutality that Usama records throughout the text. Usama also mentions how the
Muslim community as a whole had a severe distaste for the Christians. For example, when four
Muslim horsemen were defeated by one Christian crusader, they returned to their village in
shame. Upon their return The people hurled abuse at them and cast aspersion on them.15 They
insisted if only they had killed the crusader they would not have been put to such shame.16 At
one point in the text Usama claims, The Franks (may God confound them) have none of the
human virtues except for courage.17 All of these examples are evidence of how Usamas hatred
towards the Franks had built up throughout a lifetime. It is also important to recognize that
Usamas Book of Contemplation was not completed until 1183, years after the crusades had
subsided.18 Because of this, Usamas disdain for the Franks had been well accumulated at this
point in his life. Therefore his descriptions of the crusaders are especially negative. Also, the
reader must take into consideration Usamas age in the accuracy of these writings. Usama was

14 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 78.


15 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 80.
16 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 80.
17 Usama Ibn Munqidh, 76.
18 Usama Ibn Munqidh, xiv.

approximately 87 when his writings were completed. Because of the time gap, it is highly
probable that many of these tales are missing details or contain exaggerations.
Ultimately, from Usamas Book of Contemplation we can gather that there are several valid
reasons as to why Usama viewed the Christians negatively, and therefore implied the Islamic
people shared this view. Although Usamas writings do carry bias, we can also take into
consideration the possibility that many Islamic people shared in this view because they too were
forced to live in a state of constant attacks by the Christian crusaders. However, due to the bias
that is apparent throughout the text, we cannot make the assumptions all Islamic people