Kiril Petkov

title.none: Ricahrds, ed., Ibn al-Athir (Kiril Petkov)

identifier.other: baj9928.0704.011 07.04.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Kiril Petkov, University of Wisconsin -River Falls,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Ibn al-Athir. Translated by D.S. Richards. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, Part I: The Years 491-541/1097-1146: The Cming of the Franks and the Muslim Response. Crusade Texts in Translation, vol. 13. Aldershot, U.K./ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. viii, 401. $99.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-7546-4077-9; ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-4077-9 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.04.11

Ibn al-Athir. Translated by D.S. Richards. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, Part I: The Years 491-541/1097-1146: The Cming of the Franks and the Muslim Response. Crusade Texts in Translation, vol. 13. Aldershot, U.K./ Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. viii, 401. $99.95 (hb) ISBN-10: 0-7546-4077-9; ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-4077-9 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Kiril Petkov
University of Wisconsin -River Falls

Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233) might not be the one "true historian" and the most original thinker in thirteenth-century Muslim historiography, as Francesco Gabrieli once dubbed him, but he definitely stands out among his contemporaries with his sheer output as a historian. That he likely spent his long and productive life as a private person rather than serving as administrator in the house of Zanki as his family did partially accounts for this. More important, however, is Ibn al- Athir's delight in compiling and digesting sizable historical narratives, which comes through in his works. These have been, until recently, unavailable in critical modern translations (not counting the somewhat free rendering in vols. i-ii of Historiens Orientaux of the Receuil des Historiens des Croisades, 1872-87). Thanks to D. S. Richards' tireless effort and excellent scholarship, which had already made available Baha' al-Din Ibn Shaddad's Rare and Excellent History of Saladin and Ibn al- Athir's own Annals of the Saljuk Turks, one can now savor a lengthy extract from al-Athir's al-Kamil in a fine English translation. The volume briefly reviewed here is the first part of the segment of the work covering the period of the Crusades; the second part will extend from the death of Zanki to before 1231 when the work suddenly cuts off.

The style and scope of the segment covered in this volume, a small part of the twelve volumes that comprise the al-Kamil in critical editions, are impressive indeed. In a narrative that is straightforward and relatively unencumbered of colorful epithets, vignettes of high prose, and elevated grandeur, al-Athir manages to survey all that related to what was important in the core lands of thirteenth-century Islam. Developments from al-Andalus to Transoxania are included in the account which centers on the Levant and the Middle East. The approach is annalistic, but the collection of developments to account for is by no means haphazard. Al-Athir wove it all into a monumental story of struggle for power, a perpetual kaleidoscope of shifting alliances, ruthless competition, treacherous politics, and murderous clashes on all levels of political engagement and by all parties concerned: Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Bedouin, and Seljuks; emirs, sultans, viziers, qadis and caliphs; Sunni, Shiites, and Batinis; Maghribi "Veiled Ones", Byzantines, Franks, Spaniards, Armenians, Georgians, Kwarizmians, and pagan central Asian Turks. Out of the chaos and entropy engulfing the Muslim world a pillar of stability, righteousness, and unwavering leadership emerges with the rise of 'Imad al-Din Zanki ibn Aqsunqur, the lord of Mosul and Syria. As moralistic as any medieval historian and well biased in favor of Zanki, in whose honor he wrote a separate history, al-Athir lived to see the edifice this warlord built undermined by Salah al-Din and a new wave of chaos unleashed on the Levant in the early decades of the thirteenth century. Small wonder therefore that the relentless free- for-all he narrates is frequently pointed out as the reason for the oppression, wicked exploitation, suffering, and destruction of the people.

The coming of the crusaders and the Muslim response fit nicely into the chaotic politics and society of the Levant and help stress al- Athir's central anxiety: the dire consequences of Muslim disunity and the fragmentation of Dar al-Islam. Juxtaposed with their Muslim adversaries, to al-Athir the Franks were no better and no worse. To be sure, in the rare occasions in which al-Athir permits himself the frivolity of an epithet, they are characterized as infidels, in two cases even devils, and not much more often are objects of traditional curses. They are capable of shedding blood on a mass scale and of striking fear and terror in the hearts of the Muslims. Yet al-Athir applies such qualifications sparingly, compared to his two major sources for the period, Ibn al-Jazwi and Ibn al-Qalanisi, and others of his acknowledged authorities. The Franks are a pest, to be sure, but one invited by Muslim disunity, and one that remained on the land for the same reason. They get in and out of the narrative seamlessly for they are nothing but another player on an already crowded stage. It made no sense to single them out for separate treatment. They were brave and fought valiantly when given no quarter; but so were the Muslim fighters. Even more poignantly, the Franks apparently broke self-conducts less often, to judge from the cases al-Athir narrates, and Muslim territorial lords and military commanders were capable of viler treacheries compared to the crusaders. As befits an objective observer, al-Athir suspends judgment, no matter that he clearly thought that against the infidels anything could go. Jihad is one of the approaches, but judging from his account up to the death of Zanki it was a sporadic phenomenon even though he mentions sizable detachments of up to 3000 fighting men joining army regulars to fight for the faith. What inspired Muslims for victories, however, appears to have had little to do with religious zeal, or chance--as in the case of a Sufi joker--regardless of al-Athir's preference for fatalism and "God knows best" rationale. More often than not it was leadership and its failures that determined the outcome of any specific skirmish, war, siege, or any military clash at all. Correct and inspired leadership united Muslims and guaranteed victory; united Frankish forces regularly wreaked havoc among Muslims even when the latter appeared to have gained the upper hand. Al-Athir does not individualize Frankish leaders; for him they are types, not individuals, walking plot props. But Muslim leadership is held up to scrutiny, and tested in the cauldron of Muslim-Frankish relations. Al-Athir uses every precious occasion to highlight such leadership, and mourns its frequent lack. Even the Franks are mobilized for the purpose. Al-Athir did not shy from using them, religiously "others" but politically an equivalent of the Muslims as they were, as a stick to beat the conscience of the reader, as in the recollection of his father in the case of the assassination of Mawdud ibn Altuntakin of Mosul in 1113, when a letter from the king of Jerusalem is quoted as saying that "A people that has killed its main prop on its holy day in its house of worship truly deserves that God should destroy it."

All in all therefore, the Franks and their lordship over Muslim lands are for al-Athir a good occasion to showcase what was wrong with twelfth- and thirteenth-century Levantine Muslim political society. Boorish and impetuous, even bloodthirsty as they might be, they are a part of an utterly degenerating political landscape. In this segment of al-Kamil al-Athir does not indulge in cultural characteristics, though in other works he does not spare the Crusaders more explicit and denigrating qualifications. After all, for the period of Nur al-Din, Salah al-Din, and the Ayybids al-Athir's writings take a more personal note. To appreciate it, the reader without command of Arabic will have to wait for D. S. Richards' second volume of the al-Kamil scheduled to appear later this year.

Richards has provided us with a fine text that renders the al- Kamil's sometimes meandering Arabic with painstaking precision and measures up to his quite high standards of "accurate and readable" translation. The narrative is well supplied with footnotes referring to difficult readings and inserting chronology in al-Athir's account. The short bibliographical references at the end list the indispensable works on the period. Even as a small segment of al-Athir's universal chronicle, the volume offers a treasure trove of information and a glimpse into the workings of a formidable historian's mind.