15.06.14, Christie, Muslims and Crusaders

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Christopher MacEvitt

The Medieval Review 15.06.14

Christie, Niall. Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity's Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, from the Islamic Sources. Seminar Studies in History. London: Routledge, 2014. pp. xl, 186. ISBN: 9781138022737 (hardback) 9781138022744 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Christopher MacEvitt
Dartmouth College

The recent efflorescence of scholarship on the crusades can perhaps no longer be called recent, seeing that it is now entering into its third decade. The general surveys and narrative histories, particularly those published in English, have followed the well-worn path focusing on crusading in the Middle East from the perspective of the Franks. A few books have approached the subject from a Muslim perspective: first and most popularly, by Amin Maalouf in The Crusade through Arab Eyes (New York, 1983), and then in a more comprehensive and scholarly way by Carole Hillenbrand in The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh, 2000). More recently, Paul Cobb has written a broad history of Muslim-Christian conflict in The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades (Oxford, 2014). Niall Christie's work builds on this tradition by offering a concise general history that is ideal for undergraduate courses.

Part of what makes Christie's book so useful is what he does not do. In contrast to most books (particularly those written from the perspective of the crusaders), his does not waste many words on the political and military events of the crusades and of the Frankish principalities. These have been narrated ad nauseam since the time of William of Tyre. Instead of yet another description of how the armies of the First Crusade crossed Europe and the Levant and of the battles they fought along the way, Christie provides a concise summary of the events of the period under discussion, and focuses instead on the significant historiographical issues at hand. For example, the third chapter on "The First Crusade and the Muslim Response, 1095-1146," devotes just two pages to a description of events in that period, and then moves on to think about and read the relevant Muslim sources, conceptions of the crusaders' motives, and jihad and counter-crusade. Brevity is Christie's academic superpower--the entire chapter is only eleven pages long.

The book contains nine chapters and a conclusion spread over 119 pages. Following an introduction, the second chapter gives a broad overview of the Islamic world before the crusades. The third chapter is discussed above (covering the First Crusade and the Muslim response), while the fourth chapter focuses on "Nur al-Din and Saladin, 1146-1174." The fifth chapter, "Victory and Stalemate, 1174-1193," covers the remainder of Saladin's career. The sixth chapter, "War and Peace in the Twelfth-Century Levant," steps away from the chronological perspective to address the question of relations between Muslims and Franks, showing the wide variety of interactions between them. The seventh chapter discusses "The Successors of Saladin, 1193-1249," which gives the readers a helpful exploration of the Ayyubids and their dynamic with the Franks. Chapter Eight turns to "The Mamluks, 1249-1382," and a final chapter surveys the broader impact of the crusades in both the medieval and modern periods.

In addition, the book provides a variety of useful addenda: a timeline, a Who's Who consisting of some forty-seven individuals from Shajar al-Durr to Usama ibn Laden [sic], a glossary of names and terms, a guide to Muslim nomenclature, marginal notes on definitions throughout the book, the ever essential maps, family trees, and best of all for teaching purposes, a handy collection of twenty-one translated Muslim sources in the appendix. Many of these are available elsewhere, but the book offers several that are difficult to find in translation or are otherwise unavailable. Particularly useful are the translation of al-Mas'udi on the Franks (Document #3), a selection of Arabic poetry written in reaction to the First Crusade (Document #5), Ibn al-Qaysarani and 'Imad al-Din al-Isfahani on Frankish women (Document #15), and Ibn Wasil and Sibt ibn al-Jawzi on the handover of Jerusalem to Frederick II (Document #16).

Christie takes a cautious approach to his topic; the book is not intended to advance any new arguments about the period. It instead provides a general overview of the scholarly debates for a reader with little background in the subject. The book does a better job of this for the twelfth century than the thirteenth. Chapter four on Nur al-Din and Saladin, for example, discusses Emmanuel Sivan's presentation of Nur al-Din as la plaque tournante, the pivot through whom jihad assumed a central importance in campaigns against the Franks, and draws on the work of Yasser Tabaa on among others on the architectural articulation. The chapter on the Mamluks, in contrast, gives less historiographical context. The book does offer some important lessons even to historians versed in the field. The first is the emphasis on analysis rather than on chronology. Not only does this make sense given the materials already available for the study of the crusades, but it also is a good model for medievalists broadly. While events and facts are important to teach students, in the end the skills that we most often are trying to impart are the ability to read sources critically and to analyze them. Christie's text gives student the model and the tools to do so.

It is perhaps ungenerous to criticize a book I have already praised for its brevity for what it fails to cover, but the only such lacuna I can really lament is the lack of focus on material culture. Christie's notes and references show that he is familiar with much of the secondary literature, particularly in reference to architecture, and he does discuss castle building and a few other material objects (a coin of Baybars, the Mamluk bridge at Lydda, Nur al-Din's minbar destined for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, all of which also admirably illustrated). But archaeology and art history form an essential part of our ability to understand the medieval Middle East, and in many ways show the complexity of Muslim-Christian exchange to its fullest. A (short) chapter on such material would add depth to the entire book, and such a chapter's discussion of “The Problem of the Sources” would be a particularly useful one for students.

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