By Paul M. Cobb
Crusades, Vol. 6 (2007)
Introduction: Few works of medieval Arabic literature are as valuable to the student of Islamic perspectives on the Crusades as the Kitab al-I’tibar or Book of Learning by Example by the Syrian warrior and man-of-letters Usama ibn Munqidh (1095–1188). The work was intended to provide, as its title suggests, lessons based upon real-life experiences that demonstrate the inevitability of God’s will. Happily, most of those lessons are drawn from its author Usama’s own life. So frank a portrait of Usama’s world and his world-view does the Book of Learning permit us that the work is almost universally, though erroneously, called his “memoirs,” most notably in the title of its well-known English translation by Philip Hitti, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. The text is famously filled with the minutiae of daily life at Usama’s family home of Shayzar in northern Syria, and in the various courts and royal patrons with whom Usama consorted after his exile from Shayzar in 1138, including the Fatimids of Egypt, the atabeg Zangi of Mosul and Aleppo, his son Nur al-Din, and even the near-legendary Saladin, under whom Usama completed the Book of Learning and many other works besides. And, in addition to the details of daily life, The Book of Learning is filled with its author’s thoughts, hopes, and fears. Few medieval Muslim minds are as open to us as Usama’s, even if they are mediated through his desire to provide instructive lessons and to tell a good story.