Imagining defeat: An Arabic historiography of the crusades

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 Imagining defeat: An Arabic historiography of the crusades

By John M. Chamberlin V

Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2007

Abstract: This study tracks changing conceptions of the Crusades among Arab authors, from medieval through modern sources, examining how current emotionally charged interpretations of the Crusades came into the literature and how they came to resonate. This study shows that in medieval Arabic sources, the campaigns and settlement of the Christian Franks is not seen as a discrete event, and despite modern interpretations of a two-hundred year struggle between two sides, that the Franks are seen as just one more facet in the political scene of the era, often of less concern than “internal” enemies. The study then tracks the introduction of the concept of the Crusades as a discrete event into Arab historical writing in the mid-nineteenth century via Christian Arabs working from Western sources and its gradual inclusion in Muslim Arab historical thought. Finally, this study examines modern Arabic interpretations of the Crusades, colored by current experiences and nationalist and/or Muslim fundamentalist thought.

Introduction: One of the most common rhetorical strategies used by Islamic extremists to attack the West is to rally the “Arab street” against “the Crusaders.” Today’s Arab Muslims are still (or newly?) bitter about the Crusades, the reference to which makes them “relive the barbaric encounters of those times.” In just one recent example of extremist use of this rhetoric, the Zarqawi network’s statement on their 09 November 2005 attacks on Jordanian hotels announced their action as attacking “a back yard for the enemies of Islam, such as the Jews and Crusaders.”

The objective of this thesis is to find out why bitterness about the Crusades is a common theme among Arab Muslims today, whereas the primary sources from the time of the Crusades seem to show little evidence of this. Research shows that the identification of the European Christian warriors seeking to reclaim the Holy Land as “Crusaders” (salībiyyūn) does not appear in the primary literature of the time, which refers to the Western invaders consistently as “Franks” (faranj) and only obliquely references any religious motivation to their appearance in the Levant. Similarly, the well known feeling of “resentment over defeat” does not appear in the primary literature. This study traces how and when this cultural resentment came to be, and how it is articulated and transmitted.

Click here to read this thesis from the Naval Postgraduate School

See also our Feature on Crusades and Crusading

Sharan Newman