Infidel Dogs: Hunting Crusaders with Usama ibn Munqidh

Infidel Dogs: Hunting Crusaders with Usama ibn Munqidh

By Paul Cobb

Crusades, Vol.6 (2007)

Battle between the Turks and the Crusaders  - The Hague, KB, KA 20 fol. 254v

Abstract: Though it has been noted before that the Syrian warrior-poet Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188) was reluctant to use the language of jihad to describe his own battles with the Franks, no convincing explanation has yet been adduced for this feature of his writings. This paper argues (among other things) that the discourse of hunting was far more useful to Usama in describing his confrontations with bestial Franks than was the religiously-elevated language of jihad.

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.

But for all that the Book of Learning contains, it is strangely lacking in the one thing that a document of Muslim mentalities from the age of the Crusades would be expected to contain: holy war. The word jihad itself occurs but once in the Book of Learning, and the participle derived from it, mujahid (one who fights in holy war), also only once. Usama also presents various Prophetic traditions (sing. hadith) about jihad in the section on courage in his manual of ideal conduct, his Lubabal-Adab or Kernels of Refinement. And both there and in the Book of Learning he refers on occasion euphemistically to holy war as fighting “in the path of God” (fi sabil allah). But if this sparse evidence certainly shows that Usama was no stranger to the concept of holy war (one could hardly assume otherwise), it underscores the fact that in his own descriptions of his own fighting, he never once uses the term, and otherwise utterly shuns the discourse of holy war. This tendency is striking given the fact that Usama lived and wrote in an atmosphere that is supposed to have seen the florescence of a revived understanding of the concept of jihad, an understanding fostered and manipulated by the leaders of the counter-crusade: Zangi, Nur al-Din, and Saladin. The low incidence of  jihad in Usama’s writings is doubly striking when were call that it was under precisely these three almost totemic patrons of jihad – what P. M. Holt has called the counter-crusade’s “apostolic succession” – that Usama served and worked both as warrior and as a courtier. Usama, the most famous “gentleman and warrior in the period of the Crusades,”servant of the most famous Muslim holy warriors, seems not to have paid much attention to the counter-crusade. How can we account for this?

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