Friday, December 18, 2009

Favorite book of 2009:
Crusaders impinge (a little); Mongols much more


Ruins of Crusader castle, Byblos, modern Lebanon

For the last ten years of her life, my mother had sitting on her reading table a little book entitled The Crusades through Arab Eyes. I don't know if she ever read it, though she might have. It simply sat there for years; I too thought I might get around to it, but I didn't. When I cleaned out her place, I let it go along with hundreds of other books. I somewhat regret that now.

In Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary explains just what a minor episode the Crusades were for contemporaries in the Middle World who didn't have the misfortune to encounter the Crusaders. After all, the Mediterranean coast was just the far western fringe, a troubled frontier area. He reports on contemporary accounts.

No one seemed to cast the wars as an epic struggle between Islam and Christendom -- that was the story line the Crusaders saw. Instead of a clash between two civilizations, Muslims saw simply a calamity falling upon ... civilization [itself]. For one thing, when they looked at the Franj [Franks, modern French], they saw no evidence of civilization. An Arab prince named Usamah ibn Munqidh described the Franks as being like 'beasts, superior in courage and fighting ardor, but nothing else ..."

...In areas under attack, Muslims did, of course, feel threatened by the Franj, even horrified by them [Crusaders really did boil and eat captives!], but they didn't see in these attacks any intellectual challenge to their ideas and beliefs. ...

What's more, the Crusades stimulated no particular curiosity in the Muslim world about Western Europe ...the Crusades brought virtually no European cultural viruses into the Islamic world.

From the point of view of the Middle World, the real horror of the period was the Mongol invasion from the Central Asian plains. Military chieftains known in the West as Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane swept through the community's heartland, butchering and destroying rather than holding and exploiting. Ansary dates the development of a strain of Islam that demands aggressive purity from the religion's adherents and endorses jihad against other Muslims with whom one has doctrinal disagreements to the Mongol invasion crisis. Religious scholars of that time, trying to explain how barbarians could conquer the land of the faithful even if only briefly, were the intellectual ancestors of today's Saudi Wahabism and al Qaeda terrorists.

Then as now, an aggressive fundamentalism developed as a response to fear of annihilation. That's worth contemplating in all contemporary worlds -- European, Middle and Asian -- in these times of loose nukes, rapid cultural commodification, and impending climate catastrophe. Can we buck that human response to kill one another when facing real, legitimate fears?

This is the second of three consecutive posts about my favorite read of 2009.

1 comment:

Kay Dennison said...

Interesting post!!!! I don't think most people understand history which is why we are doomed to repeat it.

In answer to your question, Oscar Wilde said, "Man is a rational animal who always loses his temper when called upon to act in accordance with the dictates of reason." and Bertrand Russell said, "It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this."

These two fine minds said it better than I can.

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