Amin Maalouf, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (London: Al Saqi Books, 1984).
Maalouf’s reconstruction of the Crusades (“Frankish invasions”) as seen by Arab historians and chroniclers is a fascinating and instructive narrative of that bitter conflict. He concludes his account with a reflective epilogue on the lasting impact of the Crusades on Arab culture and identity. Maalouf’s depiction is fluent and vivid, sensitive to the temper of the combatants and to the ironic details of the private lives behind the public facade. Unfortunately, his narration is rarely tainted by social and economic facts.
Few Arabs — Muslims and Christians — doubted that the European invaders were representatives of a radically inferior civilization, whether in the arts, medicine, morals or justice. Their judgement was historically true, despite the fact that by the time of the first crusade (1096-1100) Muslim-Arab civilization had begun its decline. The grandeur was still intact, but this brilliant civilization was riven by violent divisions and cultural apathy.
In the face of Western challenge, the Muslim princes pursued their petty and murderous rivalries, frequently in alliance with Western knights. But the success of the Crusaders was due also to their fanatical Christian zeal and their unrelenting ruthlessness in their encounter with the Muslims. In Arab memory, the mindless slaughter of nearly 10,000 Muslims of Ma’arra and the subsequent cannibalism of the Western soldiers, in 1098 still figures as eloquent evidence of the innate savagery and true spirit of the Christian West. Muslim princes were not averse to shedding blood unnecessarily, but there was no prince in the ranks of the Crusaders with the generosity and human decency of Saladin, not even the legendary Richard the Lionheart.
Maalouf’s literary narrative is laced with judgements and insights which have more than an incidental bearing on the current predicaments of the Muslim-Arab world and its relationship with the West.