The Genius of Arab Civilization
Francis Robinson reviews three books on the Arabs and the Crusades.
The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, edited by John R. Hayes. 260 pp. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, hardback £32, paperback £20, student ed. £9.95)
Arab Historians of the Crusades, selected and translated by Francesco Gabrieli. 362 pp. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, paperback £6.95)
The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by Amin Maalouf. 293 pp. (Al Saqi Books, £6.95)
'Regard the Franj!' Saladin said of the Crusaders, 'behold with what obstinacy they fight for their religion, while we, the Muslims, show no enthusiasm for waging holy war.' Such words give us pause for thought: Muslims once regarded us as we now regard so many of them. They remind us that there was once a time when the West knocked on the doors of a Muslim Middle East which knew that it was the superior civilisation. They remind us, too, of what we can learn from seeing history from the other side, that is not just through the records of our own civilisation but also from the records of those who have gazed in upon our progress from outside.
The richness, the sophistication, the intellectual achievement of the Arab-Islamic civilisation, which the European Christians began to assault from the eleventh century, is revealed in The Genius of Arab Civilization. This aims to explore the achievement of classical Arab civilisation, to draw attention to its contributions to the civilisations of both East and West, and in particular to illustrate its role as a 'link between the Hellenic and Hellenistic past and the Renaissance future'. Eleven sumptuously illustrated essays by leading scholars, most of whom are Arabs, cover subjects ranging from literature to life sciences, from mechanical technology to architecture and art. The first edition of this book, which was published in 1975, sold 15,000 copies. This new edition is enlarged to give coverage to new subjects, for instance, Arab music. Published, moreover, both in a paperbound and in an even cheaper student edition it is worth considering as a course book.
The record has a strong sense of immediacy. Reports of incidents at Sidon or Beirut would not seem out of place on the nine o’clock news. Colourful images abound; along the line of the Crusaders’ flight after their unsuccessful siege of Damascus in 1148 the bodies stank so strongly ‘that the birds almost fell out of the sky.’ Then, several lively passages are included from the autobiography of that most intelligent Syrian man of the world, Usama. He reflects on how some of the Franks have ‘gone native’; he worries for a moment because Christians seem more devout than Muslims; he tells the tale of how a Frankish knight asked a male bath attendant to shave his pubic hair and then, wonder of wonder, that of his wife.
There is much information. Arab armies use carrier pigeons. A cultivated man posted from Syria to Egypt took with him a library of 4,000 books. As for the great men, we have a rounded picture of Saladin, who was seen, even by historians opposed to him, to have been a remarkable man. While Richard I of England bulked almost as large in the Muslim mind as Saladin did in that of the Christians, is it unlikely that Muslims will ever give his name to a make of armoured car as the British gave that of the great Emir to one of theirs.
The strongest impression is one of Muslim scorn for an inferior and misguided people. The writers have little if any curiosity about the Frankish world; they know they have nothing important to learn from it. Theirs is the right path, the path of human progress. They are content with their caricature of Christian beliefs which is as distorted as the caricature of Islamic beliefs which today much of the West remains happy to cherish.
It is good news that this collection, which was first published in Italy in 1957 and first translated into English in 1969, is now available in paperback. New materials which will bring new insights and balance to the work of those doing, say, a special project on the Crusades are more readily available. Now, teachers who wish to introduce pupils to other world views, who wish to suggest that the story of the Crusades might be just as much about resistance to 'Christian swine', as it was about conquering 'Saracen dogs', have a most accessible source.
In The Crusades through Arab Eyes a Lebanese journalist uses these same Arab historians to tell of their impact in connected prose and to remind the West of how their memory still lives in Muslim consciousness. It is an important reminder but the Arab historians of old make better reading.
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