125 of 135 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2000
What can one say about a book that has the chief fault of leaving one wanting more? The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (hereafter, "Arab Eyes") is a beautifully composed book that draws almost exclusively from Arabic primary sources to tell the tale of the Western conquest, 1100-1300 AD. Unfortunately, whenever Maalouf isn't talking about military or political intrigue, he seems to loose interest. The book raises many fascinating topics -- the influence of Arab society on the Holy Roman Empire, the rise of a slave class to become the masters of all Islam -- without going into detail on any of them.
The first encounter between Muslim and Crusader is told from the perspective of Kilij Arslan, a seventeen-year-old sultan who would go on to become a legendary name in the struggle of the Islamic people. The "Franj", as the invaders were called, were pouring into his country by the tens of thousands. A skilled military leader, Arslan carefully withdrew his forces into a defensive position, only to be startled by his first glimpse of this "army": ragged, untrained peasants with strips of cloth pinned to their tunics in the shape of the cross. Reluctantly forced into battle, Arslan easily smashed the Crusader legion into bits, considering the matter settled. He had no way of knowing that what he had seen was only the rumor of war, not the war itself.
What may be most surprising to Western readers, such as myself, was that the majority of the Islamic struggle during the Crusader period, 1100-1300 AD, was not against Europeans, but against other Muslim leaders. The "empire" of Islam was sharply divided, and the question of rule was always at issue. In fact, many great Islamic kingdoms actually _joined with the Crusaders_ to gain rivals' territories.
This is one of the many intriguing topics that Maalouf does not deem worth going into. In fact, he saves direct analysis of this for his epilogue, writing:
"Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch, and every transmission of power provoked civil war. Does full responsibility for this lie with the successive invasions, which constantly imperilled the very existence of these states?... Such a complex question cannot be dealt with in this brief epiloue. But let us at least note that in the Arab world the question is still on the agenda."
As noted above, this is just one of many fascinating questions the book raises without answering. Students of Western history may be surprised to learn that the Florentine renaissance may have been the outgrowth of the Syrian renaissance that began with a bloody revolution led by a former slave. That a major Holy Roman Emperor favored Islam in every respect was certainly news to me.
Maalouf's book isn't necessarily a place to find the answers to questions you may have about the evolution of world history during the period of the Crusades. Instead, it's a wonderful jumping off point, a brilliantly-organized work that suggests questions so that you may find their resolution elsewhere. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
100 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2001
A friend loaned me this book years ago, but for whatever reason I didn't get around to it until recently. I finally picked it up the other day, partly for the obvious motivation of gaining a better understanding of Islamic cultures. It's a riveting book, and an authentic learning experience. The subject is pretty much spelled out by the title: Maalouf draws on various writings by Arab historians and diarists from the time of the Crusades and shortly thereafter -- from 1096 to 1291 (AD) -- to re-tell that story from their point of view. It's a tribute to Maalouf's skill that the resulting, novel-like narrative is so crisp and engaging, and the details are often astonishing and unforgettable. (On occasion there are too many names to keep track of on a given page, but that happens only rarely.) Maybe it's not surprising that the Arab perspective on the Crusades would paint that exercise as a barbaric invasion, but the book (written in the 1980s) is evenhanded, not an anti-Western polemic. We learn about barbarity, and duplicity, on all sides. We also learn how often one side's victory was really the result of internecine squabbling among its foes. Plus, there is illumination of the jihad idea; an examination of the birth and actions of the Assassins sect; interesting anecdotes about the relationship between religion and regional power, and much else that resonate with current Middle East politics. Finally, the book's brief but very sharp epilogue examines how the Crusades may have affected Islamic attitudes toward the Western vision of modernity. For understanding that reaches deeper than many more-current titles on the Middle East and Islam, this is an excellent place to begin. Very readable, and even more informative.
235 of 266 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2001
This is really a terrific idea. Before this book, you probably would have needed to be a graduate student in history before you even realized that the Arab point of view of the Crusades had ever even been recorded, let alone preserved. This book strikes a beautiful balance between being a purely popular edition, and being something that people who study stuff like this for a living might read... It's the kind of book that Barbara Tuchman might have been proud to write.
Amin Maalouf specifically disavows any intention to write a "history book" in his preface. His background is in journalism, and sure enough, he shows evidence of a journalist's ear and eye for the great story... for the gripping and/or galvanizing detail... for the telling gesture that provides the key to a character's persona. Furthermore, he makes it plain that he is not out to write a balanced account, any more than Western authors have historically been interested in providing balanced accounts of the Crusades. This really is presented from the Arab point of view... That said, it might be worth balancing your reading of this book with a concurrent reading of a western account, or you might get a little lost. It isn't easy to read a long book with so few familiar points of reference. Admit it -- unless you are a major history buff, you probably don't know much about this period even from the Western point of view! I think especially as Americans, there is a tendency to feel that this period in history is not very relevant to our country's history. After all, the events of this book took place long before nationalism, before (clearly) freedom of religion or of speech, mostly even before the Magna Carta was a glimmer in anyone's eye. It's hard for us Americans to really relate to this period -- our whole country was essentially created in reaction to it! In a funny way, this book fits in well with that feeling of being alienated -- Europeans of the time of the Crusades were every bit as alien to us, in terms of their mindset, as they would have been to the Muslims of that time.
Let me offer a few thoughts. The whole text is sprinkled throughout with Arabic terms, which are helpfully explained in a glossary at the end. The glossary is only 2 or 3 pages long. You should xerox it, and keep the xerox handy while you're reading, or you might go mad from turning back and forth to the end of the book all the time. Also -- there ARE maps in this book. They aren't mentioned in the table of contents, and they're sort of tucked away obscurely, but they are in there. There's a fairly localized map of the eastern shores of the Mediterranean at the very beginning of the book, and a larger-scale map of the Islamic world in general, tucked in at the book's end... Also, don't miss Maalouf's great epilogue, where he tries to place the Crusades in context, in terms of their impact on Europe, and on the Islamic world.
If you like this book, look for Bernard Lewis' "The Political Language of Islam," which helps us understand the background of various specific Arabic terms that we hear every day on the news. Also, anything written by Edward Said will serve you in good stead. In closing, whoever reads this, remember that the Hebrew term "shalom" and the Arabic "Islam" were originally the same, perfectly well-meaning word! Anyway, this book is great. Two thumbs up.
48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2002
Though I enjoy reading history, the crusades had never generated much interest. With the events of the past six months as background, the intriguing title of Amin Maalouf's book "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" was enough to compel me to read it. This small book doesn't purport to be a thorough history of this period, though it has ten pages of sources. But it is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and one I can recommend for anyone with an interest in that period of history or of the Mid-East in particular.
Though supposedly propelled by religious fervor to reclaim the holy land from the Muslims, the Europeans often exhibited a ferocity and barbarous nature that seemed contrary to the teachings of Christ. Maalouf takes pains to document from Western sources specific actions, such as putting whole populations to the sword and cannibalism. Against this purposeful force, the various Arab powers presented a fragmented and often bewildered front.
The infighting and intrigue within the various Arab kingdoms precluded effective leadership to develop against the foreigners for more than a hundred years. It was fascinating to read about the many alliances between the Westerners and the various Arab leaders as each strived to attain or retain power in their respective areas. I had not realized the "Mongol Scourge" had been pressuring the Arab powers during their struggle with the Westerners.
Toward the end of the book, Maalouf points out how events occurring during this period still reverberate in the Mid East and have significance for the Arab world today that it does not in the West. While the West began to develop, the East began its slide into isolation and suspicion of foreigners and foreign culture. For example, it was fascinating to read about the emergence of the Assassins and the role they played during this period and to note the similarity of their philosophy and actions to some of today's Mid East terrorists.
The one area where the book was disappointing was the pathetic lack of maps. The two maps were appallingly incomplete and as my frustration mounted I tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to find locations in atlases or on the web. Place names change. I finally printed out copies of maps I found on the net of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, but I shouldn't have had to.
30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
The Crusades, to the Muslim world, were not as defining or as monumental in importance as they were to the Europeans ("Franj"), as Maalouf clearly illustrates in his masterful _The Crusades Through Arab Eyes_". They were, however, an interesting juxtaposition between Islamic East and Christian West. It is precisely these differences that make this such a compelling read.
To Westerners, images of the Crusades typially evoke "vailiant" knights struggling to free Jerusalem. As Maalouf vividly illustrates, these images are not only inaccurate, but unfair to those the Europeans sought to "liberate." I regret that more detail was not provided regarding the "Islamicisation" of the Europeans during their occupation, but the book is Arab-oriented.
Another difficulty I had in reading the book was the lack of maps; while I have a passing familiarity with the general geography, many of the events related would have been clearer had there been some clear reference.
In the final analysis, it is certainly a worthwhile read for those interested in the time period, and as a great way of "getting one's feet wet" regarding the history of East-West relations in the Near East.
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 2005
A previous reviewer mentions that A Maalouf failed to record certain historical events and that he had read a great deal on the crusades and thus found this a poor read.
I wounder if the reviewer had read the Kamil fi-Tariq by ibn al-Athir which is what a large part of the crusades through Arab eyes is based upon. Amin Maalouf has used Arabic sources and that is the supreme value of the book. While we in the west have read of the history of the crusades from the viewpoint of western sources (be they Latin, Greek etc) Amin Maalouf is basing his almost entirely upon Arabic ones. While the reader may complain that this is an unballanced method the same could be said for 95% of the literature available to us in the English language with regards to the crusades seeing as it is doubtful that an English writer on the crusades would have bothered to read the works of ibn al-Athir, ibn Khalikan or others; rather this book seeks to balance out our knowledge of the crusades with Arabic sources to counterweight those we already have.
Therefore certain points of history while of great importance to the west may have been of little significance to the Arabs. In order to read this book we first need to put aside our Euro centric viewpoint of the world which sees world events only in their level of significance to the west in order to appreciate the value of this work.
It is fairly short, thus only covers major events but does cover some of the events most significant to Arab or Muslim readers (The conquest of Anatolia by the Turks and some of the bloody battles that took place there) the first encounters with the crusaders in Palestine, the loss of Jerusalem and it's recapture and while praising Saladin also points out some of his faults)
This excellent book is well worth a read for anyone wishing to have a balanced knowledge of the crusades from both sides, western and eastern.
21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was motivated to read this book after seeing the movie "Kingdom of Heaven" and becoming curious about the Crusades from the "other side's" point of view. This book delivers the desired content in such a well-documented, clear, and well-written manner that it reads like a historical thriller, while deriving its authenticity and accuracy by leaning heavily on source material from chroniclers who were writing at the time of these events. The background information about Muslim and Arab culture, religion, and history is sorely lacking in the American educational system, and should be mandatory reading for anyone seeking to be informed about the current state of our relations with the Middle East.
I found this book moving, informative, and constantly surprising. I have already personally recommended it to a number of people of Christian, Muslim, and other faiths. It would also make an excellent discussion book for a book club, as well as a springboard for further, in-depth study.
I cannot recommend this book too highly!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2006
As a former history major and teacher I am very familiar with the history of the Crusades from the Western point of view. They have been portrayed in literature, movies, and history. They have been glamorized and vilified by Westerners for centuries. Reading Amin Maalouf's rendering of this familiar story from the view-point of Arab chroniclers was like looking through Alice's looking glass at a world that is backwards from the one we know. Here we don't have just Crusaders, advernturers, or even the evil conquerors that deconstructionists portray, but invaders, barbarians, and enemies of God Himself.
This book is a must read for everyone who is concerned about events in the Middle East today. It sheds light on a crucial time in history that affects the psyche of Muslims who are living right now. Especially helpful is the epilogue in which Maalouf explains how the collective memory of the Crusades colors the way many Middle-easterners see the West. It is not riveting, but very readable considering it is a translation. I enjoyed it and learned a lot.
103 of 135 people found the following review helpful
Several years ago, at a Middle East symposium on a local college campus, I heard a Palestinian speaker compare the coming of the Israelis to the Crusades. That took me aback, because the Jews were slaughtered by the Crusaders. To this day, Jews remember the Crusaders as persecutors. Why then, I wondered, would this Palestinian speaker equate Israelis with the Crusaders? I found the answer in this book: He did not see Israelis as Jews, he saw them as invading Europeans.
In European Christian folklore, the Crusaders are portrayed as pious knights-in-shining-armor, selflessly marching off to rescue the Holy Land from the "infidels." But to the Arabs and Jews who lived in the Middle East, the Crusaders, or "Franks" as they called themselves back in the 11th century, were ruthless barbarians who raped, pillaged, and murdered entire populations as they marched across the land like a hoard of devouring locusts. Even more horrifying, the Crusaders sometimes roasted and ate the bodies of their enemies. (Both sides recorded this. See chapter 3, "The Cannibals of Ma-arra.")
Although this book focuses on the Arab viewpoint, it does give brief accounts of what happened to the Jewish communities also. Some readers may be surprised to learn that there were Jews living in Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern cities in the eleventh century. It is a commonly held misconception that there were no Jews in the Holy Land between the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. In reality, the only time that Jerusalem was ever "Jew-free" was during the Crusades, when the "good Christians" slaughtered them along with the Muslim population.
The horrors of the Frankish invasions known as "Crusades" live on in the Arab collective memory, and this explains why any kind of Western presence in the Middle East is resented by the Arab world today. It also explains why the Muslim community was so deeply offended when President Bush referred to his war on terrorism as a "crusade." Believe me, this book will forever change the way you hear that word.
43 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 1997
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book, while a novel, gives invaluable insights into what really might have happened during the Crusades. Malouf presents us with the fact that the Crusades were more about money than they were about God. In what is sometimes a gruesome account, he reveals that the crusaders killed not only Muslims but Jews and Christians of the Oriental denominations. Equally interesting is his unwillingness to let Muslims off the hook. He depicts them as fighting amongst themselves, unable to unite and facing the twilight of their great civilization just as the western star began to rise. In sum, for those who think that the Crusades were about a civilized Christian army beating back a barbarian horde, reading this book will offer you the notion that it was a civilized Muslim world sinking into decay whose contact with the Franks unified them to fight against an unprovoked attempt to colonize in the name of God but in reality for gold.