Usama ibn Munqidh, Excerpts from The Book of Contemplation (12th c.)

Usama ibn Munqidh (1095-1188) was an Arab scholar and diplomat from Syria who traveled extensively throughout north Africa and western Asia during the era of the First Crusade. His “Book of Contemplation” contains numerous accounts of his observations of and interactions with Catholic Knights (whom he terms “Franks”). His reflections reveal that relations between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades were complex, and could be quite friendly even in the midst of ongoing holy wars.

The ‘Wonders’ of the Frankish Race

Glory be to the Creator, the Maker! Indeed, when a person relates matters concerning the Franks, he should give glory to God and sanctify Him! For he wills them to be mere beasts possessing no other virtues by courage and fighting, just as beasts have only virtues of strength and the ability to carry loads. I shall now relate something of their ways and the wonders of their intelligence.

The Franks’ Lack of Intelligence: An Invitation to Visit Europe

In the army of King Fulk, son of Fulk, there was a respected Frankish knight who had come from their country just to go on pilrimage and then return home. He grew to like my company and he became my constant companion, calling me ‘my brother.’ Between us there were ties of amiability and sociability. When he resolved to take to the sea back to his country, he said to me:

    ‘My brother, I am leaving for my country. I want you to send your son (my son, who was with me, was fourteen years old) with me to my country, where he can observe the knights and acquire reason and chivalry. When he returns, he will be like a truly rational man.’

    And so there fell upon my ears words that would never come from a truly rational head! For even if my son were taken captive, his captivity would not be as long as any voyage he might take to the land of the Franks.

    So I said, ‘By your life, I was hoping for this very thing. But the only thing that has prevented me from doing so is the fact that his grandmother adores him and almost did not allow hime to here with me until she had exacted an oath from me that I would return him to her.’

    ‘Your mother,’ he asked, ‘she is still alive?’

    ‘Yes,” I replied.

    ‘Then do not disobey her,’ he said.


Newly Arrived Franks are the Roughest

Anyone who is recently arrived from the Frankish lands in rougher in character than those who have become acclimated and have frequented the company of Muslims. Here is an instance of their rough character (may God abominate them!):

    Whenever I went to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, I would go in and make my way up to the al-Aqsa Mosque, beside which stood a mall mosque that the Franks had converted into a church. When I went into the al-Aqsa Mosque, where the Templars, who are my friends, were-- they would clear out that little mosque so I could pray in it. One day, I went into the little mosque, recited the opeing formula ‘God is great!’ and stood up in prayer. At this, one of the Franks rushed at me and grabbed me and turned my face towards the east, saying, ‘Pray like this!’

    A group of Templars hurried towards him, took hold of the Frank and took him away from me. I then returned to my prayers. The Frank, that very same one, took advantage of their inattention and returned, rushing upon me and turning my face to the east, saying, ‘Pray like this!’

    So the Templars came in again, grabbed him and threw him out. They apologized to me, saying, ‘This man is a stranger, just arrived from the Frankish lands sometime in the past few days. He has never before seen anyone who did not pray towards the east.’

    ‘I think I’ve prayed quite enough,’ I said and left. I used to marvel at that devil, the change of his expression, the way he trembled and what he must have made of seeing someone praying towards Mecca.”


Franks that are Acclimatized are Better

Among the Franks there are some who have become acclimatized and frequent the company of Muslims. They are much better than those recently arrived from their lands, but they are the exception and should not be considered representative.

    Here is an example. I sent one of my men to Antioch on an errand. At the time, Chief Tadrus ibn al-Saffi was there, and his word had great influence in Antioch; there was a mutual bond of friendship between us. One say he said to my man, ‘A Frankish friend of mine has invited me to his home. You should come along so you can observe their ways.’ My man told me:

I went along with him and we came to the home of one of the old knights who came in one of the first expeditions of the Franks. He was since removed from the stipend-registry and dismissed from service, but he had some property in Antioch off which he lived. He presented a very fine table, with food that was extremely clean and delicious. But seeing me holding back from eating, he said, ‘Eat and be of good cheer! For I don’t eat Frankish food: I have Egyptian cooking-women and never eat anything except what they cook. And pork never enters my house.’ So I ate, though guardedly, and we left.

    After passing through the market, a Frankish woman suddenly hung onto me while babbling at me in their language-- I didn’t understand what she was saying. Then a group of Franks began to gather around me and I was certain that I was going to perish. But suddenly, who should turn up but that knight, who saw me and approached. He came and said to that woman, “What’s the matter with you and this Muslim?’

    ‘This man killed my brother ‘Urs.’ This ‘Urs was a knight in Apamea whom someone from the army of Hama had killed.

    The knight shouted at her and said, ‘This man is a bourgeois (i.e., a merchant), who neither fights nor attends battle.’ And he yelled at the assembled crowd and they dispersed. He then took me by the hand and went away. Thus, the effect of that meal was my deliverance from death.

Source: Usama ibn Munqidh, The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades, translated by Paul M. Cobb, Penguin Classics, 2008, pp. 144, 147, 153-154.