The selection from Usama Ibn Munqidh’s Kitab al-l’tibar otherwise know in English as the Book of Contemplation is a book in which Usama provides a series of short vignettes as a testimony to his experiences in the medieval Middle East and the Crusades. Through his writings the reader is able to get a Muslim account of the Crusades. It is largely a personal account so many details are left out and much background knowledge is assumed. It also is not the most unbiased source as supported by Usama’s frequent utterence that “Allah render them [The crusading Christians] helpless” (Ibn Munqidh 197) Usama also makes no attempt at analysis or understanding and just writes exactly what he observed without asking questions or delving deeper into the myriad differences he discribes. On a whole though it provides a great overview of the experience of many Muslims (especially the upper class, of which Usama was a part of) during this unstable period of invasion and political fragmentation in the Islamic world.
Usama’s account is not a straight forward narrative; instead he narrates brief events in his life usually in order to extol a certain virtue or to prove a point (this type of Arabic literature is referred to as adab) (Cobb xxxi). It also must be said that this book was not intended by Usama to be read as history textbook or as an autobiography; in fact as Paul Cobb explains in his introduction to his translation of this work that Usama intends “God [as] the hero”, Usama is not the focus of the work, instead he acts just a witness to God’s work. This fact goes far to explain much of the language and structure of the “memoir”. It’s important to keep this fact in mind.
This particular excerpt focuses mainly on the interaction between Muslims and the “Franks” (a blanket term Usama uses for all of the crusading European Christians, most of whom came from what is now know as France (Egger 174)) and on the differences between the two, it also provides insight into the divisions between Muslims themselves (an oftrepeated mistake is to consider all Muslims as one single group) as show by his description of the Ismaili Shi’ites as “the enemy” (Ibn Munqidh 203).
Usama begins by describing the “strange” behavior of the Franks. He is surprised and confused by the elevation of courage and strength as premier virtues in the Christian mind and he sees an invitation for his son to visit Europe as being worse than being taken prisoner of war (Ibn Munqidh 185). This observation sets up the basic world view difference: Muslims valued justice and fairness while the Christians of this time valued power and respect. Chivalry was not a Muslim virtue; instead the idea of Futuwwa reigned. This system, though similar to the western notion of chivalry has its differences. Muslims and Christians also differed in their views on modesty in sexual affairs differed as well (Ibn Munqidh 189-191). Also, many religious practices seemed strange to Usama as he details events in...