Waseda Institute for Advanced Study (WIAS)Waseda University


The Islamic Historiography of the Crusades MALLETT, Alexander, Assistant Professor

Examining the History of the Crusades from the Islamic Perspective

My main research area is medieval Islamic history, and specifically encounters between Christians and Muslims in the Near and Middle East. I focus particularly on the period of the Crusades (1095-1291).

The Crusades were a series of military expeditions sent from Western Europe to the “Holy Land”, the area of the Near East around Jerusalem. Pope UrbanⅡasked the knights of Europe to go and capture Jerusalem from the Muslims; as a result, a large number of people, from nobles and knights to peasants, left their homelands and marched east. The First Crusade (1096-1099) captured Jerusalem, and four Latin (Western European) states, sometimes known as crusader states, were founded in the eastern Mediterranean. The result of this was 200 years of Latin European rule in the region. Over the course of this period, the policies of the Muslim states in response to the Crusades and the presence of the Franks (the Western Europeans) shifted between peace and war.

The crusading period is one of the most significant in the history of relations between the West and the Islamic world. The Crusades as a field of study can be split between medieval Latin Europe and the medieval Islamic world, yet when I was researching my Ph.D. thesis, it became clear that there were few Arabic sources that have been translated, despite the fact that Arabic, along with Latin, is one of the main languages in which evidence for the history of the crusading period is written. Furthermore, studies on the Crusades employing Arabic source material are rare.

As such, I became interested in examining the history of the Crusades from the Islamic perspective. The main theme of my research is cross-cultural perceptions and relations, and I am particularly concerned with Muslim responses to the Crusades and the Franks.

My research has two main strands. The first is the study of subaltern (here essentially meaning non-elite) Muslims under Latin Christian rule. One of my earlier projects explored popular Muslim reactions to the crusaders in the Levant. This perspective was unique because previously scholars had only examined the political and religious elites.

The Function of Islamic Historiography

As my second research strand, I focus on historiography, to which my research project here at WIAS belongs. Historiography is the study of the writing of history and of written histories (Oxford Dictionary of English). In other words, it is a field of historical research studying how historians in the past wrote and why. My project aims to explore how one medieval Muslim writer presented the Crusades in his Arabic historical chronicle.

Most of the medieval historical works that historians today employ as the sources for our historical research are in the form of chronicles, and one of the main approaches to these materials within the field of historiography is to deconstruct them. Often, this involves examining the life of the author of a specific text, followed by looking at which parts he chose to include from the sources he used and what he ignored, and then consider what motives may have caused the decisions he took. Examining this subject is to study the issue of authorial agency.

Through the study of historiography, two principal aspects of historical research may be better understood. First, if we get an idea of how the author manipulated the sources he used in his own writing, we can get a better understanding of what actually happened at the time he was writing about. Second, since it was usually the political, social and religious circumstances during his lifetime that dictated how he manipulated his sources, we obtain a better idea of such circumstances during the life of the author as a result.

Al-Maqrizi’s Chronicle al-Suluk

The Arabic chronicle I will examine in my project is called al-Suluk, and it was composed by the Egyptian writer al-Maqrizi during the Mamluk period (1250-1517). This chronicle covers the entire period of Ayyubid rule (1171-1250) and part of the subsequent Mamluk era, which included the life of the author, who died in 1442. My research here will focus on the Ayyubid period. (Later parts of al-Suluk are to be examined by other scholars.)

The Ayyubid dynasty was founded by the famous Muslim ruler Saladin and had its base in Egypt. The dynasty ruled a large part of the Middle East. The Ayyubid period was one of the most eventful in medieval Middle Eastern history: Saladin’s campaign in 1187 destroyed most of the crusader states, in response to which the Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Crusades were sent from Europe. Between these Crusades, the Saladin’s successors favoured peace over war, and there were truces between the Muslims and the Europeans. Later, in the second half of the thirteenth century, the Mongol invasions helped bring about the fall of the Ayyubids, while their successors, the Mamluks, completely destroyed the crusader states in 1291.

Figure 1: Picture of Saladin by Ismail al-Jazairi, from c. 1185 (public domain)

Al-Maqrizi was a high-ranking bureaucrat, an inspector of the Cairo markets, and, at the peak of his career, a member of the sultan’s personal retinue. As such, he would have had access to state documents and the people in power, which means he could use such connections to find information and source material for his writings. He was also a preacher in various mosques in Cairo. After he gave up his governmental positions, he devoted himself to writing, composing over 20 large texts. He is considered one of the most significant writers of medieval Islam.

Figure 2: An Egyptian postal stamp from 1965 that shows al-Maqrizi (public domain)

The importance of al-Suluk is mainly due to the following two points. First, it contains verbatim quotes from earlier sources which are now lost; consequently, we can indirectly access these sources through it. Second, it also contains quotes from extant sources, which helps us understand the historical methodology al-Maqrizi used through a comparison of what he says in his chronicle with these extant sources.

Project Methodology

The project’s methodology has three main aspects: an edition of the text, a translation into English, and a historical commentary.

The purpose of the edition is to reconstruct the text as closely as possible to the author’s original. In medieval times, people wrote a text by hand, and if someone wanted a copy of it, it was also copied by hand. As the original text was copied many times, mistakes would have crept in; as such, all the extant manuscripts need to be gathered and compared to allow us to see which is most likely to be the original or closest to the original. For al-Suluk, there are 11 manuscripts available.

Figure 3: Front page from one manuscript of al-Suluk, from the Suleymaniyye library in Istanbul (copyright Suleymaniyye library)

Within the edition, in addition to the main text, I will include detailed critical apparatus (i.e. footnotes) showing where the other manuscripts are different from the original one, which will help readers recognize other possible readings. The critical apparatus will also note where al-Maqrizi copied from other earlier texts so readers can understand the way he produced his text and consequently his historical methodology.

In the historical commentary, I will describe what the chronicle reports, and particularly what we can learn about that period through the text. Also, I comment on what we can understand concerning the later Mamluk society, when the chronicle was written. This means that, by examining the text, we can develop some understanding of how factors such as the politics, society, and religions at the time influenced how he wrote his text.

Outcomes of the Project

I expect this project to have significance in both academia and non-academia.

Within academia, firstly, the edition should be a yardstick for future editions of Arabic texts by adopting a much more rigorous approach than is often used. Secondly, it would further understanding of Ayyubid history, the Crusades, and interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims in the medieval period. Thirdly, it would further understanding of historiographical methodology during the Mamluk era, when al-Maqrizi was writing.

For outside of academia more widely, understanding how al-Maqrizi wrote and navigated political circumstances should help increase understanding of how writers in general navigate political circumstances. Also, the project will increase understanding of how Muslims react to outside incursions and why.


Interview and Composition: Mariko Oshio
In cooperation with: Waseda University Graduate School of Political Science J-School


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