The Muslim Perspective

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The Muslim Perspective

Excerpt from "On the Tatars" (1220–1221)
Originally written by Ibn al-Athir; Reprinted in A Literary History of Persia; Edited by Edward G. Browne; Published in 1902

Numerous Arab chroniclers and historians told the story of the medieval Middle East from the Muslim point of view. From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there were writers such as al-Sulami, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Zafir, Abu Shama, Ibn Muyassar, and Ibn Wasil; from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries al-Yunini, al-Nuwayri, al-Maqrizi, and Ibn Taghribirdi present the Muslim perspective on history. These authors provide historical accounts and memoirs, as well as official state biographies. Although their names mean little to Western readers, they form a cornerstone of Muslim and Arab writing from the Middle Ages. One of the best known of these historians is Ibn al-Athir. His book The Perfect History, sometimes also called The Complete History, is one of the most valuable medieval Muslim documents for modern researchers. From a literary family with two brothers who were also historians and writers, Ibn al-Athir has become one of the authorities on the Muslim world for historians, particularly for the time period from the Seljuk Turk invasion in the late eleventh century to the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth. As a historian, al-Athir had first-hand knowledge of events in the Middle East, serving with the Kurdish military leader Saladin in Syria. His histories thus blend personal experience with recorded annals (chronologies).

Ibn al-Athir is an example of someone who practiced anecdotal history, or history told through personal story. Arab writers included a wide range of styles and approaches. One highly entertaining early chronicler was Usamah ibn Munqidh, whose An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades provides the modern reader with an interesting and sometimes humorous look at the Crusaders of the twelfth century from the Muslim point of view. From that perspective, these Christian soldiers were not always the fair-fighting knights they said they were. The Franks, as the Muslims called the Crusaders, might be fierce warriors, as Usamah shows, but they were not very cultured or well-educated people. Usamah, like many other Arab writers, found the Crusaders uncivilized and uneducated. He delighted in stories of Crusader or Frankish doctors using axes to cut off injured limbs, killing the patient in the process. He also made fun of the court system of the Franks, who were fond of dunking suspects into barrels of water to gain a confession. Such a legal system presented a no-win situation for the poor suspect: those who did not confess ended up dying in the process, but were found innocent. And those who confessed to their crime, whether because they were guilty or to avoid drowning, were then condemned to death. Usamah's is only one such voice among dozens, like that of Ibn al-Athir excerpted below, that provides a fascinating insight into the minds of Muslims of the Middle Ages and into the events that shaped the age.

In this section's excerpt, Ibn al-Athir tells of a threat to the Muslims of the Middle East other than the Crusaders—namely, the Mongols. Born in 1160, Ibn al-Athir wrote a history of the world up to 1232, the year before his death. In The Perfect History, al-Athir calls the Mongols the Tatars, but they have also been referred to as Tartars. These Mongols came out of Central Asia and were initially led by Genghis Khan. They captured large sections of Asia Minor, Iraq, and Syria and were an enormous threat to Islam in the thirteenth century. Al-Athir gives a feeling for their fierce way of waging war in this excerpt.

Things to Remember While Reading the Excerpt from "The Muslim Perspective":

  • The fierce invading Mongols were also known as Tatars or Tartars. Some believe that the name comes from Ta-Tan, a term of disrespect the Chinese may have given to the Mongols who conquered them. In the modern world the term is used for all the Turkish-speaking people of Europe and Asia.
  • The Mongols originally lived in the Gobi Desert of China, north of the Himalayas.
  • The Mongols were greatly feared because they showed no mercy to those who resisted them. Although the historian Ibn al-Athir writes about Mongol advances in Persia, the worse was yet to come for Islam. Under Hulagu Khan the Mongols took Baghdad in 1258. Some historians say that they massacred as many as eight hundred thousand of the city's inhabitants, including the caliph, or religious leader, and also destroyed large sections of the city. The sack of Baghdad almost put an end to Arab civilization.

Excerpt from "On the Tatars"

For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the remembrance thereof can weigh lightly? O would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell ! Yet, withal a number of my friends urged me to set it down in writing, and I hesitated long, but at last came to the conclusion that to omit this matter could serve no useful purpose.

I say, therefore, that this thing involves the description of the greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity (of the like of which days and nights are innocent) which befell all men generally, and the Muslims in particular; so that, should one say that the world, since God Almighty created Adam until now, has not been afflicted with the like thereof, he would but speak the truth. For indeed history does not contain anything which approaches or comes near unto it. For of the most grievous calamities recorded was what Nebuchadnezzar inflicted on the children of Israel by his slaughter of them and his destruction of Jerusalem; and what was Jerusalem in comparison to the countries which these accursed miscreants destroyed, each city of which was double the size of Jerusalem? Orwhat were the children of Israel compared to those whom these slew ? For verily those whom they massacred in a single city exceeded all the children of Israel. Nay , it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog .

For even Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Tatars spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes. Verily to God do we belong, and unto Him do we return, and there is no strength and no power save in God, the High, the Almighty, in face of this catastrophe, whereof the sparks flew far and wide, and the hurt was universal; and which passed over the lands like clouds driven by the wind. For these were a people who emerged from the confines of China, and attacked the cities of Turkestan, like Kashghar and Balasaghun, and thence advanced on the cities of Transoxiana, such as Samarqand, Bukhara and the like, taking possession of them, and treating their inhabitants in such wise as we shall mention; and of them one division then passed on into Khurasan, until they had made an end of taking possession, and destroying, and slaying, and plundering, and thence passing on to Ray, Hamadan and the Highlands, and the cities contained therein, even to the limits of Iraq, whence they marched on the towns of Adharbayjan and Arraniyya, destroying them and slaying most of their inhabitants, of whom none escaped save a small remnant ; and all this in less than a year; this is a thing whereof the like has not been heard.…

These Tatars conquered most of the habitable globe, and the best, the most flourishing and most populous part thereof, and that whereof the inhabitants were the most advanced in character and conduct, in about a year; nor did any country escape their devastations which did not fearfully expect them and dread their arrival.

Moreover they need no commissariat , nor the conveyance of supplies, for they have with them sheep, cows, horses, and the like quadrupeds , the flesh of which they eat, naught else. As for their beasts which they ride, these dig into the earth with their hoofs and eat the roots of plants, knowing naught of barley. And so, when they alight anywhere, they have need of nothing from without. As for their religion, they worship the sun when it rises, and regard nothing as unlawful, for they eat all beasts, even dogs, pigs, and the like; nor do they recognise the marriage-tie, for several men are in marital relations with one woman, and if a child is born, it knows not who is its father.

Therefore Islam and the Muslims have been afflicted during this period with calamities wherewith no people hath been visited. These Tatars (may God confound them!) came from the East, and wrought deeds which horrify all who hear of them, and which you shall, please God, see set forth in full detail in their proper connection. And of these was the invasion of Syria by the Franks (may God curse them!) out of the West, and their attack on Egypt, and occupation of the port of Damietta therein, so that Egypt and Syria werelike to be conquered by them, but for the grace of God and the help which He vouchsafed us against them, as we have mentioned under the year 614 [A.D. 1217–18]. Of these, moreover, was that the sword was drawn between those who escaped from these two foes, and strife was rampant, as we have also mentioned: and verily unto God do we belong and unto Him do we return! We ask God to vouchsafe victory to Islam and the Muslims, for there is none other to aid, help, or defend the True Faith.…

Stories have been related to me, which the hearer can scarcely credit, as to the terror of the Tatars, which God Almighty cast into men's hearts; so that it is said that a single one of them would enter a village or a quarter wherein were many people, and would continue to slay them one after another, none daring to stretch forth his hand against this horseman. And I have heard that one of them took a man captive, but had not with him any weapon wherewith to kill him; and he said to his prisoner, "Lay your head on the ground and do not move," and he did so, and the Tatar went and fetched his sword and slew him therewith. Another man related to me as follows: "I was going," said he, "with seventeen others along a road, and there met us a Tatar horseman, and bade us bind one another's arms. My companions began to do as he bade them, but I said to them, 'He is but one man; wherefore, then, should we not kill him and flee?' They replied, 'We are afraid.' I said, 'This man intends to kill you immediately; let us therefore rather kill him, that perhaps God may deliver us.' But I swear by God that not one of them dared to do this, so I took a knife and slew him, and we fled and escaped." And such occurrences were many.

What happened next…

The dual threats to Islam, Crusaders and Mongols, were eliminated by the Mamluks of Egypt, a slave dynasty. The sultan, or ruler, of Egypt had a long tradition of using such slave warriors. But in the middle of the thirteenth century these elite soldiers actually took over Egypt, led by their new sultan, Baybars. This amazing soldier and statesman fought and defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine in 1260 and then turned his attention to the Crusaders. By the time of Baybars's death in 1277, he had restricted the Crusaders to a few remaining strongholds. His successors, the sultans next in line, finished off the job he had started, defeating the Crusaders at Acre in 1291 and pushing them out of the Middle East totally. There is a certain irony that Islam, one of the most cultured civilizations of its day, was saved by these former slaves, mostly uneducated and only recent converts to the religion.

Did you know…

  • Though the Crusaders liked to think of themselves as more civilized than their Muslim enemies, this was not actually the case. In general, the educational level of residents of the medieval Middle East was higher than that of people in Europe. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, said that "the ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of martyrs." He ordered that public education be made available to believers in Islam. Also, the rise of mass-produced paper helped create private and public libraries, and the use of so-called Arabic numerals (originally from India) made mathematics easier than with the Roman numerals.
  • Islam preserved the knowledge of the past. Medieval Muslim scholars such as Avicenna, Avempace, and Averroës translated and commented on the works of the great Greek philosophers, thus saving that intellectual tradition for the world.
  • Works such as Ibn al-Athir's history are very hard to translate into English from their original Arabic language and not only because of the different alphabet. In Arabic there is no system of capitalization, and therefore it is often difficult to tell the difference between a common noun and someone's proper name. Another difficulty for the translator is that twenty-two of twenty-eight of the characters of the Arabic alphabet are recognized by the presence or absence of dots above or below the characters. More possible confusion is caused by the fact that there are no ending quotation marks in Arabic to show when a direct quote stops.
  • The Muslims usually referred to the Crusaders as Franks. Sometimes in other sources this is written "Franj." This name was used because at the time of the First Crusade (1095–99), most of these Christian soldiers came from French-speaking lands. Although, later, Englishmen, German, and Italians made up larger groups among the Crusaders, the Muslims continued to call them all Franks.
  • Taking advantage of disunity among their enemies, the Mongols created an empire that stretched from Korea and the Pacific all the way over to Georgia, Armenia, and Hungry in the west. Only two hundred thousand people strong, the Mongols were able to defeat much larger countries, such as China, with a population at the time of one hundred million. Theirs was the largest empire in world history, ruling an area of almost fourteen million square miles.
  • In addition to the Mongols, the other large group of the thirteenth century in the Middle East was the Mamluk empire. Mamluk comes from the Arabic word "to own," and reminds us of the Mamluk's slave history.

Enemies Everywhere

The Islamic world faced numerous enemies in the thirteenth century. As we have seen, the Crusaders presented one threat, for they maintained their Crusader states along the eastern Mediterranean and also had occasional reinforcements from Europe. Small battles and full-blown Crusade wars continued to disrupt the Middle East throughout the thirteenth century. The Mongols provided another real threat, as Ibn al-Athir explained. However, there was also a third danger from the north during the early decades of the thirteenth century.

With the breakup of the Seljuk Turk empire, another Turkish tribe, the Khwarismian Turks, gained their independence and began pushing southward. A leader of these Turks, Muhammad Shah, though a convert to Islam, was no friend to the old and settled Muslim rulers. In 1217 he pushed his mounted army to Baghdad and chased out the caliph, or religious and political leader, Nasir. These Turks were great warriors and were then at the height of their power, but they made a mistake when they expanded eastward toward Russia and killed a couple of representatives from the Mongols and Genghis Khan. In 1221 Genghis Khan conquered these Khwarismian Turks and forced them afterward to fight in his huge Mongol army, the Golden Horde.

  • After defeating both Mongols and Crusaders, the Mamluks created an empire in the Middle East consisting of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and parts of present-day Iraq and Asia Minor. Their slave dynasty outlasted many of the more "legitimate" dynasties of the region, remaining in direct power from about 1250 to 1517, when the Ottoman Turks defeated them. However, the Mamluks continued to rule in Egypt under the Turks until the arrival of the French and Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798.

Consider the following…

  • Islam was threatened by two enemies in the thirteenth century. Discuss who these enemies were and which you think was the greater threat and why.
  • What do you think might have happened if the Mongols had not been stopped in the Middle East? How might the world be different now?
  • Discuss how an educated Muslim at the time of the Crusades might describe the invading Crusaders. How did the Crusaders see the Muslims?

Deeming: Regarding.

Befell: Happened to.

Withal: Nevertheless.

Dire: Very serious.

Calamity: Tragedy.

Afflicted: Caused pain.

Nebuchadnezzar: Ancient king of Babylonia.

Accursed: Being under a curse.

Miscreants: People who behave viciously.

Slew: Killed.

Verily: Certainly.

Nay: No.

Gog and Magog: Two nations in the Bible that are led by Satan and that fight the Kingdom of God in a final battle.

Antichrist: The devil, Satan.

Tatars: Tartars, or Mongols.

Thence: From there, as a result.

Wise: Way or manner.

Remnant: Those left over or remaining.

Habitable: Able to be lived in.

Flourishing: Wealthy and productive.

Commissariat: A military department to supply food.

Conveyance: Transport.

Quadrupeds: Four-legged animals.

Naught: Nothing.

Alight: Arrive.

Wrought: Committed.

Vouchsafed: Gave, provided.

Strife: Conflict.

Bade: Ordered.

For More Information


Browne, Edward G., ed. A Literary History of Persia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1902.

Usamah ibn-Munqidh, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munqidh. Translated by Philip K. Hitti. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Web sites

"Ibn al-Athir: On the Tatars, 1220–1221 CE." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on August 4, 2004).

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