Usamah ibn Munqidh

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Usamah ibn Munqidh

July 4, 1095
Shayzar, Syria

November 16, 1188
Damascus, Syria

Arab lord, soldier, and writer

"When one comes to recount cases regarding the Franks [Christian crusaders], he cannot but glorify Allah ... for he sees [the Franks] as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else."

—Usamah ibn Munqidh, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn Munqidh.

Usamah ibn Munqidh, a Syrian nobleman and soldier of the twelfth century, sat down at the end of his long and adventurous life and composed his memoirs, known in English as An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. This autobiography presents a colorful picture of daily life in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa from roughly the time of the First Crusade (1095–99), when European Christians first came into conflict with the Islamic world over control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, through the Second Crusade (1147–49), when Muslim fighters began to take back parts of the Middle East from the Crusaders, to just before the Third Crusade (1189–92), when the great military leader Saladin (1137–93; see entry) took back Jerusalem from the Christians. Usamah provides eyewitness accounts for many of the major events of the time and also presents detailed and often very critical, or negative, pictures of the Crusaders, whom the Arab world called Franks.

A Syrian Gentleman

Born on July 4, 1095, into the noble family of Munqidh, in northern Syria, Usamah grew up in the ancestral castle of Shayzar, not far from the city of Hama. Usamah came into the world months before Pope Urban II (see entry) delivered his famous speech demanding a holy war against the Muslim world to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity. It was one of the most powerful speeches in all of history, for it started what became almost a two-hundred-year conflict between East and West, Christianity and Islam. The castle where Usamah was born sat atop a rocky hill called the Cock's

Ibn al-Athir

If Usamah ibn Munqidh was the most famous Arab memoirist (writer about his life) of his time, then the title of most famous historian must fall to the Muslim scholar Ibn al-Athir (1160–1233), whose full name was Abu al-Hasan 'Ali 'Izz al-Din ibn al-Athir. He was born into a powerful family in a small town on the Tigris River, located north of Mosul (in modern-day Iraq). In addition to owning land, his father was a government official in the ruling Zangid dynasty, which controlled much of Iraq and Syria at the time. Whereas his two brothers followed in their father's footsteps, Ibn al-Athir decided on a more scholarly existence, studying in Mosul and Baghdad. His long life was spent recording the events of his time, for he was an eyewitness to many of the main incidents of the Third Crusade (1189–92) as well as some of the later Crusades. Thanks to his well-placed family members, he had inside information about political affairs.

Ibn al-Athir's most famous historical work is his al-Kamil fi at-Tarikh (translated as "The Perfect History" or "The Complete History"), though he also wrote a history of the Zangid dynasty as well as reference works. Ibn al-Athir's Kamil is a chronicle of the Islamic world. It begins with Creation, covers the Persian and Roman Empires as well as the world of the Hebrews, and then focuses on the Muslim world from the time of the Prophet Muhammad (founder of the religion of Islam) in the seventh century until Ibn al-Athir's own period. Although he did not list his sources, his "Perfect History" remains an invaluable source for events during the Crusades. Like Usamah, he mixes firsthand experience—and occasionally even secondhand gossip—with other written texts to paint a picture of the Islamic world during the Crusades. His work has been praised for its detailed survey of Islamic history and its many rulers and leaders as well as for the global, or wider, view he takes of events not just in the Middle East but also in Spain and southern Italy.

Comb and was protected by the Orontes River on three sides. Since anyone who occupied this castle controlled the major inland route going north and south in Syria, it was often attacked by enemy armies. It was so perfectly located and designed that the invading Crusaders were never able to capture it, although they eventually established their own military outposts nearby.

Usamah was greatly influenced by his father, Murshid, who was of noble Arab blood and was both a man of action and of intellect (brains). Although Usamah's father loved to hunt and fight, he also spent several hours each day copying parts of the Koran, the Islamic holy book. During his lifetime Murshid copied the Koran forty-three times in black, red, and blue ink. In an article titled "Memories of a Muslim Prince," Viola H. Winder noted that Murshid's life, "as would that of his son later, exemplified Arab culture and the code of chivalry [honorable behavior]." Like many educated Muslims, the father was deeply religious, yet he also had a curious mind and studied astronomy (the science of space) and philosophy (the study of systems of beliefs and principles). When it was Murshid's turn to rule the small kingdom of Shayzar, he refused to accept the position. He did so because he hated politics and feared the damaging effects of power. As a result, in 1098 Murshid's younger brother, Izz al-Din, became the local leader at Shayzar and also accepted responsibility for educating young Usamah.

As Usamah noted in his memoirs, since his family "never felt secure on account of the Franks, whose territory was adjacent," this education focused on military skills as well as more academic subjects. For ten years Usamah studied science, languages, religion, and philosophy in addition to mastering the bow and arrow and sword. Above all, Usamah loved studying literature and reciting poetry. In his memoirs he tells how he and his teacher would often ride along the nearby Orontes River, find a quiet spot under the trees, and recite poetry to each other. His father did not remain totally in the background in Usamah's youth. He encouraged his favorite son to engage in physical activities and taught him courage by his own example.

In his memoirs Usamah recalled one boyhood incident that occurred at Shayzar following the capture of some Franks. When an agreement had been reached with other Franks, these prisoners were released. However, soon after they left the castle several Muslim thieves attacked them. Encouraged by his father, Usamah rode out to save these former enemies and took some of the Muslim thieves prisoner. It was this sort of honorable behavior that Usamah's father had taught his son.

From an early age Usamah saw the horrible effects of war. As a young boy he accompanied his father to battlefields where Muslims fought the invading Crusaders. He saw men slaughtered in battle and also witnessed what happened to prisoners. One of his father's best soldiers was captured by the Franks during the First Crusade. After he had had one of his eyes painfully gouged (forced) out by his captors, the Muslim soldier was sold back to Usamah's father in exchange for the best horse in Shayzar and a chest of money.

Usamah was no stranger to violent behavior himself. As he wrote in his memoirs, when he was only ten years old he killed an older servant at Shayzar who was beating a servant boy. However, as Winder commented, "the days of Usamah's youth were made up of more than the forays [raids] and skirmishes [incidents] of battle." In an age when there were still lions and panthers roaming about in Syria, hunting was a daily pastime for the young man. Usamah was as comfortable on a horse as he was at a desk reading his poetry. He became a master hunter by the age of thirteen, using falcons both as aids in hunting and as messenger birds. While he was still a teenager, he was tested in life-and-death situations involving lions, hyenas, and Crusader knights. As Winder noted, "In such an environment Usamah grew to manhood. The years of his long lifetime never tarnished his high standards of honor, honesty, courage, and kindness."

Into the World

As long as his uncle, the sultan (leader of the kingdom) had no male children, life at Shayzar was agreeable for Usamah. In fact, as Philip K. Hitti commented in the introduction to his translation of An Arab-Syrian Gentleman, this uncle's "period of rule furnishes the background for most of the interesting events" in Usamah's memoirs. Unfortunately, this situation changed when his uncle had a male child. Suddenly Usamah was no longer in favor. In 1129 he left Shayzar for a time and then returned, but when his father died in 1137 Usamah left the fortress of Shayzar for good. The line of the Munqidh family came to a tragic end at Shayzar when a huge earthquake struck the region in 1157, destroying all the buildings and killing everyone in the castle except the new sultan's wife.

Meanwhile, Usamah had made his way in the world, traveling first to Damascus, where he stayed until 1144, and then moving on to Cairo, where he served as a high-ranking government official from 1144 to 1154. He later recorded the jealousies and inside fighting that went on at the court of the Fatimids, who ruled Cairo. During these years he also fought the Franks in the Second Crusade. From 1154 to 1164 he served the powerful sultan Nur al-Din (1118–1174) in Damascus, once again fighting the Franks as well as other Muslims who opposed the sultan's attempts to unify the entire Islamic world. Usamah later joined the service of the powerful Muslim leader Saladin, who made him a trusted adviser. Saladin also appointed Usamah, by then an old man, governor of Beirut. Throughout his long and distinguished career Usamah came into close contact not only with powerful Islamic leaders of the day but also with the Franks, whom he regarded as enemies but occasionally as friends.

The Memoirs

Usamah's love of poetry led him to write twelve volumes of verse. During his lifetime he was known to his fellow Arabs primarily as a poet. However, when he reached the age of ninety, Usamah decided to turn to autobiography and wrote the often rambling story of his life, Kitab al-I'tibar ("The Book of Instructive Example"), which has been translated into English as An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades. These memoirs do not follow any chronological order; instead, Usamah jumps from topic to topic. A description of the hunting life might be followed by an account of fighting Franks and other Arabs or a detailed report of his life and works involving various leaders. As Hitti observed, "The author intends his book to be didactic [a tool for teaching]. ... The favorite theme is that the duration of the life of a man is predetermined [arranged in advance], that its end can neither be retarded [delayed] or advanced by anything man might or might not do." For Usamah, a faithful Muslim, a person's life was determined by Allah, the Muslim God.

The tone of the book, however, is not preachy. His observations on the behavior of the Franks are especially interesting and often humorous. "They are first hand and frank," according to Hitti, "and reflect the prevalent [common] Moslem public opinion" that the Crusaders were mighty warriors but were lacking in most other skills. Usamah is amazed at their medical and legal practices. He watches a Frankish doctor kill two patients that he, Usamah, was trying to save. On another occasion he witnesses the Franks' trial by ordeal, in which a suspected criminal is forcibly kept under water; if the person survives, he or she is pronounced innocent. Usamah found these practices inferior to Islamic medicine and law. He was also shocked by the loose morals of the Crusaders and their women. At the same time, however, he found a common sense of honor among the monk-soldiers of the Teutonic Knights, a fighting religious order, who protected him on various occasions. He found them to be closer to the Arab ideal: courageous but also true to the teachings of their God.

Usamah also wrote in his memoirs of the sadness he felt at having reached old age. As a young man he was "more terrible in warfare than nighttime, more impetuous [hotheaded and hasty] in assault/Than a torrent [flood], and more adventurous on the battlefield than destiny!" But with the approach of old age all this changed:

But now I have become an idle maid who lies/ On stuffed cushions behind screens and curtains./ I have almost become rotten from lying still so long, just as/ The sword of Indian steel becomes rusty when kept long in its sheath.

Usamah did not have long to complain about his old age, for he died in 1188, shortly after finishing his memoirs. His son later had the book copied, and it spread from the Islamic world to the West. According to Hitti, Usamah's book is "a unique piece of Arabic literature." His stories "open before our eyes a wide and new vista [view] into medieval times and constitute [represent] an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of Arabic culture." Writing in the foreword to this same translation of An Arab-Syrian Gentleman, Richard W. Bulliet noted that "nothing in all of medieval Islamic history quite matches [the book's] vivid and detailed descriptions, and there are few instances of such lucid [clear] first-person writing in the history of Christian Europe."

For More Information


Irwin, Robert. "Usama ibn Munqidh: An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades Reconsidered." In The Crusades and Their Sources. Edited by Bernard Hamilton and William G. Zajac. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998.

Maalouf, Amin. The Crusades through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

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

"Autobiography, Excerpts on the Franks." Internet Medieval Sourcebook. (accessed on July 22, 2004).

Winder, Viola H. "Memories of a Muslim Prince." Saudi Aramco World, 21, no. 3 (May/June 1970). Available online at (accessed on July 22, 2004).