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The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades

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The volume comprises lightly annotated translation of a key medieval Arabic text that bears directly on the Crusades and Crusader society and the Muslim experience of them.

400 pages, Kindle Edition

First published January 1, 1929

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Usamah ibn Munqidh

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 43 reviews
Profile Image for William2.
737 reviews2,877 followers
February 14, 2012
This book is marketed as a Muslim perspective on the Frankish invasions of the 12 century (i.e. the Crusades). There is certainly much in it about specific battles against the Christian invaders, but it's very much an "on the ground" perspective. It's no survey text. If you've read Steven Runciman (or Christopher Tyerman) you can distinguish the various battles and periods of advance and retreat, and the writer's engagement with the major players of that time. But the book is much more than just a commentary on the Crusades.

Usama ibn Munqidh led this astonishing life as part of a rich Arab aristocracy. We get not only his view of the battles against the "Franks," as the invading westerners were known, but also the battles he was involved in against his Arab brothers. For this was an era of reigning municipalities reminiscent of the Greek poleis around the time of the Peloponnesian War, and there was frequent conflict.

There's an especially vivid sequence of hunting tales from his youth in and around his hometown Shayzar. I had trepidations when I noticed that the hunting stories were next, but they are in many ways the most fascinating stories in the book. He and his father hunted with hawk, peregrine falcon and cheetah. The tales are deeply moving. Munqidh's father would sleep with the cheetah in his room. That's how close he was to this animal. There are also episodes of lion hunting, or rather extermination, for such an animal close to populated areas was always a threat. There are also these incredibly moving reflections on old age.

Munqidh lived to be over 90. And there are 2 or 3 pages of thoughtful commentary on the loss of vitality and stamina at that age. The book has a non-linear timeline. In one vignette Usama is a lad on his pony following his father on the hunt. In another, in middle-age, he's marching in service to Nur al-Din, one of the great Arab military minds and long-time lord of Damascus. I highly recommend this astonishing book for all readers with an interest in the medieval Middle East (or Near East as it was once called). Like all good stories it holds one to the end.
Profile Image for Richard White.
49 reviews19 followers
April 2, 2013
Usama ibn Munqidh was a Muslim faris or cavalier from Northern Syria who experienced and wrote a great deal during the Crusades. His most famous work, The Book of Contemplation, survives as a rare look into the Holy Land during the Crusades from a Muslim perspective. Ibn Munqidh was born on 4 July 1095 at his family’s castle at Shayzar. His family, the Banu Munqidh, were an established aristocratic Arab clan who had the means to bring ibn Mundiqh up with an education typical of the warrior elite. While he had no formal education, his family provided him with tutors who taught him the equivalent of a liberal education: literary arts including rhetoric, grammar, and poetry—and estate affairs such as administration, hunting, and combat. Ibn Mundidh was the Arab Muslim equivalent of a medieval Christian knight—a gentleman of status, expected to fight to defend his property and honor of his family. When ibn Munqidh was exiled from his castle in his mid-thirties by his uncle to prevent him from inheriting the estate, he took his skills to the road and adopted a life typical of a faris; he was a noble mercenary.

His nose for political intrigue brought him under the service of many high-ranking patrons in Egypt and Syria, his last and most famous being Saladin himself, though he frequently had good relations with the “Franks”—the Western European Crusaders who found themselves in a tumultuous Near East—but only during the short truces when he was not actively fighting them. It is this relationship with the European Crusaders that makes ibn Muqidh’s writings so significant. He wrote about them extensively (“may God curse them”), both praising and castigating them, offering a fascinating look at Crusaders from the perspective of the Muslims they were waging holy war against.

The Book of Contemplation is a non-fictional autobiographical collection of narratives. Written in a form of Middle Arabic filled with colloquial and foreign words, the result is a series of short anecdotes with a decided readability. Written not for general consumption but for his patron, Saladin, the book contains praise for the Kurdish re-conqueror of the Holy Land. Writing for the patron was the key to funding and distributing the book and it was distributed and quoted at least into the 14th century but then was mostly forgotten until the badly damaged remains were found in Spain and translated into French in the late 19th century. Since then it has been translated into a variety of European languages including this second English translation.

In its essence, Ibn Munqidh’s The Book of Contemplation is an autobiographical mediation on Fate: some may survive a sword strike to the face, but some will die from a pin prick. “Glory be to He who determines fates!”

The book is organized into four parts. Part One, which is almost entirely lost and begins mid-sentence, is about the great events and calamities in ibn Munqidh’s life. It begins with a fragmented account of a battle with the Franks under the service of Atabeg Zangi and continues with accounts of his service under the Burids of Damscus, the Fatamids of Cairo, and Nur al-Din. Part Two is entitled Wonders of Warfare, Against the Infidels and Muslims and contains numerous anecdotes on combat on various meandering themes, from cavalry tactics to hunting lions, women in battle, the marvels of Frankish medicine, examples of cowardice and bravery, and much more. Part Three, Curious Tales: Holy Men and Healers, contains more anecdotes on medicine and also stories of prophets appearing in dreams. The final part is entitled Episodes of Hunting and contains a series of hunting anecdotes, a subject ibn Munqidh seemed to love.

As stated earlier, Part One is mostly lost, but what remains is a rough timeline of ibn Muqidh’s service under various patrons. The fragment that The Book of Contemplation begins with is excellent in setting the tone for the entire tome: “. . . there were not many Muslim casualties in that battle. However, a messenger named Ibn Bishir . . . happened to be wearing a gilded cuirass, so a Frankish knight, named Ibn al-Daqiq, thrust him through the chest with his spear such that it stuck out through his back (may God have mercy upon him). But a large number of Franks were killed. The atabeg (may God have mercy upon him) ordered that their heads be collected in a field opposite the fortress: they totaled three thousand,” (ibn Munqidh, 11). Right away we are introduced to the carnage of life in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Also, for those not exceptionally well-educated in the Crusades, we may immediately learn something: a European knight is known by an Arabic name. I guess that this particular knight may have been known for being overly particular, but my Arabic skills are rudimentary. Though clearly not intended to be an attention grabber as this fragment was originally well into Part One, it ironically functions well as one.

The very next passage is a story of his home estate of Shayzar being under siege by the Byzantines, referred to as Romans. “[They] and the Franks (may God forsake them) made an alliance agreeing to march on Shayzar and besiege it,” (ibn Munqidh, 11). Here we see that even growing up ibn Munqidh had to defend his own home from Christians, showing the instability of the region and how ibn Munqidh became indoctrinated with the defense of his lands against the Europeans from a young age. It is hard to imagine a more fascinating perspective about the Crusades to be reading from.
Part Two contains numerous small anecdotes about battles he saw or heard about, between Christians, Muslims, and animals. They are so exceedingly numerous that it is no doubt ibn Munqidh spent most of his life in combat. He begins with an introduction saying is only writing down the stories he remembers, because in his old age he became forgetful. So many stories are recorded here that I can only imagine what must be in the stories he forgot. A student can learn much from these passages: how to properly thrust someone with a spear when mounted (let the horse do the work for you, refrain from thrusting with your arms), that it is possible (and highly lauded) to fell two mounted combatants with one spear thrust. In fact, the particular man who accomplished such a feat was pardoned for crimes against his patron for this one act. We also learn of ibn Munqidh’s father in this section who he writes was a great warrior and pious calligrapher. Ibn Munqidh writes of bravery, cowardice, and curious things he saw in battle such as men beating the odds in combat. For example, one man routing four or two men routing ten. He is impressed by these unlikely feats and writes examples of them from Franks and Muslims. Interestingly, ibn Munqidh writes about the status of the Knight in Frankish society for the benefit of the non-European reader who might be unfamiliar. He writes, “The Franks (may God confound them) have none of the human virtues except for courage. They have neither precedence nor high rank except for that of the knights . . . it is they who are masters of legal reasoning, judgment and sentencing.” He continues later, “You see, if a knight is tall and thin, they find him more impressive,” (ibn Munqidh 76-77).

Part Three is focused on healing, both physical and spiritual, and the super-natural. Some parts read like ghost stories. For example, ibn Munqidh writes of a tale he heard about a holy man whose dying request was his body to be taken to the desert and for people to call out a name and inform him the holy man is dead and to request him to present himself. Sure enough, from nowhere a man appeared, prayed over his body, and left, no one talking to him or ever seeing him again. He also writes of the healing power of dreams, and particular instances of medicine. For example, he relates a story he heard where a boil on someone’s neck was cured by drinking raw eggs. “Glory be to the Almighty, the Afflicter, the Healer!” ibn Munqidh writes (ibn Munqidh, 194).

Part Four is a series of anecdotes about hunting: the chase and the use of birds of prey. He praises exceptional hawks, exceptional cheetahs, and exceptional hunting dogs. Like the earlier parts, these stories are a compilation of amazing things that happened during the course of many hunts. The theme of fate continues into this part, with stories of hunting birds capturing smaller birds only to return to their master and fall over dead, similar to some anecdotes he related about warriors he knew. “Glory be to He who determines all fates!” (ibn Munqidh, 230). The collection of stories has no formal conclusion. It merely ends with a seemingly unrelated story of a group of warriors deceiving a hospitable prince of a citadel and capturing it. Such is fate.
11 reviews4 followers
July 10, 2009
If you want to know how a muslim viewed the Crusaders (which he would only recognise as the broader term of Franks - the cross is almost never referred to), read this Usama's version of history, and forget about the current Osama and his war monging. This is the real thing.

Usama ibn Munqidh writes about his extraordinary and long lasting life as a courtier who mingled with the great men of his time, as a battle seasoned warrior, a prodigious hunter and a religious muslim. He tells short tales from everyday life (often his own life) to show how only God has the power to decide the fate of all, humans and animals alike. Besides his book of contemplation, there are other excerpts covering hunting, saints and healers.

Usama's lessons of life are far more prominent in his writings than the proceedings of the crusades, who are only marginally treated. In contrast with the title, the dealings with the Franks are limited to surveys of battles and skirmishes, and a small amount of examplary stories. Usuma does relate on a few characteristics of the Franks as the status of knights, the Frankish jurisprudence with the ordeal, and the man-woman relation that he can't grasp from his Eastern views. He is very vivid in his descriptions and shows some insight in the cultural difference at it was percieved in the days of the crusades. For example, Usama doesn't see the world as divided between Franks and muslims. He notes that the Franks who where born or lived in the East are far more agreeable than the Franks who came to crusade. Though in general his judgement towards the Franks is rather condescending, it is not really destructive, and he even gives praise to some exploits of Franks, something Amin Maalouf ommited from his account of the crusades through Arab eyes. After reading this book, the reader is tempted to conclude that the muslim-christian relations in our time in the present day hot-beds of cultural clashes in the middle east are far more excluding and fanatical.
Profile Image for Patrick Stuart.
Author 13 books130 followers
February 16, 2019
What stands out to me most is the warmth and violence of the man and the deranged, but very terrible absurdism of the times.


It is a patterning of memories, brought to light in the same way that most human memories are, by the linking of kinds and of moments, with elements of one scene leading to the next.

If compared to a modern highly-researched history using multiple sources and records the accuracy and precision is respectively low, but compared to any actual human being that I know or have met in real life, the power of Usamah memory and recollection is astounding.

Names, places, dates and situations flow across the page exactly as if they were drawn directly from his mind. Though the nature of their expression is deeply human, with kind linking to kind and emotion to emotion, the feel, exactness, detail and liveliness, as well as exact memories of who was where when, and doing what, is deeply impressive.

Scene after scene springs into life from the page. Many, perhaps most, of these scenes are of Usamah or his father endlessly hunting birds, lions, hyenas, boars, geese, pretty much any and everything available in the local environment.


Usamah is at his most effecting when describing his relationship with his father, which, as it is a very classically male relationship, is described almost entirely through things they *do* together. Of which the lesser is fighting and the greater is hunting.

Usamas father gets an entire chapter dedicated to his absolute and overriding obsession with hunting. Something he passes on to his son, though in slightly lesser form, (it seems impossible that any imaginable human could love hunting as much as Usamahs father).

This passion goes so deep that to modern eyes it seems a mind of mania, and presents a relationship with the natural world which is difficult to process from the eyes of a modern city dweller, for whom nature may be something to revere but to avoid fucking with, but might make more sense to a farmer or a tory foxhunter.

Both father and son seem to absolutely adore nature and animals and both have absolutely no problem with that relationship being conducted largely through violence towards animals.

Some notes on Usamah's dad;

- So obsessed with falconry that he takes at least ten on every hunt, fills the house with falcons, trades falcons with neighbouring lords, converts at least one village into a cash-crop venture in which the *only* thing those people do is hunt falcons and bring them to him.

- This falcon, Al-Yahshur was so magnificent, capable, intelligent and beloved by Usamahs father that it was kept apart from the other falcons. It would be allowed to drink from a special cup, have a special bath poured for it if it wanted to bathe, be placed on a special perch to dry with a single live coal by it to keep it warm, would be combed and oiled and given a special piece of fur to sleep on, and then carried, sleeping, so that it was near the bed of Usamahs father as he slept.

- Likewise a Cheetah (of which they had many) was similarly exalted, given a special bed in the castles yard, allowed to walk itself, off the leash, to its collar, and combed by a handmaid.

- The home of Usamahs youth contained, as well as an essentially infinite number of falcons, various other birds of prey, cheetahs various hunting animals, pigeons, green water fowl, starlings, gazelles, rams, goats and fawns.

It seems that Usamahs father did only three things in his life, fight, hunt and copy the Qur’an. He made MANY of copies during his life. These are apparently the only things a Syrian Knight is really meant to be doing, and in this case at least, the cultural strictures seem to have meshed with a character well adapted to, and very enthusiastic about, them.

Above all it is the enormous depth of the passion for violence, faith and nature, communicated through the relation of a loving, even adoring son which impresses. The biophilia in particular suggests a life of arguably narrow-scope but enormous intensity, drive and feeling, and quality of person that it would be difficult to encounter in the modern world.


One of the strange, or manageably-bad things about Usamahs recollection is the extreme and horrific violence of much of it and the fact that this does not leave much of an impression on the reader of 'badness' or any sustained sense of deep horror.

He is a man living in a hateful age, who carries his hatreds and prejudices lightly, as much as culture requires, but without the deep consuming adoration for hatred that compels in the depiction of the enthusiastic bigot.

Certainly, Usamah will murder some Franks, in open combat, and at times in less-open combat. He ritually curses their name whenever they come up.

He will do things horrible to the eye. In one incident a bunch of Frankish pilgrims wander accidently into his fathers town. After a brief panic in which they think they are being invaded, the locals quickly attack and subdue these (apparently unarmed and non-aggressive) pilgrims. Kill a few, sell some off as slaves and imprison/convert others.

This kind of thing happens a lot. Everyone is doing it to everyone else almost all of the time. The Franks are doing it to the Muslims, the Muslims are doing it to the Franks and each other and presumably the Franks are also doing it to each other, though we do not go deeply enough into their world to see much of it.

He is never for a moment perturbed by any doubt that his culture is inherently superior to that of the Franks, or of the other denominations if Islam that occasionally turn up.

If you were to strip out all the awful things he does and present them one after the other to a modern, unsympathetic, or just very-literal audience, you would have the making of a supreme monster.

Yet, in the context of his life, of his times, of his character as displayed in other elements of his experience and simply of the 'feel' of the man as a whole, he seems 'good'. By the standards of a hateful time he is relatively decent. My impression of him and feeling towards him after reading the book is one of affection. He would kill me without a second thought.


The structuring of the text and the fact that Usamah simply tries to reflect *everything* he can think of at the end of his life, creates an impression of history quite distinct from any more deliberate narrative or thematic history.

Those books would need to make a point and sustain a point of view and not to seem stupid or to get bogged down in random bullshit.

But the 'point' of Usamahs history is simply "this is what I remember of my life", or arguably "all things are down to the Will of Allah (exalted is he!), especially when it seems like they are just crazily incoherent"

But because Usamah moves from memory to memory, and because the text is either badly organised, or not organised at all, possibly due to the terrible scribe the current translator blames for many difficulties in comprehension, and possibly due to the nature of the times and the expected arrangement of books in that period, what we have is a kaleidoscope, or a shelf full of photographs cast onto the floor, mixed up, treaded on, then picked up and placed in whatever linear order they came to the hand. Much of its meaning is created by us as we read it.

And this helps to sustain the massive difference we see and intuit between histories, which have clear directions, coherent actions and chains of causation, meaningful ends and a sense that there are 'ages' and 'events', and actual life-as-it-is lived.

In actual life, it’s just a whole bunch of insane and/or boring stuff happening all at the same time. It’s very rare at the moment of experience or in the flow of day-to-day living that you really know or understand what is going in, what has meaning and is part of the story of your life, and what is just stuff that is happening.

In Usamahs case, this absurdism is deepened by the chaotic state of the warfare between the Franks and Muslims, between the Muslims and the Muslims and between almost anyone at any time.

Betrayals and strange double-crossings are continual. There are periods where it seems like no loyalty will last more than a second, creating a sense of fervid instability and strange un-reality.

Military actions in the book seem heroic, stupid and terrifyingly random. There are very significant actions begun on an impulse or a random charge. For huge swathes of time there its quite obvious that neither side really understands what the other is doing, or even what they themselves are doing. It's near comical how random, disjointed and how utterly un-storylike many of these storied events are.

Usamah makes a point of remembering every strange discontity brought about by combat. Some brave men fear mice (literally), some take sword thrusts through the body, or even have their faces cut off, only to heal up or have the face sewn back on, and to go back to life with only a freaky Batman-Villain nickname. Others die to pin-pricks, falling stones or random chance.

The cultural situation is equally incoherent. It is a time of cosmopolitan prejudice and cultural-exchange murder-fests. If you picked out one half of these stories you could have a nice low-rent twitter link about how the period of the Crusades was a time of "wonderful diversity and cultural growth", which is true, so far as it goes. If you picked out the other half you could have a nice alt-right article about how Muslims and Christians are destined to endlessly muerderise each other. But all of these things are happening at once, all the time.

To me the randomness is baffling, strange and frightening. It feels very realistic and it makes it seem to me as if the world is a stupid place.

I suspect to Usamah, the same things were simply evidence of the will of Allah, that he lives his life in the direct presence of a higher power, which ordains all things, and produces these apparent absurdities for its own complex reasons which he will never fully understand but must simply accept.


While believing one thing for the whole of his life, with absolute conviction, Usamah also effectively believes a few different things as well, without any awareness of the discontinuity.

He is not stupid, I think instead, a highly intelligent man, but his nature, his life and the training of his culture did not encourage introspection, and as for philosophy and ideals, well he has the Qur’an, it’s all in there anyway. He was a perfect cavalier, all his energy and intelligence directed outwards, into the adventure of the living world, with almost none pointed back in. (Though there is a little.)

So Usamah happily curses the Franks, battles them endlessly, and becomes familiar with many of them to first-name basis. He points out that their culture and medicine is moronic and dangerous, and also mentions a few times they managed to cure impossible diseases. He is their friend, he is their enemy.

Usamah believes absolutely that all combats are fought in the palm of god and that planning and strategy and subterfuge are all utterly pointless, and he repeats this many, many, many times. Nothing will save you when your time is up, so you simply have to be brave and faithful to god and charge right in.

However, *here* are some examples of some clever subterfuges that actually worked pretty well. Here are some examples of his failures that could have been prevented by better planning and more experience and here are some others making obviously stupid decisions that put them in danger.

He is like this with many, many things. From our point of view, or to be honest, the point of view of almost anyone with a regular or analytical mind, this is absolutely nuts. But it worked for him. Though his philosophy seems incoherent, his actions are not, instead they are sometimes wise, often effectual. His experience, awareness, understanding and ability to learn are strong and distinct, and though that might not match up logically to us with a man whose ideology is all over the place and who's statement contradict each other within the space of a page, it seems that in the kind of life he lived, that just doesn't matter at all. Whatever it takes to be a competent Syrian Knight, it has nothing at all to do with complex coherent internal logic.


The paradox of Usamahs life, one that he is clearly living through while dictating his book, is that this most active, murderous, brave, adventurous and extremely high-risk man, lives to the age of ninety.

It's horrible for him. He gives one of the greatest laments to age and illness;

"Feebleness has bent me down to the ground, and old age has made one part of my body enter through another, so much so that I can now hardly recognize myself; and I continually bemoan my past. Here is what I have said in describing my own condition;

When I had attained in life a high state
For which I had always yearned, I wished for death.
Logevity has left me no energy
By which I could mee the vicissitudes of time when hostile to me.
My strength has been rendered weakness, and my two confidants,
My sight and my hearing, have betrayed me, since I attained this height.
When I rise, I feel as if laden
With amountain; and when I walk, as though I were bound with chains.
I creep with a cane in my hand which was wont
To carry in warfare a lance and a sword.
My nights I spend in my soft bed, unable to sleep
And wide awake as thogh I lay on solid rock.
Man is reversed in life: the moment
He attains perfection and completion, then he reverts to the condition from which he started."

There is much much more, nuggets of strangeness are scattered like gold though this book. Though so are incessant and repetitive stories about "that time I killed a lion" and "this thing with a falcon that time". It takes the high-drama but sombre and distant dramatic stage of the Crusades and kicks over the scenery, revealing vast, incoherent teeming human life, actual real people and living characters.

This is simply a great book for anyone who wants to spend an few days with a crazy Islamic grandad. I would strongly recommend it.
Profile Image for J. Boo.
701 reviews20 followers
Want to read
August 24, 2021
Usama ibn Munqidh's "The Book of Learning by Example", or Kitab al-I'tibar, is translated herein as "The Book of Contemplation", which took more minutes of internet searching than I expected to figure out. Includes a view of the Kingdom of Jerusalem from a Muslim perspective.
Profile Image for Bryn Hammond.
Author 12 books343 followers
March 17, 2016
Usama is a great teller of anecdotes. Let me stress the fun side of this book. I notice Penguin have dropped the first title on my copy, A Book of Contemplation. He may have jotted down these anecdotes in an arrangement that can be pretended to exhibit the 'inscrutability of fate' in human life -- but that just means he collects eye-witness, as often as not his own, on incidents bizarre, unusual or otherwise worthy of remark.

If you like fighting tales -- and I know a few of you do -- he gives, on a page or two pages, those both strange and true.

The Franks feature, but he isn't writing about them. If you're after an Arab source with views of Franks, it's perhaps more precious for not being self-consciously about Franks.

A treasure, and you can just dip in, a lucky dip, each tale is titled to whet your curiosity. I valued the real-life fighting incidents in Joinville's Crusade account, but that has only glimpses next to this.
Profile Image for Levo Tohva.
40 reviews1 follower
February 26, 2020
Üllar Peterson teeb head tööd Eesti islamineitsiliku ühiskonna harimiseks. Tema uuringud, tõlkeraamatud ja artiklid pole igapäevalugemine, kuid häda saabudes on riiulist haarata. Puudutagu see vajadus poliitika kujundamist või sõjalist väljaõpet (viitan Petersoni artiklitele ajakirjas Sõjateadlane).

Usama elust lugedes tundsin häirivat sarnasust arvutimängudega. Raamatusündmuste keskmes on pidev sõdimine eilsete liitlaste - tänaste vastaste, eri sektide, religioonide, ideoloogiate, maaomanike, röövlite ja ristisõdijate vahel. Kõik on kõigi vaenlased nagu serveripõhises tulistamismängus.

Üheksa möödunud sajandi jooksul pole inimkond paremaks muutunud - nii nagu toimusid lahingud 12. sajandi Süürias, nii toimuvad ka praegu, 21. sajandil Süürias, Iraagis, Iraanis, Liibanonis. Ning selle õhutajaks islamisektantlus, põlvest-põlve indoktrineeritavad vastuolud šiitide, sunniitide, alaviitide ja muude -iitide vahel. Üheksa sajandi jooksul pole ei inimkond, ega islam inimnäolisemaks muutunud.

Raamatu lõpuosa sisaldab sügavat mõtisklust vananemis üle ning olustikupilte tollasest jahipidamisest. Väärt, mõtlemisainet pakkuv raamat
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books195 followers
December 7, 2018
"War conducts itself, my boy."

Widely considered the best work of the Muslim perspective of the Crusades, which was basically a bunch of filthy religious fanatics trying to invade the beaches of the eastern Mediterranean. Ibn Munqidh's writings, collected here in part, has a timeless charm whether he is talking about war, faith, or the crazy shit he saw in his many wanderings through the medieval Levant. Most historians will likely value him for his lengthy sections on the wars with the "Franks" and his relations with Europeans during one of the many times Muslims and Christians actually fought together against other Muslims and Christians. Much of this is anecdotal, not historically-minded, IM is just telling us stories about crazy battles where one knight turns away hundreds, lions attack people at random, and all kinds of hilarious little stories that make you realize that all of our silly human foibles are timeless. "A Leopard Runs Amok at a Drinking-Party" is a good example.
My favorite parts were the ones of thieves and assassins and the tricks of witches and fighters which IM delights in recounting. These anecdotes are interspersed with the poetry he was famous for which makes for an even more enjoyable read.
Profile Image for Harry Willis.
63 reviews
November 30, 2022
Usama has been a very interesting companion for the last 5 months of my commute.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the Crusades, and medieval life in general
Profile Image for עדית (Edith).
419 reviews26 followers
February 8, 2023
Another really good (and kinda fun!) primary source to introduce students to the Crusades and interfaith exchanges. Usama is a hilarious, witty writer who rubbed shoulders with all the bigwigs of the Crusades and his opinions (and he has a lot) on European justice (dueling?!?), bathing habits, medicine (exorcism?!?), and gender relations are quite something to pour over. There are also a lot on political history and intrigue that one can skip over since they can get long.

At the Cave of the Seven Sleepers
My route took me by the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. So I stopped there and went in to pray at the mosque, but I did not go through the narrow passage that one finds there. One of the amirs of the Turks who were with me, called Barshak, came, wanting to enter by that narrow cleft.
I said, ‘What are you doing that for? Come and pray outside.’
‘There is no God but God,’ he replied. ‘I must be a bastard then if I can’t get through that narrow cleft!’
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.
He said, ‘This is a place that no son of adultery can pass through – he cannot enter.’
What he said forced me to get up, enter by that spot, pray and come out again without – God knows – believing what he said. Indeed, most of the troops came and entered and prayed. Yet, in the army with me was Baraq al-Zubaydi, who had with him a slave of his, a black man – devout fellow, taken to praying a lot, and one of the tallest and leanest people. He came to that spot and tried with all his might to enter, but he could not get through. The poor fellow wept, moaning and sighing over and over, and then left after failing to enter.

Newly Arrived Franks are the Roughest
Anyone who is recently arrived from the Frankish lands is 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,237 beside which stood a small 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 – [135] they would clear out that little mosque so that I could pray in it. One day, I went into the little mosque, recited the opening 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.

A Frank Converts to Islam, Temporarily
Among those Frankish captives who passed into my father’s household was an old woman accompanied by her daughter – a young woman, beautifully formed – and a son who had come of age. The son converted to Islam and was quite a good Muslim, judging from what one saw of his praying and fasting. He learned the craft of working with marble from a stonecutter who used to [131] cut stone for my father’s house. After staying for a long time in my father’s household, my father gave him as wife a woman from a pious family and paid all the expenses required for his wedding and home. His wife bore him two sons and they grew well and their father was pleased with them.

When the boys were six or seven years old, their father, the attendant Ra’ul, took them and their mother and everything he had in his house and, the next day, joined the Franks at Apamea. There, he and his sons became Christian again after having been Muslim, despite all their praying and fasting. May God (may He be exalted) purify the world of these people!

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 pilgrimage 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 amity 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 “ a respected Frankish knight who had come from their country just to go on pilgrimage 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 amity 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 him to come 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.
Profile Image for Lara.
4,139 reviews339 followers
March 13, 2015
Man, this was cool! Since it was written in the late 1100s, I was expecting it to be pretty difficult, but it think it helps that this is a modern translation, and also that, other than one section that is a eulogy, it was apparently written in a fairly casual style. I found it really interesting. A lot of it is details of battles with the Franks, or battles with lions or other wild animals, and sometimes that got a little old, although at times it was pretty entertaining. There is also a section on the character of the Franks that was kind of fascinating. And I loved his poems towards the end, about being an old man and not being able to fight Franks and lions anymore. I didn't expect the humor, I think, but I found myself laughing several times at various descriptions of events, or at obvious exaggerations. This certainly doesn't read like a modern adventure story or anything of the sort--it's more like listening to your grandfather meander his way through memories of his past: "It reminds me of this other time, when something similar happened..." But I found the whole thing kind of delightful.
Profile Image for Molly.
23 reviews
January 5, 2016
Provides an excellent view into the life of the Arab aristocracy during the period of the crusades (or Frankish invasions, as referred to by Munqidh). The timeline is choppy and largely unemotional, however the cultural picture presented is valuable in understanding the time period.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,840 reviews5,002 followers
February 14, 2017
You'd think a first hand-account of fighting in the Crusades would be fascinating, but actually this was pretty dull. The professor, who had failed to read it himself before assigning it, apologized for how boring it was!
Profile Image for Andrada.
Author 3 books49 followers
May 12, 2020
I heard about Usama ibn Munqidh while reading Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187 in which Usama features as a charming (mostly diplomatic) recurring figure. As soon as I found out about the Book of Contemplation, I wanted to read it so last month I finally got down to it!

It’s interesting how Runciman chose to focus on Usama primarily in his role as an astute diplomat, whereas Usama himself wishes to be most remembered for his feats in battle and hunting. Yet, despite only showing hints of his diplomatic prowess in a few episodes of the Book of Contemplation, Usama survived countless ruthless regimes, regularly wound up in the service of former enemies of his patrons and lived to be no less than 93. And all this during one of the bloodiest times in world history.

As you read through his book, you get a feeling as to why that is: not only is he clever, erudite and likable, but he is often the sane man in the room, understanding situations, when he can influence them and when not. The episodes surrounding his service to Abbas and Nasr are particularly telling. He clearly does not approve of their actions, but he does not condemn them or leave their service although he knows the situation will end badly for them.

If the History of the Crusades offered an overview of the Crusades, the Book of Contemplation is instead the view of the man on the ground, someone whose everyday life was the intrigues and wars of the Crusades.

And while there were several big, historical battles that Usama participated in, I found the casualness of every day warfare more intriguing. The way, for example, Usama talks about the Franks having ‘a usual spot’ where they made camp whenever they came out against Shayzar. It’s also interesting how easily Usama and his Muslim acquaintances found themselves on opposing sides in a battle. One person can be mentioned as an enemy in one segment, only to be hunting with Usama in the next. And while Usama does not hold back when fighting, he is sometimes relieved when certain opposing fighters aren’t killed because he knew them.

I liked that he decided to reserve a section of his book to the deeds of women. The only reason I gave this review four stars is because of the hunting annex which, for obvious reasons, I did not enjoy. Otherwise, a very interesting read!
Profile Image for Ned Hanlon.
136 reviews3 followers
February 4, 2018
Really neat but kind of meandering (which might be the point). The author tells about his life through an endless number of anecdotes and pearls of wisdom, skipping from place to place and time to time with only vague themes or similarities to link them. It is life as a collection of footnotes, not as a cohesive novel. Most of it is startlingly prosaic but there are a few moments of beautiful poetry (especially when bemoans the lot of a lifelong soldier subjected to the ravages of old age).

Destiny had forsaken me, leaving me like
An exhausted pack-camel abandoned in the wastes.
My eighty years have sapped all my strength
So that when I try to stand, I am broken.
I perform my prayers seated, for bowing
If I tried it, would be, for me, impossible.
This condition has warned me
That a journey is coming, and its time is nigh.
Profile Image for Dean S..
136 reviews1 follower
March 16, 2021
I read the first few books of this (11-180) for a class on "Race and Racism in/and the Middle Ages," and it's fascinating! I highly recommend it for a well-written, complex, and sometimes even funny account of the First and Second Crusades from an Islamic perspective.
Profile Image for isabella os.
27 reviews
January 21, 2022
okay so interesting but there are so many names that are so long and it does lowkey sound like the babbles of an old man sometimes which ig it technically is but it’s interesting and offers a unique opinion and insight but tbh introduction was the best most informative part
Profile Image for Jessica Harn.
145 reviews9 followers
March 4, 2018
One of the best first-hand accounts of the crusades and the (often hilarious) encounters between Muslims and Christians living together in Jerusalem during the Middle Ages
Profile Image for Mac.
283 reviews4 followers
September 19, 2018
Nothing better than reading history from a source actually there. Of course you must be aware of bias and the like but for the educated reader this is a great compliment to Middle Eastern history.
Profile Image for ECH.
426 reviews22 followers
June 26, 2019
One of the coolest primary sources I've seen
5 reviews
December 11, 2019
Özellikle dönemi ve bölgesi içerisinde Haçlı - Müslüman ilişkilerini değerlendirebilmek adına değerli bir kaynak.
82 reviews
September 5, 2021
Interesting anecdotes from the medieval Islamic world. More interesting and readable than a standard history book.
July 19, 2022
This is an amazing book if you wanna see the crusades from islam perspective and how the muslim people looked at the christian. Very interesting ideas.
49 reviews
October 22, 2022
Slightly repetitive in his description of warfare and hunting, ibn Munqidh was nonetheless an interesting character with a life of great interest to those wanting to read about the day-to-day life of the period. Interesting observations and anecdotes make the book worth reading overall.

Of particular interest are a Christian attempting to 'clean' a tent infested with fleas using fire, with predictable results (p. 99); a man releasing a newly captured leopard at a drinking party, with predictable results (p. 124) and a demented old woman attempting to clean the smell of cheese out of a headscarf, only for her son to point out that she was not using a piece of soap but rather a piece of cheese, hence the cheese smell (p. 199).

A man's soul will always shudder at such dangers and loathe them. But once a man of courage enters the fray of battle and wades among its throngs, all that shaking, shuddering and changing of colour disappears. (p. 98)

The Franks had amassed their troops in great numbers against Banias, and they were accompanied by their patriarch. The patriarch had pitched a large tent to use as a church in which they could pray. An old deacon was responsible for maintaining the church and he had covered the floor using rushes and grass, which infested the place with fleas. It then occurred to that deacon to burn the rushes and grass so as to burn up the fleas. So he set the rushes and grass – which had all dried out – on fire. The flames rose higher and higher and caught on the tent, leaving it a pile of ashes. Reason was surely not present in this man. (p. 99)

§ A Leopard Runs Amok at a Drinking-Party

A man from Aleppo captured a leopard and brought it in a sack to the lord of Qadmus, which belonged to one of the Banu Muhriz. The latter was engaged in a drinking party at the time. So the man opened the sack and the leopard came out and attacked the people in the sitting-room. As for the lord, he was near an opening in the tower, so he went in through it and closed the door. The leopard roamed through the house, killing some and wounding others until they killed it.
(p. 124)

My grandfather, Sadid al-Mulk ‘Ali (may God have mercy upon him), had a serving-girl called Lu’lu’a, who raised my father, Majd al-Din Murshid (may God have mercy upon him). And when he grew up, he moved out of the house of his father and she moved with him. Then I was brought into the world and that same servant, now an old woman, raised me until I grew up, got married and moved from the house of my father (may God have mercy upon him), and she moved out with me. Then I was blessed with children, whom she in turn raised. She was (may God have mercy upon her) one of the most pious women, constantly fasting and praying...

...She lived until she was almost a hundred years old and never missed her prayers, may God have mercy upon her!
I once went in to see her in the rooms I had set aside for her in my residence. In front of her was a wash-basin and she was washing a headscarf for use in prayer.
‘What’s that, mother?’ I asked.
‘My son,’ she replied, ‘this headscarf has been handled by someone with cheese on their hands. For no matter how much I wash it, it still gives off an odour of cheese.’
‘Show me the block of soap that you’re washing it with,’ I said.
So she took the soap out from the headscarf and, sure enough, it was a piece of cheese which she had thought was soap. Every time she rubbed that headscarf with cheese, it gave off its odour.
‘Mother,’ I said, ‘that’s a piece of cheese, not a piece of soap!’
She looked at it and said, ‘You’re right, my son. I didn’t think it was anything except soap.’
Blessed thus is God the most truthful of all speakers: ‘If We extend anyone’s life, We reverse his development.’
(p. 199-200)
Profile Image for Daniel.
Author 1 book43 followers
July 26, 2011
A great book! You need to read it in large chunks to get the right feel since the anecdotes are all related by themes. Reading them one at a time or even three or four at a time will not do.

The Book of Contemplation is, by the way, not really about the crusades; it's about Fate. The crusades are just a backdrop for the stories illustrating Fate's sovereignty.

That having been said, this book has been well translated to bring out Usama's incessant humour. Read this:

""A Reminiscence about that Aged Retainer

That Hamadat, mentioned earlier, was delightful to talk with. My father (may God have mercy upon him) told me, 'I once said to Hamadat one morning while we were on the road to Isfahan, ""Commander Hamadat, have you eaten anything today?""

'""Yes, sir. I had a bit of crust soaked in broth,"" he replied.

'So I said, ""But we've been riding all night, and we neither stopped nor did we light a fire. So how did you come by that broth-soaked crust?""

'""Well sir,"" he replied, ""I made it in my mouth. I chewed up some bread in my mouth and drank water on top of it, which made it like a broth-soaked crust.""'"" (62)

Another of my favourites is right before the section ""Cheetahs versus Leopards"":

""One of the special qualities of the leopard is that if it wounds a man, and a mouse urinates on the wound, the man will die. A mouse never gives up trying to reach a man wounded by a leopard . . ."" (124)

Continue reading and you will find copious tales about spear-throws, animals, hunting expeditions, curious Frankish traits, and other fascinating material.

Highly recommended for anyone reading this review.
Profile Image for Randal.
954 reviews12 followers
April 1, 2016
This has been a few pages here, few pages there proposition for me ... in part because it never really grabbed me.
I will take the jacket blurb at its word that this is an historically significant work. It's also for long stages just war stories:
Then there was the time Abu-el-Wotzit (may Allah bless his memory) rode into the bunch of Franks (Allah curse them). Woah!
Then there was the time the Frankish knight (Allah curse him) rode into the bunch of Arabs (Allah bless them). Woah!
It's not particularly enlightening about how things worked normally, because it's tale after tale about the really oddball parts of the conflict ... although there are some undoubtedly useful details to be gleaned for scholars looking for specifics (the details on hawking, for instance). Big parts of this section also stretch the author's credibility (and others are second- third- fourth-hand).
Overall, too disjointed for me to really enjoy.
Profile Image for Einar Eide.
6 reviews
September 15, 2015
Since one of the subtitles of this book was Islam and the Crusades I thought the book would be about thst theme. It was not, for that one would have to consult the literature on this subject, while this Usama is one of the sources for works on the Crusades from the muslim persoective. The Crusades are not actually of great concern to Usama interestingly.

Although the book was not quite what I expected, it gives fascinating insights into a warrior-poet-writer of the medieval Middle East. There are lovely scenes in his short tales, like two scholars accusing each other, or Usama deciding to write a book on staffs because he had heard of one but couldn't find it anywhere. While this book is a treasure trove for getting a feel of the period while as it were, hearing tales round Usama's fire, I find many of the tales tedious and I have spent what felt like ages finishing it.
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