Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades, by Paul M. Cobb

Cobb, Paul M. The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. 335. $31.95. ISBN: 978-0-19-935811-3.

Reviewed by Steven Muhlberger

Nipissing University (retired)

I approached reviewing this book not as a specialist in the Crusades (I am not) but as someone who has taught the Crusades numerous times in the last thirty years in medieval and world history surveys, in a survey of Islamic civilization, and in an undergraduate course on Crusade and Jihad. I have had some experience of hunting for appropriate books that would help me explain the this period from the Muslim point of view, but not much luck in finding ones that are suitable in content and availability (and, yes, price).

The next time I teach that material, however, I will know where to go for a good discussion of what the Crusades looked like from the point of view of "the crusaded," to use Paul Cobb's phrase. I do not think there is any book on the market today as good as this one for showing the effects of the Crusades on the Muslim-ruled Middle East. It is a good solid narrative history that looks outwards from Syria and cities of the Dar-al-Islam ("the Abode of Islam") rather than at Jerusalem from France and Rome.

Paul Cobb comes to this material very well prepared to discuss events from the Islamic point of view. He has written on Abbasid Syria and post-Umayyad Spain, and both translated and written a monograph on Usama ibn Munqidh, whose Book of Contemplation has long been valued for its autobiographical reflections on Crusade-era Syria. Cobb is very familiar with the work of Muslim scholars and litterateurs and the cultural environment in which they worked.

And it is our good fortune that he has the ability to convey his understanding to non-specialists. Cobb has a gift for explaining. I was very impressed early on in the book with his explanation of the difference between Sunni and Shiite traditions in the Middle Ages, and similarly how well he explained the decentralized structure of political life in the era of the Seljuks, the Fatimids, the Ayyubids and the Ottomans. His discussion of the use of the word jihad in the period in question is, as it must be, careful and clear. The ability to introduce such basic matters to the reader is the most important test that a writer addressing a general audience faces. Cobb passes this test with flying colors.

The book is organized chronologically around military and political events with occasional diversions into historiographic questions or descriptions of cultural change. Cobb sticks very closely to his announced focus on Islamic history. Events and personalities that did not directly affect the Muslim world are deemphasized. The Fourth Crusade gets one paragraph. The role of the papacy, neglected by most Muslim writers, is hardly noted in the Race for Paradise. Frederick II, an active crusader and King of Sicily and as such the ruler over the Muslim minority on that island, gets much more coverage than his rival Innocent III, even though the pope in question was perhaps the most important architect of the Christian theory of holy war and its implementation. For this reader, familiar with the usual general accounts of the Crusades, it was a salutary exercise to follow along in Cobb's wake.

Cobb's performance as a narrative historian is not perfect. The same details that help him build a full and convincing picture of Islamic history sometimes feel like items in an unending catalogue of campaigns' battles, and political intrigues. But he is a far better and livelier writer than many scholars. Cobb's language is up-to-date and relaxed. He does not hesitate to break the unwritten rule that forbids scholars to use slang unless it is nearly a century old. On the other hand he does not overdo it by committing himself to phraseology that might prove to be entirely ephemeral.

Cobb's narrative history from the Islamic point of view is a very valuable resource. Yet he goes beyond this to discuss historiographical questions that are very much alive in the scholarly community, and also of interest to general readers who might pick up the book. He rejects the idea that Muslim observers had no appreciation for crusading as a unified phenomenon. He does believe that Christian religious motivations were hardly appreciated by most Muslims who discussed the aggression of the Franks. However, he argues that the dominant Muslim line of reasoning for the origins of the crusade was the fact that Franks were by nature an aggressive people. A number of Middle Eastern observers saw the wars of the Franks as an intensification of that inherent aggression. The attacks on Sicily and Muslim Spain after 1060 were for them an important prelude to the Jerusalem campaign of the 1090s. All of this Frankish aggression on a variety of fronts was of a piece. The unifying factor for these writers was the failure of the Muslim community with its many internal divisions to deal with this Frankish threat. It should be pointed out that just as Cobb's Muslim sources give the Sicilian and Spanish wars an important place in their analysis, so does Cobb emphasize those wars. The way he integrates the "western front" with the conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean is one of the best parts of his treatment.

Similarly, readers will find a very good discussion of the term jihad. Cobb believes that modern scholars sometimes overemphasize the contrast between greater or spiritual jihad and lesser or military jihad. Cobb argues that it is certainly the case that most discussions of jihad in the Crusading era referenced military activity against the infidel. But he also rejects the idea that jihad simply meant militarism. Jihad sprang from the duty of Muslims to "command the good and forbid the wrong." Whether that duty required a military response on the part of the faithful in any given case was a complicated question; the complications are very nicely handled in the book.

There is no full bibliography, but the "bibliographic sketch" and the endnotes provide quite adequate guidance for non-specialist readers.

To return to the Race for Paradise as a teaching resource. Will it be useful for students? This will depend on the exact goals of the course and how prominently the internal dynamics of the Muslim Middle East will be in it. Cobb's clear language and the book's very reasonable price make student use a real possibility. But Cobb's book certainly belongs on the bookshelf of anyone who teaches the Crusade, and on the shelves of every university library where the Crusades are taken seriously as part of the history curriculum.

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