Understanding the World of Ibn al-Athīr – Hamid Mahmood

Hamid Mahmood 

Picture by Hamid Mahmood

Understanding the World of Ibn al-Athīr

 Ibn al-Athīr, ‘Izz al-Dīn Abū al-Ḥasan ‘Alī al-Jazarī (1160-1233) the historian of Mosul has been put in first place alongside his contemporary Ibn Shaddād for the study of Saladin’s life.  But on the contrary Gibbs also accuses Ibn al-Athīr of giving a ‘malicious twist’ to the history of al-Isfahānī.  Can both statements be justified without contradicting the other; I believe it of great significance to try and understand the ‘mind’ of the author alongside the surroundings he finds himself in.    I will therefore analyse from the muqaddima (foreword) of al-kāmil, what Ibn al-Athīr believes to be the objective of History and its worldly benefits.  I will focus on the account of Saladin’s death in order to understand the medieval traditionalism at work in al-kāmil and contemporary works and explore the dualism in Ibn al-Athīrs description of Saladin.  Finally I will briefly mention some criticism of Gibbs’ understanding of Ibn al-Athīr by Yaacov Lev.  My main objective throughout, however, is to explore whether Ibn al-Athīr is wholesome negative of Saladin or is his analysis more complex in nature than what is generally thought.

I believe it is greatly significant to analyse a text through its ‘rootedness’ in ‘time’ and ‘place’.  This metaphor of the ‘rootedness’ of texts comes from Friedrich Schleiermacher, who argued that meaning and interpretation began with the intention of the author of a text, with due regard also to the historical context and situation out of which the author wrote.  Thiselton elaborated on what Schleiermacher meant by ‘intending’ as opposed to a simplistic understanding of it, ‘the goal and purpose behind and within a text that signal an author’s desire, will, and action as evidenced in and by the text and its surroundings.  Meaning and interpretation include more than these; but these remain his [Schleiermacher’s] starting point’.[1]  Yaacov Lev in his book ‘Saladin in Egypt’ illustrates such an approach and suggests,

Saladin’s historians were a product of their age and their attitudes and perceptions were shaped by the political and cultural values of the twelfth century… They have much in common in their educational and cultural backgrounds as well as in their professional careers… their world was shaped by the new institutions of learning that spread throughout the middle East from the second half of the eleventh century’.[2]

This analysis, despite it being for Saladin’s historian admirers, also includes Ibn Athīr because he too was influenced by the politics and culture of the time.  Hence, it is important to understand the role a madrasa would play and how it may influence the writings of the author.

The politics and culture in that period were intertwined.  Lev explains that, the cultural and religious life of the period was marked by traditionalism combined with mysticism, and focused on three institutions: madrasa, khānqā and dār al-ḥadīth’.[3]  From these institutions the former and latter were certainly influenced by the state and rulers, due to the system of patronage coupled with a social life that was overshadowed by a ‘zealous adherence’ of people (ta’assub).  Ibn al-Athīr’s work ‘asad al-ghāba fī ma’rifa al-ṣaḥāba’, which gives an alphabetical account of approximately 7500 companions of the Prophet shows ibn al-Athīr to be very much part of the traditional landscape of the madrasa and dār al-ḥadīth.  Secondly al-kāmil, according to Douglas Patton, was commissioned under the patronage of Badr al-Dīn Lu’Lu’.[4]  Hence I will examine al-kāmil, while fully aware of the cultural traditionalism and the patronage that Ibn al-Athīr owed his book to.

Furthermore, it is of equal importance to have in mind the ‘intent’ of the author as explained himself.  In this case we can deduce some points from Ibn al-Athīr’s illustration of the objective of History, which he describes under ‘fā’ida al-taṣnīf fī al-tārīkhfawā’iduhū al-dunyawiyya… al-fawā’id al-ukhrawiyya’ the benefit of authoring in [the subject of] History… its worldly benefits… benefits of the next world…’.  Ibn al-Athīr elaborates under ‘its worldly benefits’ the following points:

“The instructiveness of history has many aspects and its usefulness, both in this world and the other world, is very great.  Here, we shall mention only as much of that as we see fit.  We shall leave it to the natural intelligence of the student of history to make himself acquainted with the rest.

As to the usefulness of history for this world, for instance, it is no secret that human beings like to remain alive and prefer to be among the living.  Would that I knew what difference there is between things seen or heard yesterday and things read in books which contain historical information about the men of the past.  Reading about them is like being their contemporary, and knowing events is like being present when they took place.

Furthermore, kings and persons in authority may find the biographies of oppressors and tyrants treated in books which circulate among the people and which are transmitted from generation to generation.  They look at the ill fame and disgrace that were the consequence of oppression and tyranny, the resulting destruction of countries and human lives, the financial loss and the general corruption.  Thus, they come to disapprove of and avoid practises of oppression and injustice.  Likewise, they may see the biographies of just governors.  They read about the good reputation that survived them after their death, and the development and financial prosperity of their countries and realms.  Thus, they come to approve of their example and to desire to practise permanently what they did as well as to omit all that works to the contrary.  Kings and persons in authority derive an additional advantage from the study of history.  They learn through history about the wise counsels that served (their predecessors) to avert damage at the hands of enemies, to escape disasters, and to protect (?) rich cities and great realms

If such were the only useful aspect of history, it would be glorious enough`…’[5]

Here Ibn al-Athīr points towards three main benefits and also reasons for him writing texts on the subject of History, and his main readership he suggests is ‘men of authority and power’.  For ease of understanding I term each notion as follows: 1) faḍā’il (virtue), the readership approves and implements the ‘good reputation’ that survives the virtuous leaders; 2) mawā’iẓ (admonition), they disapprove of the oppression and tyranny by reading about the ill consequences that befell them and lastly; 3) ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba (acquaintance of pertinent and wise counsels),  they learn through wise counsels and build awareness of imprudent ones.  Also interesting, I believe, the first two are a direct influence of the traditional background of the author, which could be understood from the Qur’anic verse chosen to conclude the introduction: ‘[We have destroyed even mightier generations before these disbelievers, who travelled through many lands – was there any escape?] There truly is a reminder in this for whoever has a heart, whoever listens attentively’.[6]  This attention to the purpose of History has also been addressed by ibn al-Khaṭīb (1313-1374):

و یری العاقل من تصریف قدرۃ اللہ تعالیٰ ما یشرح صدرہ بالایمان و یشفیہ، و یمر علیٰ مصارع الجبابرۃ فیحسبہ بذلک واعظاً و یکفیہ’ [7]

…and that the intelligent may witness the vicissitude of the omnipotence of God: which enlightens his heart with faith and cures it.  And that he may journey through the falls and ruins of [once] mighty [rulers] and that should be sufficient for him as an admonisher and warning’.

And this is then further systemised by Ibn Khaldūn, which Muhammad Iqbal summarises in his famous poem:

ميں تجھ کو بتاتا ہوں ، تقدير امم کيا ہے

شمشير و سناں اول ، طاؤس و رباب آخر[8]

The destiny of nations I chart for you:

at first: The sword and spear;

the zither’s, the lute’s soft sighs at last.[9]

So, from the outset Ibn al-Athīr’s analysis of history is influenced by the theological trend present in medieval madāris (pl. of madrasa).  However, I will experiment with texts from al-kāmil with these notions for a creative insight into the mind of Ibn al-Athīr or whether he writes with a ‘malicious twist’ to al-Iṣfahānī’s al-barq al-shāmī as argued by Gibbs.

An analysis of the death of Saladin is significant in trying to understand the traditional medieval world of Ibn al-Athīr by merely scrutinizing the titles and benedictions attributed to the Sulṭān.  When comparing Ibn al-Athīr’s text on the account of the death of Nur al-Dīn compared to Saladin there are striking differences, which affirm the influence of ‘zealous adherence’ of people (ta’assub) suggested by Lev:  a notion that influences ibn al-Athīr’s writings and also that of his contemporaries.  Ibn al-Athīr begins with the title:

ذکر وفاۃ نور الدین محمود بن زنکی رحمہ اللہ

ثم دخلت سنۃ تسع و ثمانین و خمسماءۃ  ۔  ذکر وفاۃ صلاح الدین و بعض سیرتہ[10]

‘Account of the death of Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Zankī (God have mercy on him)

The Year 580 [1193]  –  Account of the death of Saladin and a little about his character’.[11] When mentioning Nūr al-Dīn the benediction ‘raḥimahū Allāh’ (God have mercy on him) is clearly cited in the title.  But on the contrary for Saladin it is omitted and only mentioned within the text but not title.  Even within modern Muslim societies such a notion would raise eye brows.  When comparing the accounts of the deaths of both leaders in al-Nawādir and kaitāb al-fatḥ al-qussiyy there is benedictions for both Nūr al-Dīn and Saladin:

ذکر وفاۃ نور الدین محمود بن زنکی رحمہ اللہ

ذکر وفاتہ رحمہ اللہ و قدس روحہ[12]

Account of the death of Nūr al-Dīn Maḥmūd ibn Zankī (God have mercy on him)

Account of his death (may God have mercy on him, sanctify his spirit and give the Muslims a good successor).[13]

ذکر وفاۃ السلطان رحمہ اللہ بدمشق  ۔

جلس لیلۃ السبت سادس عشر صفر فی مجلس عادتہ  ۔  و مجلیٰ سعادتۃ  ۔  و نحن عندہ فی اتم اغتباط ۔  و اتم  نشاط  ۔  و ھو یحدثنا و نحن نحدثہ ۔۔۔[14]

Account of the death of the Sultan (may God have mercy on him) in Damascus –

It is evident from these two that Saladin is more highly revered, as due to the cultural respect he is not mentioned by name: either he is referred to with a  pronoun (huwa – he) or a title (al-sulṭān). This additional reverence suggests the notion of ta’assub for Saladin and is very much similar to that of the Prophet in the Qur’an whereby he is mostly referred to by a qualitative title and his name Muhammad only appears four times in the entire scripture – adding to the idea of a cultural traditionalism prevalent in the madrasa thought process.  And this further suggests a transformation also of the sufi notion of tashakhuṣ (high reverence of the saint) into one that now begins to take precedence when speaking of the political leadership, which Lev also suggests from Ibn al-‘Asākir when ascribing to Nur al-Din an aura of holiness by saying that Nur al-Din’s baraka (blessing) saved people from hardship and brought prosperity to his subjects.[15]

One other factor that is at play in the mind of Ibn al-Athīr is his view of History and reason for the rise and fall of nations and dynasties.  Despite inserting a benediction for Saladin in the text he eagerly mentions Saladin’s conversation with his son al-Afḍal and brother al-‘Ādil, which suggests a greed for land.  Ibn al-Athīr mentions, ‘He [Saladin] said, ‘We have finished with the Franks.  There is nothing to occupy us in this land.  Which region shall we attack?’… [al-‘Ādil then proposes to attack Khillāṭ] because Saladin had promised him, if he took it, that he would hand it over to him…’.[16]  This endless greed for land and power for Ibn al-Athīr is punished by God and he elaborates:

‘I have perused histories and seen many events of Islamic history that can be reliably documented.  I have seen in the case of many who start a dynasty that power is transferred from their immediate offspring to other family and relatives’.[17]

Ibn al-Athīr gives the example of Mu’āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān (602-680), who ‘usurped’ power from Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Alī, from whom power was denied to his descendents and passed onto the Banū Marwān.  Lev points out that, ‘Ibn al-Athīr implies that the establishment of rule is associated with the shedding of blood and violence and therefore the founders cannot enjoy the fruits of their endeavours.  The roots of this concept are Biblical, but it serves Ibn al-Athīr’s purpose well’.[18]  It is interesting to note – despite this concept of punishment – that throughout his al-kāmil Ibn al-Athīr manages to conceal and circumvent this notion for his patron Badr al-Dīn Lu’Lu’, who according to Patton commissioned this work.[19] But, again one is perplexed of Ibn al-Athīr’s praise of Saladin subsequent to the conversation he had with his brother and son:

‘Saladin (may God have mercy on him) was a generous, forbearing, of good character, humble, ready to put up with something that displeased him, much given to overlooking the faults of his follower… as for his generosity, he gave away much, not hesitating about anything he gave away…when he died, he left only one Tyrian dinar and forty Nāṣirī dirhams in his treasury…’[20]

And Ibn al-Athīr continues to describe more virtues of Saladin, which include his humility when Sufis would attend on him; his adherence to the sharī’ah; transmission of ḥadīth and his might in Jihad against the infidels.  Ibn al-Athīr, I believe, divides his description of Saladin between that of Saladin the ‘ruler’ and Saladin the ‘religious’ personality.  This indicates how Ibn al-Athīr had no problem with viewing Saladin as a religious man but his political environment imprisons his thoughts on his leadership and forces him to term him a usurper.  This is similar to Mu’āwiya ibn Abī Sufyān, whose descendants too were deprived of the ‘fruits’ of power but under religiosity he too is highly regarded, also for being the companion of the Prophet the unique benediction ‘raḍiya Allāhu ‘anhu’ is placed besides his name, which means ‘God is pleased with him’.

 

However, as a resident in Mosul under the Zangids and constantly under their patronage, with the Ayyūbids Ibn al-Athīr conceals naught as opposed to curtaining Lu’Lu’s usurpation, and hastens to portray the transfer of power from Shīrkūh to Saladin and then from him to his brother’s descendents:

‘Finally take this Shīrkūh:  as we have mentioned, power was transferred to the descendants of his brother Ayyūb, and from Saladin too, after he had established and exalted the dynasty and become its founder, power passed to the offspring of his brother al-‘Ādil and in the hands of his own offspring there remained only Aleppo… what I think to be the reason for this is that the person who is the first of a dynasty takes ‘extreme measure’[21] and seizes power, while the hearts of his predecessors are deeply attached to it.  Therefore God, as a punishment for him, denies it to his descendents and those for whose sake he acts’.[22]

Clearly when Ibn al-Athīr was writing this only Aleppo remained under the hands of Saladin’s descendents.  However, it is slightly obscure to what Ibn al-Athīr means by ‘punishment’ and the reason for its importance determines the influence of theology present in medieval traditionalist madāris (pl. of madrasa).  For indeed Ibn al-Athīr, when narrating the incident of the death of Saladin, inserted into the text the benediction of ‘raḥimahu Allāh’ God have mercy on him.  This seems to be a contradiction between the ‘punishment’ of God on Saladin to ‘mercy’ of God, this transformation illustrates Ibn al-Athīr’s dual approach – of viewing him as a sulṭan and separately a religious figure.  By that I mean Ibn al-Athīr portrays Saladin as ‘Saladin the usurper and villain, greedy for power and wealth’ in relation to his usurpation of power from the Abbasids but then provides balanced evaluations in relation to the Crusaders and does not shy away from commending his religiosity.

 

An example of his balanced evaluations can be seen within his analysis and portrayal of the council of doctors.  Ibn al-Athīr mentioned in the introduction to al-kāmil as a benefit of History ‘ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba’ recognition of pertinent counsels.  Ibn al-Athīr narrates:

‘His emirs attended him and advised him to move from that place and to abandon close pressure on the Franks.  They presented this to him as the best course, saying, ‘We have pressed the Franks hard and even if they wanted to leave their position, they could not.  Our best plan is to move away so that they can pack up and leave.  If they do depart – and this is the likely outcome – then we are spared their trouble and they ours!  If they stay, we can return to the battle and get back to where we were before.  Moreover, your health is bad and your pain intense.  If any rumour of that got abroad, our men would be lost.  By every calculation our best plan is to withdraw from them.’  The doctors concurred in this, so he accepted it to do what was God’s will’.[23]

Despite Ibn al-Athīr being a contemporary to these events he was not an eye witness and uses ‘Imād al-Dīn’s text for this incident at Acre.  It is significant to note that following Saladin’s great victories at Ḥiṭṭīn and Jerusalem, here was a chance for Ibn al-Athīr to launch the most subtle criticism and there was no need to ‘maliciously twist’ the situation either – as Gibbs argues – as it was failure in all aspects of warfare.  But, instead Ibn al-Athīr decides to shield Saladin and bring the ‘councils and their counsels’ at the forefront of his criticism.  I view this as Ibn al-Athīr’s view of the incident through  ma’rifa al-ārā’ al-ṣā’iba or lack thereof and perhaps intends this counsel to be a lesson for future kings.  However, he only comes with this conclusion with hindsight otherwise strategically at the time that was perhaps a better option as strongly argued by the doctors.  Ibn al-Athīr here is trying to portray Saladin’s lack of leadership, autonomy, and a faltering passion for jihād.  It is also felt as though he is covering Saladin and shifting the blame onto his council.  But, he also credits Saladin when he opposes the council in Haṭṭīn, who suggest to avoid a large scale battle for constant raids and he opts for the all out attack, which earns him his greatest victory.  Hence, I agree with Lev that ‘each account that deals with Saladin must be examined on its own merits.  In many cases Ibn al-Athīr’s bias against Saladin is not evident and neither detectable to us because of our restricted understanding of the system of values which guided twelfth / thirteen century historians’.[24]

 

So is Ibn al-Athīr’s understanding of Saladin merely shrouded by and influenced by political powers or is the matter more complex?  In response to Gibb’s ‘all out attack’ on Ibn al-Athīr Lev suggests for a consideration of the following points to illustrate the complexity of dealing with al-kāmil.   I) Since both historical works of Ibn al-Athir (al-bāhir and al-kāmil) were written after the conclusion of ‘Imad al-Din’s the Syrian Lightning, there is no valid reason to accept Gibb’s assumption that Ibn al-Athir’s account of the years 1169 – 1171 is independent of ‘Imad al-Din. Ibn al-Athir could have used ‘ Imad al-Din for the years 1169 – 1171 too.[25]   2) Ibn al-Athir did collect information and sources quite independently of ‘Imad al-Din. In both works of Ibn al-Athir there are many accounts based on oral information.  For example, the man who was instrumental in the proclamation of Friday sermons in Egypt in the name of the Abbasids was personally known to Ibn al-Athir.  And the account of Nur aI-Din’s death is related on the authority of his personal physician.  Therefore, the divergence between the works of ‘lmad al-Din and Ibn al-Athir is not necessarily a reflection of Ibn al-Athir’s distortion of ‘Imad al-Din; it could have been a result of different and independent sources’.[26]    Also to overlook a culture of study based very much on the oral tradition is erroneous.

3) Hostility to Saladin does not discredit outright Ibn al-Athir’s commentary on Saladin’s deeds and motives.  For the modern student of Saladin a non-partisan account might prove very valuable. 4) A comparison between Ibn al-Athir’s accounts in the history of the Atabegs and the universal history reveals that the narrative in the universal history is more hostile to Saladin. In the universal history Saladin is always portrayed in a worse light than in the history of the Atabegs.

And lastly and most significantly, 5) hostility to Saladin did not permeate the whole of Ibn al-Athir’s writings. The following example can serve as an illustration for the different ways Saladin is treated by Ibn al-Athir. In his account of Shirkuh’s third campaign in Egypt, Ibn al-Athir quotes Saladin as saying: “Allah gave me a possession of what I had not coveted”. Ibn al-Athir’s informant was a person very close to Saladin, and here this illustrated Saladin’s early reluctance to participate in the third campaign to Egypt and the results were beyond imagination.  Lev rightly notes that, ‘Saladin’s aim is to portray himself as a man who is not avid for power.  His fortunes were ordained by God in spite of his own reluctance and  he is merely a tool of God’s will.[27]  By using this account, Ibn al-Athīr propagates in fact Saladin’s self created image, which contradicts that of the power-obsessed leader.  Once again it becomes unclear of why Ibn al-Athīr’s views change throughout the book.

In conclusion I found through a constant focus on the traditional landscape of the then medieval Islamic world that Ibn al-Athīr is shrouded by complexity and by no means is completely dismissive of Saladin’s career.  However, through the focus on the account of Saladin’s death I found that Ibn al-Athīr maybe has a duality in viewing the sulṭan as a leader who usurped but at the same time a man of commendable religiosity.  Hence, he draws a line between his criticism of his usurpation – and any matter related to it – and his religiosity, which includes his jihādī valour against the might Crusades.  I have come to learn that the general view of Ibn al-Athīr as a zangid historian twisting history to stigmatize Saladin, maybe correct in relation to the account of his usurpation and must be dealt with additional care, but throughout al-kāmil there are passages which prove otherwise.

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http://ia700807.us.archive.org/14/items/AlFat7AlQ/Fah7Q.pdf

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http://www.allamaiqbal.com/


[1] Thiselton, A. C. (2009).  Hermeneutics: An Introduction. pp. 20-22.  See ‘The Rootedness of Texts Located in Time and Place’.

[2] Lev, Y. (1999).  Saladin in Egypt.  pp. 1-2

[3] ibid., p. 2.  In the madrasa, Sunni law and other auxiliary subjects were taught. Dār al-Ḥadīth was an institution of a more narrow scope devoted to the study of the Prophetic traditions. The

khānqā served the mystics (Sufis) as a focal point of their social and religious life.

[4] ibid., p. 36

[5] Ibn al-Athīr, (D. 630) – (2003).  al-Kāmil fī al-Tārīkh: min sana 562 li ghāya sana 628 li al-hijra – al-mujallad al-tāsi’.  Vol. 1,  p.9-11.  Translation taken from: Rosenthal, F. (1968).  A History of Muslim Historiography.  2nd ed.  pp. 298-300

[6] Qur’an 50:33-37

[7] Quote taken from ibn al-Khaṭīb of Granada (1313-1374). Al-iḥāṭa fī akhbār al-gharnāṭa. see muqaddima (introduction)

[8] Taken from Iqbal’s ‘bāl-e-jibrīl’ – available online: http://www.allamaiqbal.com/

[9] Translation from ‘Gabriel’s Wing’ by Taseer, M.D in Pakistan Quarterly, Karachi. April 1947

[10] Ibn al-Athīr, (D. 630) – (2003).  op. cit., Vol. 10, p.589

[11] Richards, D. S. (2010).  The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-kamil fi’l-Ta’rikh. Part 2: The Years 541-589/1146-1193: The Age of Nur al-Din and Saladin. p.408

[12] Ibn Shaddād, B. (D. 632 A.H.) – (1317 A.H.).  Kitāb Sīra Salāḥ al-Dīn al-Ayyūbiyy al-musammāt bi al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya.  p. 249

[13] Richards, D. S. (2007).  The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin or al-Nawādir al-Sulṭāniyya wa’l-Maḥāsin al-Yūsufiyya by Bahā’ al-Dīn Ibn Shaddād. p. 243

[14] Al-Iṣfahāniyy, ‘I. D. (1935).  Kitāb al-fatḥ al-qussiyy fī al-fatḥ al-qudsiyy ‘کتاب الفتح القدسی فی الفتح القدسی’. p. 454

[15] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 8

[16] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.408

[17] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.178

[18] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 40

[19] ibid., p.36

[20] Richards, D. S. (2007). Al-kāmil  op. cit., p.408-9

[21] Richards interprets this to mean taking extreme measure: to acquire and remain in power by killing many people.  He comes to this conclusion because one manuscript mentions explicitly mentions ‘yukthir al-qatl (kills many people).  See al-nawādir, p.179, footnote no. 14

[22] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.179

[23] Richards, D. S. (2010).  op. cit., p.369

[24] Lev, Y. (1999).  op. cit., p. 40-41

[25] ibid., p. 38

[26] ibid.

[27] ibid., p. 39

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