Monday, July 21, 2014

Paul M. Cobb's "The Race for Paradise"

Paul M. Cobb is Professor of Islamic History in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of White Banners: Contention in Abbasid Syria, 750-880 and Umayyad Legacies: Medieval Memories from Syria to Spain.

Cobb applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Race for Paradise falls at a crucial moment in the narrative, namely the arrival of the European Crusaders (known to the Muslim inhabitants of the Near East as “Franks”) before the walls of Jerusalem in 1099. This was the final act of the events known in the West as the First Crusade. The Franks had been busy for some time much farther north in what is now Syria and Lebanon, where part of the army at least recalled lessons they had earlier learned in Muslim Spain (known as al-Andalus): namely that holding a castle hostage (in this case a fort named ‘Arqa) during a siege could be much more lucrative than actually going through the trouble of capturing it. This made others in the army rather antsy:
Indeed, just as in al-Andalus of the taifa kings, the Muslim lord of Tripoli sent envoys to Raymond and the Franks at ‘Arqa with vast amounts of coins and gifts to buy them off—hardly an inducement to move on, if more such wealth could be extracted. In the end the rest of the Frankish army arrived to reunite with Raymond, and the drive to reach Jerusalem was too strong. ‘Arqa and nearby Tripoli would have to wait for Raymond’s attentions at a later date. The Franks lifted the siege and proceeded down the coastal road into Palestine, “and the people fled in panic from their abodes before them.” At Arsuf, on the coast, they cut inland toward al-Ramla, which they captured, while Bohemond’s rough nephew Tancred, his hour come round at last, slouched toward Bethlehem to take it as his own. The next day, June 7, the Franks encamped before their heartfelt goal: Jerusalem.
This passage is and isn’t a representative passage of my book, however. Most starkly, it is all about the Franks and is written somewhat from their point of view. The Race for Paradise, however, is (as the sub-title says) An Islamic History of the Crusades, which I tried to write as much as possible from the perspective of Muslim observers, using medieval Islamic sources almost exclusively to do so. Yet this passage is very Crusader-centric.

And that is perhaps a point worth highlighting. For the fact is that the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 did not leave such a huge impact in the contemporary Islamic sources. This passage shows that, in order to describe the events leading up to the conquest of Jerusalem, we have to fall back on Frankish sources. Contemporary Muslims, for a host of reasons, were simply not keen to report in any detailed way on the progress of the Franks across Syria. Even the infamous stories of Frankish rapine and destruction that accompanied the conquest of Jerusalem appear only at a later date, although there seems little reason to doubt their general outline. In the fury of the moment, most Muslims seem to have considered the Frankish invasion of Syria to have been a local Syrian problem. Only later would they realize their mistake, and then re-cast these events as a problem for all of Islamdom.

The passage is also unrepresentative in that (unlike the rest of the book) it contains a hidden snarky literary reference—extra credit for those of you who find it!
Learn more about The Race for Paradise at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue