Al Jazeera’s ‘The Crusades: An Arab Perspective’

by Dr Z.A.

In the West, one of the most decisive battles ever fought is the Battle of Tours, in 732 France. This moment is considered the turning point where Arab expansion into western Europe was forever halted. It is commemorated in books and mythology to this day as the moment Europe was saved.

For the Arab chroniclers, however, this moment is barely mentioned. It was at best a small raid gone wrong. Such is the power of historical perspective.

As someone with an amateur interest in history, I was looking forward to the Al Jazeera documentary ” The Crusades: An Arab perspective” for this very reason.

I thought for a moment that I would see an insightful challenge to the traditional modern Western centric view of the Crusades.

Instead what I saw was for the large part a disappointing rehashing of what is a well trodden path albeit with more Arab “talking heads”.

Let me explain.

History is ultimately dependent upon one’s frame of reference. So when Al Jazeera talked about the Crusades, so the western narrative is referenced by certain events. That is the first crusade and the conquest of Jerusalem, Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the sacking of Constantinople and Baibars and the final Mamluk push that recaptured the coast of Palestine from the Crusaders.

The documentary essentially repeated all those events in its description (only partly saved by the final episode’s insight) but by adding a few stories from the Arab perspective and including a few Arab analysts.

What they were saying in essence was that they agree with this western narrative of what is important in that era, but disagree with which talking heads they used and which modern parallels they wishes to invoke.

What they should have done was to emphasise how the Crusades were seen as a major but peripheral conflict in the Muslim world of that era. What was bigger was the rivalry between the Turkish dynasties and the Fatmids, how the Mongol threat was seen as more existential, how barely any of the Crusader  leaders registered in Arab chroniclers accounts, also how the last calls for Crusades were done against the Ottoman Turks as late as the 17th century. More importantly the truth was that the Crusades were for forgotten for centuries by both sides.

The West’s rediscovery of it was used to boast their empire’s historical roots. A vague and difficult point to prove in reality.

What should have happened amongst Muslim and Arab historians is that the Crusades longer term impact should’ve been shown, but the focus should have been about the broader story of Muslim history.

With this programme, all that we saw in the end was the same story with a different storyteller and a different set of biases.

Dr Z.A. is a GP, and a passionate amateur Historian, with a BA in Islamic History and a Masters in International Relations.

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2 replies »

  1. As an amateur student of medieval history, I really enjoyed it. You’re right, it could have been a LOT more, but with the current offerings on the topic available to the English speaking world, this was pretty refreshing. You’re correct that it’s just different storytellers and biases, but as someone who has heard this story so many time, I appreciate that we’re moving towards a more comprehensive understanding of the events of the crusades.

    I study medieval history in order to recreate it in the SCA. I found this documentary very illuminating. As our society grows we have many Arab personas in our ranks, as well as Eastern Orthodox personas. Documentaries like these will help us better understand how those cultures interacted and how our various personas could feel about each other.

    I thought it was very interesting that they shied away from portraying the really shocking things Latin crusaders may have engaged in, including cannibalizing fallen enemies. Those things make it into many of the ‘English-speakers for English-speakers’ programs, so their absence was noticeable

    I feel like, for all the flaws, I’m still hungry for the dialogue and appreciative that it’s starting to take shape. Especially in light of current events, I think we could all use better understanding of the past.

  2. It’s a pretty shoddy documentary which doesn’t mention battles that the Muslim sources have also mentioned. Jaffa, Arsuf & Dorylaeum aren’t mentioned at all. The armor and characterisation are utterly amateurish.

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