Examining Primary Sources: Usamah Ibn Munqidh's Autobiography
Valuable Primary Sources
In studying history, there are many teachings that can be extremely biased or misleading. That is why looking to primary sources is so valuable as it offers insight into people, places, and events that cannot be seen as well in more contemporary writings. The autobiography of Usamah Ibn Munqidh offers a window into the Middle Eastern world and how the Europeans, or Franks, were viewed.
Who was Usamah?
Usamah lived through a large part of the Crusades. He found himself fighting and killing many Crusaders and eventually found friendship with those that found a home in his own homeland. Through his autobiography, which was written around 1175, Muslim readers would be able to see how stereotyping the Europeans actually prevented them from seeing them for who they really were.
The Character of the Franks
In this particular section of Usamah’s autobiography, he looks at the character of the Franks. He describes them as “animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else.” Through his writing, he sets out to “give some instances of their goings and their curious mentality.”
The purpose for a modern reader is to see how the Muslims viewed the foreigners and saw their daily actions. By doing so, a clearer and more unbiased understanding of the interactions between the two cultures can be seen.
A Different Look
Many accounts from the time of the Crusades paint the residents of the Middle East completely uncivilized barbarians. One would assume that the people who the Crusaders found were nothing more than animals themselves. Very little is usually seen of how the Muslims viewed the Christians who appeared.
One of the big differences between the cultures was on the subject of medicine and health.
Historical accounts have presented the Muslims as having nothing to contribute with the Europeans having the greater advancements in all areas of life. Other accounts have presented the European Christians as being ignorant of sanitary needs and unknowledgeable in the ways of healing. Usamah, as a Muslim, could well have taken the latter stance in describing the Europeans he encountered. He witnessed enough events to still be a source in proving it.
In his autobiography, Usamah recounts a time when his uncle sent a European medicine man to a ruler asking for him to treat some people of his land that were struck down with sickness. Upon treating one man, a foreign doctor appeared and declared the first doctor to be incompetent. Instead of trying to save the leg as the first doctor was attempting to do, the European doctor “laid the leg of the patient on a block of wood and bade the knight strike his leg with the ax and chop it off at one blow….and the patient died on the spot.” Usamah gives so many examples of such ignorant and barbaric actions by European doctors that many would assume that all were like that. In fact, Usamah could have stopped there and left that impression for all to read.
The Vast Differences
The author goes on to describe another experience he witnessed first-hand in which a European doctor was quite the opposite. In the case of a man who had an infected leg from an injury, a European doctor “removed from the leg all the ointments which were on it and began to wash it with very strong vinegar. By this treatment, all the cuts were healed and the man became well again.” Usamah also recounts when an herbal recipe was given that proved to work for an acquaintance and him when he used it. This recipe was given by an ‘ignorant’ European.
Let's Step Back
These examples are important in discussing the reliability of a source and where it stands in viewing its subjects. If Usamah wanted to paint an unpleasant picture of the Europeans, he could have stopped with the account of the butchering foreign doctor. Instead, he paints a more complicated and realistic picture. He shows how not all Europeans were ignorant or stupid. He shows where even Muslims learned much from them and lives were saved from their knowledge.
Usamah goes into the personality of the European as well and shows how different they are from the Muslims in their treatment of women and how they viewed marriage and family relationships. Once again he uses both unfavorable and favorable examples. Usamah proves to be a very reliable source in that he is not painting just one picture of either culture. He is giving examples of both extremes. By doing so, he gives a much clearer account of the daily interactions between the cultures.
When a source is not obviously biased and can present pros and cons for each side, the information it presents is treated with respect and trustworthiness. Usamah is honest in his personal dealings with the foreigners as he notes how those that have lived with the Muslims for a long time “are much better than the recent comers from the Frankish lands. But they constitute the exception and cannot be treated as a rule.” While this might not be the complete truth as this is just one source and should be evaluated with other strong sources, this still flows with the rest of Usamah’s writings where he sees the Europeans as strange and barbaric at times but is willing to admit their strengths when apparent. That alone makes this a source worth looking at.
Sources that look at two sides and can concede where honesty demands it are sources that any historian should look at. Usamah Ibn Munqidh’s autobiography gives the historian a glimpse of the European Christian world in the Middle East and how they were perceived by the Muslims residing there. The accounts are not at all biased and anyone wanting to know more about how the Europeans acted during these times should consider using his writings as part of their research along with other reliable sources giving unbiased and detailed accounts.
Ibn Munqidh, Usamah. Fordham University. "Medieval Sourcebook: Usamah Ibn Munqidh (1095-1188): Autobiography." Accessed March 20, 2012. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/usamah2.html.