Saturday, 16 February 2019

A Review of the Memoirs of Usama Ibn-Munqidh

What stands out to me most is the warmth and violence of the man and the deranged, but very terrible absurdism of the times.

Translated by Philip K.Hitti


It is a patterning of memories, brought to light in the same way that most human memories are, by the linking of kinds and of moments, with elements of one scene leading to the next.

If compared to a modern highly-researched history using multiple sources and records the accuracy and precision is respectively low, but compared to any actual human being that I know or have met in real life, the power of Usamah memory and recollection is astounding.

Names, places, dates and situations flow across the page exactly as if they were drawn directly from his mind. Though the nature of their expression is deeply human, with kind linking to kind and emotion to emotion, the feel, exactness, detail and liveliness, as well as exact memories of who was where when, and doing what, is deeply impressive.

Scene after scene springs into life from the page. Many, perhaps most, of these scenes are of Usamah or his father endlessly hunting birds, lions, hyenas, boars, geese, pretty much any and everything available in the local environment.


Usamah is at his most effecting when describing his relationship with his father, which, as it is a very classically male relationship, is described almost entirely through things they *do* together. Of which the lesser is fighting and the greater is hunting.

Usamas father gets an entire chapter dedicated to his absolute and overriding obsession with hunting. Something he passes on to his son, though in slightly lesser form, (it seems impossible that any imaginable human could love hunting as much as Usamahs father).

This passion goes so deep that to modern eyes it seems a mind of mania, and presents a relationship with the natural world which is difficult to process from the eyes of a modern city dweller, for whom nature may be something to revere but to avoid fucking with, but might make more sense to a farmer or a tory foxhunter.

Both father and son seem to absolutely adore nature and animals and both have absolutely no problem with that relationship being conducted largely through violence towards animals.

Some notes on Usamah's dad;

- So obsessed with falconry that he takes at least ten on every hunt, fills the house with falcons, trades falcons with neighbouring lords, converts at least one village into a cash-crop venture in which the *only* thing those people do is hunt falcons and bring them to him.

- This falcon, Al-Yahshur was so magnificent, capable, intelligent and beloved by Usamahs father that it was kept apart from the other falcons. It would be allowed to drink from a special cup, have a special bath poured for it if it wanted to bathe, be placed on a special perch to dry with a single live coal by it to keep it warm, would be combed and oiled and given a special piece of fur to sleep on, and then carried, sleeping, so that it was near the bed of Usamahs father as he slept.

- Likewise a Cheetah (of which they had many) was similarly exalted, given a special bed in the castles yard, allowed to walk itself, off the leash, to its collar, and combed by a handmaid.

- The home of Usamahs youth contained, as well as an essentially infinite number of falcons, various other birds of prey, cheetahs various hunting animals, pigeons, green water fowl, starlings, gazelles, rams, goats and fawns.

It seems that Usamahs father did only three things in his life, fight, hunt and copy the Qur’an. He made MANY of copies during his life. These are apparently the only things a Syrian Knight is really meant to be doing, and in this case at least, the cultural strictures seem to have meshed with a character well adapted to, and very enthusiastic about, them.

Above all it is the enormous depth of the passion for violence, faith and nature, communicated through the relation of a loving, even adoring son which impresses. The biophilia in particular suggests a life of arguably narrow-scope but enormous intensity, drive and feeling, and quality of person that it would be difficult to encounter in the modern world.


One of the strange, or manageably-bad things about Usamahs recollection is the extreme and horrific violence of much of it and the fact that this does not leave much of an impression on the reader of 'badness' or any sustained sense of deep horror.

He is a man living in a hateful age, who carries his hatreds and prejudices lightly, as much as culture requires, but without the deep consuming adoration for hatred that compels in the depiction of the enthusiastic bigot.

Certainly, Usamah will murder some Franks, in open combat, and at times in less-open combat. He ritually curses their name whenever they come up.

He will do things horrible to the eye. In one incident a bunch of Frankish pilgrims wander accidently into his fathers town. After a brief panic in which they think they are being invaded, the locals quickly attack and subdue these (apparently unarmed and non-aggressive) pilgrims. Kill a few, sell some off as slaves and imprison/convert others.

This kind of thing happens a lot. Everyone is doing it to everyone else almost all of the time. The Franks are doing it to the Muslims, the Muslims are doing it to the Franks and each other and presumably the Franks are also doing it to each other, though we do not go deeply enough into their world to see much of it.

He is never for a moment perturbed by any doubt that his culture is inherently superior to that of the Franks, or of the other denominations if Islam that occasionally turn up.

If you were to strip out all the awful things he does and present them one after the other to a modern, unsympathetic, or just very-literal audience, you would have the making of a supreme monster.

Yet, in the context of his life, of his times, of his character as displayed in other elements of his experience and simply of the 'feel' of the man as a whole, he seems 'good'. By the standards of a hateful time he is relatively decent. My impression of him and feeling towards him after reading the book is one of affection. He would kill me without a second thought.


The structuring of the text and the fact that Usamah simply tries to reflect *everything* he can think of at the end of his life, creates an impression of history quite distinct from any more deliberate narrative or thematic history.

Those books would need to make a point and sustain a point of view and not to seem stupid or to get bogged down in random bullshit.

But the 'point' of Usamahs history is simply "this is what I remember of my life", or arguably "all things are down to the Will of Allah (exalted is he!), especially when it seems like they are just crazily incoherent"

But because Usamah moves from memory to memory, and because the text is either badly organised, or not organised at all, possibly due to the terrible scribe the current translator blames for many difficulties in comprehension, and possibly due to the nature of the times and the expected arrangement of books in that period, what we have is a kaleidoscope, or a shelf full of photographs cast onto the floor, mixed up, treaded on, then picked up and placed in whatever linear order they came to the hand. Much of its meaning is created by us as we read it.

And this helps to sustain the massive difference we see and intuit between histories, which have clear directions, coherent actions and chains of causation, meaningful ends and a sense that there are 'ages' and 'events', and actual life-as-it-is lived.

In actual life, it’s just a whole bunch of insane and/or boring stuff happening all at the same time. It’s very rare at the moment of experience or in the flow of day-to-day living that you really know or understand what is going in, what has meaning and is part of the story of your life, and what is just stuff that is happening.

In Usamahs case, this absurdism is deepened by the chaotic state of the warfare between the Franks and Muslims, between the Muslims and the Muslims and between almost anyone at any time.

Betrayals and strange double-crossings are continual. There are periods where it seems like no loyalty will last more than a second, creating a sense of fervid instability and strange un-reality.

Military actions in the book seem heroic, stupid and terrifyingly random. There are very significant actions begun on an impulse or a random charge. For huge swathes of time there its quite obvious that neither side really understands what the other is doing, or even what they themselves are doing. It's near comical how random, disjointed and how utterly un-storylike many of these storied events are.

Usamah makes a point of remembering every strange discontity brought about by combat. Some brave men fear mice (literally), some take sword thrusts through the body, or even have their faces cut off, only to heal up or have the face sewn back on, and to go back to life with only a freaky Batman-Villain nickname. Others die to pin-pricks, falling stones or random chance.

The cultural situation is equally incoherent. It is a time of cosmopolitan prejudice and cultural-exchange murder-fests. If you picked out one half of these stories you could have a nice low-rent twitter link about how the period of the Crusades was a time of "wonderful diversity and cultural growth", which is true, so far as it goes. If you picked out the other half you could have a nice alt-right article about how Muslims and Christians are destined to endlessly muerderise each other. But all of these things are happening at once, all the time.

To me the randomness is baffling, strange and frightening. It feels very realistic and it makes it seem to me as if the world is a stupid place.

I suspect to Usamah, the same things were simply evidence of the will of Allah, that he lives his life in the direct presence of a higher power, which ordains all things, and produces these apparent absurdities for its own complex reasons which he will never fully understand but must simply accept.


While believing one thing for the whole of his life, with absolute conviction, Usamah also effectively believes a few different things as well, without any awareness of the discontinuity.

He is not stupid, I think instead, a highly intelligent man, but his nature, his life and the training of his culture did not encourage introspection, and as for philosophy and ideals, well he has the Qur’an, it’s all in there anyway. He was a perfect cavalier, all his energy and intelligence directed outwards, into the adventure of the living world, with almost none pointed back in. (Though there is a little.)

So Usamah happily curses the Franks, battles them endlessly, and becomes familiar with many of them to first-name basis. He points out that their culture and medicine is moronic and dangerous, and also mentions a few times they managed to cure impossible diseases. He is their friend, he is their enemy.

Usamah believes absolutely that all combats are fought in the palm of god and that planning and strategy and subterfuge are all utterly pointless, and he repeats this many, many, many times. Nothing will save you when your time is up, so you simply have to be brave and faithful to god and charge right in.

However, *here* are some examples of some clever subterfuges that actually worked pretty well. Here are some examples of his failures that could have been prevented by better planning and more experience and here are some others making obviously stupid decisions that put them in danger.

He is like this with many, many things. From our point of view, or to be honest, the point of view of almost anyone with a regular or analytical mind, this is absolutely nuts. But it worked for him. Though his philosophy seems incoherent, his actions are not, instead they are sometimes wise, often effectual. His experience, awareness, understanding and ability to learn are strong and distinct, and though that might not match up logically to us with a man whose ideology is all over the place and who's statement contradict each other within the space of a page, it seems that in the kind of life he lived, that just doesn't matter at all. Whatever it takes to be a competent Syrian Knight, it has nothing at all to do with complex coherent internal logic.


The paradox of Usamahs life, one that he is clearly living through while dictating his book, is that this most active, murderous, brave, adventurous and extremely high-risk man, lives to the age of ninety.

It's horrible for him. He gives one of the greatest laments to age and illness;

"Feebleness has bent me down to the ground, and old age has made one part of my body enter through another, so much so that I can now hardly recognize myself; and I continually bemoan my past. Here is what I have said in describing my own condition;

When I had attained in life a high state
For which I had always yearned, I wished for death.
Logevity has left me no energy
By which I could mee the vicissitudes of time when hostile to me.
My strength has been rendered weakness, and my two confidants,
My sight and my hearing, have betrayed me, since I attained this height.
When I rise, I feel as if laden
With amountain; and when I walk, as though I were bound with chains.
I creep with a cane in my hand which was wont
To carry in warfare a lance and a sword.
My nights I spend in my soft bed, unable to sleep
And wide awake as thogh I lay on solid rock.
Man is reversed in life: the moment
He attains perfection and completion, then he reverts to the condition from which he started."


There is much much more, nuggets of strangeness are scattered like gold though this book. Though so are incessant and repetitive stories about "that time I killed a lion" and "this thing with a falcon that time". It takes the high-drama but sombre and distant dramatic stage of the Crusades and kicks over the scenery, revealing vast, incoherent teeming human life, actual real people and living characters.

This is simply a great book for anyone who wants to spend an few days with a crazy Islamic grandad. I would strongly recommend it.


  1. Vividly described. I really like these summaries/paraphrases - I've read enough medieval texts to know they can often be a tremendous slog even while they have moments of strange beauty and horror and wonder, so it's great to get these distillations, though this is a strong enough recommendation I may actually have a look at this one.

    1. There are definitely parts that are a slog but the hit ratio is relatively high.

  2. Most interesting, thanks for sharing!

  3. "My impression of him and feeling towards him after reading the book is one of affection. He would kill me without a second thought."

    This is good. I like that it is possible to experience admiration for something so utterly inimical to the one admiring. Like, how awesome is that tiger that would eat me alive and is entirely incapable of empathising with me, scream though I might.

    "Nothing will save you when your time is up, so you simply have to be brave and faithful to god and charge right in."

    I am convinced that there was a childish quality to mediaeval people, much as it may seem that I cast aspersions from a position of temporal privilege. The texts seem full of this wide eyed trusting naivete that I find hard to square with the extraordinary competence required to pull off Lincoln Cathedral or the Hagia Sophia.

    No doubt that unquestioning faith made Usamah and his compatriots formidable.