Usmah Ibn Munqidh (1095-1188):
Autobiography, excerpts on the Franks
Usamah (1095-1188), was a Muslim warrior and courtier, who fought against the Crusaders
with Saladin. Yet as a resident of the area around Palestine, he also had a chance to befriend
a number of them. His autobiography dates from around 1175.
Mysterious are the works of the Creator, the author of all things! When one comes to recount
cases regarding the Franks, he cannot but glorify Allah (exalted is he!) and sanctify him, for
he sees them as animals possessing the virtues of courage and fighting, but nothing else; just
as animals have only the virtues of strength and carrying loads. I shall now give some
instances of their doings and their curious mentality.
In the army of King Fulk, son of Fulk, was a Frankish reverend knight who had just arrived
from their land in order to make the holy pilgrimage and then return home. He was of my
intimate fellowship and kept such constant company with me that he began to call me "my
brother." Between us were mutual bonds of amity and friendship. When he resolved to return
by sea to his homeland, he said to me:
My brother, I am leaving for my country and I want you to send with me thy son (my son, who
was then fourteen years old, was at that time in my company) to our country, where he can
see the knights and learn wisdom and chivalry. When he returns, be will be like a wise man.
Thus there fell upon my ears words which would never come out of the head of a sensible
man; for even if my son were to be taken captive, his captivity could not bring him a worse
misfortune than carrying him into the lands of the Franks. However, I said to the man:
By thy life, this has exactly been my idea. But the only thing that prevented me from carrying it
out was the fact that his grandmother, my mother, is so fond of him and did not this time let
him come out with me until she exacted an oath from me to the effect that I would return him to
Thereupon he asked, "Is thy mother still alive?" "Yes." I replied. 'Well," said he, "disobey her
not." A case illustrating their curious medicine is the following:
The lord of al-Munaytirah wrote to my uncle asking him to dispatch a physician to treat certain
sick persons among his people. My uncle sent him a Christian physician named Thabit. Thabit
was absent but ten days when be returned. So we said to him, "How quickly has thou healed
thy patients!" He said:
They brought before me a knight in whose leg an abscess had grown; and a woman afflicted
with imbecility. To the knight I applied a small poultice until the abscess opened and became
well; and the woman I put on diet and made her humor wet. Then a Frankish physician came
to them and said, "This man knows nothing about treating them." He then said to the knight,
"Which wouldst thou prefer, living with one leg or dying with two?" The latter replied, "Living
with one leg." The physician said, "Bring me a strong knight and a sharp ax." A knight came
with the ax. And I was standing by. Then the physician 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. Accordingly he
struck it-while I was looking on-one blow, but the leg was not severed. He dealt another blow,
upon which the marrow of the leg flowed out and the patient died on the spot. He then
examined the woman and said, "This is a woman in whose head there is a devil which has
possessed her. Shave off her hair." Accordingly they shaved it off and the woman began
once more to cat their ordinary diet-garlic and mustard. Her imbecility took a turn for the
worse. The physician then said, "The devil has penetrated through her head." He therefore
took a razor, made a deep cruciform incision on it, peeled off the skin at the middle of the
incision until the bone of the skull was exposed and rubbed it with salt. The woman also
expired instantly. Thereupon I asked them whether my services were needed any longer, and
when they replied in the negative I returned home, having learned of their medicine what I
knew not before.
I have, however, witnessed a case of their medicine which was quite different from that.
The king of the Franks bad for treasurer a knight named Bernard, who (may Allah's curse be
upon him!) was one of the most accursed and wicked among the Franks. A horse kicked him
in the leg, which was subsequently infected and which opened in fourteen different places.
Every time one of these cuts would close in one place, another would open in ancther place.
All this happened while I was praying for his perdition. Then came to him a Frankish physician
and removed from the leg all the ointments which were on it and began to wasb it with very
strong vinegar. By this treatment all the cuts were healed and the man became well again. He
was up again like a devil. Another case illustrating their curious medicine is the following: In
Shayzar we had an artisan named abu-al-Fath, who had a boy whose neck was afflicted with
scrofula. Every time a part of it would close, another part would open. This man happened to
go to Antioch on business of his, accompanied by his son. A Frank noticed the boy and asked
his father about him. Abu-al-Fath replied, "This is my son." The Frank said to him, 'Wilt thou
swear by thy religion that if I prescribe to you a medicine which will cure thy boy, thou wilt
charge nobody fees for prescribing it thyself? In that case, I shall prescribe to you a medicine
which will cure the boy." The man took the oath and the Frank said:
Take uncrushed leaves of glasswort, burn them, then soak the ashes in olive oil and sharp
vinegar. Treat the scrofula with them until the spot on which it is growing is eaten up. Then
take burnt lead, soak it in ghee butter and treat him with it. That will cure him.
The father treated the boy accordingly, and the boy was cured. The sores closed and the boy
returned to his normal condition of health.
I have myself treated with this medicine many who were afflicted with such disease, and the
treatment was successful in removing the cause of the complaint.
The Franks are void of all zeal and jealousy. One of them may be walking along with his wife.
He meets another man who takes the wife by the hand and steps aside to converse with her
while the husband is standing on one side waiting for his wife to conclude the conversation. If
she lingers too long for him, he leaves her alone with the conversant and goes away.
Here is an illustration which I myself witnessed:
When I used to visit Nablus, I always took lodging with a man named Mu'izz, whose home was
a lodging house for the Muslims. The house had windows which opened to the road, and
there stood opposite to it on the other side of the road a house belonging to a Frank who sold
wine for the merchants. He would take some wine in a bottle and go around announcing it by
shouting, "So and so, the merchant, has just opened a cask full of this wine. He who wants to
buy some of it will find it in such and such a place." The Frank's pay for the announcement
made would be the wine in that bottle. One day this Frank went home and found a man with
his wife in the same bed. He asked him, "What could have made you enter into my wife's
room?" The man replied, "I was tired, so I went in to rest." "But how," asked he, "didst thou get
into my bed?" The other replied, "I found a bed that was spread, so I slept in it." "But," said
be, "my wife was sleeping together with you!" The other replied, "Well, the bed is hers. How
could I therefore have prevented her from using her own bed?"
"By the truth of my religion," said the husband, "if thou shouldst do it again, thou and I would
have a quarrel." Such was for the Frank the entire expression of his disapproval and the limit
of his jealousy. . . .
Another illustration: I entered the public bath in Sur [Tyre] and took my place in a secluded
part. One of my servants thereupon said to me, "There is with us in the bath a woman." When
I went out, I sat on one of the stone benches and behold! the woman who was in the bath had
come out all dressed and was standing with her father just opposite me. But I could not be
sure that she was a woman. So I said to one of my companions, "By Allah, see if this is a
woman," by which I meant that he should ask about her. But he went, as I was looking at him,
lifted the end of her robe and looked carefully at her. Thereupon her father turned toward me
and said, "This is my daughter. Her mother is dead and she has nobody to wash her hair. So I
took her in with me to the bath and washed her head." I replied, "Thou hast well done! This is
something for which thou shalt be rewarded [by Allah]!"
I once went in the company of al-Amir Mu'in-al-Din (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!) to
Jerusalem. We stopped at Nablus. There a blind man, a Muslim, who was still young and was
well dressed, presented himself before al-amir carrying fruits for him and asked permission to
be admitted into his service in Damascus. The amir consented. I inquired about this man and
was informed that his mother bad been married to a Frank whom she had killed. Her son used
to practice ruses against the Frankish pilgrims and cooperate with his mother in assassinating
them. They finally brought charges against him and tried his case according to the Frankish
way of procedure.
They installed a huge cask and filled it with water. Across it they set a board of wood. They
then bound the arms of the man charged with the act, tied a rope around his shoulders and
dropped him into the cask, their idea being that in case he was innocent, he would sink in the
water and they would then lift him up with the rope so that he might not die in the water; and in
case he was guilty, he would not sink in the water. This man did his best to sink when they
dropped him into the water, but he could not do it. So he had to submit to their sentence
against him--may Allah's curse be upon them! They pierced his eyeballs with red-hot awls.
Later this same man arrived in Damascus. Al-Amir Mu'in-al-Din (may Allah's mercy rest upon
his soul!) assigned him a stipend large enough to meet all his needs and said to a slave of
his, "Conduct him to Burhan-al-Din al-Balkhi (may Allah's mercy rest upon his soul!) and ask
him on my behalf to order somebody to teach this man the Koran and something of Muslim
jurisprudence." Hearing that, the blind man remarked, "May triumph and victory be thine! But
this was never my thought...... What didst thou think I was going to do for tbee?" asked
Mu'in-al-Din. The blind man replied, "I thought thou wouldst give me a horse, a mule and a
suit of armor and make me a knight." Mu'in-al-Din then said, "I never thought that a blind man
could become a knight."
Among the Franks are those who have become acclimatized and have as- sociated long with
the Muslims. These are much better than the recent comers from the Frankish lands. But they
constitute the exception and cannot be treated as a rule.
Here is an illustration. I dispatched one of my men to Antioch on business. There was in
Antioch at that time al-Ra'is Theodoros Sophianos, to whom I was bound by mutual ties of
amity. His influence in Antioch was supreme. One day he said to my man, "I am invited by a
friend of mine who is a Frank. Thou shouldst come with me so that thou mayest see their
fashions." My man related the story in the following words:
I went along with him and we came to the home of a knight who belonged to the old category
of knights who came with the early expeditions of the Franks. He had been by that time
stricken off the register and exempted from service, and possessed in Antioch an estate on
the income of which he lived. The knight presented an excellent table, with food
extraordinarily clean and delicious. Seeing me abstaining from food, he said, "Eat, be of good
cbeer! I never eat Frankish dishes, but I have Egyptian women cooks and never eat except
their cooking. Besides, pork never enters my home." I ate, but guardedly, and after that we
As I was passing in the market place, a Frankish woman all of a sudden hung to my clothes
and began to mutter words in their language, and I could not understand what she was
saying. This made me immediately the center of a big crowd of Franks. I was convinced that
death was at hand. But all of a sudden that same knight approached. On seeing me, he came
and said to that woman, "What is the matter between you and this Muslim?" She replied, "This
is he who has killed my brother Hurso." This Hurso was a knight in Afiimiyah who was killed by
someone of the army of Hamah. The Christian knight shouted at her, saying, "This is a
bourgeois (i.e., a merchant) who neither fights nor attends a fight." He also yelled at the
people who had assembled, and they all dispersed. Then he took me by the hand and went
away. Thus the effect of that meal was my deliverance from certain death.*