Contemplating books with Usāma ibn Munqidh’s Book of Contemplation
in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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Of all the Arabic works bearing upon the history of the Crusades in the Levant, none has been so warmly received as the Kitāb al-Iʿtibār or Book of Contemplation, by the Syrian warrior-poet Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188). Indeed, in the non-Arabic-speaking West, in studies academic and popular, in textbooks, anthologies, syllabuses and websites, Usama’s Book of Contemplation has become the first, and very often the only voice of Islamic perspectives on the Crusades. And yet the work was not particularly well known in its time, and survives only in one ragged and incomplete unicum manuscript. How do we account for this disjuncture? How is it that this once obscure work has become, after the Qur’an and The Thousand and One Nights, one of the best-loved texts of pre-modern Arabic literature in the West? This chapter traces the history of Usama’s work, sketching first what we know about its circulation in the medieval Islamic world and then its reception in European and American academic circles. But there is more to the prominence of Usama’s work than just its history of publication and translation. Rather, the work itself possesses features that have lent themselves to reformulation by translators and editors, preserving its cogency and immediacy even as fashions in the field of Crusades studies have come and gone.

Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon


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