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The Prayer of Usama ibn Munqidh

John D. Hosler—

It began as a typical visit to Jerusalem for Usama ibn Munqidh. On this trip, which probably took place in 1140, Usama moved easily through the city, ascended the Temple Mount, and headed for al-Aqsa mosque. The third most important mosque in Islam (following those at Mecca and Medina), al-Aqsa dates to the reign of the Umayyad Caliph Walid I (674–715) and occupies a commanding spot in the city, 0from which visitors can enjoy a panoramic view from the Mount of Olives to the Sepulchre Church to Mount Zion. Al-Aqsa itself was off-limits for prayer—the Christian Knights Templars had converted the mosque into their headquarters—but they routinely allowed him to use a small chapel just outside, and it was there that Usama began to pray Salah.

Drama soon arose. As Usama recited the first line of his prayer, a foreigner suddenly accosted him: a “Frank,” a Latin Christian who had settled in the Holy Land in the wake of the First Crusade and the subsequent establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Frank grabbed and spun him from south to east, demanding that he pray in what he believed to be the proper direction. The Templars, whom Usama calls his friends, immediately pulled the Frank off him not once but twice and apologized profusely for his behavior. As a relative newcomer, they explained, the Frank was simply unaccustomed to local courtesies. 

Pulled from Usama’s own memoirs, this tale is rather astonishing. As most medievalists know, after the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 the Franks massacred or deported most non-Christians from the city. They also “purified” its holy landscape: torching the Karaite Jewish synagogue, converting al-Aqsa, and renovating the Dome of the Rock into a church. For the first time in nearly half a millennium, Jerusalem was once more a Christian city. Yet here we find Usama, a devout Muslim walking freely in the city, hanging out around al-Aqsa, being treated respectfully by—of all people—the Knights Templar, who Hollywood enjoys depicting as the most zealous, bloodthirsty crusaders of them all. How can this be?

No doubt Usama himself cut an impressive figure, whatever the setting. An emissary for his father, the emir of Shayzar, Usama was an educated and highly connected man. During his life, he maintained personal relationships with King Fulk V of Jerusalem and the sultans Nur al-Din and Saladin, and among his accomplishments the alliance he helped broker between the Muslim polities of Shayzar and Damascus and the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Yet the answer here lies not in his elite status but rather Jerusalem’s peculiar history of religious pluralism. For centuries, Christians, Jews, and Muslims had lived side-by-side there in relative peace. “Relative” is always in the eye of the beholder, but although there had been some civic disputes and even violence during the four hundred and sixty-one years of Muslim rule, the dominant image is one of diverse residents finding ways to put up with each other. It was part neighborliness and part practicality because the economic and social life of the city depended on buyers, sellers, builders, and visitors from all walks. One could cast out local area Muslims on religious grounds, but for how long?

Indeed, the exclusively Latin Christian population of post-1099 Jerusalem was too low to support a market. King Baldwin I invited eastern Christians (many of whom had fled before the First Crusade arrived) to return in 1116, which helped a lot, but it was clear that prohibitions against Muslims could not endure. We spot them back in the city by 1118, and in 1120 tariffs on Muslim merchants were eliminated. Usama’s first visit came in 1138, his last in 1144. By the 1160s, the traveler John of Würzburg described groups of Muslims praying at another spot on the Mount while gathered around a sundial, an apparently long-running custom. In other words, Usama’s presence in the city was not so strange after all. And John’s account reveals that the Franks granted access to the Temple Mount, and possibly to the grounds around al-Aqsa mosque itself, to non-elite Muslims as well.

Stranger, it seems, was the behavior of the belligerent Frank on that day in 1140. For he had not protested Usama’s prayer itself but rather Usama’s physical orientation; in other words, even for this newcomer to Jerusalem, overt Islamic devotions were neither surprising nor objectionable. And by blaming the issue on his naiveté, the Knights Templar revealed that everyone else in town already knew that Muslims prayed towards Mecca in the south. The story of Usama’s Salah, then, helps to illustrate a virtue not typically acknowledged in the tumultuous religiosity of crusade-era Jerusalem: tolerance.

John D. Hosler is professor of military history at the Command and General Staff College. His previous books include John of Salisbury and The Siege of Acre, which was a Financial Times Book of the Year.

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