Scott Farrell comments:
In the second half of his article, Mr. Habeeb reminds us that even during the brutality of the Crusades (in the 11th through 15th centuries), European knights were absorbing a unique sense of honor, refinement and compassion from their Muslim adversaries. As he explains, Saladin, acclaimed hero of the Islamic warriors, set an example of chivalry so powerful that he even gained the admiration of his enemies.
Saladin, Chivalry and the Crusades
The ethical and romantic characteristic of al-furusiyyah al-arabiya (Arabian chivalry), as practiced in the Arabian Peninsula, evolved and spread with the Muslim expansion. During the Arab era in the Iberian Peninsula and the years of the Crusades, chivalry with all its attributes was transferred to Western Europe. An important Arab contribution to Western medieval society, its origin has been virtually ignored by Western historians.
Romantic chivalry as pursued in medieval Europe is nothing more than the continuation of al-furusiyyah al-arabiya. Abanese, a Spanish writer, wrote that Europe had not known the arts and practices of knighthood before the arrival to Andalusia of Arabs with their knights and heroes; a logical hypothesis in that chivalry had not been known to the Greeks and Romans. This offshoot of the chivalrous life of the Arab and Muslim conquerors in the Iberian Peninsula, both in theory and manner, was never outdone by the European Christians.
It is said that chivalry was the most prominent characteristic of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula. To all Arabs in that era, to become a genuine faris (knight), a man had to attain attributes of dignity, eloquence, gentleness, horsemanship, physical strength, poetic talent and mastery in the bow and arrow, spear and sword. These virtues were transferred by way of the Iberian Peninsula to the remainder of Europe. Romantic Hispano-Arabic literary forms, such as the love songs of the muwashshah form, were forerunners to the songs of the troubadours which gave birth to medieval knighthood and the Age of Chivalry.
A historian once wrote that the genius of the Arabs was poetic and their songsters in the Iberian Peninsula outnumbered those of all other peoples put together. El-Cid, who was greatly influenced by Moorish culture, especially its poetry, composed a poem which is the oldest and finest ballad of medieval Spanish verse and is said to have given birth to the songs of chivalry in Christian Spain.
While some of Arabic poetry was sensual and pleasure-seeking, it was the romantic components that were adopted by the Provençal troubadours from the Arab courts in Andalusia. This poetic genre combined with the Christian honor to the Virgin Mary was behind a good part of the medieval concept of chivalry.
European chivalry also gained much from contact with the Arabs during the Crusades. From among the many incidents during these long conflicts are those which relate to Saladin and which become renowned. To the Europeans, Saladin (pictured above) was the perfect example of cultured chivalry. When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 A.D., they slaughtered virtually all the inhabitants. When Saladin, well-known for his kindness to prisoners taken in battle, re-took the city in 1187, he spared his victims, giving them safe passage to leave.
Despite his fierce opposition to the Crusading powers, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight. When his foe Richard the Lionheart, leader of the Christian armies, became sick, Saladin sent his personal physician to heal him. There is no doubt that the Crusaders learned from him a great deal about chivalry. During the 14th century, an epic poem about Saladin was circulated in Europe, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo in his Inferno.
When one reads today of the nobility of a knight in shining armor rushing to rescue a maiden in distress, it is well to remember that behind the nobility of his act are the Arabs who laid the basis of his action. Perhaps, no one has described the impact of Arab al-furusiyyah and muru’ah on European chivalry better than R.A. Nicholson who writes:
“The chivalry of the Middle Ages is, perhaps, ultimately traceable to heathen Arabia. Knight-errantry, the riding forth on horseback in search of adventures, the rescue of captive maidens, the succor rendered everywhere to women in adversity — all these were essentially Arabian ideas, as was the very name of chivalry, the connection of honorable conduct with the horse-rider, the man of noble blood, the cavalier … But the nobility of the women is not only reflected in the heroism and devotion of the men; it stands recorded in song, in legend and in history.”
Chivalry began in a secular Arabia where the tribal code of honor with all its ramifications was the basis of right and wrong. Heroes were those who exemplified the characteristics of the chivalrous attributes in that society. It was so important that as Islam enveloped the area, it remained part of the new social order of life and continued as part of the human code of life with the conquests of new territory. As such, chivalry became part of the many Arab contributions to the West.
© 2005 Habeeb Salloum
This article has been reprinted by permission from the website of the Al-Hewar Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue, and may not be reproduced in any format without express permission of the author.
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Books referenced in this article:
- The Arabic Literary Heritage by Roger Allen
- Moorish Culture in Spain by Titus Burckhardt
- The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History by Maria Rosa Menocal
- The Matter of Araby in Medieval England by Dorothee Metlitzki
- The Great Arab Conquests by J.B. Glubb
- A Literary History of the Arabs by R.A. Nicholson