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Book Review


Paul M. Cobb, The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp. xxii + 335. $29.95 (cloth).


     Historians have long treated the Crusades as a European phenomenon, "an epic moment in the ineluctable rise of the West that showcased values of nobility, faith, bravery, and ingenuity taking on the indolent, corrupt, and barbarous East" (6). More recent scholarship, recognizing that the conflict was not fought on European soil, has often followed the model of critique set forth by Edward Said, in which the Crusades are a "savage attack by a fanatical, intolerant, and hypocritical Christian West, a precursor to European colonialism inflicted upon a hapless Islamic East, sublimely supine in its high civilization of tolerance and wisdom" (6). Despite this recognition of the Crusades' importance in the Middle East, most books—especially those published for a non-specialist audience—have continued to use primarily European sources to dutifully read 'against the grain,' while still employing the established Eurocentric framework of the causes, effects, and nature of the crusading mission.

     In The Race for Paradise Paul M. Cobb (Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania) discards aside this traditional analysis entirely, and takes its readers on a new journey, one that focuses on the context of the Crusades in the Islamic lands where (most of) the battles took place, where the Crusader principalities were set up, and where the most profound military, social, and economic interactions between Franks and Muslims took place.

     To engage readers with this re-envisioned historical framework, chapter one of the book asks us to set aside Eurocentric preconceptions of the world at the turn of the first millennium and to consider how it appeared from the perspective of the larger, more densely populated, and technologically superior Islamic world. Europe, just beginning to emerge from the so-called Ark Ages, was in the eyes of its Muslim neighbors "superficially an impoverished … region on the margins of the world. It was inhabited by a fanatical, war-like people, adherents of a backward creed" (19).

     Cobb argues that, for the eastern Mediterranean, the critical moment from which a study of the Crusades should begin is not Pope Urban II's call to arms at Clermont in 1095, but rather the arrival of the Seljuk Turks and their conquest of Aleppo in 1064. Chapter three describes how, with the Seljuk conquest, Syria became the battlefield for a proxy cold war between the Sunni Abbasid caliphate at Baghdad and their archrivals, the Shi'i Fatimids of Egypt. Cobb explores the fragile situation in Syria on the eve of the invasion of the armies of the First Crusade in depth. When the Franks marched into Syria, they were seen by the Syrians as yet another in a series of armies that had passed through the territory over the past half century. Subsequent chapters describe how these ongoing political rivalries prevented the Arab-Muslim powers from uniting to defeat and expel the Frankish invaders, inadvertently allowing them to progress toward the capture of Antioch, Ascalon, and Jerusalem. These rivalries were so acute that at one point the Abbasid caliph had to be publicly chastised for failing to meet his obligation to defend the faithful, an action he was reluctant to undertake given that much of the conquered territory had been under the control of his Fatimid rivals.

     The caliph's attitude that Jerusalem was better off in the hands of the Franks than in the hands of the hated Shi'i Fatimids opens a new avenue of exploration, one that similarly asks readers to reconsider their preconceptions about the Islamic world. Cobb explains how, far from being an imagined moment when Europe and Islam discovered each other, the Crusades were part of a long string of interchanges—some peaceful, others far less so. The focus frequently turns from Syria to al-Andalus, the three-hundred-year old Islamic state in Iberia, and to the short-lived Muslim emirate on Sicily, both of which had suffered military defeats in the decades before 1095, contributing to a fractured Islamic polity. Over the course of the book it becomes clear that the historical record about the Crusades belies the myth of a supposed 'Christian' or 'Muslim' solidarity in a clash of civilizations. At times, Crusader principalities supported—and were supported by—Muslim princes and emirs against rivals on their own sides, and vice versa.

     It was not until the rise of the Zangid Turks in the 12th century that a single Muslims ruler, Zangi, was able to unite enough disparate territory and garner enough support from petty emirs to turn the military tide with the conquest of Edessa in 1144. His successor, Nur al-Din, was able to reunify Syria under his command, although he was struck down by illness at an unfortunate moment. As the Ayyubid dynasty was not a hereditary dynasty, the counter crusades ceased while various generals fought for dominance of Syria. It was the Kurdish general Salah-al-Din, a Zengid general who had managed to maneuver himself into becoming the caliph of Egypt, who finally came out on top, unifying Egypt and Syria before going on to score an important victory over the Franks at Hattin and retaking Jerusalem in 1187. However, these important victories were almost undone by the intense rivalry of opposing claimants to the sultanate after Salah al-Din's own untimely death in 1193.

     For nearly another century, various Crusader kingdoms clung on to the Syrian coast, waiting for reinforcements that, by and large, never really came. While Louis IX of France made attempts to conquer Egypt, he found himself trapped in his fortress at Damietta by the Nile's seasonal flooding and was forced to beat a hasty retreat. The destruction of Acre in 1291 marked the end of the Crusader presence in Syria. The final chapter introduces the Ottomans, who would eventually complete the long unrealized goal of unifying all of this territory—including all of the lands of the Byzantine empire, and the Frankish kingdom on Cyprus—under their own rule by the beginning of the 16th century, even as the Islamic presence in Spain was extinguished around the same time.

     The narrative is solidly constructed and well sourced. If there is a quibble here it might be that Cobb only tends to offer critiques on his sources when they are either exaggerating or being sarcastic; otherwise, they are allowed to stand on their own. This is perhaps a deliberate decision: understanding why and how Muslims wrote historical texts comprises an entire sub-field of medieval Islamic history in and of itself, and such discussion would almost certainly bog down the narrative with tangents that only the most devout specialists would find useful.

     The Race for Paradise makes an excellent text for an AP level or undergraduate world history course, given the abundance of texts that present a Latin perspective of the Crusades. Here is a text that not only steps out of the European framework and narrative, but also sets up a new narrative and framework for consideration with a significant attention to the broader context. The book includes several maps and suggestions for further reading on a number of topics. Specialists and non-specialists alike will find something of interest here.

Christopher Rose is a doctoral candidate (ABD) in the Department of History, and Assistant Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at


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