World History Texts: Paul Cobb’s The Race for Paradise

Paul Cobb’s “The Race for Paradise: An Islamic History of the Crusades” intervenes with our existing knowledge of the Crusades in compelling new ways. The work centers the Islamic frame of reference in analyzing the events of the Crusades. What emerges is a study that not only provides new understanding of the phenomena occurring within the Crusades, but also new vistas of European historical change agents associated with the conflict. Above all the study foregrounds the political inner workings of Islamic state and how they managed the historical transitions taking place during the Crusades.

The traditional western narrative of the Crusades, as Paul Cobb informs, “retain none of the messiness and nuance evident in medieval sources” and inevitably become “tales of heroes versus villains.”.1] This is an important consideration for most historians when faced with historiographical limitations on what constitutes an acceptable interpretation of a given event.

Cobb explains further:

“For example, well into the twentieth century the Crusades were seen in the West as a triumphal story, and epic moment in an ineluctable rise of the West that showcases values of nobility, faith, bravery, and ingenuity taking on the indolent, corrupt, and barbarous East.”[2]

Here Cobb illuminates the prevalent, yet staid view of how the Crusades has been interpreted for some time. Cobb also calls attention to what he calls the “lachrymose narrative” which shows that the “Crusades are not a noble European adventure but a savage attack by fanatical, intolerant, hypocritical” Christian zealots.[3] Both views have the potential to obscure the meaning of the Crusades as it relates to how the people living within the Islamic states of the period experienced it.

Cobb informs that his study departs from both narratives and bases his investigation on the original Islamic sources that explore the perception of the Crusades from their point of view. Using the Arabic sources Cobb frames how the Crusades can be understood in the context of the Islamic world, while illuminating the “integral part of history” to which the Islamic civilization belongs. The ways that medieval Muslims dealt with the aggression of the Crusades is the focus of the book and allows students, researchers, historians the opportunity to know the Islamic Oikumene, a diverse place with Muslims, Jews, Christians, merchants, pilgrims, beggars and soldiers.[4] It is a study that certainly illuminates a more global understanding of the Crusades.

[1] Paul M. Cobb, The race for paradise: an Islamic history of the Crusades (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Ibid, 4

[3] Ibid, 4

[4] Ibid, 20.

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