“Man’s meanest weapon is to shed tears when swords stir the coals of war”

After the First Crusade laid siege on Al-Quds for forty days and slaughtered every single Muslim living within the city walls, the chief judge of Damascus Abu Sa‘ad al-Harawi travelled to Baghdad, burst into the diwan (audience hall) of the Caliph Mustazhir Billah and gave a stirring speech. The following is excerpted from the Prologue of The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf:

Baghdad, August 1099.

Wearing no turban, his head shaved as a sign of mourning, the venerable qadi Abu Sa‘ad al-Harawi burst with a loud cry into the spacious diwan of the caliph al-Mustazhir Billah, a throng of companions, young and old, trailing in his wake. Noisily assenting to his every word, they, like him, offered the chilling spectacle of long beards and shaven skulls. A few of the court dignitaries tried to calm him, but al-Harawi swept them aside with brusque disdain, strode resolutely to the centre of the hall, and then, with the searing eloquence of a seasoned preacher declaiming from his pulpit, proceeded to lecture all those present, without regard to rank.

‘How dare you slumber in the shade of complacent safety,’ he began, ‘leading lives as frivolous as garden flowers, while your brothers in Syria have no dwelling place save the saddles of camels and the bellies of vultures? Blood has been spilled! Beautiful young girls have been shamed, and must now hide their sweet faces in their hands! Shall the valorous Arabs resign themselves to insult, and the valiant Persians accept dishonour?’

‘It was a speech that brought tears to many an eye and moved men’s hearts’, the Arab chroniclers would later write. The entire audience broke out in wails and lamentations. But al-Harawi had not come to elicit sobs.

‘Man’s meanest weapon’, he shouted, ‘is to shed tears when rapiers stir the coals of war.’

If he had made this arduous trip from Damascus to Baghdad, three long summer weeks under the merciless sun of the Syrian desert, it was not to plead for pity but to alert Islam’s highest authorities to the calamity that had just befallen the faithful, and to implore them to intervene without delay to halt the carnage.

‘Never have the Muslims been so humiliated’, al-Harawi repeated, ‘never have their lands been so savagely devastated.’

All the people travelling with him had fled from towns sacked by the invaders; among them were some of the few survivors of Jerusalem. He had brought them along so that they could relate, in their own words, the tragedy they had suffered just one month earlier.

The Franj had taken the holy city on Friday, the twenty-second day of the month of Sha’ban, in the year of the Hegira 492, or 15 July 1099, after a forty-day siege. The exiles still trembled when they spoke of the fall of the city: they stared into space as though they could still see the fair-haired and heavily armoured warriors spilling through the streets, swords inhand, slaughtering men, women, and children, plundering houses, sacking mosques.

Two days later, when the killing stopped, not a single Muslim was left alive within the city walls. Some had taken advantage of the chaos to slip away, escaping through gates battered down by the attackers. Thousands of others lay in pools of blood on the doorsteps of their homes or alongside the mosques. Among them were many imams, ‘ulama’, and Sufi ascetics who had forsaken their countries of origin for a life of pious retreat in these holy places. The last survivors were forced to perform the worst tasks: to heave the bodies of their own relatives, to dump them in vacant, unmarked lots, and then to set them alight, before being themselves massacred or sold into slavery…

A few days after the tragedy, the first refugees from Palestine arrived in Damascus, carrying with them, with infinite care, the Koran of ‘Uthman, one of the oldest existing copies of the holy book. Soon afterwards the survivors of Jerusalem duly approached the Syrian capital. When they glimpsed the distant outlines of the three minarets of the Umayyad mosque looming up from its square courtyard, they unrolled their prayer rugs and bowed to give thanks to the Almighty for having thus prolonged their lives, which they had thought were over. Abu Sa‘ad al-Harawi, grand qadi of Damascus, welcomed the refugees with kindness. This magistrate, of Afghan origin, was the city’s most respected personality, and he offered the Palestinians both advice and comfort. He told them that a Muslim need not be ashamed of being forced to flee from his home. Was not Islam’s first refugee the Prophet Muhammad [] himself, who had to leave Mecca, his native city, whose population was hostile to him, to seek refuge in Medina, where the new religion had been more warmly received? And was it not from his place of exile that he launched the holy war, the jihad, to free his country of idolatry? The refugees must therefore consider themselves mujahidin, soldiers of the holy war, so highly honoured in Islam that the hijra, the Prophet’s [] ‘emigration’, was chosen as the starting point of the Muslim calendar.

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