The Knights Templar in Arab sources of the 12th century

In the period 1118-1156, the Military Orders played a relatively minor role in the Holy Land. In fact, they are not well documented even in Latin sources. Among the Arabs their existence went completely unnoticed. In 1157 the rising importance of the Orders began to attract the attention of Muslim writers. 

The first surviving mention of the Orders is found in Ibn al-Qalanisi's History of Damascus, which mentions the participation of both the Hospitallers and Templars in the battle of Banyas in 1157.

Here we also find the first use of the Arabic technical terms for Templars and Hospitallers. The latter were called simply the isbitariyya, a straightforward arabized form of the Latin word hospitalis, which means a place of lodging for wayfarers. The arab term for Templars, however, is the somewhat obscure dawiyya, whose origin and meaning is unknown but which is thought to perhaps have derived from the Latin devotus, one devoted to God's service.

Most Arab texts from 1157 to 1180 simply mention the Orders as Frankish military units participating in a conflict or owning a castle, without giving them any particular attention. A very revealing tale however comes from Usamah ibn-Munqidh, a Syrian nobleman and lord of Shayzar Castle. He wrote a delightfully garrulous anecdotal biography in which he describes an encounter with Templar Knights at the Arab Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this story. For one thing, it seems the Templars allowed Muslims to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, after it had been converted into a Christian religious complex. Somewhat paradoxically from the modern perspective, for Usamah the Knights Templar are examples of moderate toleration, the voice of reason when compared to the uncomprehending pilgrim from the West. At any rate, Uusamah certainly had no animosity towards the Templars whom he calls his friends. All of this was to change with the rise of the two great counter-crusading Sultans Nur al-Din of Syria (ruled 1146-1174) and Saladin of Egypt and Syria (ruled 1171-1193).

This blog draws freely on the paper "Muslim perspectives on the military orders during the crusades" by William J. Hamblin, published in BYU Studies. Illustration shows the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Jerusalem, source Wikimedia Commons

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