Hussein Fancy’s recent book is a rare gem that combines thorough research with marvelous exposition. By focusing on issues related to late medieval Muslim mercenaries (jenets) serving the Crown of Aragon, Fancy unearths the modes as well as the meanings of the surprisingly frequent interactions among Christians and Muslims in the western Mediterranean. Fancy argues that far from illustrating an age of religious tolerance that foreshadowed our secular present, these interactions “depended on and reproduced ideas of religious difference” (13). Through this argument, Fancy calls upon historians to break free from their modern secular bias.
Despite a variety of problems associated with this argument, which will be examined below, Fancy is undoubtedly a gifted research and writer who can simultaneously accomplish many contrasting goals: his book is limited in length yet expansive in subject matter, empirical in its narrative yet theoretical in its argumentation. Through 151 pages of pithy passages, Fancy manages to both dive into the minutiae of medieval archives and soar to the heights of political theory, all the while maintaining consistent narrative and argumentative arcs. His marvelous exposition is built upon thorough research. By consulting archives in Romance, Latin, and Arabic languages, Fancy enables the readers to see the issue of jenets from a variety of perspectives. The historiographical space he creates is one surrounded by myriad of mirrors. By closely analyzing the reflections on these mirrors, Fancy foregrounds the complexity and interconnectedness of the Mediterranean world. Few works in recent years are as well-researched and well-written as this book.
The book begins with an etymological study of the word jenets in Chapter 1. Unlike other such studies, which typically focus on the word’s own linguistic tradition, Fancy’s study brings him to Arabic as well as Romance sources. The most significant insight from this chapter is that jenets and the Marīnid Ghūzah, holy warriors stationed in Christian Iberia, referred to the same group of people. This search for cross-cultural equivalence and connections continues in Chapters 2 and 3, in which Fancy discusses how the Aragonese kings hired jenets to bolster claims of universal sovereignty. Fancy examines “the culture of sovereignty” at both Christian and Muslim courts, both of which used the religious others to assert and flaunt one’s sovereign power. Fancy uses these sources to argue that “a common cultural ground and a shared script” enables elite Christians and Muslims to “see each other as equals, as members of the same community” (64). Chapter 4 continues to examine this cultural common ground of the Mediterranean world by studying the interactions among the Aragonese, Marīnid, and Almohad courts. Fancy notes that just as there were Muslims fighting for Christian kings, there were also Christians fighting for Muslim kings. This mutual exchange of warriors, Fancy argues, derived from a much longer tradition of military slavery. Chapter 5 shifted the perspective from the rhetoric of courtly cultures to the practices of jenets and Christians villagers. Rare archival traces reveal how these people constantly challenged the authority of the Crown, thereby exposing a much more multilayered society in which agency was distributed rather than concentrated. Chapter 6 continues this line of inquiry by demonstrating how jenets shifted their allegiance when their duty conflicted with their religious commitments. Fancy argues that, far from rationalists driven by monetary gains, the jenets saw their service to Christian kings as an extension of jihad. Finally, the conclusion engages with the theoretical and historiographical questions related to secularism. If secular historians have characterized jenets as primarily boundary-crossers, Fancy shows how they were also boundary-markers.
There are several problems with Fancy’s argument. In an effort to reveal the interconnectedness of the Mediterranean world, Fancy has mistaken entanglements for homogeneity. This problem emerges as early as Chapter 1, where he argues: “A careful comparison of all these sources does reveal that they, the jenets and the Ghūzah, were one and the same soldiers” (38). But unless Fancy can show that all jenets were members of the Ghūzah and vice versa, this bold statement does not stand. Though many jenets probably went to the Iberian Peninsula to wage holy wars, equating the two categories discounts the heterogeneity within these two groups--a fact that Fancy admits only in Chapter 5 (102). A more serious instance of this problem appears in Chapters 3 and 4, in which Fancy argues that members of the Aragonese and Almohad courts shared the same “cultural script” of chivalry and gift-giving as well as the same conception to universal sovereignty (e.g., 81, 94). His narrative makes it seem that “the circuit of ideas” (96) in the western Mediterranean is free from frictions. This assumption is not tenable because every inter-cultural exchange involves problems with translation. If religion was indeed as important as Fancy claims, Muslim elites should have produced their own understandings of gift-giving, chivalry, military slavery, and, most importantly, universal sovereignty. In an effort to reveal a Mediterranean world, Fancy has misrecognized cross-cultural entanglements as a Eurocentric homogeneity.
Fancy’s argument against secular historiography is also ineffective. Much of his polemical energy is directed against Clifford Geertz, who sought to reduce religion into social factors emerging in a disenchanted political sphere. Fancy’s book belongs to the collection of recent works to revise Geertz’s secular bias. To use his words, he seeks to treat religion as an independent variable rather than a dependent one reducible to non-religious factors (107). But does this maneuver enable Fancy to escape the secular trap? By treating religion as an independent variable that can motivate kings and warriors, Fancy demonstrates that he regards religion and politics as categories with matching explanatory powers. Secular historians, he argued, have focused on one realm and entirely ignored the other. As a result, the problem with Geertz’s secularism becomes one of “under-description” (68), as if one can cease being secular merely by describing more. Nothing can be further from the case. Since the notion of “religion” is itself a secular concept, combating secularism requires one to deconstruct “religion” rather than foregrounding it. Reifying “religion” into one explanatory category among others puts Fancy exactly where he begins, as secular as every previous historian he critiques. The book, therefore, fails to achieve its central mission of narrating a non-secular past.