He descended from the Banu Tamim tribe, and was among the well-educated nobility of the city of Damascus. He studied literature, theology, and law, and served as firstly a secretary in, and later the head of, the chancery of Damascus (the Diwan al-Rasa'il). He served twice as ra'is of the city, an office equivalent to mayor.
His chronicle, the Dhail or Mudhayyal Ta'rikh Dimashq (Continuation of the Chronicle of Damascus) was an extension of the chronicle of Hilal bin al-Muhassin al-Sabi', covering the years 1056 to al-Qalanisi's death in 1160. This Chronicle is one of the few contemporary accounts of the First Crusade and its immediate aftermath from the Muslim perspective, making it not only a valuable source for modern historians, but also for later 12th-century chronicles, including Ibn al-Athir.
- The Damascus Chronicle of the Crusades, Extracted and Translated from the Chronicle of Ibn al-Qalanisi. H.A.R. Gibb, 1932 (reprint, Dover Publications, 2002).