(above pic : Tomb of Salahuddin Al-Ayubi, Damascus, Syria)
By Roy Ahmad Jackson – Roy Ahmad Jackson has been a lecturer and writer on religion and philosophy for over fifteen years. He has lectured in Islamic Studies at various universities, including the University of Durham and King’s College London. He has previously written books on Nietzsche, Plato, Islam and the philosophy of religion.
Salah al-Din (1138–1193), better known in the West as ‘Saladin’, has become a figure of folklore, famous for his military encounters with King Richard ‘the Lionheart’ during the Third Crusade. A Muslim leader born in what is now Iraq, he pledged to his Muslim people that he would retake Jerusalem – the third holiest city for Muslims after Mecca and Medina – from the Christian Crusaders. This he succeeded in achieving. However, he is not only known for his military achievements, he is also remembered for uniting much of the Muslim world and is considered a paragon of princely virtue.
Salah al-Din Yusuf al-Ayyubi was born in 1138 in Tikrit, a fortress on the River Tigris between Mosul and Samarra in what is now Iraq. He was the son of Najm al-Din Ayyub, the Kurdish general in charge of the citadel there. He came from a military background for his uncle, Asad al-Din Shirkuh, was also a soldier. In 1139, the family moved to Baalbek (ancient Heliopolis) in Syria where his father was appointed governor and commander of the citadel.
It will help the reader to appreciate, however briefly, the political climate at the time Salah al-Din was growing up. The dynasty under which Salah al-Din and his father served were the Saljuq Atabegs of Mosul. Briefly, the Fatimid Caliphate, originally established in Tunisia in 909, had ruled over North Africa, Egypt and parts of Syria, with its capital in Cairo. But by the mid-twelfth century the empire was breaking up into mini-states ruled by military commanders on the whole, with ineffective caliphs. In the mid-eleventh century, Syria had fallen to the Saljuks and divided into two Saljuk succession regimes, one based in Aleppo and one in Damascus. Due largely to the threat of the Christian Crusaders who, between 1099 and 1109 had captured Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli and established the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, Syria became unified against a common enemy. In particular, it was the Saljuk Atabegs of Mosul who took the initiative. In 1128 a new governor of Mosul, Zengi (c.1127–1146) took Aleppo and, in 1144, also captured Edessa. In 1146, at the death of Zengi, his son, Nur al-Din (c.1146–1174) set out to capture Damascus which he achieved in 1154. The aim of the Saljuks, it should be stressed, was not primarily to fight the Crusaders, but rather to acquire territory, regardless of whether it was occupied by Christian or Muslim authorities. In this respect, Nur al-Din was not so concerned with re-taking Jerusalem and, in fact, made peace treaties with the Crusaders. In 1170, Nur al-Din achieved the family ambition of reuniting Syria and Mesopotamia under his household and his next target was Egypt. The Fatimid regime was in chaos and the Crusader and King of Jerusalem, Amalric, was aiming to take the country.
In 1164, when Salah al-Din was 26, a displaced vizier (prime minister) named Sharwar of the Fatimid Caliphate asked Nur al-Din for aid, promising him a third of the country’s revenue. The Sultan responded by dispatching Salah al-Din’s uncle, Shirkuh, at the head of a military force. Shirkuh, for his part, took along his young nephew who, apparently, went with ‘great reluctance’. Why Salah al Din should be so reluctant is a matter of some debate; while some sources say that he was more concerned with his theological studies than the horrors of war, other sources direct his concern with the delights not untypical of a prominent Kurdish family such as hunting, riding, chess, polo playing and wine. Shirkuh succeeded in his mission of returning power to Sharwar who, in return, then formed an alliance with Amalric three years later! So Nur al-Din sent Shirkuh with his nephew into Egypt a second time. It was then Salah al-Din tasted his first real battle against the Franks, and acquitted himself well. However, the battle of Egypt was a stalemate and it was not until the third venture in 1169 when Sharwar was murdered and Shirkuh took the vizierate for himself that Salah al-Din found victory. Soon after, Shirkuh died of over-eating and Salah al-Din now found himself not only to be a lieutenant of a Sunni Syrian king, but also the prime minister for a Shi’a Egyptian Caliph. He quickly built up his own army of Syrians, Kurds and loyal Egyptians and brought his family over from Damascus to command them (his father was appointed treasurer). In 1171, with the power and immense wealth of Egypt behind him, Salah al-Din took Baghdad, the seat of the symbolic Abbasid Caliphs. Unofficially, Salah al-Din was the new Sultan and he then proceeded to conquer other Muslim states. It is reported that from then on he gave up the various pleasures of youth and dedicated himself to his new position. The next problem was the fact that he was still technically under the command of the Sultan Nur al Din in Damascus. A showdown would have occurred if the latter had not died in 1174. The incoming Sultan was only 11 years old and chaos ensued with the Franks taking full advantage of the disorder by encroaching on Saljuk territory. Salah al-Din took the decision to enter Damascus and marry Nur al-Din’s widow. He was now the ruler of Syria.
Nearing the age of 50, Salah al-Din could claim for himself a reputation known throughout the Middle East. He had unified Muslim states that had warred against each other for generations. However, Muslim clerics especially were critical of his leadership, particularly the fact that his reputation had been acquired at the cost of many Muslim lives. In 1185, he fell very ill and believed himself to be dying. At his bedside sat Muslim holy men who would recite the Qur’an and, it is said, it was then he received a divine message to liberate Jerusalem. Salah al-Din recovered from his illness believing it was due to the intercession of God who had spared him from death so he could take back Jerusalem. Seeking atonement and to demonstrate his piety, Salah al-Din initiated a jihad (holy war), sending his scribes out to call for all to liberate the third holiest city of the Muslim world, for Jerusalem was also the stopping place of the Prophet Muhammad where he made the celebrated journey to heaven. Salah al-Din effectively used religion to inspire the Muslim people to engage in a religious crusade of their own: a powerful tool. Further, with the surrounding Muslim world now in his control, he was in a position to focus on Palestine. The European nations, for their part, however, were preoccupied in warring among themselves. Salah al- Din could not have chosen a better time to act.
The Sultan mustered 18,000 men when they marched out of Damascus in 1187. Tiberias was captured in six days and then the coast towns were taken so that Jerusalem was sealed off from reinforcements. Jerusalem itself soon fell to his siege and its population were held to ransom, a sharp contrast to when the Christian Crusaders massacred the population in 1099. Salah al-Din wanted not only to claim military superiority but also moral superiority; that the values of Islam include mercy. To Muslims, he was now known as Islam’s greatest holy warrior. Salah al-Din then confided to his secretary and biographer that he next intended to divide his realm up among his aides, leave them with instructions, and head off with his army to invade Europe.
However, Europe had plans of its own. The Pope immediately ordered a decree that Jerusalem must be recaptured at all costs. Crusading was energised once more and the three most powerful kings of Western Europe took the cross: Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, Philip Augustus of France, and Richard ‘the Lionheart’ of England. It was Richard especially, regarded as the greatest warrior of all Europe, who boosted morale. His troops built new and powerful siege machines such as ‘the cat’ that could allow his men to scale walls like cats, and powerful mangonels that could hurl huge rocks. With these weapons one city after another was taken, but not Jerusalem itself. The most important to fall to the Crusaders was the key port in the eastern Mediterranean, Acre. The city had already been under siege by the Franks that Salah al-Din had freed from Jerusalem, but it was the arrival of Richard that resulted in its surrender. It was a huge blow for Salah al-Din who had enjoyed so many years of victory. As Richard had heard of Salah al-Din, so Richard’s reputation had also preceded him, so both no doubt were aware of the rivalry between them and the desire to outdo each other was a strong one. Richard took three thousand prisoners in Acre and offered to exchange them for one item: the ‘true cross’ believed to be a relic from the cross on which Christ was crucified. Salah al-Din had acquired it in his battle with the Franks who had carried it with them in the belief it would aid them in the battle. It was of immense importance for the Crusaders and probably mattered little to Salah al-Din, but he knew of its value and so refused to return it in the hope that it would stop Richard from marching on Jerusalem. Richard decided he had little choice but to kill all the prisoners before then heading on to the next important bridgehead, the port of Jaffa. Battle took place between Salah al-Din and Richard near the city which, although he was outnumbered, was a resounding victory for Richard. Salah al-Din’s army fled back to Jerusalem.
The story of the battles that took place in Palestine between the two main actors, King Richard and Salah al-Din, has become the stuff of legend. They undoubtedly had great admiration and respect for each other and even, at times, engaged in exchanging gifts. Richard knew, despite his victories, that taking, and holding, Jerusalem would be an almost impossible task and so he started making attempts at diplomacy, appealing to Salah al-Din’s renowned generosity and mercy. In the negotiations, Salah al-Din’s brother al’Adil became good friends with Richard, with the latter even going so far as to offer his widowed sister Joanna in marriage to al’Adil as a way of cementing a political alliance with his sister and al’Adil as joint rulers of Jerusalem. The idea of a Christian princess marrying a Muslim prince was a remarkable one, but was also rejected by both parties. Salah al-Din, for his part, had grown old and tired and his men were war-weary, so that as Richard pressed for peace the Sultan became more tempted. In 1192, a three-year peace treaty was signed, giving Richard the coast from Tyre to Jaffa and the interior to the Sultan on the condition that Christians would be allowed to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Salah al-Din returned to Damascus in honour of having retained Jerusalem as Muslim territory. He suffered an attack of malaria from which he was not to recover. He died at the age of 55. On record, only one wife is known, Nur al-Din’s widow, but he left seventeen sons and one daughter. What is known of his character is that he was considerate, lacking in ostentation and, unlike his uncle, abstemious in food. He was also incredibly generous, dividing booty among his aides while leaving nothing for himself to the extent that it was said that when he died he left insufficient money for his own funeral. Instead of the many palaces his empire possessed, he preferred to reside in a military tent. Physically he has been described as fairskinned, with square features, and sporting a neatly trimmed beard. Although he could be gentle, he could also be ruthless when need be especially against those he regarded as committing heresy, such as his order to have the Sufi illuminationist Suhrawardi executed. In the Western world he was greatly admired. The Italian poet Dante, in his Inferno, was bound to commit any non-Christian to hell but, in Salah al-Din’s case, he was consigned to limbo alongside such great men as Plato and Aristotle.
There are many works on Saladin and the Crusades. The Lane-Poole is a classic, while the Stanley is very short (only forty-eight pages) and succinct. The Maalouf provides a welcome balance to the countless Western accounts of the Crusades. The Lyons also makes use of hitherto neglected Arabic sources, including unpublished manuscript material, notably correspondence from Saladin’s own court. The Tariq Ali is actually a novel of Salah al-Din’s fictional memoirs.
- Ali, Tariq, The Book of Saladin: A Novel, London: Verso, 1999.
- Lane-Poole, Stanley, Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, London: Greenhill Books, 2002.
- Lyons, Malcolm C. and Jackson, David, Saladin: The Politics of Holy War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
- Maalouf, A., The Crusades through Arab Eyes, trans. J. Rothschild, London: Saqi Books, 2001.
- Stanley, Diane, Saladin: Noble Prince of Islam, London: HarperCollins, 2002.