Saladin (1138-1193) was a Kurdish leader of Muslim forces during the period of the Crusades. He is widely revered as the ideal of a Warrior-King – fierce in battle and generous to his enemies. He united the Muslim territories and succeeded in driving out the crusaders from the Holy city of Jerusalem.
Life of Saladin
Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub) was born (1138) to a Kurdish family in Tikrit (now part of northern Iraq and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein). Saladin grew up in Mosul and later Damascus. He was educated in maths, law, sciences and in particular studied the Qu’ran the Holy Book of Islam. As a youngster, he had a sincere interest in religious matters but was increasingly involved in military affairs – he was tutored in warfare and politics by the emir of Damascus, Nur ad-Din.
Saladin was married aged 14, and from an early age lived austerely and sought to follow the injunctions of the Qu’ran. Throughout his life, he was generous with material objects, preferring to give away wealth to the poor. When his wife complained at a lack of money to buy clothes, he responded.
“I have no more. Of all the wealth I have at my disposal, I am but the custodian for the Muslims, and I do not intend to deceive them over this and cast myself into hell-fire for your sake.”
Saladin unites the Arab armies
In 1171, Saladin helped to gain control over Egypt on behalf of Nur ad-Din. He proved his skill on the battlefield as an inspiring leader of men – even when the numerical odds were against his armies. Three years later ad-Din died leaving Saladin as the ruler of both Egypt and Syria. Based in Damascus, Saladin brought together the disparate Muslim regions into a unified force. He was strict and ruthless in maintaining power. He used tremendous military and political skill to consolidate his position as the unquestioned leader of the Arabs. On becoming leader, he made a public statement of commitment to the Islamic faith. According to Arabic sources he “repented of wine-drinking and turned from frivolity to assume the dress of religion.”
After dealing with internal threats, he turned to the threat posed by western-backed Christians forces who often harried his people and armies. Christian forces were based in the Principality of Antioch, Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli. By 1177, Saladin had built up an army capable of taking on the crusaders.
Saladin and the reconquest of Jerusalem
The Crusaders had controlled Jerusalem since 1099 and the First Crusade. Its sack and murder of all inhabitants remained a painful memory for Muslims. To make matters worse, the current Christian occupiers of Jerusalem (under Raynald of Chatillon) would frequently harass Muslim pilgrims on the way to Mecca and Medina.
Saladin’s first major battle with Christian crusaders was in 1177 at the Battle of Montgisard, however, despite Saladin having a larger army of 26,000, he was taken by surprise by a smaller crusader force and he had to retreat. This defeat proved to be a turning point as after this set-back Saladin rebuilt his army into a more effective fighting force.
After minor skirmishes and a brief truce, in 1178, Saladin resumed his jihad (struggle against the enemies of Islam) against the crusaders. He successfully attacked the castle crusaders were building at Jacob’s Ford. He razed the castle to the ground and secured a vulnerable flank to Damascus.
By 1187, Saladin success and leadership had attracted more followers and soldiers. He was able to lead a massive army against the crusaders, and at the Battle of Hattin, his army encircled and then destroyed the Christian army. This overwhelming victory enabled Saladin to claim the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Acre, Beirut, Nazareth and Ascalon. On 2 October 1187, Saladin completed his victory by forcing the surrender of Christian forces at the City of Jerusalem under Raynald of Chatillon. Their surrender ended 88 years of crusader occupation of the city. Saladin had little respect for Raynald for his role in harassing Muslim pilgrims and disregard for Islamic holy sites. After his defeat, Saladin personally beheaded him on the battlefield. Despite previous memories of Crusaders killing Muslim civilians, Saladin did not respond in kind but allowed the survivors of the city to buy their freedom and they were allowed safe passage to ships taking them out of the Holy Land.
Saladin was widely lauded in the Arab world for his unifying leadership and success. However, he left three Christian cities unclaimed and when news filtered back to Europe at the loss of Jerusalem there was a shock and a burning desire for a new crusade.
Saladin and Richard The Lionheart
Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem was just the reason Richard the Lionheart needed to start a new crusade. He arrived in the Holy Land in 1191 and proceeded to take the city of Acre. He then partially defeated Saladin in a battle at Arsuf. The battle left both sides depleted and exhausted so a temporary truce was reached. Saladin also showed his magnanimity by allowing Christian pilgrimage safe passage into Jerusalem. Despite repeated efforts, Richard the Lionheart was unable to ever retake Jerusalem and eventually returned to Europe without succeeding. Richard never met Saladin, but through his dealings with Saladin’s brother, Richard came to respect and admire Saladin. He recognised his honour, courage and chivalry. Saladin also was generous in his respect of Richard the Lionheart.
Although Saladin was a devout Sunni Muslim who reconquered Jerusalem for the Arabs, his name was held in wide regard throughout Europe – a rare occurrence for a Muslim in the medieval ages.
Why was Saladin respected by crusaders?
Saladin abided by a sense of chivalry and honour, which appealed to the code of crusader knights. Saladin could massacre prisoners of war, where conditions of war dictated, but at the same time, he was willing to allow prisoners and civilians safe passage. Crusaders who came to the Holy Land had been brought up on propaganda that Arabs were bad people, on meeting the conduct of Saladin, they may have been surprised that the reality was different to the prejudicial views back in Europe. Author P.H. Newby writes:
“The Crusades were fascinated by a Muslim leader who possessed virtues they assumed were Christian. To them, to his Muslim contemporaries and to us, it still remains remarkable that in times as harsh and bloody as these a man of great power should have been so little corrupted by it.”
Death of Saladin
Shortly after the departure of King Richard’s troops from the Holy Land, Saladin died from a fever on the 4 March 1193. He had recently given away most of his personal wealth to charitable causes, leaving insufficient funds to pay for his funeral. He fathered an estimated five sons.
Legacy of Saladin
Saladin has become a byword for courage, bravery, generosity, chivalry and an inspirational leader. In the Arab world, he is seen with a source of pride for both uniting the Arab world but also freeing Jerusalem from crusader control. He is often held up as an ideal Jihadist for fighting with respect for a moral code that involved respect for his opponents.
SALADIN: Hero of Islam
SALADIN: Hero of Islam at Amazon
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