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Why Saladin Continues to Captivate the Arab World

Historians/History




Jonathan Phillips, Professor of Crusading History, Royal Holloway, University of London, is the author of Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (Random House, 2010).

On October 2, 1187, the demoralized Christian defenders of Jerusalem watched Saladin, the ruler of the Muslim Near East, enter the city.  This day – by coincidence, the anniversary of the Prophet’s Night Journey to Heaven, marked the defining moment of the sultan’s career.

Yet eighty-eight years earlier, in July, 1099, the armies of the First Crusade completed their epic four-year journey from Europe to the Holy Land and stormed the city walls to perpetrate one of the most infamous massacres in history.  The crusaders were impelled by an intoxicating combination of intense religious devotion, grim determination and military power, a blend that represented the shared interests of the churchmen and the knighthood of Europe.  The Church saw the heart of Christianity recovered from the infidel, while the knights received unprecedented spiritual rewards (and thereby avoided the Fires of Hell, the likely destination for their wicked souls); plus, for the small proportion that stayed in the Eastern Mediterranean, there was the prospect of new lands.  It a real curiosity, however, that the fall of Jerusalem provoked almost no response in the Islamic Near East – a situation partly caused by the chasm between the religious and political classes of the Muslim world.  The crusaders were also fortunate because they arrived in the region at a moment it was beset by religious and political divisions.  One factor – as today – is the fundamental division between the two main branches of Islam, the Sunni and the Shia; such was the rivalry between them that each preferred to ally with the crusaders against one another, rather than work together.  Secondly, the year 1094 was described by contemporaries as “the year of the death of caliphs and commanders”; powerful rulers and religious figures, in both Sunni and Shia lands, had died (not always of natural causes...) to destabilise and break-up hitherto formidable regimes.  Had the First Crusade arrived ten years previously, I doubt that it would have got across Asia Minor.  In any case, the Muslim world did not realise (until it was too late) that the crusade was a war of religious colonization, rather than just a raiding party.

Amongst the first real signs of a response came from as-Sulami, a Damascene jurist.  In c.1105 he delivered a sermon that excoriated the local ruling classes for their laziness, self-interest and failure in their duty as Muslims to wage the jihad against the invaders.  Jihad is a basic tenet of Islam, and holy wars had been called during previous centuries, but the spiritual devotion required to react to as-Sulami’s passionate oratory was almost entirely missing; on one occasion his audience numbered just six people... In many respects, the details of his speeches would be repeated in later decades, but c.1105 the nobles and clerics of the Muslim world lacked the mutuality of interests that had driven the First Crusaders to victory.

The early decades of the twelfth century saw various short-lived alliances between Muslim cities and the emerging Christian states of the East – hardly a situation of holy war and more a reflection of realpolitik.  Slowly, however, a more religious dimension began to emerge, and in 1144, Zengi, the lord of Aleppo and Mosul, captured the major crusader city of Edessa to strike the heaviest blow to date in the Muslim fightback.  Notwithstanding his victory, Zengi was a secular individual who spent much of his career fighting his fellow-Muslims; by contrast, his son, Nur ad-Din, was a deeply devout man.

The efforts of this individual, largely neglected in the present day – his tomb for example, is gloomy and unnoticed, while Saladin’s is prominent on the tourist trail in Damascus – laid many of the foundations for his more famous successor.  Nur ad-Din means “Light of the Religion,” and his piety led him to found madrasas that encouraged the production of jihad ideology and an emphasis on martyrdom, sacrifice, the duty to holy war and a stress on the importance of regaining Jerusalem from the infidel (as noted above, it was the place of the Prophet’s Night Journey and hence the third most important location in Islam behind Mecca and Medina).  Thus, at last, the religious and political classes began to work together and the partnership so vital to holy war began to flourish.

Nur ad-Din was also a formidable strategist and he succeeded in bringing together, first, Aleppo and Damascus (in 1154), and he then annexed Egypt (1169).  This latter conquest meant the removal of the Shia from Cairo and thereby displayed his credentials as the champion of the Sunni.  To rule Egypt he appointed an able young warrior – Saladin.  Soon, however, the latter’s determination to establish control over Egypt began to alarm his patron.  In the early 1170s Saladin flagrantly disobeyed his commander’s instructions and a civil war seemed inevitable.  Nur ad-Din’s death in 1174 prevented this, but Saladin took almost a decade to sweep aside his heirs and, basically, to usurp his former master’s dynasty.  He also urged the Muslims of the Near East to join him in the jihad against the Christians and, through a blend of religious devotion and brilliant diplomacy, he managed to draw together a coalition of Egypt, Syria and the Jazira (northern Iraq) and force the Christians to battle in the summer of 1187.  By now, the crusaders themselves were riven by faction-fighting and, while they remained formidable warriors, on July 4, 1187, Saladin crushed their army at the Battle of Hattin.  Jerusalem soon fell and Saladin was described as “a champion and protector of God’s Holy Land.” His later reputation – which flourished in Western Europe, too – stressed his generosity, his love of culture and his chivalric courtesy to opponents, most notably Richard the Lionheart (during the Third Crusade, 1189-92).  While Saladin’s career had many sometimes contradictory facets, there is little doubt that the recovery of Jerusalem marked its apogee.  It was an achievement that has entered into legend:  he became the hero of Islam in the medieval age and remains a role model for many Muslims to this day.

Saladin’s image in modern Sunni Islam remains highly positive.  When, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western powers began to colonize and conquer Muslim lands in the Near East (often invoking a distorted crusading heritage in doing so), he emerged as a symbol of successful resistance.  As the man who ejected the crusaders (or in today’s terms, either Westerners in general, or the Israelis) he accomplished the aim of many modern-day groups.  So potent is this legacy that he has been invoked by ideologies as diverse as Arab nationalism – for example, President Nasser of Egypt (for whom his rule over Syria and Egypt was a perfect exemplar) and President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria – to the Islamism of Osama bin Laden.  At a less charged level, he is the subject of a forthcoming Malaysian animated cartoon in which his good judgement and moral qualities are seen as a suitable role model for young people today.  As an historical figure, and as a figure in contemporary culture, Saladin's life and career continue to be interesting.


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omar ibrahim baker - 3/18/2010

1-Re 1: correct you are
2-Re 2 kindly note the "Arab/Moslem" in the title.
Sallah Eddin (Saladin ) was certainly a Moslem kurd leading armies primarily , not exclusively
,composed of Arabs from greater Syria,Iraq and Egypt including some Christian Arab tribes.


Dale R Streeter - 3/16/2010

Two small quibbles:
1. The Mamluke army defeated the Mongols at Ain Jalut, not the Huns.
2. Salah-ad-Din was a Kurd not an Arab.


omar ibrahim baker - 3/11/2010

Arabs and Moslems, not unusually, seem to perform best under severe stress and existential challenges.

Challenged by both the Roman/Byzantine and Persian empires they scored some of the most spectacular military, and human endurance, feats in human annals at
Al Yarmouk and at al Kadissieh respectively by not only defeating far larger and better equipped and armed armies but also by putting an end to both empires' suzerainty over Greater Syria and Iraq eventually leading to their end as empires .

The HUNS were stopped and met their demise as unstoppable marauders by Egypt in Palestine at Ain Jalout.

Burning the only possible means of exit, the fleet that transported his armies, at Gibraltar and presenting his army with only two options, victory or death, Tareq ibn Ziyad won the crucial battle that determined the fate of Iberia for some 600 years.

Saladin , as amply demonstrated by Professor Phillips worked and triumphed under exceptionally hard conditions to liberate Jerusalem and put an end to Crusaders presence .

Their most outstanding, history making, battles were won against aliens colonists either liberating lands or vanquishing alien marauders (all above mentioned battles except the conquest of Spain .)

The late Abba Eban noted that as a regional environmentally induced/acquired trait making, however, the important distinction between
- the recurrent ability of the indigenous to overcome their lethargy and to rise to meet and defeat existential challenges
-the innate inability of aliens residing in the Levant to overcome their environmentally induced lethargy; a process he described as, if my memory does not fail me,
” Levantization”.

There is a lesson here for Israel on both counts.


Elliott Aron Green - 3/10/2010

Phillips fails to mention that the population of the lands conquered by the Crusaders was not overwhelmingly Muslim, if those lands even had a Muslim majority be it ever so narrow.

For example, the Land of Israel, seen by Muslims as an indistinct part of bilad ash-Sham, had a large Christian population and a sizable Jewish population at the start of the Crusades. These peoples made up a majority of the population in the land that Christians --including Crusaders-- called the Holy Land. Perhaps the Christians alone formed a majority of the population.

In what is now Lebanon the Christians surely formed a majority at that time. Cities farther north, such as the Edessa that Phillips mentions, were mainly Christian cities. Edessa spoke Aramaic/Syriac, not Arabic. It was not Arab ethnically nor Muslim religiously. But Phillips does not see fit to mention that mere detail. He does not see that the Muslim/Arab conquests which took place approx. 460 years before the Crusaders took Jerusalem led to an occupation regime. The Muslim system of rule over non-Muslims, the dhimma, comprised special taxes seen as tribute [Quran, Sura 9:29]. Indeed, at the beginning of the Muslim/Arab occupation, the Muslims paid no taxes. Later, Muslims paid much smaller taxes. Then there were all the other rules/laws of the dhimma that oppressed and humiliated the dhimmis, seen as subject peoples, conquered peoples. Is there a reason not to see this system as an occupation system?

Then Phillips is coy about naming the victims of the Crusader massacres. One would think from reading this article that the victims were solely Muslims. In fact, in Jerusalem they massacred both Jews and Muslims. Even after the Crusader conquest of Israel was established, they continued massacring Jews in the Galilean villages, although sometimes Muslims and even fellow Christians were victims. The Crusaders massacred the majority of the Jewish population in the country, which had already been living under Muslim oppression as dhimmis. This is supported by Moshe Gil and other authorities.

Now as to the Muslim war on the Crusaders, Bernard Lewis writes that Saladin was quite willing to live in relative peace with the Crusaders, in contrast to Phillips' claim that Saladin looked forward to a jihad to drive them out from the beginning of his rule.

Lewis writes that it was the provocations and excesses of Reynald of Chatillon, a lord who held lands in Transjordan [with Krak des Chevaliers as his headquarters?], that forced Saladin's hand and aroused a fighting spirit among the Muslims to drive out the Crusaders. Reynald held Muslim pilgrims to Mecca of high station hostage and sent Crusader pirates to raid the coast of Hijaz, the area of Mecca and Medina. Thereby he provoked a major Muslim movement against the Crusaders. Now, maybe Phillips is right and Lewis is wrong. Nevertheless, it seems that Phillips should deal with Lewis' version of matters. Yet not a word, not a hint that there may be another account of matters than his own.

Of course, Phillips would not want to mention the Jewish victims of the Crusaders, which would weaken his characterization of Israelis as modern Crusaders and Westerners. He does this as if Jews were simply Westerners like any Westerners, as if Christian Europe into the 21st century does not still tend to view Jews as alien, even Jews whose families have been in Europe for centuries. In that light, in his drive to perceive and have others perceive Jews as alien to the land where they are living --Israel in this case-- Phillips is showing a good deal of Crusader spirit and prejudice himself.