SALADIN or YUSUF SALAH-UD-DIN AYUBI, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, is one of the most revered heroes in Islam. He was a gifted leader, an astute general and military strategist; a statesman and nation-builder. He united the warring Arab factions in the Islamic world and challenged them to confront their ‘common’ enemy: The Crusaders, who had checked their dominance in the Middle East and, in 1099 A.D., had wrested control from them of the Holy City of Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine. That was after the First Crusade which was launched by Pope Urban II in 1095 A. D. for that very purpose.
However, by the late twelfth century, with the arrival on the scene of the great Muslim conqueror, Salah-ud-Din (or Saladin as he is commonly known in the West), the tide against the invading Christians began to turn in favour of the Muslims. Salah-ud-Din posed a direct threat to the Holy City, which had been, by then, in their hands for almost a century. It was the leadership of Salah-ud-Din that had made the difference. Alarmed, Pope Clement III called on the rulers of Europe to embark on a new Crusade – the Third — to defend the Holy City and thwart the Arabs’ attempts to take it back.
In fact, the Holy City of Jerusalem, so strongly associated with Jesus Christ, had fallen to the Muslim Arabs in 637 A.D. under Omar bin Khattab (R.A.), the Second Caliph of Islam, who interestingly made the long trip from Arabia to Jerusalem to sign the treaty that ceded Jerusalem to the Muslims. However, Caliph Omar showed uncommon magnanimity to the Christians and allowed them the freedom of worship and movement in the holy city in return of certain guarantees.
Pope Clement’s call to the Christian rulers of Europe in 1095 A.D. to defend and protect Jerusalem, did not go unheeded. Several kings and princes answered his call and joined the Third Crusade and, after a most brutal attack on the Holy City that saw hitherto unseen cruelty and savagery towards Muslims, Jews, men, women and children; after the city fell to them. The memory of the brutal attacks ever remained a painful reminder to the Arabs of their defeat and humiliation. In fact, the Christians would rule Jerusalem for the next eighty-eight years – that is, until 1177 A. D., when Salah ud-Din appeared on the scene.
Salah-ud-Din would do what no other Arab leaders had been able to achieve before him. He united the warring Arabs under one banner – the banner of Islam — and waged war against the European invaders — third Crusade – led by three European kings: King Richard I of England, also known as the Lion–Heart; King Frederick Barbarossa of Germany and King Philip II of France.
Unfortunately for the Crusaders, things would not go well for them right from the start – especially with the three leaders. The elderly King Frederick Barbarossa drowned during the trip in the sea of Anatolia and, without him, his troops fell into disarray and were not of much help. The French King had a falling out with King Richard of England and, after a quarrel, opted to return home to France. Only King Richard was left to fight the Arab forces but in Salah-ud-Din, the Crusaders had met their match. Salah-ud-Din routed the Crusaders at the deciding Battle of Hattin in 1177 and laid siege to the City of Jerusalem till it was forced to surrender. By 1187, Jerusalem was thus back into Muslim hands and would remain so till the end of World War I – that is, till 1918.
Salah-ud-Din’s victory over the crusading forces at Hattin is regarded as one of the great triumphs of Islam over the Crusading forces. During his successful campaign against the invading Crusaders, Salah-ud-Din, who had been brought up under strict orthodox Islam, showed the magnificent side of his character, his deep humanity, his compassion and humanity towards his ‘enemies’.
In his novel, “The Talisman,” Sir Walter Scott literally depicts the great human traits of Salah-ud-Din as a person, as a leader and as a general and highlights his magnanimity towards the English King although we know that, in reality, Salah-ud-Din and King Richard never met in person. But it is true that Salah-ud-Din did send his personal physician to tend to the English king when the latter was sick – a gesture that drew much respect for the Muslim Conqueror among his ‘enemies’.
In fact, it is said that when Salah-ud-Din entered Jerusalem in 1187, what a contrast it was from the scene when the Crusaders overran it in 1177! The Crusaders then had turned the place, as one chronicler put it, “into pools of blood,” killing indiscriminately Muslims, Jews, men, women and children who showed up in their path. However, with Salah-ud -Din, it was all a different story. He showed uncommon generosity, kindness and humanity towards his enemies. He allowed freedom of movement to all residents who chose to leave.
Moreover, in the Ridley Scott’s Hollywood classic (movie) “Kingdom of Heaven”, which is set at the time of the Third Crusade and depicts the fall of Jerusalem to the Salah ud-Din, there is a particular scene in the movie that shows the mighty Salah-ud-Din walking triumphantly down the defeated Christians’ camp amidst masses of debris and destruction when he notices a Cross lying on the ground. He, immediately stops in his tracks, very reverently stoops down, picks up the Cross, and respectfully places it upright on a ‘table’ and proceeds on to whatever business he was up to.
Salah-ud-Din was born in 1138 A.D. in the town of Tikrit, now in Iraq. He was of Kurdish origin. He was brought up under strict orthodox sunni traditions. He scrupulously followed the teachings of the Qur’an and the precepts laid down by the Prophet (pbuh). He was a Muslim first and then Sultan. So much so and it is not surprising at all that even to-day, centuries after his death, that he remains an iconic figure in Islamic history and continues to enjoy great adulation and love throughout the Muslim world and revered as one of the most beloved heroes of Islam.
Salah-ud-Din got his military training under his uncle, Assad al-Din Sirkuth, who was also his mentor and a top official in the Fatimid Caliphate army. The young Salah-ud-Din made his grade in the army; he proved his mettle as a military leader with his brilliant exploits and, it was no surprise that he soon found himself named to the powerful position of Vizier of Egypt — a significant recognition of his great leadership skills.
Also, what was remarkable about his appointment as Vizier was the fact that Salah-ud-Din was himself a sunni Muslim serving the Fatimid (Shia) Caliphate.
Salah-ud-Din’s brilliant successes on the battlefield earned him much admiration and respect and his influence and power continued to grow until he felt strong enough to claim the throne of Egypt and proclaimed himself Sultan – a claim that was readily endorsed by the rival Sunni Caliph in Baghdad. However, Salah-ud-Din would soon abolish the Fatimid Caliphate, which had ruled for over a century in Egypt and thus put an end to the domination of the Shias in the Caliphate altogether.
Salah-ud-Din would later conquer Syria as well as a good chunk of Yemen and territories in North Africa. He, understandably, proclaimed himself Sultan of these realms as well. He was a strong and powerful leader who literally checked the advance of the Europeans in the Middle East.
However, the Arabs’ dominance in the region would eventually be replaced by the Ottoman Turks — a Muslim dynasty who, like Salah-ud-Din, professed sunni Islam. Thus, the Muslims would emerge as the dominating power in the Middle East, controlling Palestine and the city of Jerusalem and that until the end of World War I in 1914. The Ottomans, until then, had kept Islam unchallenged in the region.
It is said that by the time Salah-ud-Din died in March 1193, he had given away all his wealth to charity so much so that there wasn’t even enough to pay for his own funeral. Yet, he was buried with full honours in the northern corner of the famous Grand Umeyyad Mosque in Damascus, in Syria. He was an icon and a great warrior of Islam. His mausoleum, located just on the outside of the famous Umeyyad Mosque, is still visited by thousands every year and has been, over the years, a major attraction to visitors – Muslims and non-Muslims alike.