Shadman Muhtasim Chowdhury
Growing up in a society influenced by western culture, I had the opportunity to come in contact with icons and historic figures the likes of Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Hector of Troy, Vlad III the Impaler (commonly known in the pop-culture as Dracula) and many more. Movies on Hector, comics on Alexander and documentaries on Nicholas II, Napoleon and Vlad III were what I grew up with.
It was not until later, that I was exposed to the likes of Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Genghis Khan, Amir Timur and the great Saladin himself. The later had a huge impact on me as I was always fascinated by the history of the Crusades (all three of them).
The contribution of Saladin and his impact on the lives of millions of Muslims across the world is still felt to this day. His contributions to Muslim world can only be rivaled by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, whose reign from the gates of Vienna to the Middle-East was unchallenged.
Saladin was born into a prominent Kurdish family. On the night of his birth, his father, Najm al-DīnAyyūb, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo, there entering the service of ʿImad al-DīnZangī ibn AqSonqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Baʿlbek and Damascus, Saladin was an undistinguished youth, with a greater taste for religious studies than military training.
His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad al-DīnShīrkūh, an important military commander under Emir Nūr al-Dīn, who was the son and successor of Zangī. During three military expeditions led by Shīrkūh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin Christian (Frankish) rulers of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the King of Jerusalem; Shāwar, the powerful vizier of the Egyptian Fāṭimid caliph; and Shīrkūh. After Shīrkūh’s death and after ordering Shāwar’s assassination, Saladin, in 1169 at the age of 31, was appointed both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and Vizier of the Fāṭimid caliph. His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed not only to the clannish nepotism of his Kurdish family but also to his own emerging talents. As Vizier of Egypt, he received the title “king” (malik), although he was generally known as the sultan.
Unifying the Muslim World
After the loss of the First Crusade (1096 – 1099), Levant and Anatolia went directly under the control of the Crusaders. The Kingdom Jerusalem was founded in 1099 in the Southern Levant by Godfrey of Bouillon with its capitals in Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre, Lebanon. The loss of the holy land was a big blow for the Muslims who were scattered across the region. The loss of the Holy Land was followed by defeats in Tripoli, Sinai, Beirut and Jaffa. At this point, the morale of the Muslim army was at an all time low. It took another 180 years for the Muslim Army to regroup under the supervision of Saladin.
Saladin enhanced his position further when, in 1171, he abolished the weak and unpopular ShīʿiteFāṭimid caliphate, proclaiming a return to Sunni Islam in Egypt. Although he remained for a time theoretically a vassal of Nūr al-Dīn, that relationship ended with the Syrian Emir’s death in 1174. Using his rich agricultural possessions in Egypt as a financial base, Saladin soon moved into Syria with a small but strictly disciplined army to claim the regency on behalf of the young son of his former suzerain. Soon, however, he abandoned this claim, and from 1174 until 1186 he zealously pursued a goal of uniting, under his own standard, all the Muslim territories of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. This he accomplished by skillful diplomacy backed when necessary by the swift and resolute use of military force. Gradually his reputation grew as a generous and virtuous but firm ruler, devoid of pretense, licentiousness, and cruelty. In contrast to the bitter dissension and intense rivalry that had up to then hampered the Muslims in their resistance to the Crusaders, Saladin’s singleness of purpose induced them to rearm both physically and spiritually.
It was an essential part of his policy to encourage the growth and spread of Muslim religious institutions. He courted their scholars and preachers, founded colleges and mosques for their use, and commissioned them to write edifying works, especially on the jihad itself. Through moral regeneration, which was a genuine part of his own way of life, he tried to re-create in his own realm some of the same zeal and enthusiasm that had proved so valuable to the first generations of Muslims when, five centuries before, they had conquered half the known world.
Battle of Ḥaṭṭīn
Saladin succeeded in turning the military balance of power in his favour—more by uniting and disciplining a great number of unruly forces than by employing new or improved military techniques. When at last, in 1187, he was able to throw his full strength into the struggle with the Latin Crusader kingdoms, his armies were their equals. On July 4, 1187, aided by his own military good sense and by a phenomenal lack of it on the part of his enemy, Saladin trapped and destroyed in one blow an exhausted and thirst-crazed army of Crusaders at Ḥaṭṭīn, near Tiberias in northern Palestine. So great were the losses in the ranks of the Crusaders in this one battle that the Muslims were quickly able to overrun nearly the entire kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre, Toron, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Caesarea, Nāblus, Jaffa (Yafo), and Ascalon (Ashqelon) fell within three months. But Saladin’s crowning achievement and the most disastrous blow to the whole Crusading movement came on October 2, 1187, when the city of Jerusalem, holy to both Muslim and Christian alike, surrendered to Saladin’s army after 88 years in the hands of the Franks. Saladin planned to avenge the slaughter of Muslims in Jerusalem in 1099 by killing all Christians in the city, but he agreed to let them purchase their freedom provided that the Christian defenders left the Muslim inhabitants unmolested.
Death & Legacy
Saladin was unable to profit from the Crusader’s departure because he died soon after in Damascus on 4 March 1193 CE. He was only 55 or 56 years old and most likely died from the sheer physical toll of decades spent on campaign. The fragile and often volatile Muslim coalition quickly disintegrated once their great leader had died, three of Saladin’s sons each took control of Egypt, Damascus and Aleppo respectively while other relations and Emirs squabbled for the remainders. Saladin did leave a lasting legacy as he founded the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled until 1250 CE in Egypt and 1260 CE in Syria, in both cases to be overthrown by the Mamluks. Saladin also left a legacy in literature, both Muslim and Christian. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that the Muslim leader became one of the great exemplars of chivalry in 13th century CE European literature. Much has been written about the sultan during his own lifetime and since, but the fact that an appreciation for his diplomacy and leadership skills can be found in both contemporary Muslim and Christian sources would suggest that Saladin is indeed worthy of his position as one of the great medieval leaders.
Shadman Muhtasim Chowdhury