There is no doubt that Saladin is among the outstanding figures in world history, as Hannes Möhring noted in the Preface of his book Saladin: The Sultan and His Time, 1138-1193. In a time when European Christian attitudes towards Muslims were essentially founded on ignorance or rumors, many viewed Muhammad’s people as fierce pagans and agents of the devil. After the death of Nur al-Din, Saladin rose to power through a combination of resourceful diplomacy and superior leadership. Through his interactions with Christians during the Second and Third Crusades, Saladin garnered an unseen level of respect and admiration for his compassion, generosity, and devotion to his faith. Saladin proved that he was certainly the exception to the norm, as there were few Muslim leaders who exhibited the qualities that he employed with his adversaries on and off the field of battle. When assessing his superior leadership style, Saladin shared in the adversity that his men endured throughout the Third Crusade.
True leadership comes when a leader dedicates oneself to a cause and demonstrates his devotion by giving time and effort to said cause, risking one’s life, and enduring frequent hardships. Saladin certainly embodied the values of genuine leadership when he campaigned, engaged his enemies, risked his life, and almost died from disease to honor the cause of ridding the Levant of non-Islamic outsiders. Möhring clearly illustrates Saladin’s willingness to endure the hardships and risk of life when he provides the accounts of December 1185, when Saladin developed a fever, became seriously ill, and was close to death while on a campaign against the city of Mosul. Saladin suffered from frequent fevers during the progression of the Third Crusade and endured a life-threatening illness from December 1185 to February 1186, and recovered from his condition in time to accept ‘Izz al-Din’s truce, and thus claimed power that equaled his predecessor, Nur al-Din. Along with his willingness to share physical adversity was his high level of self-denial which one could view as a self-chosen adversity. Unlike other leaders, both Christian and Muslim, Saladin resisted the impulse to amass riches, and according to Baha ad-Din’s Life of Saladin, the sultan considered his followers before himself that, at the time of his death, he “left neither goods, nor house, nor real estate, neither garden, nor village, nor cultivated land, nor any other species of property.” By enduring adversity, Saladin demonstrated a level of leadership that deserved admiration of allies and adversaries alike.The greatest aspect of Saladin’s leadership was his mixing of force with persuasion that he employed with his adversaries.
Like his predecessors, Saladin was capable of committing acts of brutality towards Christians, yet his capacity to choose diplomacy rather than brute force made him quite effective. Unlike the wanton death and destruction seen during the earlier crusades, Saladin negotiated, maintained agreements, exchanged and released prisoners, and altered his plans when it was necessary to do so. Saladin’s ability to utilize negotiations and keep promises often prevented unproductive attacks and unnecessary losses. It was after the siege of Jerusalem where one witnesses a prime example of Saladin altering plans when the situation called for it and upholding agreements with the enemy.
According to Madden, after the fall of Jerusalem in October 1187, Saladin planned to massacre the Christian inhabitants of the city, yet abandoned his plan when Balian of Ibelin threatened to destroy Jerusalem and kill its Muslim citizens before surrendering the city. The sultan agreed to terms and allowed all Christians in Jerusalem to leave the city after they purchased their freedom. In Saladin’s estimation, showing mercy towards his enemies and maintaining his integrity paid dividends. Because he was able to achieve as much as he did while upholding the virtues of good leadership, Saladin earned respect from those who considered him a “noble heathen.”It was the Christian ideals of mercy and integrity that Möhring discusses with regards to concept of the “noble heathen,” a Western image placed upon Saladin after the sultan’s death in March 1193. When looking at Saladin’s exploits, it is appropriate for Westerners to view him as the “noble heathen” through his acts of compassion.
His most renowned act of mercy is undoubtedly his treatment of Christians after the siege of Jerusalem on 2 October 1187; however, Saladin’s acts of benevolence can be seen through his interactions with individuals, as well as entire city populations. His biographer, Baha ad-Din’s, provided the account of the Frankish prisoner, who expressed great terror when brought before the sultan. When inquired about his reason for his fear, the prisoner replied, “Before I saw his face I was greatly afraid, but now that I am in the presence of Saladin and can see him, I am certain that he will do me no harm.” Saladin heard these words from the terrified Frank, and was quite moved by his words that he allowed his prisoner to live and then granted him his freedom. Through his act of clemency, Saladin proved that while combatting the enemy, that if you did not inflict humiliation and cruelty towards him, you greatly reduce the chance of compelling him into committing future acts of hostility. Ad-Din also offered the story of the Frankish woman seeking the return of her daughter who was taken during a nightly raid. The sultan heard the woman’s pleas for help and Saladin was “moved by her distress; tears came into his eyes, and acting from the generosity of his heart, he sent a messenger…to seek her little one and bring her away.” Saladin’s compassion could be viewed as an understanding as a parent, as Allen and Amt indicated, the sultan’s “desire to fight in God’s cause forced him to leave his family, his children…and all else in his land.
” The sultan may have looked upon this woman and thought of his wife and how she might have reacted had her children been taken in a nightly raid. Whether Saladin actually shed tears over this woman’s story is irrelevant, however the sultan’s compassionate and courteous act for the heartbroken parent, regardless of the fact that she was Frankish Christian, illustrates why Europeans admired a man who what not a Christian, yet possessed Christian ideals. Both Christians and Muslims placed significant emphasis on Saladin’s generosity and how it played a role in embellishing his memory upon future generations. Möhring points out that the sultan’s generosity may have been an aspect of his upbringing, and was also a result of his political intentions. His generosity to his adversaries can be seen as a way of inducing today’s enemies to become tomorrow’s allies. Muslims would never forget the bloodshed of previous crusades, and in fact, Christians were also well aware of the atrocities committed by their predecessors, and many Christians expected Saladin to do the same.
Indeed, the sultan was, as Möhring stated, “equally chivalrous in victory and defeat…and was able to curb the desire for revenge.” Baha Ad-Din offered the account of the events after the Battle of Acre in 1191, where Saladin “delivered all the prisoners…from their wretched durance, and sent them back to their own country…giving each of them a sum of money for the expense of his journey.” Ad-Din also noted that, although he was not present when this event took place, he accepted the sincerity of those who did witness the sultan’s act.
Rather than exacting revenge on the crusaders for Reynald of Chatillon’s savage attack on a large caravan travelling from Syria through the Transjordan to Egypt in 1187, Saladin, as the “noble heathen,” displayed an impressive degree of generosity towards his fallen enemy numbered at about four thousand soldiers with funds from his ever-depleting treasury. Such acts of generosity would be repeated by few of his successors, namely Saladin’s nephew al Kamil and sultans of the Rum-Seljuks of Konya. The most interesting characteristic of Saladin as the “noble heathen” was his profound interest in Islamic studies, as well as military training. The sultan was much more than a leader of men; he was also a deeply spiritual and humble follower of his faith.
Saladin’s devotion to his faith, as observed by Baha ad-Din, was so strong that the sultan acquired knowledge in a manner that allowed him to participate in religious discussions, even if he was unable to employ the language of a theologian. Ad-Din stated that Saladin truly believed in the doctrines of Islam and was very fond of hearing the Quran read aloud. Saladin displayed great reverence for the doctors of traditional lore and when he heard the words of the Quran, “his heart melted, and tears generally flowed from his cheeks.” Respect for shown by all in his court when the doctors visited, and when they could not or would not pass through the sultan’s gate, Saladin would seek them out himself listen to their readings. Here is the most powerful leader in the Muslim leader and he was humble to those who had knowledge and wished to acquire their knowledge. His commitment to prayer was unwavering, and only ceased when he was mentally incapable of continuing during the final days of his life. Modern-day Christians could learn much from Saladin’s faithful observation to his prayers. Saladin was as much a religious leader with the spiritual obligations to complete daily prayers as he was a soldier of his faith much like the Christian counterparts, the Knight Templars.
For European Christians, it may have been difficult to imagine Saladin as more than the fierce Muslim warrior and leader, however Baha ad-Din illustrates that the sultan’s devotion to his faith mirrored, and in some cases exceeded, the devotion that Christians held towards their own faith. Much has been said of his devotion to his faith, but the ultimate act of faith came later in his life. Complication with his health and the continuing responsibilities of holy war forced Saladin to neglect several fast required of all Muslims during the month of Ramadan, and the sultan desired to make up two months of fasting he missed during those times. Against the wishes of his physicians, Saladin fasted for an extended period of time past the ordinary month of Ramadan in order to fulfill his commitments to God that he had missed. Saladin’s desires to carry out the fasts ultimately lead to the further weakening of his body, suffered again from a high fever, and then expired on 4 March 1193.
Here was a man so faithful to his God that he placed an already debilitated body through the demands of fasting that his faith called for. How many people today would sacrifice their health, and subsequently their life, to fulfill a commitment to their God for neglected obligations that their religion demands of them? Finally, there is no question that Saladin is among the outstanding figures in world history because of the legacy he left behind. When news spread across Europe of the sultan’s compassion and bravery, many could not believe that a non-Christian could exhibit the qualities fundamentally connected to Christianity. The testament to his greatness was that many claimed him after his death, allies and adversaries alike. According to Möhring, stories began to circulate throughout the continent claiming that Saladin was secretly a Christian, that he was the son of a Christian woman, and that he died a baptized Christian. By making these claims, European Christians sought to rationalize the sultan’s Christian-like behavior and even romanticized him into their ideal Christian image. It was easier for Christians to say that he observed the Christians’ ideals of chivalry, rather than learning more about Islam and then realizing that Saladin’s actions were in accordance the laws of the Quran. Not only were European Christians claiming Saladin, those in the Levant had begun making claims.
Möhring states that the Kurds, the Arabs, and the Turks have all made claims to the sultan and portray him as a champion for freedom. Considering how Saladin attacked fellow Muslims in order to consolidate his power, it is interesting that these groups hold him in such high esteem. Möhring is correct in stating that there can be little doubt that Saladin should be placed among the outstanding figures in world history.
He was a scholarly spiritual warrior, yet so much of this man has been shrouded in myths and sensationalism. Saladin was certainly a man of true greatness, who impressed others around him and even those crusaders who praised the sultan felt that the man who defeated them on the field of battle was no ordinary adversary. Saladin was a man who preferred diplomacy and negotiation to violence and displayed chivalrous acts towards his adversaries, especially women and children. He was the most influential man in the Levant acquiring all the wealth of both Egypt and Syria, yet the lure of this power held no attraction for him, unlike others during his time.
History has placed other humble men and women in positions where they should be seen as exceptional and celebrated, and Saladin, with the legacy he left behind, should be placed alongside them.