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Saladin c. 1138-1193

Kurdish Muslim leader, Sultan of Egypt and Syria.

Born in Tikrīt, Iraq, Saladin (also written as Salâh ed Dîn or Salah ed-Din Yusuf) rose to power during the time of the Second and Third Crusades. He gained a reputation as a superior general, and contemporary accounts by Frankish and Arabic sources credit Saladin with being merciful and fair. His name is most widely recognized among Westerners for his military engagement with King Richard I during the Third Crusade. Among Muslims, he has often been viewed as a hero of Islam for his efforts to unite the Islamic states culminating in the capture of Jerusalem in 1187. Others, Muslims and Westerners alike, believe that despite Saladin's devout claims, his actions were aimed at consolidating and increasing his personal power.

At age fourteen, Saladin entered into the service of Syrian ruler Nur ad-Din. In 1164, Nur ad-Din sent Saladin on a series of military expeditions aimed at assisting the Egyptian Fatmid rulers in defending themselves against the attacks of the Crusaders. Saladin's efforts in these campaigns were highly successful. By 1169, Saladin had become the commander in chief of the Syrian army, as well as the vizier of Egypt. Having defended Egypt against the Crusaders, Saladin now went on the attack against them. Following Nur ad-Din's death in 1174, Saladin expanded his power in both Syria and Mesopotamia. In 1187 Saladin's armies captured Jerusalem. Two years later, the Third Crusade was launched, forcing Saladin to defend his territory. King Richard I of England was successful in overtaking some of Saladin's strongholds, including Acre in 1191. In 1192, Saladin and Richard reached an armistice agreement that allowed the Crusaders control over cities along the Palestinian-Syrian coast. Saladin and the Muslims, however, retained control over the city the Crusaders most longed for—Jerusalem. Saladin died in 1193.

Saladin scholarship focuses largely on evaluations of the contemporary source material about Saladin's life, and assessments of Saladin's military efficacy, motivation, reputation, and legacy. Hamilton A. R. Gibb offers a ranking and analysis of contemporary Arabic sources that focus on the life of Saladin. Gibb maintains that the two best sources are the extant texts composed by ‘Imâdeddîn of Isfahân, and the Life of Saladin by Bahâeddin Ibn Shaddad. Gibb also concludes that one of the most respected sources, the history el-Kâmil by ‘Izzeddîn Ibn el-Athîr, should no longer be regarded as the views “of a well-informed contemporary chronicler.” Yaacov Lev examines how contemporary politics influenced Saladin's historian-admirers—Qadi al Fadil, ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani, Ibn Shaddad, and Ibn el-Athîr—and affected their assessment of Saladin. Additionally, Lev discusses the cultural and religious biases that perhaps affected the biographers' views of Saladin. While Gibb and Lev study contemporary Arabic sources, C. R. Conder analyzes one such source—the account of Saladin's activities written by Saladin's friend Boha ed-Dîn—and Geoffrey de Vinsauf’s account of the same events from the Frankish point of view. Both accounts, Conder observes, are in complete accordance on the main facts pertaining to the Third Crusade. Other critics have centered their studies on the way in which contemporary sources have been utilized or ignored by modern writers. An anonymous critic for the Quarterly Review argues that nineteenth-century English readers suffered from a lack of an accurate account of “Mohammedan history” written by a western author. The critic goes on to discuss the wealth of information about Saladin available from Arabic sources. Stanley Lane-Poole examines how Saladin legends, which appear in early French romances, influenced nineteenth-century romances such as Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825). Lane-Poole demonstrates how Scott's and other literary treatments of Saladin include factual...

(This entire section contains 1024 words.)

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inaccuracies as well as insights into Saladin's character.

In evaluating and discussing Saladin's rise to power and his military and political achievements, some critics offer a favorable assessment of Saladin's character and motivations. Dana Carleton Munro offers a detailed account of Saladin's military conquests, and notes that Saladin treated Christian prisoners mercifully, and that he allowed Christian pilgrims access to Jerusalem. Steve Runciman characterizes Saladin as a devout Muslim, and comments that Saladin is as much admired in modern times as he was by his contemporaries. Like Munro, Runciman observes that Saladin showed “mercy and charity” to his defeated enemies. Similarly, Hamilton A. R. Gibb analyzes Saladin's activities and possible motivations. Gibb argues that Saladin's goals were to drive the Franks from Palestine and Syria, and to unite the Islamic states. Gibb praises Saladin as a man who stood for a “moral ideal”; Saladin expressed “this moral ideal in his own life and action,” thereby creating “an impulse to unity.” While these critics emphasize Saladin's religious motivation, his mercy, and his morality, others question—rather than praise—these qualities and impulses. Hilaire Belloc states that Saladin condemned enemies to torture and death, and remained “indifferent” to the suffering of these individuals. Belloc also describes Saladin as “fanatically anti-Christian.” Malcolm Cameron Lyons and D. E. P. Jackson point out that Saladin was both admired and reviled by his Muslim contemporaries; some Muslims accused him of using the unification of Islam as a ruse for his quest for personal power. Still other critics have attempted analyses that avoid discussion of personal characteristics and motivation altogether. R. Stephen Humphreys offers a detailed examination of the political structure under which Saladin operated. Humphreys demonstrates how the territories brought together by Saladin functioned as a political system which was shaped by a network of loyalties Saladin had cultivated. Andrew S. Ehrenkreutz criticizes Gibb's and other “romantic” assessments of Saladin's achievements, and his own analysis of Saladin's early career does not focus on Saladin's devotion to Islam or to the holy war against the Crusaders. Ehrenkreutz goes on to discuss Saladin's military and diplomatic accomplishments, as well as his shortcomings as a leader. D. S. Richards in his study of Saladin's career, finds much to criticize in Ehrenkreutz's work. Richards claims that Ehrenkreutz's analysis is full of inaccuracies, as well as “slanted or unsupportable interpretations of texts.” Richards concludes that while Gibb's portrait of Saladin may seem at first “too good to be true,” it is preferable to Ehrenkreutz's faulty account.


Representative Works