Saladin Essay - Critical Essays



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 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

Bahâeddîn Ibn Shaddad
Life of Saladin (history) date unknown

‘Imâddedîn of Isfahân
el-Barq el-Shâmî (history) date unknown

‘Imâddedîn of Isfahân
el-Fath el-Qussî (history) date unknown

‘Izzeddîn Ibn el-Athîr
el-Kâmil (history) unknown

Sir Walter Scott
The Talisman (novel) 1825


The Quarterly Review (essay date 1896)

The Quarterly Review (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: “The Age of Saladin,” The Quarterly Review, Vol. CLXXXIII, No. CCCLXV, 1896, pp. 163–87.

[In the following essay, the anonymous critic briefly reviews several nineteenth-century Western histories of the Crusades. The critic observes a lack of a thorough, accurate “Mohammedan history” by a Western writer and demonstrates that such information is available through Arabic sources.]

… 1. Ousama ibn Mounkidh, un Emir Syrien au premier siècle des Croisades (1095-1188). Par Hartwig Derenbourg. Avec le texte arabe de l’Autobiographie d’Ousama, publié d’après le manuscrit de...

(The entire section is 11337 words.)

C. R. Conder (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: “Saladin and King Richard: The Eastern Question in the Twelfth Century,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. DCCCCLXXVII, No. CLXI, March, 1897, pp. 389–97.

[In the following essay, Conder reviews the pre-history and military details of the Third Crusade, emphasizing the achievements of King Richard I. Conder notes that in accounts of the Crusade by Frankish and Muslim authors, both Saladin and Richard are praised and respected.]

It is not often that so complete a double account of a great struggle can be found in medieval history as that which exists regarding the third crusade, of which the opposing heroes were Saladin and Richard Lion Heart. On the...

(The entire section is 5077 words.)

Dana Carleton Munro (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: “Saladin and the Loss of the Kingdom” in The Kingdom of the Crusaders, Kennikat Press, 1935, pp. 147–73.

[In the following essay, Munro offers an account of Saladin's rise to power and discusses his capture of Jerusalem and truce with the Christians.]

From all those engaged in the crusading wars romance has singled out Saladin as its own particular hero, with Richard the Lion-Hearted as a poor second. The choice was a natural one, for Saladin had the qualities which commended him to both Christian and Muslim. He did not have the broad tolerance in religion with which Lessing endowed him in Nathan der Weise: no Muslim leader could have had this...

(The entire section is 7124 words.)

Hilaire Belloc (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: “The Encirclement” in The Crusade: The World’s Debate, Cassell and Company Ltd., 1937, pp. 255–85.

[In the following essay, Belloc analyzes Saladin's role in deciding the fate of the Christians in the Holy Land between the Second and Third Crusades. Belloc stresses that other scholars have made too much of Saladin's alleged respect for and fair treatment of his enemies.]



The attack of Europe upon the Asiatic is over and has failed. The rest of the story is but one thing. It is the mortal sickness and death of the Crusading State.

The breakdown of the expedition...

(The entire section is 8818 words.)

H. A. R. Gibb (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: “The Arabic Sources for the Life of Saladin,” Speculum, Vol. XXV, No. 1, January, 1950, pp. 58–72.

[In the following essay, Gibb examines the style, content, and historical accuracy and value of several contemporary Arabic sources of the life of Saladin.]

All historians who have studied the life of Saladin have given the first place to two Arabic sources: the Life of Saladin by Bahâeddîn Ibn Shaddâd (translated in Volume III of the Recueil des Historiens des Croisades: Historiens Orientaux), and the universal history, el-Kâmil, of ‘Izzeddîn Ibn el-Athîr (partially translated in Volumes I and II, 1, in the same series). As to...

(The entire section is 8682 words.)

Steven Runciman (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: “Saladin, a Great Leader of Islam,” The Listener, Vol. LI, No. 1311, April 15, 1954, pp. 648–49.

[In the essay that follows, Runciman offers a general assessment of Saladin's achievement and reputation, commenting that Saladin is as admired in modern times as he was by his contemporaries for his eminence as a general and for his virtuous nature. The author cites examples of Saladin's acts of mercy, charity, compassion, and humility.]

There are many characters in history who were thought to be great and good by their contemporaries but who seem to us today rather unattractive. Fashions in behaviour and even moral standards have changed. But there are a few...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)

Charles M. Brand (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “The Byzantines and Saladin, 1185–1192: Opponents of the Third Crusade,” Speculum, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, April, 1962, pp. 167–81.

[In the following essay, Brand outlines the details of the alliance between the Byzantine Empire and Saladin from 1185 to 1192. Brand concludes that neither side gained much from the alliance.]

On the eve of the Third Crusade the chief Christian state in the East joined with Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria, to further their common interests, which involved opposition to the Latins in the Holy Land. To the West this conjunction appeared to be a violation of the tie of religion and a break with tradition, because from the...

(The entire section is 8667 words.)

Hamilton A. R. Gibb (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “The Achievement of Saladin” in Studies in the Civilization of Islam, edited by Stanford J. Shaw and William R. Polk, Princeton University Press, 1962, pp. 91–107.

[In the following essay, Gibb assesses the motivation behind Saladin's achievements and addresses the theory that his successes were the result of his personal ambition and his exploitation of religious sentiments. Gibb maintains that Saladin's successes were the result of his “unselfishness, his humility and generosity, [and] his moral vindication of Islam.”]

In the effort to penetrate behind the external history of a person whose reputation rests upon some military achievement, the modern...

(The entire section is 6677 words.)

Andrew S. Ehrenkreutz (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “The Showdown with the Crusader” in Saladin, State University of New York Press, 1972, pp. 195–261.

[In the following essay, Ehrenkreutz offers an assessment of Saladin's career that focuses on his accomplishments as well as his shortcomings. Ehrenkreutz stresses that he does not, unlike many critics, conjecture about or romanticize Saladin's intentions.]

“As for the claim of the Caliph that I’ve conquered Jerusalem with his army and under his banners—where were his banners and his army at the time? By God! I conquered Jerusalem with my own troops and under my own banners!”—Saladin to Caliph al-Nasir


(The entire section is 11003 words.)

R. Stephen Humphreys (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Structure of Politics in the Reign of Saladin” in From Saladin to the Mongols: Ayyubids of Damascus, 1193–1260, State University of New Yirk Press Albany, 1977, pp. 15–39, 414–21.

[In the following essay, Humphreys analyzes the political structure under which Saladin operated and discusses the ways in which he adapted this structure and established his authority. Humphreys emphasizes the system of loyalties cultivated by Saladin, and observes that such a system could not be sustained after his death. But overall, the political system that was prevalent during Saladin's reign “gave his immediate successors a framework of attitudes and behavior within which to define...

(The entire section is 11793 words.)

Malcolm Cameron Lyons and D. E. P. Jackson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Conclusion” in Saladin: Politics of the Holy War, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 365–85, 432–37.

[In the following essay, Lyons and Jackson offer a brief assessment of Saladin's reputation, commenting that Saladin's Muslim contemporaries alternately viewed him as a hero of Islam or as a manipulator who used Islam to achieve personal power. Lyons and Jackson provide evidence of Saladin's strengths and weaknesses.]

To his admirers, Saladin on his death-bed at Damascus can be seen as the hero of Islam, the destroyer of the Latin Kingdom and the restorer of the shrines in Jerusalem. Eulogy, however, must accommodate itself to the fact that such a...

(The entire section is 4883 words.)

C. P. Melville and M. C. Lyons (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Saladin’s Hattin Letter” in The Horns of Hattin, edited by B. Z. Kedar, Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1992, pp. 208–13.

[In the following excerpt, Melville and Lyons note that Saladin's Hattin letter functions as a triumph song, rather than a factual account. Like most medieval Arabic diplomatic correspondence, the letter is “colored by metaphor and rhetorical exaggeration.” The critics then offer an English translation of the letter.]

The repetitive patterns of medieval Arabic diplomatic correspondence are colored by metaphor and rhetorical exaggeration. Here, facts are the one half-pennyworth of bread in an intolerable deal of sack, and to this general rule...

(The entire section is 1598 words.)

Terry Jones and Alan Ereira (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Saladin the Upstart” in Crusades, Facts on File, 1995, pp. 135–47.

[In the essay that follows, Jones and Ereira provide a brief overview of Saladin's gradual achievement of military power and comment on the reasons why some contemporary Muslims viewed Saladin as an “upstart.” The critics' evaluation focuses on the apparent discrepancy between Saladin's expansionism (which involved fighting against fellow Muslims) and his claim that his activities were geared toward the conquest of Jerusalem and the goal of expelling Christians from the land.]

‘Upon the death of Shirkuh, the advisers of the Caliph al-Adid suggested that he name Yusuf the new Vizier,...

(The entire section is 3909 words.)

Yaacov Lev (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “The Sources” in Saladin in Egypt, Constable London, 1976, pp. xii-xv.

[In the following essay, Lev reviews the main contemporary sources for Saladin's biography and examines the influence of the contemporary politics (as well as the biographers' attitudes and perceptions) on the biographers' assessments of Saladin.]



I. The abundance of sources for Saladin's rise to power in Egypt should not mislead us as to our ability to fathom the deeper motives and aspirations of the main players on the political scene. We must be always...

(The entire section is 5918 words.)

Further Reading


Gabrieli, Francesco, ed. and trans. “Part Two: Saladin and the Third Crusade.” In Arab Historians of the Crusades, selected and translated from Arabic by Francesco Gabrieli, translated from Italian by E. J. Costello, pp. 87-254. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957.

Translations of Arabic sources discussing Saladin's character—his generosity, courage, fairness, and “unfailing goodness”—as well as his military exploits, peace negotiations, and death.

———.“The Arabic Historiography of the Crusades.” In Historians of the Middle East, edited by Bernard Lewis and P. M. Holt, pp. 98-107. London: Oxford...

(The entire section is 749 words.)