Why does Saladin have such an enduring reputation?

Jonathan Phillips discovers how Saladin became a role model – both for medieval chivalry and the modern world

Portrait of Saladin (1560) by Cristofano Dell Altissimo.

On 2 October 1187, the sultan Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub – known commonly today as Saladin – captured Jerusalem for the people of Islam. It was the crowning achievement of his career – an extraordinary triumph that ensured his name has echoed down the centuries.

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Over the previous years, Saladin had drawn together a fragile coalition of Muslims from across the Middle East to take on and crush the Christians – or ‘Franks’, as the inhabitants of the Crusader States were known – at the battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, opening the way for the recovery of Islam’s third most important city.

Jerusalem is also, of course, the fulcrum of Christianity, and news of its fall inevitably provoked outrage. The desire to avenge this loss triggered the Third Crusade, an expedition launched by the greatest rulers of western Europe, including Richard I (aka Richard the Lionheart) of England. After years of relentless campaigning, though, the crusaders left for home without accomplishing their primary aim. Despite suffering a number of serious defeats, Saladin held onto Jerusalem. He died on 4 March 1193, exhausted by the struggle.

Saladin captures the 'true cross' at the battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187
Saladin captures the ‘true cross’ at the battle of Hattin on 4 July 1187, depicted in a medieval illustration. Following his triumph in this clash againast the crusaders, the sultan captured the holy city of Jerusalem in October 1187 (Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Over 800 years later, the sultan commands an extraordinarily enduring reputation across the Muslim world. His story is woven into the political, religious and cultural landscape as the man who defeated invading westerners and fought for his faith and his people. Though the victory at Jerusalem is at the heart of his renown, Saladin’s character – or the image formed around his character – is also immensely important. Over the course of his lifetime, Saladin became famous for his generosity, piety, justice and mercy. And though he undoubtedly benefitted from a cadre of eloquent and persuasive literary admirers, the evidence from those beyond his inner circle – even the writings of his enemies – indicates the prominence of these personality traits, and demonstrates that they were central to his success as the leader of the jihad against the Franks, and as a dynastic empire-builder.

Even today, the range of people who call upon Saladin’s legacy is astonishing. An ethnic Kurd, he is a hero to many of his people; he appears on the coinage of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the university in Irbil is named for him. President Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey periodically invokes the sultan to signal his opposition to the west; at the inauguration of a new airport in south-east Turkey in 2015, he stated: “We are naming this airport Selahaddin Eyyubi [Saladin Ayyub] to send a message of solidarity and brotherhood, and to say that Jerusalem belongs to Kurds, Turks, Arabs and Muslims forever.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan opening Selahaddin Eyyubi (Saladin) Airport in 2015
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the opening ceremony for Selahaddin Eyyubi (Saladin) Airport in 2015 (STR/Getty Images)

A yet more incendiary invocation of the sultan’s memory was made by Osama bin Laden, former leader of the Islamist terror group al-Qaeda. In verse, a common form of communication in Middle Eastern cultures, he wrote:

“I envision you all as [Saladin] himself, wielding his all-conquering sword dripping with the blood of infidels. / I envision [Saladin] coming out of the clouds, and in our hearts and minds is created the remembrance of the battles [of the Prophet Muhammad].”

Textbook example

Saladin also appears in school books across the Middle East and in Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia. Recently, however, in the aftermath of the brief rule of President Mursi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (2012–13), the regime of General Sisi removed the sultan’s story from the curriculum on the basis that it could inspire jihad – a backhanded compliment reflecting Saladin’s ability to encourage action.

His life and career feature in many less-provocative cultural forms including film, dance, theatre, television drama and documentaries. In a cartoon series produced for Malaysian television in 2010, aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds, a figure based on Saladin appeared as “the ultimate hero: courageous in the face of danger, never willing to admit defeat and funny when he needs to be. In a world of danger there’s only one man you will want in your corner – Saladin.”

His legacy is not confined to politics and religion, yet his story is inextricably bound to the memory and legacy of the crusades. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where tensions connected with the idea of the crusades, and associations with bloody western conquests of Islamic lands, continue to fester. Though the crusaders were driven from the Holy Land in 1291, the threat of subsequent invasions and other struggles launched by forces of Christian Europe against the Ottoman empire during the 15th and 16th centuries meant that the prospect of a repeat of the crusades remained genuinely alive for the region’s people.

After the British took power in Egypt in 1882, the achievements of Saladin proved an alluring subject for those who resented British rule

It’s unsurprising, then, that Saladin’s defeat of the Franks continued to loom large in the collective memory of that era – but so, too, did his abilities as a ruler. Naima, an important Ottoman administrator in the early 18th century, wrote of the sultan: “It is the truth that he served religion and the state in a way that has been granted to few other kings. Books of history are overflowing with honour and praise for that noble individual.”

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 marked the return of large-scale western influence in the Middle East and north Africa, encouraged by the slow decline of the Ottoman empire. Manifestations of this western presence included Christian patriarchates and consulates reappearing in the Holy Land, the British taking control of Egypt in 1882 and then, after the First World War, the establishment of the French mandate in Syria and the British mandate in Palestine.

What was the French mandate?

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Ottoman empire disintegrated. In 1920, political and historical interests in the region led France to take control of Syria. Two years later, the League of Nations confirmed the mandate stating that the French would be responsible, as trustees or caretakers, for helping prepare Syria for self-government.

People and leaders often invoke heroes from the past to promote their own current causes. So it was that, after the British took power in Egypt, the parallels of past conflicts with the crusaders were all too inviting for those who opposed this new alien presence. In conjunction with cultural developments such as the emergence of Arab newspapers and theatre groups, as well as a growing sense of identity that coalesced under the idea of Arab nationalism, the achievements of Saladin proved a highly alluring subject for those who resented British rule in Egypt.

The Balfour Declaration and the growing tensions between Zionists (who were promoting Jewish nationhood with the intention of creating a territorial state in their historic homeland) and Palestinians, along with the French mandate in Syria, prompted political and cultural outpourings invoking Saladin. Poetry, which has played a central part in Arab culture down the centuries – many of Saladin’s contemporary admirers expressed themselves in complex verses – flourished during the 1920s and 1930s with powerful political appeals using the sultan’s story.

More direct links with the crusades were made on numerous occasions in the region. In the 1930s, for example, Palestine celebrated Hattin Day, commemorating Saladin’s defeat of the Franks. Similarly, Zionists were increasingly painted as latter-day crusaders and, after the foundation of Israel in 1948, that country was characterised by Arab nationalists as a successor to the Crusader States, reinforcing such historical associations.

David Ben-Gurion (centre), first prime minister of the modern state of Israel, at the departure of British troops
David Ben-Gurion (centre), first prime minister of the modern state of Israel, at the departure of British troops after the end of the British mandate in Palestine in 1948. The newly founded country was characterised by some Arab nationalists as a successor to the Crusader States (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Arab nationalists continued to embrace Saladin’s legacy through the 1950s and beyond. During his conflicts with the west over the 1956 Suez Crisis and thereafter, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who headed the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958–61), made much of Saladin’s defeat of the crusaders.

More recently, Saddam Hussein regularly invoked the memory of the medieval victor over the west. The Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasser Arafat aspired to emulate the sultan’s capture of Jerusalem; during the First Intifada, in confrontations between the Israeli troops and the Palestinians, protestors chanted against the Israeli leaders: “Tell Shamir, tell Rabin – we are sons of Saladin!” And the Assad regime in Syria has drawn upon the presence of Saladin’s tomb in Damascus, as well as his historical successes and love of the Syrian capital city, in validating its rule.

What was the First Intifada?

This Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule erupted in Gaza in 1987 and soon spread into the West Bank territories. Demonstrations frequently became violent: protestors threw objects at Israeli troops, who responded with gunfire; Palestinians later also used guns. Multiple forms of resistance emerged, including strikes and boycotts. The First Intifada ended in 1993.

Conflict with co-religionists

It is, though, important to recognise that not all Muslims revere, or have revered, Saladin. In the course of his career, the sultan spent many years in conflict with his Sunni Muslim co-religionists. Saladin was undoubtedly set upon liberating Jerusalem for Islam, but inextricably linked to this was his determination to create a powerful dynastic empire. Though the former aim was certainly endorsed by all Muslims, he attracted a lot of criticism for usurping the Zengid dynasty in Syria. In addition, military defeats at the battles of Montgisard (1177), Acre (1189), Arsuf (1191) and Jaffa (1192) also attracted periodic criticism from Muslims, but such were his diplomatic skills – bolstered by the largely unwavering loyalty of his own family – that these setbacks did not terminally damage his cause.

As a leader of Sunni Islam, Saladin was also determined to assert Sunni dominance over Shia Islam, the rival doctrine headed at that time by the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo. When the Fatimids fell into decline, Saladin’s uncle Shirkuh led a conquest of Egypt, joined by his nephew. Saladin emerged as his clan’s dynastic figurehead, and in 1171, when the young Shia caliph died, Saladin assumed full control of Egypt and imposed adherence to the Sunni branch of Islam. Curiously, this provoked relatively little opposition, perhaps because the Fatimids had become apathetic upholders of the Shia cause. Down the centuries, however, Shia Muslims – the minority group in Islam, comprising around 10 per cent of the faith – certainly recall Saladin’s termination of their caliphate. As Sunni and Shia Muslims have intermittently fought one another during the modern era, the sultan has been denounced by the latter as a friend of the crusaders and a traitor to Islam.

Who were the Fatimids and what is a caliphate?

The leader of the Fatimid dynasty, which emerged in north Africa at the start of the 10th century, was regarded by Shia Muslims as the successor to the Prophet, and rightful spiritual leader of the Muslim community.

In 969, the Fatimids took control of Egypt and founded Cairo. At its greatest extent, the Fatimid caliphate spanned Syria and the Holy Land but by the 12th century it was in decline, and was ousted by Saladin in 1171.

A caliphate is an Islamic state ruled by a caliph – literally a ‘successor’ of the Prophet Muhammad – the religious and legal leader of the community of believers.

Sunni Muslims believe that such a leader should be chosen by election; Shia adherents believe that the Muslim leader should be a descendant of the Prophet’s cousin Ali. The caliphate was controlled by various dynasties until its abolition in 1924.

Meanwhile, in the west, there is an entirely different cultural memory of the crusades – highlighted by US President George W Bush when, after the 9/11 attack, he described the American-launched military campaign dubbed the ‘war on terror’ as “a crusade”. In doing so, he echoed Osama bin Laden’s characterisation of the west, sparking immense controversy.

Chainmail-clad past

The then-president’s ignorance of the cultural sensitivity of the word in the Muslim world can perhaps be partly ascribed to the fact that, in the west, crusades are seen as events from the distant, chainmail-clad past. Yet, though crusaders were dismissed by Enlightenment thinkers as credulous zealots, from the 19th century literature and art offered a more positive view. Coupled with the rising western presence in the Middle East, some – especially the French – chose to recall their own crusading heritage in glowing terms. ‘Crusade’ also came to be more generally used as a metaphor, meaning a fight for a morally just cause.

In the west, a ‘crusade’ is an event in distant history, but in the Middle East it represents a memory so deep-rooted that it cannot be shifted

This metaphor has been deployed in a military context, such as during the First World War, and for other entirely secular uses: we might talk of a crusade against smallpox, for example, or for better education. In such ways, the word is still frequently used across all aspects of life. So in the west a ‘crusade’ is either an event in distant history or a word with positive moral connotations, uncoupled from the medieval holy wars. In the Middle East, though, it represents a memory and a metaphor so deep-rooted that it cannot be shifted, particularly in the minds of those Muslims engaged in conflict with the west.

Where does Saladin fit in to this? His status in the west is something of a paradox. As the man who took Jerusalem, he was immediately branded as the son of Satan, a harbinger of the apocalypse and a mortal enemy of all Christians. Yet in achieving that victory he had created an enduring example of estimable behaviour. In contrast with the actions of the crusaders when they took Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1099 during the First Crusade, Saladin did not slaughter the city’s inhabitants but instead ransomed them. Diplomacy took a prominent role during the Third Crusade and, perhaps to their surprise, the Franks found in Saladin and his chief negotiator, his younger brother Saphadin, men whose behaviour and values they admired and, in many respects, that represented their own aspirations.

This was an age in which chivalry was emerging, and the crusaders admired men of faith, of courtesy towards women, of generosity, and with interests in hunting, poetry and music. They also had to come to terms with the fact that they were dealing with an opponent who had, in taking and holding Jerusalem, defeated and then resisted them. He must, therefore, be a worthy opponent.

Saladin was soon cited as a benchmark for generosity, mentioned in guides to chivalric behaviour. He was presented in literature as a gallant suitor of western women, a master of disguise who could visit Europe incognito, and even as a secret convert to Christianity. All of this was nonsensical, of course, but was a sign of how the west came to assimilate this great figure into its culture, and how his image could evolve and endure.

Saladin’s story, then, is a complicated one that does not fit a simple ‘clash of civilisations’ binary of east versus west, Islam versus Christianity. He fought fellow Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, as well as the Frankish crusaders. Periodically, crusaders established alliances with Muslim states, and expended energy in conflict with one another rather than simply struggling against Saladin and his successors.

Saladin himself occupies a unique middle ground. It is almost impossible to think of another figure who dealt a people and a faith (Christianity) such a huge blow (the capture of Jerusalem), yet who has been so admired by those people. The process by which his image evolved is a fascinating journey embracing literary fantasy as well as historical fact. Yet far more important still today is his legacy in the Middle East, where his past achievements and character are familiar to all, and where he continues to be revered as a focus of admiration and hope.


Saladin: modest, wise, prodigious

Saladin: conqueror, diplomat, empire-builder (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
Saladin: conqueror, diplomat, empire-builder (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub was born in c1137 in Takrit, a town about 120 miles north of Baghdad. His family were Kurdish warlords serving under Nur al-Din, ruler of what’s now northern Iraq and Syria, who fomented Muslim jihad (holy war) against the Franks.

Over time, Saladin challenged and finally usurped Nur al-Din’s authority, creating an empire that stretched north from Egypt and Yemen to Mosul, Damascus and Aleppo. This power enabled him to defeat the Franks at the battle of Hattin and conquer most of the kingdom of Jerusalem, including the holy city itself.

Saladin surrounded himself with a corps of skilled and trusted advisors and administrators who transmitted news of his successes across the Muslim near east, proclaiming that his victory was a sign of God’s approval, and of huge benefit to Islam.

Outside formal court life, Saladin was an enthusiastic huntsman and an expert polo player. In contrast with many European contemporaries, he consistently fathered male children. It’s been claimed that he had 17 sons, many of whom were born to concubines, though it’s known that he held his wife, Ismat al-Din, in special affection, writing to her daily during his serious illness from 1185. In his final years, the strain of constantly fighting crusaders and running the huge family empire took an immense physical and mental toll on the sultan, who suffered from violent stomach pains that sometimes prevented him from fighting.

Saladin was known for his modesty in dress and demeanour. When he died in 1193, so great had been his generosity that his treasury was almost empty, and it was said that money had to be borrowed to buy the bricks to line his tomb.

Jonathan Phillips is professor of crusading history at Royal Holloway, University of London. His books include The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin (Bodley Head, 2019)

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This content first appeared in issue 16 of BBC World Histories magazine