Saladin and the Muslims Retake Jerusalem in the 12th Century

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SALADIN (c. 1138-1193)

Saladin by an Italian painter in 1568

Salah a;-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyud (1138-1193), a Kurdish warrior better known as Saladin, rallied Islamic forces and drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem and Palestine in the 12th century. The Crusaders were never able to reclaim Jerusalem after that, even after Richard the Lion Hearted and Saladin held a summit meeting.

By the time of the Third Crusade, Saladin was the ruler, of Syria and Egypt. His victory at the Battle of Hattin on the night of July 3-4, 1187, was a turning point in the history of the Crusades. His army wiped out the entire Crusader force that stood between him and Jerusalem. Jerusalem eventually fell to Saladin's forces with minimal fighting on October 2, 1187. [Source:]

Saladin was the most widely known Muslim warrior in Europe, and it is said that his very name struck fear in the hearts of Europeans. He become so well known Dante included him with his Homer, Caesar and Plato in Limbo, the highest place non-Christians could enter. He also appeared in romances by Sir Walter Scott. In recent years his name has been invoked by people like Saddam Hussein and Hafez Assad as a cry for Muslims to reclaim the Holy Land. [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999]

Saladin was small and somewhat frail but Robert Wernick wrote in Smithsonian magazine that Saladin "was an extraordinary figure too. Wise, wily, devout, soft-spoken, a politician more than military hero.” "He had achieved the miracle of uniting of uniting most of the squabbling emirates, sultanates and kingdoms of the Muslim East. He had also fulfilled a century old Muslim dream of breaking the power of the Crusading states and reconquering the holy city of Jerusalem...He ruled by personal authority and knew how to reinforce his prestige by theatrical gestures."

David Van Biema wrote in Time, “When Dante Alighieri compiled his great medieval Who's Who of heroes and villains, the Divine Comedy, the highest a non-Christian could climb was Limbo. Ancient pagans had to be virtuous indeed to warrant inclusion: the residents included Homer, Caesar, Plato and Dante's guide, Vergil. But perhaps the most surprising entry in Dante's catalog of "great-hearted souls" was a figure "solitary, set apart." “That figure was Saladin. It is testament to his extraordinary stature in the Middle Ages that not only was Saladin the sole "modern" mentioned — he had been dead barely 100 years when Dante wrote — but also that a man who had made his name successfully battling Christianity would be lionized by the author of perhaps the most Christ-centered verse ever penned.” [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999]

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

Saladin's Life and Character

Saladin was born in 1138 in the mountain town of Takrit in a Kurdish area in what is now Iraq. During his youth the Muslim world consisted of a bunch of squabbling warlords living under the Christian shadow. The Crusaders occupied four militarily aggressive states and the Muslims were unable to unify against them.

Saladin’s uncle, the one-eyed ruffian Sirkuh, was the de facto king of Egypt. When he died in 1169, Saladin took his place and after a 17 year campaign, using diplomacy and violence, with some luck, he united Muslims in Egypt, Syria and much of the Middle East. He was able to assemble an army to fight the Crusaders.

Saladin's courage, chivalry and generosity were admired by the Crusaders. According to one story, he felt sorry for his rival Richard the Lionhearted after he fell sick and ordered his messengers to bring him some snow and ice from the mountains for some relief. By the same token he once ordered his troops not to aim their catapults at a pavilion where the newlywed stepdaughter of a ruthless French Crusader was staying with her husband only to personally chop of the head of French lord when he had the chance. [Source: Robert Wernick, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Stories About Saladin and Richard the Lionheart

Portrait of Saladin before AD 1185

According to Encyclopedia: A number of legends grew up around Saladin. During the Battle of Hattin a captured Crusader leader was brought to his tent. By the rules of Arabic hospitality Saladin was obliged to offer his personal protection to the prisoner if he ate or drank with him. Saladin had little interest in doing so, however, because the prisoner had kidnapped and ransomed his sister in the past. Instead, Saladin knocked a bowl of water from the Crusader's grasp, led him from the tent, drew his sword, and promptly cut off his head. [Source:]

Another story concerns his relationship with Richard the Lionheart (1157–1199), the English king who led the Third Crusade in response to the defeat at the Battle of Hattin and the fall of Jerusalem. In one battle, Richard's horse was killed. Saladin believed that no king should have to suffer the indignity of fighting on foot, so he called a truce and had two horses delivered to the English king. On another occasion, when he learned that Richard was sick, he sent his own personal physician to Richard, as well as gifts of fruit and even snow from the top of Mount Ascalon to cool him. Richard recovered and returned to the field of battle.

Richard defeated Saladin a series of battles but was unable to take to Jerusalem. He later signed a treaty with Saladin that gave Christians access to the Christian shrines in Jerusalem. The treaty ended fighting between the Muslims and Christians. Saladin that gave Christians the True Cross, 100,000 dibars and access to the Christian shrines in Jerusalem while Muslims kept control of the city. Richard was recovering from an illness when the treaty was signed. He had planned to lay siege to Jerusalem and was apoplectic when he was informed of the treaty and ordered the execution of Muslim prisoners. A year after the treaty was signed Saladin died and the Muslim empire he wove together began to unravel.

Saladin’s Desire to Reclaim Jerusalem for the Muslims

Saladin said: "If God blesses us by enabling us to drive His enemies out of Jerusalem, how fortunate and happy we would be! For Jerusalem has been controlled by the enemy for ninety-one years, during which time God has received nothing from us here in the way of adoration. At the same time, the zeal of the Muslim rulers to deliver it languished. Time passed, and so did many [in different] generations, while the Franks succeeded in rooting themselves strongly there. Now God has reserved the merit of its recovery for one house, the house of the sons of Ayyub, in order to unite all hearts in appreciation of its members." [Source: Hadia Dajani-Shakeel. "Some Medieval Accounts of Salah al-Din's Recovery of Jerusalem (Al-Quds)", “Studia Palaestina: Studies in honour of Constantine K. Zurayk,” edited by Hisham Nashabe, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut 1988 ]

In "Some Medieval Accounts of Salah al-Din's Recovery of Jerusalem”, Hadia Dajani-Shakeel wrote: “This statement not only sums up Salah al-Din's attitude towards Jerusalem but also embodies what the Arabs and the Muslims of the area keenly felt. That the liberation of Jerusalem had always been the ultimate goal of Salah al-Din (d. A.H. 589/A.D. 1193), as it had been that of his predecessor Nur al-Din Zangi (d. A.H. 569/A.D. 1174), is a historical fact for which evidence is abundant. Interruptions in Salah al-Din's progress towards achieving this goal may have led some historians to minimize his quest for the recovery of the city, but, in our judgment, this is a misreading of history.”

Al-Sulami and Jihad Against the Crusaders

In "Some Medieval Accounts of Salah al-Din's Recovery of Jerusalem”, Hadia Dajani-Shakeel wrote: “When the first Crusaders entered Syria in A.H. 49l/A.D. 1097, the first scholars to raise their voices in condemnation of the passiveness of the Muslim rulers, and to warn of the potentially disastrous consequences of the Crusade, were in Damascus. Among them was 'Ali Ibn Tahir al-Sulami (d. A.H. 5OIIAD 1106). Al-Sulami wrote one of the earliest treatises on the jihad in response to the Crusade. [Source: Hadia Dajani-Shakeel. "Some Medieval Accounts of Salah al-Din's Recovery of Jerusalem (Al-Quds)", “Studia Palaestina: Studies in honour of Constantine K. Zurayk,” edited by Hisham Nashabe, Institute for Palestine Studies, Beirut 1988 ]

“Al-Sulami defined the Crusade as an invasion by Western nations, which started with the conquest of Sicily and parts of al-Andalus. These same nations, having encountered the weakness of the Muslims in the West and heard reports about their disunity in the East, marched against the East, while their ultimate goal was the conquest of Jerusalem. This definition of the Crusades by al-Sulami appears to have escaped many modern historians, who allege that the Muslims underestimated the nature and motives of the Crusade in the twelfth century.

“Al-Sulami, who preached in Damascus until his death, interpreted the Crusade as a divine warning to test the willingness of the Muslims to refrain from committing acts that God forbade and to unde take the duty of jihad, which they had neglected. He warned his contemporaries that if they did not act immediately, while the enemy was still weak and far from his sources of supply, they would not be able to uproot him.
“In his preaching al-Sulami provided his contemporaries with a new definition of jihad that, although derived to a great extent from the Islamic theory of war, was aimed at the confrontation with the Crusaders. According to him: "The early jurists emphasized the offensive Jihad, or the Jihad against enemies in countries that are nearby or remote. However, if an enemy attacks the Muslims, as this enemy [the Crusaders] has done, then pursuing him in areas that he has conquered from us [an allusion to those parts of Syria and Palestine then held by the Crusaders] is a just war aimed at protecting lives, children, and families and at preserving those parts that are still under our control."

“Al-Sulami, who established the theoretical foundations of the Countercrusade, did not live long enough to see the results of his teachings. However, he sowed the seeds of national and religious renaissance, which passed from one generation of scholars to another. These scholars, who included Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, Baghdadi, Andalusian, and even non-Arab Muslims - among whom the most outspoken was 'Imad al-Din al-lsfahani - passed the torch of the liberation of Jerusalem and other occupied terrltories in Syria and Palestine to Salah al-Din, who grew up and flourished in the same environment. The result of the long ideological campaign was manifested in the popular response to Salah al-Din's successes in Palestine, especially after the battle of Hittin. According to Ibn Shaddad, "Knowing that Salah al-Din was marching on Jerusalem, people had flocked from Syria and Egypt to join him in his battle,'' hoping thereby to earn a spiritual reward. Every famous person from Egypt and Syria witnessed the liberation, so that when Salah al-Din entered the city he was surrounded by scholars, jurists, sufis, and poets as well as by crowds of civilians and members of the military.

Saladin's conquest of Egypt

Rise of the Islamic War Machine

Bernard Lewis wrote in The New Yorker: “In the course of human history, many civilizations have risen and fallen—China, India, Greece, Rome, and, before them, the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. During the centuries that in European history are called medieval, the most advanced civilization in the world was undoubtedly that of Islam. Islam may have been equalled—or even, in some ways, surpassed—by India and China, but both of those civilizations remained essentially limited to one region and to one ethnic group, and their impact on the rest of the world was correspondingly restricted. The civilization of Islam, on the other hand, was ecumenical in its outlook, and explicitly so in its aspirations. One of the basic tasks bequeathed to Muslims by the Prophet was jihad. This word, which literally means “striving,” was usually cited in the Qur’anic phrase “striving in the path of God” and was interpreted to mean armed struggle for the defense or advancement of Muslim power. In principle, the world was divided into two houses: the House of Islam, in which a Muslim government ruled and Muslim law prevailed, and the House of War, the rest of the world, still inhabited and, more important, ruled by infidels. Between the two, there was to be a perpetual state of war until the entire world either embraced Islam or submitted to the rule of the Muslim state. [Source: Bernard Lewis, The New Yorker, November 19, 2001 ]

“From an early date, Muslims knew that there were certain differences among the peoples of the House of War. Most of them were simply polytheists and idolaters, who represented no serious threat to Islam and were likely prospects for conversion. The major exception was the Christians, whom Muslims recognized as having a religion of the same kind as their own, and therefore as their primary rival in the struggle for world domination—or, as they would have put it, world enlightenment. It is surely significant that the Qur’anic and other inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock, one of the earliest Muslim religious structures outside Arabia, built in Jerusalem between 691 and 692 A.D., include a number of directly anti-Christian polemics: “Praise be to God, who begets no son, and has no partner,” and “He is God, one, eternal. He does not beget, nor is he begotten, and he has no peer.” For the early Muslims, the leader of Christendom, the Christian equivalent of the Muslim caliph, was the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. Later, his place was taken by the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, and his in turn by the new rulers of the West. Each of these, in his time, was the principal adversary of the jihad.

“In practice, of course, the application of jihad wasn’t always rigorous or violent. The canonically obligatory state of war could be interrupted by what were legally defined as “truces,” but these differed little from the so-called peace treaties the warring European powers signed with one another. Such truces were made by the Prophet with his pagan enemies, and they became the basis of what one might call Islamic international law. In the lands under Muslim rule, Islamic law required that Jews and Christians be allowed to practice their religions and run their own affairs, subject to certain disabilities, the most important being a poll tax that they were required to pay. In modern parlance, Jews and Christians in the classical Islamic state were what we would call second-class citizens, but second-class citizenship, established by law and the Qur’an and recognized by public opinion, was far better than the total lack of citizenship that was the fate of non-Christians and even of some deviant Christians in the West. The jihad also did not prevent Muslim governments from occasionally seeking Christian allies against Muslim rivals—even during The Crusades, when Christians set up four principalities in the Syro-Palestinian area. The great twelfth-century Muslim leader Saladin, for instance, entered into an agreement with the Crusader king of Jerusalem, to keep the peace for their mutual convenience.

Byzantine-Arab wars in 867 and 1045

“Under the medieval caliphate, and again under the Persian and Turkish dynasties, the empire of Islam was the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened region in the world, and for most of the Middle Ages Christendom was on the defensive. In the fifteenth century, the Christian counterattack expanded. The Tatars were expelled from Russia, and the Moors from Spain. But in southeastern Europe, where the Ottoman sultan confronted first the Byzantine and then the Holy Roman Emperor, Muslim power prevailed, and these setbacks were seen as minor and peripheral. As late as the seventeenth century, Turkish pashas still ruled in Budapest and Belgrade, Turkish armies were besieging Vienna, and Barbary corsairs were raiding lands as distant as the British Isles and, on one occasion, in 1627, even Iceland.”

Saladin Defeats the Crusaders Retakes Jerusalem for the Muslims

Saladin defeated the Crusaders at Hattin, near the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee in presntday Israel. Saladin commanded an army with a cavalry with 12,000 men. The Christians were lured from Jerusalem to Lake Tiberias with the kidnaping of a knight's wife. The Christians became overheated in their armor and the Muslims kept them from getting water and in the end the Christians were easily defeated.

When the Christians retreated, Saladin advanced on Jerusalem. The Crusaders surrendered after two weeks without a battle. Contrary to what happened when the Crusaders took Jerusalem, there was no looting and slaughter under the Muslims. Afterwards Christians were allowed to visit Jerusalem but only after paying a tribute and submitting to blindfolds as they passed the Muslim monuments.

David Van Biema wrote in Time, “A generation before, European Crusaders had conquered Jerusalem, massacring its Muslim and Jewish inhabitants. The Franks, as they were called, then occupied four militarily aggressive states in the Holy Land. The great Syrian leader Nur al-Din predicted that expelling the invaders would require a holy war of the sort that had propelled Islam's first great wave half a millennium earlier, but given the treacherous regional crosscurrents, such a united front seemed unlikely. [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999 \~]

“Saladin got his chance with the death, in 1169, of his uncle Shirkuh...A seasoned warrior despite his small stature and frailty, Saladin still had a tough hand to play. He was a Kurd (even then a drawback in Middle Eastern politics), and he was from Syria, a Sunni state, trying to rule Egypt, a Shi'ite country. But a masterly 17-year campaign employing diplomacy, the sword and great good fortune made him lord of Egypt, Syria and much of Mesopotamia. The lands bracketed the Crusader states, and their combined might made plausible Nur al-Din's dream of a Muslim-Christian showdown.” \~\

“That encounter took place near Hattin, within sight of the Golan Heights. Saladin had assembled a pan-Islamic force of 12,000 cavalry near Lake Tiberias. The Christians were lured on a long July march across Galilee's parched Plain of Lubiya. Saladin had the right bait — he had besieged the lakeside town in which a knight's wife was staying — and the Crusader force, frying in heavy armor and unable to fight its way to the water, was overwhelmed by the Muslims. When the Christian knights retreated to the coastal fortress of Tyre, Saladin turned his army inland. Jerusalem withstood him for less than two weeks. In stark contrast to the earlier Crusader bloodbath, his occupiers neither murdered nor looted. "Christians everywhere will remember the kindness we have bestowed upon them," he said. \~\

Saladin’s Legacy

Saladin’s family ruled less than 60 years but he set a precedent of strong but humane rule that influenced Arab rulers that followed him. He was known for his tolerance. Christians were allowed in Jerusalem and the great Jewish philosopher Mainmonides was his physician. Muslims held Jerusalem from 1188 until the Six Day War in 1967.

David Van Biema wrote in Time, “In a shocked Europe, the Pope immediately called a Third Crusade. And although Richard the Lion-Hearted bested Saladin in battle after battle, he could not wrest the Holy City from him, and he returned to Europe. The city, always Islam's third holiest site, became even more central to the faithful... Woven into chivalric legend as the worthy foeman, Saladin, scimitar flashing or compassionately sheathed, galloped from Dante into romances by Sir Walter Scott and eventually into young adult books.” [Source: David Van Biema, Time, Dec. 26, 1999]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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