Saladin: The myth and the man – Interview with Dr Suleiman Mourad

The professor of Religion at Smith College, offers an alternative view on the legend of Saladin

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In All About History 102 you can read all about the rise of Saladin, the man who united the Muslim world to take on the Crusaders and take back Jerusalem. As part of our feature we talked with Dr Suleiman Mourad, a professor of Religion at Smith College, Massachusetts, about the legacy of Saladin and what he means to people today. Here we present our full, unedited conversation for even more detail about the man and the myth.

What sources do we have to tell us who Saladin was?

Dr Suleiman Mourad, Smith College. Photo by Jim Gipe (Pivot Media, Inc)

Many contemporary sources about Saladin exist. They include traditional annals, biographies, poems, and inscriptions. Some were written by close confidants, as propaganda tools. Authors projected onto him their desires and expectations. It is difficult to distinguish between the real Saladin and the image they wanted him to have. For instance, the most important medieval biography of Saladin – Sultanic Marvels and Josephian Charms by Saladin’s court advisor Ibn Shaddad (d. 1234) – conjures and equates the sultan (whose first name was Joseph; Yusuf in Arabic) with biblical Joseph: both “tamed” Egypt through their charm and wit. Similarly, poets compared Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem on 2 October 1187 to the Prophet Muhammad’s legendary Night Journey. Saladin chose to capture the sacred city on that day knowing it was the anniversary of the prophet’s spiritual ride; a testament to his astute ability to channel its symbolism for his own aggrandisement. One sees, therefore, the effort in the Muslim sources to put Saladin on par with prophets rather than with comparable rulers.

It is important to realize as well that almost all authors examined Saladin through the lens of one specific accomplishment: his defeat of the crusader army at Hattin in July 1187, which allowed him to retake Jerusalem in October 1187. Saladin’s entire career before and after was written from the perspective of this dual-achievement: as if prior to 1187, Saladin was laying the ground work for it, and after 1187 he was working hard to protect what he achieved (both of which are historically incorrect for the most part).

What do we know about Saladin’s beliefs and what motivated him?

This is a very tricky question because the main sources about Saladin’s life and career, and which also discuss his traits and interests, were written by close confidants or admirers whose idolization of him trumped their objectivity. There is every reason to believe that Saladin employed a few scholars to write about him and his reign, knowing that they would etch his memory in the Muslims’ historical imagination. Others simply volunteered to do the job.

What we can say is that Saladin was a shrewd politician. He spent his career contesting Muslim rivals and non-Muslim foes. He waged many wars, but was inclined to avoid battle whenever possible. He was merciful in some situations, ruthless in others. He was not exceptionally gifted as army commander; his military tactics often failed and he was not always capable of controlling his troops. He was remarkably generous and spent lavishly, which made him very popular, but caused regular headaches for his administration. He had amicable relations with some crusader leaders, and his general strategy was to avoid war against the crusaders and settle conflicts with them by recourse to truces and treatises, some of which included payments (he collected from them or paid to them).

Portait of Saladin from 1185 CE. Image source: wiki/Freer Gallery of Art

There are many different popular images of Saladin, such as a warrior or philosopher king. Is there any one version that seems more accurate than another?

Most scholars and students of history think of Saladin in terms of the myth that was fabricated about him, and whose roots are in the European imagination to turn him into the perfect other, a civilized, generous, and chivalrous Muslim counterpart to Europe. As Cecil B. DeMille presented in his 1935 Academy Award nominated motion picture The Crusades, the clemency and foresightedness of Saladin were markedly distinguishable from the brutality and petty-mindedness of his European foes. A modern historian (Anne-Marie Eddé) expressed it eloquently: “to set out to find him is to go in search of a personality that exists for others before existing in itself.”

Historical Saladin was not a seriously educated individual. His image as philosopher has no basis in fact. He was not known for much scholarly prowess, especially if we compare him to his two nephews sultan al-Kamil (r. 1218-1238) and al-Mu‘azzam (d. 1227) who was the ruler of Damascus and southern Syria (which then included Palestine). These two statesmen were scholars in the real sense. They were well educated and had in their courts a large entourage of experts in all fields of knowledge, including the sciences. They regularly commissioned book projects because they knew of the importance and need for specific scholarship, and had the intellectual stature to debate and even question experts in certain fields. Saladin was nowhere near that level of proficiency.

What distinguished Saladin is that he hired capable writers to concoct an image for him and engrave it in the historical memory of the Muslims, namely as a stallion warrior set on eradicating all the enemies of Islam and empowering Sunnism. It was propaganda that exaggerated the facts or ignored them altogether, and it was effective in shaping the way many, at that time or later, thought of him. But they overdid it, especially if we read the sources carefully or compare them together. For instance, Ibn Jubayr (d. 1217), who came from Granada in medieval Spain, sang the praises of Saladin as a charitable, mighty warrior and just leader, who had no equal. Yet he also described the brutality of Saladin’s tax collectors and regional governors and their abusive treatment of Muslim pilgrims and merchants, which suggest Saladin was careless or clueless.

We also get conflicting information about Saladin as warrior dedicated to fighting the invading crusaders. Actually, his relations with the crusaders were not always hostile. He used to correspond with some of their leaders using excitedly amiable language, and developed friendships with a few. As historians, we cannot say Saladin the warrior truly embodies his true self, whereas Saladin the pragmatist was a decoy necessitated by realpolitik. For all practical purposes, it could be the other way, or even it could be both: he was sincere in both and/or pursuing realpolitik in both.

How do you think Saladin compared to other rulers of his era?

Saladin was of the same stock like many rulers in his day: coming to power through intrigues, assassinations, and having to spend his tenure fending off former comrades and family members, etc. More importantly, Saladin existed in the shadow of his predecessor sultan Nur al-Din (d. 1174), so much so that some historians thought of the two as constituting one epoch. Even when we talk about Saladin’s main accomplishment (the liberation of Jerusalem), they believed Nur al-Din laid down the ground work, and Saladin reaped the benefits. If it were not for his liberation of Jerusalem in 1187, he would have been a sideshow in Islamic history.

Painting of Saladin at Jerusalem. Image source: CC licence Moreau.henri

Have attitudes and opinions of Saladin fluctuated in the many generations since his reign?

Like many similar cases in history, Saladin became the hero of a generation: Most Sunnis who lived during his time in Egypt and greater Syria idolized him. In the second half of the thirteenth century, however, his legacy was outshined by the Mamluk Sultan Baybars (r. 1260-1277), whose accomplishments include major victories against the crusaders and the defeat of the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260. Baybars had almost the same career trajectory as Saladin: rising through the ranks of the army, involved in several assassinations and intrigues, attaining the sultanate through a coup. The only major difference between Baybars and Saladin is that Baybars was originally a slave of Turkic origin (from today central Asia), whereas Saladin was a Kurd (from an area located today in Armenia). The former helped launch the Mamluk sultanate which ended the rule of the Ayyubids, whereas Saladin established the Ayyubid sultanate by usurping the power of the Zangid sultanate and Fatimid caliphate.

Until the twentieth century, it was Baybars who was seen as the better hero of the two. Baybars too knew that historical memory is often shaped by the written. So like Saladin, he hired historians to write his biography to assure he occupies his “proper” place next to Islam’s greatest heroes. But the European fascination with Saladin won the day, and the Muslims downgraded Baybars and pivoted back to Saladin.

What would you say is the greatest misconception about Saladin?

The greatest misconception about Saladin is, as mentioned earlier, the one that the Europeans have woven, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, about a cultured and philosophical man whose humanism towered above the barbarian crusaders of his day. This Saladin is best exhibited in the novel The Talisman (1825)by Walter Scott, who like many European thinkers of the Enlightenment displayed a propensity for oriental romanticism. We see this too in DeMille’s film The Crusade, and in one of the most influential academic sources ever written on the crusades (although now totally outdated), namely the multi-volume A History of the Crusades (1951-1954) by Steven Runciman. This image was necessitated by the dynamics of the Age of Enlightenment when many Europeans were committed to ditching their medieval history and demonizing it. They reached out to Europe’s distant past (Greco-Roman in particular) or to other cultures and invented “models” from them, such as Saladin (or even the Prophet Muhammad).

The Muslims – and some Arab Christians too – had their reasons to be enchanted with the European Saladin. It was largely because it gave them the satisfaction to see themselves as equal to the Europeans, and that they could turn to their own historical figures as models rather than the modernized Europeans.

The other misconception is about Saladin’s military prowess. His main achievement was largely an anomaly. Saladin defeated the crusader army at Hattin because of a fatal miscalculation on their part, rather than for any military or strategic prowess he had. For all practical purposes, we can say that he did not really mean to fight the crusaders, and was likely hoping, as usual, that marching his army into crusader territory would force the crusader leaders to renew the peace he had with them. The crusaders, however, were too arrogant to realize the fatal mistake they committed by choosing to camp in a barren spot with no access to water, exposed to the excessive heat of the July sun. The collapse of their army meant that there were very few troops left to protect the Kingdom of Jerusalem, especially the holy city, or other crusader towns along the coast. Saladin took advantage of the situation. He knew that his legacy was assured once he captured Jerusalem. But almost most of the other achievements were reversed when the army of the Third Crusade arrived in 1189.

Saladin by Cristofano dell’Altissimo. Image source: wiki/Atlante dell’arte italiana

What do you think Saladin means to people today?

Saladin means different things to different groups. For white supremacists, Saladin embodies the clash of civilisations and symbolises the inherent animosity of Islam towards Christians and Christianity. For some Muslims and Arabs, Saladin is a symbol of resistance against Western hegemony (or Israeli occupation) and the unity and empowerment they desire. Others, especially those interested in dialogue and inclusiveness, adore the European myth of Saladin.

Read our Saladin feature in All About History 102, available now