Salah al-Din: Characteristics of Conquest – Part I

Had there been no slaughter of the Muslims of Jerusalem in 1099, the name “Salah al-Din” might never have risen from obscurity to become one of the greatest names in the history of “Holy War”.  Yet the slaughter did take place and as a result, locked the Franks and Muslims in a bloody battle of religions for roughly 100 years as well as straining relations between Christians and Muslims down to this day.  On Friday, July 15, 1099, Muslim defenders huddled together in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, desperately trying to hold off the advancing Crusaders, but there was reason to hope; Tancred, one of the Crusader commanders, had assured them their lives would be safe, and as a sign of his pledge, left his banner with them, and his guards to watch over them (Regan, 9).  Shortly afterwards, however, the Crusader soldiers rushed past Tancred’s guards, entered the mosque, and slaughtered everyone inside, to the extent that they were “‘wading in blood up to the ankles’” (Regan, 9).  From this point on the commanders lost control of their soldiers who, along with the pilgrims that had accompanied the Crusaders, effected a horrific slaughter in the streets of Jerusalem using “axes, clubs and even sharpened staves” (Regan, 9-10).  Men, women, children and animals were indiscriminately slaughtered; some “ate the flesh of their victims”, some hacked open the stomachs of their victims searching for gold coins that the Muslims were rumored to have swallowed for safekeeping, and, for the second time that day, blood was up to the ankles in some parts of the city (Regan, 9-10).  The Jews of the city suffered a different, though equally brutal fate: they were forced into their main synagogue and burned alive (Regan, 10).  William of Tyre recorded that:

It was not alone the spectacle of the headless bodies and mutilated limbs strewn in all directions that roused horror in all who looked upon them.  Still more dreadful it was to gaze upon the victors themselves, dripping with blood from head to foot, an ominous sight which brought terror to all who met them (qtd. in Regan, 10-11).

It is this slaughter which will bring the significance of Salah al-Din’s character and battlefield decisions into clearer view – and contrast – a century later.

Salah al-Din, or Saladin as he has come to be known, changed the course of history in the Middle East; yet, like many such historical conquerors, the truth about his character and battlefield decisions blurs over time, and in the case of Salah al-Din,  becomes difficult to extract from the sometimes conflicting accounts recorded by different contemporary Muslim and Frankish chroniclers and interpreted by different modern historians.  What becomes clear, however, is that Salah al-Din was not the stereotypical conqueror who slashed his way across lands in a quest to dominate the world, as, say, Chingiz Khan, but rather a man who combined personal ambition with deeply-held religious convictions in his quest to drive the Crusaders from Jerusalem, and ultimately re-birth a united Islamic empire under the Abbasids (Regan, 4).  Furthermore, Salah al-Din proved to be a man who was not too proud to resort to negotiation when it suited him, nor was he loathe to offer mercy to his vanquished, though with certain enemies he could be quite brutal.

The question which will occupy the focus of this paper is to what extent did certain aspects of Salah al-Din’s character influence his battlefield decisions and prosecution of “Holy War”.  Section I will detail Salah al-Din’s rise through the ranks to become one of the leading figures in Islam; Section II will give an overview of his military victories at Hattin and Jerusalem with an eye toward the role his character played in these victories, and Section III will offer an analysis of what I consider the four most important aspects of Salah al-Din’s character, aspects which converged to enable him to achieve his legendary status.

Section I: Salah al-Din’s Rise Through the Ranks

Salah al-Din was a Kurd, born in Takrit in 532/1138, at a time when both his uncle, Shirkuh, and his father, Ayyub, were employed by the Seljuk state, his father as governor in the Takrit region (EOI[i], 910).  As he grew, Salah al-Din became quite adept as a horseman and polo player (Regan, 16).  Ibn Jubair would write of Salah al-Din’s sons that every night they would leave the Damascus citadel and “shoot, ride and play polo”, and it is believed that Salah al-Din did the same in his youth (Lyons, 4).  Salah al-Din’s understanding of Islam and leadership was considerably influenced by Nur al-Din and the pious men that surrounded him; he came to the life-directing conclusion that jihad was incumbent upon every Muslim, that religious propaganda was at times as effective as military force, and that winning the loyalty of his followers was more important that personal gain (Regan, 16, 31).   Salah al-Din had what seems to have been a ‘fast track’ career, rising to prominent positions, although not much is known about him prior to age 26 (Lyons, 9).  Salah al-Din’s first position of significance was succeeding his older brother,  Turanshah, as prefect at Damascus and soon after, he was contributing significantly in the campaigns waged by Nur al-Din’s military in Egypt, especially in the defense of Alexandria (EOI, 910).  Perhaps as a result of Salah al-Din’s performance in these campaigns, in 1165 Nur al-Din appointed him to the position of shihna, (“police chief” according to Ibn Jubair), and it has been suggested that an early testament to Salah al-Din’s abilities came when his uncle, Shirkuh, appointed him an aide-de-camp instead of his own sons (Lyons, 9).  When Shirkuh died in 564/1169, Salah al-Din was able to maneuver his way into the position previously held by Shirkuh as commander of Syrian forces; he was also appointed by the palace as vizier, at which point he adopted the title “al-Malik al-Nasir” (EOI, 910).   It is here that we get our first glimpse of the contradictory perceptions penned of Salah al-Din by his contemporaries, each of which seem to be colored by bias.  The poet al-‘Arqala in essence favorably compared Salah al-Din to the Joseph of the Quran, however the Franks, perhaps with information provided by Salah al-Din’s Muslim opponents, considered Salah al-Din as either greedy or vain, possibly both (Lyons, 10).    By the age of 30-31, Salah al-Din was “crushing” Sudanese army contingents in 564/1168, as well as triumphing over the efforts of the Crusader-Byzantine alliance to take Damietta in 565/1169 (EOI, 910).  Soon after, Salah al-Din, perhaps sensing the height of his power, declined Nur al-Din’s calls for military and financial support in his quest to take back lands conquered by the Franks; eventually, however, Salah al-Din did obey Nur al-Din order to “suppress” the office of Fatimid caliph, and in 567/1171, Egypt returned to the Abbasid fold and Sunni Islam (EOI, 910).    It was the death of Nur al-Din in May of 1174[ii] which gives us some insight as to Salah al-Din’s character.  He was at this point the de facto ruler in Egypt, with enough military strength to take Syria from the Zangid powers who considered Salah al-Din a “dog barking at his master” and who accused him of stealing Nur al-Din’s lands, and this move would have provided a more advantageous base for jihad against the Crusaders, (Regan, 32).  While Salah al-Din could have taken Syria, it seems as though his inner conscience, more than personal ambition, led him to choose the less controversial, and less self-aggrandizing path of establishing a separate political structure dedicated to jihad, through which he could convince or force the Zangids to join his efforts[iii].  Salah al-Din knew that before he could mount a united force against the Crusaders, he would have to go into battle against fellow Muslims to force their allegiance, should they fail to heed his call for such a jihad (EOI, 910).  Saladin did press the battle against his fellow Muslims and in 570/1175 triumphed over the Zangid army at the Horns of Hamat, securing a treaty, and shortly thereafter, received from the caliph a “diploma” granting him control over Egypt and Syria with the exception of Aleppo; when the Zangid forces broke the treaty the following year Salah al-Din again triumphed and gained even more territory (EOI, 910-911).  It was during this period of battling the Zangid armies that the “assassins” twice attacked Salah al-Din (EOI, 911).  The wounds he received in the second “assassin” attempt on his life brought about a reaction which gives us a window into the humanity and perhaps frailty of the man Salah al-Din.  Having been wounded in the cheek and his body armor breached during the attack, Ibn al-Athir described him as “…like a man in a panic”, and for some time after, Salah al-Din’s tent was heavily guarded; when he did venture out, he would, according to Imad al-Din, remove anyone from those around him that he didn’t recognize (Lyons, 106).  Imad al-Din notes an interesting development to this story: once the person had been removed from the entourage, Salah al-Din would “…ask about them and if they wanted intercession or help, he would help them” (qtd. in Lyons, 106).

In 573/1177, Salah al-Din’s career takes a marked step forward: he begins to wage jihad against the Crusaders as the self-proclaimed successor to Nur al-Din (EOI, 911).  While his first efforts in this jihad failed in that same year, the winds of fortune changed and two years later, he defeated King Baldwin and destroyed the Bayt al-Ahzan castle (EOI, 911).  In the spring of 583/1187, Saladin began executing his plan to recapture the lands in the kingdom of Jerusalem, and by July of that year, the decisive battle of Hattin took place in which Salah al-Din crushed the Crusaders, and by the end of the year, he controlled the coastal regions from Gaza to Djubayl (EOI, 911).  Salah al-Din now turns his attention to his ultimate goal: the liberation of Jerusalem (EOI, 911-912).

[i] For the purposes of brevity, the Encyclopaedia of Islam will be parenthetically referenced as “EOI”

[ii] (EOI, 910)

[iii] An assessment based on Regan’s discussion on page 32

Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.
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