Section III: Four Key Aspects of Salah al-Din’s Character
In the final analysis, Salah al-Din was a multi-layered character who, it seems, gave careful thought to how best to achieve his goals. Though contemporary chroniclers and modern historians differ in opinions as to Salah al-Din’s abilities and motivations thereby coloring the lens through which we appraise Salah al-Din, the fact remains that he did achieve that which he set out to achieve, namely a crushing defeat of the Crusaders (at Hattin), and the recapture of Jerusalem as the crowning achievement in his Holy War.
While a complete analysis of his character is beyond the scope of this paper, four aspects of his character stand out which enabled Salah al-Din to achieve his lasting reputation: 1) his execution of military strategy; 2) his legendary generosity; 3) his public relations savvy, and 4) his willingness to show graciousness and mercy.
Firstly, Salah al-Din’s execution of military strategy and leadership was quite effective on the whole, up to the capture of Jerusalem . He successfully juggled the disparate troop concentrations under his command, alternately tightening and loosening the reigns on these troops as situations demanded. Furthermore, as has been shown with respect to the battle of Hattin, Salah al-Din correctly read his enemy, successfully drawing him out of his strong positions and into battlefield terrain which was very much to Salah al-Din’s advantage . As previously discussed, Salah al-Din controlled the battle almost from the very beginning, employing tactics as divergent as shooting the horses out from under the knights to lighting smoky fires in the heat of the day to sting the enemy’s eyes and augment his thirst. As regards the capture of Jerusalem, Salah al-Din not only successfully executed a decisive breach in the city wall, signaling his impending victory, but also was humble enough, and perhaps wise enough, to refrain from a dramatic military victory rather than risk the loss of Muslim holy places and people at the hands of the desperate defenders.
The second characteristic, which was also intricately linked to Salah al-Din’s military successes was his generosity. While not all scholars agree on the intent behind the generosity, this trait in someone in Salah al-Din’s position doesn’t necessarily signify self-interest or ulterior motives all the time, though that is likely occasionally the case. Whatever his ultimate motives, Salah al-Din spent profuse amounts of money to keep his forces supplied and committed. William of Tyre wrote of Salah al-Din that he was “…of more than common liberality, a point which caused particular anxiety to the more farsighted of us. For by no other bond to-day can the hearts of subjects and even of other men be better won over to leaders… than by liberality” (qtd. in Lyons, 83). Ibn Shaddad made note of the large amounts of money Salah al-Din distributed in Damascus, and al-Fadil commented that Salah al-Din had “spent the wealth of Egypt on the conquest of Syria” (qtd. in Lyons, 83). Modern historian Andrew Ehrenkruetz, however, is less diplomatic in referencing Salah al-Din’s use of Egyptian resources: “Salah al-Din’s policy towards Egypt is a depressing record of callous exploitation for the furthering of his own selfish political ambitions” (Ehrenkreutz, 234).
After his victory at Jerusalem, Salah al-Din again exhibited his generosity: he permitted the widows of the Crusader leaders Amalric and Reynald de Chatillon to depart without requiring a ransom payment, and he allowed the Patriarch Eraclius to take away the “treasures” of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, estimated by Imad al-Din at 200,000 dinars; when questioned about this decision, Salah al-Din replied “we shall not leave them to accuse the people of the Faith of breaking faith” (qtd. in Lyons, 275). Furthermore, according to Imad al-Din, al-Adil who was in charge of the ransom money collected in Jerusalem, sent Salah al-Din 70,000 dinars one night and by morning Salah al-Din had given the entire sum away (Lyons, 275).
The third characteristic, Salah al-Din’s public relations savvy, while not directly affecting the outcome of battles, did in fact provide justification for his actions, or at the very least, helped keep official opposition to his expanding reputation in check. To be accurate, though, Salah al-Din was in some respects forced into the role of self-promoter by suspicious contemporaries and a less than enthusiastic caliphate which avoided investing too much power in him. After he took Damascus, Salah al-Din was quick to launch into a propaganda war to justify his actions against the charges he would face by his contemporaries of simply engaging in expansionism (Lyons, 84). With reference to this victory against fellow Muslims, Salah al-Din wrote that “we dawned on the people like light in darkness”; “the people rushed to us both before and after we had entered the city in joy at [the coming of] our rule…” (qtd. in Lyons, 83). He went on to describe the immoral conditions he found in Damascus and explained that he took Damascus out of his desire for its well-being and not out of greed, and went on to justify his actions as being part of the process of recapturing Jerusalem, leveling accusations of neglecting “Holy War” against his opponents (Lyons, 84). Lastly, Salah al-Din used the justification that he was taking Syria in order to restore Nur al-Din’s son and successor, al-Salih, to his rightful place, which also meant that Salah al-Din would have to focus on Aleppo to prevent this reasoning from appearing as a thin veil covering selfish ambition (Lyons, 84). Aleppo, meanwhile, was engaged in its own public relations competition with Salah al-Din, accusing him of aggression and betrayal of Nur al-Din (Lyons, 85).
While Salah al-Din could write very sympathetically of his motives and goals, he was also capable of twisting the truth in his letters when necessary. In a conflict with Qilij-Arslan over Ra’ban, Salah al-Din seems to have manipulated the truth, or bluntly lied, to further his goals (Lyons, 137-138). He did not, nor perhaps could he legitimately, contradict Qilij-Arslan’s claim to Ra’ban, so Salah al-Din accused his opponent of “plundering the lands”, of having concluded a truce with the Byzantine government, and of having presented gifts to the Franks, all of which made Salah al-Din’s case for taking Ra’ban stronger – at least in his own eyes (Lyons, 137-138).
One of his main themes in his writings was his assertion that he was the rightful champion of Holy War; in 1178, this proves to be a consistent theme, and he in fact claims to be the appropriate and right choice to decide how best to conduct Holy War (Lyons, 155). Of course, this claim is subject to dispute but it demonstrates the strategy Salah al-Din was pursuing in positioning himself as Islam’s Holy Warrior against accusations of personal ambition (Lyons, 155-156).
One of Salah al-Din’s most audacious public relations claims was his proposal that, if he were given authority over Mosul, he would be able to take “Jerusalem, Constantinople, Georgia and the lands of the Almohades in the west, “until the word of God is supreme and the Abbasid caliphate has wiped the world clean, turning the churches in to mosques”” (qtd. in Lyons, 194). If Salah al-Din were serious in this suggestion, which went on to mention Khuzistan, Kish and Oman, it would mean he proposed to extend the Abbasid empire to Spain and the Caucasus, thus greatly expanding the Islamic realm, an accomplishment which would have dwarfed the re-conquest of Jerusalem (Lyons, 194-195). Again, one cannot be certain this was a serious proposal or merely an attempt to bolster his political standing (Lyons, 195).
While Salah al-Din’s political savvy and public relations efforts didn’t necessarily sway the Caliph , they do show Salah al-Din as a military commander who was aware of the practical side of self-promotion and politicking, and able to wage a war of the pen as well as the sword.
One of the most interesting aspects of Salah al-Din’s character was his willingness to show mercy to enemies, both Muslim and Frankish, and the graciousness with which he offered such mercy. Such mercy even extended to his own troops who disobeyed his orders. For those who disobeyed orders, execution was an option, yet Salah al-Din chose a path of encouragement rather than exercise his right and power via such executions (Lyons, 210).
Perhaps the greatest example of Salah al-Din’s capacity for mercy can be illustrated by the compelling events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem, and the interaction previously mentioned between Salah al-Din and Balian d’Ibelin .
Of course, Salah al-Din was not always merciful, and, for the sake of a balanced analysis, there are a number of examples of his willingness to be brutal when it served him, including his determination to execute captured Muslims who had adopted Christianity or aided the Crusaders, captured Templars, Hospitallers and crossbowmen who he considered too great a threat to allow to live, and Muslim opponents (Regan, 26, 41). Perhaps the most dramatic instance of brutality (in terms of human interest, not amount of blood shed) was the personal feud and subsequent revenge taken on Reynald de Chatillon for actions which Salah al-Din found inexcusable. Chatillon was certainly no sympathetic character and his actions over the course of his Crusade involvement made him villainous . When Reynald and Guy were captured after the defeat at Hattin, they were brought to Salah al-Din’s tent where Salah al-Din offered a cup of water to King Guy – an Arab custom whereby a captive who received food or drink from his captor was safe – and after King Guy drank, Guy offered the cup to Reynald of Chatillon (Regan, 129; Nicolle, 78). Salah al-Din, having sworn to put Reynald to the sword, saw this and reportedly said: “This criminal was given water without my consent and as such my safe-conduct does not extend to him” (qtd. in Nicolle, 78). Reynald replied with arrogance, and Salah al-Din struck off Reynald’s head, dipped his finger in the blood and rubbed it on his own face to indicate his vengeance was satisfied (Nicolle, 78).
Interestingly, it seems as though the occasions of Salah al-Din’s ruthlessness were demonstrated equally, if not more so, in his dealings with Muslim opponents as with his enemies in “Holy War”. Evidence of this can be seen in his involvement in the assassination of the Vizier Shawar, who Salah al-Din viewed as standing in the way of his authority (Lyons, 25). Salah al-Din’s brutal suppression of the Nubian soldier rebellion in 1169 is yet another example of his willingness to slaughter fellow Muslims if he felt the situation required it .
In conclusion, it is clear that deciphering Salah al-Din’s character is difficult due to the differing perceptions of modern historians, including the more critical portrayal by Andrew Ehrenkruetz versus a much more favorable analysis by Geoffrey Regan and the fairly neutral work by Lyons and Jackson, not to mention the variations in accounts of Salah al-Din’s contemporary chroniclers. Despite these varying portrayals, however, I believe the basic assumptions about his character as outlined in this paper are sound. In the final analysis, Salah al-Din exhibited tendencies toward mercy and graciousness through actions which appear to have been genuinely motivated by compassion and not selfish ambition. True, Salah al-Din could be brutal when needed, but the overall picture seems to be of a man much more inclined to extend mercy.
Salah al-Din’s savvy in the arena of public relations and self promotion may not have achieved the results he sought, however, it certainly contributed to his overall warfare strategy, and as such, cannot be completely extracted from his military successes.
Lastly, while there is disagreement as to his military leadership prowess among the previously mentioned scholars, the results speak for themselves; Salah al-Din did crush the Franks at Hattin and did recapture Jerusalem, regardless of favorable factors beyond his control such as poor decision making by the Franks at Hattin. His strategy and actions after the capture of Jerusalem are certainly more debatable, but I have left that for another discussion, as Salah al-Din won his status as a legend, if more so posthumously, by his victories at Hattin and Jerusalem.
List of Works Cited
Ehrenkreutz, Andrew S. Saladin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972.
“Salah al-Din.” Encyclopaedia of Islam. New ed. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995.
Ibn al-Athir. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi’l-ta’rikh, Part 2. Trans. D. S. Richards. Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1988.
Jackson, D.E.P. and Malcom Cameron Lyons. Saladin: The Politics of The Holy War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Nicolle, David. Hattin 1187. Gen. ed. David G. Chandler. Osprey Military Campaign Series 19. London: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 1993.
Regan, Geoffrey. Saladin and the Fall of Jerusalem. New York: Croom Helm, 1987.