Why the West still remembers Saladin


Big man; big heart



It is not the military victories but acts of generosity that survive the test of time. Glimpses from the European literature show that poets and dramatists were more impressed by his magnanimity and tolerance towards the non-Muslims


When there is so much new to think and talk about in today’s fast-paced world, why does a twelfth century Muslim hero, Saladin, still captivate the imagination of a Western historian? After 9/11 and during the “war against terror”, with a few exceptions, a large section of the Western intelligentsia spent a good part of its scholarship in demonising Muslims, their heroes and their religion. I picked up historian John Man’s “Saladin” because it is yet another and the most recent Western attempt to reassess the legendary figure of Saladin in the backdrop of East-West conflict in times of Crusades.

Saladin has been dead for over eight centuries, now, that is quite a period and during this time the world has changed a lot in all respects then what was in Saladin which makes him relevant today, particularly to the Western world. The Muslims fondly remember him as a military hero, who successfully defeated the Crusading Western armies and liberated the holy city of Jerusalem from their possession — a feat that the entire Muslim ummah with its oil wealth, military might and huge demography has not been able to repeat in our times. Since then the Muslim world has celebrated Saladin only in one dimension i.e. as a great general, highlighting his military genius in terms of strategy, planning, command and control. There can be no two opinions about this, however, his military achievements proved short-lived and not permanent.

To the West Saladin was a villain, who should have been forgotten once his military gains were reversed after his death yet he is still not only remembered but greatly praised and respected. Does this mean that he possessed some other qualities that won the hearts and minds of the Westerners? Man’s work highlights these traits. One quality that made Saladin immortal was his sense of generosity and it was at its best when he conquered Jerusalem which was in sharp contrast to the Christian take-over of the same city about a century ago, precisely ninety-one years, when the Christian victors resorted to the brutal slaughter of the Muslim men and enslaved their women.

Saladin was magnanimous in victory as he accepted the terms of surrender that were requested by the helpless besieged Christian leader Balian of Jerusalem, who promised to pay ransom of ten dinars per man, five per woman and one per child and slavery for those who would not be able to pay the ransom. When Saladin entered the city as a conqueror, not only did he allow the widows of the top Christian leaders to go wherever they wished to without the payment of the agreed ransom but he used the seventy thousand dinars of the collected ransom to free those Christians who had no means to pay ransom for their freedom. When some of his officials pointed that this was a waste of money, he replied that “Christians everywhere ‘will speak of the blessings we have showered upon them.’” History proved him right. He was particularly considerate towards the wives and daughters of the chivalrous dead knights when they begged for his mercy and aid to which he generously responded. Man sums up the struggle of Jerusalem in memorable words: “Muslims had had their revenge for the loss of Jerusalem, and it had all been achieved without the bloodshed and destruction unleashed when the Christians had seized it. Islam was victorious twice over, militarily and morally.” A little later, when Richard, ‘the Lionheart’ lost his horse in the battle of Jaffa during the third Crusade, Saladin sent two horses to Richard to continue the fight against him. Only the big hearted Saladin could risk such an act of generosity towards his mortal enemy and that too in time of war.

Saladin possessed absolute power but how he exercised it over his subjects and foes has distinguished him from many a great ruler. The two great philosophers whose ideas on power have been religiously followed by rulers of past and present have been Lord Shang of China in 400 BC and Machiavelli of Renaissance Italy. To Lord Shang, the masses were idle, greedy, cowardly, treacherous, foolish and shifty and the best way to deal with them was to either entice or terrify them. To Machiavelli, there could be no guarantee of peace and progress in the state unless the ruler was duplicitous and ruthless. Saladin rejected both these models of power by adopting the simple principle of living up to his promises. He is reported to have said, “If we refuse what we have promised and are not generous with the benefits, no one will ever trust us again.”

It is not the military victories but acts of generosity that survive the test of time. Glimpses from the European literature show that poets and dramatists were more impressed by his magnanimity and tolerance towards the non-Muslims. In a fourteen century French poem “La Pas Saladin,” he is praised for not shedding the blood of some chivalrous knights and for freeing his captive King Guy without demanding any ransom. Dante’s “Convivio” (The banquet) praises Saladin for shunning the riches of this world which can be verified from the fact that when he died “he left neither goods, nor house, nor real estate, neither garden, nor village, nor cultivated land, nor any other species of property;” even the shroud and all other items of burial had to be borrowed because in effect he possessed nothing of his own. The mid-eighteenth century Enlightenment French philosopher Voltaire’s essay ‘Essai sur les Moeurs’ (Essay on customs) while appreciating the importance of tolerance, argues that Saladin ensured that “the same alms were to be distributed to poor Muslims, Jews and Christians.” If we move from the realm of literature into history, we come across a glowing tribute to Saladin from none other than the master Western Classical historian Edward Gibbon, who appreciates Saladin’s integrity at the time of the conquest of Jerusalem, by fulfilling the terms of surrender as requested by the surrendering Christians in 1187 AD, says: “Justice is indeed due to the fidelity with which the Turkish conqueror fulfilled the conditions of treaty; and he may be deservedly praised for the glance of pity which he cast on the misery of the vanquished…In these acts of mercy, the virtue of Saladin deserves our admiration and our love.”