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Muslim Heritage

Saladin: A Hero Admired by Muslims & Christians

Published on: 13 May 2017
written by: Faysal Burhan

First appeared at Islamic Study. It is republished with the author’s kind permission.

Both Christians and Muslims admire Saladin.

Saladin’s traits and virtues were purely a reflection of the teachings of his faith.

He defeated the Crusaders, known to Muslims as the Franks, and recaptured Jerusalem in 1187.

The experience of the Crusaders with the Muslims demonstrates that Muslims and Christians are in no civilization clash, but rather in civilization bondage.

In 1099 Jerusalem had fallen to the First Crusaders slaughtering its Christian, Muslim and Jewish inhabitants, after promising them safety, but did not spare the lives of children, women or elderly. The Latin Kingdom formed in the following year lasted until Saladin destroyed King Guy’s army at the Horns of Hettin in 1187 and shortly after recovered Jerusalem.

In stark contrast to the Crusades 88 years earlier, Saladin, adhering to the teachings of Islam, did not slaughter the city’s Christian inhabitants. Saladin’s noble act won him the respect of his opponents and many more people throughout the world. King Richard I of England, better known as Richard the Lion heart, who led the Third Crusade in 1189 to recover the Holy City, met Saladin in a conflict that was to be celebrated in later chivalric romances.

Although the Crusaders failed in their purpose, Richard the Lion heart gained Saladin’s lifelong respect as a worthy opponent. Saladin’s generosity and sense of honor in negotiating the peace treaty that ended the Crusade won him the lasting admiration and gratitude of the Christian world.

Saladin’s Birth and Lineage

Saladin was born in Tikrite (a city on the Tigris River), Iraq in 1137. His family was of Kurdish ancestry. The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad, al Mustarshid, had appointed his father Ayyub, an earnest Muslim, skilled in administration and diplomacy, as the governor of the town.

Childhood and Education

Saladin received his early childhood education in Baalbek and Damascus, Syria. In 1143, when Saladin was six years old, Sultan Zengi of Musel appointed his father Ayyub as the governor of Baalbek. Sultan Zengi defeated the Crusaders south of Aleppo in 1130 and in 1144 recovered the city of Edessa. When Zengi died in 1146, his son Nur al Din succeeded him. Nur al-Din was a respected devout leader.

After few years, Nur al Din appointed Ayyub as the Head of Damascus Militia. Ayyub’s younger brother, Shirkuh, who was an officer, was promoted to a senior command in the military establishment in Aleppo.

Saladin grew up at the center stage where political decisions regarding the Crusades were made. His cultural and religious education was typical of the environments surrounding Baalbek and Damascus. Like his young peers, Saladin learned Arabic, poetry, the formal prayers and memorized what was required of him to memories of the Quran and the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Saladin in His Early Adulthood

The expectation of life in the Middle Ages was short and the youth were given responsibilities of manhood at an early age. Saladin was fourteen years old when he got married. He was then sent to his uncle Shirkuh in Aleppo on a career that would lead to his becoming one of Nur al Din’s emirs.

The devout Nur al-Din soon became a great mentor for the young Saladin. Sultan Nur al-Din, who succeeded his father Zengi in 1146, respected scholars and endured knowledge and turned Syria into a large intellectual center. He built and funded schools and hospitals. In the presence of a scholar the Sultan was known to rise to his feet as a sign of respect and invite him to sit next to him. He promoted the divine values of Islam and governed in the light of the Quran.

Nur al-Din set up the Court of Appeals over which he presided in person to deal with administrative injustices. Saladin regularly attended the Court of Appeals as a student and to be associated with his master, Nur al-Din. In this Court, Saladin learned to appreciate the wisdom and justice of the Islamic law as it applied to the injustices and criminals.

Nur al Din was the first Muslim ruler who saw that the Jihad against the invading Crusaders could only be successful if Muslim states were united, and soon begun implementing this unity.

Such was the man who, next to his own father, Saladin respected more than any others. Even though there were differences between Nur al-Din and Saladin over certain policies in Egypt, one thing was sure, he never ceased to follow Nur al-Din’s example uniting his people, implementing the divine systems of Islam and keeping nothing for himself.

Saladin in His Adulthood

Saladin, who learned his military lessons in Nur al-Din’s militia at the hands of his uncle Shirkuh, soon began to stand out among Nur al-Din’s leaders. In 1164, at the age of 26 he was an assistant to his uncle Shirkuh in an expedition to rescue Egypt from an invasion by Amalric, king of Jerusalem. Saladin made a lasting impression on his peers during this expedition.

In 1169 Saladin with his uncle Shirkuh was on another expedition to Egypt to defend it against yet another Crusader attack. Later, he was able to rule Cairo and defeat the Fatimid who ruled Egypt.

Saladin borrowed the idea of building intellectual centers from his father Ayyub and master Nur al-Din, who had earlier turned Syria into a large intellectual center. In twelve years Saladin united Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, the Western parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen under the Ayyubid Dynasty.

Saladin used diplomacy and the administrative skills in piecing together this badly divided region. Saladin’s scope of vision was that he gave each situation its due attention and weight, and he never broke a bridge of diplomacy or peace initiative with his opponents.

The power or wealth he acquired never spoiled him. Power and position did not mean anything to him. Despite his advisor’s request to keep some of the revenues he received from Egypt and Syria, he never kept any of it. When he died, his wealth was only few dinars.

The Decisive Battle of Hettin

In return for an attack made by the Crusaders of the Kerak on Muslim pilgrims in 1187, Saladin moved his army to northern Palestine and defeated the much larger Crusader army in the decisive battle of Hettin (July 4, 1187). Three months after this battle, Saladin captured Jerusalem.

Unlike the Christians 88 years earlier, who made Jerusalem a bloodbath, Saladin did not loot, murder or seek revenge for the Muslims. He spared the lives of 100,000 Christians and allowed Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem after its fall. In this benevolent act, Saladin was simply emulating Prophet Muhammad as the Prophet reentered his birth-city of Makkah. When Prophet Muhammad returned to Makkah with ten thousand people, he entered it without any bloodshed. He told its people with his famous words:

“Go about (wherever you please), for you are set free.” (Al Albani)

Prophet Muhammad’s generous act to the people of Makkah was made despite the 20 years of constant attacks, torture, extradition and execution that he and his companions had been receiving from them. This is indeed an example of nobility in forgiving when you are strong and able.

Forgiveness is also the teachings of Christianity. In fact, the Bible is “a gospel of love,” and there is no reference in the Gospels for violence and murdering innocent people, such as the massacre the Crusaders carried out in Jerusalem in 1099. On the contrary, the Bible teaches:

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew, 5:44)

“If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Luke, 6:29)

Recapturing Jerusalem shocked the West, and as such it brought about the Third Crusade led by Richard the Lion heart, King of England in 1189. The Third Crusade army was the combined armies of England, France and Austria.

Saladin’s army (composed mainly from Egyptians, Syrians and volunteer Turks) checked the massive Frankish armies and weakened them in a war of attrition on the land of Palestine.

In the end the expedition failed to enter Jerusalem. It was during this period Richard negotiated peace with Saladin and gained a lasting respect for him. This was because Saladin was leveraged to make no peace treaty. His army was strong and in control, while the Third Crusade army was exhausted.

Furthermore, King Richard was determined to go back to his country. It was Saladin’s generosity and sense of honor in negotiating this treaty, which ended the Crusades and won him the lasting admiration and gratitude of the Christian world. Saladin was precisely following the teaching of the Quran and philosophy of Islam in prevention of bloodshed that says:

{But if they (the enemy) incline towards peace, do you (also) incline towards peace.} (Al-Anfal 8:61)

Magnanimity and Benevolence at Work

Chivalric romance often times is no more than an act, a dream or a wish, but for Saladin and the Muslims it was a living reality. In his 28 years of battling the Crusaders, Saladin left many heart-touching impressions in the minds and hearts of his opponents as a reminder of his magnanimity. The author selected few of these stories as follow in order to help the reader understand why Saladin became a legendary figure in the Western world:

a- Prevention of Christian Bloodbath

After capturing Jerusalem in October 1187, Saladin’s civilized act in signing the peace treaty and saving Christian blood was indeed a pious act. He not only spared the lives of 100,000 Christians, but also guaranteed their safe departure along with their property and belongings. They were given forty days to prepare for departure.

In this way eighty four thousand of them left the city to their relatives or co-religionists in the costal line of Syria in perfect safety.

What is important to understand is that Saladin was in a strong position to seek revenge for his people. He did not go this route, however, because his faith taught him otherwise to be merciful, forgive and make no revenge. God said in the Quran:

{The recompense for an injury is an injury equal thereto (in degree): but if a person forgives and makes reconciliation, his reward is due from God: for (God) loves not those who do wrong.} (Ash-Shura 42: 40)

The Quran also states:

{Seek not mischief in the land, God does not love mischief makers.} (Ash-Sh’ara’ 28:77)

Let us stop here to reflect on the example of the magnanimity of Prophet Muhammad’s mercy even on his opponents. When Prophet Muhammad was extremely tired from the rejection of his people in Makkah, he went to Ta’if (150 kilometers southwest of Makkah) calling its people to worship God. There he was utterly turned down by its three leaders. The first leader told him: “If God sent you, I will tear down the hangings of Ka’bah.”

The second leader said to him: “Could God find not but you to send?” As for the third leader, who learned the news of the other two totally refused to meet with him, but sent his servant with this message: “I do not need to speak to you. For if you are a messenger from God as you claim, then you are too great of a person for me to address; and if you are a liar, it is not befitting for me to speak to you.”

Despite this type of denial and humiliation, the Prophet returned back once more to the leaders of Ta’if asking them for protection (asylum), since he left Makkah, he could no longer enter it without protection. His request was again turned down. Then he asked them to conceal his news of rejection from the people of Makkah.

Their answer was denied. Instead, they insisted to deliver the bad news to Makkah. Finally, he asked for their permission to speak to their people, they not only refused, but as he was leaving town, heart-broken, they stirred up their servants and children to insult him and throw rocks and stones at him. As a result, he was cut in his head and bled severely so that his shoes got full and saturated with blood. As he reached the outskirts of Ta’iff, he made this prayer:

“O my God, unto You I complain of my weakness, of my helplessness, and of my lowliness before men. O Most Merciful of the merciful, You are Lord of the weak. And You are my Lord. Into whose hands will You entrust me? Unto some far off stranger who will ill-treat me? Or unto a foe whom You have empowered against me? I care not if Your wrath is not on me…” (As Sayuti)

In this example, the Prophet was so compassionate that he denied himself and refused the request to punish the people who rejected him in the anticipation that at one point in the future they or their offspring may came to realize the truth.

Saladin, clearly followed the example of the Prophet in saving the lives of Christians.

b- Releasing Prisoners Who Were Not Able To Pay Their Ransom

Part of the condition of the surrender of Jerusalem, was that each Christian pays her or his ransom. Thousands of Christians, mainly women, were not able to pay their ransom. To save them from slavery, al-Adel, Saladin’s brother, Geukburi, Saladin’s brother-in law and Saladin himself, instead paid their ransom out of their own pockets.

This act was done in spite of the fact that some rich Christians such as the Patriarch, Heraclius and Madame la Patriarchesse of Jerusalem had so much wealth that they had currency by the load.

When Saladin was advised to confiscate the Patriarch and the la Patriarchesse’s wealth to use it as ransom for the poor Christians, he refused to go back on his word and turned his advisors’ request down. He allowed the wealthy Christians to depart with all their wealth intact.

Saladin was only faithfully responding to God’s call that said:

{Fulfill the covenant of God when you have entered into it, and break not your oaths after you have confirmed them; indeed you have made God your surety; for God knows all that you do.} (An-Nahl 16:91)

c- Beyond Justice

During the forty days respite that was given to the Westerners to leave Jerusalem, several Christian women approached Saladin stating that their guardians (husbands, fathers or sons) had been missing. They explained to Saladin that they had no one to look after them, nor did they have any shelter.

The tenderhearted Saladin broke into tears upon hearing their case. He ordered his soldiers to find their missing guardians, and that for those of them whose guardian was determined dead, they should be given a liberal compensation.

Could this act of Saladin not be seen as a chivalric romance at heart? Indeed, this act is only one of the many divine traits of Islam. Having a Muslim paying a ransom to a family of a soldier killed fighting other Muslims is certainly an act above justice and a gracious act at heart.

d- “Victory Is Changing the Hearts of Your Opponents by Gentleness and Kindness.”- Saladin

In September 1192, during the siege of Acre, King Richard the Lion heart gained a lasting respect for Saladin. When Richard fell sick, Saladin sent him his own physician to treat him. Along with this health care, he frequently sent him ice to cool down his fever and plum fruits that were necessary for his recovery. In this noble act, Saladin was precisely submitting to the call of the Quran that said:

{It may be that God will grant love (and friendship) between you and those whom you hold as enemies. For God has power (over all things); and God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.} (Al-Mumtahanah 60: 7)

e- A Pure Chivalric Romance

During an offense made by King Richard against a Muslim squadron under Saladin’s son al Zaher, King Richard’s horse was killed and the King of England was down on the ground. Observing this scene, Saladin sent him two remounts so that he would not be at a disadvantage.

f- Recovery of a Snatched Child

During the siege of Acre, a Christian woman came to Saladin’s camp weeping and wailing insisting that her child was snatched away by his soldiers. He was moved to tears by the pitiful condition of the woman and he himself returned the child to his mother and had them mount on the back of a mare to be returned safely to their camp.

g- Romance in the Freedom of Religion

Through an interpreter, Saladin used to communicate with virtually all the prisoners of war. During the siege of Acre several soldiers were captured. Among them was an old man who was so old that he was toothless and could hardly walk. Saladin questioned him as to why he was he there. The old man said that he had no thought but to make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem.

Saladin was so touched by his answer and condition that he provided a horse for him and ordered that he be escorted to Jerusalem to fulfill his worship dream. Can this act be seen anything less than romance in the freedom of belief?

Historically and philosophically no one can question Islam’s tolerance of other faiths and ethnicities. It was these and other charming Islamic values and practices that made Christians in the East eagerly identify with Muslims over the barbarism of the Crusades.

Many of the Christian churches in the upper Euphrates (Armenian Catholics) wrote letters in cheer to Saladin for the death of Fredrick Barbarossa, king of Germany and the breakup of his 200,000 Crusade army. King Barbarossa was planning to attack Syria from the north and defend the Franks. He died in the Balkans while crossing a river; his army broke up and never made it to Syria. The Byzantine Emperor, Isaac Angelus also tried to stop the German Crusade from entering his territory, but was not able to.


Saladin was an honorable leader. His character and charitable deeds demonstrated to the Crusaders that they had been misinformed, and that Muslims were no “infidels”. On the contrary, the Crusaders discovered that Muslims possessed virtues that they consider Christian values. Saladan’s chivalric and high standards were the “soul” of the plays and romances created by Sir Walter Scott that eventually moved into the young adult books and journals throughout Europe and the West.

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