Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The legend of Saladin

Saladin, the Kurdish warlord who recovered Jerusalem for Islam in 1187 and provoked the Third Crusade (the one in all the movies), is really famous in our time as a great and admirable Muslim leader. And he was famous in medieval times, too. In the chivalry seminar, we saw him used by an anonymous French writer -- in the Ordene de Chevalerie -- as a demonstration that even a great and admirable warrior can't be a real knight unless he was a Christian. (Lull believed that only good Christians qualified as real knights.)

But has Saladin always been famous? On MEDIEV-L this morning Andrew Larsen said no:

I think it’s important to realize that Saladin’s name has not continuously carried resonance for Muslims ever since his life and career. Saladin appears to have been largely forgotten within a few generations of his death. The main reason for this seems to have been the career of the Mamluk Sultan Baibars, who successfully defeated the Mongol threat in 1260 at the battle of Ain Jalut. As a consequence of this, he became a major Muslim folk-hero and remained such down into the 19th century, overshadowing Saladin as a great Muslim warrior.

I suspect that Saladin’s eclipse was also do to his failure to create a lasting Ayyubid state. When he died, his empire was virtually bankrupt and his sons and nephew and brother immediately fell to fighting for control of the state, rapidly dismembering it.
I also suspect that it might also be evidence that Saladin was not universally hailed even in his life. His ‘official’ biographer Baha-ad-Din has to spend a good deal of effort explaining why Saladin failed to perform basic Muslim duties such as the Hajj and fasting during Ramadan. Saladin put a great deal of effort into propagandizing the Muslim world to accept him as a great defender of Islam, but it must have been obvious to many Muslims that he was trying to justify his aggression against other Muslim states.

As a result of all this, Saladin was essentially forgotten for most of the period from c.1300-c.1850, at least in the Middle East. He was not a culturally significant figure. The recovery of the memory of his character seems to have a great deal to do with Muslims who traveled to western Europe for educational purposes in the later 19th century, and there discovered the medieval European version of Saladin, a great and noble warrior with sincere religious convictions. (But see below!) When they returned home, they brought the memory of Saladin as well as the memory of the Crusades back with them. The earliest Arabic history of the Crusades was only published in 1898 (if I remember the date correctly). Soon after that, ‘Saladin’ was adopted as the pen name of a Syrian writer opposed to European imperialism in the Middle East, and Saladin was transformed into an anti-imperialist warrior who rose up to defend Muslims out of sincere religious conviction (instead of the political ambitions that seem to have truly motivated him). The modern Muslim world has enshrined him as a (if not the) prototype of the mujaheed, the Jihad warrior. Political leaders such as Hafez al-Asad and Saddam Hussein sought to maintain his memory for political purposes, and Hussein actively depicted himself as a second Saladin (somewhat ironically, given that he actively persecuted Saladin’s people, the Kurds). Similarly, Muslim terrorists have found Saladin an extremely useful figure for their own purposes.

My point in all of this is that Saladin is not an example of the Muslim world having extremely long memories. Rather, the figure of Saladin, essentially discarded by the Muslim world, was revived in the 20th century for political purposes and altered to suit the needs of a modern struggle. A rough modern parallel might be the way that certain of the American Founding Fathers have been co-opted by modern American fundamentalists in an effort to prove that America was founded as a Christian nation. This is not an example of the memory of the Founding Fathers as Christian paragons surviving into the 21st century, but rather an example of how modern Americans have sought to recast convinced Deists as passionate Christians for 21st century political purposes. Another example is the Milosevic government’s very successful campaign to revive the memory of the 14th century battle of Kosovo as part of a campaign against Kosovar Albanians.

Andrew wants it pointed out that he's not an expert on Medieval Islam, but that since he teaches the Crusades every year he's done a bit of reading. He refers the curious to the 2nd edition of Jonathan Riley-Smith's Crusades: A Short History as a starting point.

I'll add that if Muslims in the Middle East were mostly forgetful of Saladin before 1850, Walter Scott sure knew who he was. Update: Paul Cobb in his recent narrative history of the Islamic reaction to the Crusades The Race for Paradise cites an article by Diana Abouali ("Saladin's Legacy in the Middle East before the 19th Century," Crusades 10 (2011) as "effectively demolish[ing]""the notion that modern Muslims had to be reminded of Saladin." The article is available on Academia.edu, so you can judge for yourself.


  1. good write-up..

    to add-up more how modest and a poius man..the day of his death he's left with on 47 dinars and eventually his funeral is being sponsored by their own cabinet members..

    he left with no money at all at he time as a great leader to the great empayars..he has the great muslim traits that is protrays islam as a unity and wisdom.

  2. B from london3:57 pm

    i am so glad u've mentioned and clearly stated that he was a kurd.

    Thank you for that, so many arabs, turks and other middle easterners till to this day deny the simple fact that he was kurdish, including the latest blockbuster movie: kingdom of heaven. i myself am kurdish too.

    do you know where he was born and or where his parents/grand parents were originaly from. i am trying to link if there ever was a kurdish state?

    Thank you once again.

  3. b from london4:03 pm

    sorry forgot to mention that u have a very cool pic of him.


  4. Anonymous6:41 pm

    Salah-udd-een [Saladin] was a Kurd and was from Tikrit in Iraq. People remember him to this day and will do so always

  5. Phil Paine5:22 pm

    Re b from London's question on Kurdish State.

    Some historians believe that the ancient people called Medes were at least the linguistic ancestors of the Kurds. They called themselves "Kuti", which might be cognate with "Kurd". However, the "descent" of a language has nothing to do with biological descent. That far back in the past, the idea of direct biological descent is nonsense, anyway.

    Deioces, Prince of the Medes, united seven Medean tribes into a kingdom, (709 BC – 656 BC). By 600 BC, his heirs has carved out a huge empire that stretched from central Turkey to Afghanistan. The Medean and Persian royal families were closely intermarried. In 553 BC, Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, rebelled against his grandfather, the Mede King Astyages, son of Cyaxares; he finally won a decisive victory in 550 BC resulting in Astyages' capture by his own dissatisfied nobles, who promptly turned him over to Cyrus. Thus were the Medes subjected to their close kin, the Persians. In the new Persian empire they retained a prominent position, like the Hungarians held in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    The kings and emperors of antiquity don't seem to have been very interested in "ethnicity", in the way it is thought of now. They ruled whoever they could rule. Ancient empires and kingdoms seldom had any special connection to particular ethnic groups. This is also true of the empires of the middle ages, like the Abbasids, Ottomans and Safavids. Since the time of the Medes, there has never been any state that was specifically identified with Kurds. It is possible that the Kingdom of Atropatene, which existed for a few centuries after the death of Alexander the Great, was mostly inhabited by Kurds, but this is not certain.

    The idea of a special ethnic group called Kurds, and that there should be an independent country called Kurdistan, seems to have appeared around the time of World War I. The idea was encouraged by Russian scholars, who seem to have thought up the idea that there was a special Kurdish "race"... It was in the late 19th century and early 20th Century that people became obsessed with the idea of ethnic Nations. The idea had always floated around, in various forms, but it was then that it became something that people were willing to fight big wars about.

    Ethnic Nationalism is, of course, just a device for achieving power. It isn't based on anything rational. People just make up anything they want about their "ethnic identity", then use it to justify what they want to do.

  6. Anonymous5:18 am

    Kurdistan isn't just about ethnicity, it is about a nation of people who will not be persecuted for speaking their own language like we have, their own clothing and culture like we have and their own political ideologies and celebrations like we have. Why should we not have our own state when tens of millions of ethnic Kurds live in these areas, Kurds that are connected by what I've mentioned above but have to suffer under the the occupation of other groups like Arabs, Turks and Persians.

  7. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for Kurdish independence. There is no question that Kurds have been abused under both Turkish and Iraqi rule. But independence does not automatically lead to freedom. If the focus is primarily on ethnicity, there is a great danger that any new state will merely turn into another oppressive regime, with the only consolation that one's rulers speak the same language as oneself. If the focus is primarily on the nature of the state: i.e. that it be democratic, respects human rights, and is fair to its citizens whatever their ethnicity, then you have a chance. The world is littered with nations that achieved ethnic "independence" and turned into hell-holes. Ethnicity is not the civilized basis for a polity. Freedom is.

  8. Anonymous7:08 pm

    Ironic that Saddam was born in Tikrit too!

  9. I agree with Phil Paines assertion that "People just make up anything they want about their "ethnic identity", then use it to justify what they want to do" but strongly disagree with all his blanket statements about pretty much every people who claim they belong to a specific Ethnos(=Nation). I am Hellenic (=Greek) and we have a very clear understanding where we came from, having indeed inhabited the same pretty much territories and endured hundreds of foreign invasions since at least the bronze ages, with language, customs and traditions pretty much unchanged since then. Of course the advent of Christianity altered our religious beliefs but it is interesting to observe that at the time Christian religious leaders used the ancient greek civilization (language, philosophy, way of thinking) to polish, express and pretty much record all their ideas.

    Looking around in the Balkan neighborhood today and in Minor Asia you see people who claim to have been indigenous when all of them are unable to prove their presence in this area before -say- 6-7 century AD. Yet they will revise history and where they can't will create some in order to become somebody they never where.

    How can you take anyone seriously let alone respect them, when you can see who they are, you know what they are, yet they claim to be somebody else. It is the equivalent of a white guy in the south US asserting he is an african american. When this is not offending it is for sure a very sad affair.

    Some Nations (Ethni) have the right and the historic justification to be pround or in your words "nationalistic" about their heritage, as long as of course they do not use it to oppress other people.

    I hope my comment is clear.

    1. Anonymous11:44 am

      In short. I don't care what anyone person looks like. As it is obvious.....WE ARE ALL PEOPLE. in the end beliefs are dangerous because some people will always use there beliefs to kill slaughter and destroy other people in the name of their own beliefs. In the end we are a world of people hopelessly killing to find peace.....Maybe we should believe in peace

  10. There is so much discussion about etnicity of Saladin. Because the names of Saladin's brothers are Turkish.Turan Şah, Tuğtekin, Şehinşah, Börü... For example Börü means wolf and it is the symbol of all Turk nations.

  11. Selaudin1:47 pm

    I am so proud i have his name :D

  12. Anonymous11:05 pm

    Δημήτριος, I wouldn't be that sure about my roots if I had lived under other nations rules for such a long time. You accuse people and you do the same thing...