Saladin’s Jihad

By ccsantos

Saladin’s jihad
What is jihad? Who is Saladin? If we use the modern day assumption of jihad and link it with a name that looks typically Muslim, we cannot fully understand the two words together. Jihad is often described as Holy War against non-Muslim factions in defense of the state of Islam; however, there are numerous discrepancies that are not so clearly defined by today’s standards. Examine the name Saladin more closely. You’ll discover that it was the most revered name of Muslim heroes by his admirers in Europe. But it is difficult to understand modern, biased statements about Muslims such as: all Muslims are hostile to the destruction of others, or Muslims are achieving the Prophet Muhammad’s goal of religious expansion and conversion.

It is hard to set aside religious and political perceptions of jihad because we are more than often informed incorrectly. In modern times a wide majority of people would translate jihad as a depiction of terrorist activities. Scholars would often refer to jihad as fi sabil Allah or ‘in the path of God,’ fighting for Muslim conversion on either a violent or non-violent level. We must understand the perspective of a Muslim’s jihad, and never accept the opinion of another’s to satisfy your own, especially when there is no supporting evidence.

The scholar Carole Hillenbrand is able to show what one type of jihad is used today: Israel is the new alien crusader state where the higher majority of Muslims have their own jihad against Israelis. This example represents a differentiation of jihad today as opposed to the past. But Saladin’s jihads are the ideal, and quite possibly the epitome, of past jihads. One source, Paul Fregosi, begins to say that the Allah was the primary motive for fighting and “eagerness of death” meant immediate entry in Paradise. These warriors would be awarded Paradise for their actions that sound familiar to what Islamic extremists see it as today. But the sultan of Egypt was a man who heeded the call of duty declaring jihads in defense of the state of Islam. Paradise may have been the motivation to the vast amount of men in the armies, but Saladin is not represented in the sources this way. But what makes this man so? The layers underneath Saladin’s jihad are not so clearly understood due to modern day interpretations such as Fregosi’s. To understand Saladin’s own jihad we must nullify what we know now and absorb what was.

Baha al-Din, who’s full name was Baha al-Din Abu’l-Mahasin Yusuf ibn Rafi’ ibn Tamim, was a man who studied the Koran, hadith and Muslim law. Baha al-Din was in Saladin’s service from June 1188 – until Saladin’s death in 1193. It is through Baha al-Din’s accounts with the sultan and other exceptional knowledge that Saladin’s jihad will be tested, analyzed and understood.

Salah al-Din (the Righteousness of the Faith), or Salah al-Dunya wa’l-Din (literally, ‘the goodness of this world and of religion’) became an incredibly pious man, and quickly. Before he was the sultan of Egypt he was known as Yusuf, a young emir who was in the service of his master Nur al-Din. He was a Muslim warrior who was at first skeptical of war, but came to find that it is most important to assist the state of Islam in its dire need. When Nur al-Din asked for assistance to reclaim Egypt from its wayward vizier, Saladin was soon in line for an acclamation he was not immediately ready for. At one point the Muslim hierarchy thought of him as “inexperienced and [the] weakest of the emirs in the army,” hence his immediate succession of the title of vizier. But that soon changed. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin, as translated by D.S. Richards, goes on to proclaim that Saladin was the epitome of a righteous sultan during the Christian Crusades and Egyptian-Syrian split. Saladin was described as an admirer of the Koran and hadith; he followed closely to the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. Baha al-Din, in fact, wrote a “catechism of the faith for his [Saladin’s] personal use.” For example, during the time of jihad, Saladin would neglect such things as the Ramadan because the jihad was more important. Karen Armstrong writes about Saladin as a man who finds religion in his new role as sultan and that his jihad against the Franks is the beginning of his devotion to jihad. Hillenbrand says Saladin’s jihad “is presented in the sources as having undergone a moment of religious awakening after which he prosecuted jihad with a genuine sense of purpose, personally as well as publicly.”

But “Jihad [today, is] routinely translated as Holy War, often [making] headlines,” but that was not what Saladin’s purpose of jihad was. He was not a butcher; he was not seeking dominance for personal greed and power. He contributed his success to the state of Islam and his fellow Muslims. Armstrong writes, “He gave away whole provinces to anybody who asked him and distributed massive sums to the poor.” He was arguably a modern day Robin Hood. He was simply the “just, gentle and merciful” supporter of the weak. An example of his gift giving in one case was when a merchant held a claim that money was owed to him. The owner of the money previously was his mamluk, and the mamluk had now past on. Saladin honored the merchant and even provided “a substantial sum” along with the claim that even Baha al-Din could not recount.

Furthermore, he was able to unite parts of the Muslim world of Syria with Egypt where he would not hold it in his own possession, but again use the land as gifts. Like the time when Saladin annexed the city of Aleppo to achieve his victory against wayward Muslims and gave it to his valued son al-Zahir and his brother al-Adil. In addition, among his family, was his tribute to his father. In the time when he was first selected as vizier of Egypt, it was ironic that he had not wanted to go to Egypt in the first place. When Saladin sent for his father to accompany him in his crown, his father kindly denies. Saladin thought maybe this was a sign that He, God, had bestowed upon Saladin with the task of sultan and the protector of Islam. Carole Hillenbrand quotes from a poem of one of his glorious victories during a jihad, “Saladin is viewed as the favored one of God who is carrying out His divine will and purpose.” Saladin’s critic Ibn al-Athir, historian to Nur al-Din, even mentions Saladin’s “zeal for waging jihad was much given to good deeds and fine actions, a mighty warrior of the jihad against the infidels.”

Armstrong offers a very valid point in reference to Baha al-Din’s thoughts about Saladin: “The Holy War and the suffering involved in it weighed heavily on his heart and his whole being in every limb.” Saladin concerns himself of the suffering taking place among his fellow Muslims. There is constant unrest, and constant tragedy. An example of such past events can even be seen today. When Nur al-Din ordered Saladin to replace Shiite Islam with the Sunni tradition in Egypt it seemed really unnecessary because the main difference between the two religions was not theological, only political. The Shiites were weary of this transition, but they had faith in Saladin; even if that meant following Sunni tradition. Adversely, Armstrong uses Catholics and Protestants in Christianity as an example of how it is a religious split and not a political one. Saladin’s strength constantly grows with the admiration of his followers.

Saladin’s jihad, however, was not deterred very long after becoming vizier. Saladin thought it was he who was called by Allah to perform jihad. But his conflictions with his master Nur al-Din prevented his actions. Nur al-Din would constantly offer Saladin help, but Saladin thought it was he [himself], God had selected to perform jihad. Saladin constantly lifted sieges of cities he had declared jihads on when Nur al-Din would come to help. It was the consistency of these failed sieges that Nur al-Din was finally suspicious enough to send an army down to the vizier of Egypt to see what was going on. During this event Nur al-Din suddenly died of a heart attack. Saladin only saw this coincidence as a sign from God.

There is one source that claims Saladin’s use of jihad was clearly propaganda during his fight with Nur al-Din’s empire and the Crusading Christians. This propaganda was viewed negatively. But Armstrong wrote, “Tradition says clearly that a Muslim leader must not separate himself from his people – and in our own day heads of state in the Middle East have made themselves vulnerable to revolutionary violence because they have failed to observe this important Islamic virtue.” Hillenbrand also brings up Saladin’s use of jihad in the primary sources. Saladin was constantly waging war on Muslims who did not want to be ruled by him. But his efforts in unifying the Muslim state was what he believed God had commanded him to do, and what the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings emphasized in Islam. He thought his actions were rescuing his people. Armstrong did mention that Saladin’s use of propaganda was successful. For example, it was used often before battle took place. The hadith would be recited to the troops as motivation for the ensuing battle. His troops would be read the hadith and no other emir had ever delivered so much emphasis on Nur al-Din’s central message of Muslim integrity. Whatever Saladin’s jihads might represent, it is still fact that his devotion far exceeded such irrelevant consideration as noted by Hillenbrand.

Also, Saladin’s chivalric nature was well regarded by his European critics. Rich Lawson, who has a minor in history from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, contributed his thoughts of Saladin’s chivalric nature that cannot be illustrated any other way:

Despite their differences in faith, as well as other individual differences between Richard and Saladin, both have shared a legacy in that they have been considered exemplars of chivalry. In his book about William Marshal, an exemplar of chivalry, Georges Duby defines and discusses chivalric obligations, and he identifies four primary obligations centering on loyalty, proper conduct as a warrior, courtoisie (courtesy), and largesse (generosity). According to Duby loyalty obliged a chivalric knight to keep his word and not to betray his sworn faith, proper conduct involved valor and victory in battle while still conforming to certain rules and remaining honorable, courtesy compelled chivalric knights to treat ladies a certain way, and generosity is what established social distinction.

Saladin’s expansionist use of jihad can very well be proclaimed as propaganda, but it is in the description about Saladin’s duties to his fellow Muslims that obligates him to continue ‘fi sabil Allah’ as jihad requires.

An interesting example of holy duties is brought up by Geoffrey Regan. Saladin is seen as “a man of honor” and let Balian of Ibelin into Jerusalem to fetch his wife the Queen Maria Comnena and children to get them out of hostile territory. Critics often cite this act of kindness as a blunder because the city of Jerusalem was now awarded a leader and defender of Jerusalem. As a Christian it was Balian’s duty to protect the city of its inhabitants, hence we have the loosely based film Kingdom of Heaven representing the siege of Jerusalem. Why though, is this act of generosity [by Saladin] considered a blunder? Saladin had the choice between fulfilling God’s wishes and letting a man retrieve his wife. As we saw before, Saladin neglected the Ramadan to fulfill jihad. This time he neglected the jihad to let an enemy pass into the city of Jerusalem. He certainly had to have known this was a mistake if historians even realize the magnitude of this exemption. Is it necessarily his chivalry or his honor that let Balian pass? It is both. Saladin has the talent to fulfill his holy duties and be a man of honor. Another example that illuminates his contribution to honor is seen in his encounter with King Richard. Again, Saladin would risk his jihad for individuals that are his enemies. Armstrong recounts another such event:

At one moment during a battle at Jaffa, when the Crusader’s cavalry seemed exhausted, [King] Richard himself led the spearmen in a charge against the Muslims, and Saladin was almost beside himself with furious admiration. When he saw Richard’s horse fall under him, the Sultan at once sent his groom into the fray with two fresh horses for the brave King of England.

Saladin is seen as an exemplar of the chivalric ideal and that his compassion for his religion and duties can be exceeded with acts of kindness. We must absorb this form of jihad today as it was then because the numerous misconceptions do not do the word justice. Saladin was always able to honor his enemies and contribute acts of generosity before his jihad was to be fulfilled. This is the jihad we must understand.

But in the time after Saladin had passed away and was succeed by al-Adil, the Muslim people of the Middle East had begun to let go of strong roots of Holy War. Encouragement of jihad swiftly died over the centuries. But that is not to say that some strong ideals weren’t set post-Saladin. Western Christians continually traveled to fight for the holy land of Jerusalem. And even if they had given up their Crusades, the Franks might still have control over the much controversial Palestine region today. Armstrong alludes to the previous mention of Muslim [Arab] states “[who may] one day find a new charismatic Saladin – possibly a radical Muslim leader – to unite them in a successful war against the state of Israel.”

Saladin will forever be remembered in the text. But what did his legacy contribute? The term jihad is often tossed around without much thought behind it. Saladin is not a figure in history that will forever be remembered for his own jihads. If a random person on the street is asked to identify Saladin, chances are that person does not know who he was. If the same person is asked if they know what a jihad is they might possibly have an answer. But it is that answer that still eludes the traditional meaning. From the sources of information Saladin is seen as a thorough and passionate man for jihad. The multitudes of his success vary during his time of jihad. But Saladin’s jihad is accepted as the epitome “of the goodness of this world and of religion.” Without his contributions, would jihad always be known to the modern public as just a type of warfare?


Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1999)
Karen Armstrong, Holy war: the Crusades and their impact on today’s world (New York: Anchor Books, 2001)
Daniel Pipes, “What is jihad,” New York Post 31 (December 2002) Accessed 2/5/2007
Douglas E. Streusand, “What Does jihad Mean,” (Middle East Quarterly, September 1997) Accessed 2/5/2007
Paul Fregosi, Jihad in the West: Muslim conquests from the 7th to the 21st centuries (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998)
D.S. Richards, ed., The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin (Ashgate, 2002)
Richards 2002, through the translations of Baha al-Din
The sacred writings of Islam revealed by God to the prophet Muhammad during his life at Mecca and Medina
Peter Partner, God of Battles: Holy Wars of Christianity and Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997)
Rich Lawson, Richard and Saladin: Warriors of the Third Crusade (2004) Accessed 3/29/2007
Geoffrey Regan, Lionhearts: Saladin, Richard I, and the era of the Third Crusade (New York: Walker, 1999)
Kingdom of Heaven, 2005