Book Review: Saladin
The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders
and Built an Islamic Empire
by John Man
Da Capo Books, 2016
Saladin, the Kurdish 12th century warlord and founder of the Abbuyid Dynasty, is the subject of the latest lean, readable book by prolific historian and biographer John Man. It’s less than half the length of Anne-Marie Edde’s magisterial 2008 biography of Saladin, and yet it faces a far grimmer and more arduous task. Saladin, the charismatic figure who defeated the Christian crusaders of the Third Crusade and yet showed them chivalric mercy on many high-profile occasions, seems to embody an antique virtue conspicuously absent from the 21st century. “Saladin was a genius, able briefly to focus Islamic energy on the tasks of unity and jihad,” Man writes. “He was the best his people could have hoped for, and a role model for any leaders working for a better tomorrow.”
Man joins this fulsome praise with a briskly and grippingly readable account of Saladin’s youth and climb to power, but the inevitable climax of any narrative of Saladin’s life is the ongoing battle he wages with the Christian crusaders, his campaigns to retake Jerusalem and break the growing military and economic power of Christianity in Arabic territories, fighting and negotiating even while his own health slowly eroded. Man hews close to the standard biographical take on Saladin as the most honorable man in the venal and vicious mess of the Crusades-era Holy Land, and in 2016 this take encounters a freight of resistance ten times as great as existed when Edde wrote her book. The 21st century’s most dire and alarming trauma to date has been the virulent worldwide outbreak of Islamic terrorism, and this naturally throws a new and harsh light on a figure like Saladin, whose “commitment to jihad” Man alludes to throughout his book.
There’s a straining for equanimity in these pages that grows steadily more grating as the book goes on, equanimity on subjects that all but demand the abandonment of equanimity. For instance, in response to the near-constant treachery of the French crusader-captain Reynald de Chatillon, Saladin made a rare intemperate gesture, vowing that he would kill de Chatillon with his own hands when they next met. When de Chatillon was captured in 1187 and brought before him, it only took one mouthy remark to remind Saladin of his vow. He killed de Chatillon … and then had his men decapitate the body, a gesture that can’t help but stop readers cold with flashes to the headlines about the barbarities of ISIL. And Man’s expansion on his subject’s vow only deepens the problem:
His bloody deed was apparently a source of pride, because Reynald’s head was sent on tour, being shown off in all the main cities controlled by Saladin. But this had bothered Islamic commentators. It is not good form to slay helpless captives. There are two defences. Firstly, Islamic law authorizes the beheading of a prisoner who refuses to convert, because he remains a threat to the Muslim community. Secondly, Saladin had an oath to fulfill.
It’s hard to know what to make of any of that. Not good form to slay helpless captives? The Quran and the Hadith repeatedly call for the faithful to do exactly that. Prisoners who refuse to convert? Reynald de Chatillon wasn’t offered the chance to convert and wouldn’t have taken it anyway – he was killed because he was arrogant in defeat. Saladin had an oath to fulfill? Fine if you consider that a “defense” for cold-blooded murder, but Saladin took no oath to send a severed head on a publicity tour.
Things grow darker when Man turns to the word that’s taken on renewed urgency in modern times:
‘Jihad’ now has a dire reputation as a justification for indiscriminate violence against non-Muslims and Muslims, soldiers and civilians, men, women and children. But the original concept is more subtle than the superficial ideology of a suicide bomber. Jihad, as portrayed in the Quran, was a hard and unpleasant duty, which involved killing – when necessary and within limits.
This kind of forced wide-angle perspective is badly misleading. Jihad as portrayed in the Quran is indeed a hard and unpleasant duty – the faithful are regularly urged to overcome their own natural inclinations to mercy – but the killing it calls for isn’t bounded by necessity or limit. The faithful are enjoined to kill unbelievers wherever they find them, to murder them or crucify them or cut a hand off on one side and a foot off on the other. Saladin was himself a man of honor and restraint, especially by the standards of his blood-soaked times, but he was also a warlord (despite the fact that Man, in a disastrous chapter titled “A Brief History of Leadership,” refers to him as “programmed for leadership”), and his modern-day equivalents would kill him out of hand for the kindness he showed to infidels. The 21st century can certainly find things to admire in Saladin without being told they fundamentally misunderstand the concept of jihad that stalks their shopping malls and elementary schools and airline flights on a daily basis.