On 2nd Oct, 1187 AD the gates of Jerusalem were finally opened for all faiths after almost a century of oppression (Gibb, 1973). The city breathed fresh air as Christian crusaders were allowed to depart safely with their belongings. This was in strong contrast to what had happened 88 years ago when the holy city was occupied by the crusader knights. On 15th June, 1099 AD crusaders stormed into Jerusalem and committed a heartless massacre of the local population which mainly consisted of Muslims and Jews (The Crusaders Capture Jerusalem, 1099, 2000). People of faiths other than Christianity were banned from the city during the crusader rule. Jewish and Muslim holy places were desecrated or converted to churches (The Muslim Period, n.d.). When it was retaken in 1187, the disciplined Muslim army left all churches untouched and got to work to restore the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This army was being led by the generous and honorable Salah ud Din Al Ayyubi (known as Saladin in the west).
Salah ud Din is perhaps the only Muslim in history who is as popular in the west as he is in the Muslim countries. The reason is his high morals and nobility of character which fit very well to the western image of an ideal knight. Salah ud Din was born in 1137 AD to a Kurd family in Tikrit in modern day Iraq. He was born into one of the most critical times in Muslim and Christian history, effects of which are visible to this day. Some historical background follows in the next paragraph.
Crusader army, formed by an alliance of kingdoms in the Roman Empire, had already marched onto the Muslim lands during the last century. They were rallied by the strong speeches (in 1095 AD) from pope Urban II who denigrated Muslims as an accursed race who had plundered churches and taken Christians captive for torture in the holy land of Jerusalem (1095 Pope Urban II orders first Crusade, n.d.). He had used the religious sentiment, calling Christians ‘the chosen race’ and urged all noblemen across Europe to support a holy war (the Crusade). This army had been successful in capturing Jerusalem and establishing a strong base along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (called the Kingdom of Jerusalem) with plans to occupy more land.
Muslims were a very divided nation at that time consisting of many small states run by local kings and sultans. During Salah ud Din’s childhood his father, Najm ud Din, was given charge of a garrison city (Baalbek) by the legendary Imad ud Din Zengi. Zengi and later his son Nur ud Din were fueled by a desire to liberate the holy land and restore peace. They are famous for their efforts to unite different Muslim nations spread in modern day Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Nur ud Din is recognized as the mastermind behind the counter-crusade of Muslims. He realized the danger posed by the crusaders while most other Muslim rulers were busy fighting among themselves. He propagated the message of unity and solidarity through a network of schools established throughout Syria. His major accomplishment was to unite Egypt with Damascus, Aleppo, Edessa and Mosul to form a single front against the Franks (crusaders). Time did not permit him further action however as he died of an illness in 1174 AD. It was this moment in history when Salah ud Din rose to the occasion and established himself as the ideological heir to Nur ud Din. Salah ud Din was already the Vizier (Prime Minister) of Egypt at the young age of 32, now he also established control over rest of Nur ud Din’s lands.
Afterwards a long struggle ensued which saw Salah ud Din finally defeating the crusader army at Hattin in 1187 AD, leaving Jerusalem completely vulnerable. It was his actions of extreme generosity and humbleness at this victory that won him the admiration and affection of both European and Muslim historians. The streets of Jerusalem had flowed with blood of Muslims and Jews when crusaders had captured Jerusalem 88 years earlier, in contrast Salah ud Din, instead of using force, entered into an agreement which stated that the population of the city is free for a small amount of ransom money. Many who could not meet the ransom were still released. He posted his own soldiers throughout the city to ensure there was not looting or pillage. The money raised from this ransom was all spent on the welfare of soldiers and the city. He allowed all Christians who wanted to, to remain in the city. The reason for this generosity was that he was not driven by greed, vendetta or ego but the noble goal of restoring peace.
He was respected and loved by his friends, followers and local people for his resolve and struggle. He passed away in 1192, aged 55, after a short illness in Damascus. Driven by a singular purpose all his life, he left behind no houses, estates or orchards. According to Ibn Shadad, his advisor, there was not enough money for his funeral and it had to be borrowed. True praise for Salah ud Din can be seen in Ibn Shadad’s heartfelt words:
“I had heard from some that if possible they will bring their loved ones back by giving their own lives, but I only thought of such an expression as a sort of poetic expression until this day, now I know for myself and for others that, had the purchase of Salah ud Din’s life been acceptable, we would have gladly paid for it with our own.”