George Bingham asks is the portrayal of Saladin as a triumphant Jihadi justified?

Is the portrayal of Saladin as a triumphant Jihadi justified?

The image of Saladin, or Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, as the “anti-crusader ne plus ultra”[1] was established by the flood of reverential Kurdish biographies written by members of his court around his death. Despite the lack of contemporary accounts that challenge this view, recent historians have argued that this image is not justified[2]. Their argument is based on Saladin’s notable defeats on the battlefield, his attacks on other Sunni Muslims and the numerous truces he signed with the Franks, the supposed target of his righteous Jihad[3]. On the other hand, this can be countered with his achievements of capturing Jerusalem, his financial support to religious institutions and pushing previously firmly entrenched Crusader states to the brink of extinction before they were rescued by the Third Crusade. These contrasting opinions reflect how Saladin’s life is split in two periods: his initial consolidation followed by expansion of power and his attacks upon the Crusader states. The contrast of Saladin’s actions and motivations in these two periods is what fuels the argument over the actual truth behind his mythical legacy.

The most obvious criticism of this portrayal is Saladin’s initial focus on uniting Syria and Egypt after the death of his master Nur al-Din. This drive for power however violated Islamic law as this kingdom should have passed on to Nur al-Din’s heir, the 11-year-old al-Salih. Rather than respecting the right of succession, Saladin decided to launch a military campaign to conquer Syria and eliminate any previous supporters of his old master, the Zengids. In order to guarantee the security of Egypt while he fought to unite Syria, Saladin made several short-term truces with the Crusader states, Tripoli, Jerusalem and Antioch, to maintain a buffer between territories controlled by the Zengids and his power base in Egypt. The result of these truces is that Saladin only spent 13 months campaigning against the Franks compared to 33 against fellow Muslims[4]. This seems to clearly suggest that Saladin was able “to compromise religious ideals to political expediency”[5]. However, Saladin had to fully consolidate and expand his power to be able to wage a successful Jihad and he manipulated the survivalist mindset of the Crusader states in order to ensure he could surround them. This teleological interpretation is supported by Sir Hamilton Gibb who argues that Saladin had to “restore and revive the political fabric of Islam as a single united empire”[6] in order to wage a successful Jihad. Therefore, Saladin’s early actions are justified as these admittedly morally questionably actions resulted in a single unified Islamic empire that completely surrounded the vulnerable Franks. The weakness of their situation was clearly recognised by William of Tyre who expressed his fear that “all kingdoms adjacent to us have been brought under the power of one man”[7].  A one-year truce expired in April of 1187 and there would not be another.

After Saladin was given a pretext to invade by the robbery of a Muslim merchant caravan by Reynold of Châtillon, he launched a campaign that is the foundation of his legacy. In order to understand why this campaign forged the image of Saladin it is necessary to acknowledge the military challenge he faced. Despite the considerable infighting and the tenuous and contentious position of Guy de Lusignon as king, invading the Franks was still a considerable risk. Unlike Saladin’s feudal army, that could only fight short campaigns, the Crusader states effectively had a constant standing army as a result of their ongoing vulnerability since they were established. This enabled them to quickly gather a force of 20,000 soldiers, essentially the entire military capability of the three states, in response to Saladin’s invasion. However, Saladin overcame this impressive resistance by identifying a lack of decisive leadership amongst the Franks that would allow him to draw them into the arid desert where their heavily armoured Knights would be assaulted by both volleys of arrows and the sweltering heat. This resulted in the Frankish forces being surrounded, and despite valiant resistance they were crushed after eight hours. Following this career defining victory, Saladin had an important choice – attacking the County of Tyre, the last vestige of significant resistance and an astute tactical move, or the greater symbolic target of Jerusalem. His choice of Jerusalem due to its religious significance indicated his commitment to the Jihad. This utter commitment to the Holy War is emphasized in the bibliographies by his contemporaries such as Bahā al-Din Ibn Shaddād, a judge in Saladin’s army, who stated that the Jihad had “a mighty hold on his heart and all his being”[8]. This account seems to indicate that after he had liberated the Holy City he was perceived by his fellow Muslims as a triumphant Jihadi. However, all the biographies written by Saladin’s courtiers have a significant limitation. Some form of all the Kurdish sources were probably available during Saladin’s lifetime so were likely to portray him in a positive light. In addition, D. S. Richards concluded that “the work was probably intended for presentation to Saladin” before his unexpected death. But the sources are still valuable as they give a view from within his court at the time and likely witnessed the events they described. The Muslim perspective is also important as they understand and can judge the goals of the Jihad more effectively than any European sources.

As soon as his troops entered the hallowed walls of Jerusalem, Saladin began a policy of reversing the ‘damage’ of 88 years of Christian rule. He reportedly said that he need to purify the city “of the hellish Franks, to strip of her vile garments and to put on the robe of honour”[9]. Christian symbols were replaced with Islamic images and the mihrāb[10]were cleaned and uncovered. Once these immediate tasks where completed, Saladin set out the religious future of the city by appointing an imām at the Dome of the Rock and giving out confiscated Christian property as religious endowments, awqāf.  He used these grants to establish a hospice for Sufis, al-Salhiyaa and had ordered Bahā al-Din Ibn Shaddād to institute a hospital in Jerusalem with a waqf. This was not restricted to Jerusalem. Throughout Saladin’s reign the number of awqāf rose considerably which demonstrated his support for Islamic institutions and scholars. It also ensured the support of religious leaders who had a significant influence over the general population. By giving out numerous religious endowments, Saladin balanced both religious and political needs in a way that allowed religious scholarship and institution to thrive while also gaining the support of a critical group. This generous use of awqāf promoted the image of him as a “pious king striving to strengthen the cause of Islam”[11].

Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem resulted in the next legacy defining event of his rule: The Third Crusade. This is where the image of him as ‘triumphant’ is challenged. In this crusade he was repeatedly outmanoeuvred on the battlefield by Richard III most notably at the Battle of Arsuf and the Siege of Jaffa. This resulted in Richard reclaiming the cities of Acre and Jaffa. However, Saladin managed to thwart the main aim of the crusade by ordering a scorched earth policy around Jerusalem. And although Richard marched troops within sight of the walls twice, he decided not to launch an assault. Finally, the beleaguered crusaders signed a truce with Saladin where territory might have been gained but the ultimate goal was lost. This crusade damages Saladin’s reputation as ‘triumphant’ but it is ultimately redeemed when considering the weakness of his army relative to the crusaders and the aims of his Jihad which prioritises religious gains over territorial or economic. Therefore, the retention of Jerusalem, despite Richard’s efforts, is highly significant as it thwarted the main aim of the crusade. It emphasises his dedication to the cause as he was willing to give up territorial possession to hold onto Jerusalem, a city with less economic value than the coastal ports of Jaffa and Acre, but with far greater religious significance.

Overall, the reverential portrayal of Saladin as a ‘triumphant Jihadi’ is largely justified as his ultimate goal of capturing Jerusalem was realised and resulted in the Islamic reformation of the city.  This excuses his early attacks on Muslim rivals as this was primarily about uniting the states of Egypt and Syria under his rule. Islamic unity, a rare occurrence before the leadership of Nur al-Din and Saladin, was crucial as it enabled him to defeat the experienced army of the Crusader states. However, during the Third Crusade, despite his devotion to the cause, Saladin realised that the limitations of his army meant he could offer meagre resistance to strength of Richards force. Despite the considerable military disadvantage, he still held onto the coveted Jerusalem. Therefore, although the Third Crusade made significant territorial gains it can still be defined as a failure. This demonstrates the prioritisation of religious symbolism over any economic or territorial gain when judging the success of a Jihad or crusade. In the end Saladin’s image as a ‘triumphant Jihadi’ is justified by a single defining moment, the capture of Jerusalem, which would never again be controlled by Franks. It was his kairotic moment and justifies his enshrined legacy.



Holt, P. M. “Saladin and His Admirers: A Biographical Reassessment.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 46, no. 2, 1983, pp. 235–239. JSTOR, Accessed 16 May 2020.

Dan Jones “Crusaders” Pg280-316

Brand, Charles M. “The Byzantines and Saladin, 1185-1192: Opponents of the Third Crusade.” Speculum, vol. 37, no. 2, 1962, pp. 167–181. JSTOR, Accessed 19 May 2020.

Runciman, Steven. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1, 1974, pp. 59–60. JSTOR, Accessed 20 May 2020.

Frenkel, Yehoshuʿa. “Political and Social Aspects of Islamic Religious Endowments (‘Awqāf’): Saladin in Cairo (1169-73) and Jerusalem (1187-93).” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 62, no. 1, 1999, pp. 1–20. JSTOR, Accessed 20 May 2020.




[2] Notably Andrew S Ehrenkreutz in ‘Saladin’ and P M Holt in ‘Saladin and His Admirers: A Biographical Reassessment”

[3] This is the term for religious war against the enemies of Islam.

[4] D. E.P. Jackson and M. C. Lyons, Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War, Pg239

[5] Andrew S. Ehrenkreutz, Saladin, 1972

[6] H. A. R. Gibb, ’The achievement of Saladin’, Pg100

[7] William of Tyre Vol II, Pg407

[8] Bahā al-Din Ibn Shaddād, ‘The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin’

[9]Imād al-Din al-Isfahāni, ‘al-Fath al-qussi’, Pg50-53

[10] A semi-circular niche in a Mosque wall that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

[11] Yehoshu’a Frenkel, Political and Social Aspects of Islamic Religious Endowments (“awqāf”): Saladin in Cairo (1169-73) and Jerusalem (1187-93) Pg16