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Monday, June 20, 2022

The Revival of Jihad and the Rise of Saladin

Ironically, just when the crusader states started acting like secular powers with no particular religious raison d’ d’être, religious war, jihad, enjoyed a revival in the Muslim powers of the Middle East. 

Zengi had at times employed the language of jihad to justify his conquests, but contemporaries and historians agree that Zengi was not motivated by religious zeal. Rather, he cynically used calls for jihad to motivate the masses. His son Nur al-Din, in contrast, did not simply trot out jingoistic slogans against ‘polytheists’ and ‘pigs,’ he systematically supported Sunni orthodoxy. This included support for religious institutions, particularly madrasas. The latter were colleges of higher education dedicated to the study of Islamic theology and law. Madrasas proliferated in Nur al-Din’s domains and provided much of the intellectual underpinning for his wars against both the ‘heretical’ Shias and against the Christians. The madrasas fostered a generation of Islamic scholars dedicated to jihad, and capable of providing the military elites with beautifully worded and meticulously argued religious justifications for the aggression they wished to undertake anyway.

Nur al-Din was adept, indeed masterful, in employing every conceivable media for jihadist rhetoric — whether in personal letters, sermons, inscriptions on tombs and buildings, or poetry.  By all these means, Nur al-Din beat the drum of jihad, calling on his subjects to push the infidel into the sea and ‘restore’ Muslim control of Palestine, particularly Jerusalem. It is hardly incidental that this propaganda also emphasized the need for religious and political unity as a prerequisite of success. Jihad justified the suppression of dissent within Islam and the eradication of domestic political opponents as well as war against rival Muslim powers. Thus, the pursuit of jihadist goals justified both external aggression and internal oppression.

To be fair, Nur al-Din did not just preach jihad, he also lived according to Islamic principles. As a ruler, he founded and sponsored hospitals, orphanages, bathhouses and mosques, while also placing great emphasis on ruling justly. As an individual he prayed, listened to readings of the Koran, abstained from alcohol, and forbade music and dancing in his court and camp. William Archbishop of Tyre called Nur al-Din ‘a mighty persecutor of the Christian name and faith’ but acknowledged his fundamental piety by noting  he ‘was a just prince, valiant and wise, and, according to the traditions of his race, a religious man.’[i] Indeed, according to the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch (Michael I Rabo, 1166-1199), Nur al-Din ‘considered himself like Muhammed, and was waiting for the Lord to speak to him as he had to Moses.’[ii] Nur al-Din’s death was allegedly welcomed by many of his subordinates who resented his puritanical Islam and disliked the fact that prayer had banished music, dance and wine. His death was also welcomed by Saladin, albeit for very different reasons.

Saladin, namely, had come to power in Egypt without the approval of his sultan and he was in trouble with him. Nur al-Din had, to be sure, sent his trusted Kurdish emir Shirkuh to Cairo, and Shirkuh’s murder of the Fatimid vizier Shawar been in Nur al-Din’s interest. Shirkuh’s coup enabled a Sunni to seize control of the Fatimid state, making it only a matter of time before the Shia caliph also disappeared.

Saladin’s coup on the death of his uncle Shirkuh, on the other hand, was not sanctioned by Nur al-Din. Saladin had been elected by the emirs in Egypt, a majority of which were Kurds, without consulting the sultan’s wishes. Furthermore, the election took place before a background of threatening crisis. Despite Shirkuh’s coup, the Egyptian bureaucracy and military remained intact and many of these men were still loyal to the Fatimids. The Frankish threat also remained real after five successive invasions, several of which had come close to taking Cairo. Both factors made the rapid election of a new vizier essential. Sending to Nur ad-Din in Damascu for his advice or approval did not seem practical. Saladin proved to be the candidate on whom everyone could agree, although by no means enthusiastically.

Yet Saladin’s rule was far from secure. He had to ruthlessly suppress a revolt by the Nubian troops, burning their families alive, to force them to withdraw from Cairo in exchange for their lives — only to betray them and slaughter them anyway. He then billeted his own troops in their former barracks for his own safety. Clearly, the situation remained volatile until another timely death came to Saladin’s rescue: the Fatimid Caliph died. This enabled Saladin, officially the caliph’s chief officer and protector, to simply end the ‘heretical’ caliphate. Saladin blandly announced to the caliph’s son and should-be successor that his father ‘had not made a bequest that recognized him as his successor.’[iii] Indeed, Saladin had not even waited for the critically ill caliph to die. He had ordered the imams in the mosques of Cairo to substitute the Sunni caliph for the Fatimid one in their Friday prayers a week before the caliph’s death. The Egyptian people, tired of war, acquiesced in the change of religion as well as the change of ruler.

Nur al-Din, on the other hand, might welcome the extermination of the Fatimid Caliphate, but he was alarmed by Saladin’s increasingly independent behavior. He rightly suspected that Saladin no longer viewed himself the Sultan’s servant, but rather as his equal and rival. To reassert his authority, Nur al-Din ordered Saladin to assist in a campaign against the Frankish castle of Kerak.

Saladin feared that if he showed up, he would be arrested or otherwise removed from his lucrative position in Cairo. So, he told Nur al-Din that there were rumors of Shia plots against him and if he left Cairo, it would fall back into the hands of the ‘heretics.’ While undoubtedly a convenient excuse, Saladin may not have been fabricating these rumors. A plot was uncovered hatched by pro-Fatimid elites, who hoped to drive Saladin and his Kurdish/Turkish troops out of Egypt with the help of the Sicilians and the Franks. The plot was foiled by a traitor in their ranks, and Saladin had the traitors arrested, killed and crucified. Despite this action against the known traitors, Saladin remained sufficiently insecure to dismiss all Jews and Coptic Christians from his bureaucracy.

Yet no matter how real the threats, Nur al-Din didn’t believe they were the reason Saladin consistently failed to obey orders. By early 1174, Nur al-Din’s patience had run out. He prepared an invasion of Egypt to bring Saladin to heel. Saladin, however, was saved yet again by a timely death. Nur al-Din fell mortally ill before he could embark on his campaign and died on 15 May 1174. He left behind a nine-year-old boy, al-Salih, as his heir.

The competition between the various Seljuk princes for control of Nur al-Din’s empire began at once. Saladin was only one of several contenders, and at this point in time he gave no indication of being more moral or more religious than any of the others. Indeed, from this point forward until shortly before his death, Saladin was predominantly preoccupied with fighting his Sunni Muslim rivals. Furthermore, throughout his career, Saladin relied heavily upon nepotism. He consistently appointed family members to positions that controlled fiscal and military resources, an indication of fundamental insecurity. Although he gained control of Damascus bloodlessly and rapidly in October 1174, al-Salih took refuge in Aleppo and remained a rallying point for dissatisfied subjects and emirs. It was 1183 before al-Salih died and Saladin could take Aleppo. Even then, he faced serious opposition from Mosul, which remained in the hands of the Zengid dynasty.

As seen from Jerusalem, however, Saladin was the greatest threat to the Kingdom since its inception. Hostility between Shia Egypt and Sunni Damascus represented a fracture in Dar al-Islam in the Middle East that the Franks had been able to exploit. To have the vast financial resources of Cairo controlled by the same hostile power that held near-by Damascus was inherently threatening. What made the situation even more dangerous was that Saladin continued Nur al-Din’s policy of publicly and ardently expounding jihad.

Whether Saladin pursued jihad from conviction or expediency is controversial. Was jihad only a means to distract his subjects from his usurpation of power and his Kurdish extraction? Christopher Tyreman argues that Saladin was ‘a conquering parvenue with no legitimacy,’ who ‘needed to demonstrate his religious credentials … through overt performance of Koranic models [including] dedication to the culture of jihad.’ He argues that ‘regardless of Saladin’s private beliefs’ his political situation required him to behave like a model Islamic leader.[iv] Other historians go even further, suggesting that the promotion of jihad by Saladin’s regime did not originate with him at all, but was rather the work of his sophisticated bureaucracy, manned by the graduates of Nur al-Din’s madrasas. Contemporary Muslim critics of Saladin such as al-Wahrani depict Saladin’s court in Egypt in 1177 as wanton and rife with drunkenness and homosexuality. Then again, accusations of sexual misconduct, intemperance and hedonism were standard, almost interchangeable charges routinely used to discredit Muslim and Christian rulers alike, particularly by their respective clerical opponents. Last but not least, many have pointed out that if Saladin had died in 1185, that is before the conquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, he would be remembered as nothing more than one of countless petty Middle Eastern despots, struggling to establish a dynastic empire by means of bribery, murder, and warfare.

We will never know Saladin’s motives, but without doubt he used the language of jihad to unite and motivate his subjects. Furthermore, in the last fifteen years of his life he sought to live in accordance with Sharia law. There is evidence that Saladin experienced a religious epiphany after an attempt on his life in 1176, and possibly a reaffirmation of his religious convictions in 1185. Like Nur al-Din before him, he built mosques, libraries and madrasas. He gave generously to pious causes and charities. He abolished unlawful taxes, even when this reduced his own revenues. He reformed his personal life to conform with Sunni orthodoxy — and he embraced jihad.

His secretary and biographer, Baha ad-Din, who knew Saladin intimately, claims: ‘Saladin was very diligent and zealous for jihad… [H]is love and passion for it, had taken a mighty hold on his heart and all his being…. In his love for the jihad on the path of God he shunned his womenfolk, his children, his homeland and all his pleasures….’[v]  Baha al-Din claims that Saladin told him directly: ‘…when God grants me victory over the rest of Palestine I shall divide my territories, make a will stating my wishes, then set sail for their far-off lands and pursue the Franks there, so as to free the earth of anyone who does not believe in God, or die in the attempt.’[vi]


[i] Tyre, Book XX, Chapter 31, 394.

[ii] Barber, Malcolm. The Crusader States. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012] 261.

[iii] Philipps, Jonathan. The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019] 71.

[iv] Tyreman, Christopher. The World of the Crusades: An Illustrated History. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019] 167.

[v] Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad. The Rare and Excellent History of Saladin translated by D.S. Richards. [Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002] 28.

[vi] Gabrielli, Francesco. Arab Historians of the Crusades. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957] 101.

 This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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  1. Looking forward to receiving my book. Amazon gave me a date of about 3 weeks from now. :-)


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