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Book Review


Hannes Mohring, Saladin: The Sultan and His Times, 1138–1193. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008. Pp. xxiii + 113. $20.00 (paper)


     Salah al-Din, or Saladin as he is known in the west, is shrouded in so much myth and legend (even from the earliest sources) that it is difficult to separate the real person from the legend. He has been romanticized as the "noble heathen," renowned for his chivalry and humane treatment of all participants in the wars he fought. Some sources claim that he was a secret Christian. He has also been demonized as a crafty manipulator. During the Enlightenment, he was seen as an exponent of the ideal of tolerance, and today is seen as the champion of freedom. Christian sources find Saladin as having remarkable qualities, but he was also the enemy and an infidel. Muslim sources describe Saladin as a man of great virtue. In reality, these descriptions are only partly true. Today, surprisingly few biographies of Saladin provide a balanced view.

     Paul Cobb writes the introduction to this work, which discusses the Muslim world and civilization in the twelfth century. It also provides the framework for understanding the cultural background of Saladin's life. This introduction is specifically useful as it provides the causes that shaped Muslim civilization during the twelfth century, and its geographical and cultural aspects. It ends with Arabic sources of Saladin's life and Saladin's legacy today. It is an excellent summary and a good mirror of the last chapter.

     The first chapter starts with the Muslim expansion and capture of Jerusalem. Next, it discusses the decline of the Abbasids and the ensuing rivalry between the Fatimids and Seljuks in the late tenth and eleventh century. In 1071, the Seljuks gained control of Jerusalem (which up until that point had been ruled by the Fatimids). The death of the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah in 1092 brought in its wake political instability to the region, and in turn prompted Emperor Alexios I to seek help from Pope Urban II. The request was the genesis of the Crusades. Events of the First Crusade are discussed in depth, and an overview of the establishment of the Crusader States is also given. How the term "Crusade" was first understood and how the interpretation of "Crusade" evolved is touched on, but not discussed in great detail. The chapter ends with an interesting discussion of the position of Muslims living under Crusader rule.

     "Crusade and Jihad" is the second chapter's title and it discusses the Crusades from the Muslim perspective, focusing on ideology and intent. The concept of "jihad" is also discussed, as well as how it was manipulated for political ends (something that continues to hold true today). Pursuit of political ambition hindered the Muslims from providing a unified front to recapture the Holy lands. Instead, they made alliances of convenience with the various Crusader States in their struggle against one another. The chapter also chronicles Nur al-Din's rise and his consolidation of political power.

     Saladin does not appear until the third chapter, where he is serving Nur al-Din as vizier. The chapter outlines Saladin wresting the office of vizier from his rivals, consolidating his power base, and ending Fatimid rule in Egypt. He captured Egypt in Nur al-Din's name. This chapter ends with the inevitability of conflict between Saladin and Nur al-Din. In this chapter readers learn about Saladin's early training and background – something generally overlooked.

     With Nur al-Din's death and subsequent fragmentation of his empire, the door was open for Saladin to seize control. Most Western readers are aware of Saladin's wars against the Crusaders. However, almost half his career was spent conquering or at least subduing Muslim principalities. This chapter chronicles Saladin consolidating his power and consequently unifying the Muslims. The chapter explores not only events that occurred, but it also outlines plans that never materialized (such as the Sicilian Normans' invasion of Egypt).

     Chapter five outlines the pinnacle moments in Saladin's life: preparing for war against the Crusader states, victory at Hattin, and the capture of Jerusalem. It also outlines the events that led to his attack on Tyre and Antioch, and the strain the campaigns placed on Saladin's empire. Fiscal and tort reforms are noted, but not delved into in detail.

     Chapter six delineates the European reaction to Hattin, which led to the famous confrontation between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart on the battlefield during the Third Crusade. The chapter starts with preparations in Europe among the Norman King William II of Sicily, King Henry II of England and Richard the Lionheart. In 1188, Philip II of France and Henry II of England both took the cross. The coming together of European rivals helped cobble a seemingly unifying Christian front, but both William and Henry died in 1189, delaying the Third Crusade. Suspicion between England and France did not help expedite the expedition either. The chapter also outlines Saladin's search for allies on the Muslim side of the conflict, and the web of intrigue that Saladin needed to navigate. It also describes the fall of Acre to the Christians, the eventual truce between Saladin and Richard, and Saladin's death.

     The final chapter deals with Saladin's legacy. The chapter starts with the European perspective of viewing Saladin as a noble heathen, a perfect knight, and in some instances as a secret Christian. During the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century, contemporary ideas helped shape Saladin's image as being consistent with Enlightenment ideals. Decades after the Enlightenment and influenced by fictional works like Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, the Romantics cast Saladin in their ideal image. This section explores both the flattering and less-flattering portraits of Saladin.

     After covering the Christian perspective, the last chapter also covers the Muslim view of Saladin. Here he is seen as a tolerant Sultan, and a generous ruler. In more recent times, he is seen as a champion for freedom, and has been claimed by the Kurds, the Arabs, and the Turks as one of their own. According to the book, Shia Muslims see him as the enemy because he destroyed the Fatimid Empire.

     A timeline of major events follows the last chapter, which starts with Saladin's birth (in 1138) and ends with his death (in 1193). This is then followed by a list of suggested readings and an index of names.

     No book on Saladin is perfect, and this one is no exception. Perhaps the most severe criticism is that there are no footnotes – although it should be noted that direct quotes are referenced. Hence, readers wishing to explore an area of interest in greater depth are likely to have a more difficult time searching through the appropriate references. The book does not discuss Saladin's conflict with the Ismailies in Persia and Syria, popularly referred to as Assassins. The split between the Fatimids in Egypt and the Nizari Ismailies in Persia and Syria occurred in 1094, almost half a century before Saladin's birth. Each evolved into a distinct and independent principality by the time Saladin appeared on the political stage. Richard the Lionheart's victory at Arsuf is attributed to longbows rather than crossbows. Longbows did not become a standard weapon in English armed forces until the fourteenth century. This oversight could possibly be attributed to the challenges of translation. There are three useful maps in the beginning, but they are not referenced in the text.

     Nevertheless, this short book of about one hundred pages is easy to read and comprehend. It is well suited for the general audience, and can be used as part of an introductory class at either the high-school or college-level. Its strength lies in that it not only covers events on the battlefield, but it also covers diplomatic efforts as part of its narrative on Saladin's life.

Muhammed Hassanali is an independent scholar of Muslim cultures and civilizations.  He can be reached at



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