The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin by Jonathan Phillips - review by Robert Irwin

Robert Irwin

A Jihadist & a Gentleman

The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin


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The story of Saladin has been told many times. One of the most influential portraits of the 12th-century Ayyubid sultan appeared in a work of fiction, Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman (1825). In that novel the status of hero was shared between Saladin and a fictional Scottish knight named Sir Kenneth. Saladin appeared as not only a fearless warrior, but also a noble soul who, disguised as a Moorish physician, entered the Crusader camp to treat and cure Richard the Lionheart’s fever. In Stanley Lane-Poole’s history Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1898), Scott was praised for being able to ‘depict the true character of Saladin with remarkable accuracy’. Lane-Poole thought that the Muslims did not really deserve Saladin and that ‘the character of the great Sultan … appeals more strongly to Europeans than to Moslems, who admire his chivalry less than his warlike triumphs’. In the 1950s and 1960s, the great orientalist Hamilton Gibb produced a series of influential essays on Saladin as a war leader and moral exemplar. In his view Saladin’s use of jihad was part of a broader moral rearmament strategy aimed at unifying Egypt and Syria. As in Scott’s work, Saladin (who was actually a Kurd) featured as a kind of honorary Scotsman. Gibb adored Scott’s novel and used to recommend it to his students as an excellent guide to the Middle East.

In 1972 the American Arabist Andrew Ehrenkreutz published Saladin, a bold but ultimately unconvincing hatchet job in which the sultan was presented as a warlord who, until his fluke victory against the army of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin and his subsequent capture of Jerusalem in 1187, had spent all his time warring with his Muslim neighbours in order to consolidate an Ayyubid empire. The more substantial and scholarly Saladin: The Politics of the Holy War by Malcolm Lyons and D E P Jackson redressed the balance and concentrated on 1187 and the years of struggle against the armies of the Third Crusade that followed. Anne-Marie Eddé’s even bulkier Saladin (which was published in 2008, with an English translation appearing in 2011) is in effect an encyclopedia of Saladin and his times.

Saladin took steps to control his reputation by recruiting writers to his administration who would celebrate his achievements in propagandistic documents and chronicles. One of this literary retinue, Baha al-Din Ibn Shaddad, wrote a life of Saladin in mostly plain prose. But Saladin’s head of chancellery, al-Qadi al-Fadil, and his counsellor Imad al-Din al-Isfahani were both masters of flatulently ornate and bombastic prose that tended to obscure more than it revealed. Thus Imad al-Din wrote of the Muslim forces assembled before Hattin: ‘The earth adorned itself in new clothes, heaven opened so that the angels could descend from its gates, the ship-like tents rode at anchor in this expanse and the battalions flooded in wave upon wave.’ And so on and so on.

Although one might wonder whether there could possibly be anything more to say about Saladin, there turns out to be quite a lot. In The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin, Jonathan Phillips explores new themes and makes use of various underused or wholly neglected Arabic sources, mostly written by people who were not employed by Saladin. These include Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi physician, Ibn Abi Tayy, a Shia fan of the sultan, al-Maqrizi, a 15th-century chronicler, and Ibn Unayn and al-Wahrani, who were both satirical poets. In the medieval Arab world poetry was not the preserve of long-haired aesthetes. It was the language of politics. As Phillips notes, it ‘was a basic means of communication that could be an ideological or political vehicle for holy war, or it might be a way of denigrating, in artfully obscene and savage terms, a rival or an opponent’. Moreover, poems often bolstered the credentials of ambassadors and job seekers.

Phillips also pays an unprecedented amount of attention to medical issues. Here he draws heavily on a biographical dictionary of medical men compiled in the 13th century by Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah. From this source we learn about Saladin’s chief physician, Radi al-Din, who died aged ninety-seven and who attributed his long life to taking a bath once a week and never climbing ladders. More importantly, Phillips shows how in Saladin’s later years his daily routine and strategic decisions were sometimes determined by his poor health. As well as recurrent bouts of colic, he suffered from sheer physical fatigue brought on by relentless campaigning and travelling back and forth between Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The strain of keeping together an army recruited from these regions was enormous, and many of Saladin’s troubles came from his Ayyubid kinsmen, several of whom were more interested in creating their own principalities than in confronting the Crusader menace. Again and again Saladin had to choose what can only be described as the least worst option from a series of bad ones. It is no surprise that in his last years, he became increasingly lachrymose.

The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin also benefits from the author’s familiarity with the terrain in which much of the campaigning took place, as well as the urban landscapes of Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Acre. The topographical and archaeological detail provides a vivid and convincing background to his account of such episodes as the Siege of Jacob’s Ford and the Battle of Hattin. The portrait of Saladin is not an idealised one. Unlike Richard, he did not lead from the front in battle. On the other hand, like Richard, he was capable of ordering the execution of captives who had surrendered. His eventual defeat of the Third Crusade fatally weakened him and came close to bankrupting his realm.

The chapters devoted to Saladin’s afterlife, as documented by Muslim writers in the centuries that followed his death, is yet another original feature of the book. Phillips rejects and disproves the view put forward by Bernard Lewis and others that Saladin was largely forgotten in the Muslim world until modern times, when, influenced by Western accounts of his achievements, Muslim writers once more elevated him to heroic status. But some early hacks relied more on The Talisman than on medieval chronicles. Moreover, it is disappointing to find how often Saladin’s victories against the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade have been used by contemporary Arab writers to make a point about present-day politics, as if Saladin’s achievements are going to be magically replicated by a united Arab world that will succeed in destroying Israel, just as the Kingdom of Jerusalem was destroyed. It is also dispiriting to read of those tarnished Arab dictators who have posed as avatars of Saladin, including Nasser, Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. But in the last sentence of the main text Phillips observes that Saladin ‘has evolved to the point where there is no need for him always to be affixed to an individual or an ideology; in this instance he is acting for people looking to a leader they could admire without fear’.

Finally, a look at the book’s copious endnotes is instructive. These include references to a number of books and articles published in 2018. Contemplating the endnotes, I marvel that one scholar can have read so much. Then again, I marvel that so much has been written about Saladin and the Crusades for one scholar to read.

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