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.

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