Saladin is a true legend. History records that foes expressed admiration for his sense of justice, noted the warrior's chivalry, and appreciated the ruler's generosity. His friends venerated him for these and many other qualities and, more than 800 years after his death, the Kurdish soldier remained one of the most admired heroes in the Arab world.
Born in Tikrit in 1137 or 1138, the Kurdish leader's status was routinely absconded by Saddam Hussain, an Iraqi successor — ironically born in the same city — who immodestly imposed himself in a 1985 children's book titled The Hero Saladin, as "Saladin II Saddam Hussein".
Though the moniker was insolent, the Iraqi dictator was only the latest among a slew of Muslim leaders who wished to associate their aura with Saladin's successes. Mohammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and Hafiz Al Assad of Syria were two such officials who made the comparisons in state-sponsored hagiographies.
Many poets composed countless verses to praise the warrior's political and military skills, while legitimate anti-Crusader perspectives spilled over into Arab anti-imperialist rhetoric for well over 100 years. In short, Saladin retained what was quite rare, the mantle of authenticity and courage.
Anne-Marie Eddé's Saladin is the epitome of courage, more "myth" than "legend", as the medieval world comes into full motion under her meticulous pen [originally published in French, this translation of the 2008 biography by Jane Marie Todd is quite fluid and non-academic, which ought to encourage many readers to tackle the long hardback book (that, surprisingly, is also affordable).
For Eddé, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and a former professor of Medieval History at the University of Reims in France, the Tikriti comes to life as he dispatches sons and nephews to what are now Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. He fights multi-ethnic and multi-religious Crusaders who hail from France, England, Scandinavia and Germany to conquer the Holy Land and, in the process, helps build and strengthen a dynasty that exercises true power for decades. Not surprisingly, what we have is a true Saladin, albeit from the Arab perspective.
Eddé, whose Lebanese roots are visible throughout the text, provides a detailed description of Saladin's 1187 capture of Jerusalem from European Crusaders, though she does not limit herself to the warrior's military exploits.
Instead, she draws a portrait of a complex Arabian political environment which allowed Saladin to rise to prominence, an enlightened sovereign who knew how to reunify the Muslim world, even when few who sought to emulate him seldom practised his methods.
To her credit, Eddé is careful in her reportage, as she goes through tendentious, often hagiographic medieval sources, to assemble as objective a portrait of Saladin as possible given centuries of hostile criticisms that pullulated academic sources.
She presents him as a believer who defended his nation against what many perceived as cruel outsiders who absconded piety and sought to portray invading Europeans as nothing more than the epitomes of morality. In short, she imagines a clash of civilisations long before second-rate political scientists added fuel to the fire in the 20th century, claiming that Islam was engaged in a similar confrontation with Christianity.
How did a "relentless jihad fighter" of the 12th-century Middle East ultimately come to be identified as a "valiant, generous, and magnanimous" figure is nothing short of a miracle.
Even if the worthy opponent of Richard the Lionheart did not gain his present reputation until the rise of Arab nationalism in the 19th century, Eddé emphasises the point that the historical Saladin was a brilliant man who knew how to act and when.
Unlike vicious portraits that depicted him as a bloodthirsty warrior who sacrificed hundreds of thousands, Saladin was, in fact, a careful negotiator who almost always hedged his bets, preferring compromise to conflict, and "encirclement to frontal assault".
Indeed, were he not so endowed, how could he have united Shiite Fatimids in Cairo and Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad? Moreover, his decision to marry the widow of his predecessor, Noor Al Deen, was also political to persuade the caliph in his quest to unite the Islamic world against attacking Franks.
Eddé answers many questions, concluding that the legendary Saladin was bigger than life, which explains his relevance in our time, someone who stands as worthy of emulation.
She wisely wonders, nevertheless, whether his successors can match his charisma, perhaps best illustrated by how well he overcame his Sunni Kurdish pedigree in a largely Arab environment. That, she posits, must be a unique phenomenon, one that could have been accomplished because of wisdom, sense of mercy and thoughtful behaviour — all worthy attributes for descendants who aspire greatness.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is the author of the forthcoming Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia (Routledge, 2012).
SaladinBy Anne-Marie Eddé, translated by Jane Marie Todd,Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 704 pages, $35