Uzma Rizvi recounts the achievements that made Salahuddin Ayyubi one of history’s most renowned Sultans
The name of Salahuddin Ayyubi, also known as Saladin in the West, stirs up memories of Muslim valour, decency, and zeal to serve Allah (swt).
Salahuddin Yusuf Ibn Ayyub, was born in 1137/38 C.E. in Tikrit, Iraq, in a Kurdish family. Upon his birth, his father, Najm-ad-Din Ayyub, moved the family to Balabak, Lebanon. Here he took employment with Imad-ad-Din Zangi, the Turkish governor of northern Syria.
Salahuddin’s interest in learning the art of warfare began, when he joined his uncle, Asad-ad-Din Shirkuh, in military expeditions into Egypt to protect it against the Latin-Christians (Franks). Shirkuh was a military commander of Nureddin, who was also the son and successor of Zangi. After his death, Salahuddin became the commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier of the Fatimid Caliphate.
In 1171, he abolished the unpopular Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. For some time, Salahuddin represented Nureddin in Egypt, but upon the latter’s death in 1174, he declared himself Sultan. He ruled with a firm but just hand, brought an end to the corruption in the government ranks, and made many strides in developing the economy and public welfare.
The Spanish Muslim traveller Ibn Jubayr, in his travelogue describes a hospital that Salahuddin established in Cairo. It housed hundreds of beds for patients and a separate ward for female patients. There was a section of the hospital, with high walls, which was reserved for mental patients. The Sultan himself took keen interest in the management of the hospital and visited it often. He also built a big hospital in Alexandria, established colleges and mosques, and encouraged scholars to write on Islamic topics.
Salahuddin was a true believer in pursuing Jihad against the crusaders. Employing diplomatic tactics and a disciplined army, he first united the Muslim lands of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt, where there had been infighting and useless rivalry among Muslims.
Having thus strengthened his forces, Salahuddin commenced Jihad against the crusaders. On July 4, 1187, he fought them at Hittin, near Tiberias in northern Palestine. The crusaders suffered huge failures and losses; and the Muslims gained almost the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem. Within three months, areas including Acre, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Nabulus, Jaffa, and Ascalon (Ashqelon) were also conquered. But the high point of his military endeavours was achieved on October 2, 1187, when Jerusalem surrendered to Salahuddin’s army after 88 years of the Franks’ rule.
The Christian conquerors ruthlessly massacred the inhabitants of Jerusalem upon entering the city. Salahuddin’s and his army’s compassion and courtesy towards the city’s population on this occasion is recognized and applauded by Muslims and Non-Muslims up to this day.
After their defeat, the Christians gathered again to launch the Third Crusade (1189-1192), in which Salahuddin’s forces met those of King Richard I of England. In 1192, an agreement was made that allowed the crusaders to form their kingdom only along the Palestinian-Syrian coast, leaving Jerusalem under Muslim control. Salahuddin then returned to his capital, Damascus.
On March 4, 1193, Salahuddin died in Damascus after a short illness. Ibn Shaddad, one of his close companions relates: “In faith and practice, the Sultan was a devout Muslim, ever conforming to the tenets of Islam … he also performed the voluntary prayers during the night.” At the time of his death, he possessed only one dinar and 47 dirhams, not enough to cover even his burial expenses.
The Ayyubid dynasty founded by Sultan Salahuddin Ayyubi continued to rule over Egypt and adjoining lands until the Mamluks took power in 1250 C.E.