Al-Nasir Salahuddin Yusuf ibn Ayyub is better known simply as Salah ad-Din or Saladin. He was a Sunni Muslim Kurd and the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. Saladin led the Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. At the height of his power, his sultanate spanned Egypt, Syria, the Jazira (Upper Mesopotamia), the Hejaz (western Arabia), Yemen, parts of western North Africa, and Nubia.
Salahuddin Ayyubi, popularly known in the West as Saladin, was a courageous and brilliant Muslim leader during the 12th century. His firm foundation in the religion and its prime values, leading to his commitment to the Islamic cause, enabled him to accomplish great things.
His Ayyubid Empire united Egypt and Syria. Above all, he played an instrumental role in turning the tide against the Crusaders by successfully reclaiming Jerusalem. Along with that earned a name for himself in the annals of both Muslim and Western history.
Saladin was born in 1137 AD in Tikrit, Iraq. He studied the Quran and theology along with astronomy, mathematics, and law. He joined the military as a young man and was ably trained by his uncle Asad-al-Din Shirkoh, a commander of the Zengid Dynasty. Saladin’s impressive performance in his early battles enabled him to take on leading responsibilities during military campaigns.
Salahuddin was the man of the hour. He fought off repeated attacks by the Crusaders on Egypt, put down revolts within the army and gave Egypt respite from incessant civil war. Despite three centuries of Fatimid rule, the Egyptian population had remained Sunni, following the Sunnah schools of Fiqh. In 1171, Salahuddin abolished the Fatimid Caliphate. The name of the Abbasid Caliph was inserted in the khutba. So peaceful was this momentous revolution that the Fatimid Caliph Mustadi did not even know of this change and quietly died a few weeks later.
The Fatimids, once so powerful that they controlled more than half of the Islamic world including Mecca, Madina and Jerusalem, passed into history. The Sunni vision of history, championed by the Turks, triumphed. With the disappearance of the Fatimid schism, a united orthodox Islam threw down the gauntlet to the invading Crusaders.
Victory over Jerusalem
Now it was time for Saladin to set his sights on Jerusalem. But first he secured the region around the ancient city to strengthen his chances of victory. He secured some of the surrounding region and coastline before arriving at Jerusalem on Sept. 20, 1187. His troops gathered near Jaffa Gate on the western side of the city.
“Jerusalem was commanded by Balian of Ibelin, head of an eminent Crusader family, who had been allowed briefly into the city to save his wife— a remarkable example of Saladin’s chivalry. Having discovered Jerusalem to be leaderless, he had stayed, sending Saladin an apology for breaking their agreement,” wrote Man. Few remained in Jerusalem, but they swore to fight to the death.
The Crusade itself was long and exhausting, despite the obvious, though at times impulsive, military genius of Richard I (the Lion-Heart). Therein lies the greatest—but often unrecognized—achievement of Saladin. With tired and unwilling feudal levies, committed to fighting only a limited season each year, his indomitable will enabled him to fight the greatest champions of Christendom to a draw. The Crusaders retained little more than a precarious foothold on the Levantine coast, and when King Richard left the Middle East, in October 1192, the battle was over. Saladin withdrew to his capital Damascus.
Soon the long campaigning seasons and the endless hours in the saddle caught up with him, and he died. While his relatives were already scrambling for pieces of the empire, his friends found that the most powerful and most generous ruler in the Muslim world had not left enough money to pay for his grave. Saladin’s family continued to rule over Egypt and neighbouring lands as the Ayyūbid dynasty, which succumbed to the Mamlūk dynasty in 1250.