March 5, 2009

Saladin, the Kurdish leader who crowned the political achievements of his mentor Nur al-Din by uniting the late 12th-century Muslim Middle East under his rule and recapturing Jerusalem and the Holy Land from their Christian rulers, remains one of the most admired but enigmatic historical figures.

Many medieval Christians were unwilling to believe that such a successful opponent could really have been Muslim, and within a few decades of his great victory at Hattin in 1187, legends circulated that he had been knighted, or had undergone a deathbed conversion to Christianity, or even that he had European ancestry.

Abdul Rahman Azzam begins his book with an attempt to separate the man from the myth, a survey that demonstrates one of the problematic facets of our picture of him. In the modern Muslim world, Saladin's reputation at a popular level has been used as a propagandistic prop for regimes in Egypt, Syria and even - ironically in view of his Kurdish origins - Iraq. Almost all the running in the serious historical study of Saladin has been made by British, American, German and Israeli scholars.

Azzam's study offers a biographical narrative of Saladin's career in 15 relatively short chapters, with a stress on his Muslim background. He sees the key to Saladin's religious policies as a revival of Sunni orthodoxy, and identifies as his greatest achievement not the recapture of Jerusalem, but the restoration of Sunni Islam in Egypt after his conquest of the country's Shia Fatimid regime in 1169. There is a lot to be said for this approach. Egypt was the richest part of the Muslim world, and the control of its resources financed Saladin's campaigns against both Muslim and Christian opponents for the rest of his life.

The strength of Azzam's study lies in illuminating Saladin's many connections with Sunni theologians, jurists and teachers, and their mutually reinforcing activities, such as his foundation of numerous madrassas that embedded Sunni orthodoxy among the Egyptian population, but also turned out trained administrators for his growing empire. Yet one looks in vain for a comparable discussion of how he went about making Jerusalem an Islamic city once again, and several questions are not answered. Given that Shias were never more than a minority in Egypt, why was there so much popular opposition to Saladin there in 1169? Why did he establish so few madrassas in Upper Egypt?

Azzam does not regard Saladin as a brilliant commander, and it is a pity to hear so little about the make-up and finance of his military forces, or the strategy and tactics that brought him victory against the Fatimids and the Franks of Jerusalem. The discussion of the Christian side, unfortunately, does not make use of the full range of the latest research, nor is it helped by the author's decision to use the terms "crusaders" and "Franks" interchangeably, thus blurring the important distinction between Western European Crusaders and their co-religionists settled in Palestine and Syria; certainly few specialists in the Crusades would agree with Azzam's claim that most of the latter spoke Arabic.

In fact, apart from the discussion of the restoration of Egypt to the Sunni fold, the book depends on established secondary accounts by Lyons and Jackson, Ehrenkreutz, Lev and Gibb. It is these authorities that will give academic and general readers the best expositions of the career of this remarkable man.


By Abdul Rahman Azzam. Pearson Longman Press 288pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781405807364. Published 10 December 2008

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