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Salāh al-Dīn Ayyūbī
Jamil Ahmad

Sultan Salāh al-Dīn Ayyūbī, the hero of hundreds of battles, was the person who for twenty years braved the storm of the Crusaders and ultimately pushed back the combined forces of Europe which had come to swarm the Holy Land. The world has hardly witnessed a more chivalrous and humane conqueror.

The Crusades represent the maddest and the longest war in the history of mankind, in which the storm of savage fanaticism of the Christian West burst in all its fury over western Asia. `The Crusades form', says a Western writer, `one of the maddest episodes in history. Christianity hurled itself against Muhammadanism in expedition after expedition for nearly three centuries, until failure brought lassitude, and superstition itself was undermined by its own labour. Europe was drained off men and money, and threatened with social bankruptcy, if not with annihilation. Millions perished in battle, hunger or disease and every atrocity imagination can conceive disgraced the warrior of the Cross'. The Christian West was excited to a mad religious frenzy by Peter the Hermit, and his followers to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. `Every means', says Hallam, `was used to excite an epidemical frenzy'. During the time that a Crusader bore the Cross, he was under the protection of the Church and exempted from all taxes as well as free to commit all sins.

Peter the Hermit himself led the second host of the Crusaders comprising forty thousand people. `Arriving at Mallevile, they avenged their precursors by assaulting the town, slaying seven thousand of the inhabitants, and abandoning themselves to every species of grossness and liberalism'. The savage hordes called Crusaders converted Hungary and Bulgaria into desolate regions. When they reached Asia Minor, they, according to Michaud, `committed crimes which made nature shudder'.

The third wave of the Crusaders commanded by a German monk, according to Gibbon, `were comprised of the most stupid and savage refuse of people. They mingled with their devotion a brutal licence of rapine, prostitution and drunkenness'. `They forgot Constantinople and Jerusalem', says Michaud `in tumultuous scenes of debauchery, and pillage, violation and murder was everywhere left on the traces of their passage'.

The fourth horde of the Crusaders which had risen from western Europe was, according to Mill, `another herd of wild and desperate savages... The internal multitude hurried on the south in their usual career of carnage and rapine'. But, at last, they were annihilated by the infuriated Hungarian Army which had a foretaste of the madness of the earlier Crusaders.

Later the Crusaders met with initial success and conquered a major part of Syria and Palestine, including the Holy city of Jerusalem. But their victories were followed by such brutalities and massacres of innocent Muslims which eclipsed the massacres of Changiz and Hulaku. Mill, a Christian historian, testifies to this massacre of the Muslim population on the fall of the Muslim town of Autioch. He writes: `The dignity of age, the helplessness of youth and the beauty of the weaker sex were disregarded by the Latin savages. Houses were no sanctuaries, and the sign of a mosque added new virulence to cruelty'. According to Michaud: `if contemporary account can be credited, all the vices of the infamous Babylon prevailed among the liberators of Scion'. The Crusaders laid waste to flourishing towns of Syria, butchered their population in cold blood and burnt to ashes the invaluable treasures of art and learning including the world famous library of Tripolis (Syria) containing more than three million volumes. `The streets ran with blood until ferocity was tired out', says Mill. `Those who were vigorous or beautiful were reserved for the slave market at Antioch, but the aged and the infirm were immolated at the altar of cruelty'.

But in the second half of the 12th century, when the Crusaders were in their greatest fury and the emperors of Germany and France and Richard, the lion-hearted king of England, had taken the field in person for the conquest of the Holy Land, the Crusaders were met by Sultan Salāh al-Dīn Ayyūbī, a great warrior who pushed back the surging wave of Christianity out to engulf the Holy Land. He was not able to clear the gathering storm but in him the Crusaders met a man of indomitable will and dauntless courage who could accept the challenge of the Christian West.

Salāh al-Dīn was born in 1137. He got his early training under his illustrious father Najmuddin Ayub and his chivalrous uncle Asaduddin Sherkoh, who were the trusted lieutenants of Nooruddin Mahmud, the monarch of Syria. Asaduddin Sherkoh, a great warrior general was the commander of the Syrian force, which had defeated the Crusaders both in Syria and Egypt. Sherkoh entered Egypt in 1167 to meet the challenge of the Fatamide Minister Shawer who had allied himself with the French. The marches and counter-marches of the gallant Sherkoh and his ultimate victory at Babain over the allied force, according to Michaud, `show military capacity of the highest order'. Ibni Atheer writes about it: `Never has history recorded a more extraordinary event than the rout of the Egyptian force and the French at the littoral by only a thousand cavaliers'.

On January 8, 1169 Sherkoh arrived in Cairo and was appointed as the Minister and Commander-in-Chief by the Fatimid Caliph. But Sherokh was not destined to enjoy the fruits of his high office long. He died two months later in 1169. On his death, his nephew Salāh al-Dīn Ayyūbī became the Prime Minister of Egypt. He soon won the hearts of the people by his liberality and justice and on the death of the Egyptian Caliph became the virtual ruler of Egypt.

In Syria too, the celebrated Nooruddin Mahmud died in 1174 and was succeeded by his eleven year old son, Malik-us-Saleh who became a tool in the hands of his courtiers, specially Gumushtagin. Salāh al-Dīn sent a message to Malik-us-Saleh offering his services and devotion. He even continued to keep his name in the `Khutaba' (Friday Sermons) and coinage. But all these considerations were of no avail for the young ruler and his ambitious courtiers. This state of affairs once more heartened the Crusaders who were kept down by the advice of Gumushtagin retired to Alippo, leaving Damascus exposed to a Frankish attack. The Crusaders instantly laid siege to the Capital city and released it only after being paid heavy ransom. This enraged Salāh al-Dīn who hurried to Damascus with a small force and took possession of it.

After occupying Damascus, he did not enter the palace of his patron, Nooruddin Mahmud, but stayed in his father's house. The Muslims, on the other hand, were much dismayed by the activities of Malik-us-Saleh and invited him to rule over the area. But Salāh al-Dīn continued to rule on behalf of the young Malik-us-Saleh. On the death of Malik-us-Saleh in 1181-82, the authority of Salāh al-Dīn was acknowledged by all the sovereigns of western Asia.

There was a truce between the Sultan and the Franks in Palestine but, according to the French historian Michaud, `the Mussalmans respected their pledged faith, whilst the Christians gave the signal of a new war'. Contrary to the terms of the truce, the Christian ruler Renaud or Reginald of Chatillon attacked a Muslim caravan passing by his castle, massacred a large number of people and looted their property. The Sultan was now free to act. By a skilful manoeuvre, Salāh al-Dīn entrapped the powerful enemy forces near the hill of Hittin in 1187 and routed them with heavy loses. The Sultan did allow the Christians to recover and rapidly followed up his victory of Hittin. In a remarkably short time, he reoccupied a large number of cities which were in possession of the Christians including Nablus, Jericko, Ramlah, Caesarea, Arsuf, Jaffa and Beirut. Ascalon, too, submitted after a short siege and was granted generous terms by the kind-hearted Sultan.

The Sultan now turned his attention to Jerusalem which contained more than sixty thousand Crusaders. The Christians, could not withstand the onslaught of the Sultan's forces and capitulated in 1187. The humanity of the Sultan towards the defeated Christians of Jerusalem procures an unpleasant contrast to the massacre of the Muslims in Jerusalem when conquered by the Christians about ninety years before.

According to the French historian Michaud, on the conquest of Jerusalem by the Christians in 1099 `the Saracens were massacred in the streets and in the houses. Jerusalem had no refuge for the vanquished. Some fled from death by precipitating themselves from the ramparts; others crowded for shelter into the palaces, the towers and above all, in the mosques where they could not conceal themselves from the Christians. The Crusaders, masters of the Mosque of Umar, where the Saracens defended themselves for sometime, renewed their deplorable scenes which disgraced the conquest of Titus. The infantry and the cavalry rushed pell-mell among the fugitives. Amid the most horrid tumult, nothing was heard but the groans and cries of death; the victors trod over heaps of corpses in pursuing those who vainly attempted to escape. Raymond d'Agiles who was an eye-witness, says :that under the portico of the mosque, the blood was knee-deep, and reached the horses' bridles.'

There was a short lull in the act of slaughter when the Crusaders assembled to offer their thanksgiving prayer for the victory they had achieved. But soon it was renewed with great ferocity. `All the captives', says Michaud, `whom the lassitude of carnage had at first spared, all those who had been saved in the hope of rich ransom, were butchered in cold blood. The Saracens were forced to throw themselves from the tops of towers and houses; they were burnt alive; they were dragged from their subterranean retreats, they were hauled to the public places, and immolated on piles of the dead. Neither the tears of women nor the cries of little children--- not even the sight of the place where Jesus Christ forgave his executioners, could mollify the victors' passion... The carnage lasted for a week. The few who escaped were reduced to horrible servitude'.

Another Christian historian, Mill adds: `It was resolved that no pity should be shown to the Mussalmans. The subjugated people were, therefore, dragged into the public places, and slain as victims. Women with children at their breast, girls and boys, all were slaughtered. The squares, the streets and even the un-inhabited places of Jerusalem, were strewn with the dead bodies of men and women, and the mangled limbs of children. No heart melted in compassion, or expanded into benevolence'.

These are the graphic accounts of the massacre of the Muslims in Jerusalem about ninety years before the reoccupation of the Holy city by Sultan Salāh al-Dīn in which more than seventy thousand Muslims perished.

On the other hand, when the Sultan captured Jerusalem in 1187, he gave free pardon to the Christians living in the city. Only the combatants were asked to leave the city on payment of a nominal ransom. In most of the cases, the Sultan provided the ransom money from his own pocket and even provided them transport. A number of weeping Christian women carrying their children in their arms approached the Sultan and said `You see us on foot, the wives, mothers and dauthers of the warriors who are your prisoners; we are quitting forever this country; they aided us in our lives, in losing them we lose our last hope; if you give them to us, they can alleviate our miseries and we shall not be without support on earth'. The Sultan was highly moved with their appeal and set free their men. Those who left the city were allowed to carry all their bag and baggage. The humane and benevolent behaviour of the Sultan with the defeated Christians of Jerusalem provides a striking contrast to the butchery of the Muslims in this city at the hands of the Crusaders ninety years before. The commanders under the Sultan vied with each other in showing mercy to the defeated Crusaders.

The Christian refugees of Jerusalem were not given refuge by the cities ruled by the Christians. `Many of the Christians who left Jerusalem', says Mill, `went to Antioch but Bohemond not only denied them hospitality, but even stripped them. They marched into the Saracenian country, and were well received'. Michaud gives a long account of the Christian inhumanity to the Christian refugees of Jerusalem. Tripoli shut its gates on them and, according to Michaud, `one woman, urged by despair, cast her infant into the sea, cursing the Christians who refused them succour'. But the Sultan was very considerate towards the defeated Christians. Respecting their feelings, he did not enter the city of Jerusalem until the Crusaders had left.

From Jerusalem, the Sultan marched upon Tyre, where the ungrateful Crusaders pardoned by Sultan in Jerusalem had organized to meet him. The Sultan captured a number of towns held by the Crusaders on the sea coast, including Laodicea, Jabala, Saihun, Becas, Bozair and Derbersak. The Sultan had set free Guy de Luginan on the promise that he would instantly leave for Europe. But, as soon as this ungrateful Christian Knight got freedom, he broke his pledged word and collecting a large army, laid siege to Ptolemais.

The fall of Jerusalem into the hands of the Muslims threw Christendom into violent commotion and reinforcements began to pour in from all parts of Europe. The Emperors of Germany and France as well as Richard, the Lion-hearted, king of England, hurried with large armies to seize the Holy Land from the Muslims. They laid siege to Acre which lasted for several months. In several open combats against the Sultan,, the Crusaders were routed with terrible losses.

The Sultan had now to face the combined might of Europe. Incessant reinforcements continued pouring in for the Crusaders and despite their heavy slaughter in combats against the Sultan, their number continued increasing. The besieged Muslims of Acre, who held on so long against the flower of the European army and who had been crippled with famine at last capitulated on the solemn promise that none would be killed and that they would pay 2,00,000 pieces of gold to the chiefs of the Crusaders. There was some delay in the payment of the ransom when the Lion-hearted king of England butchered the helpless Muslims in cold blood within the sight of their brethren.

This act of the king of England infuriated the Sultan. He vowed to avenge the blood of the innocent Muslims. Along the 150 miles of coastlines, in eleven Homeric battles, the Sultan inflicted heavy losses on the Christian forces.

At the last the Lion-hearted king of England sued for peace, which was accepted by the Sultan. He had found facing him a man of indomitable will and boundless energy and had realized the futility of continuing the struggle against such a person. In September 1192, peace was concluded and the Crusaders left the Holy Land with bag and baggage, bound for their homes in Europe.

`Thus ended the third Crusade', writes Michaud, `in which the combined forces of the west could not gain more than the capture of Acre and the destruction of Ascaion. In it, Germany lost one of its greatest emperors and the flower of its army. More than six lakh Crusaders landed in front of Acre and hardly one lakh returned to their homes. Europe has more reasons to wail on the outcome of this Crusade as in it had participated the best armies of Europe. The flower of Western chivalry which Europe was proud of had fought in these wars'.

The Sultan devoted the rest of his life to public welfare activities and built hospitals, schools, colleges and mosques all over his dominion.

But he was not destined to live long to enjoy the fruits of peace. A few months later, he died on March 4, 1193 at Damascus. `The day of his death' says a Muslim writer, `was for Islam and the Mussalmans, a misfortune such as they never suffered since they were deprived of the first four Caliphs. The palace, the empire, and the world was overwhelmed with grief, the whole city was plunged in sorrow, and followed his bier weeping and crying'.

Thus died Sultan Salāh al-Dīn, one of the most humane and chivalrous monarchs in the annals of mankind. In him, nature had very harmoniously blended the benevolent and merciful heart of a Muslim with a matchless military genius. The messenger who took the news of his death to Baghdad brought the Sultan's coat of mail, his horse one dinar and 36 dirhams which was all the property he had left. His contemporaries and other historians are unanimous in acknowledging Salāh al-Dīn as a tender-hearted, kind, patient, affable person--- a friend of the learned and the virtuous whom he treated with utmost respect and beneficence. `In Europe', says Phillip K. Hitti, `he touched the fancy of the English minstrels as well as the modern novelists and is still considered the paragon of chivalry'.

(Extracted from "The Hundred Great Muslims"

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