Salahuddin was born into a prominent Kurdish family. On the night of his birth, his father, Najm ad-Din Ayyub, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo, there entering the service of 'Imad ad-Din Zangi ibn Aq Sonqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Ba'lbek and Damascus, Salahuddin was apparently an undistinguished youth, with a great taste for religious studies over military training.
His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, an important military commander under the emir, Nureddin, who was the son and successor of Zangi. During three military expeditions led by Shirkuh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin-Christian (Frankish) rulers of the states established by the First Crusade, a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the Latin king of Jerusalem; Shawar, the powerful vizier of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph; and Shirkuh. After Shirkuh's death and after ordering Shawar's assassination, Salahuddin in 1169 at the age of 31, was appointed both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and vizier of the Fatimid Caliphate there. His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed to his own emerging talents. As vizier of Egypt, he received the title king (Malik), although he was generally known as the sultan.
Salahuddin's position was further enhanced when, in 1171, he abolished the weak and unpopular Shiite Fatimid Caliphate, proclaimed a return to Sunni Islam in Egypt, and became that country's sole ruler. Although he remained for a time, theoretically, a vassal of Nureddin, that relationship ended with the Syrian emir's death in 1174. Using his rich agricultural possessions in Egypt as a financial base, Salahuddin soon moved into Syria with a small but strictly disciplined army to claim the regency on behalf of the young son of his former suzerain.
Soon, however, he abandoned this claim, and from 1174 until 1186 he zealously pursued a goal of uniting, under his own standard, all the Muslim territories of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. This he accomplished by skillful diplomacy backed, when necessary, by the swift and resolute use of military force. Gradually, his reputation grew as a generous and virtuous but firm ruler, devoid of pretense, licentiousness, and cruelty. In contrast to the bitter dissension and intense rivalry that had up to then hampered the Muslims in their resistance to the crusaders, Salahuddin's singleness of purpose induced them to rearm both physically and spiritually.
Salahuddin's every act was inspired by an intense and unwavering devotion to the idea of jihad against the Christian crusaders. It was an essential part of his policy to encourage the growth and spread of Muslim religious institutions. He courted its scholars and preachers, founded colleges and mosques for their use, and commissioned them to write edifying works, especially on the jihad itself. Through moral regeneration, which was a genuine part of his own way of life, he tried to re-create in his own realm some of the same zeal and enthusiasm that had proved so valuable to the first generations of Muslims when, five centuries before, they had conquered half the known world.
Salahuddin also succeeded in turning the military balance of power in his favor - more by uniting and disciplining a great number of unruly forces than by employing new or improved military techniques. When at last, in 1187, he was able to throw his full strength into the struggle with the Latin Crusader kingdoms, his armies were their equals. On July 4, 1187, by the permission of Allah, using his own good military sense and by a phenomenal lack of it on the part of his enemy, Salahuddin trapped and destroyed, in one blow, an exhausted and thirst-crazed army of crusaders at Hattin, near Tiberias in northern Palestine.
So great were the losses in the ranks of the crusaders in this one battle that the Muslims were quickly able to overrun nearly the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre, Toron, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Caesarea, Nabulus, Jaffa (Yafo), and Ascalon (Ashqelon) fell within three months. But Salahuddin's crowning achievement and the most disastrous blow to the whole crusading movement came on Oct. 2, 1187, when Jerusalem, holy to both Muslims and Christians alike, surrendered to Salahuddin's army after 88 years in the hands of the Franks. In stark contrast to the city's conquest by the Christians, when blood flowed freely during the barbaric slaughter of its inhabitants, the Muslim reconquest was marked by the civilized and courteous behavior of Salahuddin and his troops.
His sudden success, which in 1189 saw the crusaders reduced to the occupation of only three cities, was, however, marred by his failure to capture Tyre, an almost impregnable coastal fortress to which the scattered Christian survivors of the recent battles flocked. It was to be the rallying point of the Latin counterattack. Most probably, Salahuddin did not anticipate the European reaction to his capture of Jerusalem, an event that deeply shocked the West and to which it responded with a new call for a crusade. In addition to many great nobles and famous knights, this crusade, the third, brought the kings of three countries into the struggle. The magnitude of the Christian effort and the lasting impression it made on contemporaries gave the name of Salahuddin, as their gallant and chivalrous enemy, an added luster that his military victories alone could never confer on him.
The Crusade itself was long and exhausting and, despite the obvious, though at times impulsive, military genius of Richard I - the Lion-Heart - it achieved almost nothing. Therein lies the greatest - but often unrecognized - achievement of Salahuddin. With tired and unwilling feudal levies, committed to fight 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. Salahuddin withdrew to his capital in 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 own grave. Salahuddin's family continued to rule over Egypt and neighboring lands as the Ayyubid dynasty, which succumbed to the Mamluks in 1250.
- "أيعيد التاريخ نفسه؟" د. محمد العبدة.
- "صلاح الدين الأيوبي" بسام العسيلي.
- "صلاح الدين الأيوبي" أبو الحسن الندوي.