Saladin the merciful – think again!


An excellent new BBC series The Crusades takes a fresh look at Saladin and his fight with Richard the Lionheart in the second episode.  It questions the whole notion that Saladin was merciful – instead he is shown as a ruthless warrior motivated strongly by religion.

READ MORE: Templars and Muslims – friends or enemies?

Jihadi warrior and unifier of Islam – is the description of Saladin from the programme presenter Dr Thomas Asbridge.  It’s an incredible story of how a Kurdish soldier – Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – unified Egypt and the Middle East as sultan.

His reputation has remained strong over the centuries and he is revered by many Arabs today as a vanquisher of the crusaders – a reputation he established at the slaughter of Templars and Christian warriors at the Horns of Hattin.

But Saladin has also been cast as a man of mercy – and this is with particular reference to his refusal to slaughter the population of Jerusalem when he won it back in 1187.

READ MORE: How did the Crusades start?

The chronicler Bahā’ ad-Dīn who traveled with Saladin on his campaigns makes it clear that Saladin did not have mercy in mind when he took back the holy city.  He was going to avenge the mass killing that had been perpetrated when the crusaders had taken Jerusalem a hundred years before and he was going to burnish his credentials as a jihadi warrior in no uncertain terms.

There would be no mercy and the streets would run with blood.  Anybody who doubted Saladin’s intent only had to look at how he’d put down a mutiny by a Sudanese garrison in Cairo.  They had been burnt alive with their wives and children in their barracks, Dr Asbridge recounts.

The Christians knew full well what was in store for them from Saladin.  When Jerusalem had originally been taken, Islam had been badly divided and Asbridge says many Muslims didn’t really understand what exactly had landed on their soil.  Many apparently thought the crusaders were Byzantine mercenaries come to take the city for Constantinople.

It was this confusion and division on the Saracen side that allowed the crusader states of outremer to develop and consolidate.  And Asbridge makes the point that their position was surprisingly strong – the eastern Mediterranean was Christian Europe’s back yard and they could ship in troops by sea whenever they wanted.

But Saladin was the unifier and he slowly encircled Jerusalem.  After the defeat of Hattin, he closed in for the kill.  So why didn’t he massacre the city’s population – as they clearly expected he would.  Well, the Franks of Jerusalem engaged in some pretty gritty diplomacy.

If you come to kill us, they said, we’ll slaughter thousands of Muslim prisoners in our jails and demolish all the Muslim holy places including the Dome of the Rock.  This proved too much for Saladin, it seems, and he backed down.  Many Christians were sold in to slavery but many were also ransomed and able to slip out.

However, this was not something that pleased Saladin – who Asbridge says worried that his image would actually be damaged by this act of supposed mercy.  There have been many views of Saladin created down the centuries but the primary one in modern times has been of some kind of medieval Arab nationalist.  I’ve flagged up this movie before made during the Nasser period in Egypt but it’s worth bringing to your attention again.

8 thoughts on “Saladin the merciful – think again!

  1. Saladin an honurable Man kept his word orelse he could take revenge of every Muslim men women or child killed by Crusaders and nobody would object on that but rather he let them go

  2. yes he is merciful, and man of his word.
    he promised not to kill when he has every chance to kill.
    1099, the crusaders PROMISED safe passage to Jerusalem’s
    inhabitant. It was a safe passage – to death.
    Salahuddin can replicate that if he really-really-really want to kill.
    honoring a promise is Islam’s teaching, you say?
    So is sparing lives of the innocent according to the holy book,
    in case if u dont know.

    polish your logic even more. popcorn ready.

  3. I’m afraid that this article is sadly incorrect. There is only one reason as to why Saladin did not slay the people within the city walls after he took it.
    Saladin followed the strict codes of wartime conduct in Islam- which forbid the killing of women, children, the weak and elderly and lifestock. A little more research would have yielded this basic universal fact.

    1. The point made in this BBC programme was that the traditional view that Saladin would have spared the city is not borne out by Arab chroniclers at the time who indicate that Saladin was rather up for a wholesale massacre to mirror that of Prince Tancred in 1099. It was the presence of Saracen prisoners being held in the city that stopped him from this path. Now – I wish there were ‘basic universal facts’ in history but in my experience, such things do not exist. Primary sources are always limited, biased and open to interpretation. Oh that life and history were so simple!

      1. Your article is missing many key points and some are even wrong. The real reason Saladin wanted to take Jerusalem by force is something else. Saladin wanted to take Jeruslaem without any bloodshed since it was a holy city and offered the Crusaders to surrender the city. However the Frankish Crusaders refused and he vowed to take it forcefully. Later during the siege, when they did finally offered to surrender, Saladin refused. Not only that, alomg with killing the Muslim slaves and destroying Muslim holy places, the Crusaders had threatened to burn and destroy the entire city and slaughter their own families. Saladin despite his vow, wamted to take the city by as little bloodshed as possible. Some of those Crusader Christians who were unable to pay the ransom were freed by Saladin and his brother. Not only that, the Native or Orthodox Christians were allowed to stay in the city and they preferred Saladin’s rule to the Crusader rule as they were treated better and were given back the Orthodox places of worship that were taken over by Crusaders. Additionally, Copts who had been banned by the Crusaders from Jerusalem, were allowed to enter the city by Saladin.

        The reason Saladin slaughtered whenever he did was to build up his image as a fighter for Islamic kingdoms and the Crusaders. However his chivalry and mercy were his major weapons, which ultimately gave him victory even when he was defeated during the Third Crusades. A honorable foe so to say.

    2. Not so “Baron”………slaughter took place all over the middle east and the balkansfor hundreds of years, islam is used as an excuse for monetary gain and justification, just as Christianity is,
      Saladin could not afford to let the dome of the rock be destroyed because he would have lost his already precarious position

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