July 4 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Hittin in 1187, between the Crusaders of Jerusalem and the forces of the Ayyubid dynasty under Salahudeen. It bears remembering these events, least for how they formed the historical and religious geopolitics of the day, more to liberate our lusting for a Muslim saviour to rescue our besieged psyches. We only need acknowledge how much local Muslimdom wants to appropriate Nelson Mandela (as one of our own) to decide how deeply this complex runs. We aren’t however the first, or last to try to own a hero. Sometimes we need to be reminded as the ‘best of all creation’ we each posses the tools to be great, here, and in a world beyond.
Yusuf bin Ayyub, better known as Salahudeen, has a history well documented with intense virtue. In twelve years he united a previously weakened and warring Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, the Western parts of the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen under the Ayyubid Dynasty. 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 (Shia) Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids, once so powerful that they controlled more than half of the Islamic world including Makkah, Madina and Jerusalem, passed into silent history.
Three months after the Battle at Hittin, his forces captured Jerusalem. The city was well defended by 60,000 Crusader soldiers. He offered them a chance for peaceful surrender in return for freedom of passage and access to the holy sites. The offer was rejected. He ordered the city besieged. The defenders who by then (after Hittin) had no support from the coastline, surrendered. He spared the lives of 100,000 Christians. The Franks who wanted to reside in Palestine were allowed to do so as free men and women. Those who wanted to leave were allowed to depart with their households and their belongings under his full protection. The (Eastern Orthodox) Greeks and the Armenians were permitted to stay on with full rights of citizenship. When Sybilla, Queen of Jerusalem, was leaving the city, Salahudeen, moved by the hardship of her entourage, ordered the imprisoned husbands and sons of the women to be set free so that they might accompany their families. Salahudeen and his brother paid the ransom to free the prisoners and many others. Unlike the Christians 88 years earlier who turned Jerusalem into a knee-high bloodbath, Salahudeen did not loot, rape, murder or seek revenge for the Muslims, or Jews.
“History has seldom seen such a contrast between the chivalry of a conquering hero like Salahuddin who treated his vanquished foes with generosity and compassion and the savage butchery of the Crusaders when they took Jerusalem in 1099.”
At the Temple of Solomon, where 10,000 people were slaughtered by the Crusaders, "men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins." Unlike Western kings, knights, feudal lords, religious zealots and merchants who were driven primarily by political, military, and commercial ambitions that would accompany the establishment of European colonies in the Arab world, Salahudeen simply emulated his Nabi, Muhammad (pbuh). When our Prophet [pbuh] returned to Makkah (8AH) with 10 000 people, he entered it without any bloodshed. He told its people with his famous words: “Go (wherever you please), you are set free.” This was despite 20 years of constant attacks, torture, extradition and execution that he and his companions had been receiving from the pagan Makkans.
Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, writing for an Encyclopedia on the History of Islam makes this apt point:
“Historians often argue whether it is man that influences history or it is his circumstance and the environment that shape the course of events. This argument misses the point. There is an organic relationship between the actions of men and women and the circumstances under which they operate. Those who chisel out the edifice of history do so with their power, bending the flow of events to their will and leave behind a blazing trail for others to follow and sort out. But they succeed because circumstances are in their favor. Ultimately, the outcome of historical events is a moment of Divine Grace. It is not obvious, a priori, what the outcome of a critical historical moment will be.”
So, while the surrender of Jerusalem did bring on The Third Crusade (1188-1191), the most bitterly fought of all the Crusades in Palestine, marshalled by all the energies of Europe on a single enterprise, namely, the capture of Jerusalem, it also came to an end — via Salahudeen’s treaties and negotiations with King Richard.
Salahudeen was so influential and successful in bringing stability and peace to Palestine that even Christian’s tried to claim him as their own. As Ramadan draws a protective cloak around us and we grapple with questions and resolves to implement decisive change and goodness in the world around us, we can use this to draw inspiration. Salahudeen used the (basic) principals of his Faith to enact goodness, but he was not alone. In the case of our own Madiba, (as mentioned by Professor Nazeer Ahmed regarding Salahudeen) circumstances favour change. Leaders need a noble and committed public. People who believe in principals of goodness, not greed; of justice and accountability. It bears remembering this when we want to become our own hero’s. No theatrics, just one foot in front of the other. The rest is Divine Grace.
We don’t need Mandela to be a Muslim to realise we want him to be, because we crave similar modern role models. Salahudeen was our hero, not only for liberating al-Quds, but also because his (simple) actions juxtaposed against the barbaric Crusaders reflected the Islam we know and love. He was an aspiring scholar himself and revered knowledgeable scholars; loved children; was always conscious of performing prayer in congregation and he died a poor man due to giving away most of his wealth to the needy.
We’ve amped the bar of heroism so high, propelled by the commercial off spins of ‘hero-worship’ that we undermine the greatness of being an ‘ordinary’ Muslim. Muslimness, via the surrender entailed in fighting against the base self, raises a different type of hero bar, every minute of each day. This is an intense force, to feel and to observe. It is the most ancient form of da’wah that exists. It is reported that after the fateful Battle of Hittin when the Muslims had scored their decisive victory, Salahudeen did not engage in any pompous celebrations. He immediately bowed his head in sajda to Almighty Allah. In a world competing to draw out and commend the ‘as falus saafil’ – the most tawdry despicability from us, simply being committed, grateful and actualising the noble teachings of Islam, makes us hero’s.
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