Sir Ridley Scott’s treatment of the Crusades in Kingdom of Heaven focuses attention on a chapter of history that is barely remembered in our societies, yet provides the prism through which Muslims view their relations with the West.
The central storyline is mostly fictional, however the historical backdrop is essentially accurate; with its progression from the treaty broken by Crusader bandit-knights, to the attack on the Castle of Kerak, and the subsequent surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin’s armies.
Saladin, the 12th century Muslim ruler and vanquisher of the Crusaders, has long been romanticized in both Muslim and non-Muslim literature as a figure who personified bravery, chivalry and honor.
Even Dante’s Divine Comedy, where history’s heroes and villains are categorised into different levels of hell, describes Saladin as standing ‘alone, apart’ in the highest level afforded to non-Christians; alongside the likes of Plato, Homer and Dante’s own guide, Vergil.
In the Muslim world, the name ‘Saladin’ resonates with meaning. For this reason, his name peppers the speeches of Osama Bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein frequently described himself as Saladin II. Saladin is, for Muslims, the symbol of a golden age of honour and dignity; and he is, for figures such as Saddam and Bin Laden, a useful rhetorical device for giving legitimacy to their own causes.
Muslims revere Saladin because he was an embodiment of Islamic principles; and non-Muslims revered him for what they saw of his chivalry. He became a window through which the medieval world came to see something of Islam; and he now represents a window through which Muslims see something of their past. A past filled with acts of kindness that seem out of place in today’s dystopian world of made-for-TV decapitations, kidnapping of engineers, and the torture of prisoners of war.
Although he lived as a military leader at a time characterised by its violence, Saladin could teach our contemporary leaders — both Muslim and non-Muslim — something about chivalry and respect for humanity. Whilst besieging the Castle of Kerak, on his march to Jerusalem, Saladin learnt that a wedding ceremony was underway in a part of the castle. He didn’t make some utilitarian judgement about ‘collateral damage’ and continue the attack. Rather, he ordered his soldiers to refrain from bombarding that wing.
Whilst Crusaders had, according to reports of the time, massacred Jews, Christians and Muslims to the point that, "our men waded in blood up to their ankles", Saladin did not extract revenge or conduct any of his own massacres on recapturing the city 88 years later. Instead, he granted the Crusaders protected passage to the coast.
When Richard the Lion Heart attempted to then recapture Jerusalem, he was confronted both by Saladin’s military might and his clemency. Despite having violated a treaty by slaughtering 3,000 men at Acre, when Richard’s horse was killed at Jaffa, Saladin sent two of his own horses to replace it. "It is not right," he wrote. "That so brave a warrior should have to fight on foot." When Richard fell sick during the siege, Saladin sent his personal physician to care for him.
After his death in 1193, they did not find Swiss bank accounts of money pilfered from his people, but an empty personal treasury; emptied by his charity to those in need.
For Muslims, Saladin represents a moment in their history of strong and honorable leadership in the face of tremendous opposition. Tyrants and dictators have since misappropriated his name and legacy; but Saladin was everything that the secular and politically emaciated leaders of the Muslim world are not: a leader who was powerful yet just; victorious yet clement; and who was inspired not by a love of power or a thirst for wealth, but by faith alone.
In the end, Saladin was victorious over the crusading armies of Europe, but perhaps his greatest victory was not militarily, but morally. For real victory, Saladin said, "is changing the hearts of your opponents by gentleness and kindness."