Reflections on Salahuddin Al-Ayubi

What comes to mind when the crusades are mentioned? Some of us will recall Salahudin Al Ayyubi. He was a legend. Also known as Al-Malik An-Nasir Salahuddin Yusuf I (b. 1137/38, Tikrit, Mesopotamia–d. March 4, 1193, Damascus), he was the Muslim ruler of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and one of the most famous of Muslim heroes.

In wars against the Christian crusaders, he achieved final success with the disciplined capture of Jerusalem (Oct. 2, 1187), ending its 88-year occupation by the Franks. The great Christian counterattack of the Third Crusade was then stalemated by Salahuddin’s remarkable leadership and military brilliance.

Salahuddin was apparently an ordinary youth, with a greater taste for religious studies than military training. He grew up in Ba’lbek and Damascus, and began his formal career as the staff of his uncle Asad ad-Din Shirkuh, an important military commander under Nuruddin, son and successor of Zanki. 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 and vizier of Egypt.

His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed his own strong character. 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 Shi’i Fatimid caliphate, proclaimed a return to Sunnah in Egypt, and consequently became its sole ruler.

The story of Salahudin Al-Ayubi’s victory in the re-capture of Jerusalem is an important part of history that Muslims must study. However, in studies on the history victories in the crusades, figurism or heroism in the army is emphasized. This is not necessarily the better approach. Writings of history that center on important figures sometimes produce a figurism effect on our outlook towards social problems, and cause Muslims to stop at merely waiting for the advent or appearance of such figures for solutions. Such an approach distracts us from the real illnesses present among Muslims, which become the reason for our defeat (al qabiliyah li at takhalluf wal hazimah). Waiting for the “Ratu Adil”, as the Javanese call it, distances a person from the role that he should be playing even while waiting for the appearance of a leader figure to bring about solutions to problems.

As elucidated by Dr. Majid Irsan Al-Kailani in his book, Hakadza Zhahara Jil Shalahidin wa hakadza ‘adat al quds [“This is how the Salahudin generation appears and the return of al Quds”], Salahudin Al-Ayubi was the pinnacle of a movement that lasted fifty years. He and the other Muslim geniuses did not just emerge from nowhere, but through an exceptionally well- planned process and socio-religious mechanism.

Muslim scholars had for a period of fifty years commenced the process of reformation, through education which began from the Imam Al-Ghazali and Syaikh Abdul Qadir Jailani movements, which instilled the concept of al-insihab wal-audah (self-examination; isolating oneself to later return in the centre of the Ummah). After them this reformation process was further extended by institutions of learning, to the extent of producing new generations who were ready to seize al Quds and set up a new nation that succeeded in consolidating and gathering all available potentials [daulah al mahjar] with their known figures such as Nuruddin Zanki, Salahudin al Ayyubi, Ibn Naja and others.

Why was the reformation done through education, and not through politics? This was in connection with the major problem faced by the people at that time, the fall of Al Quds to the Crusaders. External problems were a small part of the prevailing problem faced by the people. The main problem was in the attitude of the people who put themselves in conditions that allowed them to be defeated [al qabiliyyah lil hazimah], to live or think merely of the past [al qabiliyyah lil hazimah], or to be colonized [al qabiliyyah lil isti’mar]. The decline in thought, value, and culture will eventually result in the fall of the social network. This will ultimately result in a society committing social suicide.

Dr. Al Kailani’s detailed study gives us a perspective on how the social change (or social reconstruction) that spanned a period of fifty years between the fall of Al Quds to its return to the hands of the Muslims, had contributed immensely to producing the Salahudin generation. Salahudin was the main representative of this generation and its education and the reformation movements (islah).

How did the Muslims rise from a decline of almost fifty years during the Crusades? The Crusades began with the fall of Edessa in the hands of the Muslim in 539/1144, under the Religious Leader Commandent al-Din Zanki, the father of Nuruddin Zanki. Two years later in the year 1146, Zanki dies, paving the way for his son Nuruddin, to lead the struggle against the Crusaders. In 544/1149, Nuruddin was victorious in defeating the Crusaders and in 549/1154 he succeeded in uniting Syria under the reign of the Muslims. Nuruddin was seen as a very religious person, a warrior and a model of Sunni power.

Upon the demise of Nuruddin in 569/1174, his nephew Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, became the leader of the Muslims in fighting against the Crusaders. He later became famous as the Muslim warrior who freed Jerusalem in the year 1187, which was accomplished by Salahuddin’s skillful diplomacy backed when necessary by the swift and resolute use of military force.

Steadily, Salahuddin’s reputation grew as a generous and virtuous but firm ruler, devoid of charade, extravagance, 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 sincerity, true knowledge and the right strategy. 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 institutions of traditional Islamic sciences and mosques for their use, and commissioned them to write edifying works especially on the jihad itself. Through assertive moral rejuvenation, 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.

Our current generation has so much to learn from Salahuddin. But first let us remind ourselves that history generally tells us about the bravery and leadership of commanders of war and rulers. Islamic History taught in school also tells us of the bravery and the rule of Islamic leaders, from the honorable Prophet SAW to the fall of Islam in Ottoman Turkey. This finally created awareness among the people that in fighting for the Islamic cause, they should begin with the local power struggle. But is this necessarily the only and the best way of recapturing our glory?

In other aspects, many focus toward external factors of the Crusades, such as the atrocities of the Crusaders in slaughtering the Muslims, to the extent of not looking in detail at internal factors which were the main reason for the Muslims’ downfall.

Detailed studies such as these are necessary so as not to create the confusing perception that seizing power is a short cut to strengthening Islam, instead of first studying in detail the situation of the community and the Muslims themselves.

The Crusade began in the year 1095. In 1099, Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Crusaders. Even though the Muslims owned a nation and a leader (khilafah), they were in dire straits. Around 88 years later a Muslim warrior, Shalahuddin al-Ayyubi surfaced, who was able to again free al-Aqsa from the reins of the Crusaders, in 1187. It was argued that Salahudin was not the sole player, who “came down from heaven”. He was the product of a new generation, which was skillfully molded by brilliant religious leaders – Imam Al-Ghazali and Syaikh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani.

According to Dr. Al-Kailani, in an effort to establish changes in its people, Al-Ghazali focused more on overcoming problems of the people who are able to accept defeat. It is here that Al-Ghazali attempts to establish factors of weakness of his people and tries to overcome them, without blaming the enemies. According to Al-Ghazali, the major problem is the destruction of the mind, faith, and community of the Muslims themselves. Al-Ghazali did not dismiss changes in the political and military aspects. In fact, it is recorded in history that Al-Ghazali also had a mutual political relationship with leaders. But he stressed more on establishing changes in thinking, behavior, and the human self. For this, al-Ghazali carried out changes on him first, and then later imposed changes on others. The author of this book said:

Al-Ghazali focuses more on his efforts in cleansing the Muslim community from being inflicted by various illness internally and it is important to mould the Muslims so as to be able to bind Islamic knowledge again so that Islam is spread to every nook and corner of the world in the spread of Islam and the pillars of faith and serenity may be firmly established

Dr. Al-Kailani quoted Ibn Katsir in Bidayah wal-Nihayah, who reflected the serious state of the Muslims then. The people were seriously inflicted with the illnesses known as mazhab fanaticism, ill thoughts, and living luxurious lifestyles among the elite class of people. Governor Abu Nasr Ahmad bin Marwan, a governor during that era would give approximately 200,000 dinar for every entertainment event sponsored by him. In the year 516 Hijriah (of the Muslim Calendar), when a Minister of Sultan al-Mahmud was murdered, his wife left their matrimonial home accompanied by 100 servants and a fleet of cars made of gold. It was then that most of his citizens were suffering from hunger and poverty. At that time when the crusaders were slaughtering thousands of Muslims, several religious leaders were taking all efforts they could to instill the spirit of a Holy War among the Muslims, but they failed. There was a story which narrates that several crusaders brought a heap of human bones, women’s hair, and children’s bodies slaughtered by the Crusaders before the Khalifah/Ruler and the Sultan, but ironically, the Khalifah said, “Leave them, I’m busy with my more important matters, my pigeon Balqa’ has been missing for 3 days and I have yet to see it..”

The thinking patterns and attitudes of these leaders later clashed with their followers’ social needs. Destruction of the economy was due to inaccurate formatting of thoughts in the distribution of wealth, which led to the disparity between the conglomerate group in contrast to the larger section of the people, who were experiencing both a state of poverty and a high inflation rate. Hunger was a phenomenon that occurred on a large scale during the said era. There was widespread anarchism of socio-political status. There were not many great men who had the qualification to lead the people. Disunity, animosity, and political coup d’état were the order of the day.

It was at this juncture that the attack from the crusaders occurred. Internally, people were not ready in many aspects, including thinking, social theory, politics, economy and military. No help could be given to the people around Al Quds then. Dr. Al-Kailani summarized in his study that the first thing that should be done is to perform changes in the person itself. “Verily Allah will not change the life of a particular race, until they change what is in themselves.” (QS ar-Ra’d:11).

The Prophet SAW also said: “Verily in the body of man there is a lump of flesh, that if it is good, the entire body will be good. However, if it is bad, the entire body will be bad. Know that the lump of flesh is qalb.” (HR Muslim). In the history of Islam the era of success and strength were created with the combination of two elements, namely, the element of sincerity in intentions and desires, and the element of accurateness in thinking and action.

In fact, according to Imam Al-Ghazali and Syaikh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, the said changes should begin from religious leaders themselves. Therefore Al-Ghazali and Abdul Qadir al-Jilani were very stern with ruinous and unprincipled religious leaders. He advised his students: “Oh children! Don’t be deceived by those unprincipled religious leaders who do not know Allah. They know that the knowledge they possess could destroy them and does not bring about any goodness. They do know the rules of Allah but do not know Allah Azza wa-Jalla.” Besides being known as an ascetic Sufi religious leader, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani was a fiqh specialist of the Hanbali School of thought. He also preached actively to non-Muslims, and it was reported that by Allah’s guidance, 5,000 non-Muslims embraced Islam through his initiatives.

In reflecting upon this short glimpse of Salahuddin’s life there are a number of points that come to mind. Firstly, it is important to remember that the Christian presence in the Middle East had remained unchallenged for one hundred years. The Muslim states were divided and were in a period of decline. In many respects there is a similar analogy with our situation today. However, there is one major difference. In Salahuddin’s days the system being applied by the Muslims was Islamic, but it had lost its dynamism. What was needed was a man of Salahuddin’s intellect, character and determination to bring the State back on the right track.

Today, however, a man of Salahuddin’s character is not enough. We cannot find a single Islamic system – no matter how ill in itself – therefore taking a simplistic approach of trying to bring a leader in isolation of the system will not achieve the result. It is not sufficient to merely search for a man like Salahuddin – we have to first build the system that can allow that ascent to take place.

Secondly, Salahuddin accurately analyzed the correct way to liberate Islamic lands from the foreign presence. Before engaging with the enemy he imposed his dominance on all the smaller governates. It was only after he had unified the Muslims under his leadership that he engaged the enemy.

A third factor was that the Muslims of the time, and Salahuddin in particular, did not distort and misrepresent the Islamic evidences pertaining to the return of Imam Mahdi and the return of the Khilafah. He did not, erroneously conclude that his situation did not demand action. This would have been fatalistic folly. Instead he responded appropriately and in accordance with the laws laid down by Islam.

Today we are faced with the Zionist presence in our Holy land of Palestine, and American, Russian, Indian and British forces in Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir and the Middle East to name only a few locales. Unfortunately the Muslim Ummah is governed by weak puppet regimes. Where Muslims have engaged the Israelis they have done so under an insincere leadership. Parasites such as Presidents Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and the likes have connived with Israel to obstruct the sons of the Muslim Ummah to undertake a true Jihad. Faced with this situation what should we do? Salahuddin showed us the way.

Salahuddin concentrated on unifying the Muslims, as a prerequisite to fighting the enemies. A fighter must always establish a firm footing before manifesting marshal mastership. Similarly, the political, spiritual and community fighting posture must steady our feet. Only when Islam becomes the guide, the motive, and the driving force of the Ummah can the problem of Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir and elsewhere be solved.

Finally let us reflect on the shining light of an example from a glorious part of our history, presented above, and compare it with a dark and dismal occasion of our recent past. On that dreadful day when Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem to conclude his “peace” agreement, he encountered the Imam of Al Aqsa Mosque. The Imam questioned the purpose of his visit, saying “This Holy place was opened by Khalifah Umar, liberated by Salahuddin, in which way have you came Sadat?”

It is time that Muslims carry out a serious introspection on their thinking and internal morality, especially the elite and their council of contenders. While criticizing foreign thoughts, as done by al-Ghazali, is necessary, introspection and internal correction are far more important, and should be executed to the extent that Muslims backwardness and conditions that allows us to be defeated (al-qabiliyyah lit-takhalluf wa al-hazimah) can be discarded. Finally, the people will triumph with the endowment of Allah.

June 2, 2009Okmeydani – Şişli/ Istanbul

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