Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Mohamed El-Moctar, Saladin in the Sunni and Shi’i Memories

Was Saladin a brave and chivalrous leader who liberated the Islamic land from the Crusaders, and replaced the shi’i heresy with the ‘true authentic faith’, or was he an opportunistic adventurer who destroyed the greatest Shi’i dynasty of the Fatimites through treacherous maneuvering? A look at the Sunni and Shi’i sources give a completely opposite image of this medieval military and political leader. The Sunnis see Saladin as the liberator of Jerusalem, the savior of Egypt and Syria, and the unifier of Islam. They wrote much of literature on his piety, courage, nobility and compassion. The Shi’is have a different image of Saladin. For them he is no more than an adventurous traitor who compromised with the Crusaders (through his treaty with Richard the Lionhearted) and betrayed the trust of the Fatimite Shi’i Caliph of Egypt.

In my 20 minutes presentation, I will argue that both parties read Saladin in a teleological way that overlooks, misrepresents, and misinterprets Saladin's life and motivations. I will try to show that Saladin was a realist politician who did not have much doctrinal interest in the differences between Sunnis and Shi’is, but who understood well how these differences might serve or disserve his authority and legitimacy. They way Saladin was portrayed (and is portrayed today) by Sunni and Shi’i apologist historians, I will argue, does not truthfully reflect the detailed facts of his life as recorded by his own contemporary biographers, such as his judge Ibn Shaddad and his secretary Al-Asfahani. I hope this topic will fit in the first theme of the Conference: "the memorialization (or suppression) of individuals or events associated with the crusades by contemporary observers and subsequent generations".

Last modified: Dec 1, 2007
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