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The Life of Sultan Saladin

Reviewing: “The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin,” by Jonathan Phillips. Yale University Press. 2019. Hardcover. 520 pages. English. ISBN-13: 978-0300247060.

In the introduction to his book, Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London, notes that Sultan Saladin, the holy Muslim warrior who captured Jerusalem for Islam (October 2, 1187) is a hero to followers of Sunni Islam, and yet is respected in the West. How Saladin, the focus of venomous hate and fear, “an evil harbinger of the apocalypse” for having seized Christendom’s holiest city, transforms into being admired and held in esteem in the East and West more than 800 years since his death, is the subject of this work.

In the Near East, this Sunni Kurd is remembered for regaining Jerusalem for Islam and for defeating the armies of Western Europe. The strength of his personality, personal piety, charisma, acts of mercy, and leadership qualities reached mythical levels, to the point where his name invokes “hope and admiration.”

Phillips is quick to caution that Saladin’s memory is easily prone to exploitation and appropriation. In the early 13th century Gervase of Canterbury explained the problem when he said the sultan was “a pagan man but a distinguished knight.” The failure of the crusade required conferring their respect to the victor. Ultimately, “His reputation for generosity and mercy have fused him in the consciousness of Europe down to this day.”

The extent to which Saladin’s legend thrives is seen in a comment made by a female a student to Phillips after he delivered a lecture on Saladin at a Michigan university. She and her friends from their home town of Hama remain connected to Saladin by having him as a screensaver on their mobile phones. Because Saladin remains a “cultural given” employed by despots, during conflicts, as well as “positive reference points” in our mundane lives, understanding who Saladin really was becomes an important part of our education.


Alex Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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