Few historical figures end up being glorified more by their adversaries than by their own people - even centuries after they flourished. But why is this 12th century Islamic soldier and statesman, who welded most of Arab Middle East into one united and peaceful entity and came close to ejecting Western powers from the area, so honoured and does his legacy remain relevant for the strife-torn region today?
The answer may lie in certain contradictions in the life of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (c.1137-1193) or Saladin, as we know him, contends British historian and travel writer John Man in this new biography.
As he shows, Saladin proclaimed 'Jihad' but was no fanatic (in fact more chivalrous and generous than the European nobles he faced), began wars but was never averse to a negotiated solution, reconquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders but without the widespread bloodshed that had marked their victory less than a century back, returned to public consciousness thanks to European monarch at the dawn of the 20th century, and remains a popular hero in the Arab world though not Arab himself. (He was a Kurd).
But it is not an unexplored area that Man delves in. The rise of Saladin, born to a minor noble, to becoming the preeminent Arab leader, much more powerful than his nominal overlord, the Caliph in Baghdad, has been well documented in works extending from Stanley Lane-Poole's "Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem" (1906) to Geoffrey Hindley's "Saladin: Hero of Islam" (2007).
So have the Crusades - the then 'Clash of Civilisations' - and especially the point that they were never a simple Muslim-Christian conflict, but a more complex affair where Christian fought Christian and Muslims other Muslims, both sides could (and did) resort to atrocities, and save a few hotheads, both were remarkably open to allying with each other against those of their own faith.
So what makes this work stand out?
One could be that Man, whose previous books include biographies of Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan, accounts of Marco Polo, the Chinese 'Terracotta Army' and a trip in the Gobi Desert, and a history of the alphabet, presents a more nuanced analysis of not only Saladin, his uncle and mentor Shirkuh, his sovereign Nuruddin, his adversaries like Richard the Lion-Heart, and the notorious Reynauld of Chatillion and others, and their times, but also of their religions, insofar as a cover for actions, dictated by political expediency or personal inclinations, in the Holy Land.
As the author, in a discussion on killings by both Saladin and Richard and including jihad, notes how "Islam, spread by the sword, contains enough to justify tolerance; Christianity, spread by persuasion, contains enough to justify atrocity".
But Saladin is not assessed only against his contemporaries but also in the light of modern theories of leadership and in comparison to World War II leaders, like Winston Churchill and Gen. William Slim, of the "forgotten" 14th Army in Burma, and comes off fairly well in displaying both 'hard' and 'soft' power to achieve his goals.
Dealing with his legacy, Man seeks to answer why Muslims forgot Saladin for 500 years, and why Christian Europeans, "otherwise eager to dismiss Islam", never faltered in admiration? This spans his appearance in cultural works from Dante's "Divine Comedy" to Sir Walter Scott's "The Talisman" to Ridley Scott's 2005 blockbuster "Kingdom of Heaven" (played by Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud), his use by Muslim leaders like a late 19th century Ottoman sultan and Arab leaders stretching from Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser to Syria's Hafez Al-Assad.
This finally sets the stage for the final question: Have Saladin's ideals - of Arab and Islamic unity, of freedom from outside interference, of peaceful life under Islam - been taken over by all that he despised - sectarianism, civil war, exploitation and foreign intervention? For this issue now not only affects the region and its surroundings but also much further away too.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)