Post-classical history


Nur al-Din and Saladin, 1146–74

Here we will examine developments in the Levant in the wake of the fall of Edessa, including an examination of the Muslim perspective on the Second Crusade. Then we will consider the career of Zangi’s son Nur al-Din, discussing in particular thejihadpropaganda campaign that he sponsored as he expanded his influence over Syria. Our attention will then turn to Saladin, paying particular attention to the breakdown of relations between Nur al-Din and Saladin that followed the latter’s assumption of power in Egypt and almost resulted in a direct military confrontation between them.


As we have seen, in the wake of the death of Zangi his domains were divided between his sons. Relations between the primary inheritors, Sayf al-Din and Nur al-Din, were for the most part cordial, with the result that Nur al-Din, based at Aleppo, was able to concentrate his attention on affairs in Bilad al-Sham, without being distracted by events further east; however, he also suffered from the disadvantage of not having unlimited access to the resources of his father’s eastern territories (Holt, 1986: 42).

Nur al-Din was immediately faced with the challenge of consolidating his hold on his inheritance. A Frankish attempt to retake and hold Edessa was foiled, with the native Christian population of the city being bloodily suppressed. There was also conflict over territory with Damascus, eventually resolved through a diplomatic agreement made in 1147. The next year witnessed the arrival of the forces of the Second Crusade in the Levant. The crusaders did not threaten Nur al-Din’s holdings, but instead decided to attack Damascus, hoping to prevent closer relations between its rulers and Nur al-Din (Phillips, 2002: 75). When the crusaders besieged the city, its military governor, Mu’in al-Din Unur (d. 1149), sent requests for aid to Sayf al-Din and Nur al-Din, who set out for the city from the north. Learning of the approach of the relief force, the crusaders withdrew.

In some sense the crusaders provoked what they had feared, for their actions at Damascus led to closer co-operation between Nur al-Din and Mu’in al-Din; in June 1149 the two Muslim rulers assembled a combined force that defeated and killed Prince Raymond of Antioch at Inab, leaving the Principality of Antioch temporarily leaderless and vulnerable. While Nur al-Din passed through the principality and bathed symbolically in the Mediterranean, he sent Prince Raymond’s head to the ‘Abbasid caliph of Baghdad to attest to his victory in the military jihad. In the following years Nur al-Din continued to consolidate his territories, primarily in the former County of Edessa. Meanwhile he also sought as far as possible to win over the Muslims in general and the people of Damascus in particular through a propaganda campaign, presenting himself as a ruler who was pious, dedicated to the jihad and just to those under his command.

While Nur al-Din was expanding his influence in Syria, Fatimid Egypt was in decline. The death of the Fatimid caliph al-Hafiz (r. 1131–49) was followed by the accession of the 16-year-old al-Zafir (r. 1149–54), the first of a succession of caliphs who were minors when they came to the throne. In the meantime, power passed into the hands of the military leaders, who spent much of their time fighting each other for the position of vizier, weakening the stability of the state and the government. As a result, the Fatimids were unable to prevent the Franks from conquering Ascalon in 1153. Ascalon was a major loss for the Egyptians, as it had acted as forward defence against the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and so they lost both a major obstacle to Frankish land-based attacks on Egypt and a staging-post for Fatimid naval operations against the coastal cities of the Frankish states.

In 1154 Nur al-Din’s propaganda campaign bore fruit when he took control of Damascus. The last Burid ruler of Damascus was unpopular with his subjects, who had become increasingly inclined towards the pious promises of Nur al-Din, and when the latter besieged the city agents within it, with whom he had been secretly communicating for some time, opened the gates to him. There was minimal resistance, and Nur al-Din subsequently continued to assert his Islamic credentials with the foundation of religious and public institutions in the city, most notably the s\b dar al-‘adl (House of Justice), a building where he or his representatives would appear twice a week to hear and address the grievances of the people (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 127).

The fall of Ascalon in 1153 had signalled a shift in focus for both the Franks and Nur al-Din. The sickly state of the Fatimid caliphate was becoming increasingly perceptible, and it was becoming equally apparent that control of Egypt could be the key to military superiority in the Levant. Arguably the major factor that led to Nur al-Din’s takeover of Damascus, along with the fact that the Second Crusade had made its inhabitants pain-fully aware of the proximate danger of the Franks, was that after the fall of Ascalon the city found itself increasingly cut off from potential aid from Egypt and caught between the Frankish states and the territory of Nur al-Din; thus its leaders were forced to choose which side they would align themselves with. Over the course of the 1160s both King Amalric of Jerusalem (r. 1163–74) and Nur al-Din sent forces to intervene in Egyptian affairs. In 1163 the Egyptian vizier Shawar was ousted by a rival, Dirgham, and fled to Nur al-Din. Amalric took advantage of the instability to launch an invasion of Egypt that was held off by the Egyptians, while Nur al-Din sought to remain aloof. However, he was eventually persuaded to become involved by his loyal Kurdish vassal Asad al-Din Shirkuh. Shirkuh was entrusted with an army and set out in 1164 with Shawar to reinstate the latter in the vizierate. They were accompanied by Shirkuh’s nephew Salah al-Din Yusuf, better known to modern historians as Saladin, who at the time was in his twenties. Dirgham was driven out and killed and Shawar restored to his position, but the latter then refused to hand over a third of the grain revenues of Egypt, the sum that had been agreed between Shawar and Nur al-Din (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 7–8). When Shirkuh refused to withdraw, Shawar negotiated assistance from the Franks, and after some manoeuvres an agreement was made whereby both the Franks and Shirkuh’s forces left Egypt in return for payments.

Dar al-‘Adl: Arabic: ‘the house of justice’. A building where the ruler or his deputy would appear regularly to hear and address the grievances of his subjects. Probably the best known example is that of Nur al-Din (r. 1146–74) established in Damascus after his takeover of the city in 1154.

Shirkuh, however, had not ceased to train his sights on Egypt, and in 1167 Nur al-Din allowed him to take another army there. Shawar again called in Frankish aid. Shirkuh negotiated the handover of Alexandria by its inhabitants but was unable to persuade Shawar to switch sides and join him in fighting against the Franks. In March 1167 a major battle was fought between a combined Frankish-Egyptian force and the army of Shirkuh at al-Babayn in Middle Egypt, in which Saladin acted as a commander. The Frankish-Egyptian coalition was soundly defeated, and Shirkuh marched north to Alexandria, where he installed Saladin as governor with a small garrison before setting out again to face the regrouped allies. Alexandria was now besieged by the allies, while Shirkuh menaced other cities, but eventually a peace agreement was made, and the Franks and Syrians evacuated Egypt in August.

Amalric attacked Egypt again the following year. While Shawar tried to negotiate with the Franks, the Fatimid caliph al-‘Adid (r. 1160–71) appealed directly to Nur al-Din for help. Shirkuh set out for a third time in December 1168, and Amalric withdrew soon after, so that Shirkuh entered Egypt largely unopposed. In January 1169 Shirkuh had an audience with the Fatimid caliph, and shortly afterwards Saladin arrested Shawar, who was killed at the caliph’s orders. The caliph appointed Shirkuh as his new vizier, a position that he did not hold for long; Shirkuh was well known for his gluttonous habits, and on 23 March 1169 he died when he took a hot bath after a huge meal. He was succeeded as vizier by Saladin, who seems to have been a compromise candidate from among the various emirs of Shirkuh’s army (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 20–9).

Saladin spent the next two years consolidating his position, including eliminating the old Fatimid army and replacing it with one loyal to himself. Then in 1171, responding to mounting pressure from Nur al-Din, he officially abolished the Fatimid caliphate; almost immediately afterwards the now-deposed caliph al-‘Adid died, in circumstances that remain somewhat murky, and the remaining members of the Fatimid family were ‘kept from women lest they breed’ (Eddé, 2011: 49; Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 47). Meanwhile, the authority of the ‘Abbasid caliph was acknowledged in the mosques and Egypt was thus restored to the fold of Sunni Islam. Immediately afterwards Nur al-Din required Saladin to take part in joint operations with him against Transjordan. Saladin attacked Shawbak (Crac de Montréal) but soon retreated, claiming that he needed to deal with Fatimid conspiracies in Cairo. A similarly abortive collaboration took place in 1173, and the following summer the resentful Nur al-Din began to gather his troops to bring his recalcitrant vassal to heel. However, on 15 May 1174, after a brief illness contracted while playing polo, Nur al-Din died, and the expedition against Saladin was never launched.


Numerous explanations for the failure of the Second Crusade were given by the western chroniclers, including bribery, disunity or religious impurity among the crusaders, and blame of either the Templars and Hospitallers or the Greeks (Phillips, 2002: 76). The Muslim sources also suggest a number of reasons for the failure of the attack on Damascus. Ibn al-Qalanisi, who was in the city at the time, ascribes the failure of the siege to the crusaders retreating when they heard of the approach of the Zangid relief force, though he is also careful to emphasize that the Damascenes had by then already turned the tide of battle and were inflicting great losses on the Franks. To emphasize the deserved nature of the Frankish defeat, Ibn al-Qalanisi suggests that before the attack they had arrogantly already divided up the territory that they anticipated conquering between themselves [Doc. 7.i]. The Baghdadi historian and religious scholar ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (c. 1116–1201) also comments on the involvement of both the Damascene armies and the Zangid reinforcements in repelling the Frankish attack, though he ascribes the actual departure of the Franks to divine favour in the face of a show of penitence on the part of the people of the city, who gathered around a copy of the Qur’an from the time of the caliph ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan (r. 644–56, credited with having compiled the standard text), bared their heads and prayed to God for help. He also emphasizes the fact that the Franks expected to take the city with the following story:

There was with them a tall priest with a white beard, riding a roan donkey, with a cross hanging from his throat, a cross hanging from the throat of his donkey, and carrying two crosses in his hand. He said to the Franks, ‘The Messiah promised me that I would take Damascus and no-one would resist me.’ So they gathered around him and approached, heading for Damascus. When the Muslims saw him they demonstrated their zeal for Islam and attacked him all together. They killed him and his donkey, took the crosses and burned them.

(Ibn al-Jawzi, 1992: Vol. 18, pp. 63–4)

In this way Ibn al-Jawzi contrasts the penitent piety of the Muslims with the arrogant sense of entitlement of the Christians, in the process demonstrating the superiority of Islam over Christianity.

Ibn al-Athir, while also commenting on Frankish overconfidence, provides a more nuanced understanding of the events in his historical works, suggesting that Mu’in al-Din of Damascus exploited the differences between the newly arrived Franks and the ones who were resident in Syria to bring about the failure of the siege. He informed the newly arrived crusaders that he had called in the aid of Sayf al-Din of Mosul and was prepared to hand the city over to him, which would not bode well for them. Meanwhile, he threatened the resident Franks, saying that if the newly arrived crusaders took Damascus they would also seize the coastal lands from the resident Franks, and again threatening to hand the city over to Sayf al-Din. According to Ibn al-Athir, this enabled Mu’in al-Din to drive a wedge between the two Frankish factions, with the result that the resident Franks persuaded the German King Conrad III (r. 1138–52; Ibn al-Athir does not mention the French participants in the crusade) to call off the siege, in return for which Mu’in al-Din rewarded them with the castle of Banyas [See Doc. 7.ii]. Ibn al-’Adim provides a much briefer account, stating only that the German king withdrew from Damascus after Nur al-Din joined forces with Mu’in al-Din. However, he follows this immediately with an account of a dispute over Tripoli between Bertrand, the grandson of Raymond of Poitiers who had accompanied Conrad III, and Count Raymond II of Tripoli (r. 1137–52). As Ibn al-‘Adim notes, since Bertrand’s grandfather was Raymond of Poitiers, who had taken Tripoli in 1109, he also had a claim on the city. Bertrand took control of al-‘Urayma (Arima) from its Frankish rulers, in response to which Raymond formed an alliance with Nur al-Din and encouraged him to take the castle from his rival (Ibn al-‘Adim, 1951–68: Vol. 2, pp. 291–2); in this way Ibn al-‘Adim, like Ibn al-Athir, draws attention to tensions between resident and newly arrived Franks. It is worth noting that the same incident is described in more detail in the Kamil of Ibn al-Athir, although the Mosuli author does not indicate an awareness that Bertrand took al-‘Urayma from Frankish rulers (Ibn al-Athir, 2007: 22–3). Nonetheless, both authors show a strikingly detailed awareness of Frankish internal politics.

What are we to make of these varied accounts? The common themes that emerge from the narratives are the arrogance of the Franks, as contrasted with the humble piety of the Muslims; the divisions between the Franks who had lived in the Latin states for some time and the newly arrived crusaders; and the alliance between Mu‘in al-Din and the Zangids that rescued Damascus from the Frankish siege. Arrogance is a vice that is periodically ascribed to the Franks in the Muslim sources, and given that this vice is condemned in the Qur’an, being associated with the stiff-necked refusal of pagans to turn to the true faith, while humility is lauded, such ascription is evidence of both the moralizing tendencies and the propagandistic intentions of the Muslim sources; the Christian Franks are deliberately associated with the unbelievers of old, while the humble Muslims are celebrated for their piety in the true faith. Meanwhile, the detailed descriptions of the divisions between the Franks in the works of Ibn al-Athir and Ibn al-‘Adim (who based their accounts on earlier works) tell us that by the mid-twelfth century at least, Muslims had begun to achieve a detailed understanding of the internal affairs of the Latin states. Finally, the alliance between the Zangids and Mu‘in al-Din is one example of a recognition on the part of the Muslims that unity was the key to defeating the Franks. It was upon this idea of Muslim unity against the Franks that Nur al-Din was to base his propaganda campaign as he expanded his influence over the Muslim Levant.


Emmanuel Si van refers to Nur al-Din as ‘la plaque tournante’ (the pivot), viewing his reign as a decisive period that saw the jihad become a major factor in the spiritual and political life of Syria and, to a lesser extent, the surrounding regions (Sivan, 1968: 59). Certainly Nur al-Din employed jihad propaganda in a widespread manner in his efforts to expand his power and territory in the region; indeed, devotion to the jihad was a major characteristic through which he sought to assert his position as a pious Muslim ruler who was deserving of popular support.

Before embarking on an examination of the various methods that Nur al-Din used to promote his Islamic credentials, it is worth placing them within the wider context. As indicated in Chapter 2, in 1055 the Sunni Seljuks ousted the Shi‘ite Buyids from power, thus replacing the Shi‘ite caliphal ‘deputy’ with a Sunni one. Under the Buyids, Shi‘ites had enjoyed considerably more freedom of worship than they had previously, receiving official recognition and support. In the tenth century other Shi‘ite dynasties had also established themselves as rulers in various parts of the Muslim world, including, as we have seen, the Fatimids in Egypt, and in the eastern Muslim world a struggle for supremacy was taking place between Sunni and Shi‘ite rulers and scholars. As a result, when they advanced westwards the Seljuks found themselves drawn into this struggle, patronizing Sunni scholars and institutions in what is commonly termed the ‘Sunni revival’ of the eleventh century. Of particular importance were madrasas (religious colleges), where Sunni Islam was studied and promoted, and which became the standard institutions for the education of religious scholars and state officials. With the support of the new rulers, these and other Sunni religious institutions spread across the Great Seljuk Sultanate. However, the internecine conflict that followed the death of Malik-Shah distracted the political classes from their support of religious institutions, with the result that the revival slowed, though in some cities such as Damascus we continue to see the foundation ofmadrasas and other religious buildings (Tabbaa, 2001: 19–21).

Madrasa: Madrasas were colleges where various subjects were taught, but especially Islamic religion, theology and law. Under the Seljuks Sunni madrasas proliferated and became the standard institutions where prospective state officials and religious scholars received their education. Madrasas continued to be founded by the Zangids, Ayyubids and Mamluks throughout the crusading period.

Soon after taking power, Nur al-Din embarked on a propaganda campaign that acted as a ‘revival of the Sunni revival’, seeking to promote Sunni Islam in his domains and advocate for Muslim unity against the Franks. This campaign expressed its aims in a number of ways. Like his Seljuk predecessors, Nur al-Din sponsored the foundation of numerous religious institutions, including madrasas in particular. Lev has noted that during Nur al-Din’s reign 56 madrasas were founded in the territories that his domain eventually encompassed; before his reign there were only 16 (Lev, 2008: 275). These were, naturally, not the only religious institutions that Nur al-Din sponsored. In addition to madrasas, there were also lodges and convents for Sufis, shrines, mosques and, in particular, the celebrated dar al-‘adl mentioned above, which was built in Damascus in about 1163; Ibn al-Athir sees the foundation of this institution as so representative of the piously just activity of Nur al-Din that he devotes a section of his dynastic history of the Zangids to it (Ibn al-Athir, 1963: 168). In addition to building mosques, Nur al-Din also added to or restored a number of older mosques, in particular building several minarets between 1165 and 1170. This included adding minarets to a number of small mosques in Damascus that would not normally have had them. These minarets, towering over the urban landscape, acted as witnesses to the Islamic identity of the cities in which they were built and testified to Islam’s dominance there, and in the case of Damascus they also emphasized its role as Nur al-Din’s centre of jihad propaganda (Tabbaa, 1986: 235–6). As Tabbaa has shown, the foundation of these various religious institutions was also accompanied by careful consideration of the ways that they should be decorated. In line with earlier precedents, vegetal and geometric ornament (arabesque) was used, through the naturalistic but also geometrically ordered shapes that it employed, to make allusions to the garden of Paradise and the divinely ordered universe. Meanwhile muqarnas (stalactite or honeycomb) vaulting, reflecting Baghdadi models, reinforced Nur al-Din’s ties with the ‘Abbasid caliphate while also invoking both the heavens and the idea of an atomistic universe under divine control. At the same time, new, more legible cursive forms of Arabic script were employed for inscriptions, thus making their texts easier to read and hence more effective as communicators of messages. In addition, the scripts were clearly different from Fatimid ones and reflected ‘Abbasid precedents, again reinforcing Nur al-Din’s demonstrations of loyalty to the ‘Abbasid caliphs (Tabbaa, 2001: passim).

As Tabbaa has noted, the inscriptions that were made on monuments sponsored by Nur al-Din show important differences from those made for his father. In particular, Nur al-Din largely abandoned his father’s use of Turkish titles and opted instead for purely Arabic ones, in order to emphasize his position as the ruler of an Arab state. The most prominent of his titles were al-‘adil (the just) and al-mujahid (the wager of jihad) (Tabbaa, 1986: 226). Thus Nur al-Din sought to emphasize both the just nature of his rule and his devotion to the jihad. Probably the best known of the monuments that Nur al-Din patronized was a minbar (pulpit), which he commissioned around 1168, probably with the intention of placing it in the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem once he had reconquered the holy city (Plate 2). Nur al-Din did not live long enough to see his wish fulfilled, but the minbar was subsequently placed in the mosque by Saladin, where it remained until it was destroyed by a Christian fanatic in 1969. Among its inscriptions is the following:

Minbar: A pulpit in a mosque, from which speeches and prayers are given, including the khutba (sermon) at the Friday noon prayer.

The slave needy of [God’s] mercy, the one who is thankful for His favour, the mujahid for His cause, the one stationed to fight against the enemies of His faith, al-Malik al-‘Adil [the Just King] Nur al-Din [Light of the Faith], the pillar of Islam and the Muslims, the establisher of the rights of the oppressed against oppressors, Abu’l-Qasim Mahmud ibn Zangi ibn Aq Sunqur, the helper of the Commander of the Faithful [the caliph], commissioned the construction [of this minbar]. May God honour his victories and preserve his power. May He exalt his signs and spread his standards and banners to the east and west. May He strengthen the supporters of his state and abase those who are ungrateful for his favour. May He grant him conquest with His help and gladden his eyes with victory and closeness to Him. At Your mercy, O God of the Worlds! That took place in the months of the year 564 [1168–9].

(Matériaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum, 1925: 394;
Tabbaa, 1986: 233; Lev, 2008: 271)

If this inscription were to be taken at face value, it would seem that Nur al-Din was hoping to achieve great victories in the military jihad in his own lifetime, and if we accept that the minbar was made for the Aqsa Mosque, then it would also seem that Nur al-Din’s primary target was Jerusalem. It is also worth noting that the language used emphasizes Nur al-Din’s desire to achieve closeness to God and to receive God’s support (Tabbaa, 1986: 233). Thus we see Nur al-Din fusing his assertions of piety and obedience to God with his military jihad against the Franks, with a particular focus on Jerusalem.

The increasing importance of Jerusalem in the Muslim counter-crusading consciousness is also discernible in the literature and other written documents that we have from Nur al-Din’s reign. Particularly tantalizing is a letter written by Nur al-Din to the ‘Abbasid caliph that is quoted by the historian Abu Shama (1203–67), in which Nur al-Din himself identifies Jerusalem as his primary goal (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 151). Also of particular relevance is the fada’il literature relating to Jerusalem. As indicated previously,fada’ilworks concentrated on the merits of a particular place or practice. Such merits were normally articulated principally through the collection of quotations from the Qur’an and hadith that illustrated the virtues of the place or practice about which the author was writing, with the author often adding commentary and explanations thereof. Even before the Crusades, fada’il works on Jerusalem had been written by a number of authors; the earliest known work in this regard is Fada’il al-Bayt al-Muqaddas (The Merits of Jerusalem) written in 1019 by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Wasiti, a religious scholar from the Shafi‘i school who preached in the Aqsa Mosque [Doc. 8]. During the latter half of the twelfth century, the number of works of this type being written or disseminated grew rapidly, and continued to do so in the following centuries (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 162–3). Al-Wasiti’s work itself was used in both preaching and writing by a number of later scholars including such distinguished figures as Ibn al-Jawzi, mentioned above, and the Damascene Ibn ‘Asakir (1105–76), who were important figures in the propagation of Nur al-Din’s propaganda. In particular, Sivan credits Ibn ‘Asakir with the revival of the genre (Dajani-Shakeel, 1986: 206; Sivan, 1968: 62–70).

Why was Jerusalem so important? As Hadia Dajani-Shakeel has demonstrated, the city was important to the Muslims of the time for a range of reasons, which can be grouped under three major themes. First, Abraham, regarded as the first Muslim, the builder of the Ka‘ba and the father of Ishmael, lived in Jerusalem before he moved to Mecca, and many traditions linked the two cities and suggested that Muslims had the right to control them both. Jerusalem was also home to other prophets and Hebron, nearby, was the site of Abraham’s grave. Second, Jerusalem was both the original direction of prayer for the Muslims and the city to which the Prophet Muhammad travelled on his isra’ (miraculous night journey), subsequently rising on his mi‘raj (ascension) to visit the heavens and meet with God, with the Dome of the Rock being seen as marking the actual place from which he ascended. Thus it was an important pilgrimage destination. Finally, Jerusalem was regarded as the future site of the Last Judgement, and being buried there was regarded as being particularly meritorious (Dajani-Shakeel, 1986: 206–13). Thus in giving prominence to the city in propaganda, Nur al-Din and his successors drew on a powerful symbol that loomed large in Muslim views of their sacred past, present and future.

The heightened atmosphere of jihad that existed during the reign of Nur al-Din also stimulated the production of other works on the topic. Poetic compositions by figures such as Ibn al-Qaysarani (1085–1154), Ibn Munir (1080–1153) and ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani (1125–1201) praise Nur al-Din’s virtues and devotion to the jihad. In addition to the fada’il works on Jerusalem, the period also sees the increased production of fada’il works on the topic of jihad, as well as other works in similar vein (al-Sulami’s work, mentioned in Chapter 3, falls into this category); for example, Ibn ‘Asakir himself produced, at Nur al-Din’s request, a compilation of 40 hadiths on the topic of jihad that could be used to encourage the Muslim mujahidin and which proved to be highly influential in the centuries that followed (Mourad and Lindsay, 2007: 37–55, 2013: passim). Meanwhile in Aleppo, Nur al-Din’s original capital, an anonymous author produced a work in Persian entitled Bahr al-Fava’id (The Sea of Precious Virtues). This work falls into a genre called ‘Mirrors for Princes’, works that were intended to provide guides for good conduct to Muslim rulers. The Aleppine author devotes significant attention to the subject of jihad, in both its greater and lesser manifestations, as well as providing some less than positive impressions about Christianity (see Chapter 6); in this way his work seems to reflect the atmosphere of the times. It also seems likely that rousing jihad sermons, the texts of which have for the most part not survived, were being given in mosques throughout the lands held by Nur al-Din (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 161–7).

Mirrors for Princes: A genre of Muslim literature that takes the form of books of guidance for rulers on good conduct and wise and just governance.

The sheer magnitude of the jihad propaganda campaign mounted by Nur al-Din is impressive, but to what extent can we regard it as proof that Nur al-Din was genuinely motivated by piety and a desire to wage the jihad, and to what extent should we regard it as a tool that he used to serve his political ambitions? Clearly a number of writers and architects of the time sought to portray Nur al-Din as devoted to the jihad and pious, just Muslim rule. However, a number of modern scholars, including Michael Köhler, Taef El-Azhari and Yaacov Lev, have questioned Nur al-Din’s apparent devotion to the holy war. As indicated earlier, Köhler regards Nur al-Din’s use of jihad propaganda as simply a way of advancing his political ambitions (Köhler, 1991: 239). Lev concurs with Köhler and also argues that Nur al-Din’s promotion of Sunni Islam was similarly motivated (Lev, 2008: 276–7). El-Azhari, in the meantime, points out that the propaganda call to Muslim unity for the jihad that Nur al-Din mounted when seeking to negotiate the takeover of Damascus was supplemented by an economic blockade aimed at starving the city into submission (El-Azhari, 1997: 264–70). Certainly it is also striking that Nur al-Din frequently waged war on fellow Muslims, which calls into question his concern for the welfare of the Muslim community. However, it is equally striking how personally involved Nur al-Din seems to have been in various activities related to the promotion and conduct of the jihad in its various forms, when at times he could arguably have delegated such activities to others; he often led his own armies, and he himself would appear at the dar al-‘adl in Damascus to hear the grievances of his subjects. He is also said to have adopted a more pious, ascetic lifestyle after two bouts of illness and a defeat by the Franks in 1163. While such activities could be interpreted as careful public-relations exercises, they can also be seen as testifying to genuine piety. With regard to the wars that Nur al-Din waged against other Muslims, he may have recognized that in the fractious political environment of the Muslim Levant, unity in the military jihad against the Franks was something that could only be imposed by force.

Of course, given the complexities of human nature we should perhaps be wary of seeing Nur al-Din’s activities (and those of later figures such as Saladin) in terms of a binary model that places religious piety and political ambition in opposition to one another. Nur al-Din may well have viewed his political and territorial aims as being appropriate within the context of his faith, with the gains that he made being his just reward from God for his piety and devotion. Thus his religious beliefs and worldly desires could be seen as inextricably linked rather than automatically opposed to one another. Ultimately it is impossible to tell to what extent Nur al-Din was motivated by religious zeal or political goals, but the end result of his efforts was that the Muslims of the region experienced a heightened atmosphere of Sunni piety and counter-crusading sentiment, with Nur al-Din himself at its centre.


As indicated above, Saladin became the new Fatimid vizier after the death of Shirkuh in 1169. Nur al-Din seems to have expected Saladin to abolish the Fatimid caliphate as soon as possible and rule Egypt as his deputy, but from early on Saladin seems to have shown signs of resistance that Nur al-Din found troubling. In spring of 1170 he sent his faithful vassal, Saladin’s father Najm al-Din Ayyub, to Egypt, possibly to remind Saladin of his obligations, and then wrote to Saladin in June 1171 demanding that the latter establish ‘Abbasid authority in Egypt, something that Saladin did only after a further delay of over two months (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 38 and 45–6). Nur al-Din then ordered Saladin to join him in an attack on Transjordan. Saladin set out with an army and attacked Shawbak, forcing the surrender of its garrison, but then withdrew before meeting with Nur al-Din, claiming that there were disturbances in Cairo that had to be dealt with. Nur al-Din refused to accept Saladin’s excuses and prepared to depose him, but relented when Saladin wrote to re-affirm his loyalty [Doc. 9]. A similar sequence of events took place in 1173, and the following year the exasperated Nur al-Din prepared an expedition to Egypt to bring Saladin to heel. However, he died before he could set out, and Saladin was spared his sovereign’s anger.

Saladin’s reluctance to co-operate with his master is perhaps understandable; he must have recognized the usefulness of having a Frankish ‘buffer zone’ between his territories and those of Nur al-Din, though as Lyons and Jackson note, it is unlikely that he was so obtuse as to need this to be pointed out to him, as Ibn al-Athir asserts. By the same token, by avoiding meeting with Nur al-Din he also avoided being removed from his position as ruler of Egypt by his lord, which enabled him to consolidate his position and establish his independence there (Lyons and Jackson, 1984: 48). As a result of this, he was well placed to expand his influence into Syria after Nur al-Din’s death.


The period covered by this chapter sees the seeds of jihad sentiment that we saw planted in the previous chapter grow, under Nur al-Din’s patronage, into a wide-ranging and dynamic propaganda campaign. Through a variety of means Nur al-Din sought to promote both Muslim unity, under his command, in the military jihad against the Franks and, in a more widespread fashion, a revival of Sunni Islam. This campaign included not only the propagation of his image as the mujahid par excellence in both written texts and architecture (including architectural decoration and inscriptions), but also the return of Egypt to the fold of Sunni Islam through the destruction of the Fatimid caliphate.

In the meantime, the Muslims were also learning more about the Franks, to the point that they seem to have been able to exploit the divisions between them. This, in combination with increasing Muslim unity, enabled the Muslims to mount more effective resistance to the crusaders. Elisséeff sees the defeat of the Second Crusade at Damascus as the turning point in the history of the Latin states, in that to him it foreshadowed the eventual victory over the Franks of a unified Syro-Egyptian polity (Elisséeff, 1967: Vol. 2, p. 426). It is that eventual unification and victory, as well as their aftermath, that we will trace in the next chapter.


The standard work on Nur al-Din is Nikita Elisséeff’s monumental study, Nur ad-Din: Un Grand Prince Musulman de Syrie au Temps des Croisades (511–569 H./1118–1174) (1967). On Nur al-Din’s career and propaganda campaign see also Carole Hillenbrand,The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a); Yaacov Lev, ‘The Jihad of Sultan Nur al-Din of Syria’ (2008); and (on poetry), Hadia Dajani-Shakeel, ‘Jihad in Twelfth-Century Arabic Poetry’ (1976). On Ibn ‘Asakir in particular, see Suleiman A. Mourad and James E. Lindsay, The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period: Ibn ‘Asakir of Damascus (1105–1176) and His Age, with an Edition and Translation of Ibn ‘Asakir’s The Forty Hadiths for Inciting Jihad (2013); their ‘Rescuing Syria from the Infidels: The Contribution of Ibn ‘Asakir of Damascus to the Jihad Campaign of Sultan Nur al-Din’ (2007); and James E. Lindsay (ed.), Ibn ‘Asakir and Early Islamic History (2001). For further discussion of religious life in the period, see Daniella Talmon-Heller, Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria: Mosques, Cemeteries and Sermons under the Zangids and Ayyubids (1146–1260) (2007 a). On architecture and inscriptions see Yasser Tabbaa, ‘Monuments with a Message: Propagation of Jihad under Nur al-Din (1146–74)’ (1986); and The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival (2001). Taef Kamal el-Azhari’s The Saljuqs of Syria during the Crusades (1997) contains discussions of the impacts of the Second Crusade and Nur al-Din’s takeover on Damascus. Further reading on the career of Saladin will be provided in the next chapter, but on the Egyptian period see in particular Yaacov Lev, Saladin in Egypt (1999).

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