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The Crusades Part 3: Liberation


In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we analyzed the invasion of Muslim lands by Christian Crusaders from Europe and the effects that the occupation had on the Muslim world. The series continues here with the liberation of the third holiest site in Islam and victory over the Crusaders. 

The initial Muslim response to the Crusader invasion was indeed a sorry one. An ineffectual caliph in Baghdad did not bother rousing the Muslims to defend their holy places. The numerous Seljuk emirs around the Muslim world were too busy fighting each other. And the Shia Fatimid Empire in Egypt was regularly allying with the Crusaders in order to harm the Sunni Seljuks. The Muslims were in no position to stand up to the invasion. Slowly, however, the Muslims began to reunify and oppose the Crusaders.

The first emir to really stand up to the Crusaders and be successful was a man by the name of Imad al-Din Zengi. He was the emir of Aleppo (in present-day Syria) and Mosul (in present-day Iraq). Although he was still similar to the many fueding Turkish emirs in many ways, he was the first leader in a long time that show the characteristics and qualities needed by a Muslim leader. Although in his lands there were many palaces he could stay at, he chose to live a simple life, just like the soldiers under his authority. He was so austere in fact, that the great Muslim historian, Ibn Athir, referred to him as “a gift of divine providence to the Muslims”.

With his well-disciplined and highly trained army, Zengi began the reconquest of Muslim lands by taking the city of Edessa in 1144. This was the first city that the Crusaders used as a base in Syria during the initial invasion, and it now became the starting point of the liberation of the Holy Land. Zengi had grand plans for a full-scale united Muslim attack on the Crusaders, but he came to an unexpected end in 1145 when he was assassinated by a Frankish slave. However, because of the emphasis Imad al-Din Zengi placed on unity of the Muslims, the small empire he founded did not break apart when he died, but it went to his son, Nur al-Din Zengi. Nur al-Din continued his father’s wars and attacked the Principality of Antioch, while making an alliance with the emir of Damascus, to unite the two great Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

For a few decades, the younger Zengi continued the fight against the occupying forces of the Crusader kingdoms, but was unable to advance much. It was at this time that the Muslim leader that will eventually bring victory comes to the scene: Salah al-Din.

During this time, Egypt was under the control of the Shia Fatimid Empire. At times, this empire cooperated with the Crusaders to the detriment of the rest of the Muslims. In the 1160s, however, the Fatimid Empire was very weak and the Crusaders decided to invade Egypt and try to conquer it. Zengi decided to send his army to rescue his Muslim brothers. At the head of this army, he appointed a Kurdish general: Shirkuh. The Kurds are an ethnic group split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Shirkuh brought along his nephew, Salah al-Din.

The Muslim army made it to Egypt in time to defeat the Crusader army and rescue it’s Muslim population. Soon after this victory, Shirkuh died of a stomach illness. His nephew, Salah al-Din took control of the army and government of Egypt, effectively ending the Fatimid Dynasty.

Before we continue into the political intrigue surrounding Salah al-Din, let us look at his qualities and characteristics as a Muslim. By age 36, Salah al-Din was one of the most powerful people in the world as the leader of Egypt. And yet, all the chroniclers of the time, Muslim and Christian, talk about his humility. He never cared about the pleasures of this life and remained focused on his role in the liberation of Muslim lands. It was said that he never laughed in any situation. When confronted about this, he replied “how can I laugh when Masjid al-Aqsa is under the control of the Crusaders?” His advisers that were in charge of the treasury had to hide away a sum of gold from him as a reserve, because if he knew it existed, he would spend it to better his army in the face of the enemy. The people around him used to say that he was very harsh on himself, and very lenient on others, which echos the character of the first 4 Rightly Guided Caliphs of Islam. This was the type of character that was needed to liberate Muslim lands.

Soon after Salah al-Din took control of Egypt, observers thought that a conflict would soon develop between Salah al-Din, and his emir, Nur al-Din Zengi. Salah al-Din denied this and insisted that he was loyal to Zengi and wanted to remain united with him to defeat the Crusaders. In any case, Zengi died in 1174, leaving Salah al-Din as the effective leader of both Syria and Egypt. His domain now surrounded the Crusaders in Palestine.

Salah al-Din immediately set about making sure that the Muslims were united to prepare for an attack on the Crusaders. He had to deal with the remnants of the Fatimid Shias, a group called the Assassins, who promoted their political goals through the assassination of Muslim and Crusader leaders. Despite their interference, Salah al-Din managed to keep the Muslims united in order to face the Crusaders.

This process took a few years, but by the early 1180s, Salah al-Din had an army ready to liberate the Holy Land from the Crusader occupation. The Crusader states at this time were very weak, had no strong leaders, and were disunited against each other; much the same situation that the Muslims were in when they lost the Holy Land 80 years earlier. In 1182, Salah al-Din crossed into Crusader territory and began the final confrontation with the Franks.

An especially brutal opponent of Salah al-Din’s was Reynald of Chatillon. He regularly harassed Muslims in the occupied lands, and attacked Muslim caravans on their way to the Hajj. He even threatened on more than one occasion to attack the cities of Makkah and Madinah themselves. Salah al-Din would not tolerate this attack on Islam itself and vowed the punish Reynald personally.

The battlefield of Hattin, in northern Palestine

Salah al-Din would get his chance at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. The Crusaders brought the majority of their army from Jerusalem to the battle, about 20,000 men. The united Muslims countered with a force of 30,000 men. The Crusaders, used to European battle, marched through the desert to the battlefield in heavy metal armor with a serious lack of water. By the time the battle began, they barely had the energy and ability to stand and walk, much less fight. In a quick and decisive battle, the Crusader army was devastated, and Reynald was taken prisoner. While Salah al-Din showed amnesty to most of the Crusader leaders, he personally executed Reynald, a just punishment for a man who had shown bigotry and disrespect to his adversaries.

With the main Crusader army destroyed, Salah al-Din was able to march on Jerusalem itself, which was lightly defended. On October 2nd, 1187, Salah al-Din’s army liberated the Holy City, 88 years 2 months and 17 days after it was captured by the Crusaders.

Salah al-Din victorious after the Battle of Hattin in 1187.

The real character of Salah al-Din is seen in his treatment of the Christians living in the city. 88 years before, the Crusaders massacred all the residents of the city, until the “blood was to the ankles”. In the Muslim liberation, Salah al-Din allowed everyone to peacefully leave the city with all their belongings if they paid a small ransom. And for the poor who could not afford the small ransom (around $50 in modern money), he allowed them to leave for free.

The liberation of Jerusalem provoked another European Crusade which arrived in the Holy Land in 1189. At the head of this Crusade was the English king, Richard the Lionheart. After a number of indecisive battles between Salah al-Din and Richard, the Crusade failed and Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands. Even through these battles, Salah al-Din continued his generosity and chivalric behavior. In one battle, he noticed that Richard’s horse was killed, so Salah al-Din sent him a horse from the Muslim army because he believed no general should ever have to be without a horse to lead his troops from. The generosity and kindness of Salah al-Din became a legend in Christian Europe among his enemies, who had great respect for him.

The leadership and dedication of Salah al-Din ushered in a new era of Muslim unity. Even after his death, the state he founded, the Ayyubid Dynasty (later the Mamluks) upheld his ideals and united the Muslims in the face of invasion for hundreds of years. The Holy Land of Palestine and Jerusalem stayed in Muslim hands until the year 1917, when it was conquered by an invading British army as part of the First World War. Although the days of Salah al-Din are long gone and we face new difficulties today, we must never forget the story of Muslim unity during the Crusades.

Timeline of Jerusalem in the Muslim Era:

Click and drag to scroll through the timeline


Hodgson, M. (1961). The Venture of Islam . (Vol. 2). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maalouf, A. (1984). The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. New York: Schocken.

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