Salah ad-Deen al-Ayubi: The Great Liberator

Miftaah Institute
“It was on this day (4th March 1193) that the liberator of the Holy Land and one of the greatest leaders who ever tread the earth - Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi returned back to his Lord. There is not a man, woman or child in this ummah who came after him except that they are indebted to him.”-Shaykh Mohammed Aslam

It is the Sunnah of Allah that He executes His will through some natural means, which only serves to strengthen the faith of those who examine these signs and ponder over them. History reveals that in Islam’s darkest times, this religion was safeguarded through beacons of light in the form of righteous individuals who upheld the true Islam. Adhering to the Sunnah of Muhammad ﷺ, they opposed injustice. They stood as pillars with their qualities of sacrifice, unflinching faith, morality, spiritual excellence, and intellect. We find that despite the attacks Muslims have faced, the Ummah always persevered and continued. By the will of Allah, it will continue to do so, as long as individuals hold fast to their Deen and follow the examples of those who suffered and triumphed before. The following article seeks to highlight the great uniter of the Muslims and the liberator of Jerusalem, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi.

Early Life

Yusuf ibn Ayyub, more commonly known as Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi, was born in 532 AH/1137 CE in the city of Tikrit, Iraq. The city was conquered by the Muslims 16 AH/637 CE during the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab. Immediately after Salâh ad-Deen’s birth, his father Najem ad-Deen Ayub, paternal uncle Asad ad-Deen Shirkuh, and their families left Tikrit. They migrated to Mosul and were the guests of Mosul’s governor ‘Imad ad-Deen Zangi. ‘Imad ad-Deen Zangi was a Turkic noble, at a young age, he was appointed to lead the governments of both Mosul and Aleppo. Zangi consolidated power in Syria and Iraq after a civil war between the heirs of the Seljuk Empire. He would go on to capture the fortress of Edessa, one of the main Crusader establishments and an aggressive base for Crusader incursions into Muslim lands. His son, Noor ad-Deen Zangi, acquired two more cities, Baalbeck and Damascus. Noor ad-Deen trusted Najm ad-Deen to govern Baalbeck, thus, Salâh ad-Deen would spend the first part of his childhood in Baalbeck. In Baalbeck, he studied Islamic knowledge and the art of war. In his later childhood, he lived in Syria where he carefully analyzed the trends and developments in the Muslim lands, which were epitomized by the conflict with the Crusaders. Salâh ad-Deen had a keen interest for Islamic studies. According to Dr. Ali M. Sallâbi’s Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi: The Establishment of the Ayubid State, “he [Salâh ad-Deen] memorized the Qur’an, studied fiqh and the Hadith and studied under the leading scholars of Syria and Mesopotamia”. The British oriental historian Stanley Lane-Poole discussed his interests in Islamic studies:

His literary tastes tended to the theological, he loved poetry indeed, but less than keen dialectic, and to hear holy traditions traced and verified, canon law formulated, passages in the Koran explained, and sound orthodoxy vindicated, inspired him with a strange delight.

In 546 AH/1150 CE, Salâh ad-Deen served his paternal uncle Asad ad-Deen Shirkuh who was a companion of Noor ad-Deen. Noor ad-Deen took a special interest in Salâh ad-Deen due to his intellect and wisdom. Salâh ad-Deen served as Noor ad-Deen’s private secretary and would act as a liaison between  Noor ad-Deen and his senior commanders such as his uncle. In this time, Salâh ad-Deen benefitted from the company of his mentors such as his father, his uncle, and Noor ad-Deen. Having good company and wise mentors is a characteristic of the great saviors of Islam. There are many descriptions of the character of Noor ad-Deen. He was eager to implement the correct interpretation of the Sharia and abolish all the wayward customs and traditions of Egypt and Syria. He devoted his nights to prayer and patronized scholarship. He was a man of unflinching faith, confident in his extensive preparations and always turning to Allah (SWT) for success on the battlefield. Outside of the battlefield, he was extremely generous to the poor and the needy. His advisers suggested that funds earmarked for charity would be put to better use if diverted to the war effort.

Noor ad-Deen responded, “The poor have a right to derive benefit from the public revenues and so how can I ask them to forgo what is due to them.” Salâh ad-Deen excelled in his environment under the tutelage of accomplished and sincere leaders. He was even appointed chief of police in Damascus by Noor ad-Deen and successfully eradicated crime from the city.

Campaign in Egypt

Noor ad-Deen ordered Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi and his uncle to conduct a military campaign in Egypt. According to a counselor to Salâh ad-Deen, Cadi Baha’ ud-Din ibn Shaddad, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi felt dragged against his will when ordered to join the campaign. He felt he would be killed and that he would rather pursue studying the sacred knowledge of Islam. At the time, Egypt was wrought with rebellions and power vacuums. In addition, both Noor ad-Deen and the Crusader King Amalric in Jerusalem wrestled for the control of the region. The governor of Upper West of Egypt, Shawir ibn Mujair as-Sa’di,  rebelled against Egypt’s rulers, the Fatimid Caliphate. The caliphate dismissed as-Sa’di from his post so he asked Noor ad-Deen for help, offering an annual tribute should he be able to gain power in Egypt. News had reached Noor ad-Deen that King Amalric had attacked Egypt and some Fatimid generals were now supporting the Crusaders. Therefore, Noor ad-Deen dispatched Asad ad-Din Shirkuh and Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi to support as-Sa’di against the Crusader-supported Fatimid generals. Asad ad-Din defeated the rogue Fatimid generals and gave power to as-Sa’di. Shawir ibn Mujair as-Sa’di would double cross Noor ad-Deen’s men and ally with King Amalric. Asad ad-Din and Salâh ad-Deen cut their losses but returned to Egypt again in 562 AH/1166 CE. In 563 AH/1167 CE, the Crusader and Syrian army battled in Upper Egypt with Asad ad-Din and Salâh ad-Deen pressing on into Alexandria. After Alexandria was conquered, Salâh ad-Deen was appointed its leader and effectively resisted a siege by the Crusader and Byzantine troops. Eventually, an agreement was reached by both sides to withdraw from Egypt. The truce was broken by the Crusaders either because King Amalric sought to occupy Egypt after the Syrians withdrew or Amalric heard as-Sa’di was looking to re-ally with the Syrians. For a third time, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh and Salâh ad-Deen entered Egypt. Their presence made the Crusaders retreat without violence.

Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi was now the vizir, or head of government, in the Fatimid Caliphate. After gaining lordship in Egypt, Ibn Shaddad described how Salâh ad-Deen refocused his intentions:

The world and its pleasures lost all significance in his eyes. With a heart-felt sense of gratitude for the favour bestowed by God on him he gave up drinking, renounced the temptations of pleasure, and took to the life of sweat and toil which went on increasing with the passage of time.

He maintained strong relations with Noor ad-Deen and after the death of the Fatimid Caliph Al-’Adid, Salâh ad-Deen integrated Egypt back to the Abbasid Caliphate. He led the Egyptian province under the leadership of Noor ad-Deen who passed away in 569 AH/1173 CE. After Noor ad-Deen, his eleven year old son al-Malik as-Salih Isma’il took control of the kingdom. Divisions arose in the Caliphate’s leadership between the young sultan’s guardians and other princes. Princes would make treaties with Crusaders in order to gain an advantage over one another. Eventually, the people of Damascus invited Salâh ad-Deen to lead the nation. When Salâh ad-Deen received the invitation from the people, he traveled to Damascus and settled the political affairs under al-Malik as-Salih. Disturbed by the internal political turmoil and on a mission to unite the Muslims, he went on to conquer places such as Homs, Hamah, Al-Ma’arrah, Manbaj, ‘Azaz and others. He then returned to Egypt and was informed of the death of as-Salih. After conquering Aleppo from as-Salih’s successor in 579 AH/1182 CE, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi would go on to unify the Ummah by purging internal conflict and strengthening it against the Crusader threat. This marked the beginning of the Ayyubid Empire.  Through effective military strategy and diplomacy, Salâh ad-Deen would send his army to end a civil war between Muslims in Yemen and proceed to establish control over it, he conquered Tripoli, Narqah, and the eastern part of Tunisia to Qabis.

The Crusaders

One of the main threats to the Muslims were the Crusades from Europe. While Islam was dedicated to advancing an educational and intellectual agenda, European Christendom was focused on military might. Multiple factors contributed to the European crusade against the Holy Lands. First, it was a means to unify an infighting Europe against a single threat. Second, it could be a victory for the religious authority of Europe if its holy sites such as the birthplace of Jesus Christ could be secured. Third, it would be a strategic victory to crush the Islamic empires who were attacking the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Europe found weakness in the infighting between Muslim rulers. Some Muslim rulers even turned to Europe for assistance in defeating their rivals. The first crusade was in 490 AH/1096 CE, around 40 years before the birth of Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi. The crusaders swiftly captured greater Palestine and the coast of the Levant. Most notable, the Crusaders captured the city of Jerusalem in 493 AH/1099 CE and were vicious in their victory against the local populace. A first-hand account of the aftermath describes the event as violent:

So terrible, it is said, was the carnage which followed that the horses of the crusaders who rode up to the mosque of Omar were knee-deep in the stream of blood. Infants were seized from their feet and dashed against the walls or whirled over the battlements, while Jews were all burnt alive in the synagogue...a massacre followed in which the bodies of men, women and children were hacked and hewn until their fragments lay tossed together in heaps. The work of slaughter ended, the streets of the city were washed by Saracen prisoners.

Seventy thousand Muslims were estimated to have been killed after Jerusalem’s first take over. Since the First Crusade, Jerusalem was under Christian-Latin control. It is important to note that the sole strategic rationale for invasion of the Holy Lands were that the Muslims were dealing with internal strife. Therefore, it is only reasonable that a unified Muslim Ummah could take it back.

After establishing control over Greater Egypt and Syria, Salâh ad-Deen prepared his armies to expel the Crusaders from the Holy Lands and Jerusalem He only had to wait for the correct moment that would rally the most energy from his people. This came in the form of one of Islam’s bitter enemies, Reginald of Châtillon. Reginald of Châtillon, a crusader from Europe, married Constance, the princess of a Crusader state called Antioch. Antioch is located on the northwestern border of Syria. Reginald was described as a “cruel and violent” prince and fought with both the Byzantines and the Muslims. He was captured by the governor of Aleppo in 556/557 AH 1160/1161 CE and released fifteen years later. He travelled to Jerusalem and married Stephanie of Milly which gave him control of the Kerak region in western Jordan, a region frequented with Muslim caravans. From Kerak, Reginald violated a truce with Salâh ad-Deen when he plundered a Muslim caravan travelling through the area. Reginald also attempted to attack the city of Mecca and threatened to move the grave of the Prophet (SAW). When he attacked the caravan, he mocked the Muslims by telling them to ask the Prophet (SAW) for intervention. He then went on to massacre the caravan. The violation of the truce motivated Salâh ad-Deen and the Ummah to finally recapture Jerusalem.

Battle of Hattin and the Conquest of Jerusalem

The Battle of Hattin is considered to be one of the greatest victories for the Muslims in the Conquest for Jerusalem. Salâh ad-Deen sent his advisers around his territory and eventually rallied 20,000 to 30,000 troops. The Muslim army laid siege to a crusader town called Tiberias and settled there. The army was continuously supplied by the nearby Lake Tiberias. The Crusaders responded by sending an army of their own and attempted to settle by the Springs of Hattin, but the Muslim army blocked access to any water sources in the area. The hot weather took a large toll on the Crusaders. When the Crusader army made camp, the Muslim army surrounded the camp and demoralized the army with volleys of arrows, chanting, and setting fire to the dry grass. Salâh ad-Deen’s army attacked and effectively defeated the Crusader army. The King of Jerusalem Guy of Lusignan, Reginald of Chatillon, Humphrey IV of Tron, and others were taken captive. Salâh ad-Deen selected to personally execute the murderous Reginald of Chatillon. With the Crusader forces depleted in Jerusalem and its neighboring regions, the victory at Hattin made way for a straight shot toward Jerusalem. Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi would blockade Jerusalem in order wait the Crusaders out instead of invading. He sent an envoy to the Crusaders and requested them to surrender out of safety for the holy places and the civilians of the city. The Crusaders refused and Salâh ad-Deen attacked the city. A week later, the Crusaders surrendered and on the terms that the Crusaders were to leave Jerusalem within forty days and pay a ransom of ten dinars for each man, five for each woman, and two for each boy. However, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi provide money to the elderly who were leaving and offered animals for them to ride and carry their belongings on. He permitted prisoners to be reunited with their families. The elderly, the disabled, the poor, and clerics, were allowed to leave in peace without paying the ransom. Many Muslims would purchase many of the items they could not carry with them. Eventually, many were permitted to leave Jerusalem without paying the ransom out of Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi’s mercy and compassion. For Salâh ad-Deen and the Ummah, it was a tremendous victory. The conquest happened on a Friday, the 27th of Rajab 583 AH/1183 CE, the same day when the Prophet (SAW) led all the earlier prophets in prayer and when he ascended from Jerusalem to the heavens. Ibn Shaddad said, “It was the victory of victories...The joyful shouts of ‘God is Great’, and ‘There is no god but God rent the skies. After ninety years Friday prayer was again held in Jerusalem”.

Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi’s triumphs in unifying the Muslims triggered another Crusade from Europe. One of the leaders was Richard I of England, more commonly known as Richard the Lionheart. Appointed as Duke of Normandy at a young age, he showed military and political prowess which groomed him for the Third Crusade. Upon hearing that Jerusalem had fell to Salâh ad-Deen, he joined the Third Crusade and battled with Salâh ad-Deen over the course of a year. Richard would continuously try to penetrate the territories of Salâh ad-Deen in order to make way for another siege of Jerusalem. Richard successfully routed Salâh ad-Deen’s army  at the Battle of Arsuf in 588 AH/1191 CE. Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi would face off against Lionheart again at the Battle of Jaffa which ended in a three year truce. Salâh ad-Deen would continue to retain Jerusalem and Christian settlers would continue to visit the city.

His Qualities

One consistent quality of the saints of the past is that they would back away from the courts of kings and leadership out of fear for the state of their souls and the illusions of wealth and power. Indeed, many believers become lost in the materialistic world power can provide. Therefore, individuals who are grounded in their devotion to Allah (SWT) and can lead while maintaining that righteousness and piety is rare. Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi was one of these rare individuals and one of the Deen’s greatest.

Salah ad-Deen exemplified the importance of adhering to the tenets of Islam. Ibn Shaddad illustrated his determination:

He was regular in the performance of religious observances. Once he told me, ‘I have not performed a single congregational prayer alone for the past several years’. Even during his illness he would send for the Imam and force himself to perform the prayer behind him...He always kept the fast during the month of Ramadan...He delighted in hearing the Quran recited to him and it was not unoften that he listened three or four chapters of the Holy Scripture from the battlement guards whom he sometimes visited during the night. He listened to the Quran with all his heart and soul until tears trickled down his cheeks..The Sultan had an unflicinting trust and confidence in the beneficence of Allah. He used to turn with his heart and soul towards God in the moments of difficulty.

He was determined to adhere to the Islamic tenets that were difficult for him. During his later years he would struggle with making the fasts due to one illness after the other. Yet, he would have scribes note the days he missed so he could make fasts up at the earliest opportunity. He would encourage those around him to sit in the presence of scholars, especially those narrating the Hadith of the Prophet (SAW). He would weep out of love for Islam and the honor Allah (SWT) had bestowed upon him to unify the Ummah of the Prophet (SAW).

His Passing

In 589 AH/1192 CE, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi took ill and became seriously weak. Ibn Shaddad narrated that the sultan would have one of his shaykhs recite the Holy Quran next to him as he laid unconscious. When the verse was recited, “He is Allah than Whom there is no other God, the Knower of Invisible and the Visible” from Surah Al-hashr, Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi woke up  and said, “Verily this is correct” and he passed away. Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi, the great uniter and liberator of the Muslims passed away on Wednesday the 27th of Safar in 589 AH/1192 CE at the age of 55. The sultan left only one dinar and forty-seven dirhams when he died as he had given away much of his wealth to the poor. When we look at the life of Salâh ad-Deen, we see a life of both extraordinary leadership and integrity. If we want to create positive change and administer justice in the world, we do not need power. Many of the Muslim rulers at the time of Salâh ad-Deen had power and selected to feud with one another at the expense of the Muslims. Instead, Salâh ad-Deen’s first responsibility was to his character and submission to Allah (SWT), then after becoming grounded in his faith, he used his knowledge to lead his nation to victory.

We ask Allah (SWT) to give us the fortitude and guidance that Salâh ad-Deen al-Ayubi possesed to make positive change in our lives and for society. We ask Allah (SWT) to make us firmly grounded in our Deen so we can be effective leaders and role models for our Ummah.

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