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Sunday 25 November 2012

Saladin in Limbo

Another of my short ebooks has just come out – this one on the subject of The Battle of Arsuf, which was the turning point of the Third Crusade in 1191. The book doesn’t really have any significant Fortean content (despite having the Knights Templar in it), but there is an interesting fact that falls in the "Strange but True" category in the very first paragraph:
Yusuf ibn Ayyub (“Joseph, son of Job”) was born in Islamic Mesopotamia around the year 1137, and given the honorific title Salah ad-Din, meaning “Righteousness of the Faith”. To Europeans he became known as Saladin. Even among the Christians who were his sworn enemies, he had a reputation as a gallant and courageous warrior. A century after his death, the Italian poet Dante placed Saladin not in Hell but in the limbo of “virtuous non-Christians”, along with the great heroes of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Renaissance notion of Limbo was something I mentioned in an earlier post (Descent into Limbo). In the early days of Christianity, things were straightforwardly clear-cut: all non-Christians were uniformly wicked and automatically went to Hell. But by the Renaissance, Europeans were rediscovering the wisdom and depth of their pagan past, as embodied in the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome. So they came up with the notion of Limbo—neither Hell nor Heaven—where the virtuous men and women of pre-Christian times could reside in relative peace and comfort for eternity.

The most detailed description of Limbo can be found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s. Dante was an archetypal Renaissance Man, and had enormous respect for the pre-Christian culture of Europe. He took the opportunity to put all his favourite heroes and heroines from ancient Greece and Rome in Limbo – from fellow poets like Homer and Ovid to mythical heroes like Hector and Aeneas and noble Roman ladies like Cornelia Africana and Lucretia. And he lists more than a dozen philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Diogenes, Anaxagoras, Zeno, Heraclitus, Euclid and Ptolemy – all of whom featured two centuries later in another Renaissance masterpiece, Raphael’s The School of Athens.

To his credit, Dante puts not only ancient Greeks and Romans in Limbo, but some recently deceased Islamic scholars as well. There is Averroes, who is also featured in The School of Athens—and died only a few decades before Dante was born—and an earlier Muslim philosopher named Avicenna. But the oddest inclusion of all is Saladin.

Saladin wasn’t a philosopher, although by all accounts he was a scholarly and learned individual who was famed for his wisdom and generosity. But first and foremost he was a military leader. Twenty-first century values notwithstanding, this wouldn’t by itself have been a block to being considered “virtuous” in the Middle Ages – Dante also honours Julius Caesar with a place in Limbo. But Caesar was a European, whereas Saladin fought against Europeans – and only a century or so before Dante was writing.

Saladin united the Islamic world against the Christian Crusaders, and set the stage for Islamic supremacy in the Middle East. So it’s no surprise that he is a great hero to Muslims, and that he is respected and revered by many modern-day historians. But it really is a surprise to find a 14th century Christian writer like Dante treating him with such honour. This strikes me as an extraordinarily enlightened view – even today, Westerners have great reluctance to say anything generous about their military opponents.

Needless to say, if you want the full details of Saladin’s role in the Third Crusade, you should read my ebook: Arsuf – 1191. This is my fifth contribution to the Bretwalda Battles series – I mentioned the first two in earlier posts (London versus the V-2 rockets and The Siege of Lachish). The other two are on non-Fortean subjects (Rolling Thunder
and Sinking the Bismarck) but well worth a read for anyone interested in military history.


Peni R. Griffin said...

But the Honorable Enemy is an well-established trope, especially in martial cultures. Generally there's only one at a time. You won't find anybody to say a good word about Nazis - but most Americans, from the 30's on who have any knowledge of Axis military personnel think of General Rommel with respect.

Andrew May said...

Thanks -- you make an interesting point in your first sentence, which hadn't occurred to me although it makes sense now you say it. The specific case of Rommel had occurred to me though, which has almost become a cliche. The fact that he tried to kill Hitler would make him a hero in anyone's book, of course, but he was respected by the Allies even before that.

From a British point of view, the closest analogy I could think of to the respect mediaeval Christians had for Saladin was Mahatma Gandhi, who belonhed to a completely different culture and a completely different religion, and devoted his life to throwing the British out of India, and yet is almost universally regarded with the highest respect in this country. But then Gandhi was a pacifist, and the very opposite of a military leader.