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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Fundamental Decency


Leffler, Warren K., photographer. Work for hire made for U.S. News and World Report / Public domain

It is hardly surprising that we, the lookers-on, the ordinary people, those of us who are not in the public eye, the "average joes" to use the American terminology, tend to have little faith with the regard to the behaviour of many of our politicians and much of their decision-making. Leaders, our own and others, and politicians in general often seem to be motivated primarily by ego, and frequently by xenophobia. Our distrust with regard to those whom we have empowered through the ballet box is hardly surprising. Politics is a profession in which, it seems, one can only achieve greatness by being flexible, and often flexible in one's morals and beliefs. Those who go into public life inevitably discover that for all their initial good intentions they are continually required to make concessions and to say things that go against their own ethical outlook, and as time passes and they advance in the profession they often come to believe what they say, rather than say what they believe. Politician are often forced into taking actions that are in opposition to their principles, and if they do not do so and they fail, we say: "so and so has failed because he is too good, too honest, too considerate, lacks the necessary 'killer instinct". How sad it is that we should want our leaders to lack goodness, honesty and consideration, and to possess the cruelty that appears to be necessary in order to reach to pinnacle of political power.

But this is a very dispiriting outlook, and to be fair, even those successful politicians whose moral compasses have become corrupted, occasionally overcome their acquired instincts and revert to their original good intentions and fundamental decency and every so often a political leader will appear who is even willing to put everything on the line, risk his or her position, even life, in order to do the right thing. It is far from typical, but on occasion we come across examples of politicians who are capable of placing morality and humanity before personal gain.

One of the more admired leaders in the Middle Ages was Saladin. Like any political and religious leader of that time his actions were occasionally cruel and certainly would be condemned today when far lesser sins are castigated by supporters of overt political correctness. We live in an age when it has become acceptable to judge all past personalities, from Nebuchadnezzar to Mahatma Gandhi, by modern codes of ethics. No one is safe, not a Churchill, nor a Washington. The instincts of these modern censurers are perhaps good, but the outcome is often as unjust as what is being condemned. The world is not black and white. What is deemed good and just today may be regarded differently in the future, and who are we to judge the past? We can observe it, try to understand it and learn from it, but nothing more. For all his occasional brutality, one cannot but find remarkable the humane gestures Saladin frequently displayed in his relationship towards his greatest enemy - the Franks. Here are a few examples.

In 1174, when he learnt of the death of the Frankish king, Amaury, Saladin sent a condolence letter to the king's brother, Baldwin IV.* It appears to be a very compassionate and sincere letter. He spoke of Amaury as "the just and greatest king" and he heaped praise and good wishes on the new king, referring to him as "glorified" and wishing him a long reign, fortune, felicity, wealth and long-lasting success.

Is this the deceptive cynicism we are led to expect from politicians or was Saladin moulded of different clay? It might easily be regarded as insincere and hypocritical. To his nephew Farrukh-Shah Saladin wrote of Amaury in a different and disparaging tone: "May God curse him and abandon him and lead him to punishment..."** The letter to Baldwin has been seen by historians as "diplomatic usage rather than hypocrisy". But might it not be both diplomatic and sincere? Reading this letter, one gets a sense that the sultan truly meant what he wrote to Baldwin in way of condolence. It may be that to Baldwin he was expressing genuine feelings, whereas to his nephew it was a case of political pragmatism and he was writing what was expected of him. This is supported by evidence of the reciprocal amicable relations that had developed between Amaury and Saladin following the former's siege of Alexandria in August 1167 and is in line with other examples of Saladin's relationships with Christian leaders.***

On another occasion, in 1183 Saladin besieged the desert castle of Karak. The fortress was at the time in the possession of Saladin's most hated enemy, the obstreperous Raynald de Châtillon, a man who four years later Saladin would personally behead after defeating the Franks at the Battle of Hattin. However, on this occasion, during the siege Saladin displayed an example of exceptional civility. Raynald's stepson, Humphrey IV of Toron was at that time celebrating his marriage to King Baldwin IV's younger half-sister, Isabella. In the version of this event recorded by the chronicler Ernoul, Raynald's wife and the groom's mother Stephanie de Milly persuaded Saladin not to attack the tower in which the newly married young couple were lodged, and the sultan complied, although he continued to besiege the rest of the fortress.****

Saladin behaved honourably with King Guy when he took him captive at Hattin in July 1187. When he besieged Jerusalem in September-October the sultan reached a reasonable ransom agreement with the Frankish leaders in the city, allowing the citizens to keep many of their possessions, and he was not overly harsh in carrying out the ransom collection, permitting many of the poor to depart without making the payment. He set up guards in all the streets of the city to protect them from any harm before they departed and then had them escorted in safety to Christian territory. He permitted the widow of his arch enemy Raynald and the widow of King Amaury to leave the city without payment, and the patriarch to carry away with him the valuable treasures of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Nor did he subsequently destroy the church, though some among the Ayyubid leadership criticised him for that. Saladin had very cordial relations with Richard I during the Third Crusade, and he showed great concern when the English king fell ill in 1192, agreeing to a truce though he might have taken advantage of Richard's indisposition.


No leader lacks in weaknesses and the sultan certainly had many faults as an administrator, military strategist and tactician. But by the standards of the time in which he lived, certainly if we compare him to Baybars, the leader of the holy war against the Crusader states the following century, Saladin comes across as a man who on occasion was capable of remarkably moral and humane conduct.

* Elon Harvey, "Saladin Consoles Baldwin IV over the Death of his Father", Crusades 25, 2016, pp. 27-33.

** Malcolm Cameron Lyons and D.E.P. Jackson, Saladin. The Politics of Holy War, Cambridge, 1982, p. 75.

*** Harvey, "Saladin Consoles Baldwin IV", pp. 28-9.

**** Ernoul, Chronique d'Ernoul et de Bernard le Trésorier, ed. L. Mas Latrie, Paris, 1871, p. 103.

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