Hugh Fitzgerald: Professor Ziedan on Saladin

The Egyptian scholar and historian of medieval Islam, Professor Youssef Ziedan, recently caused a great deal of controversy in Muslim Arab circles, roiling the waters when he put forth, on an Egyptian talk show, his argument as go why the “Al-Aqsa” mosque in Jerusalem is not, and cannot be, the real one. Professor Ziedan pointed out that there were no mosques in Jerusalem during Muhammad’s lifetime, that the Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, completed the mosque in Jerusalem in 705 CE, 73 years after the death of Muhammad, and began to identify that structure as the “al-Aqsa” mosque mentioned in the Qur’an (17:1) for political reasons. Because his main rival, Abdallah ibn Zubayr, had control over, and derived great prestige among Muslims as a result, the two holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina, Abd al-Malik wanted at least to possess the “Al-Aqsa” mosque, as the third holiest site in Islam. He simply identified the mosque he had built as that mentioned in the Qur’an as “the farthest mosque.” Professor Ziedan claims that the real Al-Aqsa mosque was on the road between Mecca and Ta’if, information which he found in the historian and early biographer of Muhammad, al-Waqidi. Naturally, Zeidan’s argument continues to stir up indignation — though, interestingly, nothing about it has yet appeared in the mainstream Western press — but no one has successfully rebutted his conclusions about the al-Aqsa mosque.

Ziedan, who has a habit of saying what he believes to be true, has also infuriated many Arabs with another of his public declarations. Last May, in a television interview, he described Saladin as “one of the most despicable figures in human history.”

Salahuddin Ayyubi (or Saladin) is one of the most esteemed Muslim figures of the medieval Islamic world, most importantly for taking back Jerusalem from the Crusaders by winning the battle of Hattin in 1187.

Yet Ziedan did not hold back from voicing quite a different view. He had been asked his opinion of Egyptian films on Islamic history, and among his examples of “historic fallacies” about Islam, he said the way Saladin was portrayed in current Islamic history did not reflect “his brutality against the Fatimids,” the founders of the Shi’a Islamic Caliphate that ruled Egypt and Syria in the 12th century. Saladin, though a Sunni, had been given key posts by the Shi’a Fatimid rulers of Egypt, but instead of being grateful, he managed to consolidate his power, overthrew the Fatimids, and destroyed them.

“Salahuddin is one of the most despicable figures in human history,” Ziedan told interviewer Amr Adeeb. “He committed crimes against the Fatimids.”

“Ziedan claimed that Saladin had isolated women from men [among the former rulers] in that era to prevent any descendants of the Fatimids in Egypt.

“He also said that Saladin ‘burnt one of the most important libraries in the world back then, located in Cairo,’ under the pretext of ‘confronting the Shiite ideology.’”

The reason why this image of Saladin is not common among today’s Muslim community is “intentionally political,” according to Ziedan (by this, Ziedan means that Saladin, as the peerless warrior who re-took Jerusalem from the Infidels, should be an exemplar for Arabs today).

Ziedan’s interview angered some Egyptian historians and scholars, who denounced his claims and questioned his motives in attacking esteemed figures in the history of Islam. He did not attack “esteemed figures,” but, rather, one figure, Saladin. He did not question Saladin’s feats as a military leader, but he found unforgivable his physical destruction of the Fatimids, his killing not just rulers but their whole families, including children, and setting alight important repositories of Islamic civilization, the libraries — including one especially irreplaceable library — of the Fatimids in Cairo.

The attacks on Ziedan were not based on anything he had said about Saladin that was untrue. No one denied that Saladin had used the position granted to him by the Fatimids to consolidate his own power and then to destroy those same Fatimids who had, despite his being a Sunni, trusted him with high office. He was criticized for not treating Saladin as an Islamic military hero, and therefore not to be attacked, regarded — no matter what else he might have done — as always beyond reproach. Zubeida Attallah, a professor of modern history at Egypt’s Ain Shams University, said: “Why do we attack our symbolic figures and the values that we possess?” in reference to Saladin, whom she recalled as a distinguished historical figure and “the hero of the Battle of Hattin, during which he fought the Crusaders and took back Jerusalem.”

The figure of Saladin in the West has been that of the chivalrous warrior. This account, found in Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman, was entirely fictional, as Scott knew, but he was more interested in romanticizing the past than in engaging in the kind of historical investigation that might have uncovered a sometimes disturbing truth. In his study, Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, Ibn Warraq has chapters on Saladin, “Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England” and “Saladin: Myths, Legends and History,” in which, among much other useful debunking, he notes that Scott made much of the putative friendship between Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted. In reality, the two never met.

Ibn Warraq adduces the account by the 12th-century historian William of Tyre, who initially depicted Saladin favorably but then, as he learned more, changed his view. William later portrayed Saladin “as an ambitious enemy treacherously bludgeoning the [Fatimid] caliph to death and running through all his progeny with a sword, and as a usurper devoid of all human feeling. The same author also points to the sultan’s humble origin and attributes his political ascent to chance rather than inheritance.” The myth in the West of Saladin as a chivalrous and fearless warrior still exists; in the Islamic East, there is less about his chivalry, more about his skill as a warrior. Saladin’s cruel treatment of the Fatimids “and their progeny,” that William of Tyre and Youssef Ziedan both mention, is hardly known in either the Christian West or the Islamic East; it would undermine the hagiographic versions favored by both.

Youssef Ziedan has certainly caused a welcome stir in still waters both with his discussion of what formerly was undiscussable — the authenticity of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — and in refuting the received view of Saladin as a chivalrous warrior for Islam. I found his arguments in both cases compelling, his bravery in publicly stating them, to a Muslim Arab audience, admirable. There are deliberate efforts to keep his views from being disseminated outside Egypt. It is up to us to make Professor Youssef Ziedan, and his arguments, known more widely among Muslims, and in the West. Both his critical remarks on Saladin, as presented in this piece, and his startling argument about Al-Aqsa, that has been discussed previously at this site, will — one hopes — become better known, and provide a salutary shock to the system for Muslim True Believers. And eye-opening, too, for Western non-Muslims. Professor Ziedan has earned the right to a hearing. Let’s make sure he gets it.

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