Saladin by John Man (historical biography, 2016).
This excellent biography is anything but a dry recap of an important historical figure’s exploits. Man is a fine storyteller, as well as a thorough and responsible historian.
To begin with, he sets the scene expertly–telling of the tangled political, religious and social circumstances this most famed of all Kurdish Muslim leaders was born into. Like anyone, Saladin was a product of his environment (about which I knew little prior to this book). Therefore, I was fascinated and glad to learn about the mentors who nurtured the future leader from boyhood–including his cultured and loyal father, his warrior uncle and Nur al-Din, the ambitious king who they all served, and who Saladin eventually succeeded as the principle leader of Muslim resistance to the Crusader States.
Likewise, Man provides fair-minded insights into the other figures–both allies and family, rivals and outright enemies of Saladin (and several figures who were, at one time or another two or more of these).
Man makes no bones about admiring this warrior-king and respecting his achievements. But he doesn’t shrink from acknowledging that, at times, Saladin could be a harsh, even brutal and that he ultimately failed in building the lasting and peaceful Islamic unity he dreamed of. But then again, it was a harsh and brutal time and in that context his personal honesty, his generous and forgiving nature (even shown to most of his opponents), and his selfless dedication to his chosen cause–that being his effort to unite his fellow Sunni Muslims and drive out the Christian Crusaders whom he saw as invading heathens.
Having chronicled Saladin’s life, his victories and defeats (military, diplomatic and social alike), Man offers up a telling chapter on his subject’s leadership qualities–especially the rare skill he showed in blending the use of ‘hard power’ (military force) and ‘soft power’ (moral persuasion, honest dealing with friend and foe alike) to achieve his goals.
Man examines how and why this medieval Muslim leader is still remembered today, and considered a heroic figure in both the Muslim and the Western world. And he concludes with the sad but indisputable observation that many of the very same forces, dangers and troubles of Saladin’s time persist today, only with no leader such as he in sight.