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When July 4 Meant Defeat by Islam: The Battle of Hattin

(Editor’s note: The following account is adapted from the author’s new book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West. All quotes are cited there.)

Soon after liberating the ancient Christian city of Antioch from Muslim oppression, the First Crusaders managed to realize their primary goal: take Jerusalem from Islam in 1099.

Despite all the propaganda that surrounds the conquest of Jerusalem, there were very few Muslim calls to jihad (only one is known, and it quickly fell on deaf ears). After all, in the preceding decades, and thanks to Sunni and Shia infighting, local Muslim populations were hardly unused to such invasions and bloodbaths.

In Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir’s words:

While the Franks -- Allah damn them! -- were conquering and settling in a part of the territories of Islam, the rulers and armies of Islam were fighting among themselves, causing discord and disunity among their people and weakening their power to combat the enemy.

In this context, the pure doctrine of jihad -- warfare against infidels -- was lost to the average Muslim, who watched and suffered as Muslim empires and sects collided.

It was only during the reign of Imad al-Din Zengi (d. 1146) -- a particularly ruthless Turkish warlord and atabeg of Mosul and Aleppo -- and even more so under his son and successor, Nur al-Din (r. 1146-1174), that the old duty of jihad was resuscitated. They founded numerous madrasas, mosques, and Sufi orders all devoted to propagandizing the virtues of jihad and martyrdom. Contemporary literature makes clear that Islamic zeal (or, in modern parlance, “radicalization”) reached a fever pitch during their reigns.

It was in this context that a Kurd from Tikrit emerged on the scene. Salah al-Din -- the “Righteousness of Islam,” or Saladin (b. 1137) -- formerly one of Nur al-Din’s viziers, conquered Fatimid (Shia) Egypt in 1171.  On his master’s death, he quickly moved and added more Muslim territories -- Damascus and Aleppo -- to his growing empire, thereby realizing the crusaders’ worst fear: a united Islamic front.

According to his biographer, Baha’ al-Din, Saladin was a pious Muslim -- he loved hearing Koran recitals, prayed punctually, and “hated philosophers, heretics, and materialists and all opponents of the sharia.” Above all else he was a devotee of jihad:

The sacred works [Koran, hadith, etc.] are full of passages referring to the jihad. Saladin was more assiduous and zealous in this than in anything else. … [H]e spoke of nothing else [but jihad], thought only about equipment for the fight, was interested only in those who had taken up arms, had little sympathy with anyone who spoke of anything else or encouraged any other activity.

By spring of 1186, Saladin’s empire had so grown that he felt the time was right: “We should confront all the enemy’s forces with all the forces of Islam,” he told a subordinate. Before long, the crusader kingdoms had to marshal all their forces to meet him, near Nazareth in the summer of 1187. Although Saladin had more men -- approximately 30,000, half of whom were light cavalry and many of whom were slave-soldiers -- the Christians, under the leadership of King Guy, had assembled the largest army since capturing Jerusalem, consisting of some 20,000 knights, including 1,200 heavy horse.