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Summary of question
Who was Salah al-Din Ayyubi? How did he become the champion of the wars against crusaders? What was his origin? Why and how did he destroy the Fatimid government?
question
Who was Salah al-Din Ayyubi? How did he become the champion of the wars against crusaders? What was his origin? Why and how did he destroy the Fatimid government?
Concise answer
Salah al-Din Yusuf bin Ayyub who later became known as Salah al-Din Ayyubi, better known in the Western world as Saladin, is one of the most famous Muslim rulers and commanders in the Islamic middle centuries (or in the 12th century of the English calendar). He achieved many military successes and conquests for Muslims and protected Islamic territories against European Christians. As a consequence of the siege of Cairo by crusaders, Asad al-Din Shirku, Salah al-Din's uncle commanding an army of six thousand soldiers moved to Egypt while Salah al-Din was also in his company. Upon his arrival, the Christians who intended to take over Egypt left the country and that was how the Ayyubids took over Egypt.
Two months later, Asad al-Din Shirku died and Salah al-Din replaced him and took over the reign of the government in Egypt. After Salah al-Din climbed high ranks of the Fatimid government, Salah al-Din began to undermine the Fatimid establishment to such an extent that the Fatimid caliph was left powerless and that in practice nothing except its name was left. Few years later, he took over the government and realigned the country's allegiance with the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate. That was how the Fatimid government in Egypt was replaced with the Ayyubid one.
Salah al-Din was strongly opposed to the Shiites of Egypt. Destroying Shiite symbols and rites, he made every effort to exterminate Shiites in the country. He was sometimes lenient against Christians but harsh and intolerant against Shiites. He endeavored greatly to promote Shafe'ei jurisprudence doing whatever he could to replace Ismaili Shia with Shafe'ei religion.
Salah al-Din's reputation basically originates in his performances in the wars against crusaders. Salah al-Din designated strong and capable men in different cities. He consolidated the fortifications of the cities so as not to allow foreigners to take them. Moreover, he carried out attacks on cities in the Levant (Shaam) which had been occupied by foreigners taking them back, conquering them or making crusaders flee.  In less than five years, he took over many cities. More importantly, he defeated Christians and conquered Bait al-Maqdis (Jerusalem) which earned him a lot of respect and reputation.
 
Detailed Answer
Salah al-Din Yusuf bin Ayyub bin Shazi[1] who later became known as Salah al-Din Ayyubi, better known in the Western world as Saldin, is one of the most famous Muslim rulers and commanders in the Islamic middle centuries (or in the 12th century of the English calendar). He achieved many military successes and conquests for Muslims and protected Islamic territories against European Christians as will be explained later.
Najm al-Din Ayyub, father of the Ayyubi kings lived in Tikrit of Iraq and Salah al-Din was also born in the same city[2]. There lived a Kurdish tribe which the Ayyubi family belonged to.[3] Indeed, due largely to Arab influence in Iraq, the Ayyubids were less known as Kurds. That was because non-Arab races were overwhelmed by Arabs and were too weak to present themselves as a separate group.
Najmal-Din Ayyub was the governor of Ba'labak in the time Imad ad-Din Zengi, the Lord of Mosul.[4]  From his early childhood, Salah al-Din was particularly interested in learning martial arts, especially fencing and sword fight. He gained skills in swordsmanship. Most probably, he got acquainted with the Shafe'ei jurisprudence in the early period of his childhood; and it was his inclination to this religion that led him to promote it in the ensuing years.[5]
Salah al-Din was undoubtedly a fanatic and bigoted Shafe'ei man. When he took over power, he made every effort to spread this religion and replace it with Shia religion. We shall throw more light into this issue later.[6]
Salah al-Din's Arrival in Egypt and End of Fatimid Government
Christians had conquered Muslim populated cities in the beginning of the crusades or wars against Muslims. These military successes had heightened their morale to the extent that they coveted the conquest of Fatimid caliphate. "The big Christian army marched towards Cairo conquering cities on the way including the big Bilbies city. They plundered the city and killed its people."[7] Finally, they reached Cairo besieging the town.  Fearing what had happened to the city of Bilbies and its people, the people of Cairo stood up against the foreigners and defended the city.
Al-Adid (or al-'Āzid) who ruled as the Fatimid ruler there appealed the Abbasid government for help. Then the Fatimid government asked the Abbasids to send military force to fight the crusaders. Knowing well that he could not resist the Western crusaders, al-Adid let an army of strongmen led by Asad al-Din Shirkuh, Salah al-Din's uncle, to come to his help and to defend Cairo.
Commanding an army of six thousand soldiers, Asad al-Din Shirkuh marched towards Egypt. Before moving to Egypt, he gave each soldier twenty dinars to meet his needs. A number of elite commanders were also in his company. Salah al-Din Yusuf bin Ayyub accompanied by his father Ayyub, Shirku's brother, were also among them. As and when they reached close to Cairo the foreigners retreated and returned to their cities. In the middle of the same year, Shirku and his companions entered the city of Cairo. Al-Adid Li-Dinillah honored him with a cloak and ordered that his soldiers be given salary."[8]
After he entered Cairo and gained foothold, Asad al-Din Shirku could, with the help of Caliph Al-Adid and other elite commanders, kill al-Adid's vizier who was called Shawer and supervised all the affairs of the Fatimid government."[9]
Upon Shawer's death, Asad al-Din became the only stake holder while al-Adid was nominally a caliph. However, following the conquest of Cairo, he did not live long as he died only two months later.[10] After him, his commanders disputed over who should be Shirku's successor. The dispute continued for a while until the Fatimid caliph and some elite commanders appointed Salah al-Din Yusuf bin Ayyub as the successor to his uncle. That was how Salah al-Din's government and rule over Egypt started.
Al-Adid remained a nominal caliph as he was practically powerless. He had no 'say' in the state affairs until he fell ill and was dismissed from power as shall be explained in the following section i.e. the Fatimid's government.
The Fatimids' Government
The Fatimid government which can be called an Alawid government "was a government ruling over a vast territory for a long time because the Fatimids took over power in the year 296 and they lost grip of power in the year 567. The first Fatimid caliph was called Al-Mahdi Billah. He was Abu Muhammad Ubaidullah bin Ahmad bin Ismail Thalith bin Ahmad bin Ismail Thani bin Muhamad bin Ismail A'raj bin Ja'far al-Sadiq (AS).  In fact, other lineal tree has also been reported for the Fatimids but scholars have discrepant views about it. What is, however, certain is that they are Alawids and Ismailis and their connection with Ali (AS) is correct and true."[11]
The Fatimid caliphs made every effort to spread and promote Shi'ism in Egypt which will require an independent article to write and we are not going to touch it in this article for the sake of brevity.  However, we would suffice to telling that Fatimids upheld Shia symbols and introduced Egyptians to Shia as the official religion of Egypt.
The decline of Fatimids was because of two main traits which characterized them during the last days of their reign:
1. The Fatimid viziers (ministers) gained extra-ordinary power which only served the Fatimid caliphs to become weaker.
2. The pillars of the Fatimid government grew weaker in the sense that viziers who had become more powerful fought over power. The internal conflict and dispute caused the government to become weaker.
Al-Adid was the Fatimids' ruler who wasn't aged and experienced enough. That was why governmental affairs fell in the hands of the viziers one of the strongest and most important of whom was Shawer who was killed by Asad al-Din Shirkuh.[12]
After Shawer's death, Asad al-Din took over the matters. Being a Sunni zealot and loyal to the caliph of Baghdad, Asad took over the governmental ministry which was responsible for promoting Shia and which considered itself to be opposed to Baghdad government.  This indicates how miserable the situation of the Fatimid government was.  Asad al-Din's taking over the ministry coupled with the lethargy of the ruler paved the way for the downfall of the Fatimid government. After Asad al-Din, Salah al-Din took over the affairs of the state giving every close relative a valuable piece of land and cutting off the hands of al-Adid's supporters and friends. Eventually, he himself took the matter in his hand.  After sometimes, Al-Adid became increasingly ill and he died in the year 567 A.H. During this time period, people showed a lack of interest about the name of the individual whose name had to be announced as the caliph until it was Friday and a man climbed up the pulpit and delivered a sermon in which he announced al-Mustazi (Abbasid caliph) as the caliph. No one from the audience objected to him doing so. Thenceforth, the sermons used to be read in the name of the Abbasid caliphs and the Fatimid state ceased to exist all of a sudden as Salah al-Din Ayyubi ruled Egypt without a rival or an opponent to challenge him.[13], [14] That was how the Fatimid government came to an end and Salah al-Din became the unchallenged ruler of Egypt thereafter.
Salah al-Din and Shiites
Generally, Sunni governments were not in good terms with Shiites. Most often, they left no stone unturned to harass and eliminate them. In many cases, Sunni rulers maintained good relationship with religious minorities such as Jews and Christians trusting them and giving them posts. But they never gave the same respect to Shiites. Rather they fought Shiites in the worst possible manner. We can present arguments and proofs to show that Shiites were persecuted by Sunni rulers whenever and wherever possible. Due to a lack of space and for the sake of brevity, we are not going to elaborate on this part of subject.
The Ayyubids' government and Salah al-Din at the top also followed suit and made a lot of efforts to eradicate Shiites in Egypt. These efforts could have different reasons one of the most important of which should have been definitely religious motivation. Salah al-Din as a leading Shafe'ei figure could not tolerate religious minorities such as Shia. In fact, he believed it was his religious duty to fight the minorities in any manner possible. In addition, he had a political reason for doing so; because the Fatimid establishment was Shia while he had taken the government from the Fatimids. Naturally, he considered Shiites as his rival and considered it highly probable that they might revolt against him. That was why he was politically and religious motivated to fight Shiites in Egypt.
However, given the fact that he was engaged in many battles outside of Egypt, he tried to keep fewer military force in Egypt. For this reason, he endeavored to give priority to cultural campaign in dealing with Shiites.  We shall now enumerate some of Salah al-Din's anti-Shia campaigns and coward activities against Shia:
1. Fighting Shia doctrines and symbols: Salah al-Din forced Shiite scholars into isolation, destroying their schools, turning them into Sunni schools and doing whatever he could to wipe Shiite icons. He also ordered the Fatimids' big library to be burnt. More importantly, he ordered all Shiite rituals to be cancelled declaring Ashura as a day of joy and happiness. By doing so, he prevented Ashura rituals to be commemorated across Egypt.[15] He also omitted "Hayya 'alaa khairil 'amal" (And make haste to the best of deeds" from Adhan which was a motto particular to Shia. This incident took place on the tenth of Zil-Hijja 565. [16]
2. He ordered the names of the so-called Khulafa-e Rashedin (lit. rightly guided caliphs) to be mentioned in every sermon of Friday prayers.[17]
3. Replacing Shiite judges was another action taken by him to exterminate Shia.[18] By replacing Shiite judge with Shafe'ei ones, he attempted to eradicate Shia fiqh (jurisprudence) and implement Shafe'ei jurisprudence to make people get used to such codes of conduct.
4. At times, Shiite uprisings would take place here and there in Egypt. Despite Salah al-Din preferring cultural and ideological ways, he would resort to military force to fight Shiites. He made every effort to remove Shiite from all positions, persecute them and appoint Shafe'ei men. During the time of Salah al-Din, being a Shia was considered to be a crime and Shiites were seen as criminals by judges that Salah al-Din had appointed from among Sunni clerics.[19]
5. Managing economic woes with the government playing more central role: In the last days or months of the Fatimid rule, the economic situation of the people had become unbearably difficult as the government had imposed two hundred dinars as tax to be paid annually by people. But Salah al-Din at once exempted people from paying tax.[20] This and similar other actions taken during Salah al-Din or in the early period of his government were to make people forget the Shiite government and Shiite thinking and to persuade people to accept Salah al-Din and his religion.
6. Establishment of Shafe'ei religious schools: In a bid to promote Shafe'ei religion, Salah al-Din established Shafe'ei religious schools across Egypt. Through these schools, he sent a lot of Shafe'ei clerics and preachers far and wide in Egypt to preach and promulgate Shafe'ei religion.[21]
Salah al-Din and wars against crusaders
Crusades are wars or attacks launched by Christians against Muslims which began from 1096 A.D and continued for two centuries in several stages.[22] This historical period has been discussed in detail by historians. One of the most important works in this regard is Al-Kamil by Ibn Athir. The author discusses crusades from the middle of volume 22 to the middle of volume 24 dedicating 70 percent of these two books to crusader attacks and Salah al-Din's bravery.
During these wars, Salah al-Din appointed capable men in different cities; he consolidated the fortifications so as not to let foreigners occupy those places. Moreover, he launched an attack on the cities in Levant which had fallen in the hand of foreigners conquering them, captivating foreigners or forcing them to flee. In less than five years, he occupied many cities the most important of which was Bait al-Maqdis.
The city of Bait al-Maqdis was a strategic city and was religiously very important for the two sides. During the first crusade, this city had fallen in the hand of Christians but Salah al-Din managed to take it back which earned him a lot of reputation and popularity in the Arabian land.
Salah al-Din's performance especially in the wars against crusaders earned him respect and reputation among Muslims in general and Sunni populace in particular.  Most Sunni scholars and historians speak well of him.
There is no doubt that his reputation and performances do not mean that all his conducts and behaviors were good. In fact, he also committed such action that are morally and religiously not good and that they can even be considered as reprehensible and mean. One of those actions was his mistreatment of Shiites as we mentioned earlier. In addition, he did a lot of tit for tat actions against the crusaders. He murdered them, plundered the cities and slaughtered a lot of ordinary people. He did what the crusaders were doing after conquering the cities. Although such actions were considered to be normal to some extent in those days, they can never be regarded as Islamic. Here we shall suffice to mentioning a few instances of his actions:
"… Salah al-Din camped near Aswad Creek, rampaged and plundered nearby cities and towns."[23]
"Salah al-Din marched to Ra's al-'Ayn dispersing its people. Then he moved his army to Mardin, rampaged the city and killed people and then returned."[24]
"Salah al-Din looted and killed the city of Tabariyah."[25]
Salah al-Din's Death
In the month of Safar 589 A.H., Salah al-Din Yusuf bin Ayyub bin Shazi, the ruler of Egypt, Levant, Peninsula and other cities died in Damascus. As said, the cause of his illness was a journey which he took outside the city to meet Hajj pilgrims. He fell ill on the same day and his illness aggravated. He was ill for eight days and the he succumbed to death.[26]
 

[1] Ibn Khaldun, Abdur Rahman bin Muhammad bin Khaldun, Divan al-Mubtada wa al-Khabar fi Tarikh al-Arab wa al-Barr wa Man 'Aasarahum min Zawi al-Sha'n al-Akbar, research: Shahadah, Khalil, vol. 1, p. 316, Beirut, Dar al-Fikr, 1408 A.H.
[2] Al-Zarkali, Khair al-Din, al-A'lam Qamus Tarajim Le-Ashhur al-Rijal wa al-Nisa min al-Arab wa al-Mustaghrebin wa al-Mustashreqin, vo.2, p. 38, Beirut, Dar al-Ilm, 1989.
[3] Al-A'lam, vol.3, p. 183.
[4] Kazempour, Dawood, The Situation of Egyptian Shiites in the Era of Salah al-Din Ayyubi, p. 143, A Journal of History in the Mirror of Research, fifth year, second edition, Summer, 1387.
[5] The Situation of Egyptian Shiites in the Era of Salah al-Din Ayyubi, p. 143.
[6] Ibid, p. 144.
[7] Abu al-Fida Ismail bin Umar bin Kathir al-Demashqi, Al-Bedayah wa al-Nehayah, vol.12, p. 255, Beirut, Dar al-Fikr, 1407/1986.
[8] History of Ibn Khaldun, vol.5, p 330.
[9] Al-A'lam, vol.3, p. 154.
[10] Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ahmad al-Zahabi, Tarikh al-Islam wa Wafiyat al-Mashahir wa al-A'lam, research: Tadmuri, Umar Abdus Salam, vol. 39, p. 196, Beirut, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, 1413 A.H.
[11] Ibn al-Taqtaqi, Muhammad bin Ali bin Tatabai, al-Fakhri fi al-Adab al-Sultaniyah wa al-Duwal al-Islamiyyah, research: Abdul Qadir, Muhammad, p. 257, p. 257, Beirut, Dar al-Qalam al-Arabi, 1418/1997.
[12] The Situation of Egyptian Shiites in the Era of Salah al-Din Ayyubi, p. 142.
[13] Al-Fakhri, p. 257 – 258.
[14] There is another saying also in this regard. When al-Adid was ill, they stopped mentioning him in the sermons as the caliph and he died after he was dismissed.
[15]The Situation of Egyptian Shiites in the Era of Salah al-Din Ayyubi, p. 155.
[16] Ibid, 144.
[17] Ibid, 145.
[18] Al-Bedayah wa al-Nehayah, vol.12, p. 363.
[19] Ibid, p. 151.
[20] Ibid, p. 146.
[21] Ibid, p. 153.
[22] Khayri, Hasan, Plundering the Civilization of the West (Taraj Tamauddun Sharq), p. 51, Ma'refat Journal, Autumn, 72.
[23] Ibn Khaldun, History of Ibn Khaldun, translation: Ayati, Abdul Muhammad, vol.4, p. 449, Cultural Research and Studies Institute, 1363 (Persian calendar).
[24] Ibid, vol.4, p. 285.
[25] Ibn al-Athir, 'Izzuddin Abu al-Hasan Ali bin Abi al-Karam, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, vol.29, p. 78, Beirut, Dar Sader, Dar Beirut, 1385 A.H.
[26] Ibid, vol.12, p. 96
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