Salaahuddeen's full name in Arabic was Salaah Ad-Deen Yoosuf bin Ayyoob, also called Al-Malik An-Naasir Salaah Ad-Deen Yoosuf I. He was born in 1137/38 CE in Tikrit, Mesopotamia and died March 4, 1193, in Damascus. He later became the Muslim sultan of Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Palestine, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and one of the most famous of Muslim heroes. In wars against the Christian crusaders, he achieved final success with the disciplined capture of Jerusalem (Oct. 2, 1187), ending its 88-year occupation by the Franks. The great Christian counterattack of the Third Crusade was then stalemated by his military genius.
Salaahuddeen was born into a prominent Kurdish family. On the night of his birth, his father, Najm ad-Deen Ayyoob, gathered his family and moved to Aleppo, entering there the service of 'Imaad ad-Deen Zanqi bin Al- Sunqur, the powerful Turkish governor in northern Syria. Growing up in Balbek and Damascus, Salaahuddeen was apparently an undistinguished youth, with a great taste for religious studies over military training.
His formal career began when he joined the staff of his uncle Asad ad-Deen Shirkuh, an important military commander under the Ameer Nuruddeen, who was the son and successor of Zanqi. During three military expeditions led by Shirkuh into Egypt to prevent its falling to the Latin-Christian (Frankish rulers of the states established by the First Crusade), a complex, three-way struggle developed between Amalric I, the Latin king of Jerusalem; Shawar, the powerful State Minister of the Egyptian Fatimid caliph; and Shirkuh. After Shirkuh's death and order of Shawar's assassination, Salaahuddeen was appointed both commander of the Syrian troops in Egypt and State Minister of the Fatimid Caliphate there in 1169, at the age of 31. His relatively quick rise to power must be attributed to his own emerging talents. As State Minister of Egypt, he received the title king (Malik), although he was generally known as the sultan.
Salaahuddeen's position was further enhanced when, in 1171, he abolished the weak and unpopular Shiite Fatimid Caliphate, proclaimed a return to Sunni Islam in Egypt, and became the country's sole ruler. Although he remained for a time, theoretically, a Governor for Nuruddeen, that relationship ended with the Syrian Ameer's death in 1174. Using the rich agricultural possessions in Egypt as a financial base, Salaahuddeen soon moved into Syria with a small, but strictly disciplined, army to claim the regency on behalf of the young son of his former leader.
Soon, however, he abandoned this claim, and from 1174 until 1186 he zealously pursued a goal of uniting, under his own standard, all the Muslim territories of Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. This was accomplished by skillful diplomacy backed, when necessary, by the swift and resolute use of military force. Gradually, his reputation grew as a generous and virtuous but firm ruler, devoid of deception, lavishness, and cruelty. In contrast to the bitter dissension and intense rivalry that hampered the Muslims in their resistance to the crusaders, Salaahuddeen's consistency of purpose induced them to rearm both physically and spiritually.
Salaahuddeen's every act was inspired by an intense and unwavering devotion to the idea of Jihaad against the Christian crusaders. It was an essential part of his policy to encourage the growth and spread of Muslim religious institutions. He courted its scholars and preachers, founded colleges and mosques for their use, and commissioned them to write edifying works, especially on Jihaad itself. Through moral regeneration, which was a genuine part of his own way of life, he tried to re-create in his own realm some of the same zeal and enthusiasm that had proved so valuable to the first generations of Muslims when, five centuries before, they had conquered half of the known world.
Salaahuddeen also succeeded in turning the military balance of power in his favor by uniting and disciplining a great number of unruly forces rather than employing new or improved military techniques. At last in 1187, he was able to throw his full strength into the struggle with equivalent armies to that of the Latin Crusader kingdom. On July 4, 1187, by the permission of Allaah, then by using his own good military sense and by a phenomenal lack of it on the part of his enemy, Salaahuddeen trapped and destroyed, in one blow, an exhausted and thirst-crazed army of crusaders at Hattin, near Tiberias in northern Palestine.
So great were the losses in the ranks of the crusaders in this one battle that the Muslims were quickly able to overrun nearly the entire Kingdom of Jerusalem. Acre, Toron, Beirut, Sidon, Nazareth, Caesarea, Nabulus, Jaffa (Yafo), and Ascalon (Ashqelon) fell within three months. But Salaahuddeen's crowning achievement and the most disastrous blow to the whole crusading movement came on Oct. 2, 1187, when Jerusalem, holy to both Muslims and Christians alike, surrendered to Salaahuddeen's army after 88 years of being in the hands of the Franks. In stark contrast to the city's conquest by the Christians, when blood flowed freely during the barbaric slaughter of its inhabitants, the Muslim reconquest was marked by the civilised and courteous behaviour of Salaahuddeen and his troops.
His sudden success, which in 1189 saw the crusaders reduced to the occupation of only three cities, was, however, marred by his failure to capture Tyre, an almost unconquerable coastal fortress to which the scattered Christian survivors of the recent battles flocked. It was to be the rallying point of the Latin counterattack. Most probably, Salaahuddeen did not anticipate the European reaction to his capture of Jerusalem - an event that deeply shocked the West and to which it responded with a new call for a crusade. In addition to many great nobles and famous knights, this crusade, the third, brought the kings of three countries into the struggle. The magnitude of the Christian effort and the lasting impression it made on contemporaries gave the name of Salaahuddeen, as their gallant and chivalrous enemy, an added luster that his military victories alone could never confer on him.
The Crusade itself was long and exhausting and, despite the obvious, though at times impulsive, military genius of Richard I - the Lion-Heart - it achieved almost nothing. Therein lies the greatest - but often unrecognised - achievement of Salaahuddeen. With tired and unwilling feudal levies, committed to fight only a limited season each year, his determined will enabled him to fight the greatest champions of Christendom to a draw. The crusaders retained little more than a precarious foothold on Greater Syriaine coast, and when King Richard left the Middle East in October 1192, the battle was over. Salaahuddeen withdrew to his capital in Damascus.
Soon, the long campaigning seasons and the endless hours in the saddle caught up with him, and he died. While his relatives were already scrambling for pieces of the empire, his friends found that the most powerful and most generous ruler in the Muslim world had not left enough money to pay for his own burial. Salaahuddeen's family continued to rule over Egypt and neighboring lands as the Ayyubid dynasty, which succumbed to the Mamlooks in 1250.