A celebrated hero to the modern Islamic world. The main foe to the equally celebrated King Richard, “the Lionheart.” Well, at least during the Third Crusade. Well, at least fighting on the Muslim side. No offense to Leopold of Austria or King John, but this is Saladin’s story. I think. John Man’s 2015 biography, Saladin: The Sultan Who Vanquished the Crusaders and Built an Islamic Empire fails in its goal. Even the title is incorrect.
By definition, a biography “is a detailed description of a person’s life involving more than just basic facts, but portraying a person’s experience of these life events.” Like a good autobiography, a good biography should introduce the individual and let the reader feel they know the person at the end, if not before the final page. Man fails to do this. He never brought Saladin to life and made me feel I knew his true nature. More often than not, Saladin lurked in the background only to appear at times and retreat. Saladin should be at the forefront of his own biography, not ignored and hidden while we read about other people of the period. Had this been a book on the Third Crusade it would work, but not in a biography. Man never gives a true sense of what he thought of his subject. While his view should be an unbiased one, his presentation appeared more negative than positive over the course of the book.
As for the title, Man proves with examples from history and restates towards the conclusion the Crusaders weren’t vanquished until centuries after Saladin’s death. While he brought a few Islamic lands under his rule, his was far from an empire, and the whole of the Islamic world was far from united. In so many words Man casts Saladin as a man unworthy of praise, respect, or admiration at times, then offers a few instances of positive deeds towards both Muslims and Christians.
We start off never truly meeting Saladin, and end with two tacked on chapters, neither of which belong in a biography. The end of the life is the end of the biography. Saladin dies, and we wade through two following chapters about general qualities of leadership (or something along those lines), and 20th Century artifacts, World War I, and new leaders tying themselves to Saladin, who Man has already shown isn’t the hero he’s made out to be. If you’re interested in The Crusades and want a more detailed look at Saladin, my advice is to look elsewhere.
Copyright © Drew Martin 2017