He defied the odds in an era of darkness. He set aside the criticism of those who called him crazy for wanting to do the seemingly impossible: uniting the Ummah, standing up to the Crusaders, and returning honor where it belonged. He was respected by both his friends and foes and is perhaps one of the few men whose name evokes feelings of honor and pride in the minds of so many people in every era and place.

He had the Crusaders chasing their tails in the battles of Alexandria, Hittin, Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Nablus, Haifa, Tiberius, Gaza, ‘Asqalan, Jerusalem, and dozens of other cities and towns across Sham and North Africa. He is popularly known as Salah-ad-Din the warrior.

But, who was the man behind the armor? How was he as a person, and as a Muslim? What personality does it take to carry out such heroic feats and achieve such a status?

In Al-Bidayah wan-Nihayah (13/5-6), Ibn Kathir said that at the time of his death, Salah-ad-Din hardly had any money in his possession, and this was because:

“…of the immense amount of gifts and charity and kindness that he used to show the leaders and ministers under his command, and even to his enemies.

“He was very simple in his clothing, food, drink, and transportation. He would only wear cotton, linen, and wool. It is not known that he ever approached anything forbidden or discouraged, especially after Allah blessed him with his kingdom. Rather, his greatest concern and goal was to aid Islam.”

Ibn Kathir continued:
“He was very strict in praying on time in the jama’ah (congregation). It is said that he never missed a single prayer in jama’ah for a great part of his life, even during the illness that killed him. The imam would enter and lead him in prayer, and he would struggle to get up and pray despite his weakness.”

“He loved to hear the recitation of the Qur’an and the reading of hadith and knowledge. He was constant and habitual in listening to ahadith being read to him, to the point that he would hear a section read to him while he was standing between the ranks of soldiers!”
Ibn Kathir also mentioned: “He had a soft heart, and was easily swayed to tears when he would hear ahadith.

“And Salah-ad-Din was from the bravest of people, and the strongest of them in body and heart despite the illnesses and sickness his body suffered from. This was most evident during the Siege of Acre, where despite the massive numbers of the enemy, he only increased in power and bravery.”

He also said:
“He was generous, well-rounded, always laughing and smiling. He would never slack off in any good that he did. He was extremely patient when doing good and worshipping Allah.”

In ‘Siyar A’lam An-Nubala” (15/436), it’s mentioned that Al-Muwaffaq Abdul Latif said:
“I went to Salah-ad-Din while he was in Jerusalem, and I saw a king who filled eyes with amazement and hearts with love, whether they were near or far. The first night I spent with him, I found his gatherings filled with scholars engaged in knowledge. He would listen intently and participate in their discussions. He would learn how to build walls and dig trenches, and he would then do this himself, carrying the rocks on his own shoulders.”
Al-’Imad said in ‘As-Siyar’ (15/440):

“He would only wear what was permissible to wear, such as linen and cotton. His gatherings were free of vain talk, and they were only attended by the most virtuous of people. He loved to hear ahadith being read with their chains of narration. He was forbearing, honest, pious, pure, and trustworthy. He would contain himself and not become angry. He would never turn back someone in need or embarrass someone who spoke in front of him. He was extremely kind and charitable and I never saw him praying except in jama’ah.”

Adh-Dhahabi said about his death: “And I never saw a king whose death people were sad for except him. This is because he was loved by everyone: he was loved by the righteous and the wicked, the Muslim and the Kafir.” This was Salah-ad-Din Al-Ayyubi. This was the man behind the armor. This was his lifestyle and character, and it was nothing other than this that served as the platform for the amazing feats across the lands that we remember him for today.

Such lifestyle and character is something you will find common between all legends of Islam, whether scholars, leaders, or martyrs. You always find them paying great attention to the daily recitation of the Qur’an, studying the Shariah, giving lots of charity, avoiding useless talk, and living simple lives free of luxury and excessive comfort. This is really the way to success. There is no way you can dream of defending Shariah if you don’t even have the willpower to implement it in your daily life.

What is interesting is Salah-ad-Din wasn’t always like this. Adh-Dhahabi mentions in ‘As-Siyar’ (15/434 and 436):

“Since his time as a ruler, he abandoned alcohol and worldly pleasures.”
“He used to drink alcohol, and then repented from it.”

That’s right. Salah-ad-Din Al-Ayyubi – this righteous man who singlehandedly changed the course of history – loved to drink and indulge in worldly pleasures. But he repented and transformed his life. This small fact teaches us a mighty lesson: not everyone is born in a life of righteousness. The great people we love and admire were not born with virtue. It also gives us hope that no matter how insignificant or lost we think we are, we can become someone truly great In Sha Allah.