The BOOKPRESS November 1998

Shadows of Jerusalem


Jason Cons

The Book of Saladin.
Tariq Ali.
Verso, 1998.
367 pages, $25.00.
 


In the introduction to his novel, The Book of Saladin, author and filmmaker Tariq Ali writes, "Any fictional reconstruction of the life of a historical figure poses a problem for the writer. Should actual historical evidence be disregarded in the interests of a good story? I think not. In fact the more one explores the imagined inner life of the characters, the more important it becomes to remain loyal to historical facts and events..." This is a particularly difficult task when exploring historical events as far removed and as disputed as the Crusades. For Mr. Ali, this literary problematic is further complicated by a predetermined, ideological objective. The Book of Saladin is the second in a planned quartet of novels re-exploring various historical conflicts between the Muslim and Christian faiths from the perspective of the Islamic "Other."

These novels are decidedly postcolonial in scope, exploring such historically infamous events as the destruction of Islam in Spain, in Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, and the reclamation of Jerusalem after the first Crusade in The Book of Saladin. Tariq Ali self-consciously steps into the discourse of recasting Western imperialism. His novels explore these conflicts not as righteous Christian conquest, but as attacks on and defenses of the empire of Islam. Thus the "imagined inner lives" of their central characters take on allegorical import as they are cast in the light of history. Not only do historical events become important to the lives of the characters, they become the vehicles through which these imagined inner lives are understood.

The Book of Saladin is the fictional biography of the Salah al-Din (Saladin), the twelfth century Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The biography is related through the Jewish scholar, Isaac ibn Yakub, who the Sultan chooses as his personal scribe. The text is a distillation of the history of the Sultan as told by himself, his advisors, his friends, and his wives; the central events surrounding his jihad to drive out the Franj (Crusaders) from what we now know as the Middle East and the campaign to recapture al-Kadisiya (Jerusalem); and the story of the scribe himself. The epic historical events of the text are juxtaposed with Ibn Yakubís own interpretations of history, his removed relation, as a Jew, to Muslim governance, his personal successes and tragedies, and his developing relationship with Salah al-Din and the various members of his court.

As Ibn Yakub accepts his charge as scribe, he warns that most biographies are either written by enemies or sycophantic chroniclers. "When truth and untruth lie embracing each other in the same bed," he observes, "it is difficult to tell them apart." The Jewish scholar demands access and the freedom to inquire as preconditions to writing his biography. But, in presentation, the scribe, and perhaps Mr. Ali himself, is somewhat daunted by the supreme presence and power of the Sultan, both as a historical figure and as a fictional character.

Ibn Yakub traces the Salah al-Dinís early years, from his grandmotherís prophetic predictions of his rise to power to his first entrés into the world of sex, his youthful explorations of drinking and defiances of authority, and his rise to power in the service of his uncleís army. Where the Sultanís selective accounts avoid the more scandalous episodes of his past, Salah al-Dinís perpetual servant and advisor, Shadhi, gladly and often humorously retells them to the faithful scribe.

Through these tales the reader arrives at an understanding of Salah al-Din as a benevolent and wise ruler: good to his soldiers, just in his pronouncements, simple in his tastes, and wise in his personal, political, and military decisions, and even, in a somewhat bizarre twist, a limited feminist. Taken at face value, Ibn Yakubís tale appears to present an overly simplistic picture of a powerful and authoritative ruler. But Mr. Aliís understanding of power and politics in medieval Islam is more complex than the scribeís narrative suggests. Shadhi takes on the image of Ibn Yakubís personal confidant, yet the Sultan is always aware of his disclosures. Salah al-Din ensures that his scribe is present to observe particular affairs of State, and is absent for others. The reader becomes aware that, despite the Sultanís promise, Ibn Yakub is privy to only a part of the Sultanís biography.

In these omissions, subtly and not so subtly hinted at throughout the novel, a more complex tale arises as a backdrop to the text and The Book of Saladin becomes a rich exploration of the maintenance and affairs of a twelfth-century Islamic state. We learn of the constant political balancing act between the Kadi al-Fadil, who is the administrator of religious and political justice, and the Sultan; the deft yet brutal control of public criticism, as seen in the execution of a political satirist; the volatile hierarchy of power in the Middle East; and the complex political factions which have historically divided Islam. As Salah al-Din observes, these forces conspire to prevent a unity to defend against Western invasions. "This permanent state of uncertainty is the devilís curse against the Believers. It is almost as if we are destined never to be one against the enemy."

The Book of Saladin, however, does not confine itself to affairs of state. Mr. Ali is particularly interested in the sexual politics of the Sultanís Court. "Women," as he writes, "are a subject on which medieval history is usually silent." Consequently, The Book of Saladin confronts the politics of prostitution, both male and female, the alienation of the Sultanís wives, who compete with each other for his affection, the role of eunuchs as servants, confidants, and lovers of the courtesans, and the sexual relations between wives. In an early episode, the Sultan adopts Halima, a wife accused of adultery, into his harem. Halima develops a relationship of intellectual and sexual independence with another of Salah al-Dinís wives, Jamila. The two adopt Ibn Yakub as their personal confidant and, through him, explore the role, or absence, of women in the Islamic conception of paradise. "Both our Book and the hadith are silent on the question of what will happen to us women. We canít be transformed into virgins. Will there be young men available to us, or will we be left to our own company?"

Most central to the text, however, is the role of religion in affairs of state and the ultimate clash between Muslim and Christian worlds. In a key passage, Salah al-Din explains the polluting force of Christianity on the Islamic faith.

It was the Franj who, over a hundred years ago, during a siege, had roasted their prisoners on an open fire and eaten them to assuage their hunger. The news had travelled to every city, and a sense of shock and shame had engulfed our world. This we had never known before. Yet only thirty years ago, the great Shirkuh had punished one of his emirs for permitting the roasting of three Franj captives and tasting their flesh. The ulema had soon been prevailed upon to acknowledge the practice and denounce it as a sin against the Prophet and the hadith.

For Mr. Ali, the invasion of the Crusaders introduces a volatile, profane element into the Middle East. Cannibalism here becomes a metaphor for the cultural intrusions and obscene violations of the Crusades. While their behavior both shocks and shames the Islamic world, it also subtly changes it, forcing it to create rules and definitions where there were previously none. This barbarism and violation serve as the cornerstones both of Salah al-Dinís jihad and Mr. Aliís critique of Western religious imperialism.

This critique is more complex than a simple binary reversal of Western colonial discourse. Mr. Ali writes from both within and against this tradition. The Book of Saladin accepts the Middle East as a stage on which characters who are greater than their immediate selves rise to represent the larger whole. But while this stage does enclose the action of the novel, disparate elements from other lands wander on and off the stage to challenge fixed notions of religion, both Islamic and other.

In his classic study Orientalism, Edward Said identifies one of the central, and early, tenets of "Orientalism" as a view of Eastern cultures as mimics of Western Christendom. "If the mind must suddenly deal with what it takes to be a radically new form of lifeóas Islam appeared to Europe in the early Middle Agesóthe response on the whole is conservative and defensive. Islam is judged to be a fraudulent new version of some previous experience, in this case Christianity." Thus Islam becomes a bastardized version of Catholicism and Mohammed, a pretender to the throne.

Rather than simply relocating privilege in Islamic thought, The Book of Saladin imagines the Middle East as a rich patchwork of religions and ideas. In a text where Christianity, Judaism, and Islam exist in such close proximity, Mr. Ali creates a dialogue which, rather than assigning value, opens a discussion on the central political relations between all religions in the Middle East. The appearance of a heretical Templar Knight, for example, presents the opportunity for a forum on fluidity in religious doctrine.

'Of course I have studied the Koran, and there is much in it with which I agree, but, if I may speak frankly, it appears to me that your religion is too close to earthly pleasures. Because you realized that you could not live by the Book alone, you encouraged the invention of the hadith to help you govern the Empires which you had gained....'

'We have scholars who work on nothing else but the hadith,' replied the Sultan quickly.... 'I agree with you. They are open to many interpretations. That is why we have the ulema to ascertain the degree of their accuracy. We need them, Bertrand of Toulouse, we need them. Without these traditions, our religion could not be a complete code of existence....'

'Can any religion ever become a complete code of life when, within the ranks of the Believers, there is such disparity in interpretation? The followers of Fatimid Caliphs, to take the most recent example, do not share your beliefs or those of the Caliph in Baghdad. The same applies to our religion or that of the Jews. He who rules, makes the rules.'

Ultimately, The Book of Saladin is the story of the reclamation of al-Kadisiya. Salah al-Dinís youth, his political negotiations, his sexual appetite, his modest vanity: all are intimately connected to this central event. The conquest of Jerusalem flows backward through the textóthe end of the first Crusades are the historical events through which Mr. Ali must create the Sultanís imagined secret life. While the Sultanís life is an explanation of his jihad, the jihad is also an explanation of his life. If, at times, this dynamic leads to a somewhat linear development, it also yields a rich, complex, and engaging picture of medieval Islam. The Book of Saladin is a powerful retelling of this historical conflict between East and West.

Jason Cons is a writer and managing editor at The Bookpress.

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