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Friday, January 13, 2006

Kingdom of Heaven and the Concept of Jihad

Kingdom of Heaven was supposed to ride to commercial success on the strength of its director (Ridley Scott), the popularity of its leading man (Orlando Bloom), and the political controversy surrounding its subject matter (the Ayyubid conquest of Jerusalem that triggered the Third Crusade). When plans for the film were announced concern was quickly raised that the film would glorify religious conflict and ignite group antagonisms. As it became clear that the film’s message was one of peace and tolerance, a new set of critics attacked from the right, charging that the film presented “Osama bin Laden’s view of history. It will fuel the Islamic fundamentalists.” The film failed at the box office, but despite a number of cinematic limitations is well worth renting. The film provides a nice platform for discussing some disputed features of the concept of jihad and of the Islamic law of war.

The film of course takes plenty of liberties with history, both as to characters and to events, but the story is recognizable and surprisingly relevant to our own era. The film opens around 1187, during a period of peace between Baldwin IV, ruler of Jerusalem, and Saladin, sultan of the Ayyubid empire. The villains of the story are indeed a sect of religious fundamentalists bent on holy war: the Knights Templar, supported by Raynald of Chatillon and Guy of Lusignan. Through repeated attacks on civilians (Muslim traders and pilgrims) the Templars seek to provoke the great power of the region (the Ayyubids) into retaliatory strikes that will spark a global clash of civilizations. Baldwin preserves the peace by allowing Saladin to observe Raynald’s lustration and imprisonment. Baldwin succumbs to leprosy, and Guy, husband to Baldwin’s sister, becomes King. Raynald is freed, the attacks resume, and Saladin’s own sister is captured and killed. Saladin’s forces crush Guy’s at the Battle of Hattin, and after a lengthy siege Balian of Ibelin surrenders Jerusalem to Saladin, who promises to spare the city’s inhabitants and guarantee safe passage for Jews and Christians in the Holy Land. The film closes with Richard the Lionheart on his way to launch the third crusade.

What inspired conservative critics to accuse the film of aiding the cause of terrorists? One reason might be that both Hafez Assad and Saddam Hussein portrayed themselves as modern-day Saladins. That Saladin was an Iraqi Kurd makes Saddam’s invocation bitterly ironic. In any case, the film portrays Saladin as a reluctant warrior and a merciful victor, as temperate in his religious views and respectful of those outside his circle of faith. Contemporary leaders will generally suffer by comparison. From reports of audience reactions in Beirut it seems the film’s intended message was received.

The other reason right-wing critics might find the film conducive to terrorist purposes is that Saladin played a critical role in revitalizing the concept of the lesser jihad (al-jihad al-asghar) (armed struggle undertaken for the sake of Islam) after centuries of relative desuetude. (The greater jihad (al-jihad al-akbar) refers to individual and collective struggle for spiritual and moral improvement). Saladin invoked jihad both to consolidate Syrian and Egyptian territories into a single sultanate, and later to characterize armed conflict with European forces. The film certainly understates Saladin’s religiosity and his preoccupation with the meaning and requirements of jihad. Critics might suppose that any favorable portrayal of Saladin amounts to an endorsement of the concept of jihad and with it recent ideological (mis)uses of that concept.

In the remainder of this post I’d like to focus on how the film deals with both the instigation and the conduct of war. With respect to the former, it is widely believed that the Islamic law of war divides the world into the Abode of Islam (dar al-Islam) and the Abode of War (dar al-harb), which division suggests a state of permanent belligerency between Muslim and non-Muslim states. These classifications derive not from foundational sources but from the Abbasid jurists of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. The rationale, as I understand it, was (if you will pardon the anachronism) largely Hobbesian: Nations exist in a state of nature with one another, in which the possibility of war exists even absent actual conflict, without a single sovereign to provide assurance of mutual restraint. Muslim states escape from the state of nature with respect to one another by accepting the shared sovereignty of God and the authority of Islamic law. The film makes clear, however, that Saladin rejected this juridical framework, embracing in addition the possibility of negotiated peace through bilateral (and presumably multilateral) treaties, giving rise to an Abode of Covenant (dar al-'ahd) or Abode of Peace (dar al-sulh).

The film is provocatively ambiguous regarding Saladin’s stance toward a fourth, less developed concept, that of the Abode of Justice (dar al-adl), which encompasses non-Muslim states which adhere to basic principles of Islamic justice: religious freedom, access to the courts, public assistance for the needy, and so forth. Saladin’s ambivalence is reflected in his final exchange with Balian, who, after surrendering the city, asks Saladin “What is Jerusalem worth?”, by which I think he means “What is Muslim rule of Jerusalem worth?” Saladin’s initial reply is “Nothing”. Here Saladin echoes Balian’s earlier speech to the city’s defenders, that ultimately it does not matter which group (Muslim, Christian, or Jewish for that matter) rules the city, so long as they rule justly and all are permitted to worship as they choose. From the point of view of justice, the difference between Baldwin and Saladin is minimal, and is eclipsed by the lives lost in the transition of power. But as Saladin walks back toward his troops he stops, turns, and offers a different answer: “Everything.” Is this latter statement an expression of vanity? Piety? Tribalism? The film leaves it to the audience, but the exchange is, I think, a telling one: It shouldn’t matter. But it does.

With respect to the conduct of war, the film of course highlights the fact that Saladin spares the lives of the Christian and Jewish residents of Jerusalem. When Balian reminds him that Christian armies slaughtered the city’s Muslim inhabitants in 1096, Saladin replies “I am not those men. I am Saladin.” This statement can be taken a number of different ways, though I prefer to think of it as a reflection of the principle, perhaps best stated by Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, that the laws of war are categorical and not based on reciprocity. The film glosses over the widespread use of slavery during this period, though this may be excusable as the film is intended as a parable of contemporary conflicts (which is, unfortunately, not to say that slavery is no longer widespread). What is harder to overlook is the film’s silence regarding Saladin’s decision to offer no quarter and take virtually no prisoners in the Battle of Hattin, as well as his decision to offer Balian terms of surrender (as he had offered Guy before Hattin) only after a lengthy and bloody siege. The consequences are depicted, but the choice is not. This omission is unfortunate, since it limits the usefulness of the film for airing issues such as the Islamic law governing the treatment of prisoners of war and hors de combat. Still, the alarmism of right-wing critics should be tempered by Saladin’s concern for the lives of “the women, the children, the old, and the sick” and his desire to restrict the deaths caused by war to those who choose to fight. This is not a radical position, to be sure, but it is the position of Islamic law, stretching back to the prophecy and to the example of Muhammad and his companions.

Though Saladin, the great expositor of jihad, shared neither the worldview nor the tactics of those who today invoke that concept, he did confront and contend with a group which largely shared both. Several attempts were made on Saladin’s life by a secret society whose cavernous strongholds he later besieged. The society’s members referred to themselves as the fedayeen. Muslims who rejected their practice of murdering political leaders in public spaces called them hashshashins, from which the term “assassins” derives. Those who today invoke the concept of jihad to justify attacks on civilians as well as public figures follow the example not of Saladin but of his enemies.

For providing vivid (if not always historically accurate) illustrations of pressing issues in Islamic jurisprudence, Kingdom of Heaven is my Number 4 International Law Movie of 2005.

Posted by Adil Haque on January 13, 2006 at 01:40 PM in Film | Permalink


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Well, he was from Tikrit, but I take your point.

Posted by: Adil Haque | Jan 14, 2006 2:26:23 PM

"Saladin was an Iraqi Kurd"

That's a bit ahistorical, don't you think?

Posted by: Tlazolteotl | Jan 13, 2006 5:42:41 PM

It is really interesting to read your blog. I have heard various things about this movie, and I enjoyed reading your take on it.

Posted by: media fanatic | Jan 13, 2006 4:16:23 PM

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