The idea that it was not until 19th century European Imperialism arrived on the shores of Muslim majority countries that Saladin was remembered is a novel concept. It is also one that is being taken up in a distorted manner by the anti-Muslim movement.
Let’s take a sample from an article posted on JihadWatch on June 8, 2012. The self-declared ex-Muslim turned anti-Islam polemicist and Western supremacist who goes by the pseudonym “Ibn Warraq” continues his well-worn, unoriginal, selective-copy-and-paste usage of Orientalist scholarship.
According to “Warraq,” Muslims in Saladin’s own homeland had “largely forgotten” about him until novelist Sir Walter Scott and German Emperor Wilhelm II reintroduced him to the benighted, forgetful Mooslims. In fact, in Warraq’s world the supreme “irony” is that they not only forgot Saladin but remembered Richard the Lionheart:
It is ironic that while Richard the Lionheart [1157-1199], the King of England and leading Christian commander during The Third Crusade [1189–1192], is remembered in the Islamic world right up to the nineteenth century, his main rival in the latter conflict, the Muslim Kurd known in the West as Saladin [c.1138-1193], was largely forgotten in his homeland. Forgotten until he was made known again to the Muslim world largely thanks to the German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Saladin’s tomb, to pay his respects in 1898, and above all the novel, The Talisman  by Sir Walter Scott [1771-1832].
Warraq’s claim appears in a series of short JihadWatch blog posts titled, Walter Scott, The Talisman, the Crusades, Richard I of England and Saladin: Myths, Legends and History.
Again this is not an original “Ibn Warraq” observation. The claim that “Saladin” was “forgotten” can also be found on the Wikipedia page for Saladin (exposing the hazards of relying on the online community encyclopedia), with a citation credited to Johnathan R. Smith‘s book, The Crusades, Christianity and Islam.
Smith’s works on the Crusades have been generally well received and this is not the article to discuss them, however the main thrust of Smith’s book is quite simple and straight forward,
Crusading features prominently in today’s religio-political hostilities, yet the perceptions of these wars held by Arab nationalists, pan-Islamists, and many in the West have been deeply distorted by the language and imagery of nineteenth-century European imperialism.
This is an intricate topic, but let us confine ourselves to Warraq’s rehashing of Smith’s claim that Saladin was “forgotten.”
The reality is Saladin was not “forgotten.” Diana Abouali, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literature at Dartmouth wrote an interesting article titled, “Saladin’s Legacy in the Middle East before the Nineteenth Century,” published in the 10th volume of Crusades. In it she recounts his memory up to that point in Ottoman Jerusalem.
I also solicited a comment from professor As’ad Abukhalil, who in the past eviscerated Warraq’s shoddy work (see Abukhalil’s 2004 article in the Middle East Journal: “‘The Islam Industry’ and Scholarship: Review Article”). Prof. Abukhalil is not at all impressed with Warraq’s claim, telling LoonWatch,
I normally would not engage with people who are not trained in Middle East and Islamic studies. The person in question has regularly revealed his ignorance of matters Islamic and he insults the person (a free thinker) after which he named himself (very undeservedly). The notion that Saladin was discovered by Arabs/Muslims after some contact with Westerners is too ridiculous to respond to. In reality, it is the other way round: Westerners took note of Saladin because of the significance that he occupies in Arab/Islamic history and imagination. Saladin has been immortalized and lauded in many Arabic books and references, from Kitab An-Nawadir As-Sultaniyyah wal-mahasin Al-Yusufiyyah, which is a biography of Saladin from the 13th century. Ancient Arab historians like Ibn Khallikan and Abu Shamah and Ibn Wasil all appreciated the significance of Saladin. A history of Arab publications in the 19th century and 20th century is full of books and articles dealing with him. To be sure, the Arab-Israeli conflict did inspire a revival of attention to Saladin among Arabs and Muslims. But then again: this is not the first time when the natives are told that only the White Man can inspire them and influence them. (emphasis added)
In the hands of Islamophobes like Warraq claims about Saladin and the Crusades are easily weaponized and used as one more instrument to bludgeon Muslims and Islamic civilization. Indeed the whole premise of Warraq’s series found its genesis in the polemical attempt to rebut Edward Said’s famed work Orientalism. Edward Said, of course is the object of much “scorn” in the anti-Muslim movement.
If some Muslims, Arabs and Westerners stand accused of “romanticizing” Saladin, we can easily see its antecedent, with the Crusades and Richard the Lionheart being “romanticized,” serving as twin symbols for today’s wannabe “Crusaders.” Hate-groups across Europe and the USA are engaged in exactly this type of a-historical methodology, tying the romanticized image of the Crusades with their bigoted political agenda (just take a look at the rhetoric, images and symbols employed by members of Stop the Islamization of America). At the forefront of such “romanticization” of Crusaders are the likes of Robert Spencer. So it is fitting that Warraq would publish his posts on Robert Spencer’s JihadWatch.
After all, it is not for no reason that “Knights Templar” terrorist Anders Behring Breivik chose to initiate the so-called “counter-Jihad” to “reclaim” the West from the “evil-Mooslim” hordes by citing Spencer, and other neo-Crusaders hundreds of times in his manifesto.
In the end, it is safe to say that Saladin was never forgotten by Muslims and Arabs. His memory still shone over the centuries, he was “immortalized,” even as his image, his importance and story has been reshaped due to encounters between East and West, and today, between Israel and Palestine.