12th Century: Saladin (c. 1138-1193)

The Kurdish adventurer proved to the Crusaders that God had no trouble favoring an infidel

When Dante Alighieri compiled his great medieval Who's Who of heroes and villains, the Divine Comedy, the highest a non-Christian could climb was Limbo. Ancient pagans had to be virtuous indeed to warrant inclusion: the residents included Homer, Caesar, Plato and Dante's guide, Vergil. But perhaps the most surprising entry in Dante's catalog of "great-hearted souls" was a figure "solitary, set apart."

That figure was Saladin. It is testament to his extraordinary stature in the Middle Ages that not only was Saladin the sole "modern" mentioned--he had been dead barely 100 years when Dante wrote--but also that a man who had...

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