Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 13th Century Inter-religious Dialog for Peace. St. Francis and the Sultan

There is no doubt that St. Francis had two interrelated objectives when he crossed enemy lines near the Nile in the summer of 1219 to confront a fearsome Sultan: to convert the Sultan to Christ for the Sultan's own soul's sake, and also to end the fifth Crusade which, according to author Paul Moses (The Saint and the Sultan), he opposed. According to Moses, the Sultan, who could have been expected to give Francis for his audacity during war the martyrdom he realistically prepared for and separated the saint's head from his body, instead allowed the friar to remain "for several days of discussions". It soon became clear the Sultan was not about to convert, but Francis was not deterred from the other objective and sought the peace for the sake of both Muslims and Christians. Moses despite an over all well-received work of history unfortunately sometimes seems to pit Francis against the Pope rather than see him as his prophetic ambassador. Nevertheless he writes truly:

Francis stood before the sultan of Egypt. He had yearned for such an audience with a Muslim leader for at least seven years, embarking on dangerous journeys three times during that period. Now his moment had arrived, in the midst of a Crusade that was killing thousands of people in the sweltering heat on the banks of the Nile late in the summer of 1219. The leader of the Christian army—Cardinal Pelagius himself—had warned the friar from Assisi that it would be folly to traverse the battlefield between the two armies to seek out this Sultan Malik al-Kamil.

Francis, no stranger to the cruelty of men at war, knew full well the torture and mutilation that both armies inflicted on suspected spies. He had been told that the sultan was a monster, a cruel tyrant likely to order his death. But Francis had traveled a long way to see the sultan and insisted to the cardinal that he must go. God willed it.The sultan looked over the odd duo in his tent, Francis and his traveling companion, Friar Illuminato, barefoot monks dressed in coarse, patched brown tunics. His soldiers had found the two wandering around the outskirts of the Muslim camp and seized them roughly

Francis and Illuminato had cried out, "Sultan! Sultan!" That these unarmed Christians had survived their initial encounter with the sultan’s troops was wonder enough. What could they want? The sultan thought that perhaps the Franks, as Muslims called all Crusaders, had sent them to his tent with a response to his latest peace proposal. The sultan, made weary by war, desperately wanted a deal that would end the Christians’ siege of Dami-etta, a city at the mouth of the Nile where his people were dying of dis-ease and starvation.

"May the Lord give you peace." Francis surprised the sultan with his words. It was the friar's standard greeting—most unusual for Christians in his time, especially during war. It perplexed the sultan. Uncertain about his visitors' intention, the sultan asked if they had come as representatives of the pope’s army.“We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ,” Francis responded. The sultan, a subtle, philosophical man who was schooled in the ways of Christians, could not have missed the distinction Francis drew in asserting that he was God's ambassador, not the pope's. This daring little man and his companion intrigued him—they even resembled the severely dressed Sufi holy men the sultan revered for their mystical insight into Islam. "If you wish to believe us," Francis continued, "we will hand over your soul to God." Sultan Malik al-Kamil gave this man permission to continue. Then he listened closely as Francis began to speak...

This is the story of how one man tried, in his own way, to stop this cycle of violence. I have written it because the example of Francis and the sultan calls out from the past to be recovered as a glimmer of hope inour own time. Sultan al-Kamil, Saladin’s nephew, clearly was taken by this charismatic monk who dared to cross into his encampment. Francis, one of the greatest Christian saints, was changed by the experience and came away deeply impressed with Islamic spirituality. In a revolutionary departure for his time, he urged his brothers to live peacefully among Muslims even as the Fifth Crusade clattered on to its deadly and fruitless conclusion.

This encounter endures as a memorable forerunner of peaceful dialogue between Christians and Muslims. I've written this book with the hope that it will encourage others to build on the example of the saint and the sultan. Spectacular as it was, Francis’s journey to Damietta plays little role in the time worn portrayal of the saint as a pious, miracle-working mystic and a quaintly impoverished friend to animals and nature. As a journalist for some three decades, I’ll just say, in the language of the newsroom, that the truth about Francis and his relationship to Islam and the Crusades was covered up....Francis, opposed to the Crusade, was on a peace mission and hoped to end the warfare by converting the sultan to Christianity.

Journalistic training tells me to be skeptical about the tendency in our day to re-cast Francis as a medieval flower child, a carefree, peace-loving hippie adopted as the patron saint of the Left. Francis was far too devoted to suffering, penance, obedience, and religious orthodoxy to be cast as an ancestor to the hippies of the 1960s or the New Age movement. Yet aprobing look at the early documents concerning Francis reveals that the quest for peace—a peace encompassing both the end of war and the larger spiritual transformation of society—was at the core of Francis’s ministry and thus at the heart of his mission to the sultan’s court...

It is the contention of this book that Francis, having suffered terribly as a young man during a clash between Assisi and the city’s rival Perugia, had come to oppose war, not just a particular battle...His conversion began when, after being released from jail and convalescing, he rode off on horseback to join a new military campaign fought, most likely, on behalf of the pope. His decision to reject this knightly role marked the beginning of his commitment to a new life of radical poverty that made it im-possible to go to war again. It also separated him from the values of avoracious, honor-bound culture in which competition for wealth and glory bred constant violence between classes, cities, and the forces of thepope and emperor. He took the words of Jesus to "turn the other cheek" in the face of violence quite literally. He even barred members of his Third Order—established for lay people who want to live holy lives without becoming friars or sisters—from possessing weapons...

In November 2008 the Vatican hosted a meeting with leading Muslims that Benedict said was a way to improved relations. Such high-minded, high-level encounters are crucial, but they don't in and of themselves change the hearts and minds of the many Christians and Muslims who view one another with distrust. This is where the dramatic example of Francis and the sultan can help us. If the greatest Christian saint since the time of the apostles had opposed the Crusade and peacefully approached Muslims at a time when they were supposed to be mortal enemies, that action can inspire and instructus today. So should the fact that al-Kamil, a great sultan of Egypt and anephew of Saladin, was so tolerant of Christians that he allowed one of them to preach to him in the midst of a Crusade. The story of Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil says there is a better way than resentment, suspicion, and warfare. It opens the door to respect, trust, and peace. It needs to be told anew.

Paul Moses, a former city editor and senior religion writer at Newsday, is currently a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York


  1. The little Poverello is always a "Wow!" moment, and he is always cause for one's thank You. We know the Lord writes straight with crooked lines, so if some come to Him through their Chief Hippie, Francis, it's ok. They will soon learn many whys and wherefores, and the saint's example of peace (the peace of Christ) will take root. I realize there is a need for fraternities to specify loyal Catholicism as a SFO requirement now, and I think most are that already, but the Lord knows what He is working in a heart, at all times.

    I have read of this encounter before, but was happy to read it again, even if from what does seem the writer's anti-papal view--thank you.

  2. I have another intake in that I believe that Francis did not go to 'convert the sultan'. Francis at the end of his life explained how he was converted......"when I met the lepers". It was his meeting with the lepers that brought him a change of heart. he saw the Christ in them and it was the Christ that chnaged Francis. He must have wished that the Sultan would also have a change of heart and so he went to speak with him. For Francis saw all humans, (whether they were Christians or not), as brothers and for him, the Sultan was a brother.
    The difference today is that there is no one like St Farncis of Assisi and the head man of Alkiada terrorists is in no way a man like the Sultan Malik el Kamel who had a dialogue with Francis. There is no peace if we can not sit down and discuss in a feeling of reciprocity. If Muslims really want peace then why cant Christians and people of other religions be not allowed freedom of worship as we allow them in the Western world.