Mission Improbable

St. Francis & the Sultan

Late in the summer of 1219, Francis of Assisi crossed enemy lines during the Fifth Crusade, hoping that he could convert Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil to Christianity. Francis, who had begun his ministry after recovering from the trauma of a horrific battlefield experience and imprisonment, hoped to end the violence of the Crusade by winning over the sultan.

The medieval accounts of this event vary. The earliest and most reliable—particularly the works of the source closest to the event, James of Vitry, the bishop of Acre at the time—are more consistent with the Francis we know through the saint's own writings. Less plausible is the confrontational scenario that St. Bonaventure presents in The Major Legend of Saint Francis, written more than forty years after the event and heavily influenced by the Franciscan order's need at the time to fend off a heresy scandal. The combative Francis depicted there is not the same man whose Earlier Rule calls on friars to live peaceably among Muslims and “be subject” to them.

Francis's distaste for the Crusade showed through soon after he arrived in the Christian camp outside Damietta, a city at the mouth of the Nile that was under siege by the Crusaders. He believed that God had told him an attack planned by the Crusade's leader, Cardinal Pelagius, would end in disaster. Francis rushed out to the soldiers “forbidding war,” according to one medieval account, but he was ignored. Thousands of Crusaders died in the thwarted attack that followed.

Shortly afterward, Francis decided to set out for the sultan's camp in Fariskur on the east bank of the Nile, taking along a friar named Illuminato. Francis took advantage of a lull in the fighting that occurred in September 1219, when the sultan made a peace proposal that Cardinal Pelagius ultimately rejected. (The sultan offered the Crusaders control of Jerusalem, which his uncle, Saladin, had re-conquered in 1187, in return for ending the siege of Damietta.) Cardinal Pelagius warned Francis that he'd be killed if he carried out his plan, but finally gave his approval on the condition that Francis take sole responsibility for whatever happened. The cardinal did not want to be blamed for the death of the friars.

Francis and Illuminato left the palisaded Crusader compound to cross the Nile. They needed to get to the east bank of the river before heading south to reach the sultan, about eight miles away in Fariskur. The easiest way across the river was a bridge the Crusaders had built over a series of boats lashed together. The countryside south of Damietta had once been a pleasant place, with orchards, rows of crops, and pastures—land made fruitful by the river's annual surge. In quieter times fishing boats trawled the waters. Now it was very different. Only days before, terrified Christian soldiers had fled across this ground, running from the charging enemy's swords and arrows. By the time Francis and Illuminato passed through, Muslim troops had already combed the battlefield to seize booty and prisoners. Grisly signs of the August 29 battle lingered. Butchered corpses and body parts, now putrid in the heat, lay strewn across the battlefield. It was a landscape from hell, far worse than the body-littered battlefield where Francis had been taken prisoner as a young man.

As Francis and Illuminato approached Fariskur, sentries confronted them. Francis stated his business to the Muslim soldiers by declaring himself a follower of Jesus and asking to see the sultan. The soldiers assumed that Francis and Illuminato were sent as messengers to convey the latest Christian response to the sultan's peace proposal. There may have been some initial confusion; Brother Jordan of Giano wrote in the 1260s that Francis, unable to speak the soldiers' language, cried out, “Sultan! Sultan!” as he was pummeled. After that, it appears, the sentries warily escorted Francis and Illuminato into the camp.

While various accounts disagree on the particulars, all agree on one thing: Francis was finally taken to Sultan Malik al-Kamil, preparing the way for a unique historical event.

The future saint and the sultan were roughly the same age; al-Kamil was thirty-nine and Francis a year and a half younger. Francis would have begun with the same greeting he used everywhere—“May the Lord give you peace”—at once a friendly, down-to-earth embrace of the person he addressed and a prayer for the transformation of a violent world. He began all his preaching that way, and it would never have been more appropriate than on this occasion. Sultan Malik al-Kamil returned the friars' greeting and then, according to The Chronicle of Ernoul, a French Crusader's chronicle, “asked if they wished to become Saracens or perhaps had come with some message.”

The idea that Francis and Illuminato had shown up before the sultan to “become Saracens” is not as outlandish as it might sound. Soldiers on both sides of the Fifth Crusade had converted. Still, it must have appeared to the sultan more likely—considering the timing of Francis's visit and his greeting of peace—that the two friars had arrived with a new message from the Christian camp in response to his peace initiative.

Al-Kamil might have noticed the similarity between Francis's greeting and the familiar Arabic greeting of peace, as-salamu alaikum, or “Peace be upon you.” The Qur'an even urges the benefit of the doubt for those who use a greeting of peace: “Say not to those who greet you with peace, ‘you are not a believer.'”

The early accounts do not explain how the language gap was bridged. Al-Kamil had brought imprisoned Western priests into his court to teach Western languages, so it is possible he understood Francis. If not, translators would have been available. Francis's dramatic gestures might have communicated a great deal by themselves.

Francis and Illuminato quickly brushed aside the sultan's suggestion that they might want to convert, responding that “they never would want to become Muslims, but that they had come to him as messengers on behalf of the Lord God, that he might turn his soul to God.” There is a subtle and interesting twist in this response. Al-Kamil thought Francis was a messenger for the leaders of the Crusade, but Francis invoked the name of God in his response; he did not mention Cardinal Pelagius or John of Brienne, another of the Crusade's leaders. In The Chronicle of Bernard the Treasurer, an Old French chronicle dated to 1230 and based on The Chronicle of Ernoul, the two friars declare: “We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

According to The Chronicle of Ernoul, Francis continued to speak of conversion: “If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God, because we are telling you in all truth that if you die in the law which you now profess, you will be lost and God will not possess your soul.” Francis subtly announced his peaceful intent right away: “If you wish to believe us,” he said, asking only to be heard. Still, no matter how gentle Francis was in delivering this invitation, it is a wonder that al-Kamil did not have his soldiers deposit the two friars with the other prisoners. After all, there was a war going on. Whatever Francis said, it delighted the embattled sultan immediately; he “became sweetness itself,” as James of Vitry wrote.

Later accounts, however, turned this scene into a potential battle to the death. In The Chronicle of Ernoul, the “two clerics,” unnamed, respond to the sultan that if they fail to demonstrate with solid arguments that Islamic law is false, “then you can have our heads cut off.” According to this account, the sultan's religious advisers were ushered into his tent. Once they found out that al-Kamil was going to let Francis preach, they warned him that this would violate Islamic law. “If there should be someone who wishes to preach or speak against our law, the law commands that his head be cut off,” The Chronicle of Ernoul quotes them as saying. Written within a decade after the Fifth Crusade, The Chronicle of Ernoul contains valuable details. But it is the rough work of an untutored warrior who did not even know Francis's name, much less what he stood for. Told from a warrior's point of view, it miscasts Francis as a willing combatant—a fellow soldier.

St. Bonaventure, the minister general of the Franciscan order from 1257 to 1274, made the encounter seem even more confrontational in The Major Legend of Saint Francis. He wrote that Francis urged the sultan to build an enormous fire. “I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy,” Francis supposedly said.

“I do not think that any of my priests would be willing to expose himself to the flames just to defend his faith, or suffer any kind of torture,” the sultan is said to have replied. Francis supposedly offered to walk into the fire himself if the sultan and his people converted to Christianity, but the sultan refused that as well.

At this point, we need to look closely at James of Vitry's account. The French bishop had made a close study of Francis, his order, and the entire subject of converting Muslims. The Frenchman was more than willing to portray Muslims as ogres, but in this case he did not. He was also willing in other places to portray Francis as reckless, but he did not depict him as dangerously confrontational when encountering the sultan. He wrote shortly after the events took place. All of this makes his account more credible than later ones, particularly Bonaventure's.

According to Bonaventure, Francis proposed a trial by ordeal, a practice the Fourth Lateran Council had condemned in 1215. The colorful scene of Francis standing beside a blazing fire, with a horrified Illuminato close by and the concerned sultan before him on a marble throne, is the enduring image of the encounter between saint and sultan. Giotto di Bondone, drawing on Bonaventure's life of Francis, painted it in works that appear in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi and in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Many other artists have followed suit.

While it made for great art, the scene is not historical. Even Bonaventure's account does not claim that a fire was burning—Bonaventure says the sultan turned down Francis's suggestion to build a fire. Writing more than forty years after the event, Bonaventure was the first to claim that Francis had proposed this combat with the sultan's advisers. Such a dramatic story would not have eluded other chroniclers writing closer to the event if it had had any basis in fact. Furthermore, the violence of this proposed trial by ordeal would have contradicted everything Francis wrote and said about loving his enemies, the bedrock of his conversion from soldier to preacher of peace and penitence.

Still, while it may not be great history, Bonaventure's account of this scene serves a theological purpose. It depicts Francis as a new Elijah—the man of God who defeated the prophets of Baal by calling upon the Lord to ignite a fire beneath his sacrifice of a bull. Bonaventure insists that the sultan's advisers sneaked away to avoid the competition. He writes that the sultan “caught a glimpse of one of his priests, an old and highly esteemed man, who slipped away the moment he heard Francis's proposal.”

There was in fact an old and highly esteemed holy man who advised Sultan al-Kamil on religious matters—Fakhr al-Farisi, a respected mystic and authority on the law. But al-Farisi was hardly the type of adviser who would have encouraged the sultan to decapitate Christian preachers. The Persian-born al-Farisi was influenced by Sufism, a mystic approach to Islam known for its tolerance of other faiths. He followed the teachings of Mansur al-Hallaj, the great tenth-century Sufi ascetic, teacher, and poet of mystical union with God. Al-Hallaj was in many ways a Jesus-like figure—some accounts even report that the authorities crucified him in Baghdad in 922. Three centuries later, al-Farisi was known in Cairo as a defender of al-Hallaj and his legacy.

It should be stressed that Sufism was not some separate sect, but rather an influence within Islam. Francis's Christianity had much in common with the Sufi interpretation of Islam. Both dwelt on sacred scriptures that emphasized God's transforming love and presence in the world. Both rejected worldliness in favor of ascetic poverty, repentance, and fasting. And both were orthodox, if unconventional.

The medieval Christian chronicles—and some modern commentators too—presented the sultan's kindly attitude toward Francis as a break with Islamic law. It's hard to believe that al-Kamil, who established Islamic schools and was devoted to the memory of the great Sunni legal scholar Imam al-Shafi'i, would publicly announce his intent to violate the law. “He didn't see himself outside of his own religious tradition,” says Fareed Z. Munir, a professor of religious studies at Siena College in New York State, who has studied the sultan's perspective on the encounter. “Actually, he saw himself as actively involved in his own religion by allowing for an audience for St. Francis.”

Influenced by Sufism, al-Kamil must have believed he was acting within Islamic law in listening to Francis and Illuminato—so long as they refrained from criticizing God or the Prophet Muhammad. With a prominent Sufi as his religious adviser, al-Kamil would have seen the friars in the light of his interest in Sufism and the Muslim tradition calling for respect for Christian monks. In their rough, patched tunics, Francis and Illuminato would even have looked like Sufis: the very name of the Muslim holy men came from the Arab word for wool, the scratchy material used to make their robes. Like Francis, they also wore a cord rather than a belt.

Francis was a dynamic preacher. Rather than imitate the analytical style of argument taught to priests, he came across like the fiery street-corner orators he had heard in the piazzas of Assisi. He preached from the heart. Sultan al-Kamil would no doubt have enjoyed Francis's preaching, but it was probably part of a two-way conversation rather than the solo performance the Christian chroniclers describe. Al-Kamil was fond of such exchanges; he enjoyed debate with the group of learned men with whom he sat every Friday night. So the sultan and his followers likely parried with Francis in much this same style. The contemporary concept of interreligious dialogue didn't exist at the time, but this was nonetheless a dialogue—a peaceful exchange of ideas about two competing religions. In a tent populated with sophisticated religious thinkers and poets, Francis held his own. So much we can infer from James of Vitry, who notes that the discussions went on for several days, a good indication that the conversation had multiple participants. Unfortunately, we have no detailed record of the historic exchange.

For several days Francis and Illuminato were treated as honored guests in the Muslim camp. According to James of Vitry, they were even permitted to preach to the Muslim soldiers. He mentions this in passing, but it is astonishing. While Cardinal Pelagius and the Christian military leaders a few miles to the north were busy building weapons of war for the next assault—and while Muslim troops prepared their own attacks on the Christian camp to which the two friars would return—Francis and the enemy soldiers were treating one another like friends.

Francis had ample time to see Muslim religious practices, especially the call to prayer. His later writings give evidence that he was deeply impressed to see the soldiers stop their work, face southeast toward Mecca, and prostrate themselves before God. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading expert on Islam at George Washington University, a story has circulated orally among Muslims that the sultan gave Francis the key to his private prayer room. That Francis was able to preach for several days or longer implies that he dwelled on subjects that Islam and Christianity have in common and avoided direct criticism of Muhammad or Islam. James of Vitry wrote that Muslims listened willingly to friars who came to the East, so long as they did not dishonor Muhammad in their preaching. Whenever someone did charge that Muhammad was evil, the bishop of Acre wrote, they barely escaped with their lives. Francis, on a mission of peace, evidently took the peaceful path.

Before Francis's departure, the sultan offered him lavish gifts as a token of his esteem. The idea that Francis rejected the sultan's wealth appealed greatly to the early Franciscan writers, and as a result some experts have dismissed this scene as fanciful. Surely the sultan was able to tell, if only from Francis's shabby appearance, that he was not interested in acquiring precious metals. But in extending this offer, al-Kamil gave the rest of his court a visible sign of his approval of Francis. “He wanted to offer the saint silver and gold to show a part of his appreciation for the man's holiness and poverty,” says Mahmoud Ayoub, a scholar of Islam at Temple University who is a leading expert on Christian-Muslim relations.

Francis did, however, accept one token of their extraordinary meeting: an ivory horn, which is now displayed in a room of relics accessible through the lower level of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Such horns were used to announce battle or other major events. According to an inscription later added to the horn, Francis used it to call people to hear him preach.

The Christian accounts insist that Francis had deeply affected Sultan al-Kamil. This notion tended to be exaggerated over the years as writers embellished on the earlier versions. Thomas of Celano, the first Franciscan to write of the encounter, said simply that the sultan “was deeply moved by his words and he listened to him very willingly.” Jordan of Giano, another Franciscan chronicler, wrote that Francis was “honorably received” and “treated kindly” but gave no further indication of how the sultan reacted, except to note that Francis “could not harvest any fruit.” Bonaventure gilded the story in his Major Legend of Saint Francis, quoting al-Kamil as saying he dared not convert to Christianity because his people would revolt. In a sermon he preached in Paris on the Feast of St. Francis, October 4, 1267, Bonaventure went even further. After telling the story of how Francis offered to walk through fire to prove the truth of Christianity, Bonaventure added that the sultan replied that he was afraid to convert. “I could not dare do that, for fear my people would stone me,” Bonaventure quoted him as saying. “But I believe that your faith is good and true.” Bonaventure then added: “And from that moment the Christian faith was imprinted on his heart.”

This is hagiography, devoted to portraying Francis as a miracle worker; it should not be misread as a straightforward historical record. But then, the fact that Francis and Sultan al- Kamil had found a way of talking peacefully in the middle of a gruesome war was itself a kind of miracle. In a letter home, James of Vitry writes of a surprising exchange between the feared enemy monarch and the zealous friar: “The Sultan, the ruler of Egypt, privately asked him to pray to the Lord for him, so that he might be inspired by God to adhere to that religion which most pleased God.” The Dutch scholar Jan Hoeberichts ties this remark to the widespread use in the Arab world of the phrase inshallah, or “God willing.” The sultan's authentic voice is heard in this passage written by a Crusade preacher. It is sophisticated, subtle, and filled with respect—and even love--for Francis. Al-Kamil had seen the worst face of Christianity: the face of invaders pressing forward, wielding the True Cross like a weapon, even after a reasonable peace had been offered. Francis had shown Sultan al-Kamil what it meant to be a true Christian, a holy person who truly believed Jesus' call to love the enemy.

Sultan al-Kamil dispatched Francis and Illuminato to the Christian camp under his protection. Muslim soldiers returned the two friars reverently, “with many signs of honor,” as James of Vitry writes.

But before leaving, Francis told the sultan that while he would not accept his gold, silver, or silk, he would take a meal. It is a remarkable request coming from a man who often went hungry, who never ate much and always ate simply. Perhaps Francis had something besides hunger in mind. He had always tried to imitate Jesus, who sought to realize the kingdom of heaven on earth through table fellowship—by dining with people society despised. “The Sultan gave them plenty of food to eat,” according to The Chronicle of Ernoul. The sultan likely took part in the meal instead of merely catering it. Such hospitality is traditional in Egypt. Perhaps one should not be surprised that other Christian accounts failed to mention this meal. Years later, Pope Gregory IX castigated Emperor Frederick II for the offense of eating sociably with Muslim leaders. This scene of Francis peacefully breaking bread at a banquet with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, his supposed enemy, could not differ more from the image of their encounter that has come down through the ages: two tense antagonists separated by a threatening bonfire. Their meal together ought to have been the enduring image of their encounter, painted in bright colors on cathedral walls.

 

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Moses. This article is adapted with permission from The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace, to be published September 29 by Doubleday Religion, a division of Random House, Inc.


Related: Where There Is Doubt..., by the Editors

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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