The Saint and the Sultan: the Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace examines a little known encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Crusades.
In 1219, in the midst of disastrous Fifth Crusade, Francis crossed enemy lines to gain an audience with al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt and a nephew of the great Muslim warrior Saladin, in his camp on the banks of the Nile. Francis, who opposed the warfare, hoped to bring about peace by converting the sultan to Christianity. He didn’t succeed, but came away from the peaceful encounter with revolutionary ideas that called for Christians to live harmoniously with Muslims.
The Saint and the Sultan brings to life the battles of the Fifth Crusade as well as the parallel stories of Francis and Sultan al-Kamil, showing why this meeting between two unique men was misrepresented and glossed over for so many years. It also shows the relevance this episode has today as many in the world work gingerly to broker peace between Christians and Muslims.
As I recount in the book’s introduction, I learned about the encounter between Francis and Sultan al-Kamil through The Little Flowers of St. Francis, a somewhat fanciful fourteenth-century account of Francis’s life. I soon realized that the meeting was indeed a historical event – and one that fascinated me in light of the tensions between Christians and Muslims following the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
As I looked further into the various accounts of the meeting between Francis and the sultan, I found that the best way to understand what happened would be to understand the two men involved. And so I’ve looked closely at both men’s lives – at Francis’s attitudes to war and peace, which were shaped by his own traumatic experience as a soldier, and at al-Kamil’s extensive dealings with Christians in Egypt, where the Copts regarded him as the most tolerant of Egypt’s sultans.
Francis is often seen in his role as gentle friend to animals and nature, happy in his life of eccentric poverty. There is much more. Francis derided his own intelligence, but he was a shrewd judge of the social conditions of his time – of the intense violence, the economic conflict between merchants and aristocrats, the corrupt churchmen. The difficult life he adopted was both a social critique and a path to salvation for him – it extracted him from the warfare that had nearly destroyed him as a young man.
As a journalist who spent years covering government, I’m skeptical of people in power. But Sultan al-Kamil, who ruled Egypt for forty years as viceroy and then sultan, won me over as I researched his life. He was a statesman, a leader who understood that war is often the least practical way to solve a problem. In the end, he impressed even the Crusaders with his goodness – and thus, there are rumors in the medieval Christian writings that he secretly wanted to convert to Christianity. But I found that Sultan al-Kamil was simply a good Sunni Muslim whose actions – including his gentle reverence toward the scraggly Francis – were rooted in his own faith.
The book’s focus is the story of the encounter between Francis and the sultan, and the events leading up to it. But I also discuss what the story can signify for us today. As I wrote in the introduction:
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 instruct us today. So should the fact that al-Kamil, a great sultan of Egypt and a nephew 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