Brooklyn College, The City University of New York
During a major battle in the Fifth Crusade in 1219, Francis of Assisi crossed enemy lines and met with Malik al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt and a nephew of Saladin. Francis did not succeed in his goal of converting the sultan, although, remarkably, he was permitted to preach to him and others in the Muslim camp near Damietta, Egypt for several days. The encounter has largely been presented as an attempt on Francis’ part to achieve martyrdom, a theme initiated in thirteenth-century Franciscan accounts. The enduring image of the meeting is found in a Giotto work in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Based on Bonaventure’s The Major Legend of St. Francis, it depicts Francis challenging the sultan’s religious advisors to an ordeal by fire that would prove who practiced the true religion. But this story, which did not surface until more than forty years after Francis and the sultan met, reflects Bonaventure’s need to portray Francis as highly orthodox, obedient and pro-Crusade at a time when the Franciscan order was under pressure from Rome due to a heresy scandal involving a group of rebellious friars.
To uncover what actually happened, it is necessary to view this event in the context of the larger stories of Francis and Sultan al-Kamil. Concerning the sultan, medieval Christian accounts imply or assert that the sultan secretly wished to be a Christian. But the sultan’s respect for Francis was authentically Islamic, based on passages in the Qur’an about Christian monks and on his interest in Sufism. Francis’ actions have to be considered in the context of his peacemaking; his conversion to a life of piety began in reaction to the trauma he suffered as a soldier and prisoner of war. The events in Egypt can be further understood by examining Francis’ own writings. In particular, his Earlier Rule included a revolutionary provision that the friars live peacefully among Muslims and “be subject” to them, avoiding contentious religious disputes. Francis, who taught largely through example, had approached the sultan unarmed to show Christians a peaceful alternative to the Crusades. He was not on a suicide mission but on a mission of peace.
Paul Moses is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and a veteran journalist who has specialized in writing about religion. His book, The Saint and the Sultan, will be published by Doubleday in 2009.
CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Ave. @ 34th St.)
Reception, with wine and cheese, follows.