Skip to comments.St Francis and the Sultan
Posted on 06/26/2009 2:03:35 PM PDT by bronxville
St Francis and the Sultan: the making of a pious myth Jonathan Wright on a wonderful book that explains how a legendary meeting was reinterpreted over eight centuries 26 June 2009
St Francis of Assisi: His trip to Egypt became one of the centrepieces of Franciscan hagiography
In September 1219, as yet another crusade was raging, Francis of Assisi popped across the military lines in order to talk with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt. We have no accurate idea of why he went or what was said but, in an important sense, this doesn't much matter.
Here was a legendary Christian meeting with a mighty Muslim leader and the event couldn't help but become an epochal moment of East-West encounter.
For the next eight centuries writers, artists and philosophers would recreate, re-evaluate, and (more often than not) misrepresent the famous meeting. It would become a cultural staple and John Tolan traces this fascinating history with aplomb.
This is a fabulous book: literally, because it deals with so many fables, but also in the more complimentary sense of the word, because it is well-written, even-handed and, from cover to cover, enchanting.
Contemporary Arabic chroniclers made no mention of the meeting. This, as Tolan explains, is unsurprising; they had no sense of the mixed, but voluminous, press that Francis had been enjoying back in Europe. To them he was a curiosity, a welcome diversion, and one who was probably rather fortunate to stroll into the presence of a ruler who enjoyed religious debate.
For the fledgling Franciscan order, however, Francis's deeds were an enormous boon and the episode in Egypt quickly established itself as one of the centrepieces of their founder's hagiography.
Future generations took rather different tacks. During the early-modern period, when the Ottoman Turks were behaving in decidedly irritating ways on Europe's borders, it became fashionable to cast the sultan as something of a brute.
When the waters calmed, and the Ottoman threat receded, new interpretations arose. For Voltaire and the champions of Enlightenment, who weren't overly keen on monks or friars, the sultan became a shining beacon of toleration and it was now Francis's turn to be portrayed as a fanatical zealot.
In later years, when Europe was set on "civilising" the rest of the world, the 1219 meeting was held up as an example of a bold Westerner trying to snap the East out of its barbarism. These days, with welcome words and phrases like ecumenism and inter-religious-dialogue buzzing in our ears, the encounter has become a touchstone for those who insist that, theological squabbles aside, we really should just try and get along.
The huge strength of Tolan's book is that it exposes the agendas that lie behind all these different ways of hijacking the events of 1219. The book isn't judgmental: it simply explains how hazy past events can become grist to the mill of later causes, and this is something we, in the 21st century, ought to bear in mind.
There is absolutely no evidence that Francis was trying to bridge the gap between Christianity and Islam - at the time, to be frank, the notion would have been thought preposterous - or that he was trying to put an end to the carnage of the Crusades.
Not that this has stopped modern commentators seizing on Francis's chat with the sultan as a moment of enlightened banter. Such interpretations are flatly absurd, but they are easily forgiven because they seek to serve a righteous purpose.
Historians have to be a little more rigorous. They have to see events in their context and they simply aren't allowed to draw snug parallels between times and places that have nothing in common with one another. Tolan follows these rubrics closely and has produced a riveting account of how later generations used and abused a curious historical moment.
We'll never know what really transpired between Francis and the sultan as the siege of Damietta unfolded a few miles down the road, but thanks to John Tolan we know what posterity made of their cultural collision.
From Franciscan adoration to the etchings of Doré, from medieval frescoes to the meditations of 19th-century colonialists, this book covers a staggering amount of ground. It shows that what happened is often less important than how the happening was turned, twisted and treasured by those who came afterwards. Wonderful stuff.
“In later years, when Europe was set on “civilising” the rest of the world, the 1219 meeting was held up as an example of a bold Westerner trying to snap the East out of its barbarism.
These days, with welcome words and phrases like ecumenism and inter-religious-dialogue buzzing in our ears, the encounter has become a touchstone for those who insist that, theological squabbles aside, we really should just try and get along.”
The Prayer of St. Francis of Assissi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
St. Francis was born at Assisi in 1182. After a care free youth, he turned his back on inherited wealth and committed himself to God. Like many early saints, he lived a very simple life of poverty, and in so doing, gained a reputation of being the friend of animals. He established the rule of St Francis, which exists today as the Order of St. Francis, or the Franciscans. He died in 1226, aged 44.
The prayer has many of the biblical truths of what it means to be a Christian - to seek to give, and in so doing, receive blessings; that the Lord’s Prayer asks God to forgive us as we forgive, and that the goal of eternal life can only result from us putting to death our old sinful lives.
Pointers for Prayer : Sometimes Christians are called to turn the world upside down. To bring the exact opposite of what we find in our world. St. Francis’ prayer is a bold one, asking for strength to give of ourselves to meet the needs of others. He recognises that it “is in giving that we receive”, that as we give of ourselves, we receive the peace and blessing of our risen Lord Jesus. We cannot earn eternal life, but that we are pardoned from the sins that block our claim on it.
Think about the situations that you are involved in that require peace, consolation, hope, light and joy. Then, if you’re bold enough, pray the prayer!
We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or dont you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
During the Fifth Crusade to Egypt, St. Francis of Assisi walked into a Muslim camp in order to preach Christianity and convert the sultan. Rega’s new book recounts St. Francis’s bold encounter with the sultan and other important events from the life of the man from Assisi some claim more closely imitated Jesus Christ than any other saint in history. [ ]
LifeSiteNews: Why did St. Francis of Assisi support the Fifth Crusade?
Frank Rega: Francis understood that the Fifth Crusade was part of an ongoing just war in response to Muslim invasions of Christian lands, which included many attacks against Italian city-states all along the peninsula over the course of centuries. For example, in the year 846, Rome itself was sacked by 11,000 Muslims, who desecrated the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.
Further, the crusade was called for by the Holy Father, and it is well-known that Francis had perfect loyalty to the Catholic Church, and showed devout respect for priests and all the hierarchy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he felt the crusade was justified on spiritual grounds. As mentioned in the book, Francis told the Sultan “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship.”
LifeSiteNews: What did St. Francis say and do when he entered the Muslim camp?
Frank Rega: It is important here to recognize the bravery of Francis. He preached to armed Muslims who a few days before had won a major skirmish at Damietta, killing about five thousand Christians. The Sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil was also the general of the Muslim army, and ruler of Egypt, Syria and Palestine. Francis first obtained permission from the Papal Legate to cross over the lines during a period of temporary truce. When he reached Muslim territory he and Brother Illuminato were taken prisoner, beaten and put in chains by the sentries.
Here we have an image of St. Francis that is utterly opposed to the statues of a docile friar surrounded by birds and other animals St. Francis beaten and in chains! He was fully prepared for martyrdom. Upon meeting the saint, al-Malik asked him if he was a messenger from the crusaders. Francis replied that he was indeed a messenger, but a messenger from God. He then proceeded to give witness to his love for Jesus, and said that he wished to save the souls of the Sultan and his men.
LifeSiteNews: How did the sultan and his followers react to St. Francis’s words and deeds?
Frank Rega: Initially the Sultan was taken aback by Francis’ boldness. After all, the Muslims had just defeated the Christians in a pitched battle, and now one of them dares to state that the Muslims must convert to Christianity. However, the love flowing from Francis began to move the Sultan, and according to one contemporary writer, “that cruel beast became sweetness himself.” However, the advisers to al-Malik, the imams, were not so impressed, and demanded that Francis and Illuminato should be beheaded in accordance with Islamic law.
Francis and his companion remained in the Muslim camp for many days, and parted on excellent terms with the Sultan. There is a story in the early Franciscan literature, described in my book, that al-Malik converted to the True Faith on his deathbed.
LifeSiteNews: Is a crusade against Islam needed today? If so, how should it be conducted?
Frank Rega: A traditional crusade by definition cannot be conducted today because it was a movement within Christendom to defend and counter-attack Muslim invasions of Christian lands. It was sponsored by the Church and relied on the support of Christian rulers and Kings. Without the backing of a strong Christendom, which no longer exists, a crusade as such would be impossible.
Furthermore, today an armed religious war would not be fruitful since the real battle is a “cold war” so to speak. It is a war of persuasion, conversion, and diplomatic dialog, since the Muslims have already launched their peaceful “invasion” of what was once Christian Europe. Of course I am only addressing the religious aspects here, and not the war on terrorism, which is in the secular domain.
...for example, in the year 846, Rome itself was sacked by 11,000 Muslims, who desecrated the tombs of Sts. Peter and Paul.
“St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims; With Concise Biography of the Saint,
is published by TAN Books.”
“There is no doubt that St. Francis of Assisi was a radical Christian radical in the sense of going down to the very roots or essentials of the faith when it came to imitating Jesus Christ. There are dozens of fine books about the saint. The emphasis in this book about his life is on his attempt to convert to Christianity the powerful sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil”
i meant to give ya a ping on TAN books
Interesting article. Funny the Muslims didn’t get it that Francis was kind of a big deal in the Christian world.