September 2020

The painting of St. Francis embracing Egypt’s Sultan Malik al-Kamil is on the first page of my website. It graces my Twitter handle. After nine years, I finally get to explain it, and this with the help of acclaimed 2009 book by journalist and professor of journalism Paul Moses, The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace.

I’ll do this in two installments. Here, I lay out the story according to the best historical sources, mostly uncovered and critically evaluated in the 20th century. Next, I’ll take us on a short historical journey to illustrate how religious narratives are driven by people with power, and in this case, by popes who were determined to continue the Crusades against the Muslim Other and crush dissenting voices.


Francis of Assisi’s conversion

Francis’s father, Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy silk merchant from Assisi, Italy, was in France where he conducted much of his business (his mother was a French noble woman from Provence) when his son Giovanni was born. But Pietro called him Francesco (“Frenchy”) from the start. French troubadours’ songs and chivalry were popular in his family.

This was in 1181, when the old tug-of-war between the Holy Roman emperors and the popes over control of Italian cities was beginning to turn to the advantage of the popes. The election of the young and energetic pope Innocent III sealed that trend as he was a spiritual leader who took his temporal duties seriously. Besides organizing the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), he initiated military campaigns against the Albigensians and Cathar “heretics.” Closer to home for the young Francis, the angry merchants of Assisi saw the opportunity to storm and destroy the castle of the Duke of Spoleto, the hated general put there by Emperor Frederick. Francis as a teenager likely fought with them.

This signaled the beginning of a local civil war between Assisi’s merchants and the noblemen who finally had to take refuge in its rival city, Perugia. The latter had been grabbing more land and power and saw this as an opportunity to attack its rival, Assisi. Under “the honor-bound codes of chivalry” Assisi considered its own honor threatened and the merchants prepared to send out their troops to meet them.

We are now in 1202 and Francis is about twenty-one. As a member of one of Assisi’s wealthiest families he had no choice but to join the expedition. It’s likely too that, as a knight wearing the finest fabric over his shining new armor, he was just as eager as anyone to kill the enemy – which he likely did in the ensuing battle that, however, quickly turned into a hasty retreat for the Assisians, and a massacre. But because of his wealth, he was not hunted down and killed as were the commoner soldiers. He was ransomed and put with others in a temporary prison, probably “an underground vault in the depths of Perugia’s Etruscan ruins” (25).

Francis suffered a whole year in that dark dungeon and “left captivity a shattered man.” He had been ill, most likely from malaria, which would follow him for the rest of his short life; and the “sensory deprivation” of living in the dark for so long only added to the despair of his own survivor’s guilt: “Francis had seen the enemy cavalry rip apart other men on the ground while he was permitted to survive because of his family’s wealth” (26).

Yet it was as a man struggling with illness and depression that Francis gradually experienced his conversion. His “spiritual awakening” came about most notably in three steps:


    • Though he was beginning to practice generosity with the poor, he was still tempted by the process of engaging in battle and earning knighthood. Innocent III dubbed a military campaign near Apulia in southern Italy against the emperor to regain his papal lands as a “crusade” with all the attendant privileges. Moreover, it was led by Count Walter of Brienne, “the flower of French chivalry,” and so Francis set off on horseback “in the best armor and weaponry his father’s money could buy” (29). Yet two days into his journey a voice in the night asked him where he was going. He replied that he was going to meet a count who would knight him. “Who do you think can best reward you, the Master or the servant?” continued the voice. “The Master,” answered Francis. As the voice addressed him again, he knew it is Jesus: “Then why do you leave the Master for the servant, the rich Lord for the poor man?” He turned around the next morning, traveling back. Just before arriving in Assisi, he sold his military gear and horse. He left what must have been a large sum of money with the priest of a church in need of repair near his home.
    • As a leper held out his hand for alms one day, Francis “kissed the leper on the hand and the mouth and was overwhelmed with a sense of peace as he turned away from his own inner struggles and focused more on the needs of others.” From then on, he frequently visited a hospice caring for lepers. In his Testament he recalled, “What had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of body and soul” (33).
    • Now came the most famous and decisive step: “when he prayed on his knees before a painted crucifix late in 1205 in the broken-down, century-old Church of San Damiano.” He then heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him from the cross, “Francis, go, repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely in ruin.” He then understood that God was calling him to repair not just a physical building but the entirety of the Christian church.


The Franciscan order is born and a new Crusade is announced

Francis came out of this awakening a radically transformed individual, immediately attracting mockery and abuse. Walking around in rags, he was pelted with mud and stones, and his father beat him mercilessly, then imprisoned him. Yet while the former was back in France on business, his mother freed him. But the father wasn't giving up. Incensed about the shame Francis was bringing on his family, Pietro brought charges against his son before the authorities. Now a “religious person,” it was Bishop Guido who judged the case: “There in a famous scene, Francis handed back to his father not only all his money but also his clothing. He stood naked before the bishop, father, and gaping townspeople. The bishop then wrapped Francis in his cloak” (36).

The young men who started to follow Francis in his life of poverty met with the same persecution. Yet, like their leader, they never fought back or even ceased from blessing people and seeking peace. In fact, in his Testament, Francis says that early on God had “revealed” the greeting the brothers were to use: “May the Lord give you peace.” Though this might seem trite today, in an age when Crusades and violence were the norm, only “the heretical Cathars embraced the pacifism of early Christianity and opposed the Crusades.” Spreading peace to everyone “struck people who encountered him and his followers as amazing, even subversive” (37).

As his movement spread quickly, Francis kept peacemaking on top of his agenda and promoted it through his own example and words. In the Third Order which he circulated in 1221, he urged his followers “to be reconciled with their neighbors and to restore what belongs to others . . . They are not to take up lethal weapons, or bear them about, against anybody.” Paul Moses comments that this in effect barred any of his followers from entering military service. The same can be said for his ban on making oaths: “lords, vassals, and their underlings all swore oaths to go to war when called, perpetuating the violence that dominated Europe in the thirteenth century” (47).

Meanwhile, Pope Innocent III sounded the alarm. The dwindling Latin Crusader Kingdom in Acre (Akko today, on the Mediterranean north of Haifa), he warned, was on the verge of being attacked by the Muslims from their new fort on Mount Tabor (where tradition places Jesus’ transfiguration). In 1215 he launched the Fifth Crusade. He died a year later and it was left to a much older pope, Honorius III, to delegate “the influential Cardinal Ugolino, the late Pope Innocent’s nephew” to lead the effort.


The Muslim side of the story

Now for some background on the Muslim side of the story … Sultan Malik al-Adil, upon the death of his brother, the famous Saladin who founded the Ayyubid dynasty, managed to take the throne in 1200, and he appointed his oldest son who had just turned twenty, Malik al-Kamil, as the viceroy of Egypt. Both father and son were well acquainted and generally well-disposed toward Christian leaders in the region. Yet there is likely another reason the son was inclined to respect Christians. As the Third Crusade was winding down in early 1192 – King Richard the Lion Hearted, who had won several victories and put Saladin on the defensive, was now falling ill and seeking an honorable exit from the conflict. He offered a gesture of goodwill: to knight Saladin’s eleven-year-old nephew Malik al-Kamil. Years later the latter could not have forgotten some of the religious aspects of that ceremony in addition to the honor of publicly receiving the sword and belt.

A Coptic chronicle of the time also tells of a friendship al-Kamil developed with a Christian hermit, whom he once met on a hunting trip near Alexandria. While conversing with him (remember that the Qur’an speaks respectfully of Christian monks, e.g., Q. 5:82), al-Kamil tells his of a pain in his gut. After the monk prays for him, he feels better. He later sent him a gift.

Malik al-Kamil by 1215 had ruled Egypt with a skillful hand. Besides building dams and improving the needed irrigation for its agriculture, “he created more schools for the study of Islam, and resolved internal disputes before they spun out of control” (74). He also signed treaties with Italy in order to promote greater trade. In fact, in the very year the Fifth Crusade was declared, he signed a trade pact with Venice.


Francis at the front line of the Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade’s first troops materialized in Acre two years later and its strategy was to conquer Egypt and then attack Jerusalem from the south. At the end of May 1218, the crusaders arrived in Egypt with the goal of taking the heavily fortified city of Damietta, “gatekeeper of the Nile.” By August they were scoring some victories, and al-Kamil’s woes only increased as news of his father’s (natural) death in Syria reached him.

Yet by year’s end disease was beginning to weaken the Christian camp. Meanwhile, Francis had been able to secure the patronage of Cardinal Ugolino and around this time obtained permission to travel with eleven brothers and join crusaders headed to the Egyptian front. Arriving in the brutal heat of August, Francis could witness the increase of exhaustion and discouragement on both sides as they experienced heavy losses. He also would have heard of the plight of the besieged inhabitants of Damietta –with a number of Christians among them – dying of disease and hunger.

Sultan Malik al-Kamil had made a peace offer that the military leaders favored (giving them Jerusalem in return for leaving), but it was rebuffed by the hawkish Cardinal Pelagius, the pope’s envoy. This tension between the two sides in the Christian camp only increased over time. And then, maybe two or three weeks into the Franciscans’ stay at the front, Pelagius announced an all-out attack by land and sea planned for August 29, 1219.

Paul Moses describes Francis’ reaction: “Deeply distressed, he prayed through that hot night . . . Deep in prayer, Francis believed that Jesus spoke to him. And by morning on the day of the planned battle, his prayer experience had led him to conclude that the Crusaders would be making an enormous mistake if they attacked” (110).

After consulting with one of his brothers, he decided that, indeed, God was calling him to follow his conscience and spread the word he had received in prayer. He then began to preach with great energy and passion against the battle. The angry foot soldiers, however, would have none of it. But news of the commotion must surely have reached both military and religious leaders. What is more, they would have known that Francis and his brothers stayed behind.

The battle did in fact turn into a disaster for the Christian side. Several thousands were killed, including some prominent knights. Other knights were made prisoners and as al-Kamil continued negotiations, he would send two of them to the Christian camp to present his offers. Now Francis realized that the time for him to act had come.


Francis and al-Kamil’s meeting

Francis could perhaps have snuck into enemy territory with his close brother Illuminato, but according to Paul Moses, he “felt a deep loyalty to church authority and decided to seek permission for his journey from the cardinal, whose bejeweled clothing and hunger for power were the antithesis of the friar’s humble way” (122). That encounter is described in the chapter, “The Saint and the Cardinal.” I’ll only say here that Pelagius allowed him to leave on the condition that he go bearing the full responsibility of his decision. In fact, he would be carrying no official letter to al-Kamil, for Pelagius was certain that Francis would never return alive and he wanted no responsibility for his death.

As they approached the Muslim garrison town south of Damietta, the Muslim sentries, likely assuming they were messengers, took them to the sultan. Al-Malik was then thirty-nine and Francis about a year and a half younger. Once they were brought into his presence, Francis gave his usual greeting, “May the Lord give you peace!” This of course put the ruler at ease. It’s virtually the same as the common Arab greeting, “Peace be with you!” One of the earliest sources indicates that al-Kamil added, “Do you wish to become Saracens or do you have come with a message for me?” We know from other sources that he had met more than one Christian monk who wished to convert to Islam.

The first standard life of Francis (by Thomas of Celano) tells us that in his response Francis told the Sultan that “they would never 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” (130). From the start, Francis stated that his authority was God and not Cardinal Pelagius or Jean de Brienne, thereby implying that he had no sympathy for the violent ways of the “Christian” camp.

In the above-mentioned early source (The Chronicle of Ernoul), Francis says the following:


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. It is the reason that we have come. But if you will give us a hearing and try to understand us, we will demonstrate to you with convincing reasons, in the presence of the most learned teachers of your realm, if you wish to assemble them, that your law is false” (131).


If this is close to accurate, you would worry that al-Kamil took this as an insult (“your law is false”) and that he would now call for his soldiers to come and imprison them. Quite the opposite! Another early French source (Bishop James of Vitry) says the sultan, upon hearing this, “became sweetness itself.” But why then would this Muslim head of state hold court with two Christian monks? After all, this war was heavily weighing on him day and night. Intellectual curiosity may well have been a factor, but that is plainly insufficient here.

The truth is that al-Kamil closest and most respected advisor, Fakhr al-Farisi, was both a Sufi shaykh (a mystic who trained others under him in the spiritual disciplines) and an Islamic legal expert. In fact, al-Kamil was a fervent admirer of Ibn al-Farid, whose poetry sang the praise of divine love. Sufis in general admire Jesus and imagine him “as a wandering preacher dressed in a wool tunic, accompanied by John the Baptist” (138). [See this classic work, Jesus in the Eyes of Sufis, by Javad Nurbakhsh, for 55 years the shaykh of the Nimatullahi Sufi order].

Furthermore, he loved to learn from and debate with an entourage of scholars, often Friday nights till the morning light. For this purpose, he had some of them lodged at his residence in Cairo (the Citadel). It is not surprising, then, that he kept Francis and Illuminatio for some three or four days to dig deeper into their conversation with a number of participants. No details have transpired from those exchanges (yes, it was an interreligious dialog!), but as Paul Moses muses, “What can be said for sure is that in the worst of times, a Christian and a prominent Muslim engaged in reasoned public discussion about their religious differences” (141).

Think about how desperate this war was becoming for both sides. Yet in the midst of that horror, these two friars were treated like honored guests for several days or more, and James of Vitry even mentions that Francis was allowed “to preach to Muslim soldiers.” Five times in his collected writings, Francis mentions Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. There is no doubt in my mind that he was doing that here – responding to the sultan’s hospitality by discussing common ground and respectfully explaining differences without in any way insulting the Prophet of Islam. Clearly, the two men had become friends. Neither converted, but both grew in their respect for the other’s faith and spirituality. It was iron sharpening iron, as we read in Proverbs (27:17).

We also know that before escorting the two men back to the Christian camp, al-Kamil offered Francis lavish gifts, which he turned down again and again, even when it was conditioned upon helping poor Christians. In Celano’s official version of the life of Francis (vetted by another crusading pope), we read: “But when he saw that Francis most vigorously despised all these things as so much dung, he was filled with admiration, and he looked upon him as a man different from all others” (143). That rings true: 1) with all the pressure on Celano to paint Muslims in the worst light possible, this was a bold statement; 2) it shows that the two men had indeed became friends.

In the second installment we will dig into some of the layers of historical distortions that explain why this story never came out as it really happened until recently.