St. Francis and the Sultan: Conversion, Dialogue or Dhimmitude? Part I

This post was originally published on October 3, 2013. It was revised on May 21, 2018.


In a few hours, Pope Francis will be heading to Assisi, to celebrate the feast of the great saint under whose star he has placed his pontificate. All eyes, ears and hearts will be fastened on him. His recent words about conversion and proselytism are still sounding. What better time to revisit the story of St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt? The material here is from my talk on August 23 at CUNY Grad Center in New York. I’ll be publishing these excerpts over the next few days.

In the past few years, with our increasingly tense relation with the Islamic world, the story of St. Francis and his visit to Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade has become an iconic event, one everyone wants to talk about. But no two people interpret it in the same way. Some believe it shows Francis as someone who respects the autonomy of other religions; others insist that it means he was zealous for converts. Nor have historical scholars been the only ones to offer their opinion. And as an object of such present-day concern, the problem arises: how can the history of a far distant time be grasped meaningfully in the present day without distorting it? I hope perhaps to untangle a little of this web. Let’s start with an outline of the event, then go to the controversy.

The Event

St. Francis’ desire to reach and preach to the Muslims (or the Saracens) was one of the driving forces of his life after his conversion. He had begun by longing for knighthood, but gave it up when he found Christ more worthy than any earthly lord. He continued to reverence chivalry, considering its ideas in a way as lying behind his brotherhood. There is every indication that he continued to honor the idea of crusaders as martyrs. Yet he felt he had been given a very different task by God in regard to the Muslims. He made two different attempts to preach to the Muslims in Spain and Morocco before going to Egypt in the spring or summer of 1219.

At that time the Christians were laying siege to Damietta, on the Nile delta, a very populous and commercially important city. Heading the siege was Jean de Brienne, the Christian king of Jerusalem. Other important personalities on the Christian side were Cardinal Pelagius, the papal legate, and Jacques de Vitry, the bishop of Acre. Opposing the Christians were Al-Malik al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt, and his brother, al-Mua’zzam, the sultan of Damascus.

The siege had been going on for some time when Francis arrived, and the people of Damietta were being slowly starved. Some among the crusaders wanted to attack the Sultan and his army directly. King John resisted this idea as did many of the knights. But lower-class crusaders from Italy, who were all for attacking, began to sound mutinous.

It was at this junction that Francis intervened, according to Thomas of Celano. When he learned of the coming battle he said to one of his companions: “If they fight on such a day the Lord hath showed me that the Christians will not prosper. But if I tell them this I will be thought a fool.” His companion answered “Well it wouldn’t be the first time!” The result: the saint warned that disaster would follow if they fought, they laughed at him, and the battle was a complete defeat for the Christians. The fateful date was August 29. Subsequent peace negotiations went nowhere; al-Malik al-Kamil was willing to give back Jerusalem to the Christians, but not his strategic forts, so Pelagius, who wanted nothing less than complete surrender, rejected his offer.

Finally, on November 5, 1219, the Christians overcame the defenders of Damietta weakened by famine, and took the city. The Christians were shocked at the number dead among the city’s Muslim population. It took some two months to bury all the dead and make it livable. The Christians remained in their camp outside the city until February, when they made their official entrance.

According to one early crusade source: The Histoire d’Eracles Empereur:

Saint Francis, came to the army of Damietta, and he did much good, and he remained until the city was taken. He saw the evil and the sin that began to grow among the people in the army, and he was displeased by it; for this reason he left and stayed for a time in Syria, and then he returned to his own country.

So Francis would have left the Christian camp sometime early in 1220. Sometime between those two vaguely defined dates, early August 1219, and February 1220, he traveled to the other bank of the Nile to meet Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil.

What do we know of the these two men? Catholics know a great deal about Francis, but much less about the sultan, though he too was an interesting character. Al-Malik al-Kamil was born in 1180, this makes him almost the same age as St. Francis –39. He was the son of al-Adil, and hence a nephew of the famous Saladin. He was a cultured man and one who loved learned debates. He was quite knowledgeable about Christian teaching and life; according to Western sources, his mother was a Christian slave.

The visit is actually one of the better-documented events of that crusade. The very earliest source we have for this event is a letter by Jacques de Vitry, the bishop of Acre, who was present in the Christian camp at the time; it was thus written a matter of months, perhaps only weeks after the event. He says little about what happened, except that Francis preached for several days in the sultan’s camp without much success, and that sultan sent for him and asked him to pray for him “so that God might show him what religion he wished him to embrace.”

Another source, a crusade chronicler named Ernoul, describes Francis and his companion, without giving their names. He says they tried to persuade the Cardinal legate Pelagius to allow them to visit the sultan. The cardinal said he could not give his approval, because they would be killed, but doesn’t forbid them to go. This account also stresses the courtesy between St. Francis and the Sultan; the friar tells the sultan that he wants to preach to him so his soul will be saved; he wants to go ahead even though the Muslim clerics there say the two must be beheaded for arguing against Islam. But the Sultan says this would be a poor return to someone who was trying to save his soul.

The most controversial account is that of St. Bonaventure. He has St. Francis say to the sultan:

But if you are afraid to abandon the law of Mahomet for Christ’s sake, then light a big fire and I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy.” To that the sultan replied, “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” (He had just caught a glimpse of one of his priests, an old and highly esteemed man, who slipped away the moment he heard Francis’ proposal). Then Francis continued, “if you are prepared to promise me that you and your people will embrace the Christian religion, if I come out of the fire unharmed, I will enter it alone. But if I am burned, you must attribute it to my sins; on the other hand, if God saves me by his power, you must acknowledge “Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Cor 1, 24) as true God, the Lord and Savior of all.” The sultan replied that he would not dare to accept a choice like that, for fear of a revolt among his people (Vita Maj. IX, 8).


Various Interpretations of the Encounter

Historians have interpreted these events in different ways. Here are some major ones:

Francis as Peacemaker. Most historians of the crusades, including Steven Runciman, (A History of the Crusades) believe Francis’ visit took place during the truce after the battle between Christians and Muslims on August 29, 1219, at which Francis had been present. They see Francis’ visit as part of the peace negotiations, and so primarily a mission of peace. Others, such as Van Cleve, have seen it largely as a mission to convert the sultan.

A vast number of modern writers also see Francis as peacemaker. We could put Paul Moses and his recent book The Saint and the Sultan. It is certainly true that Francis and his brothers were known for fostering peace among the quarreling political factions in Italy. Francis is also known to have sought peace before the battle of of August 29 and even forbidden the Christians to fight. At the same time, there is no support for this idea in the primary sources. None of them says anything about Francis taking part in peace negotiations; none say that the event took place during a truce.

Francis as a mystical martyr for Islam. This idea has its roots in a movement among the Franciscans, which began with the extraordinary figure of Louis Massignon. As a young student of archaeology, and a complete atheist, he traveled to the Ottoman empire (modern day Iraq), and studied Arabic, living among the Muslims in a working-class neighborhood. In 1908, he was jailed by the Ottoman government for supposedly being a spy, but his Muslim friends intervened for him, got him released and saved his life. Shaken to his core, he underwent a profound religious conversion – not to Islam, but to Catholicism. The core of his spirituality was the idea of the badal, or “substitute,” named for the abdal or saints who, according to the Sufis, intercede for others, as his friends had for him. Massignon longed to be such a “substitute” for the Muslims; in 1934, together with another Christian, Mary Kahil, he founded the Badaliya movement for this end. He was a Franciscan tertiary as well. I wrote about him here.

For Massignon, Francis was a badal for the Sultan. In asking for a trial by fire, he was in a way replaying an incident during the life of Muhammad. According to Muslim tradition, the prophet once invited the Christian clergy from Najran to undergo a test to prove Christ’s Incarnation: to call down fire on the heads of the followers of the false faith. The Christians had refused the test, and the Muslims attributed it to their lack of sincere faith. Francis, according to Massignon, now announced his readiness to undergo this test; he was motivated by his desire for martyrdom, yes, but primarily out of love for the sultan, to be a badal for him, to intercede for him with Christ. But God did not permit this; instead he reserved for Francis the martyrdom of the stigmata on Mt. La Verna, which made him “the standard-bearer of the supreme crusade,” that would overcome the Christian crusade and Muslim holy war, the crusade of love to save souls.

Massignon has been followed by others, including the Franciscans Giulio Bassetti-Sani and Gwenole Jeusset. This is an attractive interpretation, based on an authentic Christian mysticism that has a chance of approaching Francis’ own mindset. Yet it’s very unlikely that Francis would have known anything about the Christians at Najran, and Massignon admits this – he thinks Francis just happened to hit on it providentially. (For a detailed history of this view, see John Tolan, St. Francis and the Sultan, Oxford UP, 2009).

Francis as a promoter of co-existence and dialogue: Most modern writers take this view in one way or another, and Francis has been used as an example for various theological and pastoral stances. Some are Christians, some Muslims, some in the relativist camp.

A number of recent historians and biographers of St. Francis have noted that Chapter 16 of the first Franciscan rule provides for two ways of going among Muslims and unbelievers:

The brothers who go can conduct themselves among them spiritually in two ways. One way is to avoid quarrels or disputes and be subject to every human creature for God’s sake (1 Pet. 2:13), and to confess that they are Christians. Another way, when they see that it pleases God, is to proclaim the word of God, so that they [the unbelievers] might believe [in] God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all things, the Son, the Redeemer and Savior, and that they may be baptized and become Christians, because “Whoever is not born again of water, and the Spirit, cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:5). They may tell them all that and more, as God inspires them, because our Lord says in the Gospel: Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Mt. 10:32); and “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and of the holy angels” (Ld. 9:26).

The chapter was probably written shortly before or shortly after his trip to Egypt. This has led some to suggest that Francis came to understand the mission among Muslims in a particular way: that for the most part, they would have to live among the Muslims, being subject to the law – which gave Christians a second-class status as dhimmis – without preaching Christ openly, which was forbidden to Christians in Muslim lands, but through brotherhood with Muslims and by example. Only on some occasions was it advisable for them to preach.

The order eventually adopted another rule in 1223, which was confirmed by the Pope, and Francis’ ideas about mission were forgotten by his order. But in 1985, in line with the 2nd Vatican Council, which called for religious orders to recover the charism of their founders, the Franciscan order once again adopted Francis’ words as their mission charter, and are following them in their missions among Muslims. Brother Jean Gwenolé Jeusset, then President of the order’s Commission on Islam, called St. Francis’ words “a prophetic commentary on Vatican II,” in its call for friendly dialogue and cooperation with those of other religions.

Jan Hoeberichts gives a more radical interpretation. In Francis and Islam, he notes that although Innocent III called for a new Crusade in his 1213 encyclical Quanta maiora, and this crusade was supported and proclaimed by Jacques de Vitry and other preachers in words that were very harsh and condemnatory toward Islam, Francis and and his brothers are not on record as engaging in any crusade preaching before his departure to the Holy Land. His object for his brothers on mission was for them to be “subject to the Saracens, saying among them without any feeling of superiority an sharing their work and food with them.” Francis and his brothers were no motivated by a desire for martyrdom at all, but wanted to avoid disputes with Muslims; they looked on them and their religion as something due respect. “In Francis’ approach, preaching did not take priority.”

I would say that this approach has been very fruitful in understanding Francis’ mind in the context of his time. The analysis of Chapter 16 of the first rule, for example, which is a text in Francis’ own words, is very important. But some do in fact go too far. Hoeberichts does a good job with the texts but, especially, in his near rejection of all the contemporary sources, ends up able to say very little about the subject in a concrete historical way.

Francis as converter of the heathen and supporter of the crusades. The peace and co-existence camp has received a strong reaction from post-9/11 writers. In 2005, speaking of the controversy over some Franciscans taking the peace stance, Italian journalist Vittorio Messori said:

[he was] absolutely not [a pacifist]. Francis participated in the fifth crusade as a chaplain to the troops and not as a man of peace. He sought by all means to obtain martyrdom in order to reconquer the Holy Land and fell into a depression when the crusaders lost. He did not go see the sultan to convert him and he defied him to walk on burning coals to see who was the more powerful, Christ or Muhammad.

Another writer in this camp, Frank Rega, believes that Francis seeking above all the conversion of the Muslims, not passive subjection (dhimmitude) or mere dialogue: he was even a supporter of the Crusades and military intervention against Islam. He takes special issue with Hoebericht’s treatment of the “two ways” outlined in the rule. He believes that Francis only meant the way of passive co-existence in subjection to Islam to be used temporarily by the brothers until they saw it was time for them to preach. Considered as the primary means of interaction, it was passive and wimpy, it offers no risk of the martyrdom Francis desired. The active proclamation of the Gospel was the main way that Francis desired; it was, after all, the one he used with the Sultan.

In fact, Rega says, Francis was actually harsh with Islam and defended the crusades in front of the Sultan. For this, he uses a little-known (and rather doubtful) source known as the Verba Fratri Illuminati. This claims to be the reminiscences of Francis’ companion on his visit to the Sultan, Brother Illuminato. He says that the sultan plotted to embarrass Francis by placing a carpet covered with crosses on the floor before the saint came in. Francis walked on the crosses, and the sultan taunted him for having trampled on the symbol of his religion. Francis replied, “We have the true Cross, the crosses here, the cross of the two thieves, we leave to you infidels.” He tells another story in the same vein; the sultan asks Francis why the crusaders fought against the Muslims, seeing Christians were told to return evil with good, and to the one who asks for your tunic, give their cloak as well. Francis said: “You have not read by Gospel rightly. Our Lord also told us that if you eye, beloved though it may be to you, causes you to sin, tear it out.” He said that the Muslims, who blasphemed God and turned people away from the true faith must be rooted up until they convert when they will be loved by Christians.

This view has some useful correctives of the others; some tend to gloss over the fact that Francis, a medieval man, clearly wanted to convert non-Catholics he thought in danger of hell. But Rega’s sources are rather problematic.

Well, that’s all I have time for now – which St. Francis would you pick? I’ll put up more tomorrow. (Sorry, for lack of time, I wasn’t able to put up all my footnotes! I did the best I could).

 Go to Part II here.


St. Francis and the Sultan: Conversion, Dialogue or Dhimmitude? Part I — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: St. Francis as a Mystical Martyr for Islam: The Work of Louis Massignon | On Pilgrimage

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