Comment: St. Francis and the Sultan

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St. Francis and the Sultan

Paul Moses, who wrote the book you linked, is not a trained historian, but a journalist, known for his work for left-leaning Catholic publications like The Commonweal. His book on St. Francis and the Malik al-Kamil rejects significant early sources, like the biography written by Bonaventure, as unreliable in order to present an image of St. Francis as essentially counter-cultural and amenable to the modern agenda of fruitless "religious dialogue."

St. Francis did not go to Holy Land in order to "negotiate a surrender," but to convert the infidels. And, certainly, this great saint of the Church did not augment his respect for an understanding of God that is fundamentally deficient, blasphemous, and heretical. What occurred was an example of great sanctity and heroism; St. Francis volunteered to walk through a bonfire in order to demonstrate the veracity of the True Faith, but not until after he was savagely beaten by the Muslims who captured him.

Some of the early accounts state that he was captured, threatened, and beaten, but remained resolute. St. Francis was perfectly willing to be martyred for his faith. Far from giving terms for a surrender, James Powell in his Anatomy of a Crusade indicates that Francis crossed the lines during a time of truce, while negotiations were already being conducted. (p. 159)

All citations that follow are drawn from New City Press's "Francis of Assisi: Early Documents" in four volumes, first published in 1999.

From Thomas of Celano's "The Life of St. Francis":

Now in the thirteenth year of his conversion, he journeyed to the region of Syria, while bitter and long battles were being waged daily between Christians and pagans. Taking a companion with him, he was not afraid to present himself to the sight of the Sultan of the Saracens.

"Who is equal to the task of telling this story?
what great firmness he showed standing in front of him?
With great strength of soul he spoke to him,
with eloquence and confidence
he answered those who insulted the Christian law."

Before he reached the Sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. He did not flinch at threats of torture nor was he shaken by death threats. Although he was ill-treated by many with a hostile spirit and a harsh attitude, he was received very graciously by the Sultan. The Sultan honored him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldy riches. But when he saw that he resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was overflowing with admiration and recognized him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by his words and listened to him very wiilingly.

"In all this, however
the Lord did not fulfill his desire,
reserving for him the prerogative of unique grace."

That is, the Lord did not fulfill Francis' expectation that he might be martyred by the Muslims for preaching the Truth.

From Henri d'Avranches "Versified Life of St. Francis":

But before he can advance further to reach the presence
Of the king of the Persians, to whose ears
The word of the Lord he intended first to convey,

He must take furious treatment in plenty, with cruel club
Be smitten. His flesh is livid, his blood pours out;
Violet is his body from violence and rose-red his wounds
Within. Nor does the soul within him any sorrow feel
For those tortured limbs now all swathed in purple.


When the fair name of the holy man who was indomitable
Under every affliction had spread through the Persian camp,
Such was a kingly king's admiration for his great spirit
That he gave him a great reception and offered him precious gifts.
He, content with what he has, declines the king's

Offer, and asks for that gift of gifts, to be given a hearing.
So as to hear him, the king himself bids the crowd be silent
And orders every noise to cease, while to his attendants
He said: "Fetch me my sages; let them be the judges
If this man's teachings be genuine, or if he's not minded

Rather to lead the multitudes astray." And so, as he speaks
To the wise ones gathered together, this wise man
Proves the source out of which he has drawn his philosophy.
All of his reasoning he hastens to carry onto celestial things;
He discourses on things unheard before, as though beyond

Mere human ken: here is one to whom nothing's unknown.
He reasons matters which few mortals have perceived,
Or on the origins of the universe manifest only to God.
Whence he introduces reflections upon the first cause;
Then he condemns the perverse school of Mohammamed, proves

That God is one, and that a host of gods has no existence;

While he thus teaches the articles of the faith with skullful
Tongue, he impresses sages and king, and nobody dares
To harm him. Indeed heralds are bidden to make this
Their cry: "Often may he come and go among us." Yet on his own
He is unable to convert so many Persians; and as ministers

which his plan badly needed are missing, he is forced to give up
The venture, and is borne over seas by a homeward wind.

Letter VI of Jacques de Vitry, written in 1220:

The head of these brothers, who also founded the Order, came into our camp. He was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines into the army of the enemy. For several days he preached the Word of God to the Saracens and made a little progress. The Sultan, the ruler of Egypt, privately asked him to pray to the Lord for him, so that he might be inspired by God to adhere to the religion which most pleased God.

The Chronicle of Ernoul, a chronicle of the Fifth Crusade written in Old French, 1227/29:

Now I am going to tell you about two clerics who were among the host at Damietta. They went before the Cardinal, saying that they wished to go preach to the Sultan, but that they did not want to do this without his leave. The Cardinal told them that as far as he was concerned, they would go there neither with his blessing nor under his orders, for he would never want to give them permission to go to a place where they would only be killed. For he knew well that if they went there, they would never come back. But they responded that, if they were to go there, he would have no blame, because he had not commanded them, but only allowed them to go.

And thus they begged the Cardinal incessantly. When he saw that they were firm in their resolve, he told them: "Sirs, I do not know what is in your hearts or in your thoughts, whether these be good or evil, but if you do go, see that your heart and your thoughts are always turned to the Lord God." They responded that they only wanted to go to accomplish a great good which they longed to carry to its conclusion. The cardinal said it was indeed good for them to go if they wished, but that they were not to let anyone think he had sent them.

And so the two clerics left the Christian camp and headed towards that of the Saracens. When the Saracen sentinels saw them coming they thought they were messengers or perhaps had come to renounce their faith. When they met them, they seized them and led them to the Sultan.

When they were brought into his presence, they greeted him. The Sultan returned their greeting and then asked if they wished to become Saracens or perhaps had come with some message. They responded that they would never want to become Muslims, but they had come to him as messengers on behalf of the Lord God, that he might turn his soul to God. "If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God, because we are telling you the truth 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 for this 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."

The Sultan responded that he had archbishops, bishops, and good clergy of his law, and that he could not listen to what they had to say except in their presence. "Very well," responded the two clerics, "order them here, and if we cannot demonstrate with solid arguments that what we tell you is true, that your law is false---that is, if you are willing to listen and understand---then you can have our heads cut off." So the Sultan ordered them to join him in his tent. And so some of the highest nobles and wisest men of his land and the two clerics were gathered together.

When they had all assembled, the Sultan explained the reason why hea had called them together and brought them into his presence, and what the two clerics had said, and the purpose they had in coming to his court. But they answered him: "Lord, you are the sword of the law: you have the duty to maintain and defend it. We command you, in the name of God and of Mohammed, who has given us the law, to cut off their heads here and now, for we do not want to listen to anything they have to say. We also warn you not to listen to them, because the law provids giving a hearing to preachers [of another religion]. And if there should be someone who wishes to preach or speak against our law, the law commands that his head be cut off. It is for this reason that we command you, in the name of God and the law, that you have their heads cut off immediately, as the law demands."

Having said this, they took their leave and departed, without wanting to hear another word. There remained only the Sultan and two clerics. There remained only the Sultan and the two clerics. Then the Sultan said to them: "My lords, they have told me that in the name of God and of the law that I should have your heads chopped off, because it is so prescribed. But I am going to act against the law, because i am never going to condemn you to death. For that would be an evil reward for me to bestow on you, who conscientiously risked death in order to save my soul for God." After saying this, the Sultan said that he wished they would remain with him, and that he would give them vast lands and possessions. But they replied that they did not want to stay, from the monent they saw that he did not want to listen to them or understand their message, and that ehy would like to return to the Christian camp, if he would permit them.

The Sultan replied that he would gladly have them returned safe and sound to the Christian camp. Furthermroe, he brought great quantities of gold, silver, and silk garments and invited them to take whatever they wanted. They said that they would not have taken anything once they saw they could not obtain his soul for the Lord God, for they considered this the most precious thing they could give to God, rather than the possessions of vast treasure. They said it would be sufficient if he would give them something to eat, and that they would be on their way, since they couldn't accomplish anything else there. The Sultan gave them plenty of food to eat, whereupon they took their leave of him, and he had them escorted safely back to the Christian army.

From St. Bonaventure's Legenda Major (from the translation by J.M. Dent of 1904):

Howbeit his glowing charity urged spirit on unto martyrdom and yet a third time essayed to set forth toward the infidels that by the shedding of his blood the Faith of the Trinity might be spread abroad:

Thus in the year of his conversion he set forth for the regions of Syria, continually exposing himself unto many perils that so he might win entrance into presence of the Soldan of Babylon. For at time there was relentless war between the Christians and the Saracens, and the camps of both armies pitched each over against the other in the plain, so that none might pass from one unto the other without peril of death. Moreover, a cruel edict had gone forth from the Soldan that any who bring the head of a Christian should receive gold bezant as reward. Nevertheless, the undaunted soldier of Christ, Francis, hoping he was shortly about to gain his end, determined to continue on his way, not dismayed by the fear of death but urged on by his yearning therefor. And as he prepared himself by prayer, he was strengthened of the Lord, and boldly chanted that verse of the Prophet: "Yea, though I through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me."

Then taking the Brother that was his companion, Illuminato by name, a man verily of illumination and virtue, they started on their way. And, meeting two lambs, the holy man was gladdened at the sight and said unto his companion: "Put thy trust, Brother, in the Lord, for in us that saying of the Gospel is fulfilled: 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.'"

When they had gone on further, the bands of the Saracens met them, and they, like wolves making haste to fall upon sheep, brutally seized the servants of God, and cruelly and despitefully dragged them along, casting abuse at them, vexing them with stripes and binding them in fetters.

Thus in manifold wise tormented and beaten down, they were brought before the Soldan the, divine counsel so disposing as the holy man had desired. When that prince demanded of them from whom, and for what purpose, and after what manner they had been sent, and how they had come thither, the servant of Christ, Francis, made answer with undaunted heart that he had not been not sent by man, but by God Most High, that they might shew unto him and his people the way of salvation, and might preach the Gospel of truth. With such firmness of mind, with such courage of soul, and with such fervour of spirit he preached unto the Soldan aforesaid God Three and One and the Saviour of all, Jesus Christ, that in him was manifestly and truly fulfilled the saying of the Gospel: "I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist."

For, as the Soldan beheld the marvellous fervour of spirit and valour of the man of God, he heard him gladly and did right earnestly invite him to tarry with him.

Then the servant of Christ, taught by heavenly counsel, said: "If thou, together with thy people, wilt be converted unto Christ, for the love of Him I will right gladly tarry among you. But if thou art hesitating whether to give up the law of Mahomet for the faith of Christ, do thou command that a great fire be kindled and I will enter the fire with thy priests, that even thus thou mayest learn which faith is the surer, and holier, and most worthy of being held."

Unto whom the Soldan made answer: "I do not believe that any of my priests would be ready to expose himself unto the fire in defence of his faith, or to undergo any sort of torture." For he had seen that, so soon as mention of this was made, one of his priests, an aged man and one in authority, had fled from his presence.

Unto whom the holy man replied: "If thou wilt promise me, on behalf of thyself and thy people, that thou wilt embrace the faith of Christ, if I come forth from the fire unscathed, I will enter into the fire alone; if I am burned, let it be set down unto my sins, but if the divine might protect me, ye shall know that Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God, is the true Lord and Saviour of all."

Howbeit, the Soldan replied that he dare not accede unto this proposition, for that he feared a revolt of his people. But he offered him many costly gifts, all of which the man of God, hungering, not for worldly goods, but for the salvation of souls, contemned like mire. The Soldan, perceiving the holy man to be so absolute a despiser of worldly things, was moved with amazement and conceived a greater devotion for him. And, albeit he would not, or perchance dared not, go over unto the Christian faith, he did nevertheless devoutly pray the servant of Christ to receive the gifts aforesaid, for his own salvation, and to bestow them upon Christian poor folk, or on churches. But Francis, for that he shunned the burden of money, and could not see in the soul of the Soldan any root of true piety, would not agree thereunto.

Seeing, then, that he could neither make progress in the conversion of that people, nor attain his purpose, warned by a divine revelation, he returned unto the regions of the faithful.

Where, in any of this, in the earliest documents written by Franciscans, in letters of the Franciscan movement, in the Crusader chronicle, in the somewhat later but most famous life of St. Francis, written by the saintly Bonaventure, do we get the slightest idea that Francis, or anyone associated with the man, gained more respect for Muslims or the perverse doctrines of Mahound? It is nowhere. It is simply not there.

The image of the Sultan, Malik al-Kalim, is, perhaps, respectable, but it is not that of a debate partner, or someone seriously contending with ideas and weighin them in a common pursuit of truth. It is of a weak-willed man, a man with a kind disposition and a generous spirit, but a man who lacks the courage to pursue truth regardless of personal cost. He is confined by fear of rebellion, confined by fear of disappointing his advisers and counselors, and we should pray for his soul that he was not damned for it.