The Saint and the Sultan
A forgotten incident in the life of St. Francis speaks volumes today
BH: What would Muslims have known about Christians at the time?
PM: The sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil, would have known a lot about Christians because there were quite a few Christians — Coptic Christians — in Egypt. Al-Kamil was known as the sultan in Egypt’s history who was most favorable, most tolerant, of the Christian minority. I think he was really intrigued by them. There are a lot of stories about that — that appear in a Coptic chronicle called the History of the Patriarchs. He often mediated their disputes over who would become patriarch of the Church and important issues. Sometimes there were Christian monks who actually converted to Islam and wanted to convert back and the sultan showed great leniency and tolerance in that situation where he didn’t necessarily have to. He once met a Christian monk when he was out hunting in the countryside and he and this monk really hit it off — according to the story the monk tried to put some kind of oil on his chest to cure him of some illness and he felt that it helped him. He had a great fondness for Christian monks and an interest in Christianity. He had a very lively mind. He was interested in religion. He had advisors in his court and poets who were leading Sufis, and Sufism really influenced him, also. Sufism is kind of a mystical approach to Islam and also generally quite tolerant of other religions.
BH: You’re making it sound now as though there was a greater sense at least from the sultan of being able to live in peace than there was among Christians.
PM: One of the traditions in Islam that I think was very important in this meeting of Francis and the sultan was that Islam has this tradition going back to its earliest days of respect and even reverence for holy Christian monks. This goes right back to the prophet Mohammed who would have met Christian monks in the desert, and it’s reflected in the Quran. So I think that had to shape the way the sultan approached Francis. Francis I don’t think would have known that. I talked to some Muslims who are leading experts on Islam and one of them said to me, “that is a tradition we need to pay more attention to nowadays.” I like to think that Francis offers a really good example to Christians in recovering our tradition of love for the enemy. And the sultan also offers a really good example within his own tradition of respect and reverence for Christian holiness.
Francis did not convert the sultan. But the sultan listened to him with great respect and, in the middle of the Crusade, allows Francis to stay there several days preaching to him and the soldiers — it’s really amazing — then sends Francis back with an honor guard to protect him. Francis is deeply affected by this.
BH: How is he changed?
PM: He comes back to Italy eventually and he’s revising the rule or code of conduct of his order. He puts something in there that says we can preach to Muslims, yes, but there’s another way also: we can live quietly among them, peacefully, not get into any arguments, and be subject to them. That idea is written into a version of the rule. That idea of being subject to Muslims during a crusade when Christians think they have a good chance of conquering all of Egypt — is really amazing. It’s clear that his encounter with the sultan made a big impression on him. In recent years the Franciscans have really led the way in recovering this story of Francis and the sultan and of acting on it. There are a number of ministries based on this; where they’ll go out and try and resolve conflict in, say, Africa.
BH: Francis is looked upon as this gentle soul but that robs him of some of his vim and vigor, some of his passion and some of his single-mindedness.
PM: Francis is a flesh and blood person; who’s full of passion and had strong feelings. Looking at this as a man, I would just say that he’s a real man. He was courageous, passionate about what he did, and he spoke up very forthrightly. I think it’s true Francis had a great love for animals but the question is: Why? I think he liked all the Creation, because it’s made by God, but also he’s shocking us. If he picked up a worm off the sidewalk, he’s telling us you have to treat people with compassion. Francis, one of his big things was, he taught by example. Someone would give Francis a fish; he would throw it back in the water rather than eat it. He was trying to shock the people. We have to have compassion. When Francis went to the sultan in the midst of a Crusade, again, I think he was trying to shock people and say, “No, we have to try and approach our enemies peacefully, if we can.”
BH: How did doing this kind of research change your perception of not just Francis but Christianity?
PM: You see how manipulated some our beliefs were in the Crusades, to justify them. It’s a little sad to see some of the rhetoric that was used — some of the scripture passages that were twisted in order to justify the war — and there is a big debate on the Crusades, whether they were justified, a war of defense or not. But the Fifth Crusade, at that point I don’t think was justified, because the Patriarch of Jerusalem had written to the pope and said, We think we can negotiate with these guys for Jerusalem. I think they could have. The patriarch said, I don’t think they want war and the pope, Innocent III, went to the public and basically said, “Oh no, they’re poised to attack us.” It sounds familiar… So, you do see how religion can be manipulated in ways and I guess all the major religions are subject to that and misused. That’s where I think someone like Francis is a good example, because his ministry was all about showing people what Christianity was like at the time of the Apostles. He was trying to cut through all the power and politics that had gripped the church in his age.
BH: What do you hope people will get out of your book?
PM: I met a man recently who heads something called the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy. He tries to solve some of these interreligious problems. He was actually in New York at the time because he was part of a meeting with the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is fascinated by the story of Francis and the sultan because he thinks it can help him in his work of bringing groups together. It’s just a story; it happened a long time ago. But stories do have a power. I think we need to tell those stories. That’s one of the reasons for telling the story. Just to let people know that there are things in our tradition that are more hopeful. Religion is built so much on tradition and that goes in the Muslim world too. If you travel around the Middle East, you see that these kinds of events I’m talking about are much more close to the surface. People know the facts really well and it’s more a part of their life than it maybe is for us in the U.S. Tradition counts. We have to go back and look at where it came from, and did the stories get manipulated over the years to serve immediate political ends? I think that’s what, somewhat, happened with the story of Saint Francis. I go into that in the book quite a bit and how the story got watered down and obscured and changed for essentially political reasons.
Francis was not one of these people who would say that all religions are the same. He believed in Christianity. The sultan believed in Islam. But they believed in being respectful and civil and being curious. I think that the Catholic faith lends itself to that today. The Vatican Council said we’re to respect what is good and true in other religions and some interesting things about Islam at the time. I think that can still guide us now in these relationships.
BH: You’re the product of an interreligious family, did that have any resonance with you in terms of this book?
PM: My father is a convert to Catholicism but it was before he met my mother. He converted from Judaism. I guess he grew up in a household that was not religious and was looking for something. As a very young man he converted to Catholicism, and has been a devout and well-read Catholic since then.
BH: Is that something you were aware of when you were young?
PM: I discovered it when I was about seven, when I was at my grandmother’s house and I found Hanukkah candles and was like, “Grandma, are you Jewish?” I’d been brought up Catholic; it’s an important part of my life for sure.
BH: So divergent religious and ethnic traditions play a part in your own family as well?
PM: In the family history, sure. I think I’m going to try to be a little more modern for the next book. I like writing about history, so I’m looking at the story of Irish and Italians of NY. Again, a story where there was a lot of conflict, but my wife is of Irish ancestry, I’m half Italian, so I think the story has a happy ending. That’s in a way a story about peace also. [Laughs.]
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