The Saint and the Sultan

A forgotten incident in the life of St. Francis speaks volumes today


As the former city editor and senior religion writer for Newsday, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Paul Moses is well aware of what it takes to get the facts right on an important story. But when the story you’re researching is 800 years old, things can get pretty complicated. In the wake of September 11, Moses discovered a little-known episode in St. Francis of Assissi’s life in which he attempted to end the crusades by crossing enemy lines to gain an audience with the Sultan of Egypt.

In The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, Moses — now a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate School — combines his skills as a reporter with his formidable storytelling abilities to recount a remarkable mission of peace in which Francis himself was deeply transformed through his encounter with his enemy. Though the story takes place in 1219, this early encounter between the Christian West and the Islamic east resonates down through the centuries in ways that many Americans will recognize today.

BH: Where did the idea to write about this obscure part of Francis’ life come from?

PM: I was reading The Little Flowers of St. Francis just for some kind of light inspirational reading. It was written in the 1300s and it’s still a very popular book. It had a chapter on Francis and the Sultan that was really interesting because I read this in the period after 9/11. So I was wondering if it was really historical; I looked into it. I read some histories and some biographies that have been done on Francis and realized it was a real event, so I started looking into it.

BH: Obviously there was a relevance to it that hit you specifically after 9/11…

PM: Definitely, because we all know the stories of how poorly Christians and Muslims have gotten along but here’s one that says it could be a little different.

BH: Did that surprise you? Is this something that has somehow been buried or forgotten?

PM: Like a lot of people, I thought I knew some things about St. Francis and I had never heard of that, so I was surprised and intrigued and started to look into it more deeply.

BH: Francis of Assisi is one of the best known figures in the history of Christianity. I can’t think of a more iconic saint…

“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… Just to let people know that there are things in our tradition that are more hopeful.”

PM: For a lot of people he transcends the boundaries of organized religion. People who don’t consider themselves religious still identify with St. Francis, and that’s one of the interesting things about him. I call him the most beloved saint since the time of the apostles.

BH: We think we know about St. Francis but the little we know makes him into someone who likes to pet animals and talk to birds. But, in your book, he was clearly a controversial figure, in his day and even in the order he started, right?

PM: Yeah, at a certain point after he came back from Egypt he really lost control of the order; it was a sad time in his life because he was ill also. He had a lot of anger about what was going on at that point. They put him up on a pedestal but they weren’t really listening to him

BH: Can you frame for us what the impressions of Islam were for a Christian like St. Francis and other Christians of his time?

PM: I think that as much as Francis wanted to convert the sultan he would have felt it was an extremely dangerous thing to do. Which it probably was, because he didn’t know that much about the sultan. In his time, Christians used animal imagery to describe Muslim leaders; there was a lot of rhetoric associated with the Crusades, as happens with many wars, to demonize the enemy. I don’t think Francis would have known much about Muslims other than what he got from Romantic songs like the Song of Roland, which portrayed them as the enemy to be killed or converted with the sword. At the same time Francis really believed in loving our enemies. We talk about that a lot in Christianity but Francis took it seriously. So he was prepared to love the enemy, at least befriend the enemy, no matter where that led. So he was very brave. Some would say that he was intentionally trying to achieve martyrdom; in the book I rejected that. My interpretation is that Francis really hated a war and saw the conversion of the sultan as a way to end the Crusade.

BH: It’s hard to probably capture the man completely hundreds of years later, but is there a sense that he was open to dialogue?

PM: The word dialogue has a meaning to us today that didn’t exist then. They didn’t do interreligious dialogue. Francis wanted to convert the sultan. But his method was to be entirely peaceful and to offer his message if you want to listen, not because I’ve come with an army to destroy you if you don’t listen. In that way his take on it was different than the prevailing attitude of the time. I think if you really want to understand Francis you have to look very closely at why he changed his life. We don’t really think of Francis this way but he was essentially a traumatized war veteran. Francis as a young man fought in a war between Assisi and Perugia. His side was massacred. Francis was taken prisoner, he would have been killed but his father was the wealthiest merchant in town so they took him prisoner for the ransom. They threw him underground basically in a hole, a dungeon; they didn’t have prison cells like we have today with bars and all that. That came later.

To understand Francis you have to look very closely at why he changed his life. We don’t really think of Francis this way but he was essentially a traumatized war veteran.

Francis was traumatized by this experience. He was a hollow young man when he left that. He really found himself through prayer and contemplation and he adapted a radical lifestyle of poverty that guaranteed him he could never fight in a war again, because you had to have money to fight a war. You had to be able to buy a horse and weapons. If you look closely, you really see how this revulsion at warfare is central to Francis, and I’ll give you one example: The bishop of Assisi said to Francis one day, “How can you live in such poverty?” and he said, “Well, Lord Bishop, if we had possessions then we would need arms to defend them but since we don’t have any possessions we don’t have to be worried about that.” I really think that had a lot to do with his change of life; to this life of poverty and penance. Penance because, I think, he may have been bothered by things that happened when he was a soldier.

BH: So it’s almost like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

PM: I really looked into it and I talked to some experts at the Walter Reed Hospital down in Washington. The medieval documents weren’t detailed enough to say he meets the clinical criteria but I talked to the experts enough to say he was traumatized. Whether a psychiatrist today would say PTSD, I’m not so sure. But it was a very important part of him and it shadows him in his life even later on.

BH: Did the military experts have knowledge of what warfare would have been like in Francis’ time?

PM: I spoke with a military scholar at West Point who teaches his students about a U.S. airman who was taken prisoner in North Vietnam and who was subjected to different tortures and so forth, and the thing that really bothered the airman most and what he talked about most was being deprived of light. He said that Francis similarly would have been deprived of light in this underground dungeon that he was in. Basically nobody can survive that unchanged. He said without question, Francis would have been a changed person by this experience.