Sultan Malik Al-Kamil, leader of the Islamic armies, was as devout a Muslim as St Francis was a Christian. When St Francis and Br. Illuminato arrived for their audience with the Sultan, they had both been beaten, as was standard for Christian prisoners of war. St Francis already knew it would go that way because this was not his first time being captured in battle.
St. Francis did not come to fight, but to talk in the hope of converting the Sultan to Christianity. He gave his trademark greeting to the Sultan, something to the effect of “May the Lord give you peace.” The Sultan likely recognized this greeting in some part; the common greeting in Arabic is “Assalam Alaikum” or in English, “May God grant you protection and security.” Along with the initial greeting from St. Francis, the Sultan also observed what Francis and Br. Illuminato were wearing: what today we call their “habits” were patched-up wool tunics with a rope or cord of some sort around their waists. They were barefoot, probably bloody, bruised and dirty.
They came bringing the peace of Christ in their words, appearance and actions.
Sultan Kamil relied on his spiritual director for assistance, much like many Muslims and Christians did and still do. His spiritual guide was a Sufi mystic. The Sufi mystics’ trademark garb was a rough woolen tunic with a rope or cord of some sort around their waists. Sufi mystics lived the teachings of Islam in their daily lives as an example to other Muslims. They effectively “preached” the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad with their lives, and only used words if necessary. Aestheticism is important in Sufi mysticism, as in many forms of mysticism: living a life of poverty, going barefoot, always being of service always, fasting, and prayer are regarded as holy things to do.
Multiple accounts of this meeting indicate that the Sultan’s military and religious advisors cautioned him that giving ear to St Francis’ preaching was against Islamic teaching and bordering on sin. But when greeting people, the Qur’an urges Muslims “to be courteous to those who use a greeting of peace: Say not to those who greet you with peace, “You are not a believer” (4:94) and “When you are greeted with a greeting, greet in return with what is better than it, or (at least) return it equally” (4:86). The Sultan, being a devout Muslim, would have done his best to adhere to the Prophet’s exhortations on how to conduct oneself to honor Allah in all of his actions, words and deeds. When the Sultan asked St. Francis who was sending him, apparently expecting the saint would reply that the Church had sent him, St Francis replied, “We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ.” And so, the negotiations began.
The two men found mutual respect without changing one another’s belief system. St. Francis returned to Assisi with a different opinion of Muslims and perhaps a different, more expanded view of God. He had successfully negotiated a truce with the Sultan, who agreed to the terms of the Church; the terms were then rejected by the church leaders who initially set them.
The war raged on for another year or so, ending in 1221 with the Sultan’s armies victorious. Almost immediately, the call went out for another Crusade against the “Muslim hordes.” St. Francis retreated in prayer, and kept the Sultan Kamil, his Muslim friend and brother, deep in his heart while struggling to remain obedient to his superiors in the Roman church. In 1224, two years before the official start of the 6th Crusade, he received the Stigmata, which he lived with for two more years before his death in 1226.
Connecting the stigmatization of St Francis with the Roman Catholic decision to not accept terms of surrender that they themselves had set is pure speculation from an academic and historical standpoint. Through my eyes of faith, I can see St. Francis, beaten, bruised, and bloody, an old warrior in his own right, who had turned his sword into a plowshare, speaking with another old warrior (St Francis and Sultan Kamil were about the same age). Francis did what he thought was right and negotiated peaceful terms based on information he was given by his superiors in the Roman church, only to have those terms denied by the same superiors. What a betrayal!
If I look through the eyes of the world at Francis, who gave all his worldly possessions up for the Church, then everything he did after returning to Assisi looks superhuman and beyond my reach. He was, after all, a saint. However, looking at St Francis’ life through a slightly different lens, where his obedience and love were permanently fixed upon Christ, it all makes more sense to me and is less about superhuman actions and more about simple, humble obedience to God, above all through Jesus the Christ. The institution of the Church was the vehicle by which St Francis expressed his obedience, love, and devotion to God. He followed the Way, the Truth, and the Life as best he was able, according to his understanding, and in his own cultural context and time.
Brother Caleb Oeming, n/FCM
Holy Family ANCC (Las Cruces, NM)
Brother Caleb is a novice in the Franciscan Community of Mercy, and teaches Medical Assisting at a Las Cruces professional college.