In 2010, the book The Saint and the Sultan took home the award for “Winner of the 2010 Catholic Press Association Book Award for History.” This book was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York journalist Paul Moses. It recollects the time that Saint Francis of Assisi and the Ayyubid Sultan, al-Malik al-Kāmil met during the Fifth Crusade. The meeting took place in the Egyptian city of Damietta, right next to the Nile River. St. Francis performed a dangerous and daring move when he ignored the advisors closest to him by going into the Holy Land and crossing enemy lines to advocate peace.
On this journey, he met the Sultan al-Kāmil. He and Malik al-Kāmil shared some of their own thoughts about war, peace and faith. The brief dialogue inspired St Francis and when he returned to Europe, he brought with him some changes and challenges for his followers. The challenge was to live peacefully alongside the Muslims and to stop all of the violence and hatred towards them even though there was a Crusade going on. St. Francis was completely opposed to the Crusades and did not go to the Holy land to convert Muslims but to spread his beliefs of love and peace.
The Fifth Crusade was called so the Christians had another chance to “reclaim” Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. Before they did this, they tried to capture the powerful Ayyubid state in Egypt. The ruler of the Ayyubids, al-Kāmil, was left defenseless when it came to holding on to Damietta because of the famine and disease that was present. The following effect was Christians conquering it in November 1219. Afterwards, al-Kāmil withdrew to al-Manṣurah, which was a fortress that was located further up the river. After this, there was little action until the end of the war in 1221; the sultan al-Kāmil offered peace, but it was refused. Christian Crusaders took their success at Damietta and headed in the direction Cairo in the summer of 1221. An attack by al-Kāmil during the night, however, resulted in a great number of crusader losses, and this eventually led to the Crusaders surrendering to the Egyptians. The sultan later agreed to an eight-year peace agreement between Egypt and the Christians.
He was also able to retake Damietta later in September of 1221. In the years the followed, al-Kāmil was involved in many troubling affairs and was a lot more lenient (some also say that the sultan was willing to agree because he saw the Christians in a different light after meeting St. Francis) towards accepting a peace agreement with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen. Hohenstaufen was also scheduled to arrive in the Holy Land for what became known as the Sixth, and very brief, Crusade that lasted from 1228 to 1229. When Francis departed from the Holy Land, he left with a deeper understanding of Islamic culture and spirituality that was reflected in later writings that urged Catholics to treat Muslims with greater respect. In retrospect, al-Kāmil began to welcome these new encounters and opportunities to engage and discuss with the Christians. It is also believed that his newfound relationship with St. Francis was key to his treaty with Frederick II of Hohenstaufen.
Born in Assisi, Italy in 1182, there is the humble and simple man St. Francis. Times were not always simple for Francis. When he was young, he grew up under his father’s wealth in Italy. His father wanted him to continue the family tradition by becoming a business man when he was older and would even teach him about business as he grew up (Kosloski, 2017). Sometime around the age of 20, Francis experienced his first battle against a nearby town and was later taken prisoner. His father paid the ransom so he could have his son back. Over the next few years, Francis’s life began to change drastically as he became much closer to his faith. It was said that he heard God tell him ‘repair my church, which is falling in ruins’ (Kosloski, 2017). He was then disowned after giving all his money to the church and committing to a life of poverty.
Francis always taught love over violence once he became dedicated to his faith, and he saw an opportunity during the Fifth Crusade. He was going to travel into the Holy lands to speak to the Sultan of Egypt. Going against all common sense and advice, he boldly went across the battle lines unarmed and was quickly captured by the Sultan’s army. Miraculously, he was not killed on sight since Muslim and Christian relations were at an all-time low. Against all odds he got to meet with al-Malik al-Kāmil where they discussed how much they wish there could be peace between the two sides and how much pain these wars have caused. al-Kāmil could see the love and passion that naturally came from Francis and was surprised by his boldness. They reflected together on the spiritual life and on how their traditions follow some similarities and differences.
Their time together revolutionized relations between the Muslim East and Christian West. Al-Kāmil had never encountered a man like St. Francis and began to treat Christians much differently afterward. This in a way proves that Francis never wanted to join the Crusaders nor convert the Muslims. He made his journey to simply understand the side that his world had been fighting for centuries. Sadly, the church did not see his efforts as it says in the book, “the true story of Francis, the sultan, and their peaceful exchange was buried. It did not serve the purposes of popes who continued to drum up support for a string of ill-fated Crusades, nor did it fit the needs of Francis’s order at a time when it had to fight off a heresy scandal.
As the story was retold in the Christian world, Francis’s thirst for peace and the sultan’s noble treatment of the Crusaders at the close of the Fifth Crusade were downplayed and then forgotten” (p.197). It also goes even further down the path of misinterpretation and manipulation as the art of the two changed over time. The church took further steps down as the book continues to state, “it is the larger story of how church politics reshaped the account of Francis’s entire life, leading to a defining work in which Bonaventure portrayed Francis as an ethereal ‘angel of peace’ but eliminated the flesh-and-blood details of nearly every instance in which he actually tried to make peace” (p.197).
These falsehoods have created several illusions of St. Francis that have lasted to this very day. There are still many who believe his mission was to support the Crusade and convert “infidels” to the “one true faith,” when it simply was never the case. These texts should be heavily included in the teachings of the Fifth Crusade as today’s world still has similar problems. Muslims have been unfairly profiled and scapegoated by many Christian dominant nations. In times like these, it would be useful to have a refreshing history lesson that could teach the power of opening one’s mind and listening to the other side.
In this book, the author Paul Moses did a great job with his research and interpreting of the knowledge that he acquired to write the book. It is not surprising either as he was a former Newsday city editor and senior religion writer. On top of that, he is a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Furthermore, he extends his credibility by receiving the Pulitzer prize award. On top of a well written book, he is able to apply years of experience into a text like this and supply credible knowledge. He states in the Epilogue that “in the fall of 2007 went to Cairo, Damietta, and Assisi, looking for an answer to that question as did research for this book. sat for tea with Father Emmanuel Maken, the wizened Franciscan pastor of red-bricked St. Anthony Church in Cairo, and asked him about the significance of Francis’s trip to Egypt.
‘It’s important because he started Christian-Islamic dialogue,’ the priest said. Father Maken has studied the Franciscan presence in Damietta and documented it back all the way to Francis’s visit.” (p. 229). Through this statement, one can understand how much effort Moses went through in finding credible sources so that this book could have true validity behind it. He goes on further by visiting more religious sites throughout the years and continues to speak to Bishops on both ends of the spectrum. The only problem with his sources and information in the book is that it mainly speaks about St. Francis and not the Sultan, even when he was in Cairo and talked to Bishop Yohanna Golta, the Coptic Catholic bishop of Cairo. The discussions are either about St. Francis or the state of the Christians in the Holy Land. It would have been nice to hear these views from an Imam, religious leader of Islam, or just from people who have studied the era from the Muslims point of view.
St. Francis was completely opposed to the Crusades and did not go to the Holy land to convert Muslims. He was just a devoted Christian who seemed to be dedicated to living a very simple life and had a curiosity for understanding why things were the way they were. The Saint and Sultan was a very good book, and it should be held in high regard whenever someone learns about the Crusades. Even though it is mainly focused on the Christian St. Francis it is still important to see how each side was effected and how they thought and what they believed in.