It’s tough to imagine a better precursor to today’s interfaith—or inter-civilizational, or whatever you want to call it—dialogue: at the height of the Fifth Crusade in the summer of 1219, St. Francis of Assisi traveled to the battlefield at Damietta, Egypt, went behind enemy lines, met with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, and then returned to Europe to continue his career as one of the great medieval saints. There may even have been a miraculous gauntlet of fire involved, depending on which of the various contrasting reports from the period you read. Really, besides a few basic facts, the reports agree on very little, least of all on what we might now want from the story most.
When I first learned about the encounter—it was the subject of a college paper I wrote in 2005—I found few modern sources to draw from. As I gathered every early account I could, it amazed me that, in the post-9/11 world, a bigger deal wasn’t being made of Francis’ adventure. Now that has changed. On February 17th, with half the foreheads in the packed room marked by Ash Wednesday smears, Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture sponsored a forum with four authors who have recently written about it: two historians, a Franciscan sister, and a journalist.
Among them, journalist Paul Moses (author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace) and Kathleen Warren, OSF (author of Daring to Cross the Threshold: Francis of Assisi Encounters Sultan Malek al-Kamil), especially, came with a mission. Moses portrayed Francis as a PTSD-suffering war veteran who renounced violence and sought a peaceful alternative to the carnage of the crusades. Warren, in turn, gave an on-screen presentation that periodically displayed, in screaming 3-D block letters, the words “Universal Fraternity.” She argued that, upon his return to Europe, Francis promoted Christian adaptations of Muslim prayer rituals and urged his friars to live under Muslim rule. The encounter, she contended, was nothing if not an exemplar of “respectful, courteous, open exchange” that we would do well to replicate.
The historians wouldn’t jump to conclusions so easily. John Tolan, who teaches at the University of Nantes in France and is author of Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter, showed a succession of paintings representing the event over the course of the centuries. In each, the assumptions and ambitions of the particular time and place rearrange the scene to serve certain pressing political needs. His final slide, which turned out to be Warren’s first and last slide also, was a modern representation of Francis and the sultan embracing as equals. This vision of a cordial pow-wow, Tolan warned, may be more an image of ourselves than of trustworthy historical truth.
After all, several of the earliest sources present the event as a rather confrontational one, with Francis as a cheerleader for the Crusade who hoped for nothing other than to convert the Saracen then and there by miraculous acts, and with the sultan as a hard-hearted tempter. St. Bonaventure’s canonical version, written as the Franciscan Order was fighting against heresy charges, is the most triumphal. But Warren and Moses insisted that, with the documents and scholarship now available to us, we really can wade through the politics to arrive at truth, and the truth is peace.
There are unfortunately no accounts of the event from the sultan’s point of view, explained Adnan Husain, who teaches at Queen’s University in Canada and is the author of Identity Polemics: Encounters with Islam in the Medieval Mediterranean World (1150-1300). One reason he offered was simply that such dialogues were so common in the Islamicate world at the time; Jews and Christians were a vital presence in the cosmopolitan cities of Muslim-ruled lands, and public debates among the religions were a popular sport. Moses added to this the fact that, as far back as the Qur’an, Muslims have harbored a fascination and respect for Christian desert ascetics, whom Francis, in his simple robes and visible poverty, would have resembled. Husain’s suggestion was that while the real story of Francis’s meeting with al-Kamil may never be known, we can find abundant inspiration for modern dialogue in that period, in the courts of many sultans, and in the streets of cities across the southern Mediterranean.
One might ask, of course, why we tempt the urge to cherry-pick through history in the first place, when the present’s need for dialogue should be so plainly and urgently clear. Why wait for history to provide a poignant exemplar? Ideally, I suppose, these discussions of things long-gone are the dialogue in action, the opportunities to build a shared telling of history that accounts for both sides of the story together. Yet it would be a mistake to hinge the dialogue too much on the premise of an event built from contradictory evidence and a one-sided telling. The groans of conflict in the present world, one would hope, should be enough to inspire us.