When Saint Met Sultan -- An Object Lesson for Today?
The context is the Fifth Crusade (1215-1221 CE), called by Innocent III and pursued by his successor Honorius III. Unlike prior crusades where western armies were commanded by kings, emperors, and princes who often had their own agendas, in the Fifth Crusade the papacy succeeded in forcing secular field commanders to accept what amounted to a papal “golden vote” over strategy and tactics.
The bulk of the crusader forces land at Acre in 1216 and 1217 in an attempt to strike south and recapture Jerusalem, but they are stymied by the resistance mounted by the Ayyubid armies. The crusaders decide on another plan: topple the new Ayyubid sultan, Malik al-Kamil, by attacking his capital in what is modern day Egypt. Having made an alliance with the Muslim Seijik ruler of Anatolia (modern Turkey) who was a rival of the Ayyubids for control of Syria, the main crusader army sailed for the Nile River Delta where it lay siege to the fortress city of Damietta (modern Damyat) from late May 1218 to November 1219. According to the chronicles of the period, only 3,000 of the city’s estimated population of 70,000 survived. Less than twenty months were to pass before al-Kamil reclaimed Damietta and then decisively defeating the crusaders in late August 1221 at the Battle of al-Mansurah.
Kamil also had to deal with another Christian “invasion.” This time there was no army, no military arms, no killing. His opponent – perhaps challenger is a better term – was Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis had long wanted to try to convert Muslims to Christianity, but ill health and a ship wreck stopped the first two attempts. But when the crusaders invaded the Nile Delta in 1218, Francis joined them and then, with a companion, crossed the battle lines. Discovered by al-Kamil’s troops, the two Franciscans were taken to the sultan, where Francis declared his intention to convert all the inhabitants of the Ayyubid caliphate. When al-Kamil responded that he had a book and a God in whom he believed as much as Francis did his book and God, Francis proposed a Medieval “trial by fire” to see whose belief system was “true.” By some accounts, the Islamic “priests” demur by “fleeing” the court.
All the sources for the actual encounter between saint and sultan are Christian. Some suggest the sultan’s mildness and openness to Francis’ gambit reflects his own status as a Sufi or Islamic mystic who senses immediately in Francis a fellow-mystic. This “spiritual bonding opened to Francis the right to visit any Christian holy place under the sultan’s control and the right to proselytize without fear of reprisal.
Just as he could not move the sultan on the spiritual plain, Francis also failed to convince Cardinal Pelagius, the pope’s legate – who seems to have assumed command of the Christian army – to halt the fighting. Pelagius wanted no talk of peace; he had, in fact, turned down an offer from Al-Kamil to restore the “Kingdom of Jerusalem” to the Christians in return for lifting the siege of Damietta.
Like so many others, both cleric and laic, Pelagius managed to pluck abject defeat from the fire of assured victory by summarily dismissing a bid for peace not only at Damietta but throughout Palestine. And it is this refusal to accept proffered peace that accentuates the ironic symbolism of al-Kamil’s decision at al-Mansurah to let the flooding Nile undermine the crusader defenses – as if to wash the land of any trace of the bloody invader.
Is there in all this a lesson for today? One commentator sees Francis’ journey to meet and speak with al-Kamil as the equivalent of efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the ethnic, tribal, and sectarian warfare raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. Especially when leaders refuse even to explore peaceful alternatives to war, it becomes all the more necessary for ordinary people to keep alive the flame of peace, to maintain a commitment to peace, and to continue the struggle against the ravages that war inflicts on the body-politic and on the human psyche and spirit.