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St. Francis, the Sultan and the President

By January 16, 2010September 27th, 2022Maryvictrix


I wrote the following essay some weeks ago, but never found time to edit and post it.  Since today is the feast of the Protomartyrs of the Franciscan Order, St. Berard and Companions, I thought it would be an auspicious time to bring this to light.

While I realize the historical figure of St. Francis lends itself to romanticizing and mythologizing because of the singularly extraordinary nature of his person, as a Franciscan it irritates me to see his life used as a political tool.  Paul Moses on the CNN Opinion website, does precisely this as he attempts to have St. Francis sucked into vortex of Obama-mania.  In addition to being the author of the CNN article entitled “Is Religion about War—or Peace?” Mr. Moses is the author of a new book called The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. Mr. Moses is at pains to state that he does not “mean to liken Obama to Francis,” but, goes on to do precisely that and, in the process of expressing his admiration for Mr. Obama, he historically misrepresents the Seraphic Saint.

St. Francis the Peacenik?

In the article, Mr. Moses paints St. Francis as an anti-crusader who wished to undermine the efforts of the Fifth Crusade in Damietta, Egypt, when he travelled there on a mission to the Muslims, c. 1219-1220:

The Christian forces were hoping to conquer Egypt, which would not only make it easier to take and hold Jerusalem but would deal a heavy blow against all Islam.

Francis actually believed what Jesus said in the New Testament about loving his enemy and took a much different approach than his fellow Christians.

His goal was to convert Sultan al-Kamil to Christianity through peaceful persuasion. He didn’t succeed in that, but, amazingly, the two men found common ground and appear to have genuinely appreciated each other.

The sultan, who no doubt viewed Francis in light of an ancient Muslim tradition of reverence for holy Christian monks, permitted him to stay in his camp for several days, preaching the enemy’s faith in the midst of the Crusade.

Actually, the primary sources for our knowledge of this incident tell quite a different story.  The sultan treated St. Francis with honor and respect because he was singularly impressed with the person of St. Francis, not because there was a tradition of respect for Christian monks among the Muslims.  In fact, according to St. Francis’ definitive biographer, St. Bonaventure, as soon as St. Francis and his companion, entered the Muslim camp and began to preach the truth of the Christian religion

they were met by men of the Sultan’s army who fell upon them like wolves upon sheep and seized them fiercely.  They ill-treated them savagely and insulted them, beating them and putting them in chains (Major Life, 9.8).

When the friars were brought before the sultan, St. Francis continued to fearlessly preach the gospel.  The sultan was so impressed by the saint’s sincerity and courage that he showed St. Francis every honor, and considered converting but refrained out of fear of his fellow Muslims.  St. Francis ended by returning to the crusader camp without having obtained his goal, which, according to St. Bonaventure, was either to convert the Muslims or “win the crown of martyrdom” (9.9). Jacques de Vitry, who was present in Damietta with the Fifth Crusade and chronicled its events in his History of the Orient (chapter 32), corroborates St. Bonaventure’s account of the meeting between St. Francis and the sultan, as does Thomas of Celano, St. Francis’ first biographer (First Life, bk. 1, c. 20, 57).

St. Francis the Prophet

Actually there is no indication at all that St. Francis objected to the spirit of the crusades, though his mission and that of his friars was non-violent.  There is a record of his presence in Damietta in which he received a revelation from God that battle between the crusaders and the Muslims was without just cause and would end in defeat for the Christians.  He proclaimed to the crusaders what God had revealed to him, but, unfortunately, was ignored, resulting in the fulfillment of his prophecy (Thomas of Celano, Second Life, bk. 2, c. 4, 30).  However, this condemnation of an unjust battle was not equivalent to denying the legitimate grounds for the crusades themselves.  There is a difference between a just and an unjust cause for war.  All that goes under the general title of “the crusades” is a complex that defies comprehension by means of sweeping generalizations.

St. Francis was not the idealist dreamer that the mythologizers cook up.  There was no one-holy-man-to-another illumination, by which the saint and sultan rose up above the “cruelties of the crusades” and had a meeting of the minds for a new road to peace.  On the contrary, St. Francis sought martyrdom for the faith, and believed he would obtain it from the Muslims in Damietta.

Franciscan Missionary Method

In fact, Jacques de Vitry made this general observation of the friars’ missionary method and its results in connection with St. Francis’ visit to the sultan:

The Saracens gladly listened to the Friars Minor preach as long as they explained faith in Christ and the doctrine of the gospel; but as soon as their preaching attacked Mohammed and openly condemned him as a liar and a traitor, then these ungodly men heaped blows upon them and chased them from their cities; they would have killed them if God had not miraculously protected his sons (History of the Orient, c. 32).

In spite of the fact that St. Francis did survive his encounter with the Muslims, many Franciscan friars did not, and for that they received the blessing of their holy founder, as is illustrated from the following relation of the heroism of St. Berard and Companions, proto-martyrs of the Franciscan Order.

Missionaries, Martyrs and Crusaders

As St. Francis and his companion were about to start their journey to preach to the Muslims in Egypt, the holy founder sent six of his brethren to preach to the Muslims in the West. Friar Berard and his five companions (the sixth got sick along the way) first preached the gospel against the teaching of Mohammed at Seville in southern Spain, and managed to escape death, obtaining passage to Morocco.  There, again, without hesitation they publically proclaimed the truth of the Catholic faith and the falsity of Islam to the inhabitants, and this time, they were brutally tortured and finally hacked to bits.  When St. Francis returned from Egypt, unsuccessful at his own attempts to convert the Muslims and heard of Berard and Companions, he said:  “Now I can truly say that I have five Friars Minor!”

This story was repeated in similar ways over the decades and centuries in the tribulations of the many Franciscan Martyrs who lost their lives at the hands of Muslims, such as Sts. Daniel and Companions (+1227), Blessed John of Purgia and Peter of Sassoferrato (+1231), Blessed Raymond Lull (+1315), Sts. Nicholas Tavelich and Companions (+1391), and many others.

Worthy of particular note is Blessed Raymond Lull, a crusader himself who is credited with the first manual on the training of men in the skills and customs of knighthood and chivalry.  Eventually he abandoned the ways of a soldier and became a priest and a Third Order Franciscan and dedicated his life to the conversion of the Muslims.  He even established a number of schools where missionaries could learn the languages and customs of the Islamic peoples.  In his expertise as a philosopher and theologian he also wrote a number of treatises in which the Christian faith was expounded in such a way as to appeal to the sensibilities of those formed in the religion of Islam.  At the age of seventy-nine he undertook a missionary journey to Africa and while preaching in the public square in Bougie he was attacked by a group of Muslims who stoned him nearly to death.  Genoese Merchants took him aboard their ship and he died of his wounds at the end of the sea voyage near his home of Mallorca.

Another indication of the esteem in which the Franciscan Order has held the crusading spirit is the fact that the crusader, St. Louis IX, King of France is the patron of the Franciscan Third Order.   St. Louis lead both the Seventh and Eighth Crusade (1248-1254 and 1270), captured and weakened by sickness during his first crusade and dying of disease contracted in Africa during the second.

Finally, I cannot fail to mention the soldier “soldier saint,” the reformer friar-priest of the Franciscan Order, St. John of Capistrano, who  in 1456 at age 70 led a crusade against the invading Turks during the siege of Belgrade.

The historical facts concerning the Franciscan Order and its relationship to Islam, beginning with its founder and confirmed again and again by its members over the centuries, verify a realistic but hopeful missionary philosophy.  St. Francis hoped for the conversion of the Muslims but knew that martyrdom was more likely, and from his point of view, death for the sake of Christ was the highest expression of charity.  St. Francis was not seeking to have his friars subject themselves to Islamic rule for the sake of good example, or to minimize religious differences for the sake of peace.  Clearly all the Franciscans mentioned above, beginning with St. Francis not only preached the truth of the Christian religion but also the falsehood of Islam and the treachery of Mohammed.  These are the unvarnished facts.  Franciscans supported the crusades because they had a realistic view of Islam and understood, that not only was it dangerous to speak to the contrary of Islam, but that Islam was militant and expansionist.  Christendom was under the threat of Islamic domination, not vice-versa.  If men like Blessed Raymond Lull chose to forego the sword in favor of the Cross, it was an expression of good will and hope, a desire to find a better way to bring about conversion from falsehood, but even in his case, the effort cost him his life.

The Context of Subjection

Mr. Moses is overextending himself dangerously when he goes to such pains to suggest that St Francis’ encounter with the sultan was nothing but sweetness and light, and that the saint even wanted his friars to “be subject” to the Muslims:

Francis was so influenced by the unexpectedly tranquil encounter with the sultan that when he returned home, he attempted to revise his order’s code of conduct to urge that his friars live peacefully among Muslims and “be subject” to them as a way of giving Christian witness — a revolutionary approach, considering that the Crusade was still being fought.

Aside from the fact that Mr. Moses fails to mention that St. Francis’s encounter with the Muslims was not entirely tranquil, that the sultan actually saved St. Francis from being ripped to shreds by the other Muslims, Mr. Moses quotes the saint from his writings completely out of context, suggesting he wanted to subjugate Christians to Islamic rule as a matter of witness.

In his Rule of 1221, written, indeed, after his return from Damietta, chapter 16 speaks of the friars who request and receive permission “to work among the Saracens as missionaries.”  St. Francis writes that the brothers may conduct themselves among the Muslims in two ways. The first is to “avoid quarrels or disputes and be subject to every human creature for God’s sake” (1 Pt 2:13).  The second it to “proclaim the word of God openly, when they see that it is God’s will.”  St. Francis urges the friars so called to speak the word boldly, declaring the necessity of baptism for salvation.  He then says:

They may tell them all that and more, as God inspires them, because our Lord says in the Gospel:  Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven (Mt. 10:32); and: Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and of the holy angels (Lk. 9:26).

The saint then goes on to exhort his friars that since they had already given themselves completely over to Jesus Christ they should “be prepared to expose themselves to every enemy, visible or invisible, for love of him,” and then provides a goodly number of quotations from the gospel concerning persecution and perseverance in suffering.

Clearly, St. Francis does not say that the friars are to be subject to Muslims, as Mr. Moses contends.  It is hard to believe that Mr. Moses actually read the rule of 1221.  There St. Francis quotes a general statement of the New Testament scriptures, which exhorts Christians to be meek and humble, rather than confrontational, but then qualifies this exhortation with the mandate from Christ to preach the gospel.  He says that the friars may “tell them all that and more,” meaning that they may say more than the mere proclamation of the gospel, which in fact they did, when historically the Franciscan missionaries and martyrs declared Mohammed to be a false prophet.

The Rule of St. Francis and Sharia Law

It is curious that Mr. Moses, the admirer of Barack Obama, selectively quotes this passage from St. Francis’ text–completely out of context–as though St. Francis was ordering his friars to subject themselves as Christians to Muslim rule.   This is especially curious as today Muslims in the West are calling for the establishment of sharia law in the non-Muslim West, and prominent Westerners have considered granting it, in spite of the fact that Muslims leaders have expressed their intention that non-Muslims should be made “subject” to it as well.

Aside from this, the Mr. Moses does not state the historical fact that the Rule of 1221 was never promulgated and that the rule of 1223, which is the only rule that the friars have ever followed as their juridical institutum, makes no mention of subjection of the friars to anyone in the context of the mission to the Muslims (chapter 12).


To be fair Mr. Moses is not alone in his attempt at mythology.  The meeting of St. Francis and the sultan has enjoyed a rich tradition of embellishment.   As one reviewer of a new book on the subject points out:

In later years, when Europe was set on “civilising” the rest of the world, the 1219 meeting was held up as an example of a bold Westerner trying to snap the East out of its barbarism. These days, with welcome words and phrases like ecumenism and inter-religious-dialogue buzzing in our ears, the encounter has become a touchstone for those who insist that, theological squabbles aside, we really should just try and get along.

Or as another researcher on the topic has pointed out:

Typical modern interpretations of Francis before the Sultan either envision Francis as attempting to broker peace between Christians and Muslims, assimilating him to contemporary concerns for non-violence, or portray him attempting to convert the Sultan, transforming him in the process, into a proto-humanist who wished to solve disagreements by reasoning together. It seems clear to me that these are well-intentioned misrepresentations of the story. Francis went to Damietta to die, as the earliest accounts unanimously testify.

In fact, St. Francis would not have likely won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in Damietta.

The Obama Myth

Now all of this mythologizing of St. Francis on the part of Mr. Moses is bent on praising the current U.S. president in his effort to make “peace,” for which Mr. Moses deems the Nobel Peace Prize justly earned.  He goes as far as to suggest that President Obama’s remarks about the crusades in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize are consistent with the attitudes of St. Francis.  Here is the full paragraph in which the president’s remarks on the crusades appear:

And most dangerously, we see it in the way that religion is used to justify the murder of innocents by those who have distorted and defiled the great religion of Islam, and who attacked my country from Afghanistan. These extremists are not the first to kill in the name of God; the cruelties of the Crusades are amply recorded. But they remind us that no Holy War can ever be a just war. For if you truly believe that you are carrying out divine will, then there is no need for restraint — no need to spare the pregnant mother, or the medic, or the Red Cross worker, or even a person of one’s own faith. Such a warped view of religion is not just incompatible with the concept of peace, but I believe it’s incompatible with the very purpose of faith — for the one rule that lies at the heart of every major religion is that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

President Obama draws a moral equivalency between modern fanatical jihad and the Christian crusades, implying that the Deus vult of the crusades was a presumed mandate from God to murder innocent Muslims.  This is the stereotypical, anti-Catholic view.  In fact, the most recent research of disinterested medievalists shows that the modern prejudices are false.  Jonathon Riley-Smith, perhaps the foremost crusade historian, has debunked the cherished myths concerning the crusades, in particular, that they were expansionist wars rather than defensive efforts to prevent Islam from overrunning the West.  Thomas F. Madden has a great little book, a fair expository on the matter.  In particular, he debunks the assertion that the crusaders were indiscriminately killing Muslims as a matter of religious principle. (See also this.)  Also, Jeff Hendrix has pointed out to me the existence of another intriguing book on the matter.  It is sufficient here to just say that there is plenty of evidence to show that Mr. Obama’s attempt at moral equivalency and Mr. Moses’ support of it is based on myth, not fact.

This is not to canonize everything done in the crusades and to condemn nothing.  However, St. Francis did not condemn a defensive war. He decried war crimes.  The point is that while Jihadists kill innocents as a matter of religious principle, not as a perceived abuse of their religion, those crusaders, who were guilty of vicious acts, offended the purpose of their crusading mandate from the Church.  Franciscans, such as St. Francis himself, and others like Blessed Raymond Lull, found themselves in a difficult dilemma, preferring the ways of peace to those of war, and repudiating for themselves status and power, but they were not dreamers who sublimated the realities of Islam in a delusion of false peace.

Obama’s Blind Eye

I find the comparison of Obama with St. Francis particularly offensive in the light of this ignorance of history, but even more, because the president deliberately turns a blind eye to the realities of modern jihad.   The president has decided to bring 9/11 plotter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Companion Terrorists to the United States to undergo a jury trial with all the rights of an American citizen, a fiasco which is sure to cost the American tax payer hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.  Consider also the president’s reference to the crotch bomber, whom we know to have ties to al Qaeda, to be an “isolated extremist.”

But perhaps most disturbing curious way in which the Obama administration has handled the case of U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, who is guilty of murdering 13 members of the armed services on a military base on U.S. soil and of injuring 30 other soldiers, plus two police officers.  We now know that his heinous crime was an act of jihad.  Hasan shouted “Allah Akbar!” (“God is Great”) as he mowed down his fellow soldiers.

There are other factors that confirm his jihadist intentions.  We know that beforehand he publically defended suicide attacks of Muslims against innocent people and that he had suggested to his comrades in the Army that he was capable of similar behavior.  We also know that he had made repeated attempts beforehand to contact a member of al Qaeda and that the government knew about all this before his committed his murders.

This is the first successfully completed act of jihad on American soil since 9/11, and it was committed by an American citizen, an officer within the U.S. military, against military personnel and on a military base.  Even so the present administration has shown itself wholly incapable of calling this atrocity by its proper name:  domestic Islamic jihad.

Out of the Clouds

I think that Paul Moses needs to realize that the agendas of St. Francis and of Barack Obama are entirely incompatible, unless he wants reduce their commonality to the fact that they both involve a proclamation of peace.  In fact, their understanding of peace is wholly different.  Obama seeks peace without any clear understanding of the Christian heritage of this country, while St. Francis never sought peace apart from that which only Christ can give:  Peace I leave with you: my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, do I give unto you (Jn 14:27).

Likewise, their understanding of the threat of Islam to the West is entirely different.  Obama likens the defense of the Christian West to the jihadist “murder of innocents.”  But. While St. Francis chose non-violent methods, he took the message of Christ from the West to the East, proclaiming that there was no salvation in Islam and that Mohammed was a false prophet.

Finally, the Obama’s concept of justice is entirely different from that of St. Francis.  Obama accuses both the jihadists of today and crusaders of yesteryear of murdering “innocents” in the name of religion, but the president is committed to the legal defense of the continued slaughter of innocents right here on our own soil in the name of secular humanism.  And what is more, he wants those of us who are committed to the non-violent defense of the unborn to pay for state-funded abortions.  St. Francis was characterized by another of his early biographers as a “Catholic and apostolic man.” Dissent from Church teaching and support for abortion, is not part of that formula.

Whether one agrees with my personal assessment of the present peril that Islam presents to the civilized world and of the president’s complicity in that peril, I think it only fair, reasonable and accurate to leave St. Francis out of any defense of the president’s policies.

Posted in Catholicism, Chivalry, Culture, Heroes, Knaves, Knights, Manliness, Men, News, Politics, Pro-Life, Religion, Swordplay Tagged: Barack Obama, Blessed Raymond Lull, CNN, Crusades, Damietta, Islam, Islamic Jihad, Jacques de Vitry, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Nidal Hasan, Nobel Peace Prize, Paul Moses, St. Bonaventure, St. Francis of Assisi, St. John of Capistrano, St. Louis of France, Thomas of Celano

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Fr Angelo

Author Fr Angelo

I am Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, and a priest for more than twenty years. I am now studying in Rome for my licentiate in Theology.

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Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Paul Moses says:

    You certainly dissect my op-ed article with admirable vigor. The book I’ve written is consistent with the work of contemporary Franciscan scholars on this subject. For the Rule of 1221, I recommend you read Jan Hoeberichts’s `Francis and Islam,’ published by Franciscan Press. As for St. Bonaventure, I refer you to the doctoral thesis of a young German priest named Joseph Ratzinger, who wrote that Bonaventure’s work may well give a Francis of theology, not history. Much later, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 30 Days that Francis opposed the Crusade. The op-ed piece is necessarily brief, but there is a great deal more in the book.

  • Fr Angelo says:


    Pax et Bonum.

    I mentioned St. Bonaventure as the definitive biographer of St. Francis because in 1260, during a time of crisis, the general chapter gave him the mandate to write an accurate account of the holy founder’s life. In fact, in the prologue of the Major Life (4), he expressly attests to the fact that he did his research and interviewed the living witnesses. In the writing, St. Bonaventure deliberately omitted narrations from Celano that he could not verify. His theological-thematic approach, rather than chronological, is also expressly intended. That approach does not vitiate the historical value of the work any more than the evangelists’ theological intent and approach undermine the historical value of the gospels.

    This being the case, St. Bonaventure is only basing himself on the earlier accounts of Celano and, perhaps, de Vitry (the latter was in Damietta at the same time as St. Francis). If we cannot trust these accounts then we really know nothing of what went on with the saint and the sultan.

    Also, what we know of St. Francis’ “opposition” to the crusades we know, as I have pointed out above, from Celano and from that account we learn very little except what the saint thought of a single battle. I have read of an alleged meeting of the saint with the the crusader commander Cardinal Pelagius, but have not found any direct reference to this in the primary sources.

    Franciscans have always preferred peace to war, and rightly so, but there proclamation of peace cost them their lives all too often. In the case of St. Francis, the opportunity to die for Christ was his principle motive for risking the undertaking of making peace.

    The peace for which St. Francis was willing to die is that which only Christ can give.

    The historical context I have provided, I believe, speaks for itself, and is not a reconstruction based on a practical end. I fully appreciate the practical dilemma at hand, as have friars over the centuries, such as attested to by the rule of 1226 and by the life of Bl. Raymond Lull. Yes there are two options, but neither of them involve subjection to Islam (“Islam” means submission), nor do they mean ignoring the present danger and doing nothing to defend the common good.

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