The Saint & the Sultan

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Muslims and Christians are believers in the same God.  And the best of men in religion are the closest to Allah (s.w.t.).

Say: “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman: by whatever Name ye call upon Him (it is well): for to Him Belong the Most Beautiful Names.  Neither speak thy prayer aloud, nor speak it in a low tone, but seek a middle course between.”  Say: “Praise be to Allah Who begets no son, and has no partner in (His) Dominion: nor (needs) He any to protect Him from humiliation: Yea, magnify Him for His Greatness and Glory!” (Surah al-Isra’:110-111)

The following is taken from here: What Muslims & Christians Can Learn from ‘The Saint & the Sultan’, an interview of Dr. Paul Moses by Aydogan Vatandas.  This interview took place soon after the Fort Hood shooting in Texas.  The interview was to discuss his new book, ‘The Saint and the Sultan,’ written in part as a reflection on the tensions between Muslims and Christians after the events of September 11th.

Aydogan Vatandas: Mr. Moses, can you please tell us how you happened to write this specific story?  How did it come about?

Paul Moses: I just came upon it in my reading.  There was this little book about St. Francis that goes back to the 1300s called ‘The Little Flowers of St. Francis,’ a collection of stories about St. Francis, some of them true, some of them legendary.  I saw this, and it was in this period sometime after September 11th.  There was so much tension between Christians and Muslims here in New York and elsewhere, and here I was reading this story about St. Francis meeting the sultan during the middle of the Fifth Crusade.  They are getting along, and I thought, “Wow, this is great; could this possibly be true?”  I began to research, and it was well documented from sources in the 13th century.  It just intrigued me and seemed like it would be worth telling in more depth.

Aydogan Vatandas: Can you please give us more details about this saint?  Why do you think he was different from the other saints?  And why do you think that he was so famous?

Paul Moses: Yeah, he really stands out for Christians amongst all the saints, and I call him the most beloved saint since the time of the apostles.  There is just something about him that even in his lifetime towards the end of his life people already knew he was holy and was to be named a saint through the process that the Church had.  He just gave so totally of himself to other people.  He was so gentle, and so it is hard to explain why him.  There are many other great saints, of course, but just for some reason from early on, he had a special place in the hearts of Christians.  It is hard to answer, really, but I guess because of his great goodness, holiness and generosity of spirit not only to people, but to animals and nature.  There is something about him that even today, people really like him.  Even people who are not really religious themselves…

Aydogan Vatandas: Well actually, what I knew about him was that he liked animals, but in your book he looks a little bit like a controversial figure.  Do you agree with that?

Paul Moses: Yes, I think that is true.  Yes, we have this image of St. Francis today as this patron saint of animals.  When we see a statue of him, it is usually with a bird on his shoulder or in his hands, and I think that’s true.  He did have a special affection for animals, but I also see him in a much different way.  If you really look closely at his story, first of all what he did in his own time was shocking to people.  He refused to have any possessions, and he dressed in a way that was shocking to people.  That made a statement to other people that he was living a simple, pure life, that the other people were too attached to their material things.  So right away it is hard for us to imagine such a thing because we have such a sense of St. Francis as very peaceful and peace-loving figure, which he was, but just by what he did, the example he set, to the people around, he was controversial.  He was actually subject to a lot of abuse when he changed his life to live in a simple way.  People would throw things at him, and people would beat him up.  His friars, as he began to send them out through Europe, were attacked frequently.  They were at risk of being accused of heresy, and even worse things happening to them, and so, yeah, we do not think of Francis as being a controversial figure.  But he was.

Aydogan Vatandas: In one of your interviews, you say that we have to look very closely at why he changed his life.  Can you explain this?

Paul Moses: Well, I portrayed his journey to the sultan during the crusade as a mission of peace, and I think to understand that we have to understand what made St. Francis change his life.  When St. Francis grew up, he was the son of the richest merchant in his town of Assisi.  There was constant violence in central Italy at that time; Assisi was going to war with its larger and more powerful neighbor, Perugia.  So Francis was a soldier in that war as a knight.  He was on horseback, and they went off into battle.  The Assisians were massacred, and Francis saw that. … People he knew were all being hunted down like animals and killed.  Francis survived because he was taken prisoner.  Being the son of a very wealthy man, the Perugians knew they could get a good ransom for him, and so he was taken and thrown into a deep hole in the ground where he lived for a year.  It was very damp and had very little light, and he was chained.  That experience shattered him psychologically and to an extent physically also, so Francis, after he was finally released, was a hollow man.  He begins to recover probably through prayer and contemplation, and that begins the process.  If you know the story of Francis, you know the steps to it, but that begins the process, where he separates himself from the things of his time.  He renounces his old identity, renounces all his belongings.  He even has to separate himself from his family because his father was so angry at him and established this new identity as someone who was going to live a very simple life of penance.  So when we look at Francis, when he goes on the Fifth Crusade, we know that we have to remember that he is somebody who knew about warfare.  It really bothered him.  What he sees going on in Egypt during the Crusade really bothered him.  He wanted to find some other way.  He was loyal to his faith, and he was loyal to the pope.  But he did not like what was happening.

Aydogan Vatandas: The main reason for Francis to go to the sultan and to talk to him was actually to convert the sultan, is that correct?

Paul Moses: That is right.  Francis hoped to convert the sultan and thereby end the Crusade.

Aydogan Vatandas: Yes, but it did not work.

Paul Moses: It did not work.  The sultan was a good Muslim, and he believed in his faith.  I think if we look at him, it shapes his actions, throughout the war and in his dealings with Francis.  I guess that it is a controversial thing today that he was trying to convert him, but I talked to different Muslim scholars about that, and their feeling was that Francis was doing this differently from the way it was done in his time.  First of all, he went to the sultan totally unarmed, and there was no hint of coercion on his part.  He said to the sultan, “If you wish to speak to me, I will tell you so.”  It was an offer the sultan could have refused.  So I think that what was important about going to the sultan was the spirit of peace that he went with.

Aydogan Vatandas: So can you please detail what exactly they talked about?

Paul Moses: Yes, well the records are not clear enough to know for sure exactly what they spoke about.  One difficult thing in writing the book was that in that period of history they were not writing letters much or things like that, so there is not that detail.  But what we do know is that Francis would have greeted the sultan, and the sultan allowed him to speak and even to preach in his camp for like three days.  We know that the sultan had his own religious experts there, and I would say Francis would have probably approached the sultan on some common ground because if he had said things that the sultan’s religious experts would have said to him that he could not have this conversation, if Francis had, for example, criticised Muhammad, if he had criticised God in some way, I think the conversation would have ended.  It would not have gone on for three days.  So I think in Francis we get those insights into the conversation, but I could not give you a dialogue without making it up.

Aydogan Vatandas: Can you please tell us about Christians’ perceptions of Muslims and vice versa during that time?  And how do you think that the Christians or Francis were changed after these meetings with the sultan?

Paul Moses: I think in terms of perceptions, there are two levels here.  One is that Christians and Muslims did business with each other, they traded.  There were Christians that came from Venice and Genoa.  They were in Egypt and doing business, quite a few, and the sultan encouraged that kind of trade.  Then second there is what I guess is really wartime propaganda.  So the Christians portrayed the Muslims, especially their leaders, in a kind of animal like or animalistic kind of imagery.  So Francis would have not known much about Muslims when he was going there.  Probably he thought what he was doing as extremely dangerous, which it was.  It was wartime.  He had crossed over into the enemy’s camp unarmed, and so it was dangerous.

The sultan is a little different because he had more experience in dealing with Christians than the Crusader army would have or Francis would have because Egypt has a Christian population.  So the sultan had extensive dealings with the Coptic Christians in Egypt and was perhaps in all of Egypt’s history probably the closest to the Christians of Egypt.  He was often called on to mediate their disputes.  For example, there was a big dispute over who would be the Coptic patriarch of Egypt, and the sultan always did this with great sensitivity for the religious traditions of the Christians.  He did not impose his own person there or anything like that.  So there is a book called ‘The History of the Patriarchs of Egypt.’  It is a medieval account of the Egyptian church, and it creates a very favorable portrait of Sultan Melek-el-Kamel.

Aydogan Vatandas: Were you inspired to write this book because of the horrible effects of September 11th?  Can this be inferred?

Paul Moses: That certainly had something to do with it.  It made this story timely.  I wrote about September 11th when I worked for Newsday.  At the time, I wrote the main story, and it was my job to take all these terrible things people saw and felt and combine them into one news story.  I had been a religion reporter at Newsday, and so I was thinking a lot in terms of how could religion be the basis for this.  What is ‘real’ religion?  What is authentic about religion?  And when is it being used falsely.  So I was thinking a lot about that, and I think that both Francis and the sultan give us the real authentic religion that they are from.  So Francis really wanted to return Christians to their early traditions of the time of the apostles.

Francis reminds Christians that their religion is rooted in non-violence, which by the time of the Crusades had definitely been lost.  And the sultan brings up an interesting Muslim tradition, too, which is respect for holy Christians, especially holy Christian monks.  It is a tradition that goes back to the earliest days of Islam; the Prophet Muhammad would have known Christian monks in the desert.  There are a number of experts on Islam who pointed this out to me.  One who stands out in my mind right now is Mahmoud Ayoub, who is now at Hartford Seminary.  He was a professor at Temple University when I spoke to him; he felt that this is important for Muslims to focus on, this tradition in Islam.  So I said Francis points Christians to their tradition; the love of enemies is a part of tradition often forgotten.  So they both do that, I think.  You know, it’s distressing to see religion used for evil, and so both of them point out us to what is good in their traditions.  That is one of the things that appealed to me in the story.

Aydogan Vatandas: You portrayed Islam and the sultan in a very positive way in your book.  Were you criticised for that?

Paul Moses: I have not been.  I was afraid that I might be because, you know, sometimes I write online on blogs and so forth, and the blog world can be very crude.  I was wondering.  But that has not happened, and I am glad.  However, it was something that I was aware of as a possibility.  In fact, the reviews that I am seeing have all commented on the portrait of the sultan in a positive way, but you know, I did not start out that way.  As a journalist, my sense of someone who is in charge of the country, you know us journalists, we tend to be suspicious of people in authority, but it was only as I really researched more thoroughly, got to know the sultan as a man, I really saw him as a special person.  He ruled Egypt for 40 years, 20 years as viceroy, and 20 years as sultan.  And he did it really well, and as I said I think his religious views shaped him.  He was also very practical.  He knew that the best thing to do was to avoid war if you can, for practical reasons.  It is better to avoid war if you can, so his inclination was always to try to encourage trade with the enemy and encourage negotiation if there was war.

At the end of the Crusades, Christians had managed to get a ways into Egypt.  They conquered Damietta, which is at the mouth of the Nile, and then they went further.  They did not really know where they were going, and the sultan’s soldiers were able to raise the level of the Nile and trapped the Christian soldiers.  So they could have killed every one of them, but that would have served no good purpose at the time, and it would have only incited further warfare.  So the sultan shocked them by feeding the Christian army and providing them with safe passage out of Egypt, and at the end, they praised him.  The leader of the expedition is this kind of person.  He wrote to the sultan and said truly you are Kamel [perfect], and so it ended on that note.  So I think the sultan is an important historical figure, also.  You know St. Francis is so famous, so I try to make the sultan an equal partner in the book.

Aydogan Vatandas: Ok, so what do you think Muslims and Christians can learn from your book when we look at the issue in terms of the political tensions between Christians and Muslims?

Paul Moses: Yes, in terms of religion, there are some good things going on right now.  There is the Common Word initiative.  I think things like that are a good start.  I guess one thing is to not demonize others that you don’t know.  I think that is another thing that I have learned from looking closely at Francis.  All around him people demonized the enemy, and Francis never says anything negative about all the Muslims.  I am sure in his mind they were missing out on Salvation, but he never says anything negative.  You never hear ‘infidel’ or anything like that. I think that it is important for us on both sides: How we approach the other and yes, we do not share the same beliefs, but we are people.  And I think that is part of the example mentioned above.

Paul Moses is a journalist and a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.  He worked for 17 years at Newsday in New York City, serving as senior religion writer, City Hall bureau chief and city editor.  He wrote the paper’s main stories on major news events ranging from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to a subway crash that killed five people, the latter coverage winning a Pulitzer Prize.  He also has written for The Associated Press, Commonweal, America, The Village Voice, St. Anthony Messenger, National Catholic Reporter, The Christian Science Monitor, The Star-Ledger of Newark,, and other publications.  He is a regular contributor to Commonweal's blog.  Moses co-authored a book on Pope John Paul II's pilgrimage to the Holy Land and has written essays in four other books.

St. Francis of Assisi is the most beloved of the Catholic saints.  Were he a Muslim, he would be considered a Sufi, so completely did he practice detachment from dunya.  There is a verbose article on his biography at: St. Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis is special to me because I used to say his Novena every single day for years.  This was one of the many prayers taught by my late grandmother and I never left saying it until I learnt Surah al-Fatihah and became a Muslim.  I still have the book somewhere in my library of Christian writings.  That book is older than I am.

St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order was born in Assisi in 1181 or 1882.  He passed away on the 03rd October 1226.  He was born into a wealthy merchant family.  He was actually named Giovanni.  He received elementary instructions from the priests of Assisi.  He learnt more from the school of the troubadours, the harlequins.  Whatever the case, his youth was one of waste and indulgence.  He was excellent in the princely arts and the life or the court.  It should be noted that whatever his faults, he as still generous with his wealth and gave much to the poor.  For this, he is Blessed for Allah (s.w.t.) Loves the generous.  And that is why Pharaoh is mentioned so many times in the Qur’an.  For all his evil, he was a generous man.  Nimrod, however, was cursed doubly for his miserliness and was never mentioned by name in the Qur’an.  Even that honour was Denied to him.

When St. Francis was twenty, Assisi went to war with Perugia and was soundly defeated.  Many of them were killed but St. Francis was taken prisoner since his father was wealthy and could ransom him.  He spent almost a year at the bottom of a pit, seeing little of the son.  He became ill and had a fever.  He was not expected to make it.  It was enforced suluk that made him think about war and death and God.  He started to have dreams guiding him away from a military career and towards missionary work.  In this case, he was like Yusuf (a.s.) at the bottom of the well.

St. Francis and eleven brothers of the order were present at the Siege of Damietta.  This was again a reference to Yusuf (a.s.) and his brothers, the founders of the twelve tribes of Bani Isra’il.  St. Francis himself engaged al-Malik al-Kamal Naswr ad-Din Abu al-Ma'ali Muhammad, who was the nephew of Swalah ad-Din al-Ayyubi (r.a.).  He was allowed to preach to the Muslim army at Mansurah for three days.  In this, there is lesson.  Just as it is part of Islam to spread the word, so to it is with the Christians.  The issue is the adab of da’wah.  And the ‘adab of St, Francis is tremendous.  In time did he ever condemn the Muslims or belittle their faith.  In this, he practiced the sunnah without knowing it.

Islam is about the ultimate justice of Allah (s.w.t.).  Muslims of ihsan do not subscribe to one rule for Muslims and another for non-Muslims since our Prophet (s.a.w.) taught that we cannot know true faith until we want for our brother what we want for ourselves.  As ‘Isa (a.s.) asked, “Who is your brother?”  So we do not allow the Christians to build churches in our lands and we destroy them and we cry foul when Switzerland, for example, restricts the building of minarets.  Build the mosque without minarets then.  We do not do our swalah in the minarets.  Can we then claim we are just when we have shown hypocrisy?

Muslims are so afraid about Christian and the missionaries leading people away from the True Faith.  They forget that it is Allah (s.w.t.) Who Guides who He Wills and leaves astray who He Wills and His Will is manifest.  It is easy for Him.  He has only to say ‘Be’ and it is.

For to anything which We have Willed, We but Say the Word, “Be” and it is. (Surah an-Nahl:40)

A man like St. Francis, who had hundreds and thousands in Europe give up their ways and follow him by the barakah of his deeds and the maqam of his taqwa, and yet in Egypt, after months of preaching, not a single Muslim left Islam.  Faith is the domain of Allah (s.w.t.).  A good Muslim is not a good Muslim by virtue of his knowledge or his deeds.  He is not the one who has affirmed in his heart laa ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadar Rasulullah to such a degree that the heavens may shake and the earth will crumble and no matter what he says and no matter what he does, it will always be there in the heart of the soul without the dust of doubt.  And though his sins will be as high as the mountains and he is at the rim of the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, Allah (s.w.t.) will Forgive him.  And though he is as close to death as the distance between your thumb and your index finger, he will not die without the final repentance.  Because he is part of the dowry of Fathimah az-Zahrah (r.a.).  And that is the meaning of God’s Grace.

Sultan al-Malik al-Kamal Naswr ad-Din Abu al-Ma'ali Muhammad was an Ayyubid sultan.  The Ayyubid were of Kurdish descent.  He ruled from 1180 to 1238.  During his rule as sultan, the Ayyubids defeated two Crusades.  However, in a temporary agreement with the Crusaders, he ceded Jerusalem to the Franks.  This caused outrage in the Muslim world.  The medieval Muslim chronicler and Hanafi scholar, Imam Sibth bin al-Jawzi (r.a.); quoted in “The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives”, wrote “In 1229, al-Kamil gave Jerusalem to the emperor,” referring to Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.  He continued, “The news of the handing over of Jerusalem to the Franks arrived and all hell broke loose in all the lands of Islam.”

He was the son of sultan al-Adil, a brother of Swalah ad-Din (r.a.).  In 1218, he led the defense during the Siege of Damietta against the Fifth Crusade.  Later that year, he became sultan when his father passed away.  Sultan Naswr ad-Din is noted in the Muslim annals as an appeaser who made many offers of peace to the Crusaders.  All these offers were rejected due to the influence of Pelagius, the papal legate.  He offered to return Jerusalem and rebuild the walls which were torn down by his brother.  He offered to return the True Cross, which was ridiculous since it never existed.  The reason for the peace treaty with the Crusaders was the power struggle he had with his brother al-Mu’azhzham ‘Isa Sharaf ad-Din until the latter’s death in 1227.

He is most famous for negotiating with St. Francis of Assisi, who had accompanied the crusade.  St. Francis was in Egypt at 1219, when he accompanied the crusaders besieging Damietta.  Crossing the lines between the Muslims and the Crusaders at Damietta, he was received by the Sultan Naswr ad-Din.  According to legend, St. Francis challenged the Muslim scholars to a test of true religion by fire; but they declined.  Francis proposed to enter the fire first, under the condition that if he left the fire unharmed; the sultan would have to recognise Christ as the true God.  The sultan was so impressed that he allowed St. Francis to preach to his subjects.  St. Francis was given permission to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land.  St. Francis’ visit to Egypt and attempted rapprochement with the Muslim world had far-reaching consequences, long after his death.  After the fall of the Crusader Kingdom it would be the Franciscan Order and the Catholics who would be allowed to stay on in the Holy Land and be recognised as ‘Custodians of the Holy Land’ on behalf of Christianity.  The Muslims of this age have much t learn from those who have come before.

“A true Lover does not follow any one religion,
Be sure of that.
Since in the religion of Love,
There is no irreverence or faith.
When in Love,
Body, mind, heart and soul do not even exist.
Become this,
Fall in Love,
And you will not be separated again.”

Mawlana Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi (q.s.)


  1. Please credit the original author, dear brother, AYDOĞAN VATANDAŞ, who was had written this in an interview piece for Today's Zaman dated 27 December 2009

    1. Good evening,

      The link to the original post is in the title above: What Muslims and Christians can learn from ‘The Saint and the Sultan.’ Please check next time.



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