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In the "Empire of Evil" - Francis of Assisi and the Sultan
It was not by chance that the historical period of the Gregorian reform, the object of which was the establishment of a religious-political order entrusted in the end to the Pope of Rome, coincided with the period of the crusades against the Saracens. The first crusade was actually inaugurated by Urban II, but it had already been planned by Gregory VII. Identifying the enemy to be destroyed has always been the first requirement for creating an organization endowed with a strong sense of identity. At that time Islam filled the role of the "Other", whose very presence is in itself a threat... Only if this uninterrupted ideological incitement is kept in mind, is it possible to explain the savagery of the crusader's enterprise, whose rule was to massacre all the inhabitants of the villages and towns, with the exception of those who asked for baptism.
Gradually the crusade came to be seen not as an episode imposed by necessity, but as a way of life of the Church, the way it presented itself to those outside its borders. The three orders, monks, clerics, laity, which constituted the social universe of Christendom, were enriched in the twelfth century with a new order: the Knights, which came immediately after the monks and before the clergy in the hierarchical order. The Templars were at the same time monks with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and soldiers of Christ, enlisted to wield the sword for the conquest and defence of the holy places. Commenting on their rule, Bernard of Chiaravelle, to whom we owe the most concise and chilling formulation of the crusaders' ideal, wrote: "When the knight of - Christ kills the malefactor, his act is not homicide, but, if one can use the expression "malecide"; he is in all and for all the agent of Christ's vengeance on those who commit evil"1.
It is quite possible that Francis had never taken up a position of principle against the crusades, which by then had become accepted as quite normal in the life of the Church and the culture of the time. His way of distancing himself from this ideological distortion of the Gospel was, even in this case, that of action in the strong sense of the term. He made practical choices in the light of a conscience informed by a direct daily living of the Gospel, a Gospel without prevarications, be they those of Bernard of Chiaravalle or of Innocent III. This is already seen in his first attempts to escape from his status as son of a merchant dedicated to worldly success. He tried to enlist to follow his fellow-citizen, the knight Gentile, setting out for Puglia and then, so it seems, for Constantinople and Jerusalem... From his youthful passion for "the holy army" there remained in him in those early years a tendency which, when freed from some warlike distortion, had clear echoes of the Gospel: the desire for martyrdom, the desire to go unarmed among the Saracens with the idea of being killed rather than of killing. This more or less turns the crusading ethic on its head: the killer of evil is shedding his own blood, not the blood of others.
"Go to the Saracens''
The desire to go to the Saracens to gain the crown of martyrdom was a common characteristic of the first Franciscan Fraternity, which had its first five martyrs in 1220 in Morocco. The idea of defeating "the evil empire" by preaching and witnessing even as far as imitating the cross rather than by the sword, was developing in the mind of Francis and his first companions. This desire was blurred by an almost total ignorance of the intense religious vitality of Islam and of the values that are common to the Qur'an, the Old Testament and the Gospel. Francis was no exception. For him faith was rooted and reborn in the Crucified, the supreme manifestation of God's mercy towards all creatures. Through the humanity of Jesus Frances was rediscovering, across the frontiers of the Great Order, the fraternity which unites "all those who live in the entire world", according to the expression in that remarkable "encyclical", his "Lettera a tutti i fedeli", dating from the last years of his life (FF. p. 151). In any case, how could he, who called the sun and fire "brother" fail to call the Muslim "brother"?
Francis' initiatives vis-a-vis the Saracens are to be seen in the context of a development which stretches from his first attempt to journey outside Christendom in 1211 to the norms of the Regola non ballat for "those who go among the Saracens and other infidels" of 1221. This period, some say, had its epilogue in the mysterium crucis of La Varna. In reading the Fonti Franciscane, one has the impression that Francis' acts, which went far beyond the norm even in the minds of his biographers, have been toned down and emptied of their disturbing prophetic content. Besides, the same Francis found himself at this moment of his life as in so many others, doing things which were outside his own theological understanding and tools of language. The best hermeneutic criterion is therefore to separate the facts from the verbal wrappings and describe them in words full of dignity and meaning.
The biographers describe two journeys of Francis between 1211 and 1213, the first to Syria with the troops who left from Dalmatia; the second to Morocco through Spain where the Saracens had been defeated at Las Navas in July 1212. The two journeys ended in failure, the first because while on board ship in the Adriatic, Francis learned that the departure from Dalmatia would not take place; the second because Francis fell ill on the way and had to retrace his steps. Meanwhile the Fourth Lateran Council raised new barriers against his dream of the unarmed meeting with the infidels. The decree Expeditio pro recuperanda Terra Santa translated the theology of the crucified into the impassioned rhetoric of military mobilization (dear to Innocent III): the lands bathed in the blood of Jesus could not be left in infidel hands.
The Meeting with the Sultan
The Crusade set off in 1217. It was led by Giovanni di Brienne with Cardinal Pelagio Galvan at his side, a Portuguese Benedictine, bishop of Albano, whom Honorius had chosen as his legate. The object of the crusade was to strike Islam on the head', that is to say in Egypt, for the fate of Jerusalem depended in practice on the Sultan of Egypt. The bastion of Egypt and therefore of Islam was the city of Damietta on the delta of the Nile. Surrounded with a double circle of walls on the coastal side and a triple circle on the landward side, with 22 doors, 110 towers and 42 forts, Damietta was considered impregnable. The crusading army disembarked at the foot of the double circle on the 9th May 1218. It was, to say the least, a curious army. There were even bishops and archbishops, particularly Italian and French. There were pilgrim women soldiers in masculine dress, with body armour and helmets, but with subsidiary functions which very soon stirred up scandal even in the opposite camp. There were adventurers who dreamed only of raids and robbery. Over all reigned the sanctimonious arrogance of Pelagio, scarcely held in check by Giovanni di Brienne, a man brave in war but inclined to gentler counsels. And gentle counsels were rendered all the more reasonable by proposals that arrived from the besieged city, where a sultan noted for his wisdom and humanist culture, Melek-el Kamil, had recently begun to reign. If the Christians had lifted the siege, they would have had in exchange the city of Jerusalem and the restitution of the holy cross. But Pelagio and the ultras of the army with him were for the final destruction of Islam. A year passed and things were still at the same stage, except that complaints were arriving from the Christian world that the army was squandering in debauchery the alms sent by the piety of the faithful.
This widespread weariness perhaps influenced Francis' decision. On 24 June 1219 he embarked at Ancona and a little more than a month later presented himself in the crusader camp. Accompanying him was Brother Illuminata (so called because cured of blindness by a miracle of Francis) who was already used to the East, so must have had some understanding of Arabic. The intention of the two was to meet the Sultan face to face. Pelagio was annoyed by this arrival and let them know it. With their innocent dream they might cause negative reactions in an army already weakened by weariness and discord, and moreover with a commander not immune to pacifist leanings. Francis realized that he would have to wait, all the more because in the army discipline was weakening just when it was most needed. Preparations were heating up for a decisive battle. To liberate the Christians from their; folly was even more urgent than to talk with the Sultan. The following is what happened according to Celano:
One day when news arrived that our men were getting ready for battle, he was deeply grieved and turning to his companion he said: "The Lord has shown me that if the battle takes place today it will go badly for the Christians. But if I say that, they will believe I am mad; if I stay silent I will have remorse of conscience, what do you think?" "Father", replied his companion, "attach no importance to the opinion of men; anyway today would not be the first time you have been judged mad. Set your conscience free and fear God rather than man". Then the saint rushed out and implored the Christians for their own good not to give battle and threatened them with defeat. But they took the truth as a joke, hardened their hearts and refused every warning. Our men suffered such a defeat that they lost 6000 men between slain and prisoners. (2 Cel. 4)
The defeat of the Christians (it was 31 August 1219) threw the papal legate into consternation. Henceforth the request of Francis and Illuminato, ingenious though it was, could do no further damage. The two were at last able to enter the Muslim camp secretly. Discovered by a patrol they were ill-treated and led before the Sultan Kamil.
All documents of the time, including Christian ones, agree in recognising a sincere religiosity in Kamil and a particular liking for theological debate. It is useless to try to know what Francis and the Sultan said during the two weeks of friendly encounters. In reading the FF one has the impression that the hagiographers, each according to his own prejudices, had reconstructed what in all probability Francis had wanted to guard with the greatest reserve. It is a significant fact that even the hagiographers most intent on making a hero of Francis give prominence to Kamil's affable humanity and spirit of tolerance. The sources agree in recording the request of Francis to Kamil that the test of fire should demonstrate which of the two religions was true. That choice could be imputed to the culture of the time; however, according to what Bonaventure wrote in another work, Francis supported it with an argument not much in line with the then dominant dogmatism. A disputation with the experts of the Muslim religion, said Francis to the Sultan, would not serve, "because if one started to set it on a basis of reason, faith is above human reason. If, on the other hand, through Scriptural arguments, they would not accept the scriptures".(2) However things turned out, it is certain that the Sultan treated Francis with the greatest respect and sent him back to the Christian camp with signs of his friendship.
Franciscan memory could not accept that the initiative of Francis failed to convert the Sultan and this was the only way they could understand success. The Fioretti, for example, relate that the Sultan had recognized the truth of the faith announced by Francis, but in agreement with the saint decided not to ask for baptism for the moment in order to avoid revolts. He was to ask for it at the point of death. The moment came and Francis, who was already with God, secretly sent two brothers to the bedside of the dying man, and thus reaped the full fruit of his mission. (Fior. 24).
The Gospel Without the Sword
Everything leads to the conclusion that the experience in Muslim lands profoundly marked the last period of Francis' life, just as the research of the great pioneer of Christian-Islamic dialogue, Louis Massignon,3 suggests that the visit of Francis left a deep impression on Muslim memory. It is disconcerting to realize that in his century Francis remained almost alone in perceiving that the true task of the Church was not the crusade but the evangelization of the Saracens in the way of Christ's challenge, that is to say in the style of absolute poverty, including the renunciation of inappropriate identities, such as political and cultural ones. Only such a renunciation could have caused the wall of estrangement between Islam and Christianity to fall down and a process of mutual attention, of listening and, as an ultimate possibility, a common profession of faith, to recommence.
The same Bonaventure felt constrained to relate, though in an apologetic style, an episode which shows how much farsighted realism there was in the strategy of love adopted, in spite of everything one might say, by Francis and his most faithful disciples.
Once some brothers went into the country of the infidels and met a Saracen who, moved by pity, offered them the money they needed for food. They refused it and the man was astonished because he saw they were destitute of everything. But when he finally understood that they did not want money because they had made themselves poor for love of God, he befriended them with such affection that he promised to supply all their needs as far as he could. (Lg M, 7).
Evangelization implies as a precondition the abolition of the category "enemy" on which the culture of war, the entire edifice of mediaeval Christianity, was based. The Saracens, so Francis wrote, "are our brothers and friends, and we should love them dearly: amici nostri sunt et nos multum diligere debemus".
* Ernesto Balducci is a priest of the Scolopi Order, a professor of Philosophy and History in Florence, formerly director of the periodical Testimonianze. He is a well known writer and has published articles and books in Italian.
This article is abridged from "Francesco d 'Assisi", Enciclopedia della Pace, Maestri, Edizioni Cultura della Pace, S. Domenico di Fiesolo 1989
1. G. Duby, La Specchio del Jeudalesimo, Laterza, Bari-Roma 1980 p. 287.
2. Bonaventura, In Hexaemeron, coil. XIX, n. 14, Opera Omnia V, p. 422.
3. cf. Louis Massignon, c/o Giuiio Basetti Sani, Alinea Editrice Firenze 1985.