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The saint and the sultan's model for peace



Peace, enigmatically and etymologically, is largely defined by an absence of war. Among all the Christmas songs and carols, the one that grips me without fail is John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1972 lament, 'Happy Xmas (War is Over)'.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono play music with St Francis of Assisi and Malik-al-Kamil. Cartoon by Chris JohnstonI say 'lament', because the honest recognition that 'war is over, if you want it' has yet to be answered. Woosy man that I am, I also have to confess that I'm often reduced to maudlin tears by the kids singing along from the Harlem Community Choir.

The idea that a child being born in the Middle East can bring about geopolitical harmony tends to mark Christians as optimists. I do like to think that all human beings desire peace, and that we can cling to historical scraps of hope — echoes of initiated rapprochements, when conflict and the lust for power, status, control and resources have been subverted by people of good will.

Next year, for example, will mark the 800th anniversary of an Italian named Francis di Bernadone literally risking life and limb to meet up with a bloke named Malik-al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade (those bloody misadventures wherein Christendom took on Muslims, Jews and heretics, in spasmodic attempts to conquer and hold Jerusalem). The Italian became better known, after his death, as Saint Francis of Assisi.

His intended conversationalist was the Sultan of Egypt, a man who'd reportedly responded to Crusaders' atrocities by promising a Byzantine gold piece to anyone who brought him a Christian's head; al-Kamil is better known as the nephew of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, or 'Saladin', King Richard the Lionheart's noted adversary.

As we hear and/or sing seasonal songs of peace and harmony, I suggest there are some lessons we can learn from that quirky piece of history.

Peace comes with effort and risk.

Some commentators believe Francis crossed enemy lines to chase martyrdom. What most historians agree on is that the saint and his mate, Brother Illuminatus, were perhaps beaten and dragged into the sultan's tent, where Francis declared (not in Arabic, unhelpfully) that they were ambassadors of God. The Christians got a fair hearing from the Saracens, and lived to tell a tale of mutual learning.


"There are no credible sources to suggest that either man changed his chosen worldview. The outcome was respect, rather than conversion or proselytism."


Peace is aided by finding common ground.

Having received short shrift from his co-religionist, the Christian commander Cardinal Pelagius, Francis chose to try his hand with the enemy. The two captured Europeans were initially taken for Muslim Sufi mystics, as they wore woollen robes like the Sufis (the word sufi means 'one who wears wool').

The 38-year-old, Italian-speaking Francis apparently yelled one of his few Arabic words — 'Sultan' — when captured. Francis then chose to greet the 39-year-old al-Kamil with his standard phrase, 'May the Lord give you peace'. This went down well with the Muslim leader, who thought the odd-looking interloper may be a messenger responding to the sultan's peace proposal.

While that was decidedly not the case (the future saint was actually viewed as a heretic by many Europeans), Francis' greeting was similar to the Arabic greeting, Assalam o alaikum ('peace be upon you'). That similarity kept the Europeans inside the tent.

Peace comes from dialogue and humility.

Francis didn't judge, condemn or disparage Islam. Many commentators suggest that both Francis and al-Kamil were deeply influenced in their exchanges, through the other's translated words.

Francis' approach contrasts strongly with that of a later, less than diplomatic visit of Franciscan friars to Morocco, where the churchmen declared Christianity was vastly superior to Islam and reportedly badmouthed the prophet's doctrines. That approach got them arrested and tortured, duly limiting the exchange of views and values.

Peace comes incrementally, from compromise and awareness.

Despite unlikely, hagiographic suggestions of the sultan converting on his deathbed (made in the lead-up to Francis' canonisation), there are no credible sources to suggest that either man changed his chosen worldview. The outcome was respect, rather than conversion or proselytism.

The sultan met with his barefoot visitors for several days. An ivory horn, blown by the muezzin to call Muslims to prayer, was a parting gift to Francis, who's said to have used it to call Christians to prayer or preaching back on his home soil. Scholars also trace the influence of Sufi prayers in the writings of the saint, and in his conduct.

As for the sultan, the encounter's said to have had more practical outcomes. Reports of concessions include permission for Francis to visit holy sites, and of the sultan treating prisoners-of-war with kindness and humanity. In 1221 the Fifth Crusade ended, with large losses of life on both sides and a peace agreement with al-Kamil.

When war again broke out years later, in a mournful silent retreat taken in protest, Francis became the first person to be recorded as a stigmatic. The symbolism of a suffering servant sharing Christ's wounds has stayed with the Church ever since.

Francis was persuasive, perhaps, but that Liverpudlian Lennon was right, too. Choice, people power and influence, not boots on the ground and bloodshed, is the only path to peace. War is over, if you want it.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, peace, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Christmas



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Existing comments

There are a number of impressive names in this gentle article: firstly Brother Illuminatus reminds me of the hymn "Lead Kindly Light", then Saladin, a poetic version of a longer name, al-Kamil (not to be confused with Kamahl or maybe they have things in common) and finally Cardinal Pelagius, an ascetic sort of chap. Not forgetting the name "Francis", in vogue these days in Rome and Canberra. Peace to all.

Pam | 16 December 2018  

Thanks Barry. Yes, “Peace comes incrementally, from compromise and awareness.” And we need more compromise and awareness in the Catholic Church, compromise in relation to church governance and awareness of the urgent need for climate action. Hopefully the 2020 Plenary Council may result in a compromise in power with the laity and the clergy co-governing for the benefit of all. Also, I suggest readers go to the ‘Global Catholic Climate Movement’ website and request a copy of their ‘ECO-PARISH GUIDE BRINGING LAUDATO SI’ TO LIFE’ to download and print. As this guide states, “Parishes have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions because as a Church we operate more than 220,000 parishes globally, which accounts for many times more churches, rectories, offices, other parish buildings, and vehicles that, using conventional fossil fuels for energy, contribute directly to climate change.” I entreat you, as suggested in this guide, to form a Care for Creation team in your parish and carry out some of the activities suggested in the guide. As a UN Secretary General has pointed out, we are the last generation to be able to stop climate change and the first generation to be impacted by it.

Grant Allen | 16 December 2018  

Does this mean that the invocation "Peace be with you" in the Mass means "Stop the War". Rather apt when considering the various turf wars that plague the Church today!

john frawley | 17 December 2018  

It's unlikely that any kind of horn was used to call Muslims to prayer. The sole method of calling to prayer established since Prophetic time is by the human voice. Possibly the horn was used by Christians or Jews and came into the possession of the Muslims as a gift.

Mohammad Stacey | 18 December 2018  

Love the cartoon! Your message of mutual recognition and respect means cultural power bases and religious traditions must transcend their respective egocentricity. Trump has just called the troops home from Syria, let’s see what difference that makes to the peace cause.

Trish Martin | 21 December 2018  

very interesting. thank you for the article

ANDREW LUKAS | 21 December 2018  

We see the Red Crescent Red Cross active in many places of war and sickness, Wouldn't it be wonderful if this movement of cooperation between people of different faiths could develop from the Red Cross in Australia ? This might lead to greater understanding between Muslims and Christians and act to dispel distrust and antipathy. How can we begin to move in this direction?

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 21 December 2018  

Francis the peace Saint / Sultan Malek al-Kamil / Pope Francis world Peace. I wrote this Haiku after reading about the meeting of St Francis with the Sultan, after Pope Francis demonstrated his attempts at spreading peace.

Helen Collins | 22 December 2018  

I remember being told the same story, with a slight twist, by an Anglican Franciscan friar a few years back. His purpose was to show that both Francis and the Sultan, by not converting to the other's Faith, had maintained their own individual integrity but also respected the other's. A lesson in integrity would have been something that so many on the Western side of the Crusades could well have learnt. The Crusades, as the great Byzantine scholar, Sir Stephen Runciman pointed out, were instrumental in weakening the Christian Byzantine Empire to such an extent that it finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453. Orthodox Christians still remember this. The long term effect of the Crusades, with the dreadful barbarities and slaughter perpetrated by the Western "Christian" armies on the native population, is also still remembered in the Islamic World. Speed past the 19th Century colonial wars and fast forward to the invasion of Iraq under George W Bush with support from Tony Blair and John Howard, the brutalities of Abu Ghraib and the rise of Isis, which was actually born in Iraqi prison camps. Where are the men of integrity in the West and the Islamic World to bring peace to the Middle East now? Can anyone trust anyone else? That's the current conundrum.

Edward Fido | 05 January 2019  

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