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The saint and the sultan's model for peace

  • 14 December 2018


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)'.

I 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