St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most influential figures in thie history of Christianity, and an individual who may be understood to have had a profound influential on Christian theology and the way in which individuals perceive a Christian life may be led. One of St. Francis’ most famous acts was the dialogue conducted with Sultan Malik Al-Kamil which took place in 1219, at the height of the fifth crusade. While attempting such a dialogue would have been considered suicide by the majority of individuals in the area, Francis insisted on crossing enemy lines in order to seek to speak with the Sultan on the basis of their common humanity. In order to understand the meaning of this dialogue, and the reason for its theological, and material, consequences, it is first necessary to understand that nature of St. Francis, the order that he established and his attitude towards a Christian life.
According to G.K. Chesterton (2011), St. Francis forms a bridge between a dark and brutal historical period and one in which the seeds of contemporary civilization began to appear. Chesterton argues that more than any other figure in Christian history, Francis should be understood as embodying the image of Christ and as having lived a life which was directly identifiable with him. Chesterton writes that Francis was effectively the “mirror of Christ,” something that may be seen both in his conduct with regard to poverty and charity but also in terms of his own physical suffering (p. 5). Chesterton understands Francis’ faith was effectively able to transfigure the potential for physical harm and pain into a potential to manifest humility and fortitude, something that culminates in his receiving the stigmata; wounds directly commensurate with the “the unhealed everlasting wounds that heal the world” (p. 5). In this sense, Chesterton argue that Francis’ life should be understood as a whole, in which each action is orientated towards the service of Christianity and to the active fulfilment of Christian ideals of fraternity and poverty. By positing Francis as a direct mirror of Christ himself, Chesterton therefore insists that each of his actions should be understood within the context of this totality and none may be fully understood on their own.
Key to understanding Francis’ life within this context is his combination of humility and faith. In particular, Francis is frequently understood to have been a figure who manifested extraordinary courage and fortitude, despite having almost nothing materially to gain from the situations in which he engaged. This abeyance of material concern may itself be argued to have provided the motor for many of Francis’ actions, while equally providing him with courage to undertake acts that would have completely daunted others. When discussing his life and his theology Frances Young (2011) notes that at key moments, Francis showed a marked capacity to focus all external concern on the fact of his faith, and on the suffering of Christ upon the cross. Young writs for example that at key points in his life, Francis was convinced of that “the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ is the only wisdom in the hour of testing, temptation and distress” (p. 184). This belief is one which may be understood to have enabled Francis to shut out material concerns, and concerns for his own safety and enabled him to focus directly on tasks which he had set himself.
It is within this context that one may understand Francis’ dialogue with Sultan Malik Al-Kamil. In particular, one may argue that the act reflects Francis’ ability to be led by faith without concern for contingent circumstances. The high level of personal danger which he confronted in seeking his dialogue can be seen to be mediated by the suggestion that, for St. Francis, the only possible mode of action was one which was directly related to his faith, and to what he considered to be his calling at any particular moment. As such, it is possible to understand that the courage which enabled Francis to engage in a seemingly suicidal mission emerged directly from his own humility and his apparent lack of strength. The act of seeking this dialogue demonstrates the manner in which weakness and strength were not opposing qualities of St. Francis’ character, but that the latter was actively derived from the former.
Aside from forming a key point in the history of Francis’ life and also providing a key example of the possibility of dialogue between purportedly opposed individuals, it is possible to see that the dialogue itself provides a striking example of the ontology of war-fare. James Tolan (2008) suggests this when he notes that Voltaire considered Francis to be “a madman and al-Kaˆmil a wise and kind ruler who wouldn’t think of harming him” (p. 124). This designation of Francis as insane suggests this his attempt at dialogue was one that was fundamentally outside of the logic of war-fare. Accordingly, Francis was allowed to appear before the Sultan because he himself was almost a non-entity, or something that could not be fully comprehended according to the logic which either the Sultan or he crusading army employed to define each other. From this perspective, Francis can be argued to have acted out of utter self-certainty inspired by faith, while on the other he can be understood to have able commit such an act because it appeared to be objectively insane.
To conclude, therefore, while I would argue that the dialogue ultimately failed, as it did not procure any kind of peace between the two armies. Despite this, it can be considered represent a singular event in military history in the sense that it represented an individual being admitted to the presence of enemy leader not because he was considered to be a representative of an opposing force but because he was seen as performing an action considered to be objectively impossible.
- Chesterton, G.K. (2011). St. Francis of Assisi. Createspace: New York, 2011.
- Tolan, J. (2008). The Friar and the Sultan: Francis of Assisi’s Mission to Egypt. European Review, 16(1), 115-126
- Young, F. (2011). Wisdom in weakness.Theology, 114(3), 181-188.