St. Francis and the Sultan: What really happened in 1219 in Catholic Muslim dialogue?

The Islamic/Catholic Fraternity document has caused a stir.  I wrote about a neuralgic point in it, yesterday, and some people had a spittle-flecked nutty.

There is more to say about that document.  I’ll get to it again, soon. I suspect more spittle-flecked nutties will result.

Meanwhile, Francis held a Wednesday General Audience today.   Text HERE. During that audience he offered a couple points that deserve attention.

Francis said that, during his time in the UAE, he often thought about the “visit of St Francis Assisi to Sultan al-Malik al’Kamil”.

Let’s review Francis of Assisi and his visit to the Sultan.

Many think that Francis was a bunny-hugging bird kisser.  When they think of him, they start to croon the tune from Brother Sun, Sister Moon or the ditty falsely attributed to him, “Make me a channel of your peace”.   But Francis of Assisi was not a medieval peacenik.   There was only one accord Francis wanted: the accord of one Faith… by their conversion.

Francis went to the Egypt to convert Sultan al-Kamil, a nephew of Saladin.

Here is the account of Francis’ words from Verba fratris Illuminati socii b. Francisci ad partes Orientis et in conspectu Soldani Aegypti (Codex Vaticanus

The same sultan submitted this problem to [Francis]: “Your Lord taught in his gospels that evil must not be repaid with evil, that you should not refuse your cloak to anyone who wants to take your tunic, etc. (Mt 5,40): All the more Christians should not invade our land!”.  And Blessed Francis answered: “It seems to me that you have not read the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in its entirety. In fact it says elsewhere: “if your eye causes you sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Mt 5 , 29). With this, Jesus wanted to teach us that if any person, even a friend or a relative of ours, and even if he is dear to us as the apple of our eye, we should be willing to repulse him, to weed him out if he sought to take us away from the faith and love of our God. This is precisely why Christians are acting according to justice when they invade the lands you inhabit and fight against you, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and strive to turn away from his worship as many people as you can. But if you were to recognize, confess, and worship the Creator and Redeemer, Christians would love you as themselves instead.”

A long-time reader and participant here, Fr. Augustine Thompson, wrote a good biography of St. Francis.  Francis of Assisi: A New Biography US HERE – UK HERE

Here is the fascinating account from Thompson of the encounter of Francis with the Sultan (my emphases and comment):

[…] Francis was no coward. He soon asked permission to cross enemy lines, enter the Muslim camp, and preach Christ to the sultan al-Kamil. The cardinal [Pelagius Galvani of Albano, leader of the Crusader Forces] flatly refused the request. Death was the usual punishment for those who attempted to convince Muslims to abandon their religion, as it was for any Muslim who apostatized. Francis was undaunted; he and his companion—late sources identify him as Illuminato—continued to harass the cardinal, arguing that since they would go only with his permission, not by his command, he could not be blamed for anything that happened to them. The cardinal, a high ecclesiastical diplomat and administrator, knew little or nothing about Francis or his movement. He had no way of knowing what their intentions were or what result their infiltration of the Egyptian camp might have. He again rejected their request, saying that he had no way of knowing if their project was of God or the devil. Eventually, tired by their persistence, Pelagius said he would not stop them from going, but that they were under no circumstances to tell anyone that he had any connection to their mission.

The cardinal was ostensibly washing his hands of the matter, saying in effect: If you are harmed, imprisoned, or killed, do not expect any help from me. But his primary concern was to prevent al-Kamil from thinking that the friars’ visit implied some change in his hard-line position of no negotiations. The secular leaders of the Crusade may well have hoped that Francis’s journey would reopen the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Francis was probably oblivious to the political implications of his endeavor. In any case, the unarmed Francis and his companion left the Crusader camp, crossed the Nile, and approached the Muslim fortifications. Egyptian guards, assuming that the men were deserters who wanted to renounce their faith and accept Islam, took them in charge. When it became obvious that the two men had no intention of accepting Islam, the guards began to maltreat them. Francis, who knew no Arabic whatsoever, began to shout the one word he did know—“Soldan”—over and over. Finally, the bemused soldiers took him to al-Kamil.

Every report says that the sultan received the friars well, no doubt hoping that they were, in fact, a new embassy charged with reopening negotiations. He would have recognized them as Christian clergy by their tonsure and religious garb. The sultan, undoubtedly communicating with the brothers through a translator, asked if they were an embassy from the Crusaders, or if they intended to accept Islam, or perhaps both. Francis skipped over the question about messages from the leaders of the Crusade and got immediately to the point. He was the ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ and had come for the salvation of the sultan’s soul. Francis expressed his willingness to explain and defend Christianity. This was not at all what the sultan wanted. He replied that he had no time for theological discussions and that he had plenty of religious experts who could show the two men the truth of Islam.

Francis was delighted to find a larger audience for his message and agreed to discussions, saying that if the sultan and his advisers were not convinced by his presentation, they could cut off his head. Some of the sultan’s religious advisers were summoned to present the faith of Muhammad to Francis. He replied by stating his own faith. The reaction was swift: Francis was tempting them all with apostasy and was therefore dangerous. The Muslim experts unanimously advised the sultan to execute both of the Franciscans for preaching against Muhammad and Islam. They warned him not to listen to them, as even that was dangerous. The religious leaders then withdrew. Francis did make some impression, either positive or negative, on one of the Muslim religious leaders present. The jurist Fâkhr ad-Din al-Fârisi had his involvement with al-Kamil in the “affair of the monk” recorded on his tombstone.

Al-Kamil, however, did not execute or dismiss the two friars. Rather, left alone with the two friars and, probably, an interpreter, the sultan seems to have been impressed by Francis’s sincerity and willingness to die for his beliefs. He also probably hoped that once they finished ventilating the religious matter, there might be an opening for political negotiation. Thus there began a long conversation between Francis and the Muslim leader. Francis continued to express his Christian faith in the Crucified Lord and his promise of salvation. Al-Kamil continued listening politely, doubtless occasionally probing to see if the little Italian’s homilies masked a political feeler. In spite of his advisers’ hard line, the sultan had little reason to take offense at Francis’s expression of faith, for, as Jacques de Vitry himself remarked, Muslims had no objection to praising Jesus, who was a prophet for them too, as long as the speaker avoided any suggestion that Muhammad’s message was false or deluded. Francis himself never spoke ill of Muhammad, just as he never spoke ill of anyone. Later, when other Franciscans crossed over the battle lines and preached against Muhammad, they were fortunate to escape with merely a flogging.

After several conversations over a number of days, and finding that this discussion was making no political headway, the sultan decided to end it. He made a final offer: if the brothers would stay and accept Islam, he would see that they were well provided for. Francis and his companion flatly refused, saying again that they had not come to convert but to preach Christ. So, in a typical act of Middle Eastern hospitality, al-Kamil had a table set out with precious cloth and gold and silver ornaments and offered the two men their pick of them as gifts. Much to the sultan’s surprise, Francis explained that their religion forbade them to accept any precious gifts, money, or property. On the other hand, he would be happy to accept food for the day. Whether or not he asked Francis to pray for him, as some Christian sources claim, al-Kamil was pleased to provide them with a sumptuous meal, after which he ordered them deported to the Crusader lines.

Francis may not have converted the sultan, but he and his companions did make a deep impression on the Christian clergy present in Damietta, including Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre. Much to the bishop’s displeasure, Don Ranieri, rector of the Crusader church of St. Michael at Acre, abandoned his master to join the Franciscans. Two other clerics attached to his party, Colin the Englishman and Michael of the Church of the Holy Cross, also joined Francis. In a letter dated later in February or March 1220 to friends at home, de Vitry ascribed the rapid growth of Francis’s movement to their failure to screen and test applicants and to the friars’ willingness to send enthusiastic, if unprepared, men to all parts of the world. In the bishop’s opinion, too many of those attracted to the movement were unstable, enthusiastic youths, unready for the risks of itinerancy and uncloistered religious life. When Francis merely attracted lay brothers in rural Umbria back in 1216, the bishop of Acre had good words for the movement. Now, in light of Francis’s imprudent zeal in crossing enemy lines, and his willingness to take runaway clergy into his ranks, de Vitry’s views were more mixed. He wrote to his friends that it was all he could do to keep his chanter John of Cambrai, his cleric Henry, and several others from joining Francis. These defections are part of the exponential increase in numbers that the brotherhood experienced following the missions out of Italy in 1217.

Thompson, Augustine. Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (pp. 67-70). Cornell University Press. Kindle Edition.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Francis, The Drill, The Religion of Peace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. francophile says:

    Fantastic. I am so glad to read of the real Francis, not the hippy-dippy one given over in today’s culture.

  2. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Just the other day, it was St. Joseph of Leonessa, another Franciscan who tried to convert Muslims. He was a gifted Franciscan preacher, sent to Constantinople/Istanbul to minister to Christian valley slaves of the Ottoman Empire. As he learned Turkish, he started to street preach to Muslims, with some success. Eventually he was arrested and set up for a painful execution, but then was miraculously released from his shackles by an angel, who sent him home. He ended up preaching in Italy again, and once converted an entire gang of bandits.

  3. Luminis says:

    Chesterton also wrote great book about St Francis of Assisi

  4. Thanks, Fr. Z., for calling attention to my book on Francis. You will note that I do not use the Verba Fratris Illuminati.

    This fragment is, as you know, found only in that one Ott.Lat MS, which is probably late 1300s. There is nothing like this dialogue in any of the contemporary (or even later 13th-cent.) reports on the incident. As its provenance is dubious and the first witness is well post-1200s, I don’t deal with it in the texts you quote.

    The fragment seems like a sermon exemplum, not a historical report. The reasons I (and historians generally) reject this text as historical are sketched out on p. 233 (in the sources and controversy section) of my book.

    Golubovich, who edited the fragment in 1906, discusses its lack of historicity in “San Francesco e i Francescani in Dalmieta,” Studi francescani 3-4 (1926): 307-30.

  5. monscarmeli says:

    So, was it just not mentioned in Thompson’s account, or is the story of Francis proffering a “trial by fire” simply apocryphal? Or was that at another time?

  6. Dear Monscarmeli,

    I do not consider the “trail by fire” story historical, so it is not mentioned in the narrative part of my book. It is first recorded in Bonaventure, decades after the saint’s death. I explain my reasons (and those of most scholars) for not accepting it as historical at the same place I discuss the Verba Fratris Illuminati.

  7. THREEHEARTS says:

    I understand from a reading in an old story book about Francis which quoted the Sultan he could not convert because his subjects would tear him limb from limb or words that meant the same.

  8. monscarmeli says: So, was it just not mentioned in Thompson’s account, or is the story of Francis proffering a “trial by fire” simply apocryphal? Or was that at another time?

    I think you’re thinking of St. Dominic versus the Albigensians.

  9. JustaSinner says:

    The NEXT Crusades will be fought on European soil…like fighting in our own backyard.

  10. Dear Threeehearts,

    That story first appears in Bartholomew of Pisa who died in 1401; he is the source of many of the legendary stories about Francis. There is no thirteenth-century historical evidence to support his story and it does not fit with what we know about the actual encounter.

    All we know about the meeting of Saint Francis and the sultan is found in the texts from my book posted by Fr. Z. I will no longer respond to posts giving legendary stories about Francis and the sultan. They have no historical weight. Fr. Z’s quotes from me are all we really know.

  11. Malta says:

    @JustaSinner: yes, the Muslims are retaking Europe, which took Europeans centuries to reclaim from the Infidels. Only about 3% of the French are weekly communicants now.

    We in America are lucky: the vast majority of the immigrants into our County are Catholic. I should know: I’m married to one.

  12. Clinton R. says:

    May St.Francis pray for us and for the conversion of the Muslims. There is no greater love than the Love of Christ. I deeply hope Muslims and all men may belong to Him. +JMJ+

  13. Thank you for posting this. Very enlightening for ones who think Francis was a “bunny-hugging bird kisser.” That description made me laugh.

  14. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Trial by fire miracle duel is a trope that shows up in a lot of saint stories (as opposed to history), like in St. Patrick (druid vs. Christian). And since it seems really Celticky, it probably comes from Christian Greek legend, just like hanging one’s cloak on a sunbeam.

    Which is not to say that it could not have happened somewhere, or several somewheres. But wherever I have heard an example, it has been a late add-on.

  15. taylorhall95 says:

    So St Francis was effectively saying that it is just for Christians to fight against the Muslims – not to enslave and conquer them, but to defend Christians in the Middle East, etc. In other words, this is an example of a religion (justly) inciting violence for the sake of the Gospel. What would Pope Francis say to the example of all the saints who fought against the Muslims? Were they sinning…of course not!! The thing that’s new in Catholicism is this humanist bent towards a false concord based ignoring the Faith. This is not a true peace. No Muslim will take seriously the Mufti of Al Azhar’s statement that Islam does not want war

  16. RCAVictor says:

    I hope this comment is not interpreted as a hissy-fit, but I’m wondering if Father is going to let the other shoe drop. The other shoe being the intention of St. Francis vs. the intention of Pope Francis. We know St. Francis’ intention was to convert the Sultan. What was Pope Francis’ intention? We may not know with certainty, aside from the meaningless, fake Masonic olive branch of “fraternity,” but we do know that conversion to the one true Faith is anathema to him. In fact, given his words and his behavior since he was elected, one could even propose that the one true Faith itselfis anathema to him!

    (Funny how leftists operate using the same smokescreens. According to the LGBT crowd, we must have “diversity” and “inclusion,” which is a ruse to enable getting their foot in the door of destruction. According to Pope Francis, diversity of religion appears to be something positive….so we must “include” them under his hallucinogenic big tent…)

  17. Johann says:

    Frank M. Rega (a Third Order Franciscan) wrote an excellent book titled St Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims. St. Francis actually supported the Crusades and while he did not see it as part of his mission to use force, he had no objection to the crusaders doing so, because he saw it as a just war in the name of Christ. I highly recommend it.

  18. deaconjohn1987 says:

    Ah! St. Francis, my favorite Deacon! May I have the courage to imitate him!

Comments are closed.