In 1219, in the midst of the Fifth Crusade, Saint Francis of Assisi crossed unarmed into the enemy camp in order to preach the gospel to Sultan al-Kamil, the Muslim ruler of Egypt and Saladin’s nephew. In his hagiographic account of this incident, Bonaventure relates the following:
When [Francis and his companion] proceeded farther, the Saracen sentries fell upon them like wolves swiftly overtaking sheep, savagely seized the servants of God and cruelly and contemptuously dragged them away, insulting them, beating them and putting them in chains…When that ruler inquired by whom, why and how they had been sent and how they got there, Francis, Christ’s servant, answered with an intrepid heart that he had been sent not by man but by the Most High God in order to point out to him and his people the way of salvation and to announce the Gospel of truth.1
Francis was neither naïve nor mad. He knew very well what he was getting into. Contrary to the excessively tender image of him propounded by Hollywood and supported by popular piety, he was a knight of Christ and a seasoned soldier with crusade combat experience before his conversion. This feature is often overlooked in attempts to portray him as a syrupy environmentalist.
On this, his third attempt at converting the Muslims,2 he once again knew that his life was at stake, and he was prepared to sacrifice it. According to Bonaventure and earlier biographers, the sultan was so overwhelmed by Francis’s courage that he invited him to stay longer. Francis said he was not interested in the sultan’s favors, but only in his conversion. The saint even offered to undergo ordeal by fire, similar to the one Elijah went through in 1 Kings 18:17-40, in order to convince the sultan of the truth of Christianity.
While approving of the saint’s determination, the sultan replied that his acceptance of Christianity would cause a military uprising and was, therefore, a political impossibility. He repeatedly offered Francis gifts and alms for the poor, but the saint refused to accept them and returned to Italy.
This story is an eloquent testimony to the inspired boldness of the Christian saints. It also provides a stirring example of integrity in the face of an offered bribe, this time in the form of compromising hospitality. Furthermore, the incident is a prophetic condemnation of the use of violence to advance the cause of a religion—whether through crusades or terrorism. In the midst of a bloody warfare and in the time when forced conversions were a sad reality, St. Francis manifested the power of Christ, which “is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
1 Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis, 9.8, in Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of God, The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1978), 269.
2 Ibid., 9.7.