Blogs > HNN > Joseph Cunneen: Review of Paul Moses's The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday 2009)

Nov 1, 2009 8:56 pm

Joseph Cunneen: Review of Paul Moses's The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday 2009)

[Joseph Cunneen was founder and long-time editor of the ecumenical quarterly CROSS CURRENTS.]

Everyone knows about Francis, right? He talked to the birds and started a religious order that survives to this day. But unless you've done your homework with serious historians, you'll get some startling surprises from the new book of Paul Moses, professor of jour-nalism at the City University of New York and a former editor at Newsday. He centers on Francis's dedication to peace, highlighting the saint's 1219 meeting with Sultan Malik al-Kamil,with its implications for today's over-eager crusaders.

Moses has done extensive research in fourteenth century history and visited Italian and middle-eastern sites connected with Francis's life, but his book is for general readers. Although today's papacy is not calling for a crusade, readers are reminded that Rome has often betrayed the Gospel's message of peace.

The opening chapter will surprise many, presenting the 21-year-old Francis fighting on horseback in a dispute between Assisi and Perugia. Moses believes Francis actually killed men on the battlefield, which led to a year in prison and a life of penance.

A process of conversion began, revealing itself first in generosity to the poor. But Francis allowed himself to be persuaded to fight again on the papal side against imperial forces. His militarism was ended, however, by a dream in which he was told to go home.

He sold his horse and armor, rid himself of money, and devoted himself to serving lepers. Praying before a painted crucifix in the broken-down church of San Damiano, he heard Jesus instruct him: “Francis, go, repair my house, which as you see, is falling to ruin.”

Embracing a life of poverty, he was joined by other young men fleeing the violent culture around them, whom he exhorted to preach peace and repentance.

Knowing his brother-friars needed protection from the persecution they experienced, Francis decided to seek papal approval for their way of life from Innocent III, probably the most powerful pontiff in history.Innocent, knowing the friars could help the church's image as
long as they were obedient,approved Francis' Rule.
The saint's long-standing desire to preach to the Muslim world led to his famous encounter with Malik al-Kamil in 1219. He came across the lines unarmed, singing “The Lord is my shepherd.” There are different reports of what took place, but Moses follows James of Vitry, emphasizing that Francis came as God's ambassador, not the pope's. Al-Kamil was impressed with Francis; he was already a serious Muslim who respected Christian monks.

The experience made Francis want to send other Friars to preach to Muslims, but the naiveté of the monks who tried to follow his example produced poor results. The age continued to be dominated by papal power and the crusades mentality, and Francis' later years were filled with poor health and the difficulties of running an order without firm discipline. Sadly, most Christians only know the story of the saint and the sultan in the version of Bonaventure, which has Francis advocating the eradication of Muslims for blasphemy.

Moses's realistic and powerful book gives readers an informed idea of how difficult it was to follow Francis in an age of papal power and the broad acceptance of violence. The saint comes through as both lovable and naïve, never able to win sufficient acceptance for his approach, even among his own followers.

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