Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and al-Malik al-Kamil (1180-1238)

A friar and a sultan meet peacefully during the Crusades

Painting of St. Francis and al-Kamil

A 15th century depiction of the meeting of St. Francis & al-Kamil Benozzo Gozzoli/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

In the early 13th Century, amid the horrors of the Crusades, a Christian and a Muslim dared to cross the battle lines. The dialogue that took place surprised them both and provided a timeless model of risk-taking in pursuit of peace.

Francis of Assisi was born into a wealthy family and went off to war as a knight in the battles among Italy’s city-states. Following a spiritual crisis, he made a radical break with his old life and committed himself to the spiritual renewal of the Roman Catholic Church. His spiritual discipline included simplicity, embracing poverty and seeing Christ in the poor. He founded a spiritual community based on these values, which became the Franciscan Order.

Francis held to radical nonviolence in an era when the Church was engaged in what was viewed as the “sacred violence” of the Crusades. Appalled by the brutality of the Crusades, Francis undertook a personal mission across the battle lines at Damietta to meet with the Muslim sultan, al-Malik al-Kamil. Francis sought to preach the gospel to the sultan, even if it meant his own martyrdom.

Instead of martyrdom, Francis received welcome and hospitality. Al-Kamil was the nephew of the great military leader Saladin, who had defeated the European knights of the Third Crusade. Kamil was impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity and invited the monk to stay for a week of conversation. Francis was impressed by the devotion of the Muslims he met, including their call to prayer and use of prayer beads. Some scholars think that Francis brought these traditions back to Europe in the use of the Angelus and rosary. Neither converted the other, but both gained the respect of the other and learned from the other.

They parted as friends.

Francis returned after this encounter to try to persuade Cardinal Pelagius Galvani to make peace with the sultan, but to no avail. On the other hand, Sultan al-Kamil was ready for peace. After achieving victory, he provided humane treatment to the defeated Crusaders, which was in stark contrast to the atrocities committed by the Crusaders when they initially captured Damietta.

Al-Kamil eventually succeeded in making a peace agreement with Frederick II in 1229.