St. Francis and The Sultan: Crossing Borders to Achieve Peace

The Islamic Studies Association-Vidyajyoti College of Theology recently organized the screening of the docudrama “The Sultan and the Saint” at St. Xavier’s School in Delhi, with the participation of scholars, experts, and activists engaged in the promotion of interfaith relations in India. The film depicts one of the greatest events in history. Set in a past period of East-West conflict, it speaks with urgency to our present through the example of two men of faith: one an itinerant Christian preacher, the other the ruler of a Muslim empire, both in search for mutual respect and common ground.

In the movie, the fiery rhetoric of the leaders of the Church during the Crusades was particularly striking, as they used terms like infidels, pagans, and nonbelievers to demonize Muslims. This rhetoric drove those it instigated to take up arms to fight other people too: Jews and Eastern Christians. Such targeted violence against groups of people continues even today, when political and religious leaders demonize them for political reasons.

In unexpected moments, St. Francis received profound insights for his life. In reaching out to leprosy patients, he learns that all human beings form one family. As a young man, Francis had abhorrence for victims of leprosy. God turns this repugnance into love for all and hatred for none. Instead of running away from leprosy patients, Francis now reaches out to them.

A second profound insight: while observing Muslim men and women praying, Francis comes to realize that all men and women are created by God, and are called to worship Him. So in Egypt, while the Crusaders were preparing for a bloody conflict with the army of the Sultan, Francis takes the brave decision to meet the Sultan, and engage him with the love that the Gospel teaches. In the Sultan’s camp, he recognizes that the Sultan is a man of faith. In reaching out to the other, he recognizes his own vocation: God had called him to be a peacemaker and to bring healing to the wounded of the world. On his part, the Sultan probably recognized in Francis an ascetic filled with divine love.

Mutually transformed by love, Francis and the Sultan seek peace, teaching us that healing solutions to the ills of the world are found only when we cross borders with love, generosity, and respect.

Francis was transformed by his experiences in the Muslim camp, as was the Sultan through his meeting with Francis. The Sultan responded to the love of Francis with one of the greatest humanitarian acts in the history of warfare: by saving the Crusaders from starvation after the flooding of the Nile trapped their army of 50,000 soldiers. The Sultan’s mercy extended even towards their horses, providing for food also for them.

The film features interviews with many renowned scholars, historians, and religious leaders. In a telling comment, the Islamic scholar Homayra Ziad remarks that differences must be harnessed together for a greater understanding of God and God’s will for the world. The embrace between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik Al Kamil is thus a call for us today to deepen our engagement in interreligious dialogue for the resolution of conflicts and the advance of peaceful coexistence, reconciling our differences in the awareness that we – Christians, Muslims, and the faithful of other religions – are all children of the same God.