I recently finished an amazing book called St. Francis and the Muslims by Frank M. Rega from TAN. This book makes clear that St Francis made it his priority to convert the Muslims. Unfortunately St Francis' image has been distorted by liberal revisionist writers over the years who have created a false notion of him as a passive "PETA" pantheists who just happened to be Catholic. This book will tweak this modern notion of St Francis by revealing the truth of who he really was--an inspiring, courageous, Catholic who loved the truth and sought to boldly bring Jesus to everyone-- even those who were blinded by heresy.
Rega has thoroughly researched Francis and stands on firm ground in his telling of the story of Francis and his attempt to convert the Sultan. The famous meeting begins when Francis accompanies the crusaders to Damietta, Egypt with the goal of having a private audience with Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil who was the Islamic ruler of Egypt.
Prior to the battle of Damietta, Francis received a prophetic vision that the crusaders would lose the battle. He hesitatingly revealed his vision which was dismissed. The battle went forward, and the crusaders lost.
The crusaders losses were many. As one chronicler wrote--John the Baptist gained many companions that day due to the great many beheadings. "This horror befell about fifty horsemen, of the Knights Templar, thirty of the Germans, and over twenty Hospitallers."
Remarkably it was the loss at Damietta that gave St Francis the opportunity to finally meet the Sultan face to face in an attempt to convert him to the Christian faith.
St Francis sought permission to enter the camp of the Sultan from the Papal Legate who was hesitant to grant permission since al Kamil had reportedly stated that "anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be awarded with Byzantine gold pieces". Eventually when confronted with the insistence and persistence of St Francis, the Papal legate allowed Francis and one companion, Brother Illuminato, to go into the Muslim camp.
Early documents all agree that upon entering the camp Francis and Illuminato were treated very roughly. One account states that they were insulted and beaten yet showed no fear even when threatened with torture and death. They kept repeating to their captors the word for "SULTAN" and were eventually dragged before him.
St Francis and Illuminato informed the Sultan that they were messengers sent from God. An early writing purports to contain the essence of their first words to the Sultan: "If you do not wish to believe we will commend your soul to God because we declare that if you die while holding to your law you will be lost; God will not accept your soul. For this reason we have come to you. They added that they would demonstrate the truth of Christianity to al-Kamil and his imams.
Surprisingly the Sultan was captivated by the sincerity of the men's concern for his eternal salvation. Al-kamil willingly listened to St Francis and permitted them great liberty in their preaching.
The Sultan told his imams that beheading Francis and Illuminato would be an unjust recompense for their efforts, since they had arrived with the praiseworthy intention of seeking his personal salvation. He said to Francis: "I am going to go counter to what my religious advisors demand and will not cut off your heads...you have risked your own lives in order to save my soul."
The Franciscans were the guests of the Sultan for many days. During that time the Sultan made certain that the men's wounds were taken care of.
Rega points out that although it might seem unusual that the Sultan would seemingly be so attracted to Christianity we must remember that Francis was one of the most charismatic and remarkable saints that the Church has ever seen.
There is a question as to whether the Sultan had a deathbed conversion to the faith as a result of his encounter with Francis. One historian writes wrote that: al-Kamil before dismissing the friar, privately asked him to pray that God would reveal to me the law and the faith that is more pleasing to Him. Illuminato remarked that the Sultan, after hearing Francis fervently preach the Gospel, always had the Christian faith imprinted on his heart."
According to the Little Flower of St Francis which is a widely read historical account of the first friars lives, Francis prophesied that the Sultan would have a deathbed conversion. After Francis' death he appeared to two friars and instructed them to find the Sultan and teach him the faith. It is also reported in the Little Flower that the Sultan instructed his sentinels to watch for two friars in the ports. When the friars were found the Sultan received them with great joy. "The friars after instructing al-Kamil in the faith, administered the Sacrament of Baptism to the dying Sultan and 'his soul was saved through the merits of St Francis'".
This book is a must read in our day when the zeal of Islam has been rekindled and so many are ready to violently confront the West once again. St Francis did not seek "dialogue" with the Sultan in order to minimize or diminish the differences that existed between the Catholic and the Muslim faith. Instead he boldly proclaimed the truths of Christianity. There is a naiveté on the part of so many liberals today who feel that we can simply dialogue until we find similarities between Catholicism and Islam.
If we equate our religion with theirs, it only leads to confusion and contempt. As demonstrated by St Francis's approach, Muslims are far more respectful and willing to listen to a person who acknowledges the great division that separates the two religions than to a person who says that all the religions are the same; that we all believe the same things; we all have the same faith.
Although Francis was not on a formal mission of peace, converting the muslims was his attempt to bring about peace. According to one scholar, Christopher Maier, "Francis like the crusaders wanted to liberate the holy places of Palestine from Muslim rule. What was different was his strategy...He wanted their total submission to the Christian faith."
If only there were even a few zealous Catholic missionaries who were willing to risk martyrdom by preaching Christ to the Muslims as boldly as Francis did--the face of the world could change. This book reads like a manual for our tumultuous times.
"He who will have lost his life for My sake shall save it for eternal life." (Luke 9:24; Matthew 25:46). "Do not fear those who kill the body" (Matthew 10:28), "and after that have no more that they can do." (Luke 12:4).