“I can’t believe that the choice of his namesake is only about deference to poor people, as important and admirable as that is,” said the Rev. William Hugo, a Capuchin Franciscan brother and priest in St. Joseph, Wis. “The story of Francis seeking out Al-Kamil would surely raise up in Pope Francis the desire to reach out and be in relationship with those suffering a separation or (who are) excluded.”
A desert encounter
Scholars are divided, however, on whether it was peace or proselytizing that motivated St. Francis. The earliest biographies of him depict a more hard line Christian who sought to convert Al-Kamil.
“Francis’s goal was, of course, conversion, not coexistence. And while some 13th-century Christian commentators criticized the crusades for their violence, Francis was not among those critics. His joining up with the 5th Crusade suggests a tacit acceptance of crusading,” said Philip Daileader, a history professor at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.
Many later biographies, however, say St. Francis’ motivation was more dovish.
“He wanted to see the sultan because he was pained, and he felt guilty,” said Jon Sweeney, author of the new book, “Francis of Assisi In His Own Words: The Essential Writings.” ‘’He saw the carnage and it was his church that was doing it.”
Conversion or coexistence?
Chris van Gorder, a scholar of Christian-Muslim relations at Baylor University, asserts that St. Francis, a former soldier, was driven by compassion, a hatred for war, a desire to learn from others, and “to build missionistic bridges of reconciliation and healing.”
“St. Francis of Assisi was a confident evangelist and a fearless peacemaker who was appalled at the rapacious violence of his era,” said van Gorder.
But even if St. Francis’ goal was conversion, it was not an end unto itself, but a means to peace.
“We’re seeing the church interpret Francis in modern times as a bridge,” said Paul Moses, author of “The Saint and the Sultan,” a 2009 book which explores St. Francis’ pivotal engagement with Islam. “To Muslims ears, the choice of Francis for a name should sound good.”
Andrea Stanton, a religious studies professor at the University of Denver, said peace was Francis’ motive.
“His attempt to convert the sultan was a conflict resolution exercise: if the sultan embraced Christianity, the wars would end, because a Christian would govern Jerusalem,” Stanton said.
What makes Francis’ trip all the more improbable is that Muslims were depicted as blood-thirsty heretics inspired by the devil, and venturing into their camp meant certain death.