The Saint and the Sultan by Paul Moses Analysis
With the ever-divisive world we live in, it remains more important than ever to always tread peacefully with one another no matter our vast differences. This concept remains pertinent throughout Paul Moses’ book The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace. It may seem strange to look towards a period defined by wars between religions as a means of learning how to coexist, but history serves as a record of all our mistakes to learn from and, more to Moses’ message, will often provide us with great leaders who show us how to be better people. Moses’ book centers around one of these little-known events: Saint Francis of Assisi’s encounter with the Sultan of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade. Through his work, Moses makes an effort to explain why and how Francis would seek the Sultan in a time of such great turmoil between religions as well as how his experience affected him and serves as a model for us in the present day.
Moses breaks down his book into three parts covering Francis’s early life, the events directly surrounding Francis’s encounter, and the effects of the event. The Saint and The Sultan begins by discussing what motivated Francis to pursue his monastic and peace-promoting lifestyle. To answer this question, Moses points to another little-known fact about Francis concerning his experience as a knight in some of his earlier years. Moses explains how during a war with the neighboring town of Perugia, Francis, an Assisiani, was captured and spent a year in prison. This, Moses claims, broke his warrior spirit left him in rethinking his ideas on life, war, and God’s will for his life. After this experience, Francis is said to have gone into the streets and committed himself to a life of holiness by following the Bible as closely as possible. Through his dedication to holiness and peace, Moses notes how Francis gathered followers that eventually grew into a great Holy Order.
Several years after his conversion, during the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Moses explains that Francis embarked on a mission to the front lines in Egypt as part of his mission of peace and evangelization. Moses states that despite the war and tensions between religions, Francis “had an idea to prevent yet another blood-bath. If the Crusade leaders would not seek peace, he would” (Moses, 119). He states that Francis, inspired by the horrors of war in Egypt and his own experiences as a knight, sought out Sultan Malik al-Kamil, whom the crusaders were fighting, in the hopes of evangelizing to the Islamic leader and come to a peaceful resolution to this conflict.
While Francis was ultimately unsuccessful in his goal of converting the Sultan and ending the war peacefully, Moses argues that Francis’s experience being amongst the Muslims changed his mindset on inter-religious relations and inspired him to make changes to how he practiced his faith. After Francis returned home, Moses discusses how Francis returned to find himself “isolated within his own order”(Moses 159) and so turned to writing letters and forging a new Rule for the order. Moses contends these documents, while many of which were hidden away by the order after Francis’s death, show that Francis was inspired by the spirituality of the whole Muslim populace, particularly by the adhan or call to prayer. Additionally, Moses mentions how Francis ultimately wanted “his brothers ‘to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake,’” (Moses, 164) which as Moses puts it, “The idea that Christians should ‘be subject’ to Muslims was revolutionary” (Moses, 164). Moses then explains how after Francis’s death, the Church and the Franciscans edited Francis’s story through biographies, artwork, and hiding certain works to better support their crusading propaganda. Lastly, Moses ends off by tying Francis’s message of peace to the modern-day and how all of us should be inspired by this message to create a better world for everyone in the here and now.
In order to successfully relate his ideas to the reader, Moses’ book employs several strong characteristics that help support Moses’ ideas and keep the reader interested. One of the greatest attributes of The Saint and the Sultan is the style in which Moses wrote it. Due to Moses’ occupation as a journalist rather than a historian, he writes in a way that remains extremely readable and effective at relating his message. Moses refrains from utilizing extensive jargon but rather explains his ideas through simple phrasing sounding more like a narrative than an informational piece at times. This creates a book anyone can read, understand, and enjoy, unlike some works by historians that become hard to read from their excessive wordiness.
In addition to successfully communicating his ideas to the reader, Moses supports those ideas with extensive research from a wide variety of quality sources. Moses discusses his use of sources extensively in his book mentioning his use of different sources as well as first-hand research physically following the steps of Francis’s life. While Moses tries to provide as much first-hand evidence for his claims as possible, he admits that “the major problem faced in trying to recover the Francis of history is that these medieval documents, however detailed and informative, cannot be taken at face value. Their aim is to portray Francis’s saintliness, not to provide a true history of his life” (Moses, 4). In order to get the best view of Francis’s life, Moses explicitly expresses he “kept in mind that the accounts of Francis’s life were written to fulfill various needs” (Moses 4) when picking information from sources and that “I’ve relied mainly on accounts from the first half of the thirteenth century because the later ones tend to be much more embellished. I’ve also given heavy weight to clues in Francis’s own writings” (Moses, 4). By sorting out the biased parts of the early sources of Francis’s life and focusing on the material he wrote, Moses works hard to ensure that the information he presents is as accurate as he can make it. While it is implausible to assume no biases made it into Moses’s ideas and book, he is ultimately successful in creating an account of Francis’s experience supported by strong evidence largely through accounts by those who knew him and even his own documents.
Lastly, The Saint and the Sultan’s use of extra resources helps provide readers with a better understanding of what Moses discusses. The map of Egypt and the Damietta region at the start of the book aid readers visualize the geography of the Fifth Crusade while other pictures and visuals throughout the book give a visual form of what Moses discusses at that moment. Additionally, at the end of the book, Moses provides several resources to better understand his ideas including a list of the people mentioned, a timeline of all the major events surrounding his book, and a list of the meanings of the abbreviations he uses. These lists help to consolidate much of the information Moses provides into a simple-to-reference form for the reader to view on a wider scale. Moses lastly includes a set of notes that include all his specific references, elaborations on statements, and additional information not stated in the actual text. While these notes provide interesting and useful information, they do not provide specific references to places in the text and are therefore very difficult to properly utilize.
Although Moses provides an overall excellent book on the encounter between Saint Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt, his insistence on relating this medieval experience to modern ideas and events should be received with caution. For instance, Moses relates Francis’s emotions after his experience in the war with Perugia to the modern concept of PTSD. While Moses certainly makes a good case to say that Francis was emotionally changed by his experience, it is unfair and anachronistic to compare a small war between two cities with likely only a few hundred combatants at most to the horrors of the World Wars and the killing power of modern warfare for which PTSD was defined. Additionally, Moses compares the Crusades and Francis’s encounter to modern-day events that should once again be cautioned against. In one instance, Moses compares the situation of the Fifth Crusade to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. He compares Pope John Paul II to Francis in how he tried to make peace between the Christian Americans and the Islamic Iraqis and how President Bush’s insistence on war reflected medieval Christians’ divine inspiration to crusade. While Moses’s message to follow in Francis’s footsteps of peace and apply his vision of common brotherhood amongst all people is certainly important for us today, such direct comparisons between events separated by eight-hundred years should be taken with a grain of salt because of the trivialities of each situation and by how much our world has changed since then.
In all, Paul Moses’s book The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace investigates a little-known event about two powerhouses of their faiths and how their interaction acts as an example to us today. Despite Moses’s insistence on tying the modern era to the medieval one, he ultimately provides a convincing argument. Moses’s journalistic background helped him write in a very readable way incorporating a wide variety of carefully picked supporting documents and utilizing additional lists and pictures to further help the reader understand his message. This all ties together to make an excellent, persuasive, and widely appealing book about the unique encounter between the Saint and the Sultan.