“The advertising for the new film” The Sultan and the Saint “suggests it presents revisionist history in line with the modernist ecumenical agenda,” wrote in 2016 Dr. Benjamin J. Vail (OFS), an American Secular Franciscan. The finished film, shown to this author and others last April, thoroughly vindicated Vail, and is now offering hackneyed Crusade myths to the public via PBS, which broadcast the film December 26 and now offers it for online viewing.
Focusing on the 1219 encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade, the film reflects popular falsehoods about the Crusades accepted even by President Barack Obama. Ignoring reality, the PBS film website declares that the “film sheds light on the crusades origins of dehumanizing rhetoric towards non-Europeans and non-Christians” that “resulted in four generations of escalating conflict.” Falsely suggesting that current global hostilities involving Muslims result from insufficient dialogue, the website declares that the film “inspires solutions for the negative atmosphere we find ourselves in today.”
PBS’ online portrayal of Fifth Crusade historical figures is equally fallacious, such as in the statement that St. Francis wanted “to oppose the bloodshed of the Fifth Crusade.” Meanwhile, crusader commander John of Brienne has base motives in PBS’ description: “Like many who were motivated to join the Crusades, John might have thought he could improve his lot and gain land, nobility and fame in the Holy Land.” At the website of the film’s pro-Islam producer, Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), Cardiff University professor and film expert Helen Nicholson cynically states that “for these people, the Crusade is a gift from God.”
Nicholson appears in the film alongside journalist Paul Moses, author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, and his prior statements clearly show his influence upon the film. In various 2013 book presentations, he presented Francis as a pacifist, as someone who “quietly opposed the Crusade,” and as someone who “never spoke in a disparaging way about Islam or Muslims.” By contrast, Francis’ era was a “time when the church had become corrupt and violent” and knew how to “cherry pick through scripture” in order to find “supposed Biblical grounds” for the Crusades.
While Francis appears in Moses’ book presentations as out of character for a crusading Christendom, supposedly al-Kamil’s “actions show him to be a good Muslim.” The sultan “reflected Islamic traditions, including respect for Christian holiness, and also his constant pursuit of alternatives to war.” Referencing Saladin, the famed Muslim leader during the Third Crusade, Moses argued in a December 20 interview that the sultan’s benign behavior “came straight out of Islamic teachings, which the sultan, a nephew of Saladin, knew well.”
The film confirms the 2016 suspicions of Vail, who noted that the “film’s advertising implies that the crusades were evil both in intent and in practice,” a “common misconception used as a slur against the Church.” Leading Crusades historian Thomas F. Madden, for example, has contradicted Nicholson. The “crusading knights were generally wealthy men with plenty of their own land in Europe,” and the “Crusades were notoriously bad for plunder.”
As Madden elaborates, the Crusades
were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam.
The Crusades were a Christian reaction to centuries of Islamic jihadist aggression that directly targeted the Catholic Church and Francis’ followers. Frank M. Rega, a Secular Franciscan and author of Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, has noted that an army of 11,000 Muslims sacked Rome itself in 846 and desecrated the tombs of saints Peter and Paul. Rega’s fellow Secular Franciscan Vail noted that Muslims later in 1240 attacked the Franciscan Poor Clare monastery in Assisi, which the order’s founder herself, St. Clare, successfully defended.
Contrary to Moses’ claims, Rega has observed that “unreserved support of the crusade had become normative in the Order” of St. Francis. Rega’s book noted Francis’ praise for “holy martyrs died fighting for the Faith of Christ.” Vail also observed that “one leader of later crusades was St. Louis IX, the king of France, a Franciscan tertiary who is now patron saint of the Secular Franciscan Order.”
Francis personally reflected such sentiments when he crossed the front between the Christians and Muslims fighting around Damietta, Egypt, on a personal evangelization mission to the sultan. Rega noted Francis’ words to the sultan: “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship.” Francis’ frank words reflect that he “was fully prepared for martyrdom” and initially experienced rough treatment in Muslim hands, as the film portrays. As Rega’s book has noted, al-Kamil had vowed that “anyone who brought him the head of a Christian should be awarded with a Byzantine gold piece.”
Contrary to Moses’ assertions, Francis’ behavior exemplified the common practice of his order in which friars often sought martyrdom by direct rhetorical challenges to Islam. Reflecting the negative judgment of Catholic saints upon Islam throughout history, Francis in Rega’s book tells the sultan that “if you die while holding to your law [sharia], you will be lost; God will not accept your soul.” As Notre Dame University Professor Lawrence Cunningham has observed, Francis “saw himself and his friars as Knights of the Round Table fighting a spiritual crusade.”
Meanwhile the film juxtaposes Crusader atrocities like the 1099 sack of Jerusalem with al-Kamil’s often tolerant behavior in yet another cinematic distortion of the past. Following Moses’ lead, the film presents such tolerance as the logical result of Islamic doctrine, but the biography of Moses’ hero Saladin tells a different story. As Crusades historian Andrew Holt has noted, “[o]ften Saladin could be just as brutal as the less noble minded military rulers of his era, but those actions are typically not highlighted in modern accounts.”
Saladin’s atrocities include the 1169 slaughter of 50,000 disarmed Sudanese soldiers in Cairo, Egypt, in breach of a surrender agreement after he had suppressed their rebellion. Following his 1187 decisive defeat of Crusaders in the Holy Land at the Battle of Hattin, Saladin had executed with religious ritual some 230 captured Knights Templar and Knights of St. John Hospitallers. After Hattin, Saladin considered sacking Jerusalem like the Crusaders before him, but its desperate defenders warned him that without a pardon guarantee they would fight to the bitter end and destroy the city’s Muslim holy sites. He therefore relented and ransomed the city’s population, but an estimated 8,000 could not pay and became slaves, among whom the women suffered mass rape, a practice common among armies of the era.
The film simply offers no context for its portrayal of a brutal era in which warfare rules held that besieged cities that did not surrender like Jerusalem in 1099 were subject to massacre and pillage. Muslims later repaid the Crusaders in kind during the 1291 sack of Acre, and the era’s Muslim armies often committed atrocities against surrendered city populations in violation of pledged mercy. By contrast, some evidence suggests to Holt that crusaders during the First Crusade that captured Jerusalem refrained from the common medieval practice of raping captive women.
In the midst of such violence, al-Kamil presents an appealing figure in the film, yet he might not have been an ordinary Muslim. Concurring with Moses, Cunningham has noted that when Francis went to al-Kamil, ultimately the “caliph did receive him kindly; he may have been a Sufi — a Muslim mystic — who want to identify mystically with the love of Allah.” Al-Kamil “may have had an instinctual sympathy for Francis, whom he probably saw as a holy man.” Al-Kamil also had a history of tolerance toward his Coptic Christian subjects in Egypt, although even this leniency had its limits under repressive Islamic dhimmi norms for non-Muslims.
The attention given by Catholics like Moses to Sufis like al-Kamil has a tradition, the Catholic writer and former academic William Kilpatrick has observed: “To the extent that they are interested in Islam, Catholic thinkers tend to be focused on its mystical, Sufi manifestations rather than on its mainstream, legalistic, and supremacist side.” Many Catholics like Francis’ namesake, the current Pope Francis, want “to put a Christian face on Islam.”
Yet Catholic writer John Zmirak has analyzed respectively the doctrines of Islam and Christianity’s founders to demonstrate that “ISIS Are to Muhammad What Franciscans Are to Jesus.” No celluloid interfaith, multicultural agitprop from PBS can change these facts by repackaging shopworn canards about Christianity for the Christmas season. The question remains for a forthcoming article, what is the nature of the people at UPF and its associates who helped produce the delusion of The Sultan and the Saint?