Pope Francis recently concluded a historic visit to the UAE. However, there were parallels being drawn to another meeting between leaders of the Christian and Muslim worlds many centuries ago. An image going viral across several social media platforms with the tag #700YearsChallenge, compared the Pope’s visit to St Francis of Assisi’s meeting with Sultan Al-Kamil of Egypt in the early 13th century.
Pope Francis undertook his first-ever visit to UAE following an invitation by the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed. Interestingly, the visit coincided with UAE’s celebration of the Year of Tolerance, which was declared by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan last December.
However, St.Francis’ meeting with the Sultan took place under completely different circumstances. In fact, that meeting took place in 1219, exactly eight centuries ago. The Franciscans ( a religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi) have been observing the year as the 800th anniversary of the visit. The order’s official website has a special page dedicated to the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi which begins with the note: “This year marks the 800th anniversary of the visit of St. Francis of Assisi to the sultan of Egypt.”
St Francis was no Pope. He was an Italian Catholic Friar and preacher, canonised by Pope Gregory IX in 1228.
In the 13th century, Christianity and Islam were fighting against each other in the fifth crusade in an attempt by the former to reacquire Jerusalem. In their efforts to take over the ‘holy land’ the West Europeans first wanted to conquer the Ayubbid state in Egypt. The meeting between St.Francis and the Sultan of Egypt happened at a time when the crusaders on the banks of the Nile were on the brink of defeat.
When St. Francis arrived at the camp in August 1219, peace negotiations were being carried out between the two armies and it was during the period that he made the audacious decision to cross borders and visit the Sultan. While many considered the act to be a major folly on the part of the Catholic preacher, he reached the Sultan’s court unharmed and returned to the crusaders safely soon after.
Historian John V. Tolan, who has written a detailed account of this historic meeting in his book ‘St. Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter’, notes that it is impossible to answer questions on what the two men said to each other in the course of the meeting, or what the consequence of it was both on the crusade and on their personal lives. However, as Tolan writes, scholars in the West have for centuries attached huge historical significance to the event and have interpreted it various ways as per the political conditions at a given time.
The 19th century French historian Joseph Francois Michaud read the event to be one of the reasons behind the continuing necessity of crusades against the Muslims, since despite the bold act of St.Francis he was unable to soften the stance of the Sultan. From the 20th century, however, the meeting had different meanings.
For instance in 2001, soon after the 9/11 attacks, Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani presented the encounter as a model of peaceful dialogue in the midst of war. At a time when Islamophobia in the West is at its peak, the comparison made between the Pope’s visit to Abu Dhabi and St.Francis’ meeting with the Sultan, appears to be yet another attempt at re-interpreting the event.