A BOOK REVIEW BY JAMES COWLES, RESIDENT SKEPTIC – Saints, Sultans, and Submission: The Tyranny of Interpretation

Editorial Note: As soon as I dipped a toe into the waters of The Saint and the Sultan:  The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by Paul Moses (a documentary version recently aired on PBS), I knew I had to ask James to write a review.  James gracefully rose to the occasion as he always does.

James R. Cowles is a member of The Bardo Group Beguines and a regular contributor to Beguine Again, the sister site to The BeZine … His healthy skepticism may or may not make you happy or angry as the case may be, but James will always make you stop and think. That would be a good thing, my friends. Enjoy this fine read. / J.D.


For a religious person who is “seeking God’s will,” the most reliable indicator that you are in serious trouble is the belief that you have found it. Paul Moses has, perhaps unintentionally, written a brief but fascinating account of a case in point:  The Saint and the Sultan:  The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace.  Again, perhaps unintentionally, The Saint and the Sultan illustrates the fundamental problem that lies at the foundation of the Fifth Crusade and all similar religious bloodlettings:  the tendency of religious enthusiasts to gloss over the incorrigible ambiguity of all their normative religious texts in favor of an artificially simplistic interpretation of that text’s values, priorities, and adjurations. Both sides in that epic conflict – St. Francis no less than the Christian Crusaders – become prisoners of their own (mis?)interpretations of the Bible in general, and of the life of Christ in particular. The result is a text which, once shorn of its salvific ambiguity, serves as a well-paved road leading to a raw dialectic of power, be it in the prosecution of war or the pursuit of peace. It is a story as old as the slaughter of the Amalekites and as contemporary as Muslim-on-Muslim jihad.

St. Francis Receiving the Stigma

St. Francis of Assisi

Regarding issues of war and peace, the Bible – and the Qur’an, though I will demur from comments about Islam, not being an Islamic scholar – the Bible evinces two complementary attitudes toward war and violence, attitudes that affect the biblical portrayal of the Character of God, and that are no less marked in the Gospels’ portrayal of the Character of Jesus Christ. Especially – though by no means exclusively – in the Hebrew Bible / Tanakh / Christian Old Testament, God is depicted as jealous, prone to irrational outbursts, and possessed of a propensity to punish both His friends (the God of the Tanakh is predominantly male) and His enemies with almost obscenely violent punishment.

Exodus 15:3 (KJV) – The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.

Furthermore, other texts in the Tanakh valorize similar martial virtues, e.g.,

Psalm 139:21, 22 (KJV) – Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

Psalm 144:1 (KJV) – {A Psalm of David.} Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight.

Furthermore, the Tanakh’s depiction of the Character of God seems to alternate between savagery and tenderness. E.g., threats to rip open the bellies of pregnant Israelite women — the Old Testament God is not conspicuously pro-life! — exist side by side in the same canon as tenderness and solicitude toward Israel:

Isaiah 40:1,2 (KJV) — Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned

Like many abusive husbands, the God of the Hebrew Bible alternates between fits of insensate rage and moments of repentant tenderness, so much so that Prof. Richard Dawkins’ characterization is by no means exaggerated.

So there is considerable explicit justification in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures, for the “Church militant” paradigm as exemplified in The Saint and the Sultan by the Crusaders at the city of Damietta in Egypt, in fact, for the Crusader / Templar / Hospitaler paradigm in general. After all, the God who would not hesitate to either commit slaughter Himself, as with Korah’s rebellion when the liberated Israelites were barely out of sight of Egypt, or who would order it committed by others as with the inhabitants of Jericho and Canaan, and who would mandate outright genocide as with the Amalekites – such a God could hardly be expected to flinch before the prospect of slaughtering the 13th-century equivalent of the Canaanite pagans, especially when the latter were occupying King David’s holy city, Jesus’ hometown, and, indeed, His very birthplace. Notwithstanding that Paul Moses in The Saint and the Sultan is rather explicitly on the side of St. Francis and Franciscan pacifism, and as loath as progressives usually are to face up to it, respect for the integrity of the biblical text forces the conclusion that, however distasteful it is to admit it, Innocent, Honorius, Pelagius, & Co. had a point:  they were being consistent Christian knights.

Pope Innocent III Preaches the 5th Crusade

Pope Innocent III

But there is a parallel tradition, and a parallel ethic, to which St. Francis and his Order were no less loyal:  the life and ethic of Jesus Christ as depicted in the New Testament.  This is rather obviously the tradition that commands Paul Moses’ sympathy, as is pretty obvious from a mere casual perusal of his text.  Hence Moses’ evident, and eminently understandable, affection for St. Francis.  This is easy to do. In fact, this is what one might think of as the “default” position / stance of contemporary progressives:  Jesus as a “kinder, gentler” YHVH. (In fact, this is the position of C. G. Jung in his Answer to Job:  YHVH, the “blood ‘n’ guts” God of the Hebrew Bible was basically raw affect, an unalloyed feral id, a Divine  Amygdala writ large. But YHVH came to earth incarnate as a Man so that YHVH could grow Himself a superego.) Hence “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. Hence Jesus playing with little kids. Hence “turn the other cheek”. Hence “Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword”. Hence “Return good for evil”. Hence “Forgive seventy times seven”. Hence the Passion and the Crucifixion. These themes in this tradition are quite real, also, as real as the sanguinary narratives of the Christian Old Testament. But, as with the Old Testament, there is a parallel tradition within the Jesus / Franciscan / pacifist tradition.  For just as there is the yin of gentleness and reconciliation within the yang of the Old Testament’s tradition of violence and retribution, so also there is a yang of retribution within the Jesus-tradition’s yin of forgiveness and peace. We pick up hints of this in, e.g., Jesus’ initial refusal to heal the woman in Matthew 15:21-28 and His cursing of the sterile fig tree in Mark 11:12-25. We detect considerably more than a mere hint of Jesus’ vindictiveness in Revelation, chapter 19, where Jesus is shown as the White Horse Rider, Who slays His enemies with a sword that proceeds out of His mouth. The Revelation text, of course, should not be taken literally, and the other texts may or may not be. But all may be interpreted as theological parables describing the writers’ (and readers’) estimate of Jesus character, like the story of the young George Washington chopping down his father’s cherry tree. (Similar caveats apply about the Old Testament texts, of course.) In other words, these traditions-within-the-tradition concern essences not events.

St. Francis Before Sultan Malik al-Kamil

The point is that The Saint and the Sultan altogether glosses over, in fact, ignores, this ubiquitous yin-yang opposition and fails to evaluate the implications for the life of St. Francis and the lives of the Crusade leaders, to be sure, though the book is about St. Francis. Granted, what Paul Moses’ text does tell us is both informative and provocative, e.g., the story of St. Francis’ entire encounter with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, the former’s exhortation to be in submission to Islamic authorities when traveling among Muslims, etc., etc. That is radical enough, even today, when the Sultan probably would not be allowed to fly to the United States, and even more so during an actual war between the Umma of Islam and Christendom. Nevertheless, in the end, we are left with an enormous begged question:  how is it possible for a Christian, any Christian, in fact, a large community of Christians, be it a community of crusading knights and their commanders, or a community of mendicant friars, to simply skate over a motif in their own normative literature that calls into question the normative interpretation of that literature? Might fair consideration to that “counter-literature” moderate what would otherwise be, and was, a naked lust for sheer power, masquerading as obedience to (what, to them, was) the evident will of God? Francis kissed a leper on the lips. Is it really so beyond the realm of possibility that if Pelagius, the Crusader “hawk”, had reflected on the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33:1-20) that Pelagius might have similarly embraced Malik al-Kamil? Might St. Francis’ extreme – and, let’s face it, grotesquely excessive – demands for poverty from members of his Order have been moderated by reflection on Jesus’ love of good food, good wine, and His (probably exaggerated but no doubt incorrigibly fact-based)  reputation as a “glutton and wine-bibber” (Matthew 11:19)? (Speaking only for myself, of course, if I got word that the monastic Rule I had written with my own hand had motivated one of my friars to repent by eating donkey shit, I would take a couple of steps back and ask myself if, somewhere or other, the wheels had not come off the bus.) The moral of the story:  when we ignore countervailing voices in any text, especially a normative religious text, we become inadvertant prisoners of the very text we claim to revere.

How does this happen?  Why does this happen? How does it happen that in any text – the Tanakh, the Gospels, the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, the Fire Sermon, the Upanishads … you name it … — the countervailing voices are silenced to such an extent that the text, without those transgressive presences, comes to assume a beguiling, but ultimately meretricious, consistency and univocality, speaking the same message with the same voice? Moreover, how is it that most of the time – I am tempted to say “all the time” – that voice usually tells us precisely what we want to hear, much like a Donald Trump campaign speech? Paul Moses’ book gives us some important and critical clues. With St. Francis, this is understandably – because Francis is the protagonist – done explicitly; with Innocent, Honorius, Ugolino, Pelagius, et al., more or less implicitly. But the answer in both cases is the same:  biography is exegesis. There is no bright-line division between the way we experience life and the way we interpret normative texts.  Early in The Saint and the Sultan, Paul Moses devotes the first chapters to a harrowing description of the young Francis’ experiences resulting from his efforts to sustain the honor of himself and his family by being a knight fighting in the war between Assisi and Perugia.  Moses does not say this, but there is an exquisite irony here, an irony no less stinging because Francis could not have known of it. The very Perugia Assisi was fighting was the birthplace and hometown of Perugino or Perugia, who 200-plus years after Francis, would be the teacher, mentor, and friend of the great Raphael Sanzio of Urbino. Raphael only lived to be 37 (1483-1520), but is still recognized for his ethereal and tranquil images of Virgin and Child.  If peace could be captured on pigment and canvas, Raphael did it with his Virgins. And yet, the hometown of his teacher was once the epicenter of a bloody religious war.

St. Francis Receives the Stigmata

Both parties to the siege of Damietta – Francis and the Crusaders – were influenced in opposite ways to interpret their respective texts differently through the screen of their respective life experiences.  Francis’ horrific experience of war, illness, and imprisonment, his personal observation of the carnage occasioned by the Assisi-Perugia conflict, rendered incontestably dominant the primary themes of Jesus’ life and ministry:  peace, forgiveness, temperance, and poverty; peace because he saw the horrors of the war between Assisi and Perugia repeated a thousand times over in the Nile Delta; poverty, because he saw war used as a vehicle for personal aggrandizement and the accumulation of wealth, all under color of Christian piety.  No wonder the parallel counter-narrative of Jesus’ vindictiveness was lost beneath a screen of revulsion at the physical, spiritual, and moral grotesquerie presented by the spectacle of religious war! By the same token, though Moses does not explore this theme, either, no wonder the motifs of God’s loving-care, tenderness (e.g., Psalm 23), and willingness to forgive were largely lost on men who had risen to power, prestige, and prominence by their attempt to emulate Old Testament heroes of martial valor, who exhibited great skill in hewing down their adversaries. When military violence and martial prowess are growth industries, there is scant incentive to meditate on the Prince of Peace. I do not know if Paul Moses intended for his book to be instructive in this latter way. I rather suspect not. But, even if by accident, it provides an indelible object lesson.

Perhaps the most serious warning all monotheistic believers should heed is this:  if you are committed to serving “the will of God,” beware that you do not end up serving the Will to Power.

© 2018, James R. Cowles, All rights reserved

Photo credits:
St. Francis of Assisi … Jusepe de Rivera (1591-1552) … Public domain
Innocent III … Artist unknown … Public domain
Pope Innocent III Preaches the 5th Crusade … Artist unknown … Public domain
St. Francis before Sultan Malik al-Kamil … Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) … Public domain
The Stigmatization of St. Francis … Giotto … Public domain


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