In 1219, a young and impoverished Christian monk sets out from Italy in the midst of the bloody Fifth Crusade, to cross enemy lines in hopes to speak with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt in order to end war and establish peace.
This encounter, which took place directly on the battlefield, was so brief that it failed to be listed as a popular history event or even common knowledge among the public. Yet the meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan Malek al-Kamil is recorded as one of the first interfaith dialogues between two different faiths. Their mutual purpose of understanding each other’s religion spearheaded a series of peace treaties, a first for the 120-year long Crusade.
Unity Productions Foundation dug up this vague yet paramount event and brings it to life in the new documentary film, The Sultan and the Saint, showing the stark contrast between the two men’s political and social status, and their unifying desire for peace. UPF, a nonprofit film and media studio, produces films focused on Muslim narratives and global events. With over 150 million viewers and 10 award-winning films, UPF plays a critical role in correcting public opinion of the Islam faith in the media.
We spoke with UPF President and executive producer, Michael Wolfe, on the film’s reflection of today’s religious conflicts, the commonalities between Christianity and Islam, and what he wants audiences to take away from the film.
Michael Wolfe: It started about three years ago when we first heard the story of St. Francis and his journey to Egypt. And when we read about the time that he lived in, and what happened when he went to Egypt, we realized that it was, in many ways, a mirror for today. Both sides of the Mediterranean were in conflicts with each other, as they are now. A real period of war has been going on for a long period of time and there are a lot of solidified opinions about each other today.
The story itself is about two men of different faiths, who saw something in each other, something they respected. Even though they were living in a period where their cultures, institutions, and societies were afraid of each other, they stood head and shoulders above their peers and saw only their commonalities in their faiths, instead of their differences. It started with St. Francis, who was just a young monk and new to the scene, who suffered a sort of PTSD. He was a prisoner of war for a year and came out of that experience shaken, and that really was the spiritual turning point of his life. So he knew about war and wanted to find an alternative to it. When he looked at the world, he looked at it as a place to make peace in.
Meanwhile there was a sultan in Egypt, one of the most powerful men in the world, who had millions of subjects, huge army, and was in a defensive position because they were constantly attacked by thousands of Crusaders. So these two men were very different-–one was a Muslim and one was a Christian, one was a king and one was a beggar. But they both were deeply educated in their own religions. And these two religions were not very different. Mary, John the Baptist, Jesus are all in the Quran too.
These two religions have common grounds and speaking points, and these two men found those points in the middle of a terrible war. St. Francis literally crossed a bloody battlefield to reach the tent of the sultan, and he didn’t know whether he was going to be killed or welcomed. But that was the risk he took in order to make peace.
And religion is not necessarily the cause of war. Many of our major wars were not tied to religion, including the First World War. But people who don’t like or don’t understand religion say that that’s all religion does, it starts wars. This story is an example of how two men of great faith came together in the midst of war to make peace. What resulted was the sultan signing the first peace treaty out of the entire Crusades. By the end of that century, the idea of the Crusade was over. This film shows that religion could be a source of respect for each other.
RM: What were some challenges in making this film?
MW: There were many challenges in a technical sense. We had a huge storm come in on the last day of filming. We started making the film before we had enough money for it. We had 200 extras but had to make it look like an army of 1,000 men.
We also had to create alliances with the Roman Catholic community and the Franciscan community, and we didn’t really know how to go about that in the beginning. That was challenging, yet whenever we knocked on a door, it opened.
The overall challenge was that we were making a movie about one of the greatest Christian heroes ever. So we were thinking, “Are we going to insult anybody?” “Could we get the story right?” We wanted to make sure that this movie is not only for those in the Catholic faith or Muslim faith, but for the larger community. That’s what we are aiming for when this film premieres on PBS so it could reach millions.
And that’s a big challenge-–to find ways to connect human beings through technology, who are often not in each others’ proximity, which is where all the trouble starts. If you don’t know somebody, you can start to think all kinds of crazy things about them. But the minute you know them, it’s a different story. And that’s the goal of this movie.
Even when something bad happens, the only consolation is now people coming together. We can resolve, we can defeat, we can move past. But it is only by coming together. To overcome all our differences, we need to have a common purpose. Hard times allow us to find that common purpose. I have found that with all ten films that we’ve made, more than half of them falls on the right time with what is going on in the world.
RM: You have mentioned that the Bible and the Quran have similarities. Could you elaborate on what they are?
MW: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are like three sides of the same painting. They all look back to the story of Abraham. They are all monotheist faiths, which believe that there is one God over everything. All three have the belief in something that you cannot see. Many important figures, such as Jesus and Mary, appear in all three scriptures. They were all generated in exactly the same place in the world.
There were many Jews and Christians around in Muhammad’s day. Muhammad himself had a very difficult time, with 13 years of persecution in his own hometown. Once he made the move from Mecca to Medina, he was welcomed into Medina by the Jews and they even held meetings together. Then once he traveled to Syria, he met many Christians there too so he knew Christianity very well.
So if your Holy Books keeps talking about Mary, Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad, then you are going to start believing that these religions permeate each other in some way. Of course, there are some differences, such as Jesus not being considered divine in Islam. But they still all point to the same one God. They are all such powerful connections, and we should make more of them.
RM: Were you raised a Muslim?
MW: No, my father was Jewish and my mother was Christian. But I personally feel like I didn’t leave anything behind-–I feel like I’m taking it all with me.
RM: What is something that you want audiences to take away from the movie?
MW: I want people to have a powerful experience with a piece of history that they probably didn’t know about. I like to say that there are three things that you want out of a good movie and if you got two of them then you really hit a home run. I’d like to see people cry, I’d like to see them laugh, and most importantly, I’d like to see them put their finger to their cheek and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.” If they do that, then to me, that is a success.
It is really exciting and an honor to tell a story of St. Francis in a way that has never been told before. And even on the other side with Sultan Malik Al-Kamil too, because it is safe to say that not a lot of Muslims even know about him. He is like the key that fits into the lock. Without his good reception to St. Francis, then this story would not even exist. So we spent a lot of time learning who this man was because his story is a little lost. We revived his story not just for Muslims but hopefully for others as well.
St. Francis’ journey to Egypt has been painted throughout all European churches. It is a famous story among Franciscans. But the sultan? You hardly know anything about him. It’s only been in the past 100 years or so that people start to think, “Who is this guy?” “Who was Francis talking to?” So we found a scholar, Suleiman Mourad, who translated pages and pages of stories about this man so we could fill in his life. Francis’ story is quite well-known but the sultan’s life is buried beneath medieval documents that nobody reads anymore and so it was hard to find. So it took us a while to find Dr. Mourad because most Arabic scholars didn’t even know where to find this material but he did. So that allowed us to tell two sides of this story accurately.