Clarifying History – UPF’s The Sultan and The Saint

Interfaith Dialog building a ceasefire for the Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade was filled with violence and intrigue, with political figures using the conflict to further their own agendas and claiming violence on both sides was alternately supported by each set of religious doctrines.

Christian forces, after some initial successes, were bogged down in a hopeless situation – surrounded, weak with fatigue and hunger, and out of supplies.

The Muslim forces found themselves in similar hopelessness – although in a position to defeat the Christian forces, they knew such a defeat would be used as a rallying cry to prolong the conflict, and they had no idea how to escape the political trap.

Into this dark situation walked a Christian different than any other of his time.  Willing to talk and hopeful of finding a bloodless solution, he created a situation so both sides could come face to face and resolve the conflict, using words rather than weapons.  In just a couple hours, the two sides forged a miraculous cease-fire which lasted eight years.

The Muslim leader was nephew to the legendary Saladin, the remarkable Caliph Al Kamil, Sultan of North Africa.

The Christian, a humble and energetic priest, was the namesake for today’s pope – the man who became known as St. Francis of Assisi.

This remarkable event – a simple conversation which resulted in a dramatic peace – is recounted in the new film The Sultan and The Saint, produced by Unity Productions Foundation and narrated by the incomparable Jeremy Irons.

I’m something of a film geek, and I love period adventure films – so when I discovered this movie was premiering throughout North America this year I had to find out more.  Happily I was able to contact one of the main heavies at UPF and he shared some insights to the production.

Several years ago I first met Daniel Tutt while I was acting as special docent for a remarkable university exhibit celebrating 1400 years of Islamic art from around the world.  UPF produced an outstanding documentary on the same subject entitled Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World.  They have produced a number of film projects, all revolving around the intersection of Islam and the Western world.

Daniel Tutt is a Christian and was raised in a rather “homogeneously white community” in Portland, Oregon, he told me, and was drawn early on to constructive social work.  After college he came to Washington, DC and started forging strong interfaith relationships with his contemporaries in the Muslim community.  In his work with the nonprofit Points of Light Foundation, he engaged with Muslims as they worked towards the same ends, building bridges of communication and understanding along the way.  After finding his way to UPF, he was tasked with expanding their reach to a national level.

Unity Productions Foundation helps produce media to actively promote understanding and appreciation, primarily addressing the issue of Islamophobia in America today.  “This is a media-driven problem,” Daniel told me, “and many times the best way to resolve an issue is in the same language it was developed – so we use media to help cure a media issue.”  UPF has been in the role of Executive Producer for the majority of its projects until now: “This is one reason I’m so excited for this new film – it’s the first time we’ve really had the opportunity to undertake the production ourselves.”

Before speaking about the movie I wanted him to share with me more about UPF and its many projects.  “In our role investing in film projects and public engagements, we find ourselves in a unique position to help resolve this tremendous social problem of Islamophobia.”

They encourage confronting hostility and prejudice by addressing it head-on with courage and education, providing resources like 20,000 Dialogs and numerous films designed to be shared in neighborhood situations.

I asked if he was the only one on staff who was non-Muslim.  Although UPF is headed up by two Muslim converts, Michael Wolfe (a poet and a Hollywood insider) and Alex Kronemer (a seasoned diplomat with the State Department and experienced in film production), there is a tremendous amount of diversity in their organization.  In addition to being from many parts of the world (Pakistan, Turkey, and Israel for example), the staff at UPF include folks who self-identify as Jewish, Christian, and non-religious.  “The solution to Islamophobia,” Daniel states, “ is not strictly religious – it’s a social problem, so it must be resolved as a social issue.”

While actively addressing issues of Islamophobia, the drive of UPF is to help create a world where all faith traditions are received with respect and knowledge.  “We’re focusing on Islam today because that is today’s issue.  Ideally, we want what every nonprofit wants, to be driven out of business – because we’ve been able to finally fix the problem.”

Producing films to this end becomes something of a challenge.  On the one hand there is a significant commitment to the community supporting the projects – in this case the needs of the victims of Islamophobia.  And on the other hand there is a strong awareness that no one, regardless of how pure the intent of the film-makers – no one is going to watch a boring movie!  Thankfully, UPF has been able to develop solid projects which meet both sets of needs.

This latest project, The Sultan and The Saint, is one of the best.

The subject was picked because of its incredibly timely nature, dealing with the concept that  thoughtful, respectful dialog can lead to practical, impactful change – even if the positive outcome wasn’t entirely what each party expected.

The Sultan is Sultan Malik Al Kamil, nephew of the heroic Salah Al-Din, and Caliph of Levant and Egypt.  The Christian forces of the Fifth Crusade were tasked with recovering Egypt and the Holy Lands, and Al Kamil’s primary responsibility was to protect his own people.

John of Brienne had a number of initial successes and led his men further into the Sultan’s lands until his own supply lines became compromised, his beleaguered men were bereft of food and proper equipment, his livestock were steadily weakening, and he was quickly losing hope of any earthly salvation.  Al Kamil was growing heartsick at what he felt was an inevitable conclusion – his forces would wipe out the Christians completely, and their deaths would be viewed as a mass martyrdom fuel further violence from Europe.  The Caliph saw no solution to a terrible political quandary.

Into this situation skipped an energetic, idealistic Italian fop-turned-priest.  Francis was absorbed with the idea all Christians needed to turn back to the basics, just as he had upon his own dramatic conversion – reject self-indulgent whims and recommit to a life of deliberately peaceful living, following the model of the Apostles.  He came to Egypt cloaked with the certainty he was God’s instrument to convert the Saracens (meaning “without Sarah”, as Muslims traditionally trace their spiritual heritage to Abraham through Ishmael’s mother Hagar).  In his conviction all intelligent people would eventually accept his faith, Francis used respect and conversation as his tools rather than resorting to threats of force to bolster the weight of his convictions.

After failed attempts to convince other Christian leaders that this ongoing war was fruitless and ultimately contrary to their faith, Francis was compelled to travel right to the front lines of the conflict.  He strode confidently, without an honor guard or any earthly weapons, into the enemy camp and was granted an audience by the bemused caliph.

As Francis and Al Kamil spoke, their mutual conviction to convert the other transformed into astonished respect and admiration.  The Muslim and the Christian both realized the other also loved their shared Creator, and the two men committed to cease the conflict.  The Sultan gave food, supplies, and safe passage to the beleaguered Christian soldiers, and forged a cease-fire which endured a remarkable 8 years.  And St. Francis put a human face on the group everyone had labeled as “enemy”.

Al Kamil was so taken by his new Christian friend he attempted to shower him with gifts before Francis left him.  True to the intent of his order, the Saint politely refused worldly trappings except for a single ivory horn used by a Muezzin to call fellow Muslims to prayer; for the remainder of his life, St. Francis himself used the horn to call fellow Christians to prayer as well as to attend his preaching.

Interestingly, much of the Western knowledge of this pivotal meeting has been transmitted through the sometimes creative embellishments of traditional hagiography; Daniel and the UPF team were able to locate documentation of the event from sources contemporary to the principles involved.

Using this information they developed a much clearer picture of what actually transpired.  “One tradition, for example, is that St. Francis initially consulted with a Sufi advisor for Sultan Al Malik, not the man himself – now we know the two actually spoke to each other, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.”

There were a number of challenges filming the re-enactments of these historical events.  “We have a responsibility to make the very most of every resource”, Daniel explained, “as well as produce a top-rated product.”  They employed some of the best Hollywood creatives – behind-the-scenes wizards among the finest makers of celluloid magic.

The exterior shots were filmed on gorgeous Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland; the interior shots were filmed on a brilliantly designed set constructed in an old cork factory in Baltimore; and they used some of the best CGI artists in the country to extend their sets, set the atmosphere, and tie everything seamlessly together.

And Jeremy Irons was enlisted to narrate.

“How did that happen?” I asked in astonishment.  Jeremy Irons played Tiberias in one of my favorite films, Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven.

“It was no problem at all – we were able to meet his rate, and when we reached out to his agent he jumped on board immediately.”  It was for a truly worthwhile cause.

So how has this new film been received?

My concern was that there would be an immediate outcry from Christian communities who felt this was “revisionist” history.

Actually – and thankfully – the response has been incredibly positive.

UPF has partnered with Christian communities around the country, who actively support the film.  It is time, many feel, to show the moments of interreligious understanding in our history, and again bring this awareness to the forefront.

“And we’ve won awards!” Daniel said – at least a half-dozen accolades from film festivals around the country.

It’s a wonderfully positive message, exceedingly well presented.

And this story changes hearts – from a 13th century Christian historian speaking of Al Kamil:

“Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God?  Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.”

–Oliverus Scholasticus

The documentary The Sultan and The Saint will be aired nationwide in December of 2017, on PBS.  Visit https://www.sultanandthesaintfilm.com/premiere-application/ to host the film for your community.

St Francis and Al Kamil
St. Francis meets Al Kamil

Author: Ghostriver Studios

A traditionally trained stained glass artist, I have also studied traditional bookbinding techniques. In addition to commissioned studio work, designing, building, and restoring stained glass windows, I work with sculptural stained glass. I enjoy looking for opportunities to explore dialogs of pluralism and shared community.

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