St Francis and Sultan Al-Malik: a Model for Christian-Islamic Dialogue

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

How can the followers of Islam and the followers of Jesus Christ talk openly about their faiths?  After affirming the obvious – we are fellow  Canadians, brothers and sisters in the greatest country on Earth – how can we talk about what really matters to us – our faiths? The theological and even cultural differences between the followers of Islam (meaning “surrender” or “peace”) and the followers of Christ who live in the secular West are very real.  Perhaps the key to Muslim-Christian dialogue can be found in a historic meeting between Francis of Assisi (1182 – 1226) and a Muslim military leader, Al-Malik al-Kamil (1177-1238) that took place on the north coast of Egypt, in 1219.

The Middle East was gripped by war, decades of war.  Whether initiated by papal authority or Catholic kings,  between 1095 and 1291 European armies launched a series of invasions into the Holy Land and North Africa to either support Christian citizens there, or “liberate” Jerusalem and the “Holy sites” from Muslim control.  The attackers came to be called “Crusaders,” from the Latin cruciatus  describing the cross European soldiers had sewn into their clothing.

In the 13th century Holy Land was predominantly under Islamic rule, and what wasn’t, was seen as endangered.  Catholic Europe held the belief that the Middle East needed to be liberated and Catholicized.   Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) whipped up the indignation of the Faithful. He sent papal envoys to each European ruler to amass armies for a crusade.  He mandated monthly prayer processions across Europe and special masses for the liberation of Jerusalem.  Believers were encouraged to lie face-down on the ground crying out to God for victory. He prescribed Psalm 79 as the hymn for the liberation of the Holy Land.  Its propaganda value was rich.

O God…they have defiled your holy temple;  they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.  Pour out your anger… Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants be known among the nations…

Innocent died, but the machinery of war was in place.  In 1217 and 1218 Christian forces amassed near the Egyptian port city of Damietta near the mouth of the Suez Canal today. The plan was to seize Damietta and launch attacks into the Holy Land. But in 1218  Al-Malik al-Kamil  became the new commander of the Muslim forces in the region , and new options were presented.  Even though Damietta was clearly his, and the Crusader forces were kept at bay,  Sultan Al-Malik offered to negotiate a peace deal with the European army in exchange for control over key Christian Holy sites.  He was rebuffed.   

Francis was one of a small number of pacifists in the Catholic Church at the time.  In June of 1219 he and a band of brothers set sail from Sicily to Egypt to join the European force. Once there, he wasn’t welcomed. His gentle spirit was an irritant to Europe’s battle-ready soldiers.   He walked through the camps calling for peace, prophesying  victory for the Muslims, and urging the invaders to negotiate peace with Al-Malik.  He was met with anger, scorn, and mockery.  His response was biblical.  At least figuratively, he shook the dust off his sandals, left the camp, and in September of 1219 set out across the field toward the enemy camp.   

He wasn’t received well there either.  Sultan Al-Malik’s men seized him and beat him.  The unarmed Francis cried out “I am a Christian, ” words that would have triggered an immediate response.  Their Prophet,  Mohammed (570-632), had made covenants of protection with peaceful Christians. Those covenants were the template for Muslim leaders to follow, and still are.  His attackers brought Francis to the Sultan, and what happened next has affected Muslim-Christian interaction in the Middle East to this day.

While details are lost in the mists of history, we know that Francis talked to Al-Malik about the Christian Jesus and Christ’s teachings about peace, and Al-Malik talked about his faith too.  Al-Malik entertained him as an honoured guest for three weeks before Francis went back to the Crusader camp. As Francis left, the Sultan asked him to pray for him, wanting a revelation as to which faith was the more pleasing in God’s sight.  He presented Francis with an ivory horn, preserved today in the crypt of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, Italy. 

The dialogue between the two leaders impacted each man.  For Al-Malik’s part, although he met and defeated the European force, he treated his enemies with kindness.  Oliverus Scholasticus, a  German priest there at the time, wrote about how the Europeans were treated by Al-Malik’s men  …

“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.”    

Scholasticus attributed Al-Malik’s kindness to the Islamic code of war, but there may have been another cause.  An inscription on the tomb of Al-Malik lauded him as a man of great virtue, and attributed that to “the monk,” a clear reference to Francis, the man with the message of Christ’s peace and love. 

For Francis’ part,  he could not forget what he experienced.  While with Al-Malik  he had heard the call to prayer (the “Salat”) and saw his host pray habitually five times daily.  He saw how respectfully the name of Mohammed (“Peace be upon him”) was treated, and how fervently they applied his teachings.  He saw how they revered the text of the Qur’an – their  “word of God,” and it paralleled the reverence Christians showed Jesus, our  “Word of God.”   Francis was humbled and responded to what he had learned.

He wrote to the rulers of Europe urging they adopt the habit of calling people to prayer daily, suggesting that  “a town crier or some other signal that praise and thanks may be given by all people to the all-powerful Lord God.” Reflecting on the Muslim prayer posture, he wrote to the members of his order, that “At the mention of (Christ’s) name you must adore Him with fear and reverence, prostrate on the ground … so that in word and deed you may give witness to his voice and bring everyone to know that there is no one who is all-powerful but Him.” 

In 1224 Francis heard that a fresh offensive was planned against Al-Malik, he called his Order to a time of prayer and fasting on behalf of Al-Malik, whom he called his “brother.”  And in the Order’s  Rule of life ( for the friars) he said they should “live in Peace” with all Muslims and be “subject to them” when living in their lands.

Today Francis’ generous respect for the followers of Islam is alive in the Middle East and is reflected in the inter-faith dialogues held between leaders of the Islamic Faith, and the leaders and clergy of the major Christian denominations in the region.  The Bishop and clergy of The Episcopal Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf  that I have worked for are leaders in this. 

Today Al-Malik’s generous model of respect and protection also continues.  In most Muslim nations, and in several of the Gulf states (the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar…) there is a constitutional guarantee that Christians can worship freely with minimal restrictions.  Some countries have a ”government department of tolerance.” w long – or short – should a Sunday service be?  The answer depends on where in the history of the Church you stand, and what culture you’re in.  

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