St Francis and the Sufi

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St Francis and the Sufi Spiritual Meeting 800 years later 1211-2011 1 In 1219 St. Francis and Brother Illuminato accompanied the armies of western Europe to Damietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. His desire was to speak peacefully with Muslim people about Christianity, even if it mean dying as a martyr. He tried to stop the Crusaders from attacking the Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but failed. After the defeat of the western armies, he crossed the battle line with Brother Illuminato,
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  1 St Francis and the Sufi Spiritual Meeting800 years later 1211-2011  2 In 1219 St. Francis and Brother Illuminato accompanied the armies of western Europe toDamietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. His desire was to speak peacefully withMuslim people about Christianity, even if it mean dying as a martyr. He tried to stop theCrusaders from attacking the Muslims at the Battle of Damietta, but failed. After thedefeat of the western armies, he crossed the battle line with Brother Illuminato, wasarrested and beaten by Arab soldiers, and eventually was taken to the sultan, Malek al-Kamil. Al-Kamil was known as a kind, generous, fair ruler. He was nephew to the great Salahal-Din. At Damietta alone he offered peace to the Crusaders five times, and, accordingto western accounts, treated defeated Crusaders humanely. His goal was to establish apeaceful coexistence with Christians. After an initial attempt by Francis and the sultan to convert the other, both quicklyrealized that the other already knew and loved God. Francis and Illuminato remainedwith al-Kamil and his Sufi teacher Fakhr ad-din al-Farisi for as many as twenty days,discussing prayer and the mystical life. When Francis left, al-Kamil gave him an ivorytrumpet, which is still preserved in the crypt of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi.This encounter, which occurred between September 1 and 26, is a paradigm for interfaith dialog in our time. Despite differences in religion, people of prayer can findcommon ground in their experiences of God. Dialog demands that we truly listen to theother; but, before we can listen, we must see the other as a precious human being,loved by God. There is no other path to peace in this bloody 21st century.The flames behind Francis and the sultan have a dual symbolism. In Islamic art, holypersons are shown with balls of flame behind their heads. The second purpose of theseflames is to disarm a later medieval legend in which Francis challenged the Sufis to stepinto a raging fire to prove whose faith was correct. In this icon, the flames represent love.The text at the bottom is from the beginning of the Koran: Praise to God, Lord of theworlds! On this left-hand panel of the Peace Triptych sits Fakhr ad-Din al-Farisi, a Persian Sufiwho advised Sultan Malik al-Kamil throughout his life. He was a scholar of astronomyand theology, as well as a statesman. He holds the Koran in his hand. Next to him is afalcon, tethered to a roost. It was Fakhr ad-Din who taught Frederick II how to hunt withfalcons when he visited his court in Sicily--thus introducing falconry into medievalEurope. In this icon, the falcon represents restrained violence and refers to the teachingsof the Koran that all Muslims must follow when they engage in warfare. While modernMuslim terrorists dishonor the Koran, Fakhr ad-Din and his sultan were exemplary menof peace who showed mercy to captives and spared non-combatants. They dreamed of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, even turningJerusalem over to Frederick II, to avoid further bloodshed.Islamic prayers fill the dark blue squares at the top and bottom of the icon. The prayer attop reads, In the name of God, the compassionate and merciful. At the bottom of theicon are three praises of God from the al-Jawshan al-Kabir, reflecting specific divineattributes that Fakhr ad-Din, a holy statesman, reflected in a special way:  3 O He before whose honor and might all things bow and obey.O He before whose majesty all things are abased.O our Lord, the owner of sovereignty whose subjects are safe from cruelty.Like Christians, Muslims believe that humans mirror the glory of God--that we areimages of God. Saints have cleansed the mirror of their soul so that they reflect Godvery brightly in our midst. The ball of flames behind the head of Fakhr ad-Din is anIslamic symbol of this reflection.On this right-hand panel of the Peace Triptych, the fabled wolf of Gubbio represents allthe frightening darkness Francis learned to embrace during his life of penance--darknessboth inside and outside his heart. He is said once to have picked up two sticks to playlike a violin, in a moment of ecstatic joy. The tamed wolf--still very much a wolf--issinging at his side. Francis' face has a haunted look, rather than a more theatricalexpression of joy, because we do not embrace darkness without paying a price. Thisexpression is called joyful sorrow by Russian Christians, a joy that has not forgotten sinand all of which sin is capable.Islamic prayers fill the dark blue squares at the top and bottom of the icon. The prayer attop reads, In the name of God, the compassionate and merciful. At the bottom of theicon are three praises of God from the al-Jawshan al-Kabir, reflecting specific divineattributes that Francis, the great lover, reflected in a special way:O He who is nearer than the nearest.O He who is more lovable than all the beloved.O He who is more affectionate than all the affectionate.Like Christians, Muslims believe that humans mirror the glory of God--that we areimages of God. Saints have cleansed the mirror of their soul so that they reflect Godvery brightly in our midst. The halo around Francis' head is a Christian symbol of thisreflection. Francis, Sultan, Wolf - Peace Triptych   The Francis-and-Islam ConnectionWhat is the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and Islam? In 1219, St. Francis traveled towhat is now northern Egypt and paid a visit to the Muslim Sultan al-Malek al-Kamil. This was atthe beginning of the Fifth Crusade, but Francis and his brothers did not make this trip as part of the battle to regain the Holy Land. Rather, they went in opposition to the mainstream theologicaland political orthodoxies of the time, to meet the Muslim people, and to live among them as“lesser brothers.” Francis and his brothers went to be present among this people who were beingportrayed as evil enemies of Christ, and, in his evangelism of presence, Francis found the spirit of God to be alive and at work within the Muslim people, then called “the Saracens”. Francisadmired their public, repeated acknowledgment of God and call to prayer, and he appreciated thedeep reverence they showed to their holy book, the Qur’an.  4 While the main trend of the time was for Christian preachers to deliver strident, inflammatorysermons against Islam, Francis forbade his brothers to take part in these exercises. Hedemanded that his brothers be present first and foremost, living with and among the Saracens.They were to preach only if they felt that it would “please the Lord.” Francis worked to prevent thebrotherhood from becoming embroiled in the grasp for civil and ecclesiastical offices and power,and kept the community’s focus on serving their neighbors for the glory of God only.Based on Francis and Islam by J. Hoeberichts (Franciscan Press, 1997) Prepared for theEpiscopal-Muslim Relations Committee of the Diocese of New York Ecumenical Commission byMary O’Shaughnessy
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