Many have seen the movie ” The Kingdom of Heaven ” the fictional drama of the interfaith tension in Jerusalem during the crusades. But, the reality was, there was some real interfaith conversation and radical fellowship happening in the midst of the violence of the crusades. Read the following true story with the reality of war torn places in the world like Iraq, Afghanistan,Gaza and Congo in the back of your mind. One can not wonder what possibilities of redemptive imagination and living we are missing.
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, was arrested 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 Salah al-Din. At Damietta alone he offered peace to the Crusaders five times, and, according to western accounts, treated defeated Crusaders humanely. His goal was to establish a peaceful coexistence with Christians.
After an initial attempt by Francis and the sultan to convert the other, both quickly realized that the other already knew and loved God. Francis and Illuminato remained with 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 ivory trumpet, 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 find common ground in their experiences of God. Dialog demands that we truly listen to the other; 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.
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 theological and 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 being portrayed 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”. Francis admired their public, repeated acknowledgment of God and call to prayer, and he appreciated the deep reverence they showed to their holy book, the Qur’an.
While the main trend of the time was for Christian preachers to deliver strident, inflammatory sermons against Islam, Francis forbade his brothers to take part in these exercises. He demanded 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 the brotherhood 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.
I think we need to revisit stories like the one above, of radical interfaith conversation and fellowship. Maybe acutually living in each others camp for a period of time, as Francis did, in the humble reality of Jesus…living as lesser brothers. Maybe, we too might discover a fresh, that God is alive and at work outside the boundaries of our religion.
In the opening of the John’s gospel it says, ” Jesus pitched is tent in our neighborhood, in the midst of humanity.” There is something amazingly profound that Jesus pitched his tent out side that camps of ” all ” religions. Something very outside, and yet…Jesus may be the bridge into which we may cross into all religions.
“If our convictions lead us to believe there is no hope for those outside our own faith or with no faith…” there is a danger of “treating others as if they know nothing, and we have nothing to learn”. “Belief in the uniqueness and finality of Christ allows us a generous desire to share and a humble desire to learn”. ( Archbishop Rowan Williams )