Pope Francis, Saint Francis of Assisi, Muslims And Islam
by Dr. David Liepert
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s decision to choose the name of Francis as Pope has profound significance to Muslims regarding Muslim/Christian relations. The Christian Saint Francis of Assisi—for whom he has chosen to be named for the rest of his life—is remembered by Muslims who know their history as a holy man, perhaps the only one (since Jesus) so recognized by Christians and Muslims alike.
In fact, as much as Muslims have Saints in the first place, Saint Francis could be considered one of our Saints too.
Raised in privilege and renouncing that privilege for the sake of justice, fidelity to God’s revelations and God and God’s creation—to the harsh criticism of friend and family alike—St. Francis’ early life path is aching close to that of Muhammad. And the events of his later life, particularly his 3 week long dialogue with Sheikh al-Malik al-Kamel the Sultan of Egypt, had a profound affect on Francis, the Sultan, and the Christians and Muslims living then that are still being felt today, that should bring hope to us all.
Surprisingly little is know about what actually happened when they talked to each other: everything written was written long after the fact, and carries the obvious imprint of whatever philosophical “spin” was popular at the time. However, the influence of that meeting on those two men was both profound and significant, for St. Francis perhaps as significant as his first embrace of the lepers of Assisi that led him to recognize their equality in the eyes of God. Because Francis went to Egypt expecting to find martyrdom, and evil men who needed to be converted to Christians in order to be saved from hell-fire. But he left respectful of Muslims to the point that he encouraged Christians to emulate them in prayer and prostration, and to join Muslms—and others—in service to all despite their different religions, and he specifically told his followers not to try and convert them.
Having seen Muslim prayers while in Egypt he declared for his followers: You should manifest such honour to the Lord among the people entrusted to you that every evening an announcement be made by a town crier or some other signal that praise and thanks may be given by all people to the all-powerful Lord God. And, at the mention of His 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.
And instead of seeking converts among Muslims, in missionary work he charged his followers: ”(The brothers) are not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to (serve) every human creature for God’s sake’‘.
Those words calling us all—Christian and non-Christian alike for the sake of our shared humanity under God-Most-High—to service alone.
Based on all that, I think it’s pretty obvious that in those three weeks St. Francis learned that Muslims were God’s people too.
And what did knowing St. Francis of Assisi do to Sultan al Malik al Kamel? 10 years later in 1229 — by diplomacy alone and by no act of warfare — he ceded control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a corridor from there to the sea to the Christians, saving only the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque for the Muslims, and the temple area for the Jews.
Now, to be honest I don’t really know what the near future holds for Muslim/Christian relations, or whether Pope Francis has received those lessons from his studies of Saint Francis. I do know that since those days many different stories have been told about the Saint and the Sultan, some to promote the Christian side, and others to promote the Muslim one, some claiming the Sultan became Christian, or that Saint Francis became Muslim: I think that’s just human nature, and the work of those old-time spin doctors should serve as nothing more than cautionary tales to us all. The truth is both men continued to walk the walks that God had ordained for them, one seeking to emulate Jesus, the other to perfect his Islam.
However, I do know God promised to bring us all one day together, and that Saint Francis and Sultan al Malik found something special from God in each other that changed their worlds for the better, and changed the world for everyone else for the better too.
So in their memory and in that spirit I wish Pope Francis all the best, and all the blessings God can give him in his life and his service.
God Bless you your holiness, and through you may God Bless us all.