St. Francis and the Sultan
by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli
What will Pope Francis’ attitude towards Islam be? I don’t know but the name augurs well. Here is Rant number 10, composed 12 years ago. May be of interest…
ST FRANCIS AND THE SULTAN
“E poi che, per la sete del martiro, nella presenza del Soldan superba, predico’ Cristo e li altri che ‘l seguiro…” Dante, Paradiso, XI
Urged by his thirst for martyrdom, as Dante puts it, St Francis of Assisi in 1219 travelled to the Levant, where the fifth crusade was being fought. Along with a companion, Brother Illuminatus, the saint crossed the Saracen lines, was promptly arrested, put in chains and taken into the ‘proud presence’ of the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, Malik Al-Kamil, a nephew of the great Muslim hero, Saladdin.
‘God Most High has sent me to preach to you His message of salvation’, St Francis told the Sultan. We happen to know that Malik Al-Kamil, proud or not, was an enlightened ruler, fond of religion, philosophy and poetry. I like to imagine he took a fancy to the marvellous Christian ‘holy fool’. Perhaps he saw him as a kind of Sufi, a Kalandari, one the wandering dervishes whom we meet in the pages of the Thousand and One Nights. An early version of Christian-Muslim religious dialogue must have taken place between the two men. The Sultan invited Francis to embrace Islam. The saint countered by urging him to be baptized and become a Christian. An exchange followed – something like this:
St Francis I will prove the truth of my faith to you. I will walk through fire.
Sultan Dear me! How dramatic! You really do like going to extremes in these things. Is that really necessary?
St Francis Absolutely. I want to save your soul. That cannot be unless you become a Christian. Therefore I am willing to undergo trial by fire to convince you.
Sultan Well, I suppose one of my own clergy ought to take part too. Who volunteers to do that? (Nobody does. I guess the Sultan must have been peeved. But, let us face it, established, court clergy everywhere have never been known for being heroic – and that goes for Muslims and Christians alike.)
St Francis Never mind. I will go into the fire alone. But promise me that, if I come through the flames unscathed, you will worship Christ.
Sultan Good man, there are good reasons why I should not make such a promise. (I surmise the Sultan was not going to convert anyway. But what he meant was that, even in the most unlikely event of his doing so, both he and St Francis would have been put to death.)
St Francis Then you must kill me.
Sultan Some other time. Meanwhile let me offer you a few gifts. Here is a bit of gold…
St Francis No, thank you. Riches are like rubbish to me.
Sultan Well, you definitely are a different kind of man. Walking over burning coals is difficult. Turning down money is more difficult still. I like you. Come again. You and I ought to talk some more.
Historically speaking, we know that the Sultan in due course sent St Francis and Brother Illuminatus back to the crusader camp unharmed. Later on the Franciscan Order was given special privileges in the Holy Land under Muslim rule. Some have seen in that a belated result of Francis’ mission to Malik Al-Kamil. Perhaps. What interests me, though, is this. Suppose a Muslim holy man had agreed to step into fire with the saint. And, further suppose that both of them, the Christian and the Muslim, had emerged from the ordeal unscathed – what then? What would that have proved?
Brother Illuminatus (from wherever he is now) Fr Frank! I am astonished! You of all people! Suggesting that both Islam and Christianity be equally true. Really! And you claim to be a traditionalist. You ought to attend St James’, Piccadilly, and read bishop Spong. I am shocked. What next? Is Hare Krishna true as well? And Shintoism? And Nichiren? And…
Me I am sorry, Brother Illuminatus. It was simply a hypothesis. I made no claim of any kind, did I?
Brother Illuminatus Don’t play games with me, Fr Frank. I can see through you. There is a streak of syncretism in you, don’t deny it.
Me Sync…well, now that will get a few readers – I won’t mention any names - reaching for their dictionaries. Come to think of it, I don’t believe there is anything wrong in seeking to harmonise what can be harmonised between faiths. He would be a strange Catholic, for example, who objected to somebody pointing out that the Virgin Mary is mentioned and honoured in the Qur’an.
Well, I’ll spare you Brother Illuminatus’ ongoing, heated remonstrations. He obviously isn’t a multi-faith guy. I have some sympathy for him. But, as Malik Al-Kamil clearly understood, St Francis’ love of ‘Sister Poverty’, his disdain of wealth and gain, proved more about his genuine holiness than walking through fire would ever have done. In a crusading age, which justified ferocious wars as instruments of religious action, the Franciscan ideal of non-violence and unconditional love for all creatures stands out as a luminous, enduring witness to Christian truth. St Francis’ visit to Malik Al-Kamil, the friendly dialogue between the Muslim and the Christian, the unbloody denouement, are episodes to remember, value and cherish. To me, they indicate that, between faiths, conversation is at least as important as conversion. As they say, it is good to talk.
Lastly, martyrdom. That it is a high (the highest?) ideal for a religious believer no one can deny. From its inception, right back to the example of St Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, the Church has revered those who willingly shed their blood for the sake of the Gospel. Islam too regards the shahid, a martyr-witness, as a model for pious Muslims, and it honours him. (One of my favourite spots in Istanbul is Eyup, on the Golden Horn, a shrine built over the burial place of the martyr Eyup, the standard bearer of Prophet Muhammad, who fell there during the first Arab siege of Constantinople.)
However, as readers of Paul Claudel’s Dialogues of the Carmelites will know, not everyone who wishes for martyrdom is actually fit for it. And even Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, at the time of my writing this, seems less than keen on the idea. I have no doubt, of course, that St Francis would have suffered martyrdom in all gladness – he was the real McCoy. But I am also glad that he and the Sultan left us an example of how good it is to talk.