There is an interesting story in the Jewish Talmud about two rabbis and a Gentile. The Gentile asks the two rabbis to be taught the entire Torah - one of them gets angry, and the second replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.” This is the essence of the Judeo-Christian message of loving your neighbor. In the modern context, we may speak of loving “the Other.” Unfortunately, however, this has not always been carried out by Christians, and one of the wounds that remains by Medieval Christianity is the Crusades.
The five Crusades are some of the most bloody and brutal battles fought in human history. There was a great number of political, social, geographical and economic reasons for the Crusades, but Christian soldiers were enlisted via the idea that the Holy Land had to be reclaimed. Unfortunate and unspeakable violence occurred on either side, but even in the midst of this swirling chaos, there still remains a beacon of hope, of light, and of peace. In the year 1219, during the fifth and final Crusade, St. Francis of Assisi went to Damietta in Egypt and preached to the Saracens (a medieval term for Muslims), particularly to the sultan Malak al-Kamal.
Why is this important? First of all, there is modern Palestinian conflict is between Jews, Christians and Muslims. In order to heal the wounds caused by both the past and the present in order to form a better relationship in the future, dialogue and praxis need to occur. For this to occur, boundaries need to be crossed so that interreligious dialogue can take place. But how can this be accomplished? One would argue that the encounter between St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil provides a proto-dialogue that can teach today’s believers invaluable lessons. In order to do so, foundations need to be laid, sources must be sifted, the encounter needs to be reconstructed, and the importance of this encounter, as well as how the relationship stands between Christians and Muslims today, need to be examined in order to foster better understanding not only of this historic event but how Christians and Muslims understand one another today, and how we can begin to heal the broken bonds and work side by side interreligiously.
Providing a Backdrop
In 1213, Pope Innocent III issued an encyclical, Quia maior, which put forth his plan for a fifth crusade. Unlike the previous four, however, this crusade was not begun by kings or rulers – but by the Pope. As such, this meant that both the Papacy and the entirety of Christendom was to be in support of this final effort to retake the Holy Land. At the time, Pope Innocent III felt that in order to respond to the call to “love your neighbor,” he had to free fellow Christians from the Muslims in the Holy Land. As a result, excluding Muslims from this love of “neighbor” meant that they were the Other, and they were dehumanized.
The situation from a geopolitical perspective was not much better. Nearly the entirety of the Levantine coast was now controlled by the Ayyubid dynasty. There were still a few isolated areas that Christians held since the previous sultan Saladin had removed them from Jerusalem. At this time, there were merchants, farmers, knights, priests and others who inhabited these Christian areas, and one of the more important historical feats they are responsible for is the formation of three different military orders: the Knights Templar, which was created to guard the temple of Solomon, the Teutonic Knights, and lastly, the Knights Hospitallers, both of which were created to fight and serve by caring for the hurt and wounded.
By the year 1218, when Crusaders moved into the delta, Sultan al-Aldil (who was the former Sultan Saladin’s brother) was taken off guard and sent one of his three sons - Malik al-Kamil, to go against the invaders. Sultan al-Aldil had prepared the entire empire against this Fifth Crusade, and al-Kamil helped to raise an army in Cairo. Soon after, however, there was a little island in the delta that was lost. This island held a huge tower that had previously been heavily guarded, but it was the loss of this tower that seemingly broke the Sultan’s heart and led to his sudden death, which left his son, al-Kamil, as the new Sultan of Egypt. By this point, Christians decided to attack the port and powerhouse of the Saracens at Damietta in Egypt, and the city of Acre had been captured by the Christians, which St. Francis was to soon land.
St. Francis had tried before this point to travel to the Muslim world. Now that he had finally made it, he left in June of 1219 from Ancona and landed in Acre not long after, which - as aforementioned - had just recently been captured by the Christians. After visiting some friars who had been in Syria, Francis and his companion, Illuminato, went to the camp outside of Damietta. This camp held soldiers, assassins and mercenaries from twenty European countries. These individuals tended to join the Crusaders more for sport or pleasure than religious reasons. There is one appalling and violent account that sufficiently illustrates this. In August of that year, eight Saracens were captured and had their ears, lips, noses and arms chopped off, and one of their eyes was taken out. A few of these men were sent back to Damietta as a visual warning to the Saracens, while the rest were hanged on fortifications as if they were scarecrows. The Christians, who long ago had their founder crucified, were themselves doing the crucifying.
By the time Francis entered Egypt, the Crusades had been going on for about 120 years. A number of early chronicles write that Francis was absolutely horrified by the violence of the Christian army, but by the time he arrived, the fighting was at a brief lull. He began talking to those who were sick and wounded while also helping to nurse them back to health - as much as they could be helped - and at the same time was watching as King John and Cardinal Pelagius continued to fight over the next move. Undoubtedly, this reminded him of his earlier experiences with war, from which he seemed to have a kind of survivor’s guilt.
As a young man, Francis took part in a local war against Perugia, was imprisoned and kept in prison for about a year. He later went on to have an experience where God spoke to him, he renounced his father, his wealth, heritage and inheritance, and took on beggar's clothes and began to rebuild churches, as well as gathering a following that led to the formation of the Franciscans after approval from Pope Innocent III. His experience with war made him deny the attraction of power, wealth and prestige. For example, in his Testament, he wrote "May the Lord give you peace." This may be seen as a positive sign that Francis wanted peace, not war. Indeed, after the war we do not see him condoning any form of violence whatsoever, but embraced love for lepers, the poor and the marginalized. By the time he was in the middle of the action at Damietta, these experiences must have been on his mind.
This was perhaps one of the many reasons why his encounter with the Sultan was so welcome. Sultan al-Kamil is rumored to have been a member of the Sufi brotherhood, which may be another reason for the hospitality, but this fact is hard to prove. Regardless, it seems that whatever the case may be, St. Francis had seen enough violence, enough bloodshed and enough hurt in his life, and decided to make his own move toward peace. Before examining a reconstruction of this historic encounter, however, it is necessary to examine the sources of said encounter in order to ascertain what can be known and what is left to guesswork.
Sources of the Encounter
There are 15 accounts in the 13th century that mention St. Francis and the Sultan. It seems that the later they are, however, the more confrontational they became. Later accounts represented controversies in the Franciscan tradition, and due to the scarcity of the sources (most repeat the same information), it is not the easiest task to determine what actually happened at Damietta. There are only a number of writings from St. Francis himself, but a bulk of material from later sources, mainly legendary and hagiographical material. Unfortunately, there is no contemporary Muslim source that refers to this visit.
The only kind of contemporary Muslim reference is an inscription on the tomb of the Sultan's adviser, that says "remember his adventure with the monk." But the Sultan knew a lot of monks, even Muslim monks. As Muslim scholar Muhammad Abuelezz points out, however, it may be that it was simply well-known among Muslims. At that time, Christians in Egypt had met the Sultan before and the Qur'an encourages dialogue.
Paul Moses, author of The Saint and the Sultan, believes that Jacques de Vitry (known elsewhere as James of Vitry) wrote the earliest and most credible account. Jacques de Vitry (1160-1240) was a preacher, historian and church leader, and he witnessed many important parts of the early Franciscan movement. In 1220, de Vitry had been at Damietta, and in Letter VI he wrote, “...[Francis] was so inflamed with zeal for the faith that he did not fear to cross the lines to the army of our enemy. For several days he preached the Word of God to the Saracens and made a little progress. The Sultan, the ruler of Egypt, privately asked him to pray to the Lord for him, so that he might be inspired by God to adhere to that religion which most pleased God.”
Following this, de Vitry wrote his History of the Orient between AD 1221-1225. In chapter 32 he wrote of the Franciscans, “even the Saracens and people in the darkness [of unbelief] admire their humility and virtue, and when the brothers fearlessly approach them to preach, they willingly receive them and, with a grateful spirit, give them what they need.... the founder and master of this Order, Brother Francis... was so moved by spiritual fervor an exhilaration that, after he reached the army of Christians before Damietta in Egypt, he boldly set out for the camp of the Sultan of Egypt, fortified only with the shield of faith. When the Saracens captured him on the road, he said: “I am a Christian. Take me to your master.” They dragged him before the Sultan. When the cruel beast saw Francis, he recognized him as a man of God and changed his attitude into one of gentleness, and for some days he listened very attentively to Francis as he preached the faith of Christ to him and his followers. But ultimately, fearing some of his soldiers would be converted by the efficacy of his words and pass over to the Christian army, he ordered that Francis be returned to our camp with all reverence and security. At the end he said to Francis: ‘Pray for me, that God may deign to reveal to me the law and the faith which is more pleasing to him.’”
Thomas of Celano (pronounced Chelano) wrote a short account of Francis two years after his death, and then wrote a sort of sequel in 1247. In his First Book of the Life of Francis he wrote, “Now, in the thirteenth year of his conversion, he journeyed to the region of Syria, while bitter and long battles were being waged daily between Christians and pagans. Taking a companion with him, he was not afraid to present himself to the sight of the Sultan of the Saracens... Before he reached the Sultan, he was captured by soldiers, insulted and beaten, but was not afraid. He did not flinch at threats or torture nor was he shaken by death threats. Although he was ill-treated by many with a hostile spirit and a harsh attitude, he was received very graciously by the Sultan. The Sultan honored him as much as he could, offering him many gifts, trying to turn his mind to worldly riches. But when he saw that he resolutely scorned all these things like dung, the Sultan was over-flowing with admiration and recognized him as a man unlike any other. He was moved by words and listened to him very willingly.”
Writing forty years later, and displaying at least some reliance on the account by Thomas of Celano, St. Bonaventure also added to the corpus of texts related to this encounter. According to St. Bonaventure's account of the encounter, Francis and the Sultan were two rivals who spiritually wrestled, and Francis was the victor. However, the early accounts of Thomas of Celano and James of Vitry do not portray the encounter in this way. It is interesting to note that both Thomas and James were part of the Fifth Crusade, so the fact that they mention this peaceful discussion between Francis and al-Kamil speaks volumes. Further, St. Bonaventure was the first to mention a trial by fire. He wrote that Francis dared the Muslims to walk across fire, and prove whose God was the real God. The Sultan declined, and the incident did not transpire.
But in examining these early sources, the fire incident - though popularly portrayed in the Franciscan art tradition - comes under much scrutiny. First of all, this seems to be either inspired by or directly derived from the narrative in 1st Kings 18, where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a trial by fire. Although it could be argued that Francis simply had this in mind when he challenged the Sultan, there is further reason to doubt this incident. Moses argues in his article, “Mission Improbable” (adapted from The Saint and the Sultan) that challenge to the trial by fire goes against both the edicts from the Fourth Lateran Council, and also against what Francis says in his own writings about living peacefully with the Saracens. Francis was very attuned to the edicts of the council, which banned trial by ordeal. Francis was not one to disobey the church. The idea of Francis challenging trial by fire likely was not historical, and as noted, also does not fit with the image in his own writings. St. Bonaventure wrote more theology, it seemed, than history. Later accounts made the encounter much more confrontational, and claimed that Francis said that the Saracens may kill the two friars if they could not prove that Islam was true.
It seems that one of the earliest accounts, written by French Bishop James of Vitry, portrays Francis as not being confrontational with the Sultan. Elsewhere, he portrays Francis as reckless and Muslims as ogres, but not here. Even St. Bonaventure's account of the life of Francis did not portray the friar in such a light, necessarily, and when he proposes the fire incident, the Sultan declines. But this peaceful approach seen in the early sources can be further evidence by Francis’s own writings. In chapter sixteen of his Regula non bullata, “Those who are going among the Saracens and other nonbelievers,” he describes how the friars in his Order are to approach nonbelievers and engage with them. This chapter was formed by his experience with the Sultan. Francis already had a precedent for his treatment of “the Other,” such as lepers and beggars. By engaging with Muslims, he took it one step further. The Franciscan Rule of 1221 details this simple, peaceful, non-violent life of the friars. Francis never asked anyone to take up arms - indeed, he asked quite the opposite. The friars were also not to judge others, to be kind and gracious to others, and to be a servant to others. Along with this, the friars were called to preach the Gospel. They were asked to live among non-believers, such as the Saracens, as if they were part of their community, and if the Lord prompted them - then they would preach.
As a final point concerning sources, in the authentic writings of St. Francis, we find no condemnation whatsoever of the Muslims. Yet in a 14th century text, St. Francis seemed to instruct his followers to attack the law of Muhammad. Also, once he learned of the death of the Franciscan martyrs in Morocco, he exclaimed, "Now I can truly say that I have five brothers!" But if Francis truly had an attitude of wanting martyrdom, why do we not find him provoking the sultan or attacking Islam in front of the sultan? It seemed that martyrdom was not a motivating factor. In fact, this text - and two "exempla" of Francis, wherein his motivation appears to be the liberation of the Holy Places from the Muslims - are both later accounts, not from St. Francis, that more accurately represent 14th century prejudices toward Muslims, not the true Franciscan approach.
Reconstruction of the Encounter
It is not an easy task to piece together what actually happened. But we may surmise quite a bit, gleaning what we can from the few sources that we do have. Moses, the aforementioned author of The Saint and the Sultan, lays out a helpful and plausible reconstruction. By the time he went to Egypt, Francis believed that God warned him to tell the others of an attack planned by Cardinal Pelagius - it would not end well. The Cardinal did not listen, and his words came true. Shortly after this time, in September of 1219, Francis set out for the sultan's camp. He agreed with the Cardinal that his actions were his own, and that he alone was responsible for them. But Francis wanted peace. Francis and his companion Illuminato set out for Damietta.
Over forty years later, his companion Illuminato related to St. Bonaventure that while he and St. Francis walked toward the Saracen stronghold, they chanted Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Illuminato also claimed that they saw two lambs, at which point Francis quoted a passage from Matthew about being sheep among wolves. Shortly after this, both men were found and seized by the Saracens, and only one phrase came out in response to the Saracens questions - “Sultan.” Francis and Illuminato were beat, chained and led to a post. The Sultan soon allowed an audience, which was significant, as he had quite recently offered to provide a gold Bezant for every head of a Christian that was brought to him, as recorded by St. Bonaventure.
Kamil and Francis were around the same age, though Francis was about a year and a half younger. As was his normal greeting, Francis may have began with, "May the Lord give you peace." The Sultan returned the greeting, and asked if he had come to become a Saracen (a Muslim) or if he had come in response to the call for peace - the Sultan had told the Christians that for the surrender of Damietta, he would give them Jerusalem and the True Cross (which he likely did not have, frankly). But Francis and Illuminato, somehow crossing the language gap, responded they had had come representing God, not the Cardinal, and that they desired the conversion of the Sultan to Christianity.
The Sultan particularly enjoyed discussions, debates and dialogue. He was known for holding discussions, usually on Friday evenings, so that his encounter with St. Francis likely took on more of a form of dialogue than a one-way preaching. In fact, we read in early sources that the dialogue continued on for multiple days, so there was likely a number of participants in this exchange of beliefs and ideas. We are told elsewhere that those who criticized the Qur'an and Muhammad generally tended to lose their heads, and the fact that this conversation continued on for several days bears out the fact that this was a peaceful conversation, and goes in line with what St. Francis himself wrote about the Saracens in his Testament.
As noted by Steven J. McMichael in The Cambridge Companion to Francis of Assisi, through Francis's own writings we may be able to determine his focus on the encounter with the Saracens: he may have placed great emphasis on the Trinity, the human and divine nature of Christ, the Eucharist - to which Francis had a special devotion, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Virgin Mary. Muslims believed that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was a great prophet, that he ascended into heaven, and had a special place in God's plan. But they do not believe that he was divine, that he was crucified and resurrected, or that God exists as a Trinity. Francis likely tried to engage them at these points of contact.
At one point, though this point is debatable - it seems the Sultan may have sent for Muslim preachers. When they arrived, they were appalled at Francis’ attempt to convert, as well as the Sultan’s willingness to listen. So the thinkers - according to this possibly apocryphal source - made a trap. Evidently, there was, according to biographer Adrian House, “An ornate carpet with crosses woven into its design [that] was laid out in front of the sultan, so that when Francis approached him he must either set foot on the crosses, dishonoring Christ, or would decline to, so insulting al-Kamil. Unsuspecting, Francis walked straight up to the sultan, but when reproached for sacrilege, he immediately replied he was guilty of no such thing. Christians carried Christ’s cross in their hearts; he had merely trodden on the crosses of the thieves who had died with him - the only one to which Muslims could lay claim” (211-212).
As he left, the Sultan offered Francis gifts - but it seems that he only accepted one gift, an ivory horn. This horn was used to call people to hear Francis preach, according to a later inscription to the horn. Some sources say that the Sultan desired to convert, but was afraid of causing a revolt or being stoned. He therefore asked Francis to pray that God would show him the right path. Finally, it seems that Francis and the Sultan had eaten together at meals, essentially breaking bread - which is of course of great significance in Christian tradition - showing the bond, the peace and the love between the Christian and the Muslim.
Importance of the Encounter
This encounter evidently made an impact on Francis himself, but also quite clearly has a lasting influence today. Although the effects were not immediate, the Fifth Crusade was not halted, and the Sultan was not converted, St. Francis may have been positively benefited from the encounter with the sultan in 1219. As McMichael points out, he seemed impressed by the call to prayer via the use of bells, and instituted bells for prayer following this. He also seemed to have a greater emphasis on praising God, perhaps inspired by the 99 names of Allah. Some critics claim that this is not an example of interreligious dialogue, but one could beg to differ. Far from being a conversation denouncing Islam, this was a friendly conversation in which Francis simply preached the Gospel out of love.
Another influence can be seen in Francis’ approach to the Holy Land. Some believe that when Francis went to Egypt he had also visited the Holy Places in Jerusalem, but there is slim evidence for this. Instead, as is evidenced by the Canticle of Creatures, Francis emphasized the sacredness of all reality. In a way similar to medieval liturgical drama, St. Francis celebrated the live first Nativity scene in Greccio after the Damietta encounter - and considered it a sacred experience and sacred place. Indeed, he felt that wherever the Eucharist was, that place was sacred. Christ was present everywhere. Around nine months after the experience at Greccio, Francis had an experience at Mt. La Verna. Later sources look at Greccio as Bethlehem and La Verna as Jerusalem. Christ appeared, so to speak, as a child in Greccio - but in a vision as the crucified Christ at La Verna. This is where, as the accounts say, Francis received the stigmata - the wounds of Christ. Why are these two events at Greccio and La Verna important in understanding what happened with the sultan at Damietta? Both events emphasized that Christ's birth and passion could be celebrated anywhere. We did not need to reclaim the Holy Land through war, because was present always. This experience of war continued to evidently have a lasting effect on Francis.
Further, Fr. Cusato, Professor through the Franciscan Institute at St. Bonaventure University, argues that we can see a clear impact on Francis’s later life at La Verna, even beyond the stigmata. “When he is at La Verna where he receives his Stigmata, he writes on a piece of parchment. On the front are praises of God, on the back are some very enigmatic writing often thought to be a blessing to brother Leo, one of his companions (the popular Blessing of Aaron). It seems he has very much on his mind, particularly a new military push that the Christian church launches on Egypt and the sultan’s men in 1224. He goes to La Verna and prays very hard about this. The text he writes is very similar to the 99 names of Allah in Islam. On this parchment, he draws a very strange head lying on its side, with a cross shooting out of its mouth. I’ve theorized that the head is the head of the sultan and that’s he’s praying for the sultan, to protect him from harm and accept Christ before it’s too late.” This incident alone clearly demonstrates the enormous impact that the time spent with al-Kamil had on Francis.
Perhaps what is best taken away from this is that Francis trusted the Sultan. In order to work together with someone, you have to build up trust. The encounter between St. Francis and the Sultan can and does provide Christians and Muslims with a new sort of paradigm, specifically for encountering the Other, for dealing with the Other, as well as embracing and welcoming the Other. How, then, can we view Francis as a model for dialogue?
Francis as a Model for Dialogue
People are made up of a number of influences, inspirations, and various people, places, and a myriad of other factors that can shape them. As Fr. Dan Horan wrote in a 2008 article, Trappist monk Thomas Merton was no different. He frequently mentions St. Francis throughout his writings, and in 1966, he wrote that "[I] will always feel that I am still in some secret way a son of St. Francis. There is no saint in the Church whom I admire more than St. Francis.” Also, Merton’s prayers, poems and theological views on poverty, the Trinity, the environment, Christology and interreligious dialogue all seem to have been influenced by Franciscan values. Merton is important as a modern figure in interreligious dialogue, specifically for his work between Christianity and Zen Buddhism in the 1960s.
Evidently, then, there are aspects of the Saint’s approach that can be utilized for peaceful and loving dialogue. Today, we would hardly start dialogue by trying to convert someone. But there was not interreligious dialogue in the 13th century as we have today. So how did Francis go about engaging in dialogue with the Sultan? In what today may be called Franciscan interreligious dialogue, Horan points out that there are three major factors to consider: 1) The radical adhering to the evangelical value of solidarity; 2) The preferential option for the discovery of common faith; 3) The position of minority rooted in a commitment to lifelong conversion (49-50).
Put simply, Franciscans have always put a great emphasis on the connectedness with all of creation, as is evidenced in Francis’s “Canticle of the Creatures.” Francis recognized the Sultan and the other Muslims as part of God’s creation, and hence, they were brothers and sisters to Francis. By embracing this, however, he also became a stranger to his own culture, as this was quite different from what the Church of the time thought. Francis did not attempt to go against the Church, but he did try to live out the Gospel the best way he knew how. The second factor – the discovery of common faith – is clearly seen in chapter sixteen of the Regula non bullata. Some scholars believe that part of this chapter is either a mistranslation or interpolation, it seems, so that the way it ought to be read is that Francis wanted his followers to start from the point of doctrinal agreement – both Christians and Muslims believe in one God, who is the Creator – but to work up dialogue from there, in order that they may believe in a fuller understanding of God as a Trinity.
To be sure, the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was not necessarily intended to be simply a dialogue. This fact needs to be remembered. However, as evidence by the sources and the reconstruction, Francis also desired peace, and it was his approach to al-Kamil that impressed the Sultan so much. This approach of brother to brother, friend to friend, person to person, is what needs to occur in interreligious dialogue. It is not simply a conversation between Islam and Christianity - it is interpersonal dialogue, or a conversation between people.
Catholicism and Islam Today
This visit displayed several characteristics, such as hospitality, mutual appreciation, interreligious dialogue, open prayer, and lastly, gratitude. Through these characteristics and values, St. Francis paved the way for interfaith relationships in today's world, which was needed as much then as it is now. But where is the conversation today? Muslims come to the conversation bearing in mind what the Qur’an says about dialogue, “"Do not dispute with the People of the Book except in a manner which is best, barring such of them as are wrongdoers, and say, 'We believed in that which has been sent down to us and has been sent down to you, our God and your God is one [and the same], and to Him do we submit'" (Surah 29:46). Various surahs also directly call for dialogue with the nations. It also calls for reconciliation, bridge building, restoring relations and resolving conflicts. Within the prophet Muhammad's life, we also see a few examples of dialogue. The Christian king of Ethiopia welcomed Muslim refugees. There was interfaith dialogue with a Christian delegation from Najran close to Yemen. Christians were also allowed to pray in mosques.
If Muslims come to dialogue bearing this in mind, what is the Catholic perspective? The groundbreaking Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (1965) notes that there are a number of similarities and shared beliefs between Christianity and Islam. There is One God, there is an esteem for Abraham and Mary - including the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Jesus is present in Islam (though as a prophet only, not as God), and there are similar ideas about judgment as well as praying, fasting and almsgiving. Further, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (841). This is itself a paraphrase from Lumen Gentium 16, another Vatican II document. These examples are sufficient to demonstrate textual considerations between the two religious traditions, but what about actual encounters?
Although the encounter between Francis and the Sultan was nearly 800 years ago, more recently, in 2008, the Pope and what can be considered the highest authority in Islam met together for a conference. As the "grassroots" of each movement, the people of both faiths are called to take after both the example of Francis and of the Pope and engage in kind, loving and honest interreligious dialogue. Sometimes, however, we find that we have either intentionally or inadvertedly said or done the wrong thing, and thereby caused hurt, but it is the duty of the Christian to try and create a positive from the negative. The example of Pope Benedict demonstrates this.
In their book, In the Spirit of Francis and the Sultan, George Dardess and Marvin L. Krier Mich
relate a speech given Germany in 2006, during which Pope Benedict opened by quoting an emperor from the AD 1300s. His speech was on the relationship between faith and reason, and he used this quote - on Islam - to illustrate a religion that did not use reason. However, the Pope received much criticism for this, and a large number of Muslims wrote to the Vatican attempting to challenge this claim in a document titled A Common Word. As a result, 2008, the Vatican held a thirty-day conference inspired by this document. There was a lot of good done for, through and by this conference, and an emphasis was placed not necessarily on theology between Christians and Muslims, but on praxis. Both are called to solidarity, to help the needy, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick, the dying, the hurt, and others. It seems, then, that Pope Benedict's blunder became a blessing, echoing the age-old saying, "God can use bad things for a good purpose."
When entering interreligious dialogue, both traditions at this point in the conversation can agree on one thing: Social Justice. Both Islam and Christianity address this. Jesus and Muhammad lived in unfavorable times, and although there are times in which good, interfaith dialogue and aid can and will occur, there are also issues of social justice that need to be addressed. Interfaith relations are good, but it must also show itself in praxis. One of the shared truths that Muslims and Christians can come together to work on is the poor. The Qur'an and the Bible stress this repeatedly. In order to carry out this mission, they have to live in solidarity - living with and experiencing the poor. It seems that the Abrahamic ethic teaches the love of God and the love of neighbor. In the Abrahamic traditions, for those who seek and desire justice, controversy and struggle surely follows.
Moving Toward Interreligious Dialogue
Francis envisioned a relationship between Christians and Muslims built on peace, love, brotherhood, and the Gospel, and is therefore an excellent example of how interreligious dialogue can be done, and how we can live in peace, not war. To be sure, however, although much changed between the 13th and the 21th centuries, much has remained the same. There was (and is) still war, violence, unrest, racism, inequality, and all manner of injustices. As a result, we continue today to have the need to hear the voice of a stranger, of “the Other.” St. Francis helps us do just that. He still speaks to us today. Francis laid the path, and there are many - like the aforementioned Thomas Merton - who have demonstrated that this path is still used today. An internal, foundation and spiritual change is therefore called for. This affects everything – how we treat others, how and what we think about God, how we live our lives, and how we dialogue with those who hold other ideas. Through this, we begin to look at one another as brother and sister. We should not try to make the Other into our image or our likeness, but allow them to be perfectly themselves. This engagement of the Other does not mean an abandonment of one’s faith, but rather a genuine encounter with the Other. In order to bring love to the world and look on another as brother and sister, interreligious dialogue in the Franciscan way ought to be encouraged.
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