St. Francis and the Sultan: Living Their Legacy Today

This fall, Catholics and Muslims around the world are commemorating the 800th anniversary of the encounter between St. Francis of Assisi and the sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt in 1219. In September, St. Bonaventure University invited me to give a keynote lecture on campus to discuss not only its historical importance but also its significance for Catholic-Muslim interreligious relations today. What are the lessons we can learn from their encounter? How can we live their legacy today? Here are some of my thoughts, pared down from my talk at St. Bonaventure.

  1. Rethink our idea of interfaith dialogue: It’s not simply about conversion or solving societal problems, but instead about encountering God together. Francis might have initially sought to convert the sultan, but their dialogue ended up being one of spiritual fellowship, in which they learned about the other, themselves, and ultimately God.
  2. Practice spiritual solidarity: Interfaith relationship-building leaves us with the sense that ‘the other’ occupies a place within our heart, within our sense of self. That solidarity informs how we stand up for and with others. Francis and Al-Kamil’s encounter informed their later interactions with Muslims and Christians, treating ‘the other’ with more respect and hospitality than was typical in that place and time.
  3. Ready ourselves to see beauty in unexpected places: Dialogue offers us the opportunity to see beauty in another’s faith tradition, either in the aspects that are similar to our own faith or in facets that are radically different from our own practice. We might even come to incorporate new traditions into our own faith practice as a result. After spending time with the sultan, Francis pushed for the adoption of practices in his own Christian community that resembled ones he would have encountered among Muslims—namely, a public call to prayer (like Muslims’ adhan) and invoking the Divine by listing God’s many attributes (reminiscent of the recitation asmaa’ al-husna in the Islamic tradition).
  4. Acknowledge our own stereotypes about ‘the other’: It’s important to look inward and confront our own biases about other religious communities. Recognizing them is the first step in moving beyond them. When Francis first met the sultan, he no doubt held on to the stereotypes about Muslims that had long circulated in Christian Europe. The sultan, who had Christian colleagues and subjects, may still have had reservations about European Christian Crusaders. Their encounter would have broken down many of those misperceptions, but only because both men were willing to truly see the humanity of the person before them.
  5. Hold our own faith community accountable, help it live up to our core values: We must work to break down bigotry toward ‘the other’ in our own religious community, drawing on our highest ideals of love of God and neighbor. Francis urged his fellow Christians toward peace, calling them to end the Crusade. And he laid out rules for his order that would ensure Christians respect the Muslims they came into contact with in their ministry.

Ultimately, to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis and Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil, we must do what Pope Francis calls us to—the recognition that “the other could be you.”

To learn more about St. Francis and the Sultan, check out the following resources:

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