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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
Recently, I wrote for Catholic News Service about Catholic-Muslim dialogue and the important strides we’ve made since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate during the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
In the article, I draw attention to the Church’s teaching that Catholics and Muslims, despite their differences, believe in the same God. Read an excerpt of the piece below, and find the full article here.
St. John Paul II was a pioneer … seeking to communicate the Catholic esteem for Muslims and the commonalities we share in his audiences with them around the world.
The Vatican and national bishops’ conferences have also instituted regular, formal dialogues between Catholic and Muslim leaders, which serve as contexts for mutual learning and improved understanding.
This push for dialogue has been welcomed by Muslims and met with enthusiasm, who themselves find the impetus for interfaith collaboration in the Quran’s affirmation that God created humanity so that they could “get to know one another.”
“Catholics and Muslims: We believe in the same God” (CNS)
How should Catholics relate to Muslims? What does the Catholic Church say about Muslims and their faith? What can we do to combat misunderstanding and discrimination that often faces Muslims in Christian communities?
I talked to Catholic News Service about these questions for a new video on Catholic-Muslim dialogue, part of their series of videos about interreligious dialogue fifty years after Vatican II:
Here are excerpts from the Second Vatican Council’s documents that have to do with Muslims:
“…the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind…” (Lumen Gentium 16)
“The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” (Nostra Aetate 3)
Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same God? How are Christianity and Islam similar, and how are they different? What is the point of interfaith dialogue?
These are just some of the questions addressed in Finding Jesus among Muslims, an urgent and award-winning book from Catholic author Jordan Denari Duffner. Drawing from church teaching, the stories of saints and martyrs, and her extensive professional and personal experience living among Muslims in both the United States and the Middle East, Duffner introduces readers to Islam and tackles key issues in Muslim-Christian relations. She demonstrates that, rather than pulling Christians away from their faith, dialogue with Muslims can help Christians deepen their relationship with God.
Learn more about Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic on this site.