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Why is Pope’s UAE visit seen as one similar to what happened some 800 years ago?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

On Pope’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Vatican News reported it is similar to what happened some 800 years ago.

The English Daily from Rome reported that Pope meeting Grand Imam of Al Azhar in UAE is similar to the encounter between St Francis and the Sultan Al Malik Al Kamil, which brought peace to the world. 

So, what happened 800 years ago and who is St Francis and the Sultan Al Malik Al Kamil who lived then?

Read this backgrounder from The Arabian Stories.

St. Francis, son of wealthy Italian 

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was son of a rich Italian merchant but gave up his possessions and adopted a life of peace and non-violence.

It is reported that, while praying Jesus spoke to him: “Francis! go, repair my house which is falling completely to ruin.” 

Francis saw this as a request to transform the entire Christian church. 

He was reborn as a peacemaker and was convinced that the Al Mighty wanted him to bring the world a message of peace.

He adopted the greeting “May the Lord give you peace” and constantly opposed warfare, arrogance and the violent culture of his day.

Fifth Crusade

It was in 1215, Pope Innocent had called for the Fifth Crusade and in the spring of 1217 the armies from all across Europe slowly gathered and headed for Egypt. 

The Muslim and Christian armies camped across the Nile. As the war raged on over the next two years, thousands were killed on both sides.

Sultan Malik Al Kamil, ruler of Egypt, repeatedly tried to negotiate peace by returning Jerusalem to the Crusaders but the Pope rejected the offer each time.

While men slaughtered one another in the Al Mighty’ s name beside the waters of the Nile, St Francis gathered his community of brothers in Italy. 

Francis had always dreamed of preaching the Christian faith peacefully to the Muslims and yearned for an audience with a Muslim leader. 

Now his moment had arrived and he was going to forbid war and be a peacemaker.

Meeting Al Kamil

In June 1219, Francis took a few brothers with him and sailed on a perilous journey across the Mediterranean to the war zone.

Upon reaching the banks of the Nile, Francis was grieved to see the horrific sight of casualties of war on both sides. 

He retreated into deep prayers. He began to preach vigorously against the war. 

Francis continued his opposition to war but all of his efforts were to no avail.

Finally, Francis decided that he would act and he and brother Illuminato would venture out to meet the Muslims in their own camp. 

Francis understood the risks. But Francis had a bold idea to prevent bloodbath. 

As Francis and Illuminato crossed the enemy lines, the Muslim sentries saw them and thought they were messengers or had come to convert to Islam. Indeed, soldiers on both sides of the Crusade had converted.

Francis, unable to speak the soldiers’ language, cried, “Sultan ! Sultan !” The soldiers seized them and led them to the Sultan’s tent.

The future saint and the Sultan were roughly the same age, Al Kamil was 39, Francis 38.

Francis stood before Al Kamil. The Sultan looked over the odd duo, barefoot monks dressed in coarse, patched down tunics. The Sultan thought that the Franks had sent them to his tent with a response to his latest peace proposal.  The Sultan desperately wanted a deal that would end the Christians’ siege of the port city of Damietta where his people were dying of disease and starvation.

“May the Lord give you peace.” Francis surprised the Sultan with his standard greeting. 

It perplexed the Sultan. He noticed the similarity between Francis’ greeting and the familiar Muslim greeting of peace, “Assalam o alaikum” or “peace be upon you.”

The Quran urges to be courteous to those who use a greeting of peace: Say not to those who greet you with peace, “You are not a believer.” (The Quran: Women 4:94) and When you are greeted with a greeting, greet in return with what is better than it, or (at least) return it equally. (The Quran: Women 4:86)

Uncertain about his visitors’ intentions, the Sultan asked if they had come as representatives of the pope’s army.

Francis responded, asserting that he was the Al Mighty’s  ambassador, not the pope’s.

This daring little man and his companion intrigued Sultan Al Kamil – they even resembled the similarly dressed Sufi men the Sultan revered for their mystical insight into Islam. (Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but a peculiar influence within Islam.)

“If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to the Al Mighty,” Francis continued.

Whatever Francis said, the Sultan became very attentive to and listened closely. 

It was an amazing scene of a monk preaching the Christian faith to a Muslim monarch in the middle of a war.The Sultan’s religious advisers were rushed into his tent. Once they found out that Al Kamil was going to let Francis preach, they warned him that this would violate Islamic law.

Influenced by Sufism, Al Kamil believed he was acting within Islamic law in listening to Francis and Illuminato. 

The Quran does not prescribe or even refer to the death penalty for blasphemy. 

Indeed, the Quran suggests tolerance in the situation faced by the Sultan: And you shall certainly hear much that will insult you from those who received the Scripture before you and from the polytheists. But if you persevere patiently and guard against evil, this will be the best course with which to determine your affairs. (The Quran: The House of Imran 3:186)

Al Kamil had a prominent Sufi as his religious adviser and he saw Francis in the light of Sufism and the Muslim tradition calling for respect for Christian monks.

The Muslims’ relations with the Christians are determined for them by the Quran, which says: And you will find nearer to the friendship of the believers those men who call themselves Christians. This is because among them are learned men and monks, and because they are not arrogant. (The Quran: The Repast 5:82)

In their rough, patched up tunics Francis and Illuminato looked like Sufis, since the very name of Sufis came from the Arabic word for wool, the scratchy material used to make their robes. Like Francis, they also wore a cord rather than a belt.

Francis was a dynamic preacher. He preached from the heart and the Sultan and his court listened to Francis attentively. The discussions went on for several days and had multiple participants. It was a peaceful exchange of ideas about the two competing religions. Francis and Illuminato were treated as honored guests in the Muslim camp.

Francis was deeply impressed by the Muslim religious practices, especially the call to prayer.

The Sultan offered Francis many gifts but Francis turned them down. 

Francis did, however, agreed to accept a token of their meeting; an ivory horn used to make the Muslim call for prayer, which is now displayed in a room of relics at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. 

Francis used it to call people to hear him preach on his return to Italy.

Talking Peace 

Although Francis was disappointed not to have converted the Sultan, he and Al Kamil had found a way of talking peacefully during a gruesome war. Sultan then sent Francis and Illuminato back to the Christian camp under his protection.

The Fifth Crusade ended in 1221 in a decisive victory for Al Kamil which resulted in a great number of losses on both sides and eventually in the surrender of the pope’s army. 

Al Kamil agreed to an eight-year peace agreement with Europe.

Francis returned to Italy soon after his encounter with the Sultan but held the Sultan deep within his heart. 

The encounter between Francis and the Sultan provided the foundation for the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986.

On Monday, when the Bishop of Rome and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar declared that, in the East and the West, believers in different religions, who look upon one another as brothers and sisters, can help each other to seek to avoid the “world war fought piecemeal” from breaking out in all its destructive power, it is definitely similar to what happened some 800 years ago when St Francis and Al Kamil met. 

This article is based on the book:

The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace and notes from Sufiway.