CLEVELAND, Ohio (Catholic Universe Bulletin) - The Nile River divides the Egyptian city of Damietta near the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its location and entree to the Holy Land, it was frequently attacked and in 1219 became the focus of the Fifth Crusade.
While thousands of Christian soldiers took up arms against Muslims, one person among them followed his heart and the example of Christ. He sought a way toward peace and understanding through dialogue with Malik-al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. St. Francis of Assisi’s initial goal was to convert the sultan to Christianity or to become a martyr while trying.
But what he learned from that pilgrimage changed his life, sending him on the path to peace. With his feast day just past, his message of brotherhood and understanding among all of humanity resounds as loudly today as if we were back in the Dark Ages.
“Damietta was a huge Muslim city and the pathway to the Holy Land in Egypt,” explained Father Father Bob McCreary, adjunct faculty member at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology. “Francis wanted to dissuade people from the war.”
The fighting was terrible and Francis had rightly predicted the Christians would ultimately lose the battle. Sickened by his fellow Christians’ violent behavior, Francis decided to visit the sultan. Though mystery surrounds how he gained admittance, it is widely believed that Francis and Brother Illuminato were thought to be Christian wise men by the sultan’s guards.
“He wanted to be a martyr but he succeeded in being a man of charity,” Father McCleary explained.
Francis entered the sultan’s camp empty-handed as a peacemaker. “He did not consider, whom he had been taught by Christianity to be his enemy, as his enemy,” said Franciscan Father Michael Cusato, director of the Franciscan Institute at New York’s St. Bonaventure University, and a native Clevelander. “He approached all people, beginning with the leper, as his brothers.
“We know he did not insult their prophet or religion, but talked about why he is a Christian and why people find the right way to God. We know he didn’t insult the prophet or he wouldn’t have come out of there alive,” Father Cusato said.
“The brotherhood was God’s most beautiful creation and he saw the Muslim as his brother, too. It was the first real dialogue between Christians and Muslims,” Father McCreary said.
It’s something the church has sought to recreate in recent years, most recently with mixed results
According to historians, the sultan also was impressed with Francis as a servant of God. “This wasn’t a modern dialogue as we think of dialogue,” explained Franciscan Father Steven McMichael, assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “Francis did have some appreciation for Islam. He learned some things about Islam, such as how they pray and how they experience God, that showed up in his own Christian belief.”
He encouraged a ministry of presence - living peacefully among Muslims - which serves as a model for Catholics today.
“What impressed him about Islamic culture is that its daily rhythms are centered on prayer,” Father Cusato said. “When he returns to Assisi he encourages Christians to have a mindfulness to prayer.”
So just how influential to his life was Francis’ meeting with the sultan? Father Cusato has a theory.
“When he is at La Verna where he receives his Stigmata, he writes on a piece of parchment,” the Franciscan said. “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,” Father Cusato said.
Father Cusato’s theory appears in the newly published, “The Stigmata of Francis of Assisi: New Studies, New Perspectives,” published by Franciscan Institute Publications.
“Meeting the sultan confirmed to Francis that we are all brothers and sisters. Neither converted the other and yet they met each other as men of God.”
Their meeting appears to have changed more than Francis and the sultan.
“Almost immediately we see some iconography in the eastern world showing these two men,” Father Cusato said. One of the sultan’s own spiritual counselors had engraved on his tomb that what changed his life was the meeting between a Christian monk and the sultan in his tent.
So what does it mean to engage in meaningful dialogue in the spirit of St. Francis? According to Father Cusato people must understand each other’s perspective. “Until we in the west understand the anger, sense of oppression and world of Muslims in the Middle East, unless we can look beyond the slogans our political leaders give us and ask why,
we’ll get nowhere. But it works both ways. They need to know us as well.”
Hoke is a freelance writer.
This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Universe Bulletin (www.catholicuniversebulletin.org), official newspaper of the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio.