The Working Catholic: Story of St. Francis and the Sultan sets example for interfaith dialogue
(POSTED: 6/21/11) One of my World Religions students at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills told me what she learned from the course: “I was in fourth grade in September 2001. I grew up thinking that Muslims support violence and oppress women. I could never imagine that I would go to a mosque, much less be treated kindly there.” Other students wrote similarly. Some acknowledged misconceptions they held about Christianity and other religions.
As it so happened, one of my World Religions classes was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001, the evening after the murderous attack on our country. According to the syllabus, we were to begin the unit on Islam that very evening. After some initial uneasiness, we confronted our feelings. We slowly began to separate facts from generalizations. That night I recommitted myself to teaching and to furthering Catholic-Muslim dialogue outside the classroom.
The World Religions class at Moraine Valley has a premise: Students and teacher leave their faith (including atheism in some cases) at the door of the classroom, examine each religion on its own terms and then pick up their faith when they leave the classroom. We actually leave our shoes at the classroom door to illustrate this premise. Thus, nearly every student learns the difference between understanding something and agreeing with it.
My course and others at Moraine Valley join other Chicago colleges in extending the pioneering initiative of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Chicago, as part of the famous 1893 Columbia Exposition. The second Parliament was also held in Chicago, in 1993 at the Palmer House.
A startling example of inter-religious dialogue from the early 13th century is getting new attention. The setting is the Fifth Crusade. St. Francis of Assisi, who has seen wartime horror in his hometown and on larger battlefields, takes it upon himself to walk through the front lines of the so-called Christian army to meet in Damietta, Egypt with the so-called enemy, Sultan Malik al-Kamil, a nephew of the great warrior Salidin. This dramatic story is recounted in “The Saint and the Sultan: the Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi’s Mission for Peace” by Paul Moses (Doubleday, 2009). Another book, “In the Spirit of St. Francis and the Sultan” by George Dardess and Marv Mich (Orbis, 2011), suggests how to continue the dialogue.
The style of the 1219 A.D. dialogue was different from what is recommended today. St. Francis’ strategy was to convert the Sultan to Christianity and thereby end the war. The Sultan believed Christians should put away some doctrines and submit to the full will of God, which is Islam. Nonetheless the two stayed open to one another during a week of conversation. They were willing, write Dardess and Mich, “to tolerate each other’s religious differences.” Even though no political agreement was reached that week, “the two men acted beautifully in the midst of ugliness.”
The Sultan, who could easily have killed a Christian meddler, came away impressed. He even offered parting gifts to St. Francis, who is now Christianity’s second most popular member of all time. The Sultan was all the more impressed when, in accord with his vow of poverty, St. Francis declined all the gifts, except one: an ivory horn. Once back in Europe, St. Francis used it to call people to prayer. It is preserved in Assisi. St. Francis was impressed with the Sultan’s daily prayers and used that good example to promote the Christian practice of liturgy of the hours.
Dardess and Mich mention other touch points that St. Francis and the Sultan might have used: the symbolism of a meal, common features in their respective creeds and more. The two most suggestive chapters deal with social justice teaching in Catholicism and Islam, including the misunderstood concept of jihad. The authors feel that Muslims and Christians, particularly in the United States, can make mutual headway in social justice.
A few Christian and Muslim students at several colleges now gather regularly for conversation and action. At Benedictine University in Lisle, for example, the student dialogue group has lunch every Tuesday. The conversation began with lifestyle topics but went deeper in reaction to news items, like when a so-called Christian in Florida announced a Qur’an burning. The group also decided to volunteer at a homeless shelter, in accord with the social teachings of each religion.
Interesting dialogue requires a creative tension between confidence in one’s faith and humility toward the beliefs of others. Unfortunately, many of our Catholic young adults are intimidated by inter-religious dialogue because they are ill-informed about their own faith — at least this is my experience. For this reason and others, the story of St. Francis and the Sultan might be a non-threatening way to launch a group. Next semester I’ll provide an update to this report.
By Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. He edits a newsletter on faith and work for the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).