Contemporary of Rumi – St Francis of Assisi


Contemporary of Rumi – St Francis of Assisi

  1. Prelude

            The seventh and eighth centuries CE allowed easy converse between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was only with the subsequent involvement of the state with religious questions that these relations became strained.[1] These deteriorated further when Asia Minor was invaded by the Seljuk Turks. In 1071 they routed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert. The Crusades were, in part, a reaction to these events.[2]

The words of the Great Sufi Master, Mawlana Rumi, can be applied to the Crusades and to all conflicts:

“Wars among human beings are like the quarrels of children: they are all stupid, without importance and despicable.”[3]

  1. Francis and the Sultan

The first offensive of the Fifth Crusade was the capture of Damietta on the eastern branch of the Nile in 1219, when Rumi was twelve years old. After the incredible slaughter of the battle on the 29th of August 1219 the Sultan, Al-Kâmil, proposes a truce and the Franks accept it. The moment has come. Francis of Assisi crosses the Nile accompanied by Brother Illuminatus.

Who is this poor little man, this ‘poverello’, thirty-seven years old? He is the son of Pietro Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant from Assisi in Umbria. Handsome, gallant, and courteous, he soon became the leader of the young nobles of his city. One day in 1208, he heard a call during Mass telling him to go out into the world and, in keeping with the teaching of Jesus,[4] to leave all and to possess nothing. He does so in three major steps. His crossing of the Nile in 1219 is in fact his third great transition. The first was when, as a young man, he met a leper in the plains of Umbria and embraced him, overcoming the barrier of physical repulsion. The second was when he was beaten in a forest by a band of robbers. He advises his companions to go live in the forest and to cross the moral divide so as to meet ‘brother bandits’ and to give them food to eat before advising them on how to live.[5] He now crosses the religious divide separating Christians and Muslims.

The Sultan, Al-Malik Al Kâmil, receives Francis with great courtesy. In his entourage there is the ninety year old Sufi, Fakhr al-Dîn Fârisi.

This scene is described by Thomas à Celano one of the earliest biographers:

“The fervour of the Spirit floods into him; he could no longer control his joy and even as he spoke he walked up and down, almost dancing … like someone who is burning with the love of God. … he makes them weep, for they were all very moved by what they saw.”[6]

Several days pass. The Sultan meets with him several times. Indeed, another biographer, the great St Bonaventure, states:

“The Sultan listed to him with pleasure and urged him to stay longer.[7]

But the truce is reaching its end. Francis must leave. The Sultan plies him with gifts, but Francis refuses, for he came in poverty and will leave in poverty. The Sultan then suggests the money be given to the poor, but Francis still refuses. The Sultan therefore asks Francis to pray for him. He goes back to the crusaders who are stupefied to see him return alive and escorted by a guard provided by the Sultan.

Several things stand out. Firstly the courtesy of the Sultan is remarkable, yet he is only observing the teaching of the Holy Koran:

“Do not argue with the people of the book except in the most courteous manner …[8]

Rumi will say:

“Love does not have the courage to enter into argument. For the loving person fears that, if he should retort, a pearl might fall from his mouth.[9]

Secondly, the Sultan wishes to fulfill through the hands of Francis and for the benefit of Christians, one of the five pillars of Islam, namely the command to give to those in need. Thirdly, the Sultan asks Francis to pray for him because he realizes that Francis a holy man who worships the same God.

In about June 1220 Francis returns to Italy. In August of the following year the Crusaders launch an attach on Cairo but the Egyptians open the sluice gates of the Nile, trapping the whole crusading army. In September the Crusaders disperse.

  1. The Mission to Marrakech

This episode of Francis and the Sultan is to be contrasted with the fate of the five Franciscans who have made their way to Morocco. When, on 16 January 1220, they insult the Holy Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh), the Sultan Yusuf II al-Mustansir beheads them with his own hands. These men are described indirectly by the Pope, Honorious III, as: “madmen, indiscreet and impetuous”. Rumi’s saying could be applied to them:

“The one who does harm always thinks ill of others; he reads his own text book as though it referred to his neighbour.”[10]

  1. Effect on Francis

4.a       Francis never again mentions his meeting with the Sultan and his silence is eloquent. Did it influence his rule called Regula non bullata, ‘the unofficial rule’ composed in 1221? Chapter 16 reads:

“The friars who go on mission should conduct themselves spiritually among the people in two manners. One manner is, that they cause no arguments nor strife, but be subject “to every human creature for God’s sake” (1 Pt 2:13) and confess themselves to be Christians. The other manner is, that, when they have seen that it pleases God, they announce the word of God, so that the [hearers] may believe in God the Omnipotent, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all things, (and) in the Redeemer and Savoir, the Son, and that they may be baptized and become Christians, …[11]

Two things are to be noted. Firstly, the friars should neither cause any disturbance nor disguise the fact that they are Christians. Secondly, they should bide their time, waiting till “it please God” before proclaiming the Gospel.

This unofficial rule is not approved. The official rule, by contrast, the Regula bullata, is ‘juridical’, precise, and not ‘spiritual and vague’.[12] The section now reads:

“If any of the friars … wants to go among the Saracens …, he should seek permission from the Ministers provincial. Indeed let the Ministers grant permission to none, except those whom they see to be fit.[13]

4.b       Francis far from losing his Christian faith after meeting with the Sultan, becomes particularly attentive to the specific character of Christianity, such as the Incarnation. For example, in 1223 near Greccio in Italy he builds the first crib which is such a notable feature of Christmas right around the world.

  1. The stigmata

Francis is coming to the end of his life.  In a text that gives the spirit of St Francis but dates from the 14th century, he prays:

“My Lord Jesus Christ, I beg you to grant me two graces before I die: the first is that during my life I may feel in my soul and in my body as much as possible, that pain which you, O Gentle Jesus, endured at the hour of your most cruel passion; the second is that I might feel in my heart, as much as possible, that love which, O Son of God, burnt with you and which led you willingly to undergo such a passion for us sinners.[14]

Rumi will echo this request for the totality of love.

“Everything except love, is devoured by love.[15]

Francis’ wish is granted on Monte Alverno. He receives the marks of the passion in his hands, feet and side. They can even see what seem like the black nails in his hands.   He wishes to suffer and to love as did Christ Jesus. Rumi might agree, who says:

“My life can be summed up in three phrases: “I was raw, I was cooked, then I was reduced to ash.[16]

Francis dies on 3 October 1226. Rumi is 19 years old.

  1. Sicily

The negative aspects of the crusades must be set in the context of the golden age of Sicily. During the two centuries of Norman and Hohenstaufen rule, the relationship between the Christian rulers and the Muslim subjects could not have been closer. It is characterized by a tolerance, which is utterly inconceivable for the rest of the Christian West.[17] The modern western world is born in medieval Sicily.[18]

The Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen and Sultan Al-Kâmil sign the Treaty of Jaffa on 18th February 1229. The concessions on both sides are extraordinary. The Sultan grants to the Emperor the land of Palestine for ten years renewable. Freedom of worship is recognized on both sides. The al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are to remain in Muslim hands while the Christians would retain the Holy Sepulchre, yet Christians and Muslims alike would be free to pray discreetly in the places governed by the other faith. However, this extraordinary agreement is opposed by Muslims and Christians alike. Frederick is called traitor, son of Satan, antichrist,[19] while the Saracens complain bitterly of the ‘treachery’ of Al- Kâmil.[20] The situation cannot last. In 1244 Jerusalem falls into the hands of the Kharezmiens, a Turkish group. This provokes yet another crusade.

  1. Assisi 1986

At their General Assembly in 1985 the Franciscans adopt chapter 16 of the Regula non-bullata as their charter of evangelisation.[21] The new constitution reads

“As disciples of St Francis … the brothers will take great care to go humbly and live with devotion among the nations of the Islamic faith …[22] “We are all sons and daughters of Francis of Assisi and Damietta.[23]

Assisi is the place chosen by John Paul II in 1986 for the unprecedented meeting of religious leaders from around the world. He says:

“I have chosen this town of Assisi as the place for our day of prayer for the sake of peace because of the special significance of the holy man who is venerated here. … and respected by many people in the whole world as a symbol of peace, of reconciliation and of brotherhood. Inspired by his example, his gentleness and his humility, let us prepare our heart to prayer in a true interior silence.[24]

Surely we would agree that, after the clash of arms and war of words, true interior silence is the new path we must follow.


Note: all translations of quotations which derive from the following works are made by the author of this article.

Baier, K.          Yoga auf dem Weg nach Westen. Würzburg, Königshausen und Neumann, 1998. 311 pp.

J.M. Gaudel, Disputes ? ou Rencontres ?L’Islam et le christianisme au fil des siècles. Vol. 1 Survol historique, 379pp.. Roma, Pontificio Instituto di Studi Arabi et d’Islamistica, 1998.

Sigrid Hunke, Le soleil d’Allah brille sur l’Occident, Paris, Albin Michel, 1963. 414 pp.

Translated by Solagne and Georges de Lalène from the German edition Allahs Sonne ueber dem Abendland, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1960.

Gwenolé Jeusset Saint François et le Sultan, Paris, Albin Michel, 2006 ; nouvelle édition revue et augmentée 2006. 296pp.

Rûmi, Paroles, Salah Moussawy: Calligraphies, Paris, Bachari, 2005. 74 pp.

[1] Karl Baier, Yoga auf dem Weg nach Westen. Würzburg, Königshausen und Neumann, 1998. p.34 footnote 40.

[2] Encarta Encyclopaedia. 1993-2004.

[3] Rûmi, Paroles, Salah Moussawy: Calligraphies, Paris, Bachari, 2005. p.52.

[4] Matthew 10:5-14.

[5] J.M. Gaudel, Disputes ? ou Rencontres ?L’Islam et le christianisme au fil des siècles. Vol. 1 Survol historique. Roma, Pontificio Instituto di Studi Arabi et d’Islamistica, 1998. p.251

[6] Thomas de Celano, Vita prima 73, Gwenolé Jeusset Saint François et le Sultan, Paris, Albin Michel, 2006. pp.100-101.

[7] St Bonaventure, Legenda Maior 9.8. Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, p.101.

[8] Koran 29.46.

[9] Rûmi, Paroles p.46.

[10] Op.cit. p.48.

[11] Regula Non-bullata, Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, p.148.

[12] Gaudel, vol. 1, p.201.

[13] Regula Bullata 12.1-2, Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, p.166.

[14]Third consideration on the stigmata’, Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, pp.153-154.

[15] Rûmi, Paroles p.54.

[16] Rûmi, Paroles p.7.

[17] Sigrid Hunke, Le soleil d’Allah brille sur l’Occident, Paris, Albin Michel, 1963. pp.255-256.

[18] Op.cit. p.303.

[19] Op.cit. p.271.

[20] ibid.

[21] Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, p.241.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Op.cit. p.244.

[24] Quoted in Jeusset, Saint François et le Sultan, pp.235-236.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
This entry was posted in Interreligious dialogue, Interreligious dialogue, Melbourne, Muslim Catholic relations, Muslim Christian relations. Bookmark the permalink.

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