Many Franciscans know the story of St. Francis meeting with the sultan, but how many are familiar with other instances of understanding and peace between Christians and Muslims? Michael Calabria, OFM, shares his experience preaching at the breaking of the Ramadan fast, which was Aug. 11 through Sept. 9 this year.
With all of the rancor over the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan, threats to burn the Qur’an, and the many other current issues pertaining to Islam and Muslim Americans, many have asked me to comment on these controversies since I teach Arabic and Islamic studies and am currently working on my dissertation in this field. I have not found the debates around these issues to be fruitful in most cases, and it has been impossible for me to respond to every new comment or communication. I cannot, however, be silent on this issue; but, instead of commenting on any one of the controversies, I would like to share a story or two.
Remembrance of God
In late August I was invited by Dr. Zahid Khairullah, professor of management sciences at St. Bonaventure University and member of the local Muslim community, to preach at the Allegany Islamic Center after ‘iftar, the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. He said I could speak on any topic related to the Qur’an. After some reflection, I decided to reflect on the remembrance of God, one of the Qur’an’s central themes.
Remembering God — his names, his creation, actions, revelations, and prophets — underlie every Islamic observance and practice, whether it is prayer, alms-giving, fasting or performing the pilgrimage (Hajj). The centrality of this concept in Islam is demonstrated by the frequent occurrence in the Qur’an of the word dhakara“to remember” and the words derived from this root, used over 290 times. The Qur’an itself is called “The Reminder.”
Humanity’s principal fault is that we are forgetful. We forget God, and we forget who God created us to be. As it says in the Qur’an 17.3: “Little is it you remember.”
I asked the community to remember with me two stories, one from the Muslim tradition and the other from the Catholic and Franciscan tradition. Not surprisingly the second story was less familiar to them than the first.
It was the story of the encounter between Francis of Assisi and the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, a story of two men — Christian and Muslim — who transcended the differences of faith and culture in the midst of a violent crusade and engaged each other with peace and respect, if not admiration and appreciation. It is a story that has become increasingly well-known in the Franciscan family in recent years but is still not widely known among Muslims.
The Abyssinians & the Story of Mary
The first story was better known to them, yet is unknown to most Christians.
I recounted an incident from the early history of Islam when Muslims were being persecuted by the Quraysh tribe in Mecca. In order to safeguard their survival, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sent the Muslims to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia whose king (or negus) and inhabitants were known for the sincerity of their faith. When the Quraysh pursued them to Abyssinia and accused them before the negus, the ruler called both groups before him. He asked Jafar, the spokesman for the Muslims, to recount for him something from the revelation brought by Muhammad. Jafar began to recite from what became the nineteenth sura of the Qur’an, titled “Maryam” (Mary):
“Relate in the Book the story of Mary … We sent to her our angel, and he appeared to her as a man in all aspects. She said: ‘I seek refuge from you in the shelter of the Most Gracious, if you fear Him.’ He said: ‘I am only a messenger from your Lord to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’ She said: ‘How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and that I am not unchaste?’ He said: ‘So it will be. Your Lord says: ‘That is easy for Me and We wish to appoint him as a sign to the people, and a mercy from Us.’ It is so decreed.’”
When the Quraysh continued to accuse the Muslims to the negus, he asked them to speak further on their beliefs about Jesus. Jafar spoke again: “We say what our Prophet has taught us: Jesus is God’s servant, His messenger, His Spirit, His Word that He has breathed into Mary, the Holy Virgin.”
Having listened to Jafar, the negus concluded that the differences between what the Muslims and the Christians believed about Jesus did not exceed the length of a stick. The Muslims were free to settle and worship freely in his realm, and their accusers — the Quryash — were asked to leave.
Like the story of Francis and the Sultan, this episode from the Muslim tradition has great relevance for our time and needs to be remembered and shared by Christians and Muslims. It speaks of a crucial moment when the survival of the Muslim community was in doubt and in the hands of their Christian hosts.
The time has come again to offer hospitality and friendship to Muslims, and guarantee their freedom and safety — not because we Christians are their hosts, but because they are our neighbors, they are our colleagues, they are members of our families, they are our fellow Americans and they are our brothers and sisters in the faith of Abraham. These are things that must never be forgotten.
— Fr. Michael, vicar of St. Bonaventure Friary in Allegany, N.Y., has degrees in Egyptology and Near Eastern studies. He is lecturer of Arabic and Islamic studies at St. Bonaventure University. Michael said the flag above, used during the Egyptian independence movement, shows the crescent of Islam and the cross of Christianity,“signifying Muslims and Christians united against injustice.”