An Interspiritual Gem at the Heart of Franciscan History
By Br. André Maria
Just a little over 800 years
ago, an incredible, beautiful, and very unlikely event took place in this
divided and often cruel world in which we live. It was divided then as it is
now. It was cruel then as it often is now.
At the center of this event were two Holy men from two very different
cultures and two different religions.
One man was the person that the world now knows as Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of one of the largest groups of Christian communities of religious and lay men and women in the world, which is also ecumenically represented globally. The other man was Al-Malik al-Kamil, the devoutly Muslim Sultan of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt.
Until quite recently, very few people were aware of this historically significant meeting, including many members of the various Franciscan communities around the world, whose venerable founder was, as it has been noted, present at this meeting.
The setting for this momentous meeting and event, was the Fifth Crusade and the siege of the Egyptian city of Damietta, which is located along a tributary of the Nile River rather near the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Francis was traveling with his companion, Illuminatus, who, it is said, had a basic knowledge of and skill with the Arabic language. The probable reason for the meeting was the desire by Francis to convert the Sultan to Christianity.
Efforts at conversion, at the time, place, and political climate in the region at which the meeting took place, could have cost Francis his life. In fact, some sources say that, at the very least, Francis was quite open to what would have effectively been seen as his invitation to martyrdom. Other sources clearly hint at the strong possibility that death, as a result of such a meeting, was clearly something Francis was very aware of and accepted.
For whatever reason, Frances and Illuminatus made it to Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil. And astonishingly, all three men survived the encounter. And even more astonishingly, Francis and Illuminatus remained the honored guests of The Sultan for an entire week.
There is little doubt that the only reason all parties concerned survived a week-long visit is because of some expression of interspirituality, mutual religious tolerance, and some form of deep mutual respect. There is, however, another assumption that can also be made. Given the Christian beliefs of the times and also the fervor with which Francis embodied those beliefs, it is not at all a stretch to imagine that it was Francis, not the Sultan, whose heart was most importantly transformed by their time together. For there is no evidence whatsoever that Francis attempted to convert Al-Malik al-Kamil. For if he had done so, surely he would not have survived the encounter.