In the Spirit of St Francis and the Sultan
I will readily admit that a book that purports to be American in context and Roman Catholic in theology is not the obvious book for the shelf of the METConnexion reader. While MET is far from a narrow and insular community, sources to assist with Christian – Muslim encounter might be searched for elsewhere. But let me have a go in convincing you of the value of this text.
It places itself in the context of a ‘clash of civilisations’ in the early 13th century between Christendom and Islam. Within this, Francis (of Assisi) risked his life to meet the Sultan (Malik al-Kamil) in Egypt in order to share Christ with the Muslim leader. History does not record their conversations, but it does record their friendship and mutual respect.
Using this as a basis, the book follows through in a number of areas where the example of this courageous initiative is applied to present circumstances. Part I offers ways that Muslims and Christians can move beyond stereotypes and see each other as people created by God; part II looks at social justice in both faiths; part III addresses aspects of shared history such as the crusades and 9/11 but also helpfully reminds us of much that has been positive; finally part IV points to ways that the shared social justice themes can be worked out for the common good. Discussion questions at the end of each chapter make the text one that could be used in a group study, and in particular where there might be a fledgling Muslim-Christian group.
I think this is all very helpful. What would have further added to the text would have been a discussion on the place of evangelism. This is particularly pertinent as Francis approached the Sultan with a clearly evangelistic motivation. Indeed, he risked his life primarily to share the gospel, rather than to initially see mutual understanding. A deep level of understanding, if not agreement, followed but it is this aspect of evangelism that is too often ignored or denied in positive inter-faith encounter.
Despite this, St Francis and the Sultan is a very helpful contribution to inter-faith literature, reminding us of a courageous, evangelistic Christian initiative in an era of hostility that produced unanticipated friendship and understanding. That alone should challenge us to action.