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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]
2. 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 29  of August 1219 the Sultan, Al-Kâmil, proposes a truce
th

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.