Warren Larson is adjunct professor at Columbia International University and former director of the Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies. He and his wife, Carol, live in Vancouver, Canada.
What St. Francis Can Teach Us about Christian Witness to Muslims
The world was recently surprised to learn that the new Pope washed the feet of a Muslim woman prisoner. Pope Francis has done well to take on the name and imitate the deeds of one known to befriend the poor and minister to the needy. It is known that St. Francis chose to live simply when he could have enjoyed a life of luxury. He chose to serve when he could have lorded it over others. He chose to love in a context of hate.
What is less known is an incident that took place nearly 1,000 ago when St. Francis met a Muslim. The date was 1219, and as the purposeless 5th Crusade was dragging on and on, St. Francis and few chosen friends prayed about what most Christians at that time thought was a senseless and foolhardy mission: convert the most powerful Muslim personage in the entire world. Attempting to win no less than the Kamil Sultan of Egypt was incredible to say the least; such faith and holy audacity.
Francis took a dozen brothers through Syria and then on to Egypt. The Pope had said no, but he appealed to Cardinal Pelagius for permission to travel to the Sultan. So radical was the Sultan that he had promised a Byzantine gold piece for anyone who brought the head of a Christian. The Cardinal had described the Sultan as “treacherous, brainless, and false hearted,” but after some delay, granted permission because of the unusual zeal. Whereas other Christians saw the face of evil, Francis saw a man without the Savior, and compassion welled up inside of him.
For the last lap of the journey, Francis and his trusted friend, Illumimato, left the Crusader’s camp without looking back. As the friars walked straight into the battlefield, they were caught, beaten, and brought to the Sultan, who was happy because he thought they wanted to become Muslims.
“On the contrary,” said Francis, “We have a message that you should surrender your soul to God.” With this introduction, he proclaimed the Triune God and Jesus Christ the Savior of all. When the Sultan was advised to behead them, he declined, and invited them to stay on as guests. Francis said, “If you are willing to become converts of Christ, you and your people, I shall only be too glad to stay with you.”
Such a response to Arab hospitality was unheard of. Francis then offered to walk through fire if it would help convince the Muslim leader. If he would come out unharmed, the Sultan should be prepared to embrace Christ. The Sultan demurred, but was impressed, and offered presents, which Francis declined to accept. Kamil became even more amazed and permitted him to preach the gospel in his household, and upon his departure, asked the friar to pray that God would show him the right way.
Unlike the Franciscan missionary, Raymond Lull, martyred in 1315 by an angry mob in Algeria, St. Francis was not known for his work among Muslims. In fact, this seems to be the only account on record of his labor among them. Nevertheless, his faith, and the power of his witness are useful principles for missionaries among Muslims today.
Evidently, the Sultan did not convert, for it was he who retook Jerusalem. But had it not been for the dismal failure and frustration of the crusades, Francis would never have set out on his mission. Attitudes toward Muslims during the crusades were hostile beyond what we can imagine, yet St. Francis was motivated by compassion. Historian Stephen Neil[i] says it was the manifestation of a new era: now by love and good deeds, conversion was to take place, not by force of arms. Currently, the threat of extremist Islam is causing many Christians to hate Muslims, but this is not the response for which our Lord is looking.
Travelling across a battlefield and offering to walk through fire may seem reckless, but these reveal a willingness to die for the faith. Soon thereafter, several Franciscan missionaries were sent to the Kingdom of Morocco, where five were martyred for Christ. We also need courage, not only to lay down our lives if necessary, but to speak the truth. We must strive to be winsome and tactful, but we cannot contextualize our way around the offense of the cross, the triune nature of God, or the fact that Jesus is the Son of God.
Finally, St. Francis is often quoted as saying, "Preach the gospel at all times and use words when necessary." God only knows who said it, but it does not sound at all like St. Francis. Mark Galli, senior editor of Christianity Today, and Catholic writer, Emily Stimpson, demonstrate in no uncertain terms that his entire life was characterized by verbalizing the gospel.[ii] Proclamation cannot be excluded from Christian witness. Few Muslims in our world understand the good news. They wake up with no church, no Bible, and no one to tell them about the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Five times a day from countless minarets in their midst, they hear God is great, but who will tell them God is love?
[i] Stephen Neil, A History of Christian Mission, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.
[ii] In a biography of St. Francis, Galli says, "This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it. The problem is he did not say it. Nor did he live it. nd those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age." See The Good Book blog >> Similarly, in "Pope Francis and St. Francis: Preach the Gospel always. And for the love of God, use words" Stimpson exhorts us to emulate St. Francis in Christian witness. See Catholic Vote >>