OF ASSISI & CAIRO
PAST & PRESENT
By Mustafa Ceric, Ph.D.
Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia
Who could have imagined at the time that their meeting eight hundred years ago (1219-2019) would have such a great significance for our times? Well, it seems that the Christian Saint Francis of Assisi and the Muslim sultan al-Malik al-Kamal of Cairo had such an imagination when they met at Damietta in Egypt. It seems, they had imagined the necessity of a Muslim-Christian dialectical spiritualism before Karl Marx came up with his idea of dialectical materialism. Exactly, we, as humanity, are today in the midst of the competition (not the conflict, pace to Marx) of spiritual forces, whereby the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) stand at the front of a challenging global dialectical spiritualism caused not by material, but rather by spiritual needs of humankind. The more we meet and talk with each other, the more we realize that no one of us possess the whole truth, but each of us possess enough truth to hold fast to his/her faith and to strive for his/her success Here and his/her salvation in the Hereafter. And more importantly, the more we exchange our faith experiences, the more we realize how much we are in need of a spiritual enlightenment from each other. Indeed, in that cognition we can see the reason why God Almighty has made us not to be only ONE FHAITH, but He, Almighty, made us to be of many faiths or religions so that we may test each other, correct each other, support each other and compete with each other in good morals and good deeds. This is called a “dialectical spiritualism” and, if you wish, a “spiritual revolution” of the 21st century.
Thus, when Nedda Alberghini, the president of “Case degli Angeli Association” mailed me to write a preface her theatrical opera: “A man called Francis”, I was not hesitant to reply, but rather moved by this historic meeting between St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt. However, I felt somewhat embarrassed by the current situation of the Muslim-Christian relations in some part of the world. I have no intention to advise the Christians. But, I have the duty to advise the Muslims that they should be the avant-garde interfaith interlocutors – indeed, the avant-garde intercultural communicators. The Muslims do not find the stimulus for such a task at this time only in the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, the Prophetic practice, but also they can find that in many historical experiences such as this one of the Sultan of Egypt and St. Francis. In the Holy Qur’an of Chapter 3,of Verse 199 we read this noble statement: – Certainly among the people of the Book (Christians and Jews) are those who believe in God and in what has been revealed to you and what had been revealed to them (Old Testament and New Testament). They bow in humility before God as well! And they do not trade for paltry gain the word of God. Their reward is verily with their Lord! And swift is the reckoning of God!
Among many positive historical examples of the Muslim-Christian constructive dialogue and civilizational cooperation, I would like to highlight here the hospitality of the ancient Ethiopian King, Negus, Arabic Al-Najāshi, who had offered in the seventh century the safe haven to the first Muslim refugees, who had to flee from the persecution of the Meccan heathens. The Muslims never forget this noble gesture of Negus on behalf of Christianity. In fact, the quoted Qur’anic verse above was revealed as a reminder of the goodness of the Christian Negus after some Muslims mistreated some Christians in Medina. Similarly, the conscious Christians always remember the noble gesture of the Muslim Noble Prince Abdelkader El Djezairi (1808-1883), who made his home the safe haven for the Christians in Damascus in 1860, when the local Druze attacked the Christian quarter, killing over 3,000 people. He sheltered large numbers of Christians, including the heads of several foreign consulates as well as religious groups such as the Sisters of Mercy in the safety of his house. His eldest sons were sent into the streets to offer any Christians under threat shelter under his protection, and Abdelkadir himself was said by many survivors to have played an instrumental part in saving them.
What motivated the Christian Noble Negus of Ethiopia to shelter the first Muslims from persecutions and what moved the Muslim Noble Prince Abdelkadir to take care of Christins among the Muslim majority in Damascus? The Negus had not read Thomas a Kempis (1380 – 1471) book “The Imitation of Christ”, but he, for sure, had had in mind and heart the Kemps’ idea of imitating Christ and despising all vanities on earth:
“He who follows Me, walks not in darkness”. By these words of Christ, wrote Kemps, we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart… Now, there are many who hear the Gospel often but care little for it because they have not the spirit of Christ… Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it. For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God? Vanity of vanities and all is vanity, except to love God and serve Him alone. This is the greatest wisdom — to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. It is vanity, therefore, to seek and trust in riches that perish. It is vanity also to court honor and to be puffed up with pride. It is vanity to follow the lusts of the body and to desire things for which severe punishment later must come. It is vanity to wish for long life and to care little about a well-spent life. It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come. It is vanity to love what passes quickly and not to look ahead where eternal joy abides. Often recall the proverb: “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.” Try, moreover, to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God”.
And, I am sure that the Muslim Prince Abdelkadir was aware of the spirit of this message of Islam that moved him to take care of Christians in Damascus:
“If you love God, imitate me (the Prophet)… God will love you” (Āl Imrān: 31). Thus, the Muslim love of God is his imitating of Prophet, and his imitating of Prophet is God’s loving of him. God loves man if you man imitating the Prophet and he is imitating the Prophet if he loves God. And the imitating of Prophet means that you are, first of all, familiar with Prophet’s personal human life (“ḥayāt”); with his prophetic walk of life (“sīrah”); with his prophetic way of life, (“sunnah”); with his prophetic moral life (“khuluq”); with the divine spirit in him, (“rūḥ”); with his human soul (“nafs”); with his human mind (“ʿaql”), and with his human heart (“qalb”). But, first things first the Muslim should know that love is the core of Prophet’s mission, the mission that is his walk of life – sīrah and his way of life – sunnah. And the seat of love is the human soul – nafs, where the divine spirit – rūḥ brings the seeds of divine love for humanity; and the home of human empathy is the human heart – qalb, where the human mind – ʿaql finds its prudence; and the human moral character – khuluq is a whole of a perfect man, who is imitating the Prophet in order to be loved by God and who is loving God and despising all hates on earth. Indeed where there is love there is no hate. And visa-versa, where there is hate, there is no love. Thus, loving God in your soul leads you to the imitating of Prophet in whose soul there is no seat for hate but for love, in whose spirit there is no seeds for hatred but for fondness, in whose heart there is no resentment but acceptance of the other. Thus, you can check yourself by yourself as to whether you are imitating the Prophet to gain the love of God or not by checking your soul, your spirit, your heart and your mind. If your soul is the seat of love instead of hate, you are imitating the Prophet, but if your soul is the seat of hate even a shred of it, you are not imitating the Prophet. You are far diverting from his walk of life – sīrah as well as from his way of his life – sunnah. No matter how you may justify your hate against your real or imagined enemy. The hate as such is neither the walk of life nor the way of life of the Prophet. Therefore, you are not imitating the Prophet and, therefore, you are not earning the love of God: “If you love God, imitate me… God will love you”.”
Are the Christians today ready to follow the way of Jesus in love of their neighbors like St Francis did and his sincere followers still do? Are the Muslims today ready to imitate the Prophet Muhammad as the Prince Abdelkadir did in Damascus? I believe that they are ready provided that they go back to the basics of their natural faith in their heart rather than in their artificial dogma of their mind. Two last centuries the Muslims and Christians were separated by the buffer of godlessness that made them strangers to each other in their faith. Now, as this buffer is collapsing, they have difficulty to understand each other in their faith because of a great deal of faithless faith in both of them. The idea of Assisi and regaining the memory this year of the historic meeting between the Christian Saint Francis of Assisi and the Muslim sultan al-Malik al-Kamal is the opportunity for the Christians to better understand the Christian message: “He who follows Me, walks not in darkness”, and for the Muslims to better comprehend the Islamic message: “If you love God, imitate me (the Prophet… God will love you”.
Hence, I join here my Muslim-Bosnian voice with the voice of the bishop of Assisi, His Grace Domenico Sorrentino, who has written his preface to Alberghini’s as well. I am not the Muslim Sultan to meet the Christian Saint like Francis, but I am the Muslim of Bosnia who likes to share and advance the dialectical spiritualism with His Grace Domenico Sorrentino so that we in Europe can live in peace without fear from genocide.
May God bless Europe, our common home and homeland.