Musashi’s way; Trump as the Other.

by Modaser Shah


In order to see, act…
In order to stay the same, change
(Heinz von Foerster)

You can’t face yourself or turn away from yourself because you are IT
What do you need to understand? Can the eye see itself?
(Zen saying )

In order to see, we need to face it (whatever the it may happen to be)  and to get through, we must act. So what do we do? Mullah Nasruddin, the sage of Sufi lore, is likely to answer: Look in the mirror! You can face yourself and the eye can see itself, in it. The mirror is other people.

Miyamoto Musashi, Japan’s foremost swordsman, philosopher/painter,  says, “If you don’t know others, you don’t know yourself.” He advises, in a utilitarian vein, “Do not do things  which are useless.” This would disappoint Nasruddin, as he is wont to counsel things that seem useless or worse (his strategy seems to be to lead people to go beyond thinking and yet think again, perhaps, in a new way: to unlearn and begin to learn .  However,  the Mullah would certainly concur with the samurai that “..there is more than one path to the top of the mountain.” (The Book of Five Rings,  1645 ). Musashi also states, “If you know the Way broadly, you will see it in everything.”  In other words, the way of the sword became the way of painting, art, of living and dying. And then giving it up (in his case, the sword) became possible for him; clinging to it was no longer necessary.  The way of the sword became the way of no sword. I think Bruce Lee was referring to this situation when he talked about his way as the way of no way.

Knowing and realizing ,or, becoming, oneself is possible only via  the other, according to Musashi.

A Sufi saying seems relevant here: ” The meaning of life is to plant a tree, under whose shade we do not expect to sit.”  ( Nelson Henderson ). The other deserves that place of solace and peace. In Nasruddin’s story of the lost keys, he needed an other to complete the narrative and achieve/convey insight into man’s blind spots, into the yin and yang , light and dark, the dialectic of being , of knowing and unknowing, of life and death.

Rumi expresses our need for the other poetically:

Be grateful for whoever comes

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond

The other here refers to the other or alien outside and inside ourselves ( i.e., unwanted feelings, thoughts etc. ) .

We need the other to know ourselves; however, like anything else, if this is carried beyond reason,a surrender to the other results, rather than self knowledge. Just as the other can be dehumanized, so can the self. A current example:

Trump, what he symbolizes,  seems to be the other,  for the United States in general but for the Republican Party, in particular, the shadow,  the dark side, long disavowed, disowned, as if not existing. The Republicans , in facing the shadow, could learn a great deal about themselves, their values, their moral compass, their strength of character. Instead, mostly what seems to be happening is: surrender, no increase in self knowledge, in the face of a strong personality. He also represents a kind of stress test for the US system of government, for the part represented by Lincoln. Trump will pass but this dark aspect of society will remain, posing a challenge from time to time; and an opportunity for betterment, if faced sans denial, illusions ,delusions,paranoia.


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Questions, Terrorism, and Nasruddin’s beard

by Modaser Shah

Consider this Nasruddin scenario: Mullah Nasruddin has become a celebrity, much sought after. This forces him to resort to disguises to evade “fans” and their questions. A beard, if long enough, would serve purpose. One morning the Mullah finds himself in the company of a  youngster who, after scrutinizing the Mullah’s face, asks hesitantly, “Sir, I was wondering whether your beard stays over the blanket or under it when you go to bed at night.”

For the first time in his life, the sage is stumped. He scratches his head in puzzlement, “Son, I honestly don’t know,  I haven’t paid attention, but I appreciate your asking it. It deserves some observation and thought.”

After some time,when the Mullah runs into the youngster again, his beard is gone; the latter  obviously disappointed, has an inquiring, baffled look. The Mullah smiles indulgently, ” My boy, yours was some question; I didn’t know if it was right to leave the beard above the blanket or pull it below the blanket at night. I just couldn’t sleep anymore. My beard had to go.”

In this story the Mullah seems to have been steeped in Taoist thinking: treating a trifling matter with the utmost seriousness whereas previously he had been seen to treat utterly weighty questions with lightness.

The beard became a quandary; he addressed it by eliminating the source . Why bother thinking? Why  have a choice? It is like the wall on the Mexican border; it eliminates the problem. Except that it doesn’t really. However, in the short term, it relieves us of having to think and make choices, ethical, moral, and political. The same goes for  the climate change or the global warming issue. Why not just avoid having to think and to make choices? (Incidentally, those of us who oppose the wall, are also often motivated by the wish to avoid the exertion that thinking & making choices require. It is not just a matter of saying no).

For some problems, the Mullah’s “solution” may seem like a lazy avoidance of thinking and making choices. However, for other situations, the suggestion may work perfectly well, such as in public health. If tobacco and alcohol consumption is thought to cause certain diseases, then trying to eliminate these habits makes sense. By analogy, if D’aesh is deemed to be the cause of terrorist activity, “completely wiping it out” makes sense.

However, we will still have to make choices, because D’aesh (or ISIS), apart from being a problem, is also a symptom of other things. Terrorism, like the Mullah’s beard, is likely to grow back. Questions must continue to be raised. The Mullah’s motto was: make light of the serious, problematize the day-to-day, the familiar.  Stay on the surface to plumb the depths.

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Laalii (The Crimson of Shyness)

by Ali Hammad

This is an ode to Love. Love is the theme of Existence and Creation in the Sufi thought.


The poetry is in a strict metre and rhyme that characterizes what is known as “ghazal” in Urdu and Farsi. The original text is in Urdu. Transliteration in English and Hindi is provided. The English translation is in the iambic pentameter, but without rhyme.

پھیل اگر لالی گئی رخ تیرے پر جانِ وفا
نام تیرا آ گیا تھا بس کہ دورانِ دُعا

گل دہن تُو سارقِ من، اے سمن، نازِ چمن
باد ہے انداز کی تُو اور ہے بارانِ ادا

میں پڑا بے حال تیرے جال میں ہوں کس طرح
جانتا تھا خُوب گرچہ طورِ خُوبانِ خدا

شاعرِ بے رنگ مجھ سا دے سکے گا تجھ کو کیا
کچھ ادھورے لفظ میرے اور ہے گردانِ وفا

علی حمّاد حاؔمی

phail agar laalii ga.ii ruKH tere par jaan-e-vafaa
naam teraa aa gayaa thaa bas ki dauraan-e-du.aa

फैल अगर लाली गई रुख़ तेरे पर जान-ए-वफ़ा
नाम तेरा आ गया था बस कि दौरान-ए-दुआ

gul dahan tuu saariq-e-man, ai saman, naaz-e-chaman
baad hai andaaz kii tuu aur hai baaraan-e-adaa

गुल दहन तू सारिक़-ए-मन, ऐ समन, नाज़-ए-चमन
बाद है अंदाज़ की तू और है बारान-ए-अदा

mai.n pa.Daa behaal tere jaal me.n huu.n kis tarah
jaantaa thaa KHuub garche taur-e-KHuubaan-e-KHudaa

मैं पड़ा बेहाल तेरे जाल में हूँ किस तरह
जानता था ख़ूब गरचे तौर-ए-ख़ूबान-ए-ख़ुदा mujh saa de sake gaa tujh ko kyaa
kuchh adhuure lafz mere aur hai gardaan-e-vafaa

शाइ’र-ए-बे-रंग मुझ सा दे सके गा तुझ को क्या
कुछ अधूरे लफ़्ज़ मेरे और है गर्दान-ए-वफ़ा

Ali Hammad ‘Hami’
अली हम्माद ‘हामी’

English translation:

The crimson shyness on your face, my love
Is it because you feature in my thought?

The face and soul of flowers you’ve stolen
You are a breeze refined; torrential grace

Imprisoned I’m in the lattice of love
Though well I knew the wiles o’ the pretty

From songsters like me, lacklustre who are
What can you expect but meaningless words?

The above version is the abbreviated, sung version of the ghazal. For the full text of the ghazal, please click the following link:

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The Defeat of “Love Trumps Hate”

Donald Trump official portrait.jpg

by Modaser Shah

Zen, which is mostly practice and not theory, requires three things: Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Perseverance.

Following the recent election of Donald Trump, to many practitioners of Zen, and the Sufis, and the humanists, and the universalists, it may seem that they are in the midst of Great Doubt: global discouragement, loss of faith, and loss of goodwill. Here, in Trumpland, the erstwhile great United States that is now the Great-Again America, the shameful episode of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is seemingly being viewed as  a precedent, rather than a stain. (Perhaps slavery will be seen as another precedent.)

At the spectacle of defeat of love at the hands of hate, it seems foolish to look beyond the immediate present. Some friends of mine have told me that they are in shock and mourning after the elections. Indeed, it is hard to see any light in this dark. But wait; what would you expect Nasruddin the foolish Sufi sage (or the sagacious Sufi fool) to say? To many, a dark night may be the time to give up search and hope, but Nasruddin would say that a dark night is the time to begin a quest (as he shows in some of his fables).

Then there is the matter of perseverance. While energies circulate between Great Doubt and Great Faith, Great Perseverance is what sustains the search and takes it forward.

Despite talk of Muslims being required to be register and being subject to special surveillance, questioning, and restrictions, many people may not know that there exists a group called Muslims for Trump, as there are African Americans and Latinos for Trump. Obviously, these people saw something good (or something good for themselves) in this spewer of poisonous rhetoric. In doing so, they may have exhibited Great Faith, but self-interest may have blinded them to the Great Doubt that should accompany Great Faith. Or, perhaps, they wished to avoid the pain and suffering that goes with Great Doubt, especially in the presence of Great Perseverance.

Derrida the deconstructionist the Arab Jew (there is such a thing) wrote somewhere that justice is never achieved but must always be fought for.  Similarly, love never trumps hate. The best that can be hoped for is a standoff, a workable impasse. If and when love triumphs, the people who believe themselves to represent love must not mistreat the people they believe to represent hate. As is true for Trump-admirers in Muslim minority lands, Muslims in Muslim majority lands should muster sufficient Great Doubt so as not to throw hateful rhetoric and cruelty towards their minorities. And in this determination we, the humans, should persevere.

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Absorbing Information

by Navid Zaidi
The subatomic particles that make up everything in the cosmos, or the laws of Physics, Gravity, Thermodynamics and so on, are considered to be the basic building blocks of the universe.
However, some physicists now claim there is something even more basic; Information itself.  They believe the universe works like a cosmic computer, a giant quantum computer of unimaginable complexity, constantly crunching tiny bits of information.
According to Dr Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University, information is much more like a fundamental concept. It really has to do with whether a physical system can exist in more than one state. This is just like tossing a coin, heads and tails, and taking a look at it, and you find, for example, heads, then you gain a bit of information.
When you select from a range of possibilities and find there is one actual outcome, then you gain information.
And ultimately all science, all of our experience of the world, all of our observations come from interrogating Nature, and gaining bits of information.
Now, what is life? It is individual, and its highest form, so far, is the Person in which the individual becomes a self-contained exclusive center of experience.
We appreciate our center of experience in our Personality itself, in our acts of perceiving, judging and willing and in this process we are constantly interacting with information.
In other words, human life is a kind of tension caused by the information invading the Person, and the Person invading the information, gladiator-like, in an arena of mutual invasion. Our personality is present in this arena as a directive energy and is formed and disciplined by its own experience.
Physically as well as spiritually human being is a self-contained center, but not yet a complete individual. The ideal of humanity is not self-negation but self-affirmation and they attain to this ideal by absorbing more and more information. The less information we possess, the less our individuality and uniqueness. One who attains the most information is the completest person.
This view of humanity is opposed to that of all forms of Pantheistic Sufism which regard absorption in a universal life or soul as the final aim of our salvation.
Perhaps the true person is not finally absorbed in the universe. On the contrary, they continuously absorb bits of information into themselves and become more unique and individual by mastering the world of matter.
Life is a spiritual principle and the greatest obstacle in the way of life is matter. But matter is not evil, since it enables the inner powers of life to unfold themselves. Life removes all obstructions in its march by collecting and absorbing information.
Thus, human life attains freedom by the removal of all obstructions in its way. It is partly free, partly determined, and reaches fuller freedom by absorbing more and more information.
In one word, life is an endeavor for freedom.
Davies and Gregersen:  Information and the Nature of Reality
Dr Muhammad Iqbal:  The Secrets of the Self
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Personality and Our Muslim Identity

by Navid Zaidi

Life is a forward assimilative movement and in humans the center of life becomes a Person. Personality is strengthened by Love. Although the word ‘Love’ is used in a very wide sense, it means the desire to assimilate, to absorb. Its highest form is the creation of values and ideals and the effort to achieve them. The whole gamut of art, religion, philosophy and ethics is based on the human desire to create values and ideals.

Personality is a state of tension and can continue only if the state of tension is maintained, otherwise relaxation will ensue and damage the structure of human personality. For the state of tension to continue requires a continuous creation of values and ideals. We must criticize our values, perhaps change them and, if necessary, create new worths; since the immortality of a people, as Nietzsche put it, depends upon incessant creation of new worth.

Throughout the history of humanity it seems that the process of creation of ideals and values in every culture has taken some form of Naturalism peculiar to its own worldview, and in some sort of ‘ism’. Thus, the modern humanity fondly hopes to unravel fresh sources of energy that results in the creation of new loyalties such as nationalism, patriotism, atheism and communism.

These we might call the ‘new religions of earthly salvation.’ Unable to continue believing in God, the Moderns invented substitute religions, godless spiritualities professing a radical atheism and clinging to the notion of giving meaning to human existence and, in some cases, justifying why we should die for them.

No wonder then that Nietzsche described patriotism and nationalism as ‘sickness and unreason’ and ‘the strongest force against culture.’

Since Personality is the most valuable achievement of humans, it becomes extremely important for us to see to it that it does not regress. Thus, our Personality gives us a standard of value; that which strengthens Personality is good, that which weakens it is bad. All values and ideals must be judged from the point of view of Personality.

It is in view of the fortification of his or her Personality that a Muslim sees Islam as an enterprise to harness this ultimate principle of value and thereby reintegrate the forces of one’s own Personality.

However, no doubt we live in an era of Islamophobia. Islam is under attack from the forces of Criticism and Scientific Specialism. Indeed, all faiths are under such attack. Muslims are in a strange predicament. Islamophobia is robbing us of faith in our own future.

Says Dr Sir Muhammad Iqbal (Indian poet-philosopher, 1877-1938):

‘…….It is the future which must always control the present; to the species taken as a whole, its unborn members are perhaps more real than its existing members whose immediate interests are subordinated and even sacrificed to the future interests of that unborn infinity which slowly discloses itself from generation to generation.’  (The Muslim Community-A Sociological Study. Lecture delivered at the MAO College, Aligarh, India in 1910).

Now, it is from this standpoint – from the standpoint of the future that we need to test the worth of our Muslim personality and identity.

The basic difference between the Muslim identity and other identities is in our unique conception of nationality. It is not the unity of language or country or any specific economic interest that forms the basic principle of our nationality. We all believe in a certain view of the universe and we participate in the same historical tradition. It is because of those factors that we are members of the society founded by the Prophet of Islam.

Our nationality is based on a purely abstract idea. Its life-principle is not dependent upon any particular people or country. In other words, with us nationality is purely an idea; it has no objective basis which means that our only rallying-point as a people is a kind of purely subjective agreement in a certain view of the world.

This point of universal agreement on which our Muslim identity depends has basically a national rather than intellectual significance for us.

Islam has a much deeper significance for us than merely religious; it has a peculiarly national meaning for us.

Our communal life is unthinkable without a firm grasp of the Islamic Principle. The idea of Islam is, so to speak, our eternal home or country where we live, move and have our being. To us it is above everything else, as England is above all to the Englishman and Deutschland uber alles to the German.

The moment our grasp of the Islamic Principle is loosened that our identity is gone and we become an abstract, disembodied universality like a chemical or mathematical formula, a nameless nothing.

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Nasruddin’s Incompleteness Theorem: Can the “Great” Past/the Promised Land be Realized?

by Modaser Shah




Mullah Nasruddin, the wise fool of Sufism, had a narrative that was often obscure. Once when he left something incomplete and unexplained people asked him for more. He said, “The cause and effect cannot be in the same story.” He sounds like a postmodernist! Language cannot convey completion.

Every narrative must, it seems, remain incomplete. Just as every human being, every product of the human mind, every system of philosophy, every ideology, is incomplete.
Moses cannot get to the Promised Land. Perhaps as well for him, given the kind of bloodshed that ensues after him. Instead, Joshua gets to go as a conqueror, in the Old Testament narrative. A new narrative has to be created to separate cause and effect. (In the story of the lost keys, Nasruddin cannot, must not, find his keys, in the light or in the dark.) The Promised Land is not a peaceful Garden of Eden. It’s a mixed blessing.

The story is, will always be, incomplete. Lacan speaks of a surplus and a lack. There is always something unsaid in what is said. Derrida said, “There is nothing but the text,” yet the text cannot be without a lack. A surplus remains outside of our grasp. Meaning is always deferred. The subject is divided. Moses & Joshua cannot be in the same story. Moses was the beginning, Joshua the end. Yet, says the Kabbalah, “The beginning is in the end, the end in the beginning.” Nasruddin was medieval yet postmodernist.

Contrary to what he says about narratives, the Mullah continues to try to take on the challenge: of trying to say the unsayable. A Zen teacher said, “To do this practice (Zen), we have to give up hope.” Nasruddin seems not to give up the hope of completing what can’t be completed. He tries to disprove his own incompleteness theorem, but always ends up showing the futility of the task. He hopes, I think, that those willing to learn from a fool, will learn to find hopelessness and in it some hope and wisdom. Like the lost keys in the dark.

Ideological groups like ISIS (and also, for example, the demagogues, representing the shadowy side of US politics in the current US election cycle) attempt to defy reality as reflected in the Mullah’s theorem. They deny history and the passage of time with rhetoric and actions. Both Da’ish (ISIS) and Donald Trump are looking for the “great,” i.e., perfect, narrative to be found in some past period.

Tansen was  the royal musician in the court of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor; legend has it that his music could melt a stone. Can destructive rhetoric or actions melt time, turn back the clock, bring the “glorious” past back? Not, apparently, in the same text.

A Sufi saying: The truth is always somewhere else. Like Nasruddin’s lost keys.

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Ishq Kia Hai (The Substance of Love)



عشق کیا ہے؟ کیا وفا؟ اور کیا ہے آس؟
بھوک ملنے کی یہ جلنے کی ہے پیاس

بندگی ہے نام جس کا میں ہی ہوں
قید میں ہیں آپ کی میرے حواس

ہوں جدا شعلہ الاؤ سے میں ایک
اور تنہائی نہ آئے مجھ کو راس

میں معلّم ہوں وفا کا بس کہ یوں
ہر پتنگا ہو کے جاتا میرے پاس

اک پریشاں سا تفکّر زندگی
ہے ثباتی گر کوئی تیرا قیاس

……………..علی حمّاد حاؔمی


ishq kia hai, kia vafā, aur kia hai aas
bhuuk milne kī, ye jalne kī hai pyās

bandagī hai nām jis kā, maiñ hī huuñ
qaid meñ haiñ aap kī mere havās

huuñ judā sho.alā alāv se maiñ ek
aur tanhāī na aa.ē mujh ko rās

maiñ moallim huuñ vafā ka bas ki yuuñ
har patiñgā ho ke jātā mere pās

ik pareshāñ sā tafakkur zindagī
hai sabātī gar koī, tera qayās

………………… Ali Hammad Hami


Love? Loyalty? Hope?
A quest for reunion, a yearning to burn

An epitome of relinquishment, I am
Ever since you took charge of my senses

I’m a spark ejected from the conflagration
And I can’t come to terms with this aloneness

I am the preceptor of attachment, behold!
Each (flame-loving) moth comes to me (for initiation)

Nothing but a stray thought, this life
No constancy hither, other than your thought

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Nasruddin’s Burro and Violence, or How to Save Face

by Modaser Shah

Should we believe Nasruddin or his burro?  Do we favor an animal over a fine human being? Before I narrate that story, let’s examine some recent events.

Iran’s president Rouhani said sometime ago that there was no place for violence in Islam. What could he have meant by this?  Does he define these two words, Islam and violence differently from common usage? That where there is violence, Islam does not exist? Or perhaps, where violence exists, Islam doesn’t?

Perhaps it is violence of a certain kind that is claimed not to be compatible with Islam, or being a Muslim. Violence, as usually conceived, has always existed. Three of the four Khulafa-e Rashidun (the Rightly Guided Caliphs) died in a violent manner. Perhaps the perpetrators were not, by definition, adherents of Islam. Does this mean that if someone commits violence of a sort, he/she is to be considered an apostate?

Perhaps, it is violence against legitimate Muslims that is decried as inconsistent with the faith. But who is legitimate? Any person of any faith or no faith can claim legitimacy of his/her belief.

So, Nasruddin or his burro?

Perhaps it is unjustified violence that is being disowned, not the violence justified by divine decree or by fatwa, such as the Iranian fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, which has, as far as I can tell, not been rescinded. Is the action ordained by this fatwa non-violent?

Perhaps Rouhani is simply saying that the Islam he follows has no place for violence. That his government would renounce violence, if he had the power. If so, he runs the risk of  a fatwa against him by the powers that be.

As far as one can tell, Da’ish has never claimed that their version of the religion disfavors violence. If they did, the gulf between their words and their actions would be too glaring. However, even in the case of Mr Rouhani, there remains a gulf between words and actions. The words are doing violence to the facts. Is he willing to see the facts, reality?

Now the story. A friend went to Nasruddin’s house  early one  morning and asked if he could borrow his burro. The Mullah apologized that he could not grant this favor because someone else had already taken the animal. To demonstrate his “sincerity,” he was effusive in his apology. Meanwhile, the donkey, not having been consulted in the matter, broke its silence and started to bray loudly. The friend was shocked, having found out, in the braying of the burro, that the Mullah had lied.  The Mullah, never one to acknowledge a faux pas, started to accuse his friend of having such little regard for their friendship that he (Mullah’s friend) would take the “word” of a burro over the Mullah’s, cursing the times that had degraded ties of friendship to such an extent! He was offended. The point for him was not that he lied, but that his word has been given less value than that of his animal.

A point missed, a face saved. A dialogue broken off. The casualty: truth.

And for us to ponder: Actions or words? His burro or Nasruddin? Facts or face?

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St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Kamil: A Bold Christian-Muslim Encounter

St Francis

by Navid Zaidi

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was the privileged son of a wealthy Italian merchant but gave up his possessions and adopted a life of peace, poverty, compassion and nonviolence.

In a moment of conversion, while praying on his knees before a crucifix in 1205, Jesus spoke to him from the image on the cross: “Francis! go, repair my house which is falling completely to ruin.” Francis saw this as a request to transform the entire Christian church. He was reborn as a peacemaker and was convinced that God wanted him to bring the world a message of peace.

He adopted the signature greeting “May the Lord give you peace” and constantly opposed warfare, arrogance and the violent culture of his day.

In 1215, Pope Innocent called for the Fifth Crusade and in the spring of 1217 the armies from all across Europe slowly gathered and headed for Egypt. The Muslim and Christian armies camped across the Nile. As the war raged on over the next two years, thousands were killed on both sides.

Sultan Malik al-Kamil, ruler of Egypt and a nephew of the great Kurd warrior Saladin, repeatedly tried to negotiate peace by returning Jerusalem to the Crusaders but the pope rejected the offer each time.

While men slaughtered one another in God’s name beside the waters of the Nile, Francis gathered his community of brothers in Italy. Francis had always dreamed of preaching the Christian faith peacefully to the Muslims and yearned for an audience with a Muslim leader. Now his moment had arrived and he was going to forbid war and be a peacemaker.

In June 1219, Francis took a few brothers with him and sailed on a perilous journey across the Mediterranean to the war zone.

Upon reaching the banks of the Nile, Francis was deeply grieved to see the horrific sight of casualties of war on both sides. He retreated into deep prayers and contemplation and wondered what he could do. He began to preach vigorously against the war, forbidding it and threatening disaster but was faced with foulmouthed jeers and taunts; to the Christian soldiers the barefoot little holy man was a heretic. Despite this, Francis continued his opposition to war but all of his efforts were to no avail.

Finally, Francis decided that he would act and he and brother Illuminato would venture out to meet the Muslims in their own camp. Francis understood the risks; death or imprisonment were the likely outcomes of his plan to cross the enemy lines during wartime. But Francis had a bold idea to prevent bloodbath. If the Crusade leaders would not seek peace, he would.

As Francis and Illuminato crossed the enemy lines, the Muslim sentries saw them and thought they were messengers or had come to convert to Islam. Indeed, soldiers on both sides of the Crusade had converted.

Francis, unable to speak the soldiers’ language, cried, “Sultan ! Sultan !” The soldiers seized them and led them to the sultan’s tent.

The future saint and the sultan were roughly the same age, al-Kamil was 39, Francis 38.

Francis stood before al-Kamil. The sultan looked over the odd duo, barefoot monks dressed in coarse, patched down tunics. The sultan thought that the Franks had sent them to his tent with a response to his latest peace proposal. The sultan, made weary by war, desperately wanted a deal that would end the Christians’ siege of the port city of Damietta where his people were dying of disease and starvation.

“May the Lord give you peace.” Francis surprised the sultan with his standard greeting. It perplexed the sultan. He noticed the similarity between Francis’ greeting and the familiar Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum or “peace be upon you.”

The Quran urges to be courteous to those who use a greeting of peace: Say not to those who greet you with peace, “You are not a believer.” (The Quran: Women 4:94) and When you are greeted with a greeting, greet in return with what is better than it, or (at least) return it equally. (The Quran: Women 4:86)

Uncertain about his visitors’  intentions, the sultan asked if they had come as representatives of the pope’s army.

“We are ambassadors of the Lord Jesus Christ”, Francis responded, asserting that he was God’s ambassador, not the pope’s.

This daring little man and his companion intrigued Sultan al-Kamil – they even resembled the similarly dressed Sufi men the sultan revered for their mystical insight into Islam. (Sufism is not a sect of Islam, but a peculiar influence within Islam.)

“If you wish to believe us, we will hand over your soul to God,” Francis continued.

Whatever Francis said, the sultan became very attentive to and listened closely. It was an amazing scene of a monk preaching the Christian faith to a Muslim monarch in the middle of a war.

The sultan’s religious advisers were rushed into his tent. Once they found out that al-Kamil was going to let Francis preach, they warned him that this would violate Islamic law.

Influenced by Sufism, al-Kamil believed he was acting within Islamic law in listening to Francis and Illuminato. The Quran does not prescribe or even refer to the death penalty for blasphemy. Indeed, the Quran suggests tolerance in the situation faced by the sultan: And you shall certainly hear much that will insult you from those who received the Scripture before you and from the polytheists. But if you persevere patiently and guard against evil, this will be the best course with which to determine your affairs. (The Quran: The House of Imran 3:186)

Al-Kamil had a prominent Sufi as his religious adviser and he saw Francis in the light of Sufism and the Muslim tradition calling for respect for Christian monks.

The Muslims’ relations with the Christians are determined for them by the Quran, which says: And you will find nearer to the friendship of the believers those men who call themselves Christians. This is because among them are learned men and monks, and because they are not arrogant. (The Quran: The Repast 5:82)

In their rough, patched up tunics Francis and Illuminato looked like Sufis, since the very name of Sufis came from the Arabic word for wool, the scratchy material used to make their robes. Like Francis, they also wore a cord rather than a belt.

Francis was a dynamic preacher. He preached from the heart and the sultan and his court listened to Francis attentively. The discussions went on for several days and had multiple participants. It was a peaceful exchange of ideas about the two competing religions. Francis and Illuminato were treated as honored guests in the Muslim camp.

Francis was deeply impressed by the Muslim religious practices, especially the call to prayer.

The sultan offered Francis many gifts but Francis turned them down. Francis did, however, agreed to accept a token of their meeting; an ivory horn used to make the Muslim call for prayer, which is now displayed in a room of relics at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Francis used it to call people to hear him preach on his return to Italy.

Although Francis was disappointed not to have converted the sultan, he had shown Sultan al-Kamil what it meant to be a true Christian. He and al-Kamil had found a way of talking peacefully during a gruesome war. Sultan then sent Francis and Illuminato back to the Christian camp under his protection.

The Fifth Crusade ended in 1221 in a decisive victory for al-Kamil which resulted in a great number of losses on both sides and eventually in the surrender of the pope’s army. Al-Kamil agreed to an eight-year peace agreement with Europe.

Francis returned to Italy soon after his encounter with the sultan but held the sultan deep within his heart. He grew ill but his yearning for peace intensified. He constantly preached to abolish war and renew peace agreements.

In the summer of 1224, the call for another crusade went out across the land. Francis was struck with grief and went on a solitary retreat to observe a forty-day period of fasting and prayer. It was during this solitude that Francis had a miracle in which he received the wounds of the crucified Jesus on the basis of which he was later canonized as a saint.

When Francis emerged from this vision, he wrote a prayer on a parchment that resembled the Muslim meditation on the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. Francis was apparently inspired by the prayers he learned about while in the Middle East.

On the same parchment, Francis drew the head of a man at the bottom. The face Francis drew represented none other than Sultan al-Kamil. It was a heartfelt prayer for God to protect Sultan al-Kamil and bring peace.

Francis wept through his last years. He stayed within a dim cell of a church and died on October 3, 1226. He was canonized as St. Francis of Assisi in 1228.

Sultan al-Kamil prospered in his remaining years and died in March 1238 having ruled Egypt as viceroy and sultan for some 40 years.

The encounter between Francis and the sultan provided the foundation for the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986.

St. Francis’s encounter with Sultan al-Kamil in 1219 can be an antidote, a reminder that responding to violence through violence cannot succeed, that goodness and respect can really change hearts.

The dynamic of stirring a populace to war has not changed over time; it still begins with demonizing the enemy. Francis saw through that.

The road to peace is for all of us, on individual basis, at personal level. Francis took matters into his own hands by bravely seeking out a personal relationship with the sultan. And al-Kamil went deeper into his own religious tradition to retrieve the theme of respect for holy Christians, even though he was under attack by the pope’s army.

Hostility is more likely when one people is distanced from another and demonized. Peace gets a chance when the divide between people is bridged through personal relationships.

This article is based on the following book:

The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace

by Paul Moses, Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College, CUNY, New York.

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