The spirit of hospitality offered to St Francis of Assisi by a Muslim Sultan was rekindled eight centuries later at St Francis Friary in Auckland.
To mark the 800th anniversary of the meeting between Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil and St Francis 800 years ago in Damietta, Egypt, Franciscans – secular and friars – invited members of their neighbouring mosque to supper.
Muslims mostly from the Masjid Umar in Mt Roskill made the short journey to the friary at Hillsborough on December 4, where the hosts provided vegetarian fare and the guests brought some meat dishes.
Muslims and Franciscans were able to select from dishes like vegetarian lasagne, chicken biryani, samosas, fish and cabbage.
Speaking for the hosts, Br Philip Jeffares, OFM, recalled the encounter between St Francis and the Sultan in 1219AD, during the Fifth Crusade.
“The crusaders were laying siege. And Francis of Assisi went there, not to ramp up the crusades, but he chose a moment to cross the lines and to encounter. And we don’t really know exactly what happened because things are written by later biographers,” Br Philip said.
“And we do know that Francis was well received, well fed – he and Brother Illuminato stayed there for two weeks and they talked about many things. So, what might have started out as an attempt to convince the other of something else, Francis of Assisi went back profoundly influenced by.”
Br Philip read out a prayer called “The Praises of God”, composed by St Francis later in his life, a prayer in which maybe could be heard echoes of Muslim prayer.
“You are the holy Lord, the only God who works miracles. You are strong, you are great, you are the most high, you are the King eternal, you are Holy Father, King of heaven and earth. You are love, charity, you are wisdom, you are humility, you are patience, you are beauty, you are gentleness, you are security, you are quiet, you are joy, you are our hope and joy, you are justice, you are temperance, you are all our riches unto sufficiency, you are charity, you are our hope, you are protector, you are our sweetness, you are our eternal life. Great and admirable Lord, God of omnipotence, merciful saviour.”
Br Jeffares also noted that St Francis, in writing the rule for his friars, “put in a clause about how we were to behave when we go among people different to ourselves, about living peacefully, not engaging in arguments, but rather learning to live alongside”.
“And all of that can be seen as flowing from that amazing encounter, the hospitality he received at that time [with the Sultan],” Br Philip said.
“So, for us, in these days, we try to practise the same thing and have an encounter with our Franciscan family and our sisters and brothers, our Muslim sisters and brothers.”
Br Philip said he thought such an encounter was very important in an increasingly secular New Zealand.
“We live in a 50 per cent secular society; a small number hostile to any religious belief, but a greater number just bewildered or confused or who have very little idea what both our traditions can offer as witness to a cheerful faith-filled life in a wonderful God. That is what, if you like, our joint mission, what we can witness to in our society.”
Speaking in response, Mohammed Kalam joked that Br Philip had already spoken 80 per cent of his prepared speech.
He said he was “humbled” and “grateful” to be invited to this encounter.
“For us to come here and have this dialogue and understanding – and digging into the history, which is so important, because one cannot progress unless we know the history,” Mr Kalam said.
“What a wonderful history . . . as he [Br Philip] said, we cannot go into the details . . . .”
“With all this food around us, we can’t focus,” he joked, eliciting much laughter.
“But the point is for us to know those moments, to go back and to read and to see the hospitality and the relationship, the community, in fact, had. That is our history and that should be our present, and it will make our future better.”
Mr Kalam read several passages from the Koran that emphasised engagement, understanding, and good work.
Masjid Umar secretary-trustee Mohammed Moses said he met Br Philip in a local vegetarian restaurant, and “a conversation began which ended up in this occasion”.
Mr Moses said he had driven past the friary entrance for many years without knowing what lay at the end of the driveway.
He called is a “beautiful place” and noted it was a place of reflection and prayer. He also spoke about a retreat prayer tradition and practice in Islam.
Imam Mohammed Patel thanked the Franciscans for their hospitality and extended an invitation to come and visit their mosque at any time.
He chanted verses from the Koran “all about the Creator” and said a prayer.
Br Philip said grace before the meal.