I thank the Community of Sant’Egidio giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts in this very important International Meeting on "Paths of Peace, Religions and Cultures in Dialogue". I would like to speak about how the Spirit of Assisi lives in this dialogue.
Let me begin by saying that as a Muslim participant in this meeting I understand that the Spirit of Assisi as a dynamic movement for dialogue for peace does not belong to one religion or culture, because it does not stand for the dominance of one religion and culture. Rather, it speaks for every religion and culture because peace is religious in its nature and spirit. The hopeful dynamism of this spirit that manifested itself during the wars between Christians and Muslims leading to the path of peace in the thirteenth century now brings religions and cultures together to address the challenge of religious diversity and pluralism in the globalized world that is believed to be the arena for the wars of domination today. Numerous studies, supportive as well as critical, about the Spirit of Assisi's response to this challenge have appeared in recent years. I am not competent to discuss the theological issues that these studies have raised. I will focus only on the impact that this dialogue movement has had in bringing large number of people together from diverse religious traditions and cultures who believe in the religious nature of peace. I want to underscore the fact that this impact has been possible mainly because the spirit of religion and the religious nature of peace have been compelling the believers to take the path of peace. The present globalized social world requires respect for diversity, freedom of belief, and autonomy of the individual self. The dialogue between religions and cultures is, therefore, getting strength despite the self-fulfilling prophecies about clash of civilizations by those political and religious thinkers who fail to appreciate and respect diversity in the socially globalized world.
I find three critical phases in the history of the Spirit of Assisi movement for dialogue between religions and cultures. The movement began with the daring initiative that Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) took in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade (1213–1221). The Christian Crusaders led by Cardinal Pelagius had besieged and captured Damietta, the port city of Egypt. The Muslim Sultan of Egypt, al-Malik al-Kamil (1180-1238) popularly known among the Crusaders as Meledin, belonged to the Ayyubid family of Saladin, Salah al-Din (1138-1193), who had re-captured Jerusalem in 1187. Saint Francis asked Cardinal's permission to go to enemy camps and invite the Sultan to peace accepting Christianity. It was a daring peace initiative amidst the war, but not bizarre because it was the war in the name of religion. The Cardinal hesitated but later allowed him to preach to the Muslim leader.
Saint Francis risked his life, crossed over to Muslim army camps and presented himself to Sultan al-Kamil. He offered him the path of Christianity for peace to move away from the path of war. The Sultan listened to him keenly but sent him back safely to the Christian camp. Sultan al-Kamil was prepared to negotiate peace and to cede Jerusalem in 1219 but the Crusaders disagreed as they had captured Damietta and were hoping to conquer Egypt. By 1221 the tables were turned. The Crusaders were defeated and had to withdraw from Damietta after negotiating safe withdrawal from Egypt. It was in the Sixth Crusade in 1229 that al-Kamil negotiated 10 years treaty of peace and ceded Jerusalem to the Crusaders.
It is significant to study how the Spirit of Assisi prevailed and Christians and Muslims opted for peace. I want to underscore here the continued emphasis on the religious nature of peace and the conditional permission for war in the Muslim and Christian religious and cultural traditions in the thirteenth century. Among Muslims, war was permitted only in defense and against oppression (The Qur'an 22:39), it was prohibited against the peaceful people, they must be rather treated kindly and justly (60:8), and hatred of others was no excuse for injustice as justice is closer to piety and fear of God (5:8). Even during the war, if the enemy inclines to peace, Muslims must incline to peace even if they feared deception by the enemy, peace demanded trust in God (8:61-2).
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam negotiated more peace treaties than the battles he fought with his enemies. These battles ended in the ten years peace treaty of Hudaybiya with his enemies in Mecca. During this period of peace, he wrote letters and sent his emissaries to all neighboring kingdoms to negotiate peace. Muslim historians describe it as invitation to convert to Islam to establish peace. The Qur'an invited other religions to join hands for the common value of faith in one God (3:64). Wisdom, kindness and care are the requires principles of dialogue; manner of arguments must be the best (16:125).
Most Muslim jurists like Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) spoke about the laws of war and clarified that the ground for war is oppression and injustice, not disbelief.
Similarly, among the Christians, Saint Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) discussed the theological principles of reason, authority, and purpose of war. They underscored peace as objective of war and expounded the doctrine of Just War.
According to recent studies (Rout, Paul. "St Francis of Assisi and Islam: A Theological Perspective on a Christian-Muslim Encounter." Al-Masaq 23.3 (2011): 205-215), al-Kamil exemplified the Islamic laws of war and supplied food to defeated crusaders who were dying of hunger. This was the moment when all of them recognized the religious nature of peace. It is significant to note that beside the exigencies of the time, the signatories of this peace treaty, the Roman Emperor Frederick II, the King of Sicily (1194-1250), Pope Gregory IX, the Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt and his brothers in Syria all believed in the religious necessity of peace. The Emperor Frederick II spoke Arabic and knew the Muslim tradition and culture very well. It was this spirit of dialogue and discourse for peace that brought the believers together in this period of Crusades. Stories of mutual understanding and appreciation of each other's religion and culture from this period are told with compassion.
The second manifestation of the Spirit of Assisi dialogue movement took place in the nineteenth century when Ecumenical meaning of dialogue urged Christians belonging to different denominations to explore the inclusive nature of religious dialogue that paved the path for peace. It led to founding several forums of religious dialogue, the oldest is probably The Parliament of the World Religions, founded in 1893 in Chicago, USA. In addition to ecumenical relations and prayers together with other Christians, it also extended dialogue on interfaith levels between Abrahamic and other religions. Other forums like World Council of Churches (1937) carried it forward more systematically. This was the period when theologically nuanced differences between the terms like conversation, conversion, dialogue, ecumenical, interfaith, inter-religious, and syncretism became common discourse. Amidst these discourses, the semantics of the term dialogue kept moving from conversion to mutual understanding, from religious denominations and sects to the meaning and end of religion to religiosity, and from separating between faith and practice to inclusion of practice. Its impact was witnessed in universities where the study of religion moved from the restricted meaning of Christianity to comparative religion to history of religions to religious studies, and from theology and philosophy to phenomenology, anthropology and sociology of religion.
Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) of Lahore, Pakistan, responded to what he considered 'the demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge' and said that it was possible to examine religious experience philosophically and scientifically because 'religious ambition soars higher than the ambition of philosophy'. Religion seeks more intimate association through the act of worship or prayer ending in spiritual illumination' (Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, 1934). The act of prayer rises higher than thought to capture Reality itself. Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) used to compare religious pursuit of reality with that of a hunter who tracks a musk deer first by footmarks and then by the scent of the musk gland. To Iqbal, "The real object of prayer, however, is better achieved when the act of prayer becomes congregational. A congregation is an association of men who, animated by the same aspiration, concentrate themselves on a single object and open up their inner selves to the working of a simple impulse. With Islam, however, this socialization of spiritual illumination through associative prayer is a special point of interest. In Hajj, the institution of worship gradually enlarges the sphere of human association. Prayer is man's inner yearning for a response in the awful silence of the universe (Iqbal, 74).
As an inner act, prayer finds expression in a variety of forms. The Quran says:
To every people we have appointed ways of worship which they observe. Therefore, let them not dispute this matter with thee, but bid them to thy Lord for thou art on the right way: but if they debate with thee, then say: God best knows what ye do. He will judge between you on the Day of Resurrection, as to the matters wherein ye differ (Qur'an 22: 67-69).
The division of mankind into races, nations and tribes, according to the Qur'an is for the purposes of identification only (Qur'an 49:13). "The essential Islamic form of association in prayer, therefore, besides its cognitive value, is further indicative of the aspiration to realize the essential unity of mankind as a fact of life by demolishing all barriers which stand between man and man (Iqbal 75).
It was in nineteenth century where Andalusia, the Muslim Spain was remembered with nostalgia by Christian and Muslim poets, novelists and story writes as an example of peaceful joint venture of Islam, Judaism and Christianity in religious and cultural dialogue. Modern historians refer to this nostalgia as cult of Spain, as a symbol of European Islam and for Christian and Jewish historians, it was an example for Christianity to follow.
The third critical phase in the Spirit of Assisi movement began on October 27, 1986. Pope John Paul II led “World Day of Prayer for Peace” at Assisi in Italy, the home town of St. Francis. After a short downpour in the morning, a rainbow appeared in the sky over Assisi. Pope John Paul II, saw in it visible sign of concord between God and the descendants of Noah and a pressing call to brotherhood. He referred to this phase of the inter-religious meeting as the “Spirit of Assisi”. The rainbow symbolized the inclusivity, unity in diversity, harmony of colors, togetherness without losing individual autonomy, and ecumenism without syncretism. A second “World Day of Prayer for Peace” meeting was held under Pope John Paul II on January 24, 2002.
The Spirit of Assisi continues to give hope to humankind wounded by wars, grieved by violence, distraught by fear and mistrust, lost in an era of post-truth, bewildered by the diversity and perplexed by the walls created by politics and theologies of dominance. In all the three phases, it is the Spirit of Assisi that has been calling for peace, dialogue and mutual respect. I am sure that with dialogue between diverse cultures and religions we will be able reach the common destiny of peace. Let me end with a pertinent quotation from Iqbal. A living unity is truly manifested in a multiplicity of free independent units harmonized by the unifying bond of common spiritual aspiration (Iqbal, 126). Thank you for your kind attention.