What St. Francis Teaches us about Christian Witness to Muslims

mogadmin —  June 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

Statue of Saint Francis of AssisiThe new Pope has done well to adopt the name of a man famous for befriending the poor and pursuing peace.  It is well 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 filled with hatred.  What is less known is an account of something St. Francis did, and said, during the crusades.

First, it is helpful to clear up a misunderstanding.  St. Francis has been quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times and use words when necessary.”  God only knows who said it but probably not St. Francis.  Mark Galli, Senior Editor of Christianity Today and Catholic writer, Emily Stimpson, show that his entire life was characterized by articulating the good news.[i]  This does not negate love and good works, but according to St. Francis, living out the Gospel includes verbal proclamation, as the following story illustrates.

The date was 1219, and as the purposeless 5th Crusade was dragging on and on, St. Francis[ii] and a few chosen friends prayed about what most Christians in that day thought was a senseless and foolhardy mission: convert the most powerful Muslim personage in the 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 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.  Where 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 said no, 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 house, compound, and upon his departure asked the friar to pray that God would show him the right way.

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 Christian crusades, Francis would never have set out on his mission.  The great historian Stephen Neil[iii] 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.  Soon thereafter, several Franciscan missionaries were sent to the Kingdom of Morocco, where five were martyred for Christ.

In our day, the threat of Islamist groups can make us want to shun Muslims and hate them.  We must remember that attitudes toward Muslims during the crusades were hostile beyond what we can imagine, yet St. Francis was motivated to share Christ, and so should we.  Few Muslims in our world understand the good news of the Gospel.  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?

Warren Larson

Warren Larson

Zwemer Center for Muslim Studies‘ Scholar in Residence and Professor Emeritus at Columbia International University.  He and his wife Carol live in Vancouver, Canada.

What phrase or sentence would you give to describe how you engage the people around you, particularly Muslims, with the Gospel? 


[i] Galli says this in his biography of St. Francis: “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 quotations 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.  And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age”  (http://thegoodbookblog.com/2012/feb/16/st-francis-didnt-say-it/).  The title of Stimpson’s article says the same: “Pope Francis and St. Francis: ‘Preach the Gospel always.  And for the love of God, use words” (http://www.catholicvote.org/pope-francis-and-st-francis-preach-the-gospel-always-and-for…)

[ii]Elizabeth Goudge, Saint Francis of AssisiLondon: Hodder and Stoughton, 1961.

[iii]Stephen Neil, A History of Christian MissionLondon: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965.



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