One of the most enlightening encounters between two faiths occurred in the thirteenth century when St. Francis of Assisi journeyed behind the lines of the battlefield at Damietta, Egypt, during the ensanguined onslaught of the Fifth Crusade. It was there that he met with the Sultan Malik al-Kamil who in the course of a fruitful dialogue offered to bring Francis to a mosque. Francis accepted, adding an observation that should unsettle dogmatists who have deflected from the core commonality among religions: ‘God is everywhere.’ Or as his contemporary the Sufi Muslim poet Rumi put it, ‘Even though you tie a hundred knots, the string is one.’

On a psychological level, this transcendence of ecclesiastical divisions may be seen as a perennial expression of what William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience referred to as the personal experience of God beyond ‘institutional’ religion.

It may also be understood as a manifestation of a primordial archetypical repository of universal spiritual experience elucidated by C. G. Jung as the collective unconscious. We may think of the image of the mother Mary, a symbol of the feminine guide to the higher realm of the spirit in both Christianity and Islam. It was not long ago that Pope John Paul II referred to Muslims as ‘brothers’ and, only a few months after his election, invoked ‘Mary Queen of Peace’ in the Lebanon conflict, pointing out that she is venerated by both Muslims and Christians alike. Pope Francis has in the spirit of his namesake, with humility and prescience, symbolically expanded this rapprochement by washing the feet of a Moslem woman on Pentecost, the first time in papal history that either a woman or Muslim was included in the ritual begun by Christ, ‘What I have done is set you an example, so that what I did you may do likewise.’ (John 13:15)

The return to this primal source of inspiration can be seen to be prefigured in the distinction Kierkegaard made between Christendom, the prevailing de-spiritualized Christianity as an institutional entity in a given historical period – and Christianity, the original spirit of the gospels in which the individual stands, in the inwardness of faith, in immediate, ‘contemporaneous’ relation to Christ irrespective of later developments in church history.

In our own time the movement toward the core commonality and renewed dialogue among religions is again being eclipsed and politically usurped. The term jihad which has been misappropriated by a small radical minority of Muslims to mean struggle against the enemies of Islam has been uncritically assumed and repeated by mainstream Western media and political figures. Its greater meaning in the Quran – ‘the inward struggle’ to live in the way of God – has been overlooked in the ensuing undifferentiated reaction, one that is taking on ominous dimensions, including the burning of the Quran.

In light of this hermetically sealed ideological echo chamber, Gallop’s chairman and CEO, Jim Clifton, embarked on a six-year survey in thirty-five Muslim countries to determine what 1.3 billion Muslims actually thought about 9-11 and subsequent terrorist attacks. The results, collated by professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, show the great majority of Muslims unequivocally condemned the attacks. The recent opposition to a mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero is in large part a case of displaced anger. One may also question the knowledge of those opponents of the work environment in the Twin Towers, for many critics are unaware of the mosque that already existed on the seventeenth floor of the South Tower – which was obliterated in the attack along with the Muslims who prayed there.

In a distant part of the world, on the Greek Island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea, just southwest of Turkey, one will find, as in the mosque controversy about Ground Zero, an irrational animosity between Christians and Muslims that lingers to this day. One will encounter townspeople there who will pretend not to know the location of Suleiman Mosque. A persistent residue of bitterness of battles of past centuries can be detected owing to its location: it is built upon the ruins of the old Church of the Apostles. A local ‘Christian’ passerby may even be aggrieved were a visiting Christian to enter the mosque and wash his feet in the basin of the fountain amidst the platano trees in the triangular court. One may hear the reproof that a ‘Christian church once stood here’ – though in essence this comment, like the embittered debate over erecting a mosque at Ground Zero, deflects from the depth-dimension of both Christianity and Islam. For it is not the visible loci in space and time that are decisive, but the intimate I-Thou encounter and inwardness of prayer. In Matthew it reads, ‘When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen’ (6:6) So, too, may the Muslim be reminded of the same message in the Quran, ‘Call on your Lord humbly and in secret.’ (7:55)

A pivotal motivation for St. Francis in founding his order was to find modalities through which the focus on inner experience over the prevailing emphasis on external form and scholastic doctrinal argument could be transmitted in the Christian message. This inner experience is audible in the poem/song Cantico del Sol, Song of the Sun, composed while ministering to the poor and sick in his wanderings just after his visit to the East where Rumi in Damascus enlightened with lyrical insight and invoked the Deity with the devout dance of the whirling dervishes in semblance to the movement of celestial creation itself. The similarity of the verse of Francis with Rumi’s poems Collection of the Sun of Tabriz, which were also sung, is striking. The contextual essence, symbols, and style that resonate from Rumi’s incantations to those of Francis evince a deep affinity between these spiritual visionaries and the faiths they imbue to this day. In 2005 UNESCO declared the whirling dervish dance, otherwise known as The Mevevil Sema Ceremony, founded by the followers of Rumi, to be among the ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’

It is significant here that the Syrian educated Franciscan prodigy Roger Bacon, who founded the scientific method in the thirteenth century, posited the priority of experience in contrast to ecclesiastical overlay. The liberating implications of this distinction in the following centuries have been immense. In deference to his debt to the East, Bacon lectured at Oxford in Arab attire. Indeed, the attire of St. Francis of Assisi himself was that of the Sufi Muslims of Morocco and Spain – hooded cloak and wide sleeves.

In the night sky over the East and the West we need only look to the moon where a crater is named after the eleventh-century Persian polymath prodigy Avicenna in tribute to his studies in astronomy, which were far ahead of his time. This is a befitting symbol: with the first moon landing a shift in perspective was enacted: For the first time in history man can actually see earth as one unified entity.

We may also think of Avicenna as we enter the medical centers of the West. It is little realized that Avicenna, ‘the prince of physicians’, was the first to trace the transmission of disease by soil and water, and to note that tuberculosis is contagious, which was denied for centuries by European medicine. He shed light on the mind/body relation; and was the first to identify the frontal cortex of the brain as the locus of reasoning. His eminently enduring five volume Canon of Medicine is still taught at Yale and UCLA, among other medical schools in the West.

Yet in the theatre of religious discord prejudices proliferate like tainted microorganisms in a petri dish. When they resurfaced in our time in an uninformed, ethnocentric reading of cultures and religions entitled The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington of the Enterprise Institute it too was insightfully refuted, now by the multicultural Iranian-and German- educated Muslim scholar Mohammed Khatami in his edifying Dialogue of Civilizations. Khatami, when head of Iran’s National Library, had infused it with the philosophical classics and scientific research of the West that he brought to bear in his reply. It so resonated with the international community that the UN named a resolution after its concept and proclaimed 2001, the year of its publication, the ‘Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.’

The priority of inner experience over dogma further resonates in Rumi’s observation, ‘A donkey loaded with holy books is still a donkey’ and Francis’s point, as related by Thomas of Celano, ‘A great cleric must in some way give up even his learning when he comes to the order.’ This critique of doctrinal argument was central to the thought of the eleventh-century Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, known to the Muslims as Sulelman Ibn Yahya Jabriol, and to the Christians as Avicebron. His expansive perspective permeates the writings of those Jews, Christians and Muslims alike who were searching for the common origin of religious experience. Indeed, the major early Franciscan writers – Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus – are all indebted to Ben Gabirol’s Fons Vitae, Source of Life, which, in turn, was profoundly influenced by the Sufi Muslim thinker Muhammad Ibn Masarra. The Hebraic tradition has also thereby been enduringly enriched: Ibn Gabirol’s main liturgical work Adon Olam is still chanted in synagogues; and his poetry sung in the Yom Kippur liturgy.

The 15th century painting of St. Francis with Al Kamil in the courtyard believed to be painted by Benozzo Gozzoli (In Public Domain)
(Scene 10, North Wall), 1452, Fresco,
270 x 220cm,
Apsidal chapel, San Francisco, Montefalco

The eclipsed tapestry of this formative interfaith influence reappears in the twentieth century and beyond in the writings of one of the most important Catholic thinkers, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. In a letter to the Pakistani scholar Abdul Aziz Merton writes, ‘I am tremendously impressed with the solidity and intellectual sureness of Sufism … There is no question but that here is a living and convincing truth, a deep mystical experience of the mystery of God our Creator.’ Merton professed to Aziz a ‘deep sympathy for Sufism,’ for it is ‘profoundly religious and set in the right perspective of direct relationship with the All-Holy God.’

To sever and parcel this spiritual tapestry is to sacrifice its essence. It would be as improvident in execution as unraveling the design of the Mihrab on a prayer rug, or picking apart the blue, purple, and scarlet threads of the Hebrew hoshen. The historical matrix it represents may be called a hologram of the holy. I borrow the term hologram from physics: an image, which when illuminated by a laser beam, has the appearance of being suspended in three-dimensional space. Any part of it, when provided with coherent light, provides an image of the entire Gestalt. We are reminded too of the net of Indra in Buddhist and Hindu mythology where each pearl reciprocally reflects the other, shedding light on the whole.

We are in need of an interfaith awakening, an epiphany of the order described by the Christian Tolstoy in the closing chapters of Anna Karenina. As Konstantin Levin stands on the terrace contemplating the constellations, he asks the question, What is the relationship to the Christian faith of the beliefs of the Jews, the Moslems, the Confucians, the Buddhists who also teach and do good? An analogy occurs to him. Much as we assume a sense of stability and preeminence on earth to trace the constellations, yet with the knowledge we are not at their centre but whirl in space as part of a larger universe we cannot fully comprehend, so too can we perceive the relative relation of religions to one another, while lacking an absolute perspective to judge their relation to the Deity.

Rumi by Lisa Dietrich, Mixed media
9 x 10cm, ©Lisa Dietrich

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