On August 15, in a small town near Aleppo, Syria, a terrorist hid a bomb on a motorcycle. The explosion only killed one but plenty of other damage in the busy market area. On August 14, just outside a small city in Afghanistan, a Taliban attack killed five and injured five others. On August 13, in Southern Thailand, a bomb placed by Muslim insurgents went off killing one and injuring three others who were providing security for that school against just such threats. On August 12, over sixty policemen are injured in a riot in Banguluru that started over a Facebook post mocking Muhammad. The same day in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber in Afghanistan killed four and injured sixteen others.
Such events are regular, daily occurrences. They have become so commonplace that for the most part they rarely even get noticed outside of local news sources. But they are there for those who would look. It is news stories like these that prominent political Christians like Pat Robertson point to when they say that “These people are crazed fanatics, and I want to say it now: I believe it is motivated by demonic power. It is Satanic…” It is also what would prompt Jerry Falwell Jr to encourage his Liberty students to carry concealed weapons to class to prevent a potential Muslim terrorist attack saying, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”
Suspicion and distrust between Christianity and Islam are as old as Islam itself and its modern form is certainly not unilateral. Modern Muslim voices will point to such statements and conflate them with the efforts of modern missionaries in Muslim areas as the cause and the reason for terrorist activities. Heather Sharkey, on an article about Muslim responses to Christian evangelism, writes, “By dwelling on conflict and on omnipresent Christian threats, and by invoking a persistent language of battle and siege, they produced narrative jihads that asserted an inevitable war of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West.” She states that these Muslim apologists paint missionary efforts as a form of Western imperialism and that the primary motive of these missionaries is to “plant doubts in the minds of Muslims… about the capacity of Islamic society for social progress, development, and relevance in the modern world.”
As bad and as deep as such suspicion between these two sides are in our modern era, there have been moments in the past when it was much worse. It is not near as bad as the time of the Crusades where Muslim armies were knocking on the gates of Constantinople and Muslim ships were seeking to dominate the Mediterranean while European armies were fighting to retake Spain and the Holy Lands. It is also not as bad as it was a century ago when a dying Ottoman Empire sought the genocide of the Armenian people and the Muslim Brotherhood began to take root even as European empires turned much of North Africa and the Middle East into subject colonies.
Yet even in such terrible times, there have been models of another way. Even as Crusader armies marched out for blood and glory, St Francis of Assisi hitched a ride with them not to fight for his faith but to talk, and to witness, and possibly to die for his faith. While others sought by conquest to retake the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors, Ramon Lull went to learn from them that he might better understand how to reach them with the gospel. And while colonization, war, and genocide were pitting the Ottoman Empire against the West, Samuel Zwemer went to serve first in Iraq, then Arabia, and finally Egypt. In an era of hostility between Islam and the West, the lives of men like St Francis and Ramon Lull, among others, provide an example of how we today can bring the gospel to the modern world.
Saint Francis of Assisi
Long before ever joining the Fifth Crusade, Saint Francis had grown famous for his dramatic conversion, his calling by God to “repair my church”, his vow of poverty, his work among lepers, and his founding of two orders (the men’s Order of Friars Minor and women’s Order of Saint Claire). All of these works, as well as his outreach to Muslims, stems from the same guiding principle. Michael Cusato says that Francis’ primary insight in life was, “that all men and women, without exception, were creatures created by the hand of the same Creator God; that all men and women, without exception, were human beings endowed with the same inestimable dignity and worth innate to God’s creatures; that all men and women — again, without exception — were offered die same promise of grace and salvation through the love of God in Christ ]esus.”
His efforts among the Muslims
Francis is perhaps most famous for joining the Fifth Crusade, but this was not the first time he attempted to go out to witness to the Muslims. Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano, writes that he first “wished to take a ship to the region of Syria” back in 1212, but bad weather aborted the mission and they were forced ashore in Slovenia. Later he tried to go to Morocco “to preach the gospel of Christ to the [Emporer] Miramolin and his retinue,” but sickness diverted the mission to Christian Spain.
These early failures did not deter him. Finally, “Francis went to Damietta in support of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), desiring to convert the Muslims and, failing that, to suffer martyrdom at their hands.” We do not know exactly what transpired or what was said during this time, but we do know that St Francis crossed the lines from the Christian to the Muslim camp, he obtained an interview with the Sultan, and then Francis was allowed to stay among the Muslims for nearly three weeks before being given safe passage back to the Christian side.
With regard to what transpired during his talk with the Sultan, there are conflicting accounts. Jacques de Vitry, the Patriarch of Jerusalem who was with the Crusaders wrote that the Sultan, “asked Francis to pray for him so that God might show the sultan the path that would be most pleasing for him to follow.” His official biographer, Celano said, “the sultan listened to Francis and invited him to dwell in his land. He also granted to him and his friars the possibility to visit the Holy Sepulchre without paying any toll.” Another biographer, Ugolino da Montegiorgio, says that “after the encounter with Francis, the sultan granted him and the friars the privilege to preach wherever they wanted and gave them a sign to guarantee their safety wherever they preached.”
His Franciscan Legacy
Although this last is the most unreliable of the three accounts listed here, it does at least in part reflect what actually did happen. Within the next fifteen years of this interview, official Papal permission was given for the establishment of Franciscan missions in Damascus, Aleppo, Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Konya, Asia Minor, Baghdad, Jerusalem, and Acre. At this point, the Pope was probably tired of signing a new decree every few months because, in 1238, a bull was passed giving blanket permission for the Franciscans to go out “into all the territories of the pagans and Saracens.”
Francis did not just go out among the Muslims himself, but he made sure that this going would be ingrained into all who would follow. MacEvitt writes, “By including an entire section in both rules devoted to it, Francis made clear that he saw the mission to the infidels as a fundamental part of the Franciscan calling and sought to ensure that his brothers shared his values.” There are many Franciscans who did follow in his footsteps. Among those who went out to be a light in Muslim lands, two things seemed to be held in common. Unlike Jesuit, Dominican, and other orders, the Franciscans were often at first welcomed. This was true right up until the apex of Ottoman rule. Istavan Toth says that after the conquest of Hungary by the Turks, all presiding bishops were forced out. Into this vacuum, Franciscans who were already serving in other parts of occupied Southeast Europe came in to make up the lack. He adds that it was not just in Hungary but throughout the Balkans that the “Franciscan order was the only Catholic institution to be tolerated by the Turks.”
But this official welcome that began with Francis’ interview with the Sultan, and continued with the “pleasant experience of the friars in Egypt” and continued for the most part right up until 1683 when “the Turks turned against the Franciscans. In their ruthless anger, they destroyed most of the monasteries, forcing the friars to flee,” was only one half of the story. The governments welcomed or at least tolerated the presence of Franciscan missionaries, but they certainly did not welcome the message these Franciscans brought. As long as the Franciscans ministered to the local dhimmi Christians, they were supposedly left alone. The minute they would attempt to share the truth with Muslims, they were persecuted, imprisoned, and quite often killed. As Samuel Zwemer notes, “Islam, from the earliest times and according to the teaching of the Koran, has always made it extremely easy to enter the Moslem brotherhood, and extremely difficult for those who once enter its fold to find exit.”
There are official Franciscan hagiographical accounts of many early Franciscan martyrs. MacEvitt writes of five who died in Morocco in 1220, seven more there in 1217, two were beheaded in Valencia in 1231, several groups during the Mamluk conquest of Palestine and Syria, four in Bombay, India, in 1321, and two who died in Grenada in 1397. In addition to these official accounts, we also have a record of Franciscan martyrs in Cueta and Marrakesh in 1232, four friars who were killed witnessing in Jerusalem in 1391, a group of seven in Armenia in 1314, and countless others in the well-documented history of Franciscans in Ottoman occupied Europe where it was said, “Franciscan habits were a popular decoration for the horse clothes of the Turks.” These are courageous men of God who embodied the mandate in the Regula Prima for those who would go out among the Muslims: “they have given themselves and abandoned their bodies to the Lord Jesus Christ. For love of Him, they must make themselves vulnerable to their enemies, both visible and invisible.”
The most influential of these Franciscan martyrs is Ramon Lull. He was born in a part of Spain recently reconquered by the Christians to a father who fought in those armies that retook the land. So all around him, as he was being raised, the buildings, people, and culture of Islam would still have had a significant impact. Like Francis, Lull was at first a person of the world. He was an immensely popular poet and Adolph Helfferich called him “the founder of the Catalonian school of poets.” Regarding his intellectual pursuits, Kent Eaton has called Lull, a “philosopher, poet, novelist, mathematician, theologian, scientist, physician, mystic, astronomer, and the inventor of the mariner’s compass.”
After a series of visions, he dedicated his life to God’s call. Lull then spent nine years in a Franciscan cell in preparation before venturing out into the passion and vocation that would consume the rest of his life. For the remainder of his days, Lull pursued three primary goals: “First, the propagation of the Faith among non-Christians with the hope of gaining the crown of martyrdom… Second, the writing of a definitive book to prove the logic and superiority of Christian doctrine, especially when compared to Islam… Third, the founding of missionary schools to teach oriental languages and culture.”
The second of these was the first one that he first set out to tackle. In 1275 he completed his first edition of Ars Major. This would be revised and updated in 1305 as Ars Generalis Ultima in Latin and The Book of Contemplation in Arabic. With this book, Lull sought to cover all knowledge so that all people, specifically all Muslims, would know God’s truth. This book is a product of its times and Lull shows he was influenced by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rashid (Averroes) just as Aquinas and all of the scholastics were. Lull was a student of these great Muslim Philosophers as well as Al-Ghazzali (Algazel). He studied them so that he might engage those who were dominated by their thought. As Zwemer puts it, Lull “met these Saracen philosophers on their own ground… His object was to undermine their influence and so reach the Moslem heart with the message of salvation.”
It was only a year after Lull first completed an edition of Ars Major that he also began to fulfill his third goal. In 1276, his first missionary school was opened in Miramar. This school was ahead of its time in that it taught the perspective missionaries both geography (or what would more likely now be called Global Studies) and Arabic. It took another 35 years, the petitioning of multiple Popes, and finally an appearance at a Church Council, but ultimately in 1311, he also received permission to establish Arabic language studies at “the universities of Paris, Salamanca, Oxford, and in all cities where the Papal court resided.”
It wasn’t until he was in his late fifties that Lull finally embarked on his first and greatest of goals. It wasn’t until 1291 before Ramon Lull first set out for Tunis. At this time Tunis was the capital of the Western Arabic world. Since the fall of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, it was probably the most important and influential city in the Muslim world. When Lull arrived at Tunis, he invited the ulema, the Muslim literati to a debate. He claimed to have studied both sides of the argument and that if he could be convinced, he would convert to Islam.
As was usual for such events, there was no clear winner and although a long time was spent in discussion and debate, nothing major was accomplished. One thing Lull did learn from this and that he would focus much of his efforts on teaching later was what he perceived as the two weak points of Muslim theology: the “lack of love in the being of Allah, and the lack of harmony in his attributes.” This author has also found in his own witnessing efforts that the love of God needs to be highlighted. It is nonexistent in Muslim theology and incomprehensible to the Muslim way of thinking. Peter Venerable, wrote an endnote on his translation and commentary of the Quran, “I attack you not, as some of us do, by arms, but by words, not with force, but with reason, not in hatred, but in love. I love you, loving, I write to you, writing, I invite you to salvation.” This could also excellently sum up Lull’s approach and heart.
Although this first debate seemed to accomplish little, Lull’s continued efforts did create both converts and controversy. Soon jealous Muslims convinced the Sultan to imprison and execute Lull. He was put in prison but the death sentence was commuted to banishment. Despite this, Lull managed to escape from custody and continued to work in hiding in the port town of Goletta for three months before finally taking a ship to Naples.
Lull would set out again nearly a decade later in a series of missionary journeys. He went to Cyprus to witness to both Jews and Muslims there. He then crossed over to what is now Southeast Turkey (Iskenderun and Antakya) and Northern Syria (Aleppo). He went to Armenia to witness to “heretic Christians” as well as Muslims. And finally, he went again to Algeria and Tunis. Finally, he returned once again to that city in 1315. This time, he did not escape death. An angry mob that could not defeat him with words picked up stones instead. Some accounts say he died immediately and his body was carried home by friends. Other accounts say his friends helped him escape the mob but he died on the return journey to his home in Majorica. Either way, his body returned and was buried there.
Stephen Neil writes, “Ramon Lull must rank as one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the Church. Others were filled with an equally ardent desire to preach the Gospel to unbelievers, and if necessary to suffer for it, but it was left to Lull to be the first to develop a theory of missions – not merely to wish to preach the Gospel, but to work out in careful detail how it was to be done.”
Francis, Lull, and the Saint’s entire order are an excellent example of finding a way of love in a world of hostility. They did not compromise their message. Zwemer said of Lull, “The office of the cross is met everywhere in Lull’s argument with the Muslims.” But this message of truth was couched in love. In what some scholars believe to be Francis’ farewell address before heading out on the Fifth Crusade, he said, “My brothers, one and all: let us pay close attention to what the Lord says: ‘Love your enemies’ and ‘do good to those who hate you,’ for our Lord Jesus Christ, whose footprints we must follow, called his betrayer ‘friend’ and willingly offered himself to his executioners. They are indeed our friends who unjustly inflict on us distress and anguish, shame and injury, sorrow and punishment, martyrdom and death. We must love them greatly for we shall possess eternal life because of what they bring upon us.”
In a time of suspicion of hostility, it is just as important to embody a message of truth and love couched in a language that the Muslim world can understand and identify. As one modern Franciscan has written, “like Francis, we can, while holding fast to the truth of the Christ, enlarge our religious imaginations by trying on the ears of other peoples (to the extent we are able) and hearing the Gospel through them… I hope to be able to participate in the work of making it more familiar to those who have not heard it.”
In a forgotten corner of a hospital in the city of Gaziantep, Turkey, there are about a dozen gravestones collected of missionaries who came to that city… and then died there. In addition to these stones, there is a memorial written by a Muslim in Turkish and English to explain these graves. It reads: “Most of these were transferred here… The inscriptions on these stones point to the many people who, trusting in God, left the country of their birth to serve and befriend the people of Anatolia. Their accomplishments in education and medicine are still with us. Some of them died within a short time of their arrival, others had long and distinguished careers. Whether their lives were brief or extended, they make us pause in this garden of peace and remember that it is God who forgives all sins, who heals all sickness, and who inspires us to selfless living.” This is what was said of missionaries who came to the Muslim world to serve and die following the call of God between 1869 and 1914. What will be said of us today?