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New Year's Resolution: Solidarity With Francis AND With Islam, Inshallah! 
31st-Dec-2006 01:54 pm
x-posted in muslim_america and moroccoishome

I dedicate this year to Francis of Assisi, the patron of my confirmation, and to fraternity with my Muslim brothers and sisters, whom Francis met in holy dialogue:

I made the remark above before reading Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul, Memories and the City, but now I’ve changed my resolution and declare that I dedicate this year to solidarity with Francis and with Islam itself. To some who have read this excellent book, mine may seem a surprising reaction to this memoir by a fairly secular modern Turkish novelist, but Pamuk is a very great writer, which means he can be unflinchingly honest about himself, his society (rich, Westernized Turks) and what people of his background have DONE, in concert with Westerners (his “tourists”) to the great masses of the pious poor living in Central Europe and the Middle East.

In the middle of his book (Chapter 20) Pamuk addresses the subject of his family’s irreligion and what was, to them, the oft-vexing piety of their servants. He tells how, probably because of his pious nannies, he came to associate God with the figure of an old woman, ravaged with age and draped in white scarves, and goes on to say this about his family’s attenuated relationship with spirituality:

Except for those moments when we were made to remember her mysterious bond with the poor, God did not trouble us unduly. You could almost say it was a relief to know they depended on someone else to save them, that there was another power that could help bear their burdens. But the comfort of this thought was somewhat dissolved by the fear that one day the poor might use their special relationship with God against us.

Although Pamuk speaks throughout his book of the influence upon his family’s thought of “the legacies of centuries of dervish orders,” he makes clear that, in their conscious minds, they deeply resented—even feared—the piety of the great masses of the Turkish people, believing it was the main thing that was preventing the country from “progressing”:

I learned that it was always wise, if you’d just derided religion or expressed your lack of interest in it, to change the subject right away; we equated piety with poverty but never in too loud a voice.

To me, it seemed that it was BECAUSE they were poor that God’s name was always on their lips. It’s entirely possible that I reached this false conclusion by watching the disbelief and mockery with which my family viewed anyone religious enough to pray five times a day.

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Pamuk makes clear that his family knew that, to the poor, their faith was their dearest possession, the only thing they had which they might consider as being of equal or greater value than the wealth they saw on display in their employers’ mansions and wooden yali (Bosphorus-fronting river houses). Religion was apparently feared as a weapon which the poor might use to bludgeon the recently-apostacized bourgeoisie:

I felt as uneasy as anyone else in the family about the devotion of deeply religious people. My fear, which I shared with everyone else in the Turkish secular bourgeoisie, was not of God but of the fury of those who believed in Her too much.


However, Pamuk demonstrates, in the same chapter, that he knows fully well that the class that had used the brute force of the State not only to eradicate so much of the outward signs of the people’s piety (banning dervish orders and demolishing their lodges in the city) but also to keep political expression of that faith’s aspirations in check is his own:

If enlightenment entitled us to riches and privilege, how were we to explain these pious parvenus? [Landholders removed to the city] (At the time I knew nothing about the refinements of Sufism or the Mevlana or the great Persian heritage.) For all I knew, the new class denounced as “rich peasants” by the political left held views no different from those of our chauffeurs and cooks. If Istanbuls’ westernized bourgeoisie gave support to the military interventions of the past forty years, never strenuously objecting to military interference in politics, it was not because it feared a leftist uprising (the Turkish left in this country has never been strong enough to achieve such a feat); rather, the elite’s tolerance of the military was rooted in the feat that one day the lower classes would combine forces with the new rich pouring in from the provinces to abolish the westernized bourgeois way of life under the banner of religion. But if I dwell any longer on military coups and political Islam (which has much less to do with Islam than is commonly thought), I risk destroying the hidden symmetry of this book…


What Pamuk is telling us then, in so many words, and among so many other things, is that the westernized elite of his country suppressed not only the popular customs, traditions and social and economic aspirations of the “backward poor,” but also their religion. Is it any wonder, then, that the poor of these Muslim countries can be most readily rallied—by demagogues, as well as by genuinely pious leaders—to support of their traditional faith, which they perceive as being undermined and subverted by alien philosophies and ideologies that their own “educated” classes threw over Islam for?

The interior of a mosque, near the Taj Mahal, in India:

But there’s even more to these complicated feelings of the people of the Muslim world than that, because, gradually, even the children of these supposedly “enlightened” Westernized—but really deracinated—rich people have come to study enough literature, art, music and, yes, even Sufic Islam, to recognise that it was under the aegis of Islam that their ancestors made so many magnificent contributions to world civilization. I have interspersed, throughout this entry, visual reminders of the glories of Islamic civilization, in various parts of the world, but lest you suppose that these palpable signs of achievement are bringing any consolation to Pamuk and sad Muslim artists and intellectuals like him, let the passage I will quote of his chapter entitled “Huzzun [Melancholy]” disabuse you. In this chapter, he compares the experiences of city-dwellers in Paris, Roma, Firenze or Venezia wandering around their cities, taking in their monumental cultural heritage with his own:

A fountain in a courtyard of Topkapi Saray, in Istanbul:

Tristesse is not a pain that affects a solitary individual; huzun and tristesse both suggest a communal feeling, an atmosphere and a culture shared by millions. But the words and feelings they describe are not identical, and if we are to pinpoint the difference it is not enough to say that Istanbul is much richer than Delhi or Sao Paolo…The difference lies in the fact that in Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed-in they are by concrete monstrosities, the greater mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner—the little arches, fountains and neighborhood mosques—inflict heartache on all who live among them.

In the Blue Mosque, of Istanbul:
Reception room of the Sovereign’s children, the Alhambra, Granada, Spain:

It must be the same, then, all over the Muslim world—in Isfahan, Kabul, Cairo, Damascus and, yes, Baghdad—for those with culture, education and sensitivity enough to be in contact with a once-glorious past, to contemplate what has been done to their civilizations by an encroaching modernity which has no respect for their accomplishments. It must be heartbreaking to see a religion that has inspired its devotees to achieve such accomplishments as this:

Interior of a madrasa (religious school) in Fez:

…to be derided and mocked thusly:

It must be too agonizing for these peoples to bear with the “equanimity” and the “dispassionate, democratic-minded skepticism” that our pundits and politicians would urge upon them. A little bit of compassion is more in order—particularly from that remnant of us who DARE to call ourselves “Christians.” (I except ALL Fundamentalist Protestants from this category and would no more expect such decent respect from them for a great and alternative spirituality than I’d expect it from Islamist terrorists, who are NOT, as even the secularized Pamuk has been able to recognize above, in any way approximate to REAL Muslims.)

The appropriate way to represent the Prophet, in visual art:

And, so, I dedicate this year to solidarity with my brother Francis, the only world-historically significant figure who has ever been able to reconcile devotion to Christ with solidarity with the Muslim peoples AND to solidarity with their religion and its Holy Prophet (PBUH).

I can only echo the sentiments of the great popular historian Thomas Cahill, writing about Francis’s great adventure in inter-faith dialogue. The Sufis quickly recognized him as their spiritual brother. As it did for him, let the piety of the REAL Muslims put our irreligious “westernized” ways of life to shame:

The Peaceful Crusader

AMID all the useless bloodshed of the Crusades, there is one story that suggests an extended clash of civilizations between Islam and the West was not preordained. It concerns the early 13th-century friar Francis of Assisi, who joined the Fifth Crusade not as a warrior but as a peacemaker.

Francis was no good at organization or strategy and he knew it. He accepted the men and women who presented themselves as followers, befriended them and shared the Gospel with them. But he gave them little else. He expected them to live like him: rejecting distinctions of class, forgoing honors of church or king or commune, taking the words of Jesus literally, owning nothing, suffering for God’s sake, befriending every outcast — leper, heretic, highwayman — thrust in their path.

Francis was not impressed by the Crusaders, whose sacrilegious brutality horrified him. They were entirely too fond of taunting and abusing their prisoners of war, who were often returned to their families minus nose, lips, ears or eyes.

In Francis’ view, judgment was the exclusive province of the all-merciful God; it was none of a Christian’s concern. True Christians were to befriend all yet condemn no one. Give to others, and it shall be given to you, forgive and you shall be forgiven, was Francis’ constant preaching. “May the Lord give you peace” was the best greeting one could give to all one met. It compromised no one’s dignity and embraced every good; it was a blessing to be bestowed indiscriminately. Francis bestowed it on people named George and Jacques and on people named Osama and Saddam. Such an approach, in an age when the most visible signs of the Christian religion were the wars and atrocities of the red-crossed crusaders, was shockingly otherworldly and slyly effective.

Symbolic gesture, Francis’ natural language, was a profound source he called on throughout his life. In one of its most poignant expressions, Francis sailed across the Mediterranean to the Egyptian court of al-Malik al-Kamil, nephew of the great Saladin who had defeated the forces of the hapless Third Crusade. Francis was admitted to the august presence of the sultan himself and spoke to him of Christ, who was, after all, Francis’ only subject.

For those who insist that Islamic civilization is NECESSARILY “homophobic,” the miniature of Safavid Shah Abbas and his favourite:

Trying to proselytize a Muslim was cause for on-the-spot decapitation, but Kamil was a wise and moderate man, who was deeply impressed by Francis’ courage and sincerity and invited him to stay for a week of serious conversation. Francis, in turn, was deeply impressed by the religious devotion of the Muslims, especially by their five daily calls to prayer; it is quite possible that the thrice-daily recitation of the Angelus that became current in Europe after this visit was precipitated by the impression made on Francis by the call of the muezzin (just as the quintessential Catholic devotion of the rosary derives from Muslim prayer beads).

It is a tragedy of history that Kamil and Francis were unable to talk longer, to coordinate their strengths and form an alliance. Had they been able to do so, the phrase “clash of civilizations” might be unknown to our world.

Francis went back to the Crusader camp on the Egyptian shore and desperately tried to convince Cardinal Pelagius Galvani, whom Pope Honorius III had put in charge of the Crusade, that he should make peace with the sultan, who, despite far greater force on his side, was all too ready to do so. But the cardinal had dreams of military glory and would not listen. His eventual failure, amid terrible loss of life, brought the age of the crusades to its inglorious end.

A Mughal prince, visiting Sufis:

Donald Spoto, one of Francis of Assisi’s most recent biographers, rightly calls Francis “the first person from the West to travel to another continent with the revolutionary idea of peacemaking.” As a result of his inability to convince Cardinal Pelagius, however, Francis saw himself as a failure. Like his model, Jesus of Nazareth, Francis was an extremist. But his failure is still capable of bearing new fruit.

Court of the Lions, the Alhambra, Granada, Spain:

Islamic society and Christian society have been generally bad neighbors now for nearly 14 centuries, eager to misunderstand each other, often borrowing culturally and intellectually from each other without ever bestowing proper credit.
But as Sir Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, has written, almost as if he was thinking of Kamil and Francis,

“Those who are confident of their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faiths of others. ... There are, surely, many ways of arriving at this generosity of spirit and each faith may need to find its own.” We stand in desperate need of contemporary figures like Kamil and Francis of Assisi to create an innovative dialogue. To build a future better than our past, we need, as Rabbi Sacks has put it, “the confidence to recognize the irreducible, glorious dignity of difference.”

May the Lord give you peace.

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