Introducing the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil

An excerpt from “Introducing the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil” by Br. Michael D. Calabria, OFM

 

Like many Muslim rulers of his day, the Sultan was a cultured and learned man. Muslim historian al-Maqrizi wrote that: “Al-Kamil much loved men of learning, preferring their society…He loved discussions with Muslim divines, and had a good number of curious problems on jurisprudence and grammar with which he would examine scholars, and those who answered rightly he advanced and gave them his favor. He gave lodging with him in the Citadel to several men of learning…Beds were set up for them beside his so that they might lie on them and converse through the night. Learning and literature flourished under him, and men of distinction resorted to his court.”

The Sultan’s apparent interest in Francis could very well have been due to his resemblance to the fuqarā – “the poor ones,” the mystics of Islam called Sufis – literally the ones who wore patched woollen garments. In his appearance, manner and speech Francis’ Order of poor, itinerant “lesser brothers” would have seemed to him more like a Sufi brotherhood (ţarīqah). Not unlike medieval Christendom, the Islamic world of the 12th – and 13th centuries had given rise to numerous mystics – male and female – who spoke of the oneness of existence, who expressed a burning desire for a God experienced as Beautiful, Merciful and Gentle, and who emphasized a life of itinerancy, contemplation, and spiritual and material poverty.

We know that al-Kamil was particularly drawn to a Sufi poet of his day, ‘Umar ibn al-Farid, called “the Prince of Lovers” on account of his sensual pining for the presence of God.  Stories related about al-Farid speak of his habit of stripping off his clothing, his ability to communicate with animals, and his tearful fits of desire for the divine, topi also found in Franciscan hagiography.  Al-Kamil would also have been familiar with a sufi master called al-shaykh al-akbar, “the Greatest Shaykh,” Ibn al-‘Arabi, who passed through Egypt at least twice during al-Kamil’s lifetime. Ibn al-‘Arabi is the sufi most associated with the concept of al-wahdat al-wajud, “the oneness of being.” Sucinctly put, the term signifies that there is only one existence, one wajud that is God. Thus, although humans perceive multiplicity in the phenomenal world – different peoples, races, classes, religions, etc. – true existence belongs to God alone. Every person and thing only reflects the existence of the One, and thus all is one in the One. Given his attraction to Sufi spirituality exemplified by Ibn al-‘Arabi and al-Farid, it is no wonder that the Sultan took interest in Francis.

 

Read the complete article from St. Francis and the Sultan, 1219-2019: A Commemorative Booklet:

 

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The Order is deeply grateful to the editors and staff of Franciscan Media (USA), which prepared the booklet for us. For your convenience, the Special Commission is also serializing the booklet, so that you may have a better sense of its contents.

 

Image: Taddeo Gaddi, St Francis and the Trial by Fire before the Sultan of Egypt