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To go among the Saracens: a Franciscan composer's journey into the House of Islam.

Francis of Assisi went to Damietta, Egypt in 1219 with the intention of converting Sultan Malek al-Kamel, in the hope that the rest of the Fifth Crusade might be averted. After spending a week with the Sultan (during which he was able to work out a peace agreement with the Muslims which was summarily rejected by the Crusaders), (1) Francis went on to minister to the poor and afflicted irrespective of creed, first in Damietta, then later in the Holy Land.

During this time, a great change occurred in his thinking about Islam, and in his notions about prayer and devotion. Though he had not achieved his goal of converting the Sultan, he did bring back from the House of Islam ideas which were to deepen and enrich his Christian faith. Though his missionary object was not attained in the usual sense, his experience both enriched his own spiritual practice and enlivened his sense of mission within his own Christian culture.

As a composer and a Franciscan, I have been engaged in a very similar project: the adaptation of the Islamic devotional practice of dhikr for Christian use, in the hope of adding a new dimension to Christian devotion.

This project necessarily entails a fresh view of mission. Although there can be no doubt as to the vital importance of Christian mission as a beachhead of evangelism and a force for social change, converting those of other religions has not been my primary goal in my musical ministry. Rather, by uniting Christian texts with musical forms associated with other faiths and culture, I hope to disentangle the essentials of the Gospel faith from the incidentals of Western culture, thereby expanding the religious imagination of Western Christians and enriching the currency of Christian devotion. As novelist Walker Percy puts it,
 The old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips, and a certain
 devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed
 in. (2)

My hope in my music is to restore some of the strangeness of the Gospel message so that listeners long accustomed to it, and believing that they know it fully, may hear and understand in new ways.

Francis and the Regula non bullata

Francis' first Rule for his order of brothers--the Regula non bullata ("Rule not ratified by papal bull") of 1221--was rejected by Pope Honorius III. His given reason was that the Rule was too austere to be followed, and for centuries this reason has been little questioned. However, new research suggests that there may have been more to it than that. (3)

In 1213, Honorius' predecessor Pope Innocent III first promulgated the Fifth Crusade in his encyclical Quia maior, which enjoined prayer, fasting and almsgiving for the liberation of the Holy Land upon all Christians, and charged the clergy with the duty of preaching a new crusade. However, in the Regula non bullata, there was no evidence of any of the crusading zeal commended by the Church.
 Evidently, Francis was selective with regard to papal documents ...
 he appears not to have listened when the highest ecclesiastical
 authorities called for a crusade ... Thus Francis occupied an
 exceptional position among his contemporaries with regard to the
 crusades and the attitude they expressed toward the Saracens and
 Islam ... The social pressures to which Francis and his brothers
 were subject must therefore have been very strong. (4)

Apparently, Francis' experiences in the East exerted an even stronger influence on him, and Innocent's successor Honorius seems to have found Francis' attitude problematic. Though the Regula was begun some time earlier, the passage in question--Chapter 16: For Brothers who wish to go among the Saracens--was inserted after Francis returned from the Holy Land, and obviously reflects his experience there. It begins with a verse from Matthew: "The Lord says: 'Behold, I am sending you as sheep in the midst of wolves. Be therefore prudent as serpents and simple as doves.' (Mt. 10:16.) Francis then enjoins on the missionaries two ways to "live spiritually among" the Saracens:
 One way is not to engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject
 to every human creature for God's sake (1 Pet. 2:13) and to confess
 that they are Christians.

The second way is "to proclaim the word of God when they see that it pleases the Lord." I shall be concentrating on the first of the two ways.

Francis' approach, grounded in humility and service rather than argument or arms, testified to his understanding of Jesus as the One who took the form of a servant. For Francis, it was better to be subject to the Saracens than to attack or dispute with them. It is telling, then, that the Regula bullata of 1223, which received papal approval, omits Chapter 16 almost entirely, reducing it from twenty-one verses to two, and treating even those as an appendix. Doubtless, the increasingly clerical character of the Order during this time accounts for this shift in emphasis. (5)

Considering the tenor of the rhetoric and the fervor of the crusading spirit that was then at work in Europe, Francis' missionary posture is extraordinary.
 [Francis'] obedience to divine inspiration brought him again and
 again into an inevitable conflict with the dominant culture. For who
 could have inspired him at that time ... to go on a peace mission
 among the Saracens? No one: because church and society were
 dominated by the idea that the crusade against the Saracens was
 Christ's cause ... (6)

Throughout his travels, Francis discovered that his sojourn among the Saracens was to involve "a learning process that was full of surprises":
 Francis ... saw the faith of the Saracens and was profoundly
 impressed by their prayer while everyone else called them
 unbelievers ... he listened with great attention to all that God was
 telling him through the Saracens' lives and history, and while
 others looked down on them, Francis was full of admiration: God had
 gone among the Saracens before him and had been the source of much
 that was good and beautiful ... It is this experience which offers
 an explanation for the fact that we do not find any evidence of the
 negative outlook on the Saracens and Islam, which was so prevalent
 in church circles at the time, in the writings of Francis. (7)

Some of the good and beautiful things Francis discovered began to appear in his writings after his return. For instance, it was surely the daily Islamic call to prayer that Francis had in mind when, in his Letter to the Rulers of the Peoples (c.1220), he urged
 That every evening a call be made by a messenger or some other
 signal that praise and thanks may be given by all people to the
 all-powerful Lord God. (8)

Another preoccupation of Francis in his post-journey period was concern that respect be shown for the "names of God"--a concern that surely became enkindled by contact with the Muslim devotional practice of reverently reciting the "Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God" recorded in the Qur'an.
 [Francis] was struck by the great reverence [the Muslims] had for
 their holy book, the Qur'an ... and for the holy names of God, which
 they continually recited with great devotion and reverence. (9)

In his Letter to the Clergy, Francis urged a greater respect for the "written names and words of the Lord."
 These names continued to captivate Francis' mind, and ... in his
 Testament he ... asked his brothers that, wherever they found 'the
 most holy written names and words of the Lord in unbecoming places,'
 they must see to it that 'they be collected and placed in a suitable
 place.' The respect and reverence for the most holy names and words
 of the Lord was clearly one of the major concerns of Francis, ever
 since he returned from his visit to the Saracens. (10)

Francis' reverence for the written word did not stop at the Bible. In Thomas of Celano's first biography of Francis, we read:
 Whenever Francis would find anything written, whether about God or
 about man ... he would pick it up with the greatest reverence and
 put it in a sacred or decent place ... [W]hen he was asked by a
 certain brother why he so diligently picked up writings even of
 pagans in which the name of the Lord is not mentioned, he replied:
 'Son, because the letters are there out of which the most glorious
 name of the Lord God could be put together. Moreover, whatever is
 good there does not pertain to the pagans, nor to any other people,
 but to God alone, to whom belongs every good. (11)

It is highly unlikely that, by "pagans," Francis meant exclusively the philosophy and literature of the ancient Mediterranean, which had already been undergoing a process of co-optation by the Church for some two centuries, and with which he was at any rate unfamiliar. It is far more likely that he referred to "the Qur'an, and other Islamic writings, which he had seen during his visit to the Saracens, who were commonly called 'pagans.'" (12)

The Islamic devotion of the Names of God, which evidently exerted an influence on Francis' thought, often takes the form of dhikr, or "remembrance of God," to which we now turn our attention.

Dhikr: The Remembrance of God

The Qur'an places the story of God's covenant with humanity before the creation of the world. God summoned all of not-yet-created humankind and asked, "Am I not your Lord?" To which the answer came, "Yes: we bear witness." (Q7:172, 3:81, 33:7.) In this view, every person has an intuition, a primordial "remembrance" of God and our covenant with God.

Yet the human situation is characterized, above all, by "forgetfulness," or "heedlessness." (13) Like the seed that fell among thorns, we allow the cares of the world to extinguish the remembrance of God within us.

There are many approaches to the remembrance of God within Islam. One is the reverent recitation of the so-called "Ninety-nine Beautiful Names of God" found within the Qur'an. Contact with this practice may well be what fueled Francis' reverence for the "names of God" after his return from the East.

The other is the rhythmic recitation--either spoken or chanted--of some brief formula, such as La illaha il Allah ("There is no God but God",) or simply Allah. This type of dhikr is most common among the various orders of Islamic mystics known loosely as Sufis. It has often been a subject of controversy between Sufis and orthodox Muslims, and different Sufi orders have had different opinions about its advisability and different styles of performing it. (14)

Many Sufi orders sing their dhikr; sung dhikr often occurs in the context of sama, a devotional gathering for music and poetry recitation. Since the earliest days of Sufism, the recitation of poetry and the rhythm of music have been thought to induce mystical states in hearers who are properly prepared. (15) In Sufi orders in which the practice of sama and dhikr have been highly developed, to the level of high sacred art--such as the Mevlevi, or "Whirling" Dervishes founded by Jelaluddin Rumi--the rhythmic repetition of the dhikr portion of the sama is accompanied by drums which reinforce the repetitive rhythm, while the chanting itself serves as the accompaniment to instrumental improvisation and the semi-improvised cantillation of a sheik, who intones sacred texts that "float" over the repetitions of the dhikr formula.

The unmeasured, "rhythmless" nature of both the cantillation and the improvised instrumental solos is significant. Among conservative Muslims, repetitive rhythms, instrumental music, chanting, ensemble performance, composed music--anything that can conduce to ecstasy and trance--is suspect. The most "safe" music, then, is unmeasured, improvised and performed by a soloist. The Sufi combination of rhythmic group dhikr with unmeasured improvised solos may be seen as a compromise between Sufi mysticism and Orthodox Islam. (16)

Ironically, the compromise format is arguably far more powerful than the repetitive chanting alone. The contrast between the dervishes, chanting rhythmically in the low register, and the sheikh, chanting melismatically (many tones to each syllable) and non-rhythmically in a high register, produces an ecstatic effect that is the high-point of the Mevlevi sama. The effect of this style of dhikr, which draws our attention to the eternal through the sheik's chant and the improvised solos, and toward the temporal by the hypnotic repetitions of the dervishes, is to give us a feeling of existing both in time and in eternity. (See "The Present of Things To Come: What Makes Music 'Spiritual'?" Scott Robinson, Arts, Union Seminary of the Twin Cities, August/September 2005).

In the first example ( we hear an extract from the sama of the Mevlevi Dervishes. (17) This is the climactic point where the dhikr is at its most energetic.

The second example ( is an extract from my choral piece, and there was evening: a remembrance of God. (18) Though I have made several musical accommodations to Western practice--for instance, the chorus is chanting in parts rather than in unison, and the cantor is singing Gregorian chant rather than improvised music--the piece follows the format of the Mevlevi sama very closely. (Hear more samples from this CD at

In the final example, I have combined the form of the antiphonal psalm setting--in which a cantor intones the verses of the psalm a few at a time, and the assembly sings a refrain, or antiphon, after each group of verses--with the practice of dhikr. In this piece, while the cantor is intoning the verses, and during the improvised instrumental solos, the choir sings a rhythmic, repeated "halleluyah" in place of the Islamic "la illaha il Allah." (

Composing this music has been very rewarding for me, and in a peculiarly Franciscan way. Like Francis, I have sojourned among Muslims and gained insights that have deeply enriched my devotional practice; my musical vocabulary has also been greatly expanded, just as Francis' store of the many Names of God was increased. 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.

In closing, I must say that while wanting to make the too-familiar Gospel more strange to Western ears ("We have never heard anything like this before!" said Jesus' hearers), I hope to be able to participate in the work of making it more familiar to those who have not heard it. I am burdened when I hear, or hear of, Asian Christians using American praise-and-worship music. Although one cannot expect all Western--or even indigenous--evangelists to be expert in the worship-music traditions of Asian cultures, we do well to bear in mind the indictment of Punjabi evangelist Sundar Singh, who likened the Gospel to a banana and Western culture to the peel; too often, Singh noted, Western missionaries have tried to force evangelized peoples to swallow the peel along with the fruit. (19) Of course, there have been notable cases of musical worship life falling early into the hands of native evangelists, (the hymn-writers of Malawi being one example, (20) and I hope some day to see Asian Christians redeem their own musical traditions for the service of the Gospel. (I do not refer, of course, to the historic Asian churches, which have their own ancient and highly developed liturgies and devotional practices.) In many cases, these non-Christian traditions may be more advanced in some ways than the transplanted Western music now in widespread use, and in any case, they are surely better suited to introducing Gospel concepts into a non-Western cultural context than any American commercial import. If we, like Paul, are called to be "all things to all people," surely a more conscientious study of other peoples' music is in order.

The more we learn about other peoples' cultures and religious traditions, the better equipped we will be to live peaceably with them. The question is being increasingly brought to our doorstep, as America becomes ever more diverse. "The pluriformity of religions, so characteristic of Asia, manifests itself more and more in Europe and North America;" hence, if we are able to humble ourselves to the point of really learning from others, we will become able to participate in the dialogue with other religions, especially Islam, in a Franciscan way, not from a position of power, but in an attitude of service. (21)

Trope: Borrowed Devotional Practices

Some Christians are uneasy with non-Christian devotional practices, even when they have been put to Christian use, feeling that some malevolence must be inherent in the form because of the cultural and religious circumstances of its origin. The Indian writer C. H. Dicran, advocating the adaptation of the Hindu bhajan for Christian use, refers to "certain Catholics who felt the freedom to sing the names of Hindu gods in order to learn Indian classical music." Dicran then cites two passages from 1 Corinthians in which Paul advises the faithful about eating food sacrificed to idols. (22)

In 1 Corinthians 8: 4-8, Paul seems to be saying that, for Christians, there can be no harm in eating such food, because the gods to whom it is sacrificed are no gods at all. "We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do." In a seemingly contradictory passage later in the same letter, (1 Cor. 10: 14-22) Paul advises the faithful to have nothing to do with such sacrifices, because "the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too."

Dicran points out that the first passage likely refers to the simple act of eating as a bodily necessity, while the second apparently refers to participation in the sacrificial rite and its attendant feast. In the first case, those eating were doing only what they had to do, having no traffic with the idols themselves or with demons, whereas in the second Paul cautions against voluntary practices which could make them "participants with demons." Likewise, the Christian who, in order to learn a musical form for the purpose of putting that form in the service of Gospel, must, as part of the learning process, perform music dedicated to other gods, is doing only what she has to do, while the person who sings those same songs in the context of non-Christian worship has a greater likelihood of "drinking the cup of demons."

Dicran then cites a passage which deals directly with the demands of professional duties:
 In the book of II Kings, in Chapter Five, we read of a man, part of
 whose profession it was to enter the temple of his master's god and
 bow down to the idol along with his master. This man was Naaman the
 Leper, who was cleansed through the word of Elisha after dipping
 seven times in the Jordan River. After this miraculous healing
 Naaman became a devotee of Israel's God. Yet he was fully aware that
 he would not be free to relinquish his profession. He asked Elisha,
 therefore, whether he could bow down to the idol and yet not be held
 guilty as long as in his heart he worshiped only Israel's God.
 Elisha said, "Go in peace." (23)

Some years ago, I found myself facing the same dilemma during my own study of Hindustani classical singing, and found encouragement in the very same story.

Conclusion: Remembrance

The devotional practice of dhikr can only be understood as a human response to the dhikr of all creation. "The heavens are telling the glory of God," (24) says the Psalmist, and we must see the devotee engaged in the practice of dhikr as, in a sense, telling it back.
 Knowledge of things as they actually are can only come through
 knowing them as disclosures of the Real, as signs and traces
 displaying God's names and attributes. This is not a theoretical
 sort of knowledge, but a knowledge of recognition and gnosis. It is
 to gain a true vision of the Divine omnipresence, the fact that, as
 the Quran puts it, "Wherever you turn, there is the face of God"
 (2:115.) Such knowledge comes by way of dhikr, which is al-hudur ma'
 a'l-madhkur, "presence with the One Remembered."
 It is only this sort of knowledge that allows man to see that
 everything in this world is accursed if he does not see it as
 displaying the Real ... Once we see the world for what it is, we see
 that it is nothing but dhikr Allah--a reminder of God, a mention of
 God, a remembrance of God. Our response to the world can only be to
 follow its lead--to mention and to remember God. "Everything is
 accursed," says the hadith, (25) "except dhikr Allah. But everything
 is dhikr Allah, so nothing is accursed. The alchemy of dhikr
 transmutes the accursed into the blessed. (26)

The verse from Sura 2 of the Quran--"Wherever you turn, there is the face of God"--is so widely known and so often quoted that Francis may well have encountered it in his Eastern travels. He would certainly not be familiar with the Platonic thought woven around it by the medieval Islamic writers. But in Francis, who referred to his body as "Brother Ass" and practiced rigorous asceticism, yet addressed fire, the sun and the wolves as his brothers and water, the moon and the birds--and even Bodily Death--as his sisters, the notion that the creation was accursed except insofar as it served as a reminder of God would surely have found a home.


1. Donald Spoto, The Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi. Penguin Compass, 2002.

2. Percy, Walker, The Message in the Bottle. Picador, 2000.

3. J. Hoeberichts, Francis and Islam. Franciscan Press, 1997.1 am indebted to Hoeberichts' book for most of the material on Francis and the Crusades.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Thomas of Celano, First Life of St. Francis, quoted in J. Hoeberichts, Francis and Islam. Franciscan Press, 1997.

12. J. Hoeberichts, Francis and Islam. Franciscan Press, 1997.

13. William Chittick, "On the Cosmology of Dhikr." ed. James S. Cutsinger, Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, World Wisdom, 2002.

14. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

15. Kenneth Avery, Psychology of Early Sufi Sama: Listening and Altered States. Curzon, 2004.

16. Latif Bolat, et al., pers. comm. This is my own interpretation; though several sources have pronounced it plausible, it is difficult to prove conclusively.

17. Mevlevi Dervishes of Konya, Hamdullilah, Sounds True, 1998.

18. Voces Novae et Antique, Robert Ross, conducting, and Gypsophilia, Scott Robinson, artistic director, when we remembered you: music inspired by the liturgy of the Mevlevi "Whirling" Dervishes, Wyndfall, 2001.

19. See Sundar Singh, The Wisdom of the Sadhu, compiled and edited by Kim Comer. Plough Publishing, 2000.

20. T. J. Thompson, Christianity in Northern Malawi: Donald Fraser's Missionary Methods and Ngoni Culture. E.J. Brill, 1995.

21. J. Hoeberichts, Francis and Islam. Franciscan Press, 1997.

22. Dicran, C.H., Hindi Christian Bhajans: A Survey of their Use by Christians and a Critique by Hindu Professionals in the Music World. 2000.

23. Ibid.

24. Psalm 19:1.

25. An extra-Quranic saying attributed to God or to Muhammad.

26. William C. Chittick, "On the Cosmology of Dhikr." Paths to the Heart: Sufism and the Christian East, edited by James S. Cutsinger. World Wisdom, 2002.
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Title Annotation:Francis of Assisi
Author:Robinson, Scott
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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