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Thursday, May 19th, 2005, 12:06 PM
The Sufis and Francis of Assisi

By Idres Shah

Mysteries in the West

IV. Francis of Assisi

Even though you tie a hundred knots - the string remains one (Rumi).

"The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else."

Most people know that St. Francis of Assisi was a lighthearted troubadour of Italy who experienced a religious conversion and became a saint with an uncanny influence over animals and birds. It is on record that the troubadours were a relic of Saracenic musicians and poets. It is often agreed that the rise and development of the monkish Orders in the middle ages was greatly influenced by the penetration of Moslem dervish organization in the West. Studying St. Francis from this point of view, certain interesting discoveries become possible.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of Pietro Bernardone, a merchant of fine stuffs, and his wife, Madonna Pica. He was originally named Giovanni, but his father was so attached to France (where he spent much of his commercial life) that "for love of the land he had just quitted" he renamed the child Francesco.

Although considered an Italian, Francis spoke Provenšal, the language used by the troubadours. There is little doubt that he felt in the spirit of the troubadours a glimpse of some thing deeper than appeared on the surface. His own poetry so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes. At this point we come across the first of a number of tales considered inexplicable by Western biographers.

The Whirling Dervishes can attain intuitive knowledge partly by a peculiar form of spinning, presided over by an instructor. Rumi's school of Whirling Dervishes was in full operation in Asia Minor, and its founder was still alive, during the lifetime of St. Francis.

Here is the puzzling "spinning" tale:

Francis was walking through Tuscany with a disciple, Brother Masseo. They arrived at a fork in the road. One path led to Florence, another to Arezzo, a third to Siena.
Masseo asked which branch they should take.

"The road which God wills."

"And which is that?"

"We will know by a sign. I command you, by your path of obedience, turn round and round as children do, until I tell you to stop."

So poor Masseo twirled and twirled, till he fell down from giddiness. Then he got up and looked beseechingly at the saint; but the saint said nothing, and Masseo, remembering his vow of obedience, began again to twirl his best. He continued to twirl and to fall for some time, till he seemed to have spent all his life in twirling, when, at last, he heard the welcome words: "Stop, and tell me whither your face is turned."

"To Siena," gasped Masseo, who felt the earth rock round him.

"Then to Siena we must go," said Francis, and to Siena they went.

That Francis felt the source of his troubadour inspiration to lie in the East, and that he was connected with the Sufis, seems clear from much evidence. When he went to the Pope, trying to have his Order accepted, he used a parable which shows that he must have been thinking in terms of the orphaning of a tradition and the need to reestablish its reality. The phrases which he uses in the parable are of Arabia, and the terminology, of a King and his court, of a woman and her sons in the desert, is not Christian but Saracen.

"Francis," says Bonaventura, recording an audience with Pope Innocent, "came armed with a parable. "There was, "he said, "a rich and mighty king who took to wife a poor but very beautiful woman, who lived in a desert, in whom he greatly delighted and by whom he had children who bore his image. When her sons were grown their mother said to them, "My sons, be not ashamed; ye are the children of a King."

And she sent them to the court, having supplied them with all necessaries. When they came to the King, he admired their beauty; and seeing in them some resemblance to himself, he asked them, "Whose sons are ye?" When they replied that they were the sons of a poor woman dwelling in the desert, the King, filled with much joy, said, "Fear not, ye are my sons, and if I nourish strangers at my table, how much more you, who are my legitimate children."

The tradition that the Sufis are the esoteric Christians out of the desert, and that they are the children of a poor woman (Hagar, wife of Abraham, because of their Arab descent) fits completely with the probability that Francis had tried to explain to the Pope that the Sufi stream represented Christianity in a continuing form.

At his first meeting with the Pope, we are told, Francis did not make much impression, and he was sent away. Immediately afterward, however, the Pope had a strange dream. He saw "a palm tree gradually grow up at his feet until it grew a goodly stature, and as he gazed upon it wondering what the vision might mean, a divine illumination impressed on the mind of the Vicar of Christ that this palm tree signified the poor man whom he had that day driven from his presence."

The palm tree is the symbol used by the Sufis, and this dream is probably the consequence of Francis using it as an analogy during his audience.

In the early part of the thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III, convinced of the validity of the saint's mission, granted permission for the foundation of the Minor Brothers, or Franciscans. The "Lesser Brethren," considered to be a title assumed from pious humility, might lead one to ask whether there was any Order known as the "Greater Brethren." If so, what might the connection be?

The only people known in this way who were contemporary with St. Francis were the Greater Brothers, an appellation of the Sufi Order founded by Najmuddin Kubra,, "the Greater." The connection is interesting. One of the major characteristics about this great Sufi teacher was that he had an uncanny influence over animals. Pictures of him show him surrounded by birds. He tamed a fierce dog merely by looking at it—just as St. Francis is said to have cowed the wolf in a well-known tale. Najmuddin's miracles were well known throughout the East sixty years before St. Francis was born.

When St. Francis was praised by anyone, it is reported, he replied with this phrase: "What every one is in the eyes of God, that he is no more."

It is related that the dictum of Najmuddin the Greater was: El Haqq Fahim ahsan el-Haqiqa—"The Truth it is which knows what is True."

In or about 1224, the most important and characteristic of all of St. Francis' songs was composed: the Cantico del Sole —Song of the Sun. Jalaluddin Rumi, the Whirling Dervish chief and greatest poet of Persia, wrote numerous poems dedicated to the Sun, the Sun of Tabriz. He even called a collection of his poems the Collection of the Sun of Tabriz. In this poetry the word "sun" is used again and again.

If it were true that St. Francis was trying to establish contact with the sources of his troubadour poetry, we would expect him to visit, or try to visit, the East. We would also expect him to be well received by the Saracens if he reached them. Further, he would be expected to produce Sufic poetry as a result of his Eastern travels. Now we can see whether these facts accord with history, and whether they were understood by his contemporaries.

When he was thirty, Francis decided to try to reach the East, and specifically Syria, which abutted upon the area of Asia Minor where the Whirling Dervishes were established. Prevented by financial troubles, he returned to Italy. Then he started out again, this time toward Morocco. He set off with a companion and traversed the whole kingdom of Aragon in Spain, though nobody can say why he did this, and some biographers are actually puzzled. Spain was very much penetrated with Sufi ideas and schools.

He did not actually reach Morocco, being driven back by illness, In the spring of 1214 he returned home.

Now he set out for the Crusades, where the siege of Damietta was in progress. Sultan Malik el-Kamil was encamped across the Nile—and Francis went to see him. He was well received, and the theory is that he went there to try to convert the Sultan to Christianity. "The Sultan," says a chronicler, "not only dismissed Francis in peace, with wonder and admiration for the man's unusual qualities, but received him fully into his favor, gave him a safe-conduct by which he might go and come, with full permission to preach to his subjects, and an entreaty that he would frequently return to visit him."

This visit to the Saracens is assumed by biographers to be prompted by a desire to convert the Sultan. And yet it is said of him that "These two aimless journeys break in somewhat strangely upon the current of his life." They would be strange if they were not those of a troubadour looking for his roots. His desire to get to Morocco is dismissed in terms such as these: "It is impossible to tell what incident in his unrelated story may have suggested this new idea to the mind of Francis."

The Saracenic armies and the courts of their princes were at that time foci of Sufi activity. There can be hardly any doubt that it was here that Francis found what he was looking for. Far from having converted anyone in the Moslem camp, his first action upon re crossing the Nile was to try to dissuade the Christians from attacking the enemy. By the usual process of hindsight this is explained by historians as being due to the saint's having had a vision of the forthcoming calamity to Christian arms.

"His warning was received with contempt, as he had foreseen; but in the month of November following was fully verified when the Crusaders were driven back with great loss from the walls of Damietta. The sympathies of Francis under such circumstances must have been divided, for it is impossible that he could have been without some personal feeling toward the tolerant and friendly prince who had received him with such kindness."

The "Song of the Sun," hailed as the first-ever Italian poem, was composed after the saint's journey to the East, although because of his troubadour background it is impossible for his usual biographers to believe that he was not composing similar poetry before this:

It is impossible to suppose that during all these years [before 1224, when he wrote the "Song"] Francis, who was the leader of the young troubadours of Assisi in his early days, and who went through the woods and fields, after his conversion, singing to himself, still in French, songs which could not surely be the same songs he had sung through the streets among his joyous companions—the days of war and love—it is impossible, we say, to suppose that it was for the first time at this late date that he had woven together canticles to the glory of God; but we are assured that these quaint and unskilled rhymes were the first beginning of vernacular poetry in Italy.

The atmosphere and setting of the Franciscan Order is closer to a dervish organization than anything else. Apart from the tales about St. Francis which are held in common with Sufi teachers, all kinds of points coincide. The special methodology of what Francis calls "holy prayer" indicates an affinity with the dervish "remembering," quite apart from the whirling. The dress of the Order, with its hooded cloak and wide sleeves, is that of the dervishes of Morocco and Spain.

Like the Sufi teacher Attar, Francis exchanged his garb with a mendicant. He saw a seraph with six wings, an allegory used by Sufis to convey the formula of the bismillah. He threw away spiked crosses which were worn for purposes of self-mortification by many of his monks. This action may or may not have been exactly as it is reported. It may resemble the dervish practice of ceremonially rejecting a cross with the words, "You may have the Cross, but we have the meaning of the Cross," which is still in use. This, incidentally, could be the origin of the Templar habit, alleged by witnesses, that the Knights "trod on the Cross."

Francis refused to become a priest. Like the Sufis, he enrolled into his teaching laymen, and again like the Sufis but unlike the Church, he sought to spread the movement among all the people, in some form of affiliation. This was "the first reappearance in the Church, since its full hierarchical establishment, of the democratic element—the Christian people, as distinguished from the simple sheep to be fed, and souls to be ruled."

The striking thing about the rules laid down by Francis was that, like the Sufis and unlike the ordinary Christians, his followers were not to think first of their own salvation. This principle is stressed again and again among the Sufis, who consider regard for personal salvation to be an expression of vanity.

He "began his preaching everywhere with the salutation which God, he said, had revealed to him—"The peace of God be with you." This is, of course, an Arab salutation.

In addition to Sufi ideas, legends and practices, St Francis retained many Christian aspects in the Order.

The consequence of this amalgam was to produce an organization which did not fully mature. A nineteenth century commentator sums up the inevitable development

"We who, with all the enlightenment of six additional centuries, can look back and see the Inquisition grimly shadowing from under the robes of the Spanish priest, and see hordes of mendicant friars, privileged and impudent beggars, appearing behind the genial countenance of Francis, may perceive how much of evil mixed with the good, and how the enemy of all truth had cunningly mixed the seed of the tares with that of the wheat."

Reference: Shah, Idres, The Sufis, Doubleday & Co., New York, 1964.