St Francis and Islam: a reflection
Following the study afternoon on 16 October about St Francis of Assisi’s meeting with the Muslim Sultan of Egypt in the autumn of 1219, one of the people present was prompted to write some reflections on her meetings with a young Afghan Muslim refugee who had come into her family. What she writes provides a parallel to the saint’s meeting, and raises some of the same questions.
At the recent study afternoon on St Francis of Assisi’s meeting with the Muslim Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil we were urged to get to know our Muslim neighbours at a more personal level. An example was given of letters sent through Amnesty International which has established some relationships, but here in Wells few of us actually ever meet anyone of the Muslim faith, and although now our culture is increasingly secular with many identifying themselves as having ‘no religion’ nevertheless our culture has its roots in the Christian faith, particularly as seen in North-Western Europe.
Within my own family, however, we have over the last three years the experience of getting to know a young Afghan refugee boy at a very personal level, and I would like to tell you a little about this.
My daughter, Jane, and her husband Stephen, live and work in London, their two children having ‘flown the next’ and as young adults begun their own professional lives. In the light of the severe refugee problem highlighted daily on TV a few years ago, they responded by offering to foster one of these deeply traumatised young people. I was asked to support their application through a very detailed questionnaire as to their suitability and what they could offer to meet the needs presented. One factor I mentioned was that Stephen’s background was from a Jewish family, although he is no longer practising, so he has some understanding of the meeting of faiths – in their own home they keep Hanukkah as well as Christmas! He is a very keen and competent cook with a strong interest in varied food cultures. As a result a young Afghan boy, Mohammed, was received into their home. He had lost both his parents, the father killed by the Taliban, I think in his presence, so an uncle paid for him to be rescued and he began, with other refugees, the long and dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, Europe, 5 months in the Calais Jungle camp before getting to England. He was about 14 years old and spoke no English.
Social workers and translators brought him to my daughter’s home to organise the fostering procedures. He chose to call them ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’, which they found a bit strange but was a mark of respect in the boy’s and our culture. They were told he was a practising Muslim with no family survivors. English classes were arranged and my daughter, a linguist but in French and Spanish, no Pashtu, was able to supplement the lessons at home. Stephen took him to the nearest mosque where he was given a prayer mat and a copy of the Qur’an. They also found good suppliers of halal meat. Mohammed was able to attend a nearby boys’ comprehensive school and join classes for GCSE. As he is a keen cricketer (I believe a popular sport in Afghanistan), he was introduced to a local cricket club where he is now a very able bowler.
Jane and Stephen regularly visit me in Wells, and they brought him with them in these early years when his English was minimal. When on one visit I asked what they would like to do over the weekend they said, ‘Well we’ll show him the Cathedral obviously’. As I took them down, I wondered what on earth I could show this non-English speaking Muslim boy? As a Cathedral Guide over many years I know the Cathedral well, and I decided to show him the carving of Noah on the West Front. So, when I pointed at the carving of Noah building the ark I asked him, ‘Do you know the story of Noah?’ Islam is also an Abrahamic faith like Judaism and Christianity, but I don’t know if Muslim children learn the stories from the Old Testament in the way that my generation used to do. Mohammed looked a bit vague, though he showed some recognition when Stephen said ‘the Flood’. I explained that the carving of Noah on a Christian church is a symbol that this is a place of safety, and I hoped that he would feel that too. We lit a candle, saw the clock and then took him up Glastonbury Tor his first visit!
At my home he slept (and observed the Muslim prayer times) in what was then my studio, and he used some of my art paper and crayons to leave a small drawing as a ‘thank you’ for having him, just as any of my well-behaved grandchildren would do!
On a later visit, about a year ago, his English was more established; he’d taken GCSE re-sits in English and maths and passed, and he was good at IT. On this occasion we all went out for a pub lunch, a familiar, noisy and cheerful venue. He always chooses the fish and chips option, thus avoiding the halal meat issue, while the rest of us chose whatever we fancied. In the middle of this lunch Mohammed looked across at me and quite unexpectedly asked, ‘When do you pray?’ Well, you don’t expect to have suddenly to respond to such a question in the middle of a pub lunch! I said, ‘Well, morning and evening’, and the conversation soon moved on. Later, at home, I thought, ‘What ought I to have said?’. I could/should have replied ‘Well, we can speak to God at any time’, or ‘We don’t have the five set times of your faith but Christians worship together especially on a Sunday morning’. How many of us even begin to work out how to answer such a question, and for that matter how many of our faith’s teenagers pray even once a day?
These family experiences of getting to know a young Muslim boy have enriched my own faith as I see how this traumatised Afghan boy’s life has been turned around by the care he has received, and has brought our two faiths together.