By Andrew Kosorok. Ismailimail exclusive.
On October 13, Brigham Young University hosted the Utah premier of UPF’s The Sultan and The Saint, a retelling of the astounding meeting between the Sultan of Egypt Malik al-Kamil and the man who became St. Francis of Assisi – a meeting directly responsible for the ending of the fifth crusade.
Brigham Young University is the largest private Christian university in North America, and with religious outreach programs and successful academic publishing ventures like the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, the school has established itself as an important resource for scholarly connection along the Christian and Muslim intersection.
Dr. Grant Underwood, Professor of History and Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, coordinated the premier. Dr. Talaat al-Shuquairat, Imam for the Utah Valley Islamic Society, was among the guests of honor and recited from the Qur’an to open the event. University professors specializing in history and interfaith connection gave context for the evening, and the film was played to a full-size auditorium filled with students, families, and community members. Quite a feat considering this was on a Friday night.
After the film, very few people got up to leave – most everyone turned to the people around them and started discussing things they learned from the film.
The message of A Common Word is based fundamentally on the Two Great Commandments shared between Islam and Christianity
Catching up with Dr. Underwood, I asked if October 13 was significant. He told me he had pushed to make sure the premier took place on that specific date, because it was the 10-year anniversary of the publication of A Common Word, a document written by Muslim clergy as a declaration of Muslim interfaith tolerance and understanding to the world. “When I first read the Common Word, I was very impressed and decided I wanted to do something to commemorate it and draw it to the attention of our campus community and beyond.”
The message of A Common Word is based fundamentally on the Two Great Commandments shared between Islam and Christianity – commitment to the love of a Divine Being above all else, and the commitment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. This message is also the vital undercurrent to the interaction between Sultan Al-Kamil and St. Francis.
Brigham Young University is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect of Christianity with a similar number of adherents worldwide as Ismailis, and recognized throughout the world for humanitarian work and a certain eagerness for well-intentioned evangelizing. During much of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, LDS Christians were at the receiving end of a significant amount of persecution and media misrepresentation, a strong parallel to contemporary treatment of Muslims.
Dr. Underwood, a dedicated LDS Christian, told me “I find Islam to be a beautiful religion and Muslims to be a devout and wonderful people. It is inexcusable that both are besmirched by the attitudes and activities of an extremist fringe. LDS understand this because they, too, have a long and painful history of being mischaracterized by others.” Dr. Iqbal Hossain, a past president of the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, told me that many Muslim families felt welcomed coming to Utah due in large part to memories of this mistreatment in their own cultural history.
Catching up to my good friend Dr. Ahmad Salah, Imam for BYU, I asked him about the movie premier at Brigham Young University as well.
You read correctly – he is the official Imam of the largest private Christian university in North America.
“We meet every Friday in a room on campus, prayerfully dedicated for our use by Christian clergy. Can you beat that?” He says with a smile.
Originally from Cairo, Dr. Salah came to BYU to receive his doctorate in Engineering, and loved the area so much he is raising his family here. He is a full-time consultant and manager in his engineering firm, and takes very seriously his clerical responsibilities for the Muslim population at the university – a population drawn from many countries in the Middle East and throughout the world.
What’s it like being Imam at BYU?
“It doesn’t affect how I behave, I’m the same wherever I am. With that being said, BYU is very welcoming. Everyone smiles – a smile from a stranger in Cairo will start a fight, which is a societal thing, but in Islam smiling is defined as a sign of charity, and the same is true of the Christian culture at BYU; smiling is a good deed.”
He is constantly energized to be working with such a broad spectrum of Muslims – “Each of us represent a thread of fabric in Muslim culture and society” and the diversity makes life very interesting.
I asked if relocating from a predominantly Muslim culture to a Christian area was stifling or a challenge. “I believe I’m a better person specifically because I’m in Utah and at BYU – interfaith makes me a better Muslim. You don’t have to convert to be my friend; and I believe the interfaith discussion we engage in here always makes us better people.”
He said he was profoundly grateful for activities on campus like the premier of The Sultan and The Saint. These kinds of opportunities are absolutely vital for the world at large.
“There are constantly university-supported activities bringing Christians and Muslims together, and because I am Imam I must go – and I bring my family with me whenever possible. My daughters are better people, and better Muslims, because of these kinds of interfaith activities.”
As we spoke about the movie, he said “I hate the discussions of “we’re right and you’re wrong” – that is never productive. There should not be two camps, just one camp with different siblings.”
Discussing the film with Dr. Underwood, he said his favorite scene was (spoiler alert!) the distribution of bread to the Crusaders by the Muslim forces, under command of Sultan Al-Kamil. “And my favorite part of the evening was probably the beautiful recitation from the Qu’ran by Talaat al-Shuquairat.”
Since he is a specialist in history, I asked Dr. Underwood the most important lesson we can learn from an event which happened so long ago. “The relevance of the film lies in its portrayal of an openness to learn from, and respect, the other. These are qualities that are clearly within the reach of any person if they make the effort. And they are much needed today.”
Which reminded me of Dr. Salah’s recollection of his earliest days at BYU.
“Everyone smiled at me, and they smiled at me all the time.” This made it easier to adjust to his relocation so far from home, as it helped him remember “we all come from the same male and female (Adam and Eve)”.
This is what Sultan Al-Kamil and St. Francis helps us recollect – peace can come as we choose to remember we truly are the same family.
Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.
Andrew Kosorok is a traditionally trained stained glass artist, who has also studied traditional bookbinding techniques. In addition to commissioned studio work, designing, building, and restoring stained glass windows, Andrew work with sculptural stained glass. He enjoys looking for opportunities to explore dialogs of pluralism and shared community.