Seton Hill University hosted the Westmoreland County premiere of the docudrama film “The Sultan and the Saint” on Sept. 27. The screening at SHU was one of 90 premieres across the country before the film airs nationally on PBS on Dec. 26.
The screening at SHU was made possible by Hassan Bakri, a Pittsburgh area dental specialist and donor and underwriter for the film. Bakri has been involved with SHU for over 20 years and reached out to see if the university would host a premiere for Westmoreland County.
SHU and Unity Productions Foundation (UPF), the creator of the film, awarded Bakri with the “Sultan and Saint Peacemaker Award” at the film premiere. The award was given to Bakri for his work on connecting people of different faiths, and SHU President Mary Finger described Bakri as an “active advocate for interfaith dialogue.”
“It’s part of the Muslim faith and it’s part of the Christian faith to establish good and to have peace,” Bakri said. “For me, the other is very intriguing. If there was no other, it would be boring, and there would be nothing to learn from. We should focus on the main goals of faith: preserving the sanctity of life, family, faith itself and freedom of choosing faith.”
“I love the people of Westmoreland County,” Bakri added. “I practice here and I want to be there for them too because they’ve been there for me. We’re a family of believers, so I’m at home.”
“The Sultan and the Saint” film focuses on the story of St. Francis of Assisi, a Christian preacher, and Al-Malik al-Kamil, the Muslim sultan of Egypt. St. Francis, who opposed the violent bloodshed of the Crusades, crossed enemy lines during the war to meet al-Kamil to find common ground between their religions. The film was created by UPF, which creates films that attempt to educate people about different faiths and cultures.
“We’re really hoping that the message gets out there and mobilizes people and inspires people because it’s history, but it’s what we call history in the present tense,” said Jawaad Abdul Rahman, an executive producer of the film. “It speaks to the realities of our time, some of the intolerance we see and some of the extremism we see, and the bottom line is to encounter: engaging and talking, meeting people, walking across lines of differences and building relationships.”
According to Fran Leap, professor of religious studies and theology at SHU, over 400 people attended the film premiere. While many attendees consisted of SHU students and faculty, the premiere attracted many community members.
“It’s wonderful to see the intersection of two men from such different cultures, and that despite the continued conflict, that the sultan was able to reach back in peace,” said Suzanne English, vice president of marketing and communications at Saint Vincent College. “It’s certainly something you’d love to see in our times, that we reach out to others instead of establishing barriers.”
Theresa Miller and Ray Werthman, who are both members of St. Raymond’s Church in Donegal, Pa., found information online about the film screening and decided to attend together.
“I like the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi and I try to pattern my life after that,” Miller said. “I thought it was very interesting and educational, and I’m really glad I came.”
“I thought it was very good and I think there’s a lot of work that has to be done,” Werthman said. “I think it starts with politics, with the extremists and partisanship. You’ve got to break down this extremism and get people talking together.”
Many SHU students were encouraged or required by professors to attend. Tasha Brownfield, a sophomore psychology and religious studies major, attended the film with members of her dorm floor as part of their spiritual development requirement.
“The most important thing I learned was how important it is just for an individual person to reach out, because it only takes two people to transform an entire nation,” Brownfield said. “If you’re able to and you’re brave enough to reach out, then you can change the world.”
Along with SHU, the event was sponsored by the YWCA of Westmoreland County, the Westmoreland Library Network and the Consortium for Educational Resources on Islamic Studies. SHU’s next event with the YWCA will be a panel called “Immigration: It’s Not That Easy” on Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. in Cecilian Hall, which is open to the community. Reflecting on “The Sultan and the Saint,” Leap said she was moved by the “positive response” from the community, and she believes learning about the story of “The Sultan and the Saint” can give people courage.
“It is deeply inspirational to revisit the story of St. Francis and Sultan al-Kamil and recall their efforts, in the midst of far more brutal conditions, to reach out to one another,” Leap said. “It was truly moving for me to be in a room with so many people from our local community who are also inspired by this story and engaged themselves in reaching out for healing, compassion and peacemaking.”