The ‘Catholic Muslim’

The Conversion of Louis Massignon

On October 31, the eve of All Saints Day, I offered Mass—on the fiftieth anniversary of his death—for Louis Massignon, a scholar of Islam and something of a patron saint for me and many other Christian students of Islam. Massignon was a most unusual Catholic, a scholar whose life and career exemplify something central to the faith’s intellectual tradition: a breadth of vision that is “catholic” with both a small and a capital C.

Born in 1883 in a suburb of Paris, Massignon grew up in a bourgeois family divided between the agnosticism of his artist father and the Catholicism of his mother, who managed to introduce her son to the sacraments despite paternal opposition. He completed his baccalaureat in 1899, and though the curriculum he followed concentrated on Greek and Roman classics, he and his friend and classmate Henri Maspero decided that they would eventually specialize in the study of non-Western cultures. Years later the two would be distinguished colleagues at the Collège de France—Maspero as a Sinologist and Massignon an Islamicist. Maspero went on to play an active role in resisting the Nazi occupation, and died at Buchenwald in 1945.

After traveling as an adolescent to Italy and Germany, Massignon made a 1901 trip to Algeria, where he saw the Sahara for the first time, at the oasis of al-Qantara. That sight won him over to what he later called “the school of the desert,”...

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About the Author

Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.