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,” and he remained a faithful student all his life. His first actual degree, completed in 1902, was in French literature. It was only in 1903 that Massignon first undertook the study of Arabic, just as the last vestiges of the Catholic faith he had inherited from his mother withered away.

His initial graduate research took up an unusual figure of the sixteenth century, Leo Africanus. Born a Muslim in Granada before its conquest in 1492, al-Hasan ibn Muhammad took refuge in the Moroccan city of Fez. Captured by pirates and taken to Rome, the Muslim youth was baptized with the given and throne names of his patron, Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici)—thus becoming Johannes Leo Africanus. Leo Africanus had written (in Italian) a description of Africa, much of it concentrated on Morocco, and Massignon for his thesis attempted a reconstruction of the sixteenth-century Morocco of Leo Africanus, a work completed in 1904.

Living in Paris for the next two years and immersing himself in Arabic language and literature, Massignon was introduced to Islamic mysticism (Sufism), a topic in which he later specialized. Meanwhile, he sent a copy of his monograph on Leo Africanus to Charles de Foucauld, a repentant soldier of fortune and roué who had done research on Leo Africanus two decades earlier and who was currently living as a priest-hermit in the Sahara. De Foucauld responded to the gift of the book with a note that would later haunt Massignon: “I offer to God for you my poor and unworthy prayers,” he wrote, “begging him to bless you, to bless your work and your whole life.”

After completing his studies in Arabic, the twenty-three-year-old Massignon departed for Cairo to participate in an archeological research project. On board the ship from Marseilles to Egypt, he met and fell in love with a Spanish Islamicist, Luis de Cuadra, who subsequently initiated him into the homosexual scene in Cairo. In later years Massignon would be frank about this stage in his life, to the embarrassment of family and friends. After his conversion in 1908, he struggled to renounce his love for de Cuadra; hoping to bring de Cuadra back to the Catholicism the Spaniard had renounced, he corresponded with him until de Cuadra’s suicide in a Spanish jail in 1921.

It was in Cairo in the spring of 1907, meanwhile, that de Cuadra drew Massignon’s attention to an obscure tenth-century Muslim mystic, Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, whose life and writings were to become Massignon’s obsession. Hallaj had been executed—some say crucified—in Baghdad in 922 CE for claiming a blasphemously intimate relationship with God. One quotation in particular from Hallaj struck Massignon like a lightning bolt: “Two moments of adoration suffice in love, but the preliminary ablution must be made in blood.” A knowledge of Islamic worship can help clarify this cryptic remark. In Islam, all formal worship (salat) is preceded by ablution. To demand that an ablution be made in blood is paradoxical in the extreme, possibly hinting that martyrdom alone prepares one to worship God truly. The bodies of martyrs for the faith are not washed before burial in the Islamic tradition: their blood cleanses them of all impurity. The “two moments of adoration” that “suffice in love” may refer to the shortest of the five daily performances of Islamic worship, the dawn salat, which consists in two cycles of standing, bowing, and double prostration followed by sitting, all interspersed with prayer formulas and brief recitations from the Qur’an.

For Massignon, no longer a practicing Catholic and deeply enmeshed in his love for de Cuadra, the quotation from Hallaj spoke of a different type of love, and the fact that it came from a Muslim mystic and martyr who had lived a millennium earlier amazed the young agnostic. In a 1912 letter to Paul Claudel, Massignon recalled the effect on him of Hallaj’s words: “I saw bending toward me in the midst of all those past figures of Islam, the crucified effigy, a striking double of the Master whom I had loved when young.” Massignon’s inner battle between the agnosticism of his father and the faith of his mother took a decisive turn that day in Cairo. Shortly thereafter he made a dramatic decision: to focus his doctoral research on the Sufi martyr Hallaj, combining the study of mysticism with archeological research in the area of Baghdad where Hallaj had preached and eventually died.

For this reason Massignon sailed in December 1907 to what is now Iraq, then part of the Ottoman Empire. His arrival there came at a time of great political tension. The Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, was locked in struggle with the “Young Turks” (the Committee on Union and Progress) for the constitutional future of the Empire. That struggle culminated in July 1908, when the Young Turks effected a reformist coup d’état that reduced the Sultanate to a constitutional monarchy. But before that, in May 1908, Massignon experienced his own internal coup d’état. In Baghdad he had deliberately distanced himself from the French expatriate community, living in an Arab environment and dressing in the local fashion. A distinguished Muslim family, the Alusis, provided him with accommodation; one of them, who may have known more about Massignon than the latter suspected, subtly warned him not to pursue any homosexual liaisons in Baghdad. Still in love with de Cuadra, who had remained in Cairo, Massignon agreed. But the Ottoman authorities grew suspicious of this rather different Frenchman living outside the expatriate enclave. The French were known to favor the Young Turk movement—and two German scholars, whose archeological research work overlapped with that of Massignon, denounced him as a spy.

Just at this time, Massignon fell ill on an archeological research expedition in southern Iraq, possibly with cerebral malaria. Returning upriver toward Baghdad in the first week of May, he began to behave erratically. Fearful for his own sanity, Massignon surrendered his revolver to the sympathetic captain of the river boat. He was kept under guard for his own safety, but nonetheless managed to escape when the boat ran aground near the ruins of the Taq, the ancient royal palace of the Sasanid Persian rulers of Mesopotamia. Pursued into the palace ruins by his shipmates, Massignon was returned to the boat and restrained with ropes for the rest of the journey to Baghdad. Somehow he managed to cut himself free and attempted to stab himself. After much agitation and delirious behavior, he finally fell quiet.

On board the grounded river boat Massignon experienced what he later called the “visitation of the Stranger.” This was God—the God from whom he had been estranged for five years, as well as the God toward whom he felt deeply attracted, especially as encountered in the kindness and moral uprightness of his Baghdad hosts, the deeply devout Alusis. Many years later, Massignon eloquently recalled the extraordinary experience of “the Stranger who visited me, one evening in May before the Taq.” Appearing mysteriously, “like the phosphorescence of a fish rising from the bottom of the deepest sea,” the Stranger “cauterized my despair,” and left Massignon in a state of helpless submission:

No name remained in my memory (not even my own) that could have been shouted at Him to free me from His scheme and let me escape His trap. Nothing left, that is, but the recognition of His sacred aloneness; acknowledgement of my own unworthiness, the transparent shroud between us, the intangibly feminine veil of silence which disarms Him and becomes iridescent with His coming: through His creative word. (Testimonies and Reflections: Essays of Louis Massignon, ed. Herbert Mason.)

Massignon credited a number of “interceding witnesses” he believed had helped bring him back into the presence of God the Stranger: his devout mother and aunt; Charles de Foucauld, who had written to him from the Sahara two years earlier with such spiritual magnetism; the late novelist and family friend, Joris-Karl Huysmans, a convert to Catholicism who had given the teenaged Massignon a memorable account of his devotion to Lydwine of Schiedam, a fifteenth-century saint whose life of ill health was offered up in substitution for others.

And, last but not least, Massignon listed Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj as an interceding witness. The Muslim mystic and martyr had offered up his own suffering and death in tenth-century Baghdad as an “intercessor” (badal) for the Islamic community throughout the world, a community he hoped to rescue from the clutches of the mean-spirited legalists and corrupt politicians and financiers who had persecuted him. In later years Massignon always insisted it was Hallaj who had interceded for him before the Divine Majesty and helped to bring him back to his faith as a Catholic. Not long after his experience at the Taq, he formalized that return. Forced by his recurring malaria to return to Paris, Massignon traveled via Syria, and at Beirut an Iraqi Carmelite priest heard his confession and reintroduced him to the sacramental life of the church for the first time in five years.

Over the next fifty-four years Massignon’s faith deepened profoundly, though not without moral struggle. In 1949, with the permission of Pope Pius XII, he transferred from the Latin Rite to the Melkite Greek Rite of the Catholic Church, an expression of his deep commitment to Catholic Christianity as it survives among a minority of the Arabs. With the permission of the extraordinary Melkite Catholic Patriarch Maximos IV, Massignon was ordained a Melkite priest in 1950, enabling him to offer the Eucharist privately in Arabic for the last twelve years of his life. He died in 1962—not in the Holy Land, as he had hoped, but in Paris, on the eve of la Toussaint, All Saints Day.

Massignon’s legacy is an important and a hopeful one. His magnum opus on Hallaj, defended for his doctorat d’état in 1922, continued to be amplified throughout his life. (The final French edition, published posthumously by Massignon’s son Daniel Massignon in 1975, was translated lovingly into English by Herbert Mason in four volumes: The Passion of al-Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam.) Growing with it was his commitment to badaliyya, mutual intercessory prayer for and with Muslims. Together with an Egyptian Christian woman named Mary Kahil, he dedicated himself in 1934 to such prayer at the abandoned Franciscan church in Damietta, Egypt, near where Saint Francis had met peaceably with the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil in 1219. Massignon and Kahil pledged themselves to pray for Muslims—not that they convert to Christianity, but that God’s will be accomplished in them and through them. Later that year Massignon visited Pope Pius XI, who jokingly referred to him as a “Catholic Muslim,” but gave his approval for such mutual intercessory prayer. In its generosity of spirit, such prayer for Muslims prefigured the Good Friday prayer for Jews transformed by Vatican II, bidding Catholics to “pray for the Jewish people, the first to hear the word of God, that they may continue to grow in the love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant.”

In 1954 Massignon organized the first of a series of annual Muslim-Christian pilgrimages to the Church of the Seven Sleepers at Vieux Marché in Brittany. That church commemorates seven Christian boys of Ephesus who took refuge in a cave during the persecution unleashed by the Roman Emperor Decius in the third century CE. Tradition narrates how they slept in the cave for two centuries and emerged to find Christianity triumphant in the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 CE). The Qur’an, in the Sura of the Cave (Qur’an 18), narrates a similar story of seven young men, persecuted for their monotheism, whose awakening presages the resurrection of the dead, a central theme in Muhammad’s preaching. Massignon organized the Vieux Marché pilgrimage at a time of high tension between French Christians and Algerian Muslims, and he saw it as an extension of the commitment he had made twenty years earlier to badaliyya, Christian-Muslim mutual intercessory prayer.

Today, more than a decade after the terrible events of September 11, many in the United States and Europe feel free to denigrate the faith of Muslims. This denigration, together with dreadful recent developments in Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere, makes the effort at mutual intercessory prayer for and with Muslims no easy task for Christians. The example and memory of Louis Massignon, my patron saint, nonetheless urge us to continue the effort at badaliyya, no matter what the cost. May his great soul, and the souls of all true peacemakers—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—through the mercy of God rest in peace.


Related: Christian S. Krokus on the legend of the Seven Sleepers
James L. Fredericks on the necessary challenge of interreligious dialogue

Published in the 2013-01-25 issue: 

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

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