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The mystical vision of Louis Massignon: Islam inspired scholar's gratitude, life work and Christian faith.

Better known in his native France than in this country, Louis Massignon was one of the most important scholars of Islam who ever lived. His influence on the study of Islam in the West was far-reaching, but Massignon was far more than an influential academic. His engagement with Islam was deeply personal and marked his life in profound and dramatic ways.

In a preface to a 1999 biography, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, paid tribute to Massignon's passionate engagement with the Other: "Louis Massignon invites us to enter into... the rediscovery of the original dialogue between cultures and religious. ... At a time when our world is prey to new waves of intolerance and new fundamentalisms ... we need to revive, in the hearts of men, this existential spirituality of Louis Massignon: dialogue, openness and tolerance."

A turning point in Massignon's life and the onset of his personal relationship with Islam began at the approach of dawn on May 3, 1908. While being held prisoner aboard a steamship on the Tigris River, accused of being a spy, Louis Massignon received a visit from a "Stranger without a Face" who took away everything he was and gave him everything he would become. Many years later, when he tried to describe this experience, Massignon stammered and resorted to metaphors. Massignon wrote that he saw himself as God, his judge, saw him at that moment--depraved and pretentious, worse than useless, undeserving of love or mercy or even of existence. He had abandoned the faith of his childhood; he was an active homosexual, a slave to his passions.

Massignon reported the execution of this judgment was suspended due to the prayers of five intercessors: Massignon's mother, the writer Juris Huysman who had prayed for Massignon on his deathbed, the Saharan hermit Charles de Foucauld, the tenth-century Sufi mystic al-Hallaj, and the Alousi family, pious Muslims who had given Massignon hospitality in Baghdad. It was thanks to these intercessors, both Christian and Muslim, that he was able to receive pardon. Massignon would later marvel that the prayer that spontaneously came to his lips after the mysterious visitation was in Arabic: "O God, O God, have mercy on me in my weakness!"

Louis Massignon was born on July 25, 1883, at Nogent-sur-Marne. His father was a sculptor who was well known in the French artistic community. Massignon was fascinated by Africa and the desert from his youth. His first trip to Algeria in 1901 confirmed his passion for this totally different world. By the age of 20 he had ceased to practice his Catholic faith and declared himself an agnostic. In 1904 he traveled to Morocco and began to seriously study both classical and dialectic Arab. In 1906 he was in Cairo. There he learned of the legends of al-Hallaj and met Luis de Cuadra, a Spanish nobleman, a convert to Islam, who became his lover and companion in "debauchery." The following year Massignon was sent by the French ministry of education to Baghdad for an archeological expedition into the Mesopotamian desert. It was during this mission that he was detained and accused of espionage and experienced his visitation from God.

While in Baghdad, Massignon had presented himself to the Alousi family of whom he had heard good reports. They didn't know him and had every reason to be suspicious of him. Yet they gave him hospitality, made him part of the family, shared everything with him and protected him as one of their own. After his capture, at great risk to themselves, the Alousi family rescued Massignon when the steamship he was on arrived in Baghdad. They made sure he received the medical attention he needed and helped him escape from Iraq.

When the "Stranger without a Face" presented himself to Massignon, it was like a reversal of his own role with the Alousis. The fact that he had been received as a faceless stranger enabled him to receive the divine visitation. Massignon never forgot that he owed his physical and moral salvation to the hospitality of this Muslim family. Through them and his other intercessors, Massignon encountered the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Hospitality, one of the sacred duties of Islam, became a leitmotif for him, a lens through which he saw the entirety of God's relationship with us and our relationship to one another. To receive the other such as he is, in his strangeness and mystery, to accept him and share with him and, at the same time, be received--in this consists the Law and the Prophets and the Fiat, the gracious acceptance of the Incarnate Word by the Virgin Mary.

Massignon's other Muslim intercessor was al-Hallaj. One of the reasons Massignon traveled to Baghdad was his decision to write his doctoral dissertation on this 10th-century mystic who suffered greatly from the divisions in Islam and dreamed of a unified Muslim community. Although his God was the transcendent God of Islam, al-Hallaj claimed an intimate, loving relationship with him. Because of this, Al-Hallaj was condemned as a heretic and crucified; his body was cremated and his ashes thrown into the Tigris River in the area in which Massignon received his visitation.

The rest of Massignon's life was an unfolding of his experience with the Stranger and was dedicated to repaying his debt to his Muslim intercessors. For the next 50 years he studied and made known the life and sayings of al-Hallaj. The quality of his relationship with the mystic/martyr is strikingly summarized in a text written in 1932: "It is not that the study of his [al-Hallaj's] life, full and strong, righteous and undivided, ascending and dedicated, has revealed to me the secret of his heart. It is rather al-Hallaj who has penetrated my heart and penetrates it still."

Massignon thought about the priesthood and about joining missionary priest Charles de Foucauld in the Sahara but finally opted for marriage. Mobilized as an officer in the First World War, he was first stationed in Macedonia, then sent to Syria and Palestine as an aide to the French high commissioner. When Jerusalem was liberated from the Ottoman Turks, Massignon entered the Holy City alongside Lawrence of Arabia. He suffered bitterly when the Allies later broke their promises to the Arab insurgents. After the war he was named professor at the College de France where he taught until 1954. He went to Egypt regularly to give classes, in Arabic, at the University of Cairo. In 1929 he founded the Institute for Islamic Studies in Paris and that same year began giving French lessons in the evenings to illiterate North African immigrants--a work he carried on for several decades.

In 1941 he founded the Institute Dar-es-Salaam in Cairo to promote Arab-Christian studies. At one time president of the Friends of Gandhi, during the struggle for Algerian independence Massignon regularly visited North Africans detained in French prisons. He was arrested several times for participating in nonviolent demonstrations against French brutality toward Arabs both in France and Algeria, and he was physically assaulted by right-wing students for being an "Arab-lover." In 1950, Massignon was ordained a priest in the Greek Melkite rite, which allows for married clergy. He died of a heart attack Oct. 31, 1962.

Louis Massignon was a complex and conflictive personality. His erudition was legendary and often overwhelming. He was a tireless talker, literally bursting with ideas and intuitions, constantly jumping from one theme to another with a logic known only to himself. Yet he possessed a basic simplicity. He based his life on a sacred promise he had made to pray for his Muslim brethren and offer his life for them as they had prayed and risked their lives for him. Everything, from his vast intellectual-powers to the most humble gestures of solidarity and friendship, was at their service. There was an absolute, uncompromising, almost frightening fidelity and commitment. This loyalty extended to all his friendships. He would solemnly offer himself as a victim for the salvation of Luis de Cuadra, his former partner.

Not only did Massignon immerse himself in Arab literature, philosophy and mysticism; he learned to think as a Semite, reason as a Semite and express himself as a Semite. To read Massignon is to enter into another world where all is symbolic, where words point beyond themselves to mysteries that cannot be possessed. He approached Islam from the point of view of Islam itself and saw its values as they are interiorized by the community, as a pious and sincere Muslim would wish to live them. He sees the other as the other wants to see himself. This is the dialogue of hospitality, the reception of the other not on one's own terms but on his.

Massignon was not naive. He was well aware of the pettiness of the Muslim legalists, the intolerance of the fanatics, the avarice and ambition of the unscrupulous, yet he loved what was pure and noble in Islam. And it was this image of what was best in their faith that he presented both to the Arabs and to the Western world. (Would Christians not wish that our church be judged on what it aspires to be rather than on the tarnished witness we give?) Massignon's approach to Islam is not apologetic in any sense of the word nor is there any hint of proselytism. He desired, of course, that his friends arrive at the plentitude of truth but was convinced that what was positive and pure in Islam was a vehicle of grace that did, in fact, lead to the fullness of truth, even if it was not articulated.

Massignon, however, did not seem tempted by Islam as were many of his contemporaries who contrasted the sense of the sacred and the all-penetrating religious reference of the Muslim community with the secular indifference and spiritual apathy of Western culture. The God of Islam is unique and transcendent and the human race was created to witness to this inaccessible oneness. The God Massignon experienced and for whom he lived was the lover of man, the guest of the Virgin, who entered our lives that we might enter his. Massignon never pretended to be a theologian; his piety was very simple, almost childlike. In his life-long dialogue with Islam, he was very clear about where he stood; there was gratitude, respect and genuine love, but there was no accommodating the truth or glossing over irreducible differences on a confessional level. The ultimate and essential dialogue, however, was in the silent purity of the mystical experience, in the communion of the saints where the merciful are shown mercy beyond time and space.

Louis Massignon opened a whole new dimension to Christian-Muslim relations. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, was an enthusiastic admirer of his work as were Jacques and Raissa Maritain. The very positive assessment of Islam in the decree on ecumenism of Vatican II was due in great part to the influence of Massignon. For Islamic scholar John Voll of Georgetown University, the enduring legacy of Massignon was to reveal, both to the Western world and the Muslim world, the mystical dimensions latent in Islam.

But Massignon was not always understood by his contemporaries. His patriotism was seriously questioned during the Algerian revolution. His attitude towards the state of Israel alienated many of his closest friends. He did not deny the right of the Jewish people to a homeland but opposed the violence with which they expelled and humiliated the Arab populations to erect what he saw as a secular and materialistic state.

Reactions to Massignon in the Islamic communities were varied. He had many authentic and long-lasting friendships with numerous Muslim scholars. Those most receptive to him were the social radicals who wanted to modernize Islam and who were led by Massignon to rediscover the essential religious and mystical elements of their faith. One wonders what the Middle East would be today had Massignon's disciple, Ali Shari, prevailed in Iran rather than the Ayatollah Khomeini (Shari was assassinated in Paris prior to the overthrow of the shah). Just as numerous, however, were those who felt uncomfortable about a Christian expounding on their religion. Moreover, it was practically unimaginable in certain more traditional circles that a Christian who knew Islam as profoundly as did Massignon would not convert to Islam if he were in good faith. He was thus suspected of ulterior motives. After centuries of polemic and warfare between Christianity and Islam, it was difficult to believe in the absolute gratuity of Massignon's interest and sympathy.

There are many truths lived and preached by Massignon that are relevant to the "clash of civilizations" we are witnessing today. There can be no peace and confraternity without dialogue, and there can be no dialogue without respect for the other such as he is. This implies a basic humility, a capacity for hospitality where one is emptied and enriched. This is the opposite of what is happening around us. But prophets are sent in times of crisis, and Massignon's dedication to empathetic understanding of the other sets a standard for us to follow today.

[Jerry Ryan is a freelance writer and a longtime worker at the New England Aquarium.]
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Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Ryan, Jerry
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 17, 2004
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