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 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. 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. 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.
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, and 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. 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.
"The mystical vision of Louis Massignon: Islam inspired scholar's gratitude, life work and Christian faith National Catholic Reporter", byJerry Ryan
[a freelance writer and a longtime worker at the New England Aquarium] http://www.looksmartreligions.com