The French Islamologist had a crucial role in shaping our current discourse on Islam and the Middle East. His roots were in a special brand of Catholic mysticism.
by Massimo Introvigne
“C’est la faute à Massignon,” “It’s all Massignon’s fault.” In 2006, when I visited Damascus, this was the opinion of an eminent Sunni theologian who received me at the University of Damascus. He was convinced that, for better or for worse, all the problems of modern Syria derived from the activities of the great French scholar of Islam Louis Massignon (1883–1962). He was not the only one.
Yet, Massignon is a multi-dimensional, fascinating figure, and one that shaped the Western discourse on Islam and the Middle East for decades. To understand his positions on Islam, we should first understand his Catholicism.
The son of a very devout mother and a father who was both a famous sculptor and a free-thinker, Massignon was marked in his youth by a family friend, the Belgian writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), who had moved from Decadentism to a fervent Catholicism. Huysmans introduced the young Massignon into the discreet circle of the “Melanists,” which originated from the aftermath of the French Marian apparition of La Salette (1846). One of the two teenager visionaries of La Salette, Mélanie Calvat (1831–1904), published in her mature age a “secret of La Salette,” which was declared spurious by the same Catholic hierarchy that had recognized the apparition of 1846 as authentic.
The most ardent of the Melanists was the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy (1846–1917), who introduced Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), the philosopher he converted to Catholicism who will become a great friend of Massignon, and several other intellectuals to Melanism.
The alleged secret of La Salette threatened apocalyptic events, and divine punishments for the infidelity of both Catholic priests (branded as “cesspools of impurity,” which explains why some have rediscovered the text and applied it to the current pedophile priests crisis), and of a Catholic bourgeoisie insensitive to the desperate cry of the poor. The secret also recommended a restoration of divine justice through the “substitution” of souls who would offer themselves as victims to atone for the sins of others.
Many Melanists were monarchists, and some were Naundorffists, i.e., they believed in the claim of the adventurer Karl Wilhelm Naundorff (1785–1845) to be Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI (1754–1793) and Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), herself considered a saint by Massignon, who had miraculously survived the Temple prison (where, according to mainline history, he had died).
It is difficult to understand Massignon without La Salette and Naundorffism. Massignon’s aversion to the Umayyad caliphs, who refused to recognize Ali (died in 661), the cousin of the Prophet and his son-in-law as husband of his beloved daughter Fatima, as the rightful successor of Muhammad also stems from a parallel between the descendants of Ali and the Naundorff family. He saw in the injustices against the children of Ali and Fatima a “figure” of the injustices of France against the alleged descendants of Louis XVI, i.e., in his opinion, the Naundorffs.
While not insensitive to the magnificent Umayyad monuments of Damascus, Massignon sympathized with the claims of Ali’s partisans, the Shiites, and was the first in the West to study the so-called “hyper-Shiite” sects that considered Ali not only a victim of Sunni injustices but a divine incarnation and the revealer of esoteric doctrines. Among these hyper-Shiites are the Syrian Alawites, a minority (17%) in a country with a Sunni majority.
Massignon not only made the Alawites known in the West to a circle larger than the community of specialized scholars, but weaved a web of relations that contributed decisively to making them France’s best friends in the complicated Syrian scenario. Thanks to the French support, Syrian Alawites, including members of the Assad family, came to occupy decisive positions in the Syrian Army, which allowed them, after independence, to seize power.
There is little doubt that Massignon was an extraordinary scholar. He became first one of the most brilliant graduates (with a monumental thesis on the Sufi mystic Hallaj, 858–922, who had been crucified as a heretic), then the youngest professor at the Sorbonne. But he was also a French patriot, working for his country’s intelligence service. A friend of Catholic military man, scholar and mystic Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916), who is on his way to canonization in the Catholic Church, he had in common with him an instinctive sympathy for the Muslims. However, Foucauld was a man of the army, and Massignon worked with the intelligence services, which explains their different approaches.
In 1908, imprisoned in Iraq because of his espionage activities, Massignon had a mystical vision from which he emerged converted to Catholicism. Aware of Catholic moral rules, he also renounced his homoerotic relation with the Spanish writer Luis de Cuadra (1877–1921), whose conversion to Islam had made a deep impression on Massignon. In 1921, Cuadra will commit suicide, and Massignon will apply the Melanist doctrine of substitution and offer his sufferings for the salvation of the Spaniard’s soul.
Later, Massignon married a cousin and fathered three children with her, although biographers speculated that his affection to the Melkite Catholic intellectual Mary Kahil (1889–1979), expressed in moving and passionate letters, may not have been a Platonic one only. Anticipating trends that will prevail among Catholics only decades later, Massignon advocated a dialogue between the Catholic Church and the homosexual community and, without calling the official Catholic moral doctrine into questions, was instrumental in organizing “Masses for the homosexuals,” celebrated since 1942 in Paris, without too much publicity, by the future Cardinal Jean Daniélou (1905–1974).
Massignon, a man of intelligence and diplomacy, was to France and Syria what Thomas Edward Lawrence (the famous “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1888–1935) was to Great Britain and the Arabian Peninsula. When in 1916 the Sykes-Picot Agreements were concluded, which divided the Middle East into zones of influence attributing Syria and Lebanon to France and the Arabian Peninsula and present-day Iraq to Great Britain, Massignon and Lawrence were the main experts participating in the negotiations.
Massignon’s vision of Muslims has become since World War II the starting point for all Catholic reflections on Islam. Massignon did not forget that he had converted to Catholicism thanks to the example of living faith offered by Muslims. In 1934, he decided with Mary Kahil to found the Badaliya (“Substitution”), a Catholic prayer society modeled on the Sufi brotherhoods and which committed members to a series of prayers and acts, especially in Islamic lands, by which they offered themselves to God “substituting” their work for that of Muslims who rejected Christianity. The most distinguished (and discreet) member of the Badaliya would be Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (1897–1978), the future Pope Paul VI.
The notions of substitution and hospitality (a virtue emphasized by Islam) were instrumental to an evangelization of Muslims that in Massignon’s mind did not pass through the traditional missionary activities or proselytization, but through a silent example. Here again, Massignon anticipated modern Catholic trends epitomized by Pope Francis’ criticism of proselytization.
Contrary to accusations directed at him by conservative Catholics, Massignon was not a crypto-Muslim. He believed that Islam was part of the history of biblical salvation thanks to the direct descent of the Arabs from Ishmael, son of Abraham and the Egyptian slave Hagar, exiled in the desert by order of God but still the object of a special divine blessing (Genesis 21:13). Islam, Massignon believed, is the realization in history of the blessing of Ishmael. Since in fact it goes back to a time before Moses and Revelation, Islam for Massignon is not a post-Christian heresy but an “Abrahamic schism.”
Massignon asked Catholic theology to recognize for Islam what others had posited for Judaism: that there is a theological time that does not coincide with historical time, and that, like Jews, Muslims live in their own particular time, in which the pact between God and Abraham regarding the progeny of Ishmael remains in force for them.
This visionary thesis was rejected by many Catholic theologians, yet it certainly played a crucial role in promoting the interreligious dialogue between Christianity and Islam.
However, Massignon did not stop there. He acknowledged that mainline Sunni Islam was the guardian of Muslim orthodoxy and therefore of the blessing of Ishmael. On the other hand, his sympathy went to Sufism and to alternatives to Sunni Islam. In Sufism, he found an attempt to overcome the insurmountable barrier between Creator and creatures erected by the Prophet and the Quran, which he believed separated Islam from Christianity; and in Muslim schisms, as well as in popular devotion, a series of hypotheses and legends that may in some way favor a dialogue with Christianity.
His attention was focused on the veneration of Fatima, whom he considered a “figure” of the Virgin Mary who according to Catholics appeared, for Massignon, not by chance, after La Salette in a Portuguese town called Fatima. Massignon also had a lifelong fascination for the figure of Salman Pak, a Persian Christian who was the Prophet’s barber and advisor and who, according to some legends, while recognizing in Mohammed the envoy of God, never abjured Christianity.
In the esoteric teachings of “hyper-Shiite” sects, including the Alawites, Salman Pak even forms with Ali and Muhammad a trinity none of whose members is considered “God by essence” but to whom is attributed a “deification by participation.” The cult of Salman Pak in the Arab trade guilds, known in the West after the Crusades, would have influenced according to a Massignon, also the birth of Freemasonry.
There is a less pleasant side in Massignon’s theories. He believed that one of providential functions of Islam was to denounce to Christians the dark face of Judaism and Zionism, as enemies of the oppressed and the poor. In the last years of his life, a Catholic mystic like Massignon accepted to attend Communist rallies against the State of Israel.
His anti-Zionism (which reversed an early pro-Zionist position) occasionally included accents of anti-Semitism, with invectives against “the Jewish usurer sucking the blood of the poor, as Léon Bloy would have said.” Massignon also believed in the blood libel myth, the false theory that Jews killed Christians to use their blood in esoteric rituals. He believed in the ritual murder by Syrian Jews of Father Tommaso da Calangianus (1766–1840), a Capuchin who died in Damascus in 1840. It is now historically certain that the Jewish community was innocent of that crime.
However, Massignon always went back to La Salette. For him, Mélanie’s reference to priests as “cesspools of impurity” referred both to bourgeois Catholic priests and to the “priestly people,” the Jews. Massignon wrote that it is because of the lack of pity for the oppressed of the earth (including poor Middle Eastern Muslims) that “the temptation of ritual crime could not always be overcome by Israel nor by the [Catholic] clergy.”
In addition to Jewish blood libel, Massignon was referring to the alleged black Masses celebrated by “unworthy priests” in the novel Là-Bas published in 1891 by Massignon’s first mentor, Huysmans. The latter believed that the Black Masses described in his novel were real, and also bequeathed to Massignon some curious documents on the dangerous contacts between Melanist circles and priests celebrating bizarre magical (and sometimes sex-based) rituals such as Joseph-Antoine Boullan (1824–1893).
And yet, always inspired by the idea that in “substitution” through suffering one can redeem any kind of sin, Massignon decided to become a priest himself in the Melkite rite, which accepts married men under special conditions. Contrary to what some biographers report, he did not obtain a special dispensation from the Holy See. In fact, to the request of the Melkite patriarchate, the Vatican replied negatively: but the answer came when the Melkites, tired of waiting, had interpreted the silence as assent and had already ordered Massignon.
There is no reason to doubt Massignon’s Catholic piety, nor his genuine effort to create a dialogue between Muslims and Catholics, which eventually bore good fruit. On the problematic side, Massignon absorbed from his Muslim (and Christian) friends in the Middle East some anti-Semitic ideas, and his fascination with the Alawites, in addition to generating some scholarly masterpieces, led to French policies that prepared the Alawite hegemony in Syria and the Assad regime.
Massignon, however, was not primarily a politician, nor was he a theologian. He was a scholar and a mystic. When a former friend, Pierre Klossowski (1905–2001), attacked Massignon in 1950 in his novel The Suspended Vocation, he hid the Islamologist under the pseudonym “The Mountain”. It was not an allusion to the mountains of Lebanon, but to the “holy mountain” of La Salette.