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Louis Massignon: A Tribute to a Pioneer in Interfaith Relations
Nov 1, 2012

Fifty years ago the renowned French Catholic scholar of Islam and the Islamic world, Louis Massignon, died on October 31,1962. He left a legacy of books, articles and lectures, many of which are dedicated to Interfaith dialogue and particularly to the relationship of the Three Abrahamic faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Many have described Louis Massignon's voice as "prophetic" and his own intense religious faith and commitment as "mystical." Some have called him an "Islamized Christian" due to his passionate desire "to know," to understand Islam and the experience of his Muslim friends and colleagues from the inside out. His relationship with the Muslim world began in his early twenties when he was introduced to the 10th century Persian Sufi saint and mystic known as Husayn Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. Hallaj was born into an Arabic speaking family in a small town in Iran in 858 CE and became a renowned teacher and outspoken lover of Allah with many followers. A threat to the religious establishment, he was subjected to a long imprisonment in Baghdad before being put to death in 922 CE. Massignon was intrigued by this story and began his research on the life and legend of al-Hallaj, initially for his University dissertation.

While on an archeological mission for the French government in Baghdad in 1908 and simultaneously researching his thesis on al-Hallaj, Massignon experienced an intense encounter with the Divine that he later described as "the Visitation of a Stranger" breaking into his life and throwing him to his knees in a moment of supplication that caused him to cry out in Arabic, "God, help my weakness." He was 25 years old. At that time Massignon had been immersed in his study of Arabic, Arab culture, and Islam and his unusual conversion experience in the midst of the Muslim world brought him back to his Roman Catholic roots. He was sure that his religious conversion was due in part to the intercession of the 10th century Muslim saint, al-Hallaj along with the prayers of his Muslim friends.

It is to some aspects of Massignon's extensive legacy as a pioneer of our current understanding of interreligious dialogue that I wish to focus this tribute to Louis Massignon on the 50th anniversary of his death.

The Badaliya

In Damietta, Egypt in 1934 Massignon and an Egyptian Melkite Christian woman, Mary Kahil founded a prayer movement that they called the "Badaliya," or "substitution." The prayer of offering one's life for the sake of others was a profoundly mystical interpretation of Christianity for followers of Jesus Christ, the One who offered his life for the salvation of all of humanity. The Badaliya was established in the Middle East to encourage what Louis Massignon saw as the "vocation" of the Christians who have lived there since the time of Jesus to be witnesses of Christ's love for all people. Massignon envisioned that those Christians who are living in the Middle East are called to "cross over" to their Muslim neighbors, to pray for them that God's will be done in them, to befriend them, work with them and come to love them as Christ loves us, even to the point of offering ones lives for them if necessary. That is how much God loves us all so we must love one another in the same way. Many small groups around the world along with individuals, both religious and lay persons joined the monthly Badaliya gatherings in person or in spirit. Inspired by the hermit Priest, Charles de Foucauld who lived amidst the Muslim Tuareg people in the Algerian Sahara and others, including the Indian guru Mahatma Gandhi, they were dedicated to fasting and praying for non-violent resolution of conflicts throughout the world especially in the Middle East. The group in Paris dissolved when Massignon died in 1962 but Mary Kahil continued in Cairo until she died at the age of 90 in 1979.

On December 8th, 2002, following the attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC, the Pentagon in Washington DC and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, a small group gathered in Boston, Massachusetts to re-create the Badaliya prayer in the spirit of Louis Massignon and Mary Kahil. They are dedicated to peace and reconciliation for all three Abrahamic faith traditions, especially in the Middle East, and to learning about Islam and the Muslim world by befriending the Muslim community in our own neighborhoods. Use of the internet has broadened our membership in spirit to more than 120 members worldwide. Reflecting on Massignon's writings before, during and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 with his vision of peaceful coexistence and the sharing of life by all three Abrahamic faith traditions in the Holy Land has become a central concern for our prayer. Members of the Badaliya encouraged the community at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts to establish a Partner Parish in Beit Sahour, Palestine with the help of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Bethesda, Maryland and Bethlehem, Palestine. Following in the spirit of Massignon's own many spiritual pilgrimages to the Holy Land and his writings on Jerusalem and Nazareth our Holy Land pilgrimages have rewarded us all with new friendships across faith traditions, a new experience of our Christian faith tradition and first hand experience of the painful reality of life for our brothers and sisters, the "Living Stones" who guard our traditions in the Holy Land.

The inspiration of the Badaliya and its invitation to reflect deeply on the meaning of substitutionary prayer for believers today has led to the foundation of many communities dedicated to its vision of interfaith relations.

The Al-Khalil Community at the Monastery of Deir Mar Musa, Nebek, Syria

In 1984 a young Italian Jesuit Priest, Fr. Paolo Dall'Oglio, discovered an abandoned ancient 11th century Monastery that had originally been established in honor of a 6th century Ethiopian hermit named Saint Moses in the Syrian desert 80 kilometers North of Damascus. With the help of the Syrian government, the local church and volunteers from Syria and Europe the ancient frescoes have been restored and a contemplative community dedicated to interfaith relations has been established. The spirit of Louis Massignon's Badaliya has been the foundation of the spirituality encouraged at Deir Mar Musa, from the daily rhythm of prayers in Arabic to welcoming the stranger and inviting the involvement of the local Muslim villagers who share in the daily life of the community. The title of one of Fr. Paolo's books, Amoureux de l'Islam, Croyant en Jésus (Lover of Islam, Believer in Jesus) speaks for itself of the true witness to the spirit of Badaliya and the legacy of Louis Massignon alive in the world today.

Christian de Chergé and the Monks of Tibhirine

There is a list of many Christian souls who have been called to share life with their Muslim brothers and sisters and some, like the monks of Tibhirine whose story can be experienced in the recent film, "Of Gods and Men," who have offered their lives. Christian de Chergé has been described as a Trappist monk whose Christian faith was enhanced and "converted" by his engagement with Islam. In a book dedicated to the spiritual writings of the Prior of the Monastery at Tibhirine (Ray, C. Christian de Chergé: une biographie spirituelle du prieur de Tibhinrine. Éditions Albin Michel, 2010). There is the true story of how Christian de Chergé came to understand the deepest meaning of Massignon's substitutionary prayer, of Badaliya.

In 1959 while serving his obligatory service as an officer in the French military during the Algerian War for Independence from France, Christian was assigned to a rural Algerian community. There he became friends with an Algerian peasant and father of ten. Mohamad was a devout Muslim and the young Christian was profoundly moved by observing his friend's response to the call to prayer five times a day. Despite their very different experiences of the colonial occupation in Algeria, they both recognized that they belonged to the same human family in the eyes of God. Mohamad's loyalty to his friendship with Christian de Chergé caused him to step in to protect his friend when he was attacked by members of a local militia and to try to prevent further dispute. The next day Mohamad was found assassinated beside a well. It took many years for Christian de Chergé to process this experience but it became a foundational one for the rest of his spiritual life. Only in 1972, in front of his brothers in Tibhirine, was Christian finally able to tell the story of Mohamad's sacrifice for him. "Through the blood of this friend, assassinated for having not wished to make a pact with hatred, I knew that my call to follow Christ must find a way to live itself out, sooner or later, in the same country where I had been given this proof of the greatest love" (p. 71).

From then on there was no doubt in Christian's mind that Mohamad had mysteriously entered into the communion of saints that knows no religious boundaries. He wrote:

"I know at least one beloved brother, a committed Muslim, who gave his life out of love for another, concretely through the spilling of his blood. An unimpeachable testimony that I welcome as an extraordinary opportunity." (p.71)

The Qur'an says: "The one who saves one single person is considered as if he had saved everyone." (5:32)

Christan de Chergé was dedicated to the Muslim community among whom he lived and served for many years. At the moment of the abduction of seven of the monks from the Monastery in Algeria there was a group from a Muslim Sufi Order on their annual visit to an interfaith gathering to share life and pray with the brothers.

Christian de Chergé was a true follower of the spiritual legacies of both Charles de Foucauld and Louis Massignon and lived the call to Badaliya, substitutionary prayer, all the way to the ultimate sacrifice of his own life.

The Seven Sleepers: Muslim and Christian shared pilgrimage

In 1954 Louis Massignon discovered a chapel in the small hamlet of Vieux Marché, Brittany in France, dedicated to Seven Christian Saints called La Chapelle des Sept Dormants. When he realized that the ancient Breton story of the seven saints corresponded directly to the 18th Sura of this same story of resurrection in the Qur'an and to the site of the seven sleepers tomb in Ephesus, Turkey, he approached the local Bishop with the request to expand the already existing annual pilgrimage in Vieux Marché to include both Muslims and Christians and prayers from both traditions. This Annual pilgrimage continues to take place every summer in July near to the Feast of Mary Magdalene, the first to witness to the Resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ and attracts pilgrims from all over the world.

It is clear from Louis Massignon's letters to members of the Badaliya from 1947 to 1962 that delving ever deeper into the meaning of substitutionary prayer led Massignon himself to greater and greater involvement with the social justice issues of his time, to volunteering in the French prisons to educate Algerian freedom fighters during the Algerian war for Independence in the late 1950's and into the 1960's, to speaking publically and standing on the side of the disenfranchised, the refugees and displaced, especially the Palestinians during and after the establishment of the current State of Israel, while remaining faithful to his friendships with his Jewish and Israeli colleagues. The legacy of Louis Massignon continues to lead many seekers of the Divine toward greater love of others of all ethnic and faith traditions. His life and work point us always in the direction of the Holy in all traditions and his lifetime of research and revision of his four volume Opus Magnus, The Passion of al-Hallaj remains a shining example of this devout Christian's dedication to the eternal message of a great Muslim lover of the Divine.

A member of the Board of Directors of L'Association des Amis de Louis Massignon in Paris, Dorothy C. Buck is a licensed mental health practitioner and Pastoral Counselor in Somerville, MA she continues to give lectures and publish articles and books on spirituality and interreligious dialogue.