Louis Massignon: Remembering the French orientalist

David Tresilian , Friday 5 Feb 2021

A new biography is bringing a new generation of readers closer to celebrated French orientalist Louis Massignon


Not many French orientalists have attracted as much attention as Louis Massignon. A long-time professor at the Collège de France in Paris and a member of the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo and sometime lecturer at Cairo University, among many other honours, Massignon (1883-1962) was a main promoter of Arabic studies not only in France but also in many parts of the Arab world.

Anyone who was anyone in French or francophone Arabic studies in the middle decades of the last century seems to have been taught or influenced by Massignon. He was a frequent visitor to the region and beyond, and his interests were famously wide-ranging. Already a lecturer at Cairo University before 1914 and the author of field work in the Arab Maghreb and in what later became the modern states of Iraq and Syria, he joined the French officer corps in the First World War. He was assigned to the staff of French diplomat François Georges-Picot when the latter, along with British official Mark Sykes, was drafting the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement that divided up the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire among the European powers.

At first sympathetic to French colonialism in the Arab world, but later turning against it, Massignon became known to wider audiences after the Second World War because of his stands in favour of the Palestinians and support for independence movements in the countries of the Arab Maghreb that until the 1950s or 1960s were under French colonial rule. His interventions in favour of what today would be called inter-faith dialogue between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam brought his work to world attention.

As a result, Massignon has attracted the attention of biographers in a way seldom accorded to usually desk-bound academics, and a new biography has recently been published in France taking in the full range of his activities. Author Manoël Pénicaud calls his book Louis Massignon, le “catholique musulman”, or “Muslim Catholic,” an appellation apparently given Massignon by Roman Catholic Pope Pius XI, and he says that his intention has been to introduce Massignon and his work to general readers, often using family papers and photographs to do so.

He has provided a version of Massignon’s life for a new generation, even if it seems unlikely that it will supplant the fuller treatment by Christian Destremau and Jean Moncelon published in 2005. The downside is that Pénicaud, apparently not himself an Arabic-speaker, sometimes struggles to make sense of Massignon’s academic interests or what they have to offer later students. He has produced a monument to an intriguing figure in the development of Arabic studies in France, placing the emphasis on what he calls “subjectivisation,” broadly speaking the ways in which Massignon became the man he was.

The world in which Massignon moved in his formative years had something of the sepia charm of Proust’s novels, and his securely upper-middle-class social background, his ease of movement between the socially exclusive French higher-education institutions of the time and government service, and his struggles with his Christian faith in the context of the fin-de-siècle Roman Catholic revival in France, have an historical interest, filling in the reader’s sense of parts of French society at the time.

However, that world had gone by the 1930s and probably before, and one wonders how well-adapted Massignon’s sensibility was in understanding either the rapidly changing Arab world or indeed his own changing profession as a teacher and researcher. By the 1950s, the progressive disappearance of many 19th-century academic hierarchies, slower in France than elsewhere, the expansion of higher education to new social classes, and the introduction of new questions and new ways of thinking from the social sciences were all forcing changes in orientalism’s previously protected world.

Such changes would have been obvious to Massignon’s students, but it is not clear how far they really impinged upon him.


Biographers of Massignon ordinarily devote many pages to his formative years, and Pénicaud is no exception.

There are the early trips to Morocco and Egypt when Massignon was just setting out on his studies, and there is a long account of his first visit to what is now Iraq, at the time made up of provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, during which he had experiences that permanently marked him and decided the course of his later career.

It was in Iraq that Massignon began work on the research for which he is most widely known. While he was apparently introduced to the 9th-century religious figure Mansour al-Hallaj while in Egypt before the First World War, it seems to have been still largely obscure experiences in Iraq, and when he was visiting sites associated with al-Hallaj, that convinced him that this controversial figure, prosecuted and then executed for heresy in Baghdad in 922 CE, should become his life’s work.

Pénicaud says of Massignon’s discovery of al-Hallaj that it was through this 9th-century Muslim figure that he was brought back to his Christian faith. Massignon “reinvented al-Hallaj in the light of his own personal experience,” he says, adding that this was a “dual process.” “On the one hand, his personal life influenced his view of al-Hallaj… and on the other, his research also transformed his own… with al-Hallaj playing an active role in Massignon’s life a thousand years after his martyrdom.”

Looking up this work today, available in four volumes in French as La Passion de al-Hallaj, martyr mystique de l’Islam and in a heroic English translation by Herbert Mason, it is impossible not to be struck by Massignon’s vast erudition. Not only do its two thousand or so pages apparently contain every scrap of information available about al-Hallaj, but they also contain a full-scale description of the society of his time.

Massignon’s experiences in the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire before the First World War stood him in good stead for another stage of his career. Rather like the British Arabist T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), with whom he is sometimes compared, Massignon was drafted in to political work from 1916 onwards when British plans to detach the Arab provinces from the failing Ottoman Empire were raising alarm in Paris.

The French government did not want to see France pushed out of the Middle East as a result of British sponsorship, and it fought for its interests to be recognised, later establishing French protectorates in what are now Syria and Lebanon. Massignon, like Lawrence, a minor player in negotiations whose outcomes were decided on a political level, seems to have thrown himself into the role of go-between with gusto, to the discomfort of later admirers.

Returning to academia after the War, Massignon was appointed to the chair of Muslim Sociology at the Collège de France, retaining the position until the 1950s. Essentially a research post, but one that had, and has, the peculiarity of obliging its holder to give public lectures, this freed Massignon of regular teaching responsibilities and allowed him to pursue his interests.

These had to do with extending and revising his work on al-Hallaj, each new edition adding further pages, and developing religious interests that saw him both ordained a priest in the Middle Eastern Melkite Church and elaborating his theory of religious martyrdom in his versions of Christianity and Islam. This part of Massignon’s career, apparently meaning the most to him and probably occupying most of his time in his later years, may be the most difficult for outsiders to understand.

At the same time, there were public positions in favour of independence movements in the Arab Maghreb and in support of the Palestinians. Massignon, Pénicaud writes, became “a strong supporter of decolonisation because of his commitment against injustice in [France’s] colonies and protectorates.” He became known for his newspaper articles and committee work against French colonialism in Morocco and Tunisia and against the French prosecution of the Algerian War of Independence.

At the end of this long and fascinating book, Pénicaud says that there is a logic to Massignon’s life, revealed by the patient work of rearranging the pieces to make a whole. Key themes include the discovery of self through the other, in this case predominantly al-Hallaj, and the ideas of expiatory suffering and martyrdom that Massignon emphasised in his versions of Christianity and Islam.

Manoël Pénicaud, Louis Massignon, le “catholique musulman.” Paris: Bayard, 2020, pp432

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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