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Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)
Article 6/9

French Orientalism: The Mystique of Louis Massignon
By David Pryce-Jones

Abstract: Louis Massignon revitalized for his contemporaries the assumptions that France was a Muslim power and that Jews had to fit into other peoples' conception of them, without right to any identity they might forge for themselves. France's pre-eminent Orientalist in his day, and a professor at the Collège de France from 1925 onwards, he nonetheless utilized scholarship to promote personal and political prejudices. As Elie Kedourie pointed out in an essay "Politics and the Academy," Massignon's wild abandon made him a prime example of la trahison des clercs [betrayal of the intellectuals] which Julien Benda in his 1927 book of that title held to be degrading public discourse, and was nothing less than treason to the very concept of an intellectual. A particularly brilliant misfit, he was a fabulator--a mythmaker--with a personality strong enough to persuade those who listened to him that the quirks of his imagination corresponded to the real world. Accordingly he was to spread mystification about France's role in the Middle East right through the Quai d'Orsay [the French Foreign Ministry] to lasting effect.[1]

Born in 1883, Massignon was the son of an artist and sculptor, and was brought up in the milieu of the Symbolists for whom decadence was all the rage. As a young man on a visit to Morocco, he met Marshal Lyautey, who believed that the country offered every opportunity for the expansion of French imperialism. In Cairo and Baghdad before the First World War, he learnt the languages of the Middle East, and did the initial research that led to professorship and his reputation. It pleased him to adopt the robes and turban of a student at Al-Azhar, the historic center of Muslim devotion in Cairo. A genuine scholar, his special study concerned Mansur al-Hallaj, a medieval Shia mystic tortured to death on a gibbet as a heretic in Baghdad in 922, and impossibly visualized by him as a Muslim Christ figure. A Spanish friend, Luis de Cuadra, introduced him to the homosexual debauchery of Cairo. Soon afterwards, consumed by remorse, he had a religious epiphany, a vision of what he called "the Divine Fire." De Cuadra, a convert to Islam, committed suicide a few years later in a Spanish prison. The unhappy fate of his friend was to mark Massignon for the rest of his life, as Robert Irwin judges in For Lust of Knowing, his comprehensive account of Orientalists and their work.

The complex interaction of sin and redemption, in Massignon's conviction, gave all human behavior its value. One friend was Charles de Foucauld, founder of the missionary order of the White Fathers, later murdered in his Saharan retreat by Ottoman soldiers. Massignon believed that he too had some such religious vocation, with an accompanying posture of martyrdom as suffered by both Christ and Mansur al-Hallaj. Although something which hardly interfered with his incessant travels and his work, marriage for Massignon was part and parcel of the high Catholic sacrament. Paul Claudel, another long-standing friend, was one of the witnesses at Massignon's wedding. From his posting in Prague, Claudel on February 8, 1911, wrote to him: "You would make an incomparable agent. I have dropped the word to my friend Berthelot to whom I must introduce you one day." The Ottoman authorities in Mesopotamia had indeed arrested him as a spy. Although the Massignon files in the Quai d'Orsay remain closed, enough is in the public domain to show that he was some sort of roving ambassador engaged in secret and confidential work. Loosely described as head of a "Scientific Mission," he traveled on a diplomatic passport. Algeria, Morocco and Syria were among his special concerns, and in one of his books he admitted, "I was aware I was sailing under false colors in Damascus from 1920 to 1945."

In 1917, as a member of the Georges-Picot mission, he was present when the British captured and entered Jerusalem. Lawrence of Arabia was also there; they spoke together in Arabic, and Massignon found fault with Lawrence's crude dialect. They were two of a kind. And just as Lawrence always suspected the worst of the French, so Massignon always suspected the worst of the British.

For Massignon as for Claudel, Jews were a "Mystery," whose purpose was to conduct their private dialogue with God to the ultimate benefit of Christianity. He took some time making up his mind how Zionism fitted into this classic Catholic scheme of things. After meeting Chaim Weizmann, he referred to him as the "Nasi," or president in Hebrew--he enjoyed dazzling the Quai d'Orsay with his science. Work on the land might be redemptive for a few proletarian Jews, but in the background, he warned as early as 1920, was "the horrible Israel of cosmopolitans, bankers with no country of their own who have exploited Anglo-Saxon imperialism (Sassoon, Sir Herbert Samuel, Lord Reading, Lord Rothschild, Schiff, etc), eating you down to the bone." He sometimes took to wearing a Franciscan habit in the Middle East, as much a disguise as Arab robes and a turban had been earlier in his life. Visiting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in 1934, he detected "powerful financial interventions" which alone enabled Zionism to survive.

The conviction hardened in him that only "a Franco-Islamic bloc" could save the Holy Land, indeed the whole Middle East. Nazareth, to Massignon, had unique sacramental significance for its association with the Virgin Mary. He viewed the fighting in the town during the Arab revolt of 1936 as sacrilege. Jews ought to learn Arabic and become Palestinian, otherwise they were "disloyal," a key concept for him: he meant that they were betraying Arab hospitality. In an article in 1939 he deplored how instead of Arabic-speaking Sephardi Jews coexisting with the Arabs, "Germanized Ashkenazim have taken the Palestinian issue into their hands, with the perfect and implacable technique of the most exasperating of colonialisms: slowly pushing the Arab ‘natives' towards the desert."

Simultaneously, he deplored the number of Jews fleeing into France to escape Nazi persecution, and argued that French Jews were leading the country to destruction. At the outbreak of war, he served under Giraudoux [the playwright Jean Giraudoux, minister of  information under premier Edouard Daladier until January 1941 and author of anti-war plays and an occasional anti-Semitic essay--ed.] in charge of propaganda to Muslim countries. His self-dramatizing cast of mind is revealed by a remark he made at the time to Vincent Mansour Monteil, a devoted pupil and himself a convert to Islam: "My country is the Arab world." In that same spirit he had once written about God to Claudel, "It is in Arabic no doubt that He is pleased that I should one day serve Him." Out of mortification, he fasted during Ramadan. As Robert Irwin put it with exactly weighed observations, Massignon was "an unsystematic racist," and his identification with Arab and Muslim culture arose at least in part because "he did not like Jews very much."

After the war, Massignon campaigned with passionate fury against the creation of the state of Israel. Any agreement with the Zionists was wrong, and besides, "would convulse our North Africa." The Jewish national home was "an imposture in which we should not be accomplices." Not really a nation, Israel had to be either something more or something less. Israel "signifies nothing unless it lives through spirituality, and if this spirituality is exclusive, as it is trying to ensure against the Muslim Arabs, it will be a catastrophe." He founded a "Comité chrétien d'Entente France-Islam," [Christian Committee for Franco-Islamic Understanding] enrolling diplomats to help him lobby for the cause. First and foremost, the Holy Places had to remain in French Catholic hands, and he too based the argument for this on the architecture of churches such as the Holy Sepulcher or Saint Anne's in Jerusalem. Any Italian claim, as proposed by the Vatican, was merely incidental. In an extended polemic in print, he maintained that the notorious "blood libel" accusing the Jews of needing Christian blood for their rites had an authentic historical basis. The United Nations vote in November 1947 in favor of partition--and the Quai d'Orsay's concurrence in that vote--appalled him. The language of his frequent articles in Catholic publications such as Témoignage Chrétien and L'Aube became infused with religiosity and political hysteria to the point of incoherence. Christian and Muslim recognition of Israel had "no value de jure." "The State without a Messiah of Israel" had been formed at the expense of the Arabs, who were "victims of repulsive Yankee technology." Israel, he was to tell Martin Buber in what even by his standards was a far-fetched accusation, had to stop working to exploit oil on behalf of "Atlantic speculators." Obsessed more than ever by Nazareth and the Virgin Mary, he insisted, "The world will never have a just peace until Israel reconsiders its rejection [revisera le procès] of the Mother of Jesus."  Visiting Israel in February 1949, he felt his "heart pierced by the ignominy of the Jews." Jews were evidently sinners beyond all hope of redemption. An angry Claudel broke off a lifetime's friendship, and noted in his diary that Massignon "has gone off the rails as usual."

In 1950 in Cairo, the city where he had discovered his homosexuality, Massignon took holy orders as a priest in the Eastern Melkite church. In a final somersault, he militated for the independence of French North Africa, thus undercutting French claims to be a Muslim power. Right up to his death in 1963, his sense of guilt and sin meshed with the innate conviction of intellectual superiority and his intimation of "Divine Fire." Many a Quai d'Orsay colleague was to assert afterwards that to meet Massignon was to be in the presence of genius.

 Massignon's learning and his showmanship served to reinforce the Quai d'Orsay then and since in its collective view that France and the world of Islam shared a common destiny; and also that it could define Jews--and ordain their future--better than Jews were able to do for themselves.


[1] This article is based on an excerpt provided by kind permission of the author from David Pryce-Jone's new book, Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews, published by Encounter, 2006.


Chouraqui, André. La Reconnaissance: le Saint-Siège, les Juifs et Israël. Paris: Laffont, 1992.

Destremau, Christian, and Jean Moncelon. Louis Massignon. Paris: Plon, 1994.

Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies. New York: Allen Lane, 2006.

Kedourie, Elie. "Politics and the Academy," Commentary Aug. 1992.

Keryell, Jacques. "Louis Massignon et la Syrie," in Keryell, ed., Louis Massignon au cœur de notre temps. Paris: Karthala, 1999.

Keryell, Jacques, ed. Louis Massignon et ses contemporains. Paris: Karthala, 1997.

Malicet, Michel, ed. Paul Claudel Louis Massignon (1908-1914). Correspondance établie et annotée. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1973.

Massignon, Daniel, ed. Louis Massignon et le dialogue des cultures. Paris: Cerf, 1996.

"Louis Massignon et la Palestine," http://jm.saliege.com/palestine.htm.

El-Zein, Amira. "L'Autre dans la spiritualité massignonienne," in Keryell, ed., Louis Massignon au cœur de notre temps.

About the Author
David Pryce-Jones is the author of numerous works of non-fiction, among them The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs; The Strange Death of the Soviet Union and Paris in the Third Reich. He has also published ten novels, and is a senior editor of National Review.

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