Louis Massignon (1883-1962) has been called "the single most influential figure [in the twentieth century] in regard to the church's relationship with Islam." (1) He is responsible, among Catholics, for designating Islam an "Abrahamic Faith,"(2) and there is growing consensus among scholars that his tireless research, esteem for Islam and for Muslims, and cultivation of key students in Islamic studies largely prepared the way for the positive vision of Islam articulated in Lumen gentium and Nostra aetate at the Second Vatican Council. (3) His efforts have inspired not only academic but also spiritual initiatives in Christian-Muslim dialogue, (4) and his name continues to be associated with projects dedicated to hospitality, to justice, and to concern for the immigrant or stranger, all virtues central to his project. (5) Less well known are Massignon's reflections on religions outside the Abrahamic community, especially his indebtedness in the last years of his life to the work and activism of M. K. Gandhi (1869-1948), a man he considered a saint.
There is no doubt about the centrality of Gandhi in Massignon's life. As Mary Louise Gude noted, "if Charles de Foucauld had exemplified how to live out the radical faith which had first attracted Massignon to Hallaj, the life of Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated how to integrate such a faith with the struggle for political and social justice." (6) In this sense, it was fitting that Guy Harpigny referred to the final years of Massignon's life and work as his "Gandhian cycle." (7) Therefore, drawing upon Massignon's several texts on Gandhi and building upon an earlier piece by Paolo Dall'Oglio, this essay focuses on the complicated dynamics of the invocation of Gandhi, an Indian Hindu, by Massignon, a French Latin (later Melkite) Catholic who was concerned for Catholic-Muslim understanding, in his later writings. (8)
It does so in seven sections. After providing as background a brief account of Massignon's meetings with Gandhi, I address two aspects of Gandhi's program that particularly inspired Massignon, namely, his emphasis on the notion of "vow" and his efforts toward interreligious fraternity. (9) Because Gandhi was working toward Hindu-Muslim fraternity, and because it was largely Gandhi's hospitality toward Muslims that endeared him to Massignon, I next include a few words about Gandhi's connections to Islam and then examine the key attribute of God for which both Gandhi and Massignon, through Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, expressed keen devotion, namely, truth. I then address Gandhi's actual lived Hinduism vis-a-vis Massignon's efforts to see in Gandhi a monotheist, perhaps even a sort of latent Muslim. Finally, I conclude by acknowledging the limitations of Massignon's "orientalism" but assert that one can still draw lessons from the Massignon-Gandhi relationship about the potential for affirming some, if not all, of the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one's interreligious interlocutors. My overarching concern is to establish how it was that "Louis Massignon ..., in his final years, found in Mahatma Gandhi ... a complete and complementary expression of his own views on a truly 'evangelical' attitude towards Islam, in the framework of a comprehensive view of the entire history of humanity." (l0)
Massignon first learned about Gandhi in 1919 when some Indian Muslim students presented him with the text of Gandhi's Satyagraha pledge. Massignon was so struck by it that he asked Jacques Maritain to publish it, and he even reproduced it himself in 1921 in the journal he edited, Revue du Monde Musulman, "showing its main accordance with Islam." (11) Massignon finally met Gandhi at Paris twice in 1931, and then, on a trip to India in 1945, he tried to visit Gandhi again. However, because the latter had been imprisoned, the meeting was denied. It is clear that Massignon was profoundly affected by the example of Gandhi. He published at least five articles on his ideas or biography, and in 1954 he accepted the position of President of the Friends of Gandhi (Les Amis de Gandhi), an institution dedicated to disseminating the views of Gandhi throughout Europe. (12) It is also clear that Massignon paid close attention to the events of Gandhi's life, (13) as well as to his works. (14) Although he never offered a detailed commentary on any one of Gandhi's writings (at least to my knowledge), he often cites several Gandhian themes--for example, vow, justice, truth, nonviolence, hospitality--as being of great importance to him. One must presume that it was his reading of Gandhi's writings (cited in note 11, above) and their two meetings at Paris that informed his understanding of those themes. One awaits a fuller and properly historical study in order to establish key details, including when exactly Massignon was reading particular texts by Gandhi.
II. Vow as the Basis for Hospitality
The importance of vow in Massignon's thought is unmistakable. It grounds his understanding of personal sanctification, which always involves both an interior and an exterior process and which is exemplified in the case of the saint who gives his or her life completely in self-sacrificial love. The interior process is that by which God prepares and effects the vocation of the saint. Vocation is expressed via a vow, which opens one to the unexpected and begins the "feminine sacralization of the soul," which means the soul is ready to consent to and to receive both God and "her" destiny. Hence, the soul is opened to the "beyond." The exterior process involves the conditions or destiny in which that vocation unfolds and by means of which the vocation is revealed. Destiny is expressed via an oath; it is "virile," and it culminates in a "legal sanction." The essential thing is that in the extreme, and therefore saintly, case the two processes join in sacrificial death (mort sacrificielle). (15) For Massignon there is a spiritual Law, corresponding to the interior and exterior processes just described, inherent in the universe. Jesus is the archetype who reveals "the Law," which is explained entirely by the mysterious sign of the Cross, but others may participate in the Law, even non-Christians. (16) Gandhi was one such example. His life fit the trajectory sketched by Massignon, and the vocabulary he used to describe his own spiritual life--particularly his emphases on vow and hospitality--was in part adopted by Massignon.
According to Massignon's reading of Gandhi, "'technique' is contradictory to 'vow.' As compassion, the vow is essentially desire for God, and God alone can satisfy it in us. Beyond the Law (dharma), there is Grace (bakhti), which alone can deepen our return to our origins in the One." (17) Elsewhere, he elaborated, "God is the essence of the vow," for "God, who is immortal, renders incorruptible the fragile body [and] the timid word of he who believes in Him alone." (18) For Gandhi, and thus for Massignon, vow is an essentially religious category, which is akin to "vocation." Gandhi's work on behalf of justice was a "calling," and, in Massignon's opinion, Gandhi's vow of Satyagraha, his commitment to nonviolence in the face of injustice, was, like Mary's response to the divine fiat, both a consent to and cooperation with God. A vow is never a means to escape the world (as a caricature of Catholic monastic life might suggest); rather, if authentic, it plunges the subject headlong into the world in order to meet and to be a vehicle by which God heals suffering. It is also effective: "Gandhi audaciously proved to me, by his brilliant moral victories, that the vow of Satyagraha was viable, and that non-violence was the virtue, not of cowards, but of heroes. That is his exemplarity as a Hindu. He revealed to the world the secret of India." (19)
That last sentence suggests that the idea of vow, vrata in Sanskrit, is a profoundly Indian concept, one that Gandhi came to …