Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in Louis Massignon's Appropriation of Gandhi as a Modern Saint

By Krokus, Christian S. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in Louis Massignon's Appropriation of Gandhi as a Modern Saint


Krokus, Christian S., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


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)

I. Background

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.

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