St. Francis as a Mystical Martyr for Islam: The Work of Louis Massignon

Hello, everyone,

I am writing on the Feast the Stigmatization of St. Francis, September 17, as we approach his October 4 feast day, and the visit of Pope Francis to Assisi on Sept 20, to take part in a day of interreligious prayer for peace. Francis’ crucified love, echoing the love of Christ for all people, has a special meaning for us today, and especially given the controversy today over Islam. I have taken parts of this post from a paper I delivered at a conference “Christ Among the Medieval Mendicants” held at the City University of New York in August 2013. My paper was titled “Conversion, Dialogue or Dhimmitude? St. Francis, the Sultan and Relations with Islam.” (The first two parts of my wide-ranging talk are here and here. I hope to be able to put up the third soon). I have added some other material to the story of the fascinating Louis Massignon.

St. Francis as a Mystical Martyr for Islam: The Work of Louis Massignon

In the past few years, with our increasingly tense relation with the Islamic world, St. Francis and his visit to Sultan Al-Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Fifth Crusade has become an iconic event. The renowned meeting has had great repercussions for inter-religious dialogue. Francis’s love for peace and respect for Muslims, are behind the various Asissi encounters between Catholics and members of other faiths held under Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the very appropriately named Pope Francis, who is visiting Assisi September 20.

Louis Massignon in Cairo, 1909

But, given the increasing violence in the Middle East and the rise of terrorism in the U.S. and Europe, more and more Catholics are arguing a tougher stance with Islam. They believe that there is not and can never be a “common ground” between Christians and Muslims. They insist that Muslims don’t believe in the same God we do. Theirs is not merely a false religion, but an evil one. Real dialogue isn’t possible because of the different worldviews. There is more and more talk of it being wrong for Christians to be “passive” in regard to Islam. Often, what “active” consists of is not specified, but seems ominous. But “dialogue” is derided.

Many other Christians add: But isn’t our whole goal supposed to be not “dialogue” but conversion? I do agree that conversion is important. But I don’t understand how conversion and dialogue are necessarily mutually exclusive. How is it possible to achieve conversions with no possibility of the two sides talking to each other, with mutual suspicions as high as they are?

In this dilemma, St. Francis can serve for us as an example, as can one of his followers, Louis Massignon, a twentieth-century Franciscan tertiary, who had a unique understanding of the significance of Francis in regard to Islam.

Massignon and the Badaliya

Born near Paris in 1883, Massignon had a lifelong interest in the Middle East and in Islam. As a young student of archaeology, he traveled to the Ottoman empire (modern day Iraq), and studied Arabic, living among the Muslims in a working-class neighborhood. At the time he was a complete atheist. In 1908, while staying in Baghdad with a prominent Muslim family, the Alusi, he was jailed by the Ottoman government for supposedly being a spy, but his Muslim hosts intervened for him, and obtained his release, risking their own lives to save him. He was profoundly moved by their hospitality – an important virtue in Islam. Shaken to his core, he underwent a profound experience of God and a religious conversion – not to Islam, but to Catholicism.

The core of his spirituality was the idea of the badal, or “substitute,” named for the abdal or saints who, according to the Sufis, intercede for others, as his hosts had for him. Massignon longed to be such a “substitute” for the Muslims. He became a friend of Bl. Charles de Foucauld, like him a convert, who lived as a hermit among the Tuareg in Algeria, and was martyred as a witness to Islam in 1916.

Foucauld had wanted Massignon to join him in the religious life; instead, he married in 1914, and began a family. After serving in World War I, he spent his life as a scholar and diplomat. In 1931, he became a Franciscan tertiary, and took the name Ibrahim (Abraham).

Shortly afterward, during a trip to the Middle East, he became re-acquainted with Mary Kahil, a friend from his youth in Cairo, a Catholic of the Eastern Melkite rite. Moved by similar ideals, they went to Damietta in 1934, the city where Francis had met the sultan, and after praying in the ancient, abandoned Franciscan church there, they took a vow to practice Badaliya, or intercession for Muslims, “that the will of God may be done in them and through them,” even to the point of giving up their lives. “May you be blessed,” Massignon later wrote to Kahil, ‘for having called me back to the desire for martyrdom. My heart is once more aflame and I have sworn to God to tear myself away from everything, gradually, gently, but implacably, so that I may be judged worthy of martyrdom in a Muslim land, if God is willing.”[1] Their aim was not so much to work for individual conversions, but that Islam might be completely transformed from within, according to God’s desire for all the Abrahamic peoples.

The two went to Rome, and on July 18, 1934, were received in audience by Pope Pius XI, who approved their offering at Damietta. By 1947, this had grown into the Badaliya prayer movement.

Massignon also had meetings with Popes Pius XII and John XXIII; his work is looked on as paving the way for Vatican II’s work for better relations with other religions, as expressed in the Council document Nostra Aetate.

Massignon transferred to the Melkite Greek Catholic rite, and was ordained a priest in 1950 (priests are allowed to be married in this rite). He died in 1962, but his many followers carry on his work. He has been influential on the study of St. Francis and his relationship with Islam.

Massignon on Francis

For Massignon, Francis was a badal for the Sultan of Egypt. To understand this, we need to know some basic facts about the visit. St. Francis’s desire to preach to the Muslims was one of the driving forces of his life after his conversion. He had begun by longing for knighthood, even to fight on the Crusades, but gave it up when he found Christ more worthy than any earthly lord. He made two different attempts to preach to Muslims in Spain and Morocco before going to Egypt in the spring or summer of 1219.

At that time the Christians were laying siege to Damietta, on the Nile delta, a very populous and commercially important city. Finally, on November 5, 1219, the Christians overcame the defenders of Damietta weakened by famine, and took the city. The Christians were shocked at the number of the dead among the city’s Muslim population. It took some two months to bury all the dead and make it livable. The Christians remained in their camp outside the city until February, when they made their official entrance. According to chroniclers, Francis remained for a time after the city was taken.

The actual date of Francis’ visit to the Sultan is not known. Many historians have assumed that the visit took place as part of the peace negotiations following the battle of August 29. But there is no reference in the sources to the visit being a peace mission. Most of the early sources say it took place during the height of the fighting. (see my paper above for more).

But here is the important part. St. Bonaventure has a unique detail. He says that St. Francis say to the sultan:

“But if you are afraid to abandon the law of Mahomet for Christ’s sake, then light a big fire and I will go into it with your priests. That will show you which faith is more sure and more holy.” To that the sultan replied, “I do not think that any of my priests would be willing to expose himself to the flames just to defend his faith, or suffer any kind of torture” (He had just caught a glimpse of one of his priests, an old and highly esteemed man, who slipped away the moment he heard Francis’ proposal). Then Francis continued, “if you are prepared to promise me that you and your people will embrace the Christian religion, if I come out of the fire unharmed, I will enter it alone. But if I am burned, you must attribute it to my sins; on the other hand, if God saves me by his power, you must acknowledge “Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Cor 1, 24) as true God, the Lord and Savior of all.” The sultan replied that he would not dare to accept a choice like that, for fear of a revolt among his people.[2]

Massignon believed that in asking for a trial by fire, Francis was in a way replaying an incident during the life of Muhammad. According to Muslim tradition in the hadiths, the prophet once invited the Christian clergy from Najran to undergo a test to prove Christ’s Incarnation: to call down fire on the heads of the followers of the false faith. The Christians had refused the test, and the Muslims attributed it to their lack of sincere faith. Francis, according to Massignon, now announced his readiness to undergo such a test; he was motivated by his desire for martyrdom, yes, but primarily out of love for the sultan, to be a badal for him, to intercede for him with Christ. (Massignon did not think Francis actually knew of the earlier test, just that he was spiritually prompted to act this way). But this time the test was not accepted by the sultan.

Massignon also linked this to the stigmata of St. Francis. On Mt. La Verna, Francis had asked Christ, “that during my life I may feel . . . that pain which You, dear Jesus, sustained in the hour of Your most bitter Passion” and “that I may feel in my heart. . . that excessive love with which You, O Son of God, were inflamed in willingly enduring such suffering for us sinners.”[3] In Massignon’s view:

Francis set out from the crusader camp and went to the Muslim camp to offer to affront a trial by fire, for the love of one Muslim soul, the Ayyubid sultan Muhammad ibn Abî Bakr al-Malik al-Kâmil. Denied the martyrdom he had sought, he learned through a vision that upon his return to Italy he would obtain another death of love: this was his stigmatization, at Alverno, on the day of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. His compassion for Islam, this true spiritual crusade, which Louis IX would later imitate in Carthage, earned him the right to become the first visible co-sufferer with the crucified Christ, ‘ascending from the rising of the sun, having the sign of the living God.’ [Ap. 7: 2] Thus began, seven centuries ago, the long procession of the standard-bearers of the Passion.[4]

Massignon’s view of Francis stigmatization has been followed by others, including the Franciscan Giulio Bassetti-Sani, who wrote several books on St. Francis and Islam. Muslims don’t accept that Christ was actually crucified. Bassetti-Santi wrote that Francis’ stigmata were a message to the Muslim world: they prove to Islam the reality of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.”[5] Jeusset commented on chapter 16 of the Regula non-bullata, which said that one of the ways the friars could conduct themselves among Muslims was “to avoid quarrels or disputes and be subject to every human creature for God’s sake (1 Pet. 213), and to confess that they are Christians.” Jeusset believed that this shows the friars were attempt a “contemplative presence” among Muslims.[6]

Muslim Hospitality Today and Our Response

Let’s not think what Massignon experienced can’t happen today. In recent years, accounts from Egypt, the very place where the meeting of St. Francis and the sultan took place, also bear this out. Reports on the political turmoil showed horrific attacks on Coptic Christians by radical Islamists. But we also saw reports of Muslims, ordinary Muslims, who protested these acts of violence and came to the aid of and protect their Christian neighbors. January 6, 2011, papers all over the world printed stories of those Egyptian Muslims in Alexandria who accompanied their Coptic Christian neighbors to church on Christmas, acting as human shields against the violence. Other reports tell of Muslims who put out the fires the radicals set in Christian houses. In August 2013, some Franciscan sisters in Cairo were torn from the school they were teaching in, and paraded through the streets being mocked and abused by radical Islamists. A Muslim woman, who had also been employed by the school, managed to get these sisters away and gave them refuge in her own house. Imagine what she risked! The latest example is the Muslims who joined in solidarity of Christians during the Paris funeral of martyred Fr. Jacques Hamel, who was slain by Isis supporters. They risked a great deal, because many Muslims simply who show solidarity with Christians are killed by radical Islamists.

I believe we need to engage in prayer, fasting and self-sacrifice for the Muslim people. In the wake of 9/11, a Catholic in Cambridge, MA, founded a Badaliya prayer group to carry on the spirit of Massignon. They are still going. Perhaps we could continue to imitate this practice, and have prayer groups for Muslims spring up all over among Franciscans, for the transformation of Islam and of the world.


[1] Jacques Keryell, ed. L’Hospitalité sacrée (Paris: Nouvelle Cité, 1987), p. 186, cited in John Tolan, St. Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter, (Oxford: The University Press, 2009), p. 297.

[2] Bonaventure, Vita Major IX, 8.

[3] Fioretti, Third Consideration on the Stigmata.

[4] Louis Massignon, L’Hégire d’Ismaël (Tours, 1935); reprinted in his Les Trois Prières d’Abraham (Paris: Cerf, 1997), 59–118, cited in Tolan, St. Francis and the Sultan, p. 297.

[5] L’Islam e Francesco d’Assisi: La missione profetica per il dialogo (Florence: La nuova Italia, 1975), p. 247; See also his “Muhammed and St. Francis.” The Cord, March 1958, reprinted in The Francis Book, pp. 184?89.

[6] Jean Gwenolé Jeusset, Dieu est courtoisie: Francois d’Assise, son ordre, et l’Islam (Rennes, the author, c1985).


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