The simple name of Father Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil already suggests a rather unusual existence: John (Jean), ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ according to the Gospel, and Mohammed, the only Prophet of God according to the Koran. In these times, in which Christianity and Islam are once again perceived as being in opposition, it is advisable to reflect upon the life and message of this Franciscan religious who converted to Christianity but who never really denied the values of the Muslim religion in which he had been born and brought up. Without ever falling into a facile syncretism, Abd-el-Jalil attempted, in opposite fashion, to make the profound values of the religion of his ancestors better understood (1).
Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil was born in Fez in Morocco in 1904, to a humble family, with origins that went back to Andalusia, which brought him up in the Muslim faith of his ancestors. Fez was a city of ancient culture in which Islam shaped the daily lives of all the inhabitants. The young Mohammed thus followed the normal path of every child who attended the local Koranic school. At the age of ten he even accompanied his parents on their pilgrimage to Mecca. A traditional upbringing, therefore. He conserved great respect for the ulema, of whom he would later say: ‘it was with these loquentes – often the anonymous repeaters of textbooks, commentaries and glossaries…it was with these loquentes that, as a young student in a white robe, sitting on a carpet of red or green wool that I carried under my arm, I felt reawaken in me at the University of Karaouin that religious feeling that would lead me to the visible-invisible reality of the Church. From these ulema I received a taste for divine transcendence, whose taste is truly revealed only in the mystery of Christ’ (2). Seeing his intellectual gifts, his father enrolled him at the French high school of Fez, which he then left for the Gouraud high school of Rabat where he completed his secondary studies. His first contact with Christianity goes back to this period. It was through the Franciscans where he lodged. His marks at his finishing exam (baccalauréat) gained him the attention of Marshal Lyautey, at that time the Resident General of Morocco, who chose him to engage in higher studies in Paris. Lyautey had a humanistic vision of colonisation and wanted to form well-trained native officials for Morocco. The two would remain friends and many years later Abd-el-Jalil helped the elderly Marshal, who was by then retired, to draw near once again to Christian faith.
The young Mohammed decided to specialise in Arabic and Arab literature. He also enrolled at the Institut Catholique of Paris, not to convert to Christianity, he later admitted, but rather to confront it. ‘I went to the Institut Catholique to study Christianity in its citadel. I was not only extraneous to it, I was hostile to it; I went there to find new arguments by which to fight it, a little like St. Paul’ (3). It was his encounter with a number of Christian lay people who truly practiced Christianity that led him to ask himself: ‘is there not something in Christianity that could transform my life more than Islam?’ Amongst these Christian secular people were Louis Massignon (4) and Jacques Maritain, two men who could but fascinate him, and Lyautey, with whom he had kept in contact. However, Abd-el-Jalil continued with his Islamic studies and at the Sorbonne wrote a thesis on a Muslim mystic of the high Middle Ages, Ayn al-Qudat al-Hamadhani. He continued to move towards Christianity, not, however, without hesitations, in contact with another convert from Islam, Father Paul Mulla Zade (1881-1959), a Turk who at that time taught at the Oriental Institute of Rome.
Born in Crete to an educated Muslim family near to the Egyptian reformists of Manar, Mehmet Ali Mulla Zade had converted to Christianity during his studies in France when in contact with the philosopher Maurice Blondel, who was even his godfather at his baptism. Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil took the decisive step of baptism on Easter Saturday of 1928 and his godfather was Louis Massignon. His father felt wounded and in Morocco had a funeral rite celebrated: for him it was as though his son was dead. A further visit by Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil in April/May 1961 showed that the fracture produced by his conversion was destined never to heal, in him as well, who, indeed, remained marked by a certain personal fragility (5).
His Journeys to the Middle East
Although he had decided to embrace Christianity, Abd-el-Jalil nonetheless conserved great respect for the religion of his forefathers and invited others to approach Islam with respect. As soon as he had finished his doctorate he became a novice of the Franciscans, with whom he engaged in his religious studies (1929-1935), and was ordained a priest. Thanks to his capacities he was called by Msgr. Baudrillart to teach Arabic and Arab literature, and Islamic studies, at the Institut Catholique of Paris. At this Institute he spent most of his university career and he published a number of works, amongst which his Brève Histoire de la littérature arabe which enjoyed a certain success (6). However in the main he continued his studies on Islam in an attempt to understand it better, thanks in particular to a number of visits to the Middle East (it was difficult to gain access to the Maghreb because of his conversion). His first major article, published in the Nouvelle Revue Théologique of Louvain in 1938, well brings out his state of mind: ‘we must feel compassion for the ‘loneliness’ in which Islam tends to close up the creature, the ‘smallness’ in which it wants to leave him. And this as a consequence, as an inevitable result of the very idea that it propounds of God. Rather than pushing it to harden its own approach even more and continuing to neglect the buds of authentic religious riches that it contains within a rigid crust of official legalism, our duty lies, instead, in ‘appreciating’ all its real, healthy and constructive aspirations: aspirations to a deeper spiritual life, to a sense of less simplistic unity, to a friendly life, with ‘others’ (7). Abd-el-Jalil had all the belief of a convert but he conserved a lively respect for the religion from which he sprang.
Ten years later he published Aspects intérieurs de l’Islam (8), a work in which he better expressed his own wish to make this religion known about, without dressing it up or minimising it, as many Westerners did, who, far too often, ‘are satisfied to clothe it with new forms of used clichés’. His rebuke also applied to a number of scholars in oriental studies, specialists who were often very talented but who at times concealed their contempt for Islam only with difficulty. Aspects intérieurs de l’Islam offers readers reflections that were moderate and sensitive to the relationship that Muslims have with the Koran, the reformist currents, etc. The chapter on ‘The East that Prays’ testifies to an unlimited admiration. This understanding from within makes Abd-el-Jalil very sensitive to the criticisms, which in his eyes were often justified, that Muslims make of Christianity. ‘One could almost say’, he wrote, that ‘what Islam expects from the West is that it be authentically Christian; it awaits the achievement of true Christianity…We Christians should no longer allow ourselves approximate judgements that are the outcome of hasty visions that are often simplified and at times self-interested. It is notable that the Koran itself teaches Muslims that Christians are meek, humble, merciful and directed towards the search for perfection (the Koran, V. 82 and 57, 27). We should be very demanding with ourselves on behalf of all other believers, and particularly on behalf of Muslims who explicitly expect from us this meekness, this humility, this mercy, this search for perfection’ (9). Here one finds the insight of Louis Massignon, his godfather at his baptism, for whom the mission of Islam was to be a radical and absolute appeal to God, an ‘evangelical lance which for thirteen centuries has impressed its stigmata on Christendom’ and obliged “the privileged of God” to engage in heroism and holiness’ (10).
‘Born on the Defensive’
Aspects intérieurs de l’Islam enjoyed a deserved success and helped Western opinion to have a better understanding of the profound values of a religion that was often defamed because it was wrongly understood. His work Marie et l’Islam is very much along the same lines, albeit more erudite. The capacities of Abd-el-Jalil made him a valued lecturer, until the years of the Second Vatican Council when he was exhorted to draw up a reflection on the pastoral approach to be engaged in towards Islam – L’Islam à l’époque du Concile (11). His very spiritual approach is to be found in Orientations for a Dialogue between Christians and Muslims, which was published after the Second Vatican Council by the Secretariat for Non-Believers. Struck down by illness in 1964, Father Abd-el-Jalil died on 24 November 1979.
The most original element in his journey was to have always wanted to ‘move towards the Muslim soul’, to take up the title of a fine talk that he gave at the Week of Missionary Studies held in Louvain in 1964 (12) in his view, drawing near to Islam required a great deal of tact and sensitivity because Islam, he wrote, was born ‘on the defensive and remains on the defensive’. ‘Thus one cannot expect, at first encounter, that Muslims come towards us. This journey must be done by us towards them and completely, in imitation, for that matter, of the Lord: the Word did not engage in just one part of a journey towards humanity, it engaged in the whole journey’. Instead many Catholics, observed Abd-el-Jalil, had an approach to Islam that was overly marked by a concern ‘to defend Catholic truth’. ‘Rather than raising barriers in order to defend the Truth, it is necessary to “open doors”, in line with the phrases employed by Paul VI’. In fact ‘Islam is allowed by God’, this Franciscan continued, and when we ask ourselves the reason for this, we should listen to the reply given by Muslims: ‘One does not ask Him why He acts in a certain way’. Rather than a danger, let us see here a stimulus, a ‘spur’, as Massignon said, ‘a cautery in the side of the Church so that it makes charity overflow’ (13). To be able to move towards the other, it is thus necessary to ‘intensify our own religiosity’. And Abd-el-Jalil ended by commenting on the parable of the disciples of Emmaus: ‘We must make ourselves the companions of Muslims on their journey; walking with them, in line with what they best possess; knowing them to the full…But walking ahead of them because, without any merit of ours being involved, to us was transmitted the revelation of the Son of God’ (14). This certainly involves a price to be paid, as Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil well knew personally, and as he summed up employing the words that Chesterton used about Francis of Assisi: ‘Touching souls only with the hands of the crucified’.
These are phrases on which we should reflect when addressing the relationship between Christians and Muslims, first and foremost from the perspective of ‘reciprocity’. Encounter with the other has a price. Christians are called to show themselves to be generous.
(1) For a more complete biography and anthology see the recent work by M. Borrmans, Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil, Témoin du Coran et de l’Evangile. De la rupture à la rencontre, Paris (Ed. Franciscaines, 2004), pp. 172.
(2) Quoted in the collection of essays by Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil in Nouvelles de l’Institut Catholique de Paris, June 1980, p. 12.
(3) Cfr. Borrmans, op. cit., p. 66.
(4) The fine correspondence between the two has been published recently: Massignon – Abd el-Jalil: parrain et filleul, 1926-1962, Correspondence rassemblée et annotée par François Jacquin (Cerf, Paris, 2007), pp. 304.
(5) On the episode of his return to Morocco, cf. A.-L. de Prémare, Le retour de Jean- Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil au Maroc; En hommage au père Jacques Jomier, o.p., Le Cerf, Paris 2002, pp. 321-341.
(6) J.-M. Abd-el-Jalil, Brève Histoire de la littérature arabe (Maisonneuve, Paris, 1943), pp. 310.
(7) J.-M. Abd-el-Jalil, ‘L’Islam et nous. Aperçus et suggestions’. in Nouvelle Revue Théologique, September-October 1938.
(8) J.-M. Abd-el-Jalil, Aspects intérieurs de l’Islam (Seuil, Paris, 1949), pp. 235.
(9) J.-M. Abd-el-Jalil, ‘L’attente des musulmans et l'Occident chrétien’, in Recherches et débats, 1956.
(10) Louis Massignon, ‘L’Hégire d’Ismaël’, in Les trois prières d’Abraham, out of print edition 1935; reprint Le Cerf, 1997, pp. 70-71.
(11) General Secretariat of the Episcopate, nn. 13-14, August 1964, 9 pp.
(12) J.-M. Abd-el-Jalil, ‘A la rencontre de l'âme musulmane’, in Approche du non-chrétien, XXXIVe semaine de missiologie de Louvain (Desclée de Brouwer, 1964), pp. 84-100.
(13) Op. cit., pp. 85, 86 and 88.
(14) Op. cit., p. 96.