In 1934, well before any movement towards interreligious engagement in the Western world, Louis Massignon established the International Badaliya Prayer Movement in Cairo, Egypt, whose legacy is still alive today

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:19

Louis Massignon, A Pioneer of Muslim-Christian Dialogue

Louis Massignon (1883-1962) was a renowned French Catholic Islamic scholar and spiritual seeker, a man consumed by his passion for learning, for justice and for God. He was a renowned Islamist, who was known for his dynamic lectures at the Collège de France in Paris where he was a professor of the Sociology of Islam. He was Director of Religious Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a member of the Arab Academy in Cairo and an expert on the Arab world with an extraordinary gift for languages and linguistics. He wrote and published in ten languages and spoke many more. He served the French government as a diplomat in many areas of the world, served in both World War I and II and lectured at International conferences worldwide. Although he was a meticulous researcher and scholar, he was also a mystic with a deeply reflective spiritual life. He was a friend to scholars, artists, writers, mystics and popes and had life-long friendships with those of all three Abrahamic faith traditions and Far Eastern traditions as well.


Louis_Massignon,_1948.jpgHe was a passionate person whose love of God and his fellow human beings and thirst for justice and truth led him to address the many conflicts in the world in his time. He saw the dangers of colonialism, marched in the streets of Paris for an Independent Algeria and predicted the difficulties for the three Abrahamic faith traditions as the foundations for the modern State of Israel produced thousands of displaced Palestinians. In this regard, he pleaded to the Pope and the UN for a resolution ensuring the universality of the city of Jerusalem. Further, due to his friendship with Cardinal Montini, who became Pope Paul VI, many have pointed to his influence on the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, addressing other non-Christian faith traditions.


Badaliya: “Substituting” Oneself for the Other

In a small Franciscan Chapel in Alexandria, Egypt, Louis Massignon and Mary Kahil, an Egyptian woman of Greek Catholic (Melkite) faith tradition, made a vow to offer their lives for the Muslim community. They called their vow, “Badaliya” and established a small prayer group of Arab Christians in Cairo.

Massignon chose the Arabic root of the word Badaliya, which means “to replace or exchange one thing for another” and translated the word as “substitution.” He understood it as an offering of one’s own life for the well-being of another in “mystical substitutionary prayer.” This offering of himself for the well-being of his Muslim brothers and sisters was the inspiration for Massignon’s entire life and the spiritual ground of his faith journey and experience.


Massignon envisioned the original Badaliya prayer movement as a call to a vocation for those Christians living as a minority in Muslim countries. They were to experience their vocation as witnesses in the midst of Islam to the love of Christ for all of humanity. Then, as today, Christians in the Middle East were increasingly marginalized and threatened causing them to emigrate to other countries. His goal was to encourage them to stay, to support one another and to “cross over” to their Muslim colleagues and neighbors, to be open to learning about Islamic faith beliefs and practice and above all to become friends. This is peace making at the most basic human level.


A group in Paris and one in Cairo, along with both lay and consecrated groups and individuals around the world, prayed for “peace with justice,” inspired by Massignon’s monthly letters. The Badaliya prayer movement continued in Paris until Massignon’s death in 1962. An outgrowth of the Badaliya, called the “Sincere Brothers” continued in Cairo until Mary Kahil died at the age of 90 in 1979. Today the Greek Melkite Church in Cairo called Our Lady of Peace continues to honor them both in naming gathering spaces after them.


Today’s Badaliya in the USA

In 2002, a short time after the tragic events of September 11, 2001 in the USA, a group was formed in Boston, MA inspired by Massignon’s own descriptions of the prayer gatherings in the Statutes of the Badaliya and his monthly letters. It was in response to the awakening of the American public to the need to know more about the Islamic faith tradition and their Muslim co-workers and neighbors. The first challenge was to carefully educate Christian members to the faith beliefs and practice of Islam and to Massignon’s “substitutionary prayer.” In time, they began to share their prayer gatherings with a number of Sunni Muslim believers and grow into an Interfaith sharing group, which is today in its 16th year. As Muslim believers are in the minority in the USA, the focus has been on creating a welcoming environment within which to share their different faith beliefs. The Christian members continue to experience their vocation as Massignon envisioned it: witnessing to the love of Christ for each person, reflecting on the deeper meanings of substitutionary prayer and working together toward Massignon’s “peace with justice.”

Much in keeping with his concern for the events of his time and due to the oppression of religion in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Massignon chose Our Lady of Pokrov, a vision in 10th century Constantinople of The Virgin Mary spreading her protective cloak over the world, as the Patron Saint of the original Badaliya in Cairo.


Given its concern for the volumes of refugees and displaced persons due to violence and war in the Middle East and elsewhere and the continued struggle for “peace with justice” for all Christian and Muslim Palestinian Arabs and in the Holy Land, the Badaliya USA chose Saint Maryam of Jesus Crucified as its Patron Saint. She is the Arab Palestinian founder of the Carmelite Monastery in Bethlehem. Well before she was recognized by the Church, Massignon envisioned Maryam Baouardy as the Patron Saint of the Holy Lands. He called her “the little Arab.” Years after Massignon’s death, Maryam of Jesus Crucified was Beatified by Saint Pope Jean Paul II in 1983 and canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis.


Finally, this is the message that Massignon continued to repeat throughout his life,

“In view of a serene peace between believers of all religious traditions, we must intensify our prayer to God, through the mediation of Our Lady, to hasten Peace…In order that we join with our Muslim friends, we have the obligation to multiply our spiritual and material works of mercy… It is on Sacred Hospitality that all of us will in the end be judged” (July 9, 1956).


Further Readings

Massignon’s original letters to members of the Badaliya are available in both French and English

Maurice Borrmans and Françoise Jacquin (Ed.). Louis Massignon, Badaliya : au nom de l’autre (1947-1962) (Les Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 2011)

Dorothy C. Buck (Ed.), Louis Massignon, Pioneer in Interfaith Dialogue: The Badaliya Prayer Movement (Blue Dome Press, New Jersey, London, Frankfort, Cairo, 2016)