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Religion and Society

The Man who Changed our Way of Looking at Islam

The extraordinary adventure of Georges Anawati. Born in Egypt  to an Orthodox family and destined by his father to be a pharmacist,  he became one of the greatest cultural protagonists  of the last century. This is the first part of his enthralling biography.

Georges Anawati was a far from common personality for at least three reasons: an Eastern Christian, he spent most of his life studying Islam in the Christian world and making it more effectively understood, a rather rare fact, given the fears and prejudices inherited from the past, above all amongst the Christians of the East. He also made a very great contribution to the emergence of the debate on Islam and non-Christian religions during the Second Vatican Council, helping the Catholic Church to develop a more positive vision on the question. Lastly, Georges Anawati understood very early on that encounter with the Islamic world would be facilitated if efforts were made primarily at a cultural level and not at a strictly religious one. A specialist on medieval Arab philosophy, he was in the right place to measure everything that the West and the East had shared in the past. Rather than trying to convert Muslims, with the risk of tearing them away from their culture, his choice was that of entering into profound contact with the Islamic world through its culture and civilisation. This honesty earned him immense recognition from his interlocutors.



Georges Anawati was born on 6 June in Alexandria to an Orthodox family that had emigrated from Homs, in Syria, roundabout 1860, at the time of the massacres of Christians at the hands of the Druse. His was a typical traditional Levantine family. His father, Chehata bey, had all the characteristics of a patriarch; his mother took care of her eight children with a tenderness that was totally oriental and a little suffocating. They lived in a middle-class house in the Schutz neighbourhood of Alexandria and his father was a notable of the community. The upbringing that the children received was rather austere: the six boys studied with the Frères des écoles chrétiennes and the girls with the Sisters of the Mother of God, where the whole of the teaching was in French, which at the time was the language of the cultural elite, especially in those Levantine circles. The echo of the Nahda, the Arab rebirth of the nineteenth century, reached him through journals such as Al-Hilal and Al-Muqtataf, which his father read regularly, thereby opening up the mind of his children to other horizons.



One should observe that Alexandria at that time was living out its Belle Époque: this cosmopolitan city whose majority was Greek also had important Italian, Jewish and Maltese colonies. Everything took place in an atmosphere of successful co-existence, with each community existing with its own particular features (churches, tribunals, cemeteries, newspapers, clubs, etc.), without disturbing the general harmony. It was also a city in which the good life was experienced, a ‘little Paris’, as Robert Solé wrote: the Greek Club, the beaches of the cornice and the Mahmudiah were places where the Alexandrians enjoyed a happy ease of mind that was well described by the author Lawrence Durrell in his novel The Alexandrian Quartet. But in his own family Anawati certainly did not breath in an air of recreation. His father had envisaged a career for each one of his sons. Georges, the sixth of eight children, was destined for the pharmacists together with his brother Édouard, a fact which meant that, after he had obtained his school-leaving certificate, he went to study at the university in Beirut and then at the university in Lyons, from which he returned in 1928 with a diploma as a pharmacist and a chemical engineer. At the age of twenty-three, he took over the pharmacists owned by the family in Alexandria. His path in life seemed already settled.



In reality, the steadfastness of his father’s intentions did not prevent the young Georges from making his own plans. Indeed, he had a curious, even troubled, temperament. Infused with Christianity as those old Christian families of the East were, he wanted something on a grand scale for his life which he formulated at the outset, clumsily, in the following terms: ‘to be a great Christian scholar’. From the age of sixteen onwards he kept a diary to which he entrusted his thoughts, his state of mind, and his plans. He was a great reader who from an early age trained himself to sleep as little as possible in order to quench his thirst for knowledge. He read Berdjaev, Chesterton and above all else the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, to whom he was introduced by a lecturer in philosopher of Lebanese origins who would later have a great influence on him – Youssef Karam. There followed years of disquiet, internal turmoil. Converted to Catholicism at the end of his adolescence while still a student of the Frères, the question was raised of a possible priestly or religious vocation, but he resisted until his reading of a classic work by the Dominican Antonin-Dalmace Sertillanges (1863-1948), La vie intellectuelle (1921), pointed out to him a pathway in which his desire for knowledge and his faith could be united and support each other – fides quaerens intellectum. Georges Anawati entered the Dominican Order from the front door.



He joined the novitiate of the Dominicans in France in January 1934, at the age of twenty-nine, but not without having had to face up to strong resistance from his family relatives. But he was decided. On the ship which took him from Alexandria to Marseilles he wrote to Jacques Maritain: ‘I will not say that you converted me… The truth is much more simple and more concrete: you made my Catholicism coherent and intelligent’ (diary entry of 23 January 1934). Maritain answered him. The arrival for the Dominican novitiate was severe: his companions were younger than he was and above all less troubled by metaphysical questions, less in search for a great project for their lives. At that time the faculties of Saulchoir, where he studied from 1935 onwards, were, however, a notable intellectual crucible. Here were drawn up the premises of what Marie-Dominique Chenu presented in 1937 in his manifesto A School of Theology: the Saulchoir. What was at stake was nothing less that to lead Thomist theology out of the Scholasticism in which it had been shut up in order to give vigour to a theology at the service of an active intelligence of the Word of God, in a human history still to come.



The Rector of the Dominican faculties of Saulchoir particularly welcomed our young Alexandrian because he himself raised certain questions about Arab-Islamic culture and its role in the evolution of ideas during the medieval period when Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas undertook a rethinking of their theology on the basis of the philosophical categories of Aristotle. Georges Anawati at that time read a book by Taha Hussein, a great Egyptian Muslim intellectual, that would play an important role in deciding the direction he took: The Future of Culture in Egypt (1938). Taha Hussein was at the same time a product of the University of al-Azhar and of secular universities (in Cairo and Paris) and an enlightened believer who strove to shake the dogmatism of the ulema. Greatly influenced by this work, on 22 July 1941 Georges Anawati wrote: ‘Islam has been a factor not only local in character, circumscribed in its action to a small context, but also something with a worldwide meaning… In the general movement of culture a place should be made for Islam and the peoples generated by it’. Admiring ‘the courageous tone, the flame that animates this vigorous thinker, this noble heart, who loves his country and wants at all costs to push it forwards’, he ended by observing the need for him ‘to become a reference point from the point of view of Islamic philosophy’ (diary entry of 10 August 1941). This, for an Eastern Christian, was an amazing fact. One should observe that he had been encouraged in this by his encounter from the days of his novitiate onwards with Louis Massignon, the great French Orientalist who had returned to the faith in 1908 as a result of the believing witness and the hospitality of Iraqi Muslims who had received him at a moment of great despair: the Alussi family. Gradually, Islam became for Georges Anawati a central question, one of the leading tramlines of his life: ‘This seems to me currently to be the road: to follow my vocation under the action of the Holy Spirit, made specific by the will of my superiors: Islam’, he wrote in his diary in July 1939. Other encounters made his pathway clearer. For example, that with Father Jean-Mohamed Abd-el-Jalil, a Moroccan Franciscan of Muslim origins who held the chair of Arabic and Islamic studies at the Catholic Institute of Paris from 1936 onwards. A convert to Catholicism, Abd-el-Jalil never denied the faith of his Moroccan parents and always strove to make Christians understand the Interior Aspects of Islam, to employ the title of one of his books (1949). Thus it was that after he had finished his studies in theology Georges Anawati, following the advice given to him by Father Chenu, engaged in in-depth study of Arabic and Arab civilisation and from 1940 to 1944 went to the University of Algiers, given that he could not stay in France, which at that time was under German occupation.



An Open Question



At that time the University of Algiers was famous for the high quality of its lecturers: Léon Gauthier, Evariste Levi-Provençal, Georges and William Marçais and others were recognised figures in the world of Orientalism. Georges Anawati drew full benefit from this by using the resources of the library of the university from the first day of his arrival onwards. This did not remove the fact that these lecturers ‘do Arabic as one practises a sport’, he wrote, a little disappointed: here we encounter a problem typical of the colonial world which did not have real sympathy for the subject that was studied. Anawati tried to compensate for this failure by meeting Algerian sheiks and ulema, but his disappointment was even greater – he encountered a sclerotic Islam that was extraneous to the intellectual thought that could be found in Cairo.



However, the Maghreb enabled him to have decisive meetings, and in particular that with Louis Gardet, a disciple of Charles de Foucauld, whom he met during the summer of 1942 on the advice of Massignon at El-Abiodh Sidi Shaykh, which was located in the centre of the Algerian desert. Gardet was of the same age but was somewhat ahead as regards thought about Islam. In particular, he had written a major article for the Revue Thomiste of 1937 on ‘Raison et foi en Islam’, an article in which he studied in detail the decisive debates that had taken place at the beginning of Islam when the question of ijtihâd, interpretation, was at stake. Anawati was won over by this man with whom he formed a deep friendship. Gardet was equally interested in Anawati because he was not a great Arabist and found in Anawati a man who was able to help him accede to Arabic texts. Together they launched themselves into a number of translations, such as that of the Jawharat al-tawhîd of al-Laqqânî, a textbook that was much used in Islamic circles in North Africa, the author of which presented to Muslim students the major and minor questions of Islamic faith, from the existence of God and His attributes to the detail of daily life. In addition, Gardet, too, was a disciple of Maritain, who amongst other things had played a fundamental role in his conversion to Christianity. Intellectually, they were on the same wavelength.



However, Islam remained an open question for Georges Anawati, as is demonstrated by a text of his from June 1942, which can be summed up in the question: ‘At the plane of providence why Islam?’ It was evident in his eyes that Islam contained elements of truth. Following Chesterton, he defined them as ‘Christian truths ‘gone mad’ because they had abandoned their ‘natural location’,… the embers of a living body that gave them life and efficiency… This does not remove the fact that these ‘truths’ – ossified, hardened, separated from the Christian doctrinal presence – are to be found in Islam. And this is the problem. Not wanting to observe the presence of these Christian (or Jewish, whatever the case from revealed sources) fragments in the Koran is to go against the evidence. There they are concealed, encrusted, encapsulated, etc.’ It was no accident that he was not helped in his research by the Catholic world in which he was immersed, a missionary world which had no sympathy for this religion that was badly known about and at the same time feared. It is true, there were some exceptions: for example, Father André Demeerseman, a White Father, founder in Tunis of the Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes (IBLA), in which Arab-Islamic culture had the right of citizenship, without prejudices and ideas of conversion; and Father Voillaume, founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus and the Little Brothers of the Gospel, whose vocation was that of a praying presence immersed in the Muslim world, without proselytism.



The Catholic Church posed itself questions at the highest level under the impetus of Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, at that time Secretary of the Eastern Congregation. This French prelate of great learning, a sophisticated expert on the East, reflected on the results of a century of missionary work in Islamic countries. The very mediocre results, if judged in terms of the conversions that had been achieved, constituted an invitation to review the approach. Ever since 1938 Tisserant had been in contact with Father Gillet, the General Superior of the Order of the Preaching Friars and Father Dominique Chenu, Rector of the Saulchoir, proposing to them another approach for the Christian presence in the Muslim world. Chenu immediately grasped the aim of this request: ‘one is not dealing with an attempt at direct apostolic penetration, which would not only be in vain but also objectively badly conceived. Instead, it is necessary to engage in a preliminary and in-depth task – to know Islam, its history, its doctrine, its civilisation, its resources, and to know it through serious and extensive studies to which true apostles consecrate their lives’ (letter of Chenu to Gillet, 8 February 1939). ‘For this reason’, added Father Savognac, of the Biblical school of Jerusalem, under which at that time was the Dominican monastery of Cairo, ‘it is necessary to study Islam in depth, directly in the original books which deal with it and not in translations of varying degrees of fidelity or in rough expositions. Educated Muslims will appreciate you only if you are able to read and discuss an Arabic text... But it is meaningless to talk about an apostolate amongst the Muslims’ (ibid.) The request of Cardinal Tisserant and the positive response of the Dominicans directed the life of Georges Anawati in a broad way and he was invited by his superiors to engage in research into Muslim culture.



A Team of Orientalists



At that time in Cairo a Dominican monastery already existed that had been built in the early1930s following the initiative of Father Marie-Joseph Lagrange, the founder and director of the Biblical School of Jerusalem. This monastery had never respected its early purpose – to be a support for the Biblical School in Egypt. Anawati was appointed for this purpose, the first of a team that was created immediately after the Second World War. After returning to Cairo in August 1944 he was joined in 1945 by Jacques Jomier who was to be a specialist on the Koran and its modern interpretations, and then by Serge Beaurecueil, a specialist on Ansari and Islamic mysticism. Others would arrive later and enrich this team, thereby creating what from 1953 would be called the Institut Dominicain d’Etudes Orientales. We can summarise the spirit of this team with a quotation from Marie-Dominique Chenu from October 1945: ‘certainly not to begin with the conquest of Islam and convert here and there some individuals, separated by that fact from the Muslim community, but to be devoted to an in-depth study of Islam, its doctrine, its civilisation’. The charter of the IDEO lays down: ‘first of all, this is a team of Dominican orientalists, made up therefore of theologians who are normally interested in the philosophical and religious aspect of their field of inquiry. Their attention will be especially directed towards the history of the ideas and the doctrines of the Arab world, of its past and its present, addressing it in itself and in its relations with the West’ (MIDEO, n. 1).



After the basics had been clarified, this team set itself to work and had produced impressive research within a few years. Working with it from1942 onwards, Anawati in 1948 published with Louis Gardet an Introduction to Muslim Theology which revealed for the first time to the West the contents of Islamic dogma as it was handed down and taught in Islamic schools and universities. This was possible thanks to his very close contacts with the ulema of the University of al-Azhar, a neighbour of the Dominican monastery of Abbassiah, in Cairo. According to Richard Frank, a major specialist on kalâm (Muslim theology), it was this book which ‘brought the kalam out of the madrasas schools’. At the same time, Anawati worked with Charles Kuentz, the Director of the IFAO (Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale), with whom he published in Egypt in 1949 a critical bulletin on Arabic texts, the first of a long series which demonstrated the interest of our author in the turâth, that is to say the sources of the classical Arabic heritage. In the same year, namely 1949, Anawati was chosen to take part in a mission of the Arab League that was sent to Istanbul to make an inventory of the manuscripts of Avicenna prior to the thousandth anniversary of this philosopher’s birth which was to be celebrated in Bagdad in 1952. He worked untiringly with his Muslim co-workers, such as Mahmud al Khodeiry, and in 1950 published An Essay on Avicenna Bibliography, which made him one of the leading specialists on medieval Arab philosophy. For Georges Anawati, the congresses to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the birth of Avicenna, which were held in Bagdad and Tehran, were a first form of consecration in this capacity. He continued with the same impetus and published in particular a scholarly edition of Avicenna’s Metaphysics. It is to this epoch that belongs the specialisation of the library of the IDEO in Cairo in the field of the sources of Arab-Islamic culture.



But Georges Anawati had not forgotten his Eastern Christian roots. His wish to establish a bridge with Islam included his own Christian community. Two figures played a key role here: the already mentioned Louis Massignon, and Mary Kahil. Louis Massignon had worked at the IFAO as a young man and regularly returned to Cairo, above all after he had been appointed by King Fouad to be a member of the Academy of Arabic at Cairo. Mary Kahil was from the Greek-Catholic community, she was well educated and rather well-off. It was she who had purchased the Church of Saint Mary of Peace for the Greek-Catholics, a church located in the centre of Cairo in Garden City. These two figures drew up together a project to create a community of Arab Christians sensitive to the spiritual reality of Islam. Being the good organiser that she was, Mary Kahil created a studies centre, named Dar es-Salam, to which she invited famous lecturers, gradually created documentation on the subject, and above all a climate of mutual respect. She also cultivated the project of creating an Arab Catholic university in Cairo to promote Christian Arab culture.



In parallel with this intellectual initiative, Mary Kahil, together with Massignon, began a brotherhood of prayer, the badaliyya, whose spirit was defined by Massignon in the following terms: ‘to carry out and to fulfil, in all its providential truth, the vocation of Christians in the East, of Arab race or language, which the Muslim conquest reduced to being a ‘small flock’; ‘this union of prayer was born in Egypt, in Damietta, amongst weak and poor souls, who try to love God and to ensure that ever great glory is given to Him in Islam. Brought together, gathered together and directed towards the same goal that binds us, it is through Him that we offer and commit our lives, from now on, as hostages. This goal, which is the manifestation of Christ in Islam (‘Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true Man in Islam’), requires an in-depth penetration made up of fraternal understanding and attentive care, in the lives of families, of past and present Muslim generations, whom God has placed on the same path as each one of us, leading us to the underground veins of grace that the Holy Spirit wants to unleash, and whose living spring we try to make found by this people of the excluded, once left outside the promise of the Messiah as descendants of Hagar, and which conserves valuably, in its imperfect Muslim tradition, a kind of impress of the sacred face of Christ’. Badaliyya comes from the word badal, which means ‘replacement’. As René-Luc Moreau has rightly written: ‘to replace Muslims or the Muslim community does not involve first of all having pity on them for what they do not have but to reach what they are, what they are authentically, the best of them’. This was the spiritual engine of an ambitious intellectual project wanted by Christians who from the Arab rebirth of the nineteenth century, the Nahda, did a great deal for this culture, in particular in Egypt. Regular prayer meetings took place in the Church of St. Mary of Peace in Garden City, in which Georges Anawati took part every time that his numerous journeys allowed him to do so. The arrival of the Nasser regime broke the dreams of a Christian Arabism: the Greek-Catholic elite was one of the targets of this authoritarian regime and would pay the price of the ideology of pan-Arabism. Of Dar es-Salam and the badaliyya there would remain only a small encounter group of Christians and Muslims, which still exists, but a group without great dynamism: al-Ikhâ’ al-dînî, the spiritual brotherhood.



The Hour of the Second Vatican Council



Given that the climate in Cairo had so deteriorated, Georges Anawati thought for a moment of leaving Egypt to carry out his research elsewhere, in Beirut or Rome, where a wind of freedom blew. His Egyptian friends dissuaded him and in particular Taha Hussein and Ibrahim Medkour. In the end it was in Rome that Anawati revived, at the time of the Second Vatican Council to which at the beginning he was invited only as an expert of the Eastern Churches. He arrived there in June 1963 between the first and second sessions, at a time when the text on Judaism was being discussed, a text very dear to the Pope and Cardinal Bea. A great deal was at stake: to end centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. Islam was not spoken about, not even in the fifteen thousand pages of the preparatory text for the Council. Various Eastern bishops, in particular the Greek-Catholic Patriarch, Maximos IV, called attention to the risk of a declaration on Judaism that said nothing about the question of Islam, thereby letting it be understood that in the Middle East the Catholic Church had made a strategic decision and opted for Israel. This concern was immediately seconded by various experts of the Council: certainly Georges Anawati but also Joseph Cuoq and Jean Lanfry, of the White Fathers from North Africa. Much inclined to contacts, Father Anawati launched himself into an authentic action of lobbying, whose strongest moment was the lecture that he gave on 29 November 1963 at the Angelicum, the Dominican university of Rome, on the subject ‘Islam at the time of the Council: precursors of an Islamic-Christian dialogue’. Because his purpose was to speak about the subject at the highest level in Rome, Anawati assured the presence of group of Cardinals, bishops and theologians who were able to influence the debates of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI was not insensitive to the subject and as Archbishop of Milan had declared: ‘a day will come when the Pope will address himself in his encyclicals to the Muslims, as he has addressed the Orthodox’. It was Paul VI himself who on 19 May 1964 created a Secretariat for Non-Christians, within which there was a Committee for Muslims, whose Under-Secretary was Father Joseph Cuoq, an ally of Georges Anawati. ‘We know nothing about Islam’, Cardinal Marella confessed to him, who was at that time President of the Secretariat for Non-Christians. We have been working on the question for thirty years, Anawati answered him, with irritation. From 1963 onwards he was a member of the Secretariat for Unity with Christians and for this reason he had entrees at Rome.



The debates that led up to the Declaration Nostra Aetate were complex, as has been demonstrated by Father Maurice Borrmans, an expert on the history of Islamic-Christian dialogue. The creation of sensitivity to this subject was not the most difficult thing. In reality there was no theology of other religions. Some experts, like the Lebanese Maronite priest Youakim Moubarac, went very much ahead in recognition of the revealed character of the Koran and the prophetic authenticity of Mohammed. Moubarac was one of the faithful disciples of Massignon who with his Hegira of Ismael had produced a draft of the role of Islam in the plan of salvation. For him, Islam was almost an ‘Abrahamic schism’, ‘a mysterious answer of grace to Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael and the Arabs’, ‘a natural religion awakened by a prophetic revelation’. In his eyes the special mission of the descendants of Ishmael, excluded from the promise, was that of having to remind everyone of the absoluteness of the final judgement. Massignon thus recognised not only that in Islam there is a pathway of salvation but attributed an inspired value to the Koran, which he thought ‘an Arab branch version of the Bible’ and saw in Mohammed a ‘negative prophet’ in the sense that ‘he never claimed to be an intercessor or a saint’ (The Koran 7:188) but stated that he was a witness, the Voice that cried out in the wilderness for the separation of the good from the bad, the Witness of separation’. Islam therefore had a mission which Massignon explained in another primary text 1948, The Marian Sign: ‘one may say that Islam exists and will go on existing because it is of Abrahamic faith, in order to force Christians to rediscover a more naked, earlier, more simpler form of sanctification, to which Muslims accede only rarely, I agree, but this is our fault, because we have not yet shown it to them in ourselves, whilst they expect it from us, from Christ’. Massignon was not unaware of the importance of such an analysis, and this to the point of disseminating only a very few copies of his Three Prayers of Aabraham. But as R. Caspar observes: ‘there is always a danger of distortion when the work of an Orientalist, who is not necessarily a theologian, is taken up and used by a theologian who is not an Orientalist’.


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