Louis Massignon Chair for the Study of Religion. Interview with Alain Dieckhoff and Stéphane Lacroix

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Louis Massignon Chair for the Study of Religion

The Louis Massignon Chair for the Study of Religion is the first initiative of its kind in the French academic landscape. Its mission is to bring together researchers working on religion; to consolidate and develop the courses that Sciences Po offers on this theme; to participate in public and scholarly debate; and to support the emerging generation of researchers. Alain Dieckhoff and Stéphane Lacroix answer our questions about this new project.

How did the Louis Massignon Chair come about?

A fair number of Sciences Po researchers have been working on the question of religion for many years, either individually or collectively. Among the collective projects are the Observatoire international du fait religieux (International Observatory on Religion) that CERI runs with the Sociétés, religions, laïcités group (Societies, Religion, and Secularism, EPHE/CNRS), and the IRN programme “Contextualizing Radicalization” led by Nadia Marzouki. This context explains why Jean-Baptiste Massignon approached us when he decided to create a chair that would bear the name of his ancestor, the eminent Islamologist Louis Massignon. We worked together on the project, thinking about how to bring together existing research at Sciences Po on the theme of religion while also highlighting innovative and lesser known work.

How would you define the theme of the Chair?

The thematic basis of the Chair is religion, and more specifically (but not exclusively) Islam, because of the figure of Louis Massignon. The Chair proposes a comparative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of religions through the social sciences. We intend to involve all the social science disciplines: anthropology, history, political science, sociology, geography, etc. On the other hand, our approach is not philological or orientalist. The figure of Louis Massignon is interesting because he was a renowned islamologist who worked comparatively. This comparative reflection can be seen in his own life. He was what Manoël Pénicaud, his most recent biographer, calls a “Muslim Catholic”, who never stopped thinking comparatively about Catholicism and Islam. What interests us about Louis Massignon is that as well as having an excellent command of religious texts, he practiced social science. So while he studied and published on the language and texts of classical Islam, part of his work consists of publications about the Islam of his time, based on field research. Louis Massignon was a scholar in direct contact with the Arab world, who knew and spent time with the great contemporary Muslim intellectuals whom he wrote about. Comparatism is the product of his reflection, but it is also embedded in his own life and his method. The multidisciplinary nature of his approach is key for us and what we want to do with the Chair.

What are the Chair’s objectives?

There are four objectives: to involve as many researchers working on religion as possible; to bring together and develop the courses that Sciences Po offers on this theme, at undergraduate, Master’s, and doctoral level; to participate in public and scholarly debate and, finally, to support early career researchers. We are talking about a chair, so it has a real link with teaching. We will host a visiting scholar through the Chair, and this scholar, while collaborating on research with his or her colleagues, will also contribute to the teaching component. The Chair is also meant to foster academic debate, with round table discussions between researchers, and public debate, for example through the organisation of regular conferences. We want to be present in the public arena and for our work to be public, because we are not only interested in engaging with other academics, but also with a wider audience. We plan to hold four conferences a year. The first, called Faith versus Identity? Religion in the Cultural Wars, will take place on 22 October via webinar. Jean-Baptiste Massignon and ourselves will give a short presentation of the Chair, followed by a debate moderated by Nadia Marzouki, researcher at CERI, with Olivier Roy, professor at the European Institute in Florence and Adrien Candiard, researcher at the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies in Cairo. A second conference will be held before the end of the year, the third in March, and the fourth in May.

Finally, the chair will support the emerging generation of researchers working on religion through the First Book Prize to be awarded annually. We chose to create a first book prize because we know how important a step the first book is in an academic career and how much depends on a researcher’s first publication—which may stem from their thesis but not always—in terms of standing out in an increasingly difficult academic job market. By awarding this prize, we hope to give a boost to early career researchers. There is no age limit; we accept all first manuscripts, regardless of the author’s age. Several thesis awards already exist, and this prize is intended to be complementary to them.

Who was Louis Massignon?

Louis Massignon was a professor at the Collège de France, where he held the chair of “Muslim sociography” (1926-1954), and taught at the École libre des sciences politiques, Sciences Po’s predecessor. A great Arabist, Massignon’s considerable scholarship on Muslim mysticism was instrumental in integrating this field of study into the nascent French Islamology. He quickly gained an international reputation and by the end of his life he was a member of academies around the world—in Afghanistan, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the Netherlands, Iran, Sweden, the USSR, and the US, as well as Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, London, Rome, and more. As such, he played a crucial role for a generation of scholars focused on the Arab-Muslim world, such as Jacques Berque, Henri Corbin, André Miquel, Vincent Monteil, Germaine Tillion and Eva de Vitray-Meyerovitch.

Massignon witnessed the major political transformations and upheavals of the twentieth century. His academic career was punctuated with personal spiritual commitments—he had a mystical conversion to Christianity, was a disciple of Charles de Foucauld and pioneer of inter-religious dialogue, and was secretly ordained a priest in 1950­—making him without doubt a complex and pluralist scholar, attuned to the major issues of his century.

Link to the Chair's homepage.

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI. Translated by Jessica Edwards.