VOLUME IX, Number 1
January - June 2019
Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil and Paul Mehmet Mulla-Zade at the baptism of Jean-Mohammed
Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil and Paul Mehmet Mulla-Zade at the baptism of Jean-Mohammed
When Pope Francis made his apostolic visit to the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, he was accompanied by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, which in itself was a remarkable gesture of Muslim/Christian friendship. Together they signed and issued a document on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.” In this document they state,
In the name of God . . . Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.
I would like to pick up on that word ‘understanding,’ because for me that was the whole purpose of studying the lives of converts from Islam to Christianity, namely, to understand Islam better. I thought I could achieve this because converts have known both Islam and Christianity from the inside. More importantly, the converts I have studied never left their Islam behind. Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil especially remained loyal to two religions all his life—to the degree that was possible—and in his writings he tried to help Christians understand Islam. Along with Louis Massignon, whom he knew intimately, he was also influential in changing the Church’s attitude toward Islam to a positive, if tentative, appreciation and respect after centuries of condemnation and negativity. I hope that my reflection on the lives of these two Muslims who became Christians will build on that positive approach.
Abd-el-Jalil is the main focus of this paper, but first I wish to mention Paul Ali Mehmet Mulla-Zadé, a Turkish convert. In addition to helping change the Church’s attitude to Islam, he was very important in the conversion process of Abd-el-Jalil, who turned to him for help to resolve difficulties, both doctrinal and practical, that he encountered on the way to baptism. Furthermore, he is a remarkable figure in his own right and deserves to be better known.
Mulla-Zadé, a Shi‘a Muslim, was born in 1881 on the island of Crete, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. His father, who was Turkish, was a military doctor and president of the Muslim community. After a brief visit to Europe he was so enthused by what he found there that he decided to send his young son abroad to continue his education. At the tender age of fourteen, Mehmet-Ali began his studies at the Lycée Mignonet in Aix-en-Provence. Already proficient in both Turkish and Greek, and with some knowledge of Persian and Arabic studies, he proved to be a brilliant student and progressed quickly through the various grades. In 1900 he enrolled in the Faculty of Law at the university in Aix-en-Provence. While there he lived life to the full, absorbing as much as he could of its intellectual life and thoroughly enjoying its cultural life. At the same time he was very impressed with the evangelical spirit he found among his friends. He frequented a very Christian family, and it appears that they developed a close relationship. One of the family became his godmother at his baptism.
However, the most important encounter of his life at this time was with the Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel, who was a professor in the Law Faculty of the university. Mulla-Zadé studied under him assiduously for three years and was profoundly influenced by him. According to the Islamic scholar Fr. Maurice Borrmans (1925-2017),  Blondel’s philosophy played an important role in the deliberations and arguments of the Second Vatican Council. One sentence might give a flavour of his thought; he speaks of ‘the necessary requirements of a transcendence which the philosophical positions and doctrines attempt to efface, disparage, or force into forgetfulness.’ (Internet Dictionary of Philosophy) .
At the end of his time of study under Blondel, Mulla-Zadé told him of his desire for baptism and asked him to be his godfather, to which he agreed, After his three years as a disciple of Blondel, whom he described as ‘the Master whom Providence had put in his path’, he needed only a short catechumenate and was baptised on January 25, 1905, the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, whose name he took as his own baptismal name.
Immediately after his baptism he went home to his family for a year, but it seems to have been a very difficult time. When he returned to France he became a Catholic priest. He wanted to exercise his ministry in his native Turkey, but he was strongly advised against this by a Turkish politician (Ahmed Riza) who was living in voluntary exile in Paris. Therefore, he requested and was granted French citizenship in 1913. During the years of the Great War, he worked in army hospitals but soon progressed to various diplomatic positions because of his language skills. After the war he returned to being a curate in a parish in Aix-en-Provence.
Soon after, through the intervention of his former teacher, Maurice Blondel, his life was to change dramatically. Blondel did not like the idea of his godson and best student labouring as an unknown teacher in a small diocesan boarding school. On a visit to Rome in 1924, Blondel sought out the Jesuit Fr Michael d’Herbigny, President of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which had been founded by Pope Benedict XV in 1917. He asked D’Herbigny to invite Mulla-Zadé to teach a course on Islam at the Institute. D’Herbigny was agreeable to Blondel’s proposal as was the Pope, Pius XI, the successor of Benedict XV, who was consulted. Thus began the major work of Mulla-Zadé’s career. He was at the Oriental Institute for 35 years, until his death on March 3, 1959.
During his teaching career there is evidence that he had contact with Louis Massignon, who influenced the content of his courses, and there is no doubt that along with Massignon, both he and Abd-el-Jalil influenced political decisions and played, through their role as teachers, a decisive role in the Church’s perception of Islam. I consider it significant, in this regard, that unlike Massignon, they were both devout Muslims in their youth, so they knew that religion from the inside in a way that Massignon did not.
I now turn to Mulla-Zadé’s protégé and fellow convert, Jean-Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil, who is likewise little known in the English-speaking world. Mohammed was born in Morocco, then a French Protectorate, in 1904. His father would seem to have been a high-ranking government official, and the family was very pious, strictly observing the Muslim faith with all its customs and practices, including the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Mohammed went on the Hajj with his parents when he was only nine years old. There were ten children in the family, but only three survived: Mohammed, his younger sister, and his younger brother Omar, who was to support him through all the trials resulting from his conversion.
There was a strong bond between the young Mohammed and his father, who seems to have loved him more that his younger son because he was strongly inclined to piety. The grief caused by his conversion was a lifelong sorrow he never got over. In a letter to Mulla-Zadé after his conversion, Mohammed confesses that “some of [my father’s] letters have broken my heart, and many times I have had to rush to church to offer the Lord, with my tears, the fragile pieces of my heart.” At this time he was still a student in Paris, where his studies were financed by a government grant. His father demanded that he come home, a command he refused to obey. His distress was heightened by the fact that his father wrote to him every day. He himself wrote to his father every Sunday , but in time received no reply. Eventually, his brother Omar wrote to him to confirm the rupture with his father.
It was actually his beloved father who unwittingly created the circumstances that led to his son’s conversion by sending him and Omar to the École Charles de Foucauld in Rabat. He sent them there to complete their secondary education, with the condition that their Muslim identity must be respected. The headmaster, Père Clement Étienne, became something of a confidante and father figure to Mohammed and was instrumental in having both him and Omar sent to France for further study. At this time, the most promising students were being sent abroad to prepare them to assume responsible positions when Morocco gained its independence. Omar did in fact become the Minister of Agriculture, but things did not go as expected for Mohammed. The headmaster had arranged for his accommodation in France through the instrumentality of good friends, and so Jean-Mohammed came to live in a household of Catholics. They played no part in his conversion, but they did provide a favourable environment. As was the case for Mulla-Zadé, one of the household became his godmother at his baptism.
Mohammed had been awarded a government grant to obtain a degree in the Arabic language for the purpose of teaching. He studied Arabic at the Sorbonne but also obtained permission to study at the Institut Catholique, the Catholic University of Paris. Being a strict Muslim, hostile to all forms of Christianity—although he admitted that he knew it only superficially—he wanted to study Christianity in its own citadel in order to find arguments to refute it.
At this time he was also a disciple of Sheik Mohammed Abdou (1849-1905) and, along with many other young Moroccans, was a follower of the Wahhabi movement which was based on the fundamentalist teaching of Ibn ‘Abd al Wahhâb, (1703-1791), whose teachings on Islam became the official doctrine of Saudi Arabia.
The scene is now set for Mohammed’s conversion. Marguerite Faguer, the daughter of the family with whom he lived for two years, recalls him saying, “I know of a few Christians who have become Muslims, but for a Muslim to convert to Christianity, that is impossible.” This attitude must have added to the shock he felt when it happened to him. On Christmas night in 1926 he attended midnight Mass with Marguerite and her mother. Marguerite described what happened as ‘foudroyante’ (like lightning), adding that Jean-Mohammed’s decision to become a Christian was taken very quickly with no hesitation or doubt.
It would appear that at some stage during the Mass the celebrant led a procession to the crib where symbolically the congregation would pay homage to the newly born infant Jesus. Marguerite and her mother watched as Mohammed spontaneously joined this procession. He was always very reserved about his spiritual life, but he did make reference to what had happened at that Christmas Mass in a letter he wrote two years later to his friend and confidant, Paul Mehmet Mulla-Zadé. He said that his decision was taken “at the feet of the infant God with tears and a full heart.” He felt strongly that this Child wanted him for himself and he was, he said, “full of joy and loved him passionately” (December 23, 1928). He had obviously had some kind of mystical experience that could not adequately be put into words, but it is striking to note that the God he perceived as calling him appeared under the form of a small and vulnerable child—in total contrast to the God of his Islamic upbringing, a God who is utterly transcendent and great, with no admixture of anything human.
Mohammed’s response to what he perceived to be a call to be a Christian was immediate. His heart was totally committed, and faith was instantly awakened on a deep level. Still, it took some time for his reason to catch up with his faith. It was at this stage that Mulla-Zadé came to his assistance and helped him through some difficult doctrinal issues that he felt he had to resolve in order to be ready for baptism. They had been put into contact with each other through the instrumentality of Père Clement, Mohammed's former headmaster in Rabat.
In the very interesting correspondence between these two men, painstakingly collected and annotated by Fr Maurice Borrmans in his retirement, it is striking that there is virtually no depreciative language about Islam. They both cared too much about what they had left behind, and they longed to bridge the great gulf of misunderstanding that separated Christianity and Islam. They had a deep love for all Muslims, but especially for their families whom they knew endured much pain on their behalf.
Mohammed’s first letter was not written till October 1, 1927, ten months after his conversion experience. He began by stating that before that event, he thought no Muslim would have cause to change his religion. However, his Muslim convictions were now shaken, and he was seriously studying the Catholic religion, beginning, he said, by studying the relevant sacred texts. This seemed to him the obvious place to start, but then he was confronted with the Muslim doctrine of tahrif, which claims that Jews and Christians have ‘falsified’ their Scriptures. If the Scriptures were not reliable, how then could he accept anything about Christianity? He informs Mulla-Zadé that he has been reading about this topic widely and deeply, for example in books by Auguste Gratry (1805-1872), priest, theologian, and professor at the Sorbonne, and came to the conclusion that there had been no falsification as he understood the matter. But what of the Qur’an, he asks, that asserts the contrary, along with other competent authorities in the Muslim world?
This question is left hanging, as there is seemingly no resolution. They go on instead to discuss the relative merits of Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad, to whom the Scriptures owe their origin. This again is a very sensitive topic between Muslims and Christians, and again the two men draw back from going into it in too much depth. Obviously the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus, as religious founders, are very different characters, but the two men refuse to make facile comparisons, despite the fact that they have decisively changed their allegiance from one to the other. They note that Muhammad was undoubtedly a religious man, but also a politician and a warrior, whereas Jesus was neither of these.
These questions were left unresolved (perhaps they are unresolvable?), but Muhammed showed his continued loyalty to the Prophet by keeping his name when he became a Christian, joining it to his baptismal name of Jean. Apparently there were all sorts of debates among scholars at this time concerning the position of Christianity vis-à-vis the Prophet Mohammed, but Mulla-Zadé said he was not sufficiently abreast of these to discuss them adequately. In any case, to conclude discussion on this issue, he said the one thing they can be sure of is that the teaching of the Prophet of Islam has been a vehicle of salvation for innumerable Muslims, taking some to the highest levels of contemplation and heroic charity.
The next difficult issue they address is that of Jesus as both God and man. Mohammed realises he cannot become a Christian without believing in this doctrine, which for a Muslim is very difficult. His own difficulty, he says, is due to his profoundly Muslim education and the weight of fourteen centuries of Muslim tradition. He then asks about the Trinity. This doctrine does not shock or offend him, he says; he simply cannot honestly say he believes in it. Confronted with all these difficulties, he admits to Mulla-Zadé that he feels on the edge of a fearful precipice between two worlds, and he is afraid of going forward with too much haste. He says he has embarked on a search that engages his whole being, having committed himself to what he knows will be long years of anguish and suffering. He feels quite unequal to the task before him but admits that he sometimes feels a great calm amidst his difficulties.
In his response, Mulla-Zadé puts dogmatic difficulties in their proper place. “Dogmas.” he says, “are like seeds sown in the soil of our souls in this present life. Nourished by the sap of faith, they are destined to grow towards the light of our future life where they will blossom in flowers of great beauty for our contemplation.” He goes on to give a beautiful description of faith:
The light [of dogma] shed on our lives even now can lead to faith, but dogmas are not to be confused with faith itself, which is something more and something quite other. It consists in catching some of the rays that emanate from that source of light, which is revelation; faith is to bathe in that predominantly obscure light. It is essentially to confide oneself to the Inaccessible, the Invisible, the Incomprehensible, who communicates with us by grace under a veil that accommodates itself to our present situation . . . it enlightens our intelligence so that we can know God and follow him through the shadows of our earthly existence and so prepare to meet him face to face in heaven.
His advice to Muhammad is to read the Gospel on his knees, at least in spirit, and allow his relationship with Jesus Christ to grow, for the end of all our searching, he says, is to be able to abandon ourselves to him who will become our friend and, even more, our new being, for Christian conversion is simply to attach oneself with all one’s being to Christ, and through him to the intimate life of the Trinity.
Despite all the encouragement and clarification given him, Mohammed still struggles. He struggles to come to terms with the Incarnation and the crucifixion of Jesus. He used to think that all these matters were historical problems based on the authenticity (or inaccuracy) of the Scriptures, and he confesses he had secretly hoped to discover that the Christian Gospel was not authentic, but his study led him to the contrary conclusion.
While working through these difficulties, Mohammed also had serious practical problems. For instance, how was he to tell his father about his conversion? What was he to do with his life as he could not return to Morocco? Last but not least, how was he to cope financially when his government grant was taken away? Mulla-Zadé, who had been totally rejected by his own father, helped Mohammed draft a letter to his father. He also found someone to help with his financial difficulties, a certain Monseigneur Eugène Beaupin, a Catholic activist and author with a particular interest in young people. This enabled Mohammed to remain in France and complete his studies. Mulla-Zadé also suggested further reading, including the spiritual classic Treatise on the Love of God by St Francis de Sales.
The final struggle for Muhammad before he felt ready for baptism was the question of Jesus Christ. For the first time in his life he seems to have come across something his highly gifted intellect could not grasp, despite prolonged study. He wrote to Mulla-Zadé,
My faith in Jesus Christ is not strong. Do I even have any? If I do, it is very confused. I do not feel capable of answering in the affirmative, with all my heart and in calmness of spirit, the simple question, Do you believe in Christ? I have asked myself the question many times, but invariably strong emotion grips me, and I feel troubled. However, this goes away when I am at prayer.
Mulla-Zadé responds that he is not in the least worried about him. He reminds him that what he is embarking on is the work of a lifetime. Conversion to Christianity is only the beginning. Incorporation into the Church through baptism will give him many graces he cannot know at the moment. He considers Mohammed to be ready for baptism and says that prolonged indecision would compromise his progress towards further understanding.
Mohammed, however, still hesitated, even though he admitted that when he spent time with the Franciscans during the Christmas holidays he experienced great peace and had no problem worshipping with them. In fact, he found it a great support. After further hesitations and discussions with his local spiritual director (who had been recommended to him by Mulla-Zadé), he reaches the point where he can say that nothing now separates him, and nothing can separate him, from Jesus Christ, not even what he perceives as his serious moral failures. He was baptised on April 7, 1928.
The next period of Jean-Mohammed’s life can be quickly summarised. The question of marriage had arisen before his conversion, and he had to go against his father. Now it arose again when he “fell in love with a very Christian French young lady,” who, although not mentioned by name, was, I suspect,  Marguerite, the daughter of his landlady, who remained a faithful friend all his life. However, when the moment of decision came, he definitively renounced marriage and decided he wanted to enter the religious life. He went on to complete his doctorate at the Sorbonne (on the subject of the Muslim mystic ‘Ayn-al-Qudât al-Hamâdhani) and then decided to become a Franciscan.
Jean-Mohammed was attracted to the Franciscans for various reasons, one of them being St Francis’ attempt to convert the Sultan Al-Malik Al-Kamil during the Crusades, in 1219. So he entered the Franciscans in Paris on September 17, 1929, and after some years of theological study, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1935. On his ordination card there is a picture of a large fish with a basket of bread on its back, taken from a second-century crypt in the Roman catacombs. Around it is a text from the Qur’an, “O Allah our Lord, send us from heaven a table set [with viands], that there may be for us –for the first and last of us—a solemn festival, and a sign from Thee” (5.114). On the reverse side is a paraphrase of verses from the Prophet Isaiah:
I have called you from the far corners of the earth. I have taken you strongly by the hand, and I will help you. Do not be afraid. Even though mothers may forget, I will not forget you. I have loved you with an everlasting love and have compassion on you. I will make rivers flow on the bare heights and springs well up in the valleys. I will change the desert into a lake and the arid ground into a fountain of water. Do not be afraid. I have called you by your name. You are mine. And I, your God, love you.
In the margin in his own handwriting he wrote, “addressed to all the descendants of the Patriarch Saint Abraham.”
Soon after his ordination, Jean-Mohammed was invited by the rector of the Institut Catholique to teach Arabic language and literature, and later, Islamology. Thus began a long academic career, which he undoubtedly loved, and which did not end till he developed cancer of the tongue in 1964. He published a history of Arabic literature, but his main concern during his years at the Institut Catholique was to facilitate dialogue between Muslims and Christians and for this purpose he wrote two books, L’Islam et nous, and Aspects intérieurs de l’Islam. In 1964 he was asked to write something in preparation for the Vatican Council, and he produced Islam at the Time of the Council. A personal high point was a private audience he was granted with Pope Paul VI on May 14, 1966. It was through this connection that he became an advisor for conciliar texts.

All seems to have gone smoothly in Jean-Mohammed’s academic and religious life until a major crisis occurred in 1961, when he suddenly fled to Morocco with his brother Omar. This crisis must be briefly described as it is part of the ongoing conversion process, which has its challenges along the way. Admittedly, he was not in good health at this time and was taking a period of rest at the Franciscan house in Nice. He was also suffering from depression, a condition that afflicted him from time to time. On top of this, the Algerian War of Independence was going through a particularly difficult stage.
These are mitigating circumstances, but the fact remains that he called his brother to come to him without delay, and the two left for Morocco the next day, April 17. He gave no indication to his superiors of what he was doing. Moreover he left his religious habit behind, and this would easily have been interpreted as a clear statement that he had abandoned the religious life. In his case, it would be normal to assume that he had gone back to his native Islam. His brother presumably did not understand the seriousness of the situation, and he undoubtedly assumed that a return to Islam would be good for the restoration of his brother’s health. In fact it was he who eased his return to Morocco after an absence of 35 years. He was also responsible for a newspaper article that announced his ‘homecoming.’ Since Omar Abdeljalil was a government minister, the return of his brother in this manner would have been of great public interest. The article extolled Jean-Mohammed’s great intellectual gifts and achievements and said how good it was that “God had guided him, that he had returned to his religion and declared himself a Muslim.” In fact it seems the King himself, Mohammed V, had given special permission for him to return to his country and take his place at the heart of Muslim society.
How did Jean-Mohammed react to all this, and how did he feel finding himself at last in his beloved homeland (he never took French citizenship) and among his close family? It seems he was at first completely unapproachable. In other words he realised immediately that he had made a big mistake. A Lebanese Jesuit friend tried to contact him in the first two or three days after his arrival through a brief note addressed to Omar, but he was told that at the moment the letter could not even be delivered since he was undergoing a terrible crisis.
A little later the French Islamologist Alfred-Louis de Prémare, who was a direct witness of these events and recounted them in a chapter of his book, Hommages au Père Jacques Jomier op, called at Omar’s house. Since Omar was out, he left a letter for Jean-Mohammed, who later contacted him by telephone. He informed him that he had not changed and that all was well. He was just very tired. He had left France “in an irregular manner,” he said, and as soon as he was better, he intended to return. De Prémare took it upon himself to inform Jean-Mohammed’s superiors of the situation, and in fact his situation was soon regularised.
Jean-Mohammed did not delay his return to France. However according to the superior of the Franciscans in Morocco, who went with him to ease his return to his own community, he was “completely shattered,” worse than he had been when he set off on his ill-fated journey. He had hardly recognised the Morocco of his youth. In addition, he was in a state of “nervous depression,” and had “doubts about the Church, his faith, and even Christianity itself” (“As everybody has” was the revealing comment of the superior of the Franciscans). Moreover, Jean-Mohammed had been aghast when he saw the newspaper article about himself. In France he had been very homesick for Islam and his native country, but once there he felt he was “a hundred times more Christian.”
So what made him do what he did? Undoubtedly ill health and depression were contributory factors, and in this state, after so many years away from his native country, his homesickness must have suddenly become overwhelming. In the final analysis, he could only have done what he did by believing it was right for him to go back to Islam. However, his vocation was to be faithful to both religions, a painful tension he always carried in the depths of his being and at the heart of his prayer life.
On his return to France, he had to spend some time in a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover his health. He said that he was undergoing a “second conversion.” His faithful brother Omar stayed with him for a month.
His final fifteen years were a test of his faithfulness to his conversion. He began by going back to the Institut Catholique in the autumn of 1961 and there prepared his document for the Council Fathers of Vatican ll. They wanted to draw on his expertise to draft Nostra Aetate, the declaration that was to have such profound consequences for the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions, especially Islam and Judaism.
In the autumn of 1964 Jean-Mohammed developed cancer of the tongue. The cancer was cured, but the consequences were such that his former activities were impossible, and he could not eat normally. From this time until his death in 1979, fifteen years later, he lived as a virtual hermit, unable to partake in the daily life of his community. He could only do a limited amount of academic work in his cell , but he did keep in contact with friends through correspondence. The faithful Mlle Marguerite Faguer, the daughter of his former landlady where he lived when he was a student, reports that his suffering was terrible. He could take only liquid food and was almost completely deprived of sleep. He used to go down to the chapel in the middle of the night to say mass.
From what we know, for instance, from his letters to Fr Maurice Borrmans, who visited him regularly, he bore his sufferings valiantly with patience, and even joy. He died on November 24, 1979. At his funeral a fellow Franciscan described him as a sign from God, someone who was free in both traditions, Islam and Christianity. He described him as “a ray of light and holiness that came to us from the Umma, which he never betrayed or offended.”
Finally, how is he remembered in Morocco today? Is he forgiven? A weekly journal in 2011 spoke of him as “a brilliant student who seemed set for an outstanding career, who chose to become a priest, and lived as a martyr, rejected by his own people.” In fact, however, he was given a mission “to explain Islam from a very tolerant angle, which was very rare in those days.”
The article concludes, “We have treated Mohammed Abd-el-Jalil unjustly. We need to ask his forgiveness and restore him to the place he deserves in Moroccan memory” (Zemane, June 2011).

Select bibliography

Charles Molette, La Vérité où je la trouve.   Une conscience d’homme dans la lumière de Maurice Blondel (Paris, Téqui, 1988)

Mulla-Zadé et Abd-el-Jalil: Deux Frères en Conversion du Coran à Jésus: Correspondance  1927-1957, rassemblée, introduite et annotée par Maurice Borrmans (Paris, Les Éditions du Cerf, 2009)

Abd-el-Jalil, Témoin du Coran et de L’Évangile: De La Rupture à La Rencontre (Les Éditions du Cerf, Les Éditions Franciscaines. 2006)

Abd-el-Jalil, L’Islam et Nous (Paris, Les Édtions du Cerf, 1991)

Abd-el-Jalil, Aspects intérieures de l’Islam (Paris, Éditions du Seuil 1949)

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