Massignon's name rings familiar to few English speakers but this French scholar of Islam who lived from 1883 to 1962 was perhaps the most influential Western scholar of Islam in this century. His far-reaching impact can be seen not just in today's university classrooms but also in American foreign policy.
Massignon had a most active life for a scholar, as Gude shows in her well-written and judicious biography. It included the excavation of an Iraqi fort, near-execution on a Turkish steamer, a passionate homosexual love affair, military combat in the first world war and a refusal to hand over the keys to a Bordeaux town in the second. Massignon experienced a dramatic conversion from secularism to Catholicism at age 24, ordination as a married Catholic priest at the age of 66, and arrest for political activities at the age of 75. He enjoyed friendships with such figures as Martin Buber, Paul Claudel, Charles de Foucauld, T. E. Lawrence, and François Mauriac.1
Massignon forwarded too many eccentric ideas to found a school of thought or have his views accepted in their totality, but his deeply-held sympathy for Islam had immense influence both among fellow specialists (thanks to his unique scholarly accomplishments) and more broadly among the French intellectual elite (thanks to his long history of political activism). Massignon's writings and organizing won almost no practical victories, but his passionate determination to find common ground for Christians and Muslims has profoundly shaped the way several generations of sophisticated Westerners respond to that faith. Current American policy toward Islam bears the clear impress of his thinking.
1 For the views of an American who fell under his spell, see Herbert Mason, Memoir of a Friend: Louis Massignon (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988).