July 2015 Print

The Hermit of the Sahara on Muslims

by Mme Danièle Masson

Charles de Foucauld was a former military officer in Algeria. Later on, after a sudden conversion at the feet of Father Huvelin in Paris, he was ordained priest at the turn of the 20th century. His mind was set on evangelizing those regions he had visited earlier, and he became a hermit dwelling in Western Algeria near Morocco.

An Urgent Need

He committed to paper his intention: “To do the most good that can be done at present for the Muslim populations, so numerous and so abandoned, by bringing into their midst Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament, just as the most Blessed Virgin sanctified John the Baptist by bringing Jesus near to him.”

In 1905 he wrote to Raymond de Blic about the need to convert the Muslims: “The work I’m doing is preparatory. It may be that a few souls of good-will come before the others: all these souls are made for truth, for the true religion, heaven; they all must and consequently can secure their salvation and sanctify themselves. But outside the Catholic religion, especially outside the Christian religion, few souls are not in a habitual state of mortal sin. The three concupiscences—sensuality, pride, avarice—reign as queens in most souls. The outsides of the Muslim world are seductive, as persons with heavy make-up and tawdry finery seem from afar: when you see them up close, they are horrid.”

The same haunting thought comes as a refrain in his writings. In a letter to Father Huvelin, dated 1907, he reproaches the million European inhabitants of Algeria for living utterly separated, and outlines their duties: “...To see in these peoples backward brothers whose education we should undertake and whose mind and character we ought to uplift as high as possible; in short, fulfill toward them our duty as good brothers...”

The Obstacles

He was soon confronted with the drama of slavery. He wrote to a powerful friend, Henri de Castries: “It is woefully shameful that boys who were kidnapped four or five years ago from their families in the Sudan are being kept here by force by their masters while French authorities make themselves complicit in these abductions and rivet the shackles on these unfortunates by allowing it to go on.”

Father de Foucauld himself redeemed slaves, one of whom was a black youth he named Joseph of the Sacred Heart. But he clashed with the government, which in its work of pacifying southern Algeria relied on the support of the Muslim holy men, the marabouts, and the chiefs of the nomadic tribes, who considered the ownership of slaves a right and an asset. Father Foucauld was reduced to silence but let his thoughts be known to his friend again:

“The natives know that we reprove slavery, that we do not allow it in our country, and that we forbid it in Algeria: that is why, seeing that we tolerate it among them, they say: ‘They don’t dare, they are afraid of us,’ and they despise us. And they are right; it is just to despise those who act against their conscience... No human power has the right to rivet the shackles on these unfortunates whom God has created as free as us...”

The Strategy

Despite the multiple obstacles on the road to the Christian faith of the population, not least of which was the French government itself, he mapped out clearly his strategy for conversion. When at the Hoggar in 1904, he wrote to Father Huvelin: “I try with all my might to demonstrate and to prove to these poor wayward brethren that our religion is all love and brotherhood, and that its emblem is a heart.”

He dreams of the evangelization of Morocco. He defines the means: “Alms, hospitality, the redemption and liberation of slaves, and, even more, the offering of the Divine Victim, will conciliate hearts and pave the way to preaching openly. The time for preaching openly will be hastened by the fervor and number of this silent avant-garde.”

He sees in the Tuaregs of South Algeria lukewarm Muslims and a society divided into five distinct castes: nobles, bourgeois (whites), laborers, artisans, and slaves (blacks and mulattoes). Having become the friend of the amenokal Moussa ag Amastane, he outlined for him advice aiming at gently leading him from Islam to Catholicism, among other things.

“Surround yourself with good people. Don’t keep any rotters in your entourage… A man’s first duty is to love God with his whole heart and above all things; the second, to love all men as himself. From this love of neighbor as oneself follows the triple law of brotherhood, equality (imrad), and liberty (slaves). When Adam was hoeing and Eve spinning, where were the nobles? where were the peers? where were the slaves?”

The priestly work must be pioneered by the laymen living among the indigenous tribes: “It is not only by means of material gifts that we should work for the conversion of infidels, but by encouraging the establishment among them of excellent Christians of every rank and station in their capacity as farmers, colonists, merchants, artisans, proprietors, etc., destined to be the precious support of the missionaries, and to attract the infidels to the faith by their example, goodness, and personal contacts, and to constitute the center around which the infidels can regroup one by one as they convert.”

And again, he outlines clearly his agenda to Abbé Caron: “In dealing with the Muslims, who are semi-barbarians, the path is not the same as with idolaters and fetishists, people who are complete savages with a totally inferior religion, or as with the civilized... It seems that with the Muslims, the way to proceed is to civilize them first, to instruct them first, and to make them into people like ourselves; this having been achieved, their conversion will soon follow almost of itself. For Islamism does not stand up to instruction...”

“Whatever the Muslims may be, they are not more difficult to convert than the Romans and the barbarians of the first centuries of Christianity; however much against the Church the government of their country may be, it is not more so than Nero’s and his successors’.” A few months before his death in 1916, he wrote: “If we have not known how to make Frenchmen of these peoples, they will chase us out. The only way they can become French is if they become Catholics.”

The hot question of integration of the races and of those from other civilizations was answered in no uncertain term, and prophetic at that, by the Christian hero. From the evidence of his life and his writings, Charles de Foucauld certainly had no love of Islam itself. His efforts to bring the Tuaregs back to their own Berber culture and to distance them from the Arabic language and the Quran bear witness to this. But he did love Muslims, which is not the same thing. And the reason for this attachment which led to the supreme sacrifice of his life (killed through the betrayal of a servant) is that their souls were capable of knowing the truth in all its plenitude. The way to win them over was not by dialogue or mere philanthropy, but by a profound, lived Catholic faith and by drawing them in gradually, firstly by civilizing them, then instructing them, and finally making them like their instructors.


Translation of “Charles de Foucauld et l’Islam,” from the online Encyclopédie de l’honnête homme, slightly edited for our readers. The references cited in the article come principally from two works: Charles de Foucauld, Lettres et carnets (Ed. du Seuil, 1966); and Marguerite Castillon du Perron, Charles de Foucauld (Ed. Grasset, 1982).