chapter  10
A Muslim convert to Christianity as an Orientalist in Europe – the case of the Moroccan Franciscan Jean-Mohammed Abdeljalil (1904–1979)
ByMehdi Sajid
Pages 24

In 1928, a young Moroccan student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris decided to convert to Christianity, changing his name from Muh˙ammad bin ‘Abd al-Jalīl to Jean-Mohammed Abdeljalil, and dedicating his life to the service of the Catholic Church and the Franciscan fraternity. 1 After being ordained in 1935, Abdeljalil followed his vocation to become a scholar and teacher of Islamic Studies as well as one of the most celebrated experts on Islam within the Catholic Church. Unlike other converts who sometimes engage in violent attacks against their former faith, Abdeljalil avoided any type of polemics that could lead to more hostility and divide between Christians and Muslims. This does not mean, though, that his views on Islam were exempt from criticism. He was in fact very critical of numerous aspects of Islam and its modern developments, but he always endeavored to strike the right note when he expressed his disagreements. During his long academic career, Abdeljalil collaborated closely with many renowned Orientalists. He addressed a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, Islamic spirituality, jurisprudence, Christian–Muslim apologetics, the history of Arabic literature, and Muslim religious everyday life. His work deserves our attention, because it is very likely the only known case in modern history of a Moroccan Muslim convert to Christianity who joined the Franciscan order and became a renowned orientalist as well as one of the main architects of the modern Christian–Muslim dialogue. Furthermore, Abdeljalil’s career as an Orientalist in Europe in the twentieth century is deeply connected to a much broader phenomenon in Western academia that became more and more visible in the postcolonial period, namely the passage of Muslims from objects to subjects in the Western study of Islam. While the presence of scholars with a “Muslim”/ “Oriental” background in the departments of Islamic Studies might seem self-evident for many of us today, this was not necessarily the case a century ago. The Western knowledge production about Islam was long dominated by scholars who did not identify 210with the religion of Islam and its cultures, and whose expertise was often put – sometimes willfully, sometimes not – at the service of colonial interests. It is only in the postcolonial era and as a result of numerous sociopolitical changes in Western and Muslim-majority societies that the presence of scholars with a “Muslim”/ “Oriental” background became more and more “normal.” It is in this context that someone like Abdeljalil, who had to surmount many colonial barriers imposed on him as a French colonial subject of North African Muslim descent, represents a very interesting early example of the increasing involvement of scholars with a “Muslim” / “Oriental” background in the various fields of Islamic Studies in the West. 2