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Jean-Louis Michon’s life and work
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Jean-Louis Michon
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Biography of Jean-Louis Michon

Jean-Louis Michon (1924-2013) was a French traditionalist writer, editor, translator, Arabist, and artistic consultant who specialized in Islam in North Africa, Islamic art, and Sufism. He was associated with both René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, and lived and worked in several countries both as a teacher and as a consultant on the reestablishment of traditional arts and crafts, including architecture.

Following his high school and initial university studies, Michon’s early interest in comparative religion and Islam took him to Damascus, Syria, where he taught high school from 1946 to 1949. While there, he studied Arabic and immersed himself in the beauty and harmony of Islamic civilization. Once back in Europe, he obtained a degree in architectural drafting in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1952. Around this time he began a long association with eminent thinkers of the school of “perennial philosophy”, such as Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt.

After marriage and the birth of a daughter, he began a career with a variety of United Nations agencies, first as a freelance editor and translator and finally, over a period of fifteen years (1957-1972), as a permanent senior translator for the World Health Organization in Geneva. These assignments gave him the chance to visit many countries, a number of which belong to dār al-islām (“the world of Islam”).

It was also during this period that Michon obtained a PhD in Islamic studies at Paris University (Sorbonne). His thesis was on the life and works of a scholar and spiritual guide of great renown from the north of Morocco, Shaykh Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajībah al-Hasanī (1747-1809), whose Autobiography (Fahrasa) and Glossary of Technical Terms of Sufism (Mi‘raj al-tashawwuf ilā haqā’iq al-tasawwuf) Michon translated from Arabic into French (1982; 1974 and 1990). Michon’s French translation of the Fahrasa of Ibn ‘Ajībah has been translated into English by David Streight (1999).

From 1972 to 1980, Dr. Michon was Chief Technical Adviser to a series of joint programs of UNESCO, the UN Development Program, and the Moroccan government, to be carried out in Morocco. These programs were for the preservation of traditional arts and crafts, and included the establishment of a broad survey of cultural property, covering inventories of national monuments and sites, museum holdings, and folk arts and traditions. His mission coincided in time with one entrusted to Titus Burckhardt for the preservation of the old city of Fez, which explains why Michon was invited by the Temenos Academy to share with the public both his personal memories and some documentation as a tribute to Burckhardt’s unique personality and long and close relationship with Morocco.

After retiring from the UN civil service in 1980, Dr. Michon continued translating, including a French version of Martin Lings’ book Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, and a French rendering of the Koran (see www.altafsir.com).

He continued to consult on projects related to the preservation of Islamic cultural heritage. Dr. Michon regularly participated in international conferences and symposia, and over the years gave many lectures on subjects connected to the value of art as a means of communication between people who belong to different cultures, as well as on the necessity of protecting traditional arts and crafts everywhere in the world.

In addition to all these studies and activities, Dr. Michon also continued to work out in the field: in Morocco, on a UNESCO project for the creation of a school of traditional arts and crafts in Fez, on the preparation and publication of the Directory of Moroccan Handicrafts, on the creation of CERKAS (Center for the Rehabilitation of Southern Kasbas) in Ouarzazate, and on proposals for the rehabilitation of Ksar Aït Ben Haddou (entered on the World Heritage List in 1986); in Oman, on the restoration of the citadel of Bahla; in Bahrain, on the inventory of historical sites; and in Uzbekistan, on the evaluation of the state of conservation of historical sites in Itchan Kala, Bukhara, Samarkand, and Shahrisabz.

Adapted from Jean-Louis Michon, Introduction to Traditional Islam, Illustrated: Foundations, Art, and Spirituality (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), p. 155.


Books/DVDs containing the work of Jean-Louis Michon

Dr. Michon's World Wisdom books:

Dr. Michon's Prefaces, etc.

  • The “Preface” in Art of Islam, Language and Meaning
    • Winner National Best Books 2010 Award for “Art: General”
    • Gold Midwest Book Award for “Religion/Philosophy/Inspiration”
    • Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award Finalist for “Art”
    • Silver Midwest Book Award for “Illustration”
  • The “Introduction” in Sufism: Love and Wisdom

Dr. Michon's essays in World Wisdom books:


Jean-Louis Michon’s Writings Online
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Selections from The Message of Islamic ArtIntroduction to Traditional Islam: Foundations, Art and SpiritualityMichon, Jean-Louis Art, Islam
The Vocation of Man According to the KoranEvery Branch in Me: Essay on the Meaning of ManMichon, Jean-Louis Islam
 2 entries (Displaying results 1 - 2) View : Jump to: Page: of 1 pages
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Jean-Louis Michon Film Clips film clip holdings: 6

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Clip Title: Enduring Legacy of Martin Lings
Summary: Dr. Jean-Louis Michon expresses how the "wisdom and presence" of Martin Lings (Shaykh Abu Bakr) will remain with those who knew him. He goes on to say that the books of Martin Lings represent a "reservoir of energy" and a "precious treasure" for readers who never met him.
Total Running Time - 44 seconds
Low Res File Size - 2.3M
High Res File Size - 4M

 Film Clips with Jean-Louis Michon (6)
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Guénon and Lings
Jean-Louis Michon recalls how Martin Lings introduced him to René Guénon (Shaykh Abdul Wahid) in 1947 in Cairo. Dr. Michon also recalls the beautiful surroundings of the little village near the pyramids in Giza where Lings lived at that time and goes on to discuss the Lings' role as a private secretary for Guénon.
Total Running Time - 45 seconds
Low Res File Size - 2.3M
High Res File Size - 4.1M
Lings' Book on Prophet Muhammad
Dr. Jean-Louis Michon praises Martin Lings’ most popular book, "Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources," including its significant contribution to Western studies on the life of the Prophet.
Total Running Time - 25 seconds
Low Res File Size - 1.3M
High Res File Size - 2.3M
Enduring Legacy of Martin Lings
Dr. Jean-Louis Michon expresses how the "wisdom and presence" of Martin Lings (Shaykh Abu Bakr) will remain with those who knew him. He goes on to say that the books of Martin Lings represent a "reservoir of energy" and a "precious treasure" for readers who never met him.
Total Running Time - 44 seconds
Low Res File Size - 2.3M
High Res File Size - 4M
René Guénon
Jean-Louis Michon, a personal friend of René Guénon, tells the story of Guénon’s upbringing and early intellectual and spiritual formation.
Total Running Time - 6 minutes 42 seconds
Low Res File Size - 20.3M
High Res File Size - 36.1M
Meeting René Guénon
Jean-Louis Michon recounts his 1st encounter with Guénon and the events that led to meeting Guénon in Cairo in the 1940s with the help of Martin Lings.
Total Running Time - 5 minutes 05 seconds
Low Res File Size - 15.5M
High Res File Size - 27.3M


Quotes on Jean-Louis Michon

“[Autobiography (Fahrasa) of a Moroccan Sufi: Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba (1747-1809)] is a major addition to the literature of Sufism in the English language.”
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of The Heart of Islam

“This lengthy and fascinating book [Autobiography (Fahrasa) of a Moroccan Sufi: Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba (1747-1809)] is a rare example of the genre of autobiography in Islamic literature.”
William C. Chittick, author of The Sufi Doctrine of Rumi

“Occasionally, a book comes along that presents one of the great religious traditions in a new and fascinating way, and this is just such a book. Dr. Michon is uniquely qualified to convey to us the traditional view of Islam, and he does it with great precision and warmth. Given the pressing need for the West to understand Islam in all its dimensions, Introduction to Traditional Islam is an excellent and most welcome book for our times.”
Michael Fitzgerald, editor of The Universal Spirit of Islam

“It is difficult to imagine a time when the West has been more in need of a good personal guide to the world of Islam…. Readers of Introduction to Traditional Islam certainly have such a guide in Jean-Louis Michon.”
Roger Gaetani, co-editor of Sufism: Love & Wisdom


Articles on Jean-Louis Michon
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
Foreword to Introduction to Traditional IslamIntroduction to Traditional Islam: Foundations, Art and SpiritualityGaetani, Roger Islam
 1 entries (Displaying results 1 - 1) View : Jump to: Page: of 1 pages
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Jean-Louis Michon’s Bibliography

Books

The Autobiography (Fahrasa) of a Moroccan Sufi: Ahmad Ibn ‘Ajiba (1747-1809). Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999.

Sufism: Love and Wisdom, edited by Jean-Louis Michon and Roger Gaetani. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2006.

Introduction to Traditional Islam, Illustrated: Foundations, Art, and Spirituality. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008.


Excerpts from Jean-Louis Michon’s writing

The following excerpt is the “Preface” to the late Dr. Jean-Louis Michon’s illustrated book
Introduction to Traditional Islam: Foundations, Art, and Spirituality

More often than not a civilization will be pieced together starting from the material traces it has left. This is the way the archaeologists work when, their interest aroused by vestiges whose meaning remains partly obscure, they try to reconstitute the context in which objects that have been found assume their real importance. In the case of Islam, such traces abound, and many a traveler has been fascinated by them, from Marco Polo to Orientalist painters of the romantic and colonial periods,and modern tourists: auditive and visual traces, human encounters of a particular quality,ranging from the call to prayer of the muezzin heard at the first dawn spent in a Muslim land to the serene geometry of arabesques, and the warm and dignified welcome given by the artisan in his shop or the Bedouin in his tent.

It is not through such external signs, however, that I and others of my generation, who were students during the Second World War and had nothing but books by which to discover the world, became acquainted with Islam. We had to follow a very different course, starting from the inside, and it was through philosophers and mystics that Islam was revealed to us. From the outside, all what we had previously perceived about Islam had been forbidding, with a few strong images inherited from our “lay and compulsory” education: Roland at Roncevaux, Charles Martel at Poitiers, the Barbaresques, the conquest of Algeria and the “revolt” of Abdelkader, the only human impressions being those received during our provincial childhood, reduced to the chance encounters, all distances being carefully observed, with the “sidi” vendor of balloons and carpets.

In spite of what lay between us in the way of social and ideological prejudices, however, Islam brought an answer to our queries. This occurred at a crucial moment in contemporary history when, for many, the tragedy of the planetary conflict raised a new question about a number of acquired beliefs and values, such as the paternal ideals of social success, of the sovereign motherland — “State, what crimes have been committed in thy name!” — , and even those of a certain Christian moralism reduced to interdicts that had never been properly explained or justified. We felt an urge to find a raison d’être beyond these upheavals, to restructure a world that was on the verge of dislocation.

Already at that time, in the mid-forties, a few providentially gifted interpreters, such as René Guénon and other contributors to the journal Études traditionnelles, including Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt, had given the public access to the “lights of Islam” and other expressions of the Universal Tradition, the Religio perennis or, for Hindus, sanātana dharma, “The Eternal Law”: through their writings,their clear expositions of Vedanta, metaphysics, and the existential monism of Islam, we acquired a certitude that there is a Supreme Principle, a non-manifest Absolute from which all manifestation, all creation derives without assuming a separate, independent existence. We also came to recognize degrees in this manifestation, each with its own rank and features. Once this need for causality had been satisfied,some of us felt eager to embark on what Lanza del Vasto had called in a contemporary narrative “the pilgrimage to the sources”.

In 1946 I moved to Damascus where I stayed for three years, immersing myself in the Islamic culture as deeply as was compatible, without creating too much scandal, with my teaching position at the Lycée Franco-Arabe. I sought the company of students and teachers of religious science, took lessons in Koranic recitation and the Oriental lute, scoured the alleys of the old city and the slopes of Jabal Qāsiūn to visit sanctuaries and meet with saintly persons. Years later, I visited other parts of the Muslim world, from Morocco to India and the “Moros” communities of Mindanao, without ever feeling during these journeys that I was trespassing on foreign soil. It was as if the very first approach, based on ratiocination, had provided a key which, at the right moment, opened the doors of the “concrete” Islam with its faithful, its rites, its social etiquette, its art and craft productions; and as if no dichotomy had ever existed between the two paths that gave access to the world of Islam: the path of written teachings and the progression on the roads of the Orient.

It is the results of this double quest that I have attempted to assemble here, repeating by necessity a number of notions that are already familiar to readers conversant with Orientalist works, but hoping that these notions, cemented by a life’s experience, will have acquired the backing of some persuasive evidence.

At a time when Islam often occupies the front pages of newspapers and when its image, bound up with political and other interests, is distorted, or even caricatured, by its detractors as well as by blinded zealots, I felt it might be worthwhile to evoke its original and lasting features, those which belong to a true civilization, construed to remind man of his mission as a caliph, or lieutenant of God on earth, and to help him fulfill this mission while actualizing the fulfillment of his noblest qualities.



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