Charles de Foucauld, Silent witness for Jesus, 'in the face of Islam'

Charles, then, came to Beni Abbes, an Algerian oasis just south of the Atlas mountains and close to the frontier with Morocco. There were gardens, worked by slaves from central Africa, local nomads with property in the oasis and many visiting nomads from further afield, travelling merchants both Muslim and Jewish, and a French military force representing the occupying power. The French soldiers built a small 'hermitage' for Charles (rebuilt, it is still there), near, but deliberately separate from, the main settlement. It was poor and rough, built of mud bricks and palm branches, with a chapel, a small courtyard and six tiny cells.

Did Charles intend to found a poor but basically traditional Christian monastery, a 'Trappe' in miniature, as some have said? True, there are elements of this; but - as Charles makes clear - the basic inspiration was Islamic! As Charles told his friend, Henry de Castries, it was intended to be a 'a zaouia of prayer and hospitality'.20 Charles had been received in such Muslim zaouias while exploring Morocco, especially by a certain Sidi ben Edris, the grandson of the local 'marabout', Sidi ben Daoud, to whom he had revealed, at the risk of his life, his 'Christian' and 'French' identity, a confidence reciprocated by the handing over to Charles of a secret letter to the 'Ambassador of the French Government'.

A zaouia was a Muslim confraternity for ritual worship and hospitality, often at the centre of the religious and socio-political life of the area.21 Drawing on this Moroccan experience, Charles, now again in an Islamic context with the same cultural background, chose to found a similar zaouia:

'a zaouia of prayer and hospitality, from which will radiate such a "piety" as to spread light and warmth to all the country around'.
The finality and the form are clearly the same. But there is an essential difference. For inside the chapel, above the tabernacle with the sacramental 'presence', is a life-size outline drawing of Jesus with outstretched arms and a symbolic heart, done by Charles himself. The living Jesus, hidden in the tabernacle but forcefully expressed to the view of all in the painted drawing, is put at the 'centre' of this 'Christian' zaouia. And the love that Jesus lived is to be the living motivation of its members' relationships with all who come. Charles' dress and title express this same intention. He wears the Muslim gandourah, but with a red heart-and-cross roughly stitched on it. And he was called, with his approval, the 'Christian marabout', marabout 22 being the normal title of the head of a zaouia.