17 July 2012

The Emir Abd el-Kader: Role Model for Today

Written by 
This is an advertisement for a conference in August of 2010 on "The Emir Abd el-Kader and Spain" on the official website of the city of Oran, the second largest city of Algeria This is an advertisement for a conference in August of 2010 on "The Emir Abd el-Kader and Spain" on the official website of the city of Oran, the second largest city of Algeria http://www.oraninfo.com/El-Emir-Abdelkader-et-l-Espagne

We Americans invaded Iraq in 2003 and then spent much of the next nine years fighting “to win the hearts and minds” of the Iraqi population. Imagine the leader of that insurgency becoming so popular in the US that our president handed him the Medal of Honor, and a town, say, in the UK was named after him. That man would have been the Emir Abd el-Kader.

The French invaded Algeria in 1830, and despite some initial goodwill soon alienated the various constituencies. A Qadiri Sufi master in the west was elected by the local tribes to lead the fight against the French – a task he promptly delegated to his twenty-four year old son, Abd el-Kader. Years later in Damascus, the emir used his Algerian militia to save up to 10,000 Christians from the Druze bent on wiping them out. Oh yes, and thanks to his artful diplomacy, the French were able to build the Suez Canal with the blessings of the Arab leaders.

What is most amazing for us today is that this chivalrous foe of the French became in time a paragon of virtue and honor among European leaders and notables. The French gave him their highest mark of distinction and Abraham Lincoln sent him a gift with thanks for what he had done for the Christians of Syria. The leader of a new settlement in 1846, just north of Dubuque, Iowa, was so taken with the international news about this courageous Arab fighter, that he named their new town ElKader. The Elkader High School class of 1915 made a plaque with the following inscription:


“…Such is the history of the man for whom our town is named. A scholar, a philosopher, a lover of liberty; a champion of his religion, a born leader of men, a great soldier, a capable administrator, a persuasive orator, a chivalrous opponent; the selection was well made, and with those pioneers of seventy years ago, we do honor The Sheik.”


Before digging deeper into the emir’s life, let me reveal to you my two sources – and what triggered my interest in this man. First, I spent nine years in Algeria (1978-1987) and heard a good deal about this great national hero. But more recently I wrote a review of an excellent book for the journal Contemporary Islam (see my very condensed version on the MEE website), Algerians without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society, by historian Allan Christelow. He also presented some intriguing material on the emir’s sons and grandsons – one of the later was very involved with T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame), the British and the French against the Ottomans, but fell out with him in the end. Yet at the same time, one of his cousins was fighting the French in Morocco. History is messy.

The second source I also highly recommend, is John Kiser’s Commander of the Faithful: A Story of True Jihad (2008). In 2002 Kiser had published Monks of Tibhirine: Faith Love and Terror in Algeria (winning the French Siloe Prize for that in 2006). The film Of Gods and Men (1st Prize at the 2010 Cannes Festival) was based on his book. While researching his topic, Kiser was told that a large cliff near the monastery was named after the Emir Abd el-Kader (French spelling – you will also find Abd al-Qadir), the famous nineteenth-century Algerian hero. Kiser then looked into his life, and was hooked.


A brief biography of the emir

The Emir Abd el-Kader (1808-1883) was born into a leading family of a Berber tribe in western Algeria. His father, Muhyi al-Din al-Hasani, was a Sufi Shaykh of the Qadiriya order (founded by Abd al-Qadir Jilani, buried in Baghdad in 1166). Clearly, the father was grooming his gifted son to take his place. Abd el-Kader received the best possible training in the Islamic sciences and philosophy, mathematics and rhetoric, as well as in horsemanship and combat. His father brought him along to make the pilgrimage (Hajj) in 1825; he then introduced him to friends in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, visiting the tombs of at least two famous Sufi saints, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and Ibn Arabi. This trip sparked both his religious fervor and his interest in the reforms that Muhammad Ali was instituting in Egypt.

As mentioned above, two years after the French invasion Abd el-Kader found himself leading a revolt against the French in western Algeria. During the first ten years he met with many victories, using guerilla tactics, his great skills as an orator, and his diplomatic gifts evident in rallying the various Berber and Arab tribes and the network of Jewish businessmen both in Europe and Algeria who fed him valuable information. Also from the start, he was famous for his chivalry. Though the French resorted to torture and the random killing of civilians, Abd el-Kader always treated his prisoners well and at least on one occasion released them, because he was running out of food to feed them.

Yet when the emir realized that the French would stop at nothing to “pacify” the territory and that protracted fighting would only prolong his people’s suffering, he surrendered to the French, with the promise that he would be allowed to go into exile in the east and never set foot in Algeria again. Unfortunately, Napoleon III’s government was overturned by the Second Republic two months later, which promptly walked away from the agreement. In the end, he and his family were detained in 1848 at the chateau d’Amboise in France. Until he was released four years later with a sizable state pension, Abd el-Kader regularly entertained a string of foreign dignitaries from all over Europe. Unsurprisingly, his release was the result of persistent lobbying on the part of French officers, ex-prisoners, intellectuals and Catholic clergy.

He then went to Bursa (today’s Turkey), then three years later to Damascus, which had an important Algerian population. It was there he spent the rest of his life, devoting himself to writing and spiritual direction, informal diplomacy on a variety of fronts and some travel. Yet he kept his word – he never went back to Algeria.

He was a great horseman too, and while in Damascus wrote a book on Arabian horses.

In another vein, the emir wrote a philosophical book in Arabic, which was translated in French with the title, Rappel à l’intelligent. Avis à l’indifferent (“Reminder to the Intelligent. Warning to the Indifferent”). Clearly, he was reaching out to a much wider audience than simply a Mideastern or a North African Muslim one. He seemed more interested in drawing out the implications of the various faiths’ theological convergences – maybe even their ritual similarities.

Perhaps this is why some claim the emir was inducted into the Masons while on a visit to Paris in 1865 (or the year before in Alexandria). Christelow, leaning on a French book on the issue written by a distinguished academic (see this review), cautiously supports this thesis. True, several names of Algerians can be found on the annals of nineteenth-century Freemasonry and four out of his seven sons were Masons. But if you scour the Internet in French, as I did, you will find that this has been fiercely debated over the last decade. More conservative Muslims, understandably, find it impossible to believe that such a great Muslim leader could have joined forces with a secretive sect known for its anti-religious stance (and they would add, “and pro-Zionist”).

What we do know with certainty is that a dispute between the Druze and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon spread to Damascus and that the Druze were intent on killing the Christians. Making use of his own militia he was able to rescue several thousand Maronites, as well as some European diplomats, by sheltering them in his compound and the citadel. This is the act that prompted the French government to decorate him with La Légion d’Honneur and to substantially increase his monthly pension. While visiting Rome, the Pope decorated him. It was on this occasion too that President Abraham Lincoln sent him the gift of two Colts, which are now on display in an Algiers museum.

Abd el-Kader died in 1883 and was buried in Damascus alongside his own spiritual father, the Sufi master and mystical writer Ibn Arabi (d. 1240).


What the emir can teach us

While doing his research on the emir, a Catholic nun in Algeria gave Kiser this quote from one of Abd el-Kader’s spiritual writings. It emphasizes his Sufi outlook, which, because it is so focused on the love of God, easily found affinities with other God seekers, and particularly among the other monotheistic faiths:


“… If you think God is what the different communities believe—the Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, polytheists and others—He is that, but also more. If you think and believe what the prophets, saints and angels profess—He is that, but he is still more. None of his creatures worships him in his entirety. No one is an infidel in all the ways relating to God. No one knows all God’s facets. Each of his creatures worships and knows him in a certain way and is ignorant of Him in others. Error does not exist in this world except in a relative manner.”


Perhaps we could all internalize some of this sense of mystery and awe in our worship of the Godhead – however we conceive of Him. Though I’m not one to believe all spiritual paths lead to the summit of the One Mountain, I also know from experience that I continue to learn important truth from other traditions. Then too, when it comes to final ends, I believe that some humility is in order. “God’s ways are above our ways,” as the prophet Isaiah declared.

So what else can we all learn from the emir? In a day when populations flow in many directions for economic or political reasons and when, more than anything, forces of globalization along with the Internet lead very different people into conversation, we can look back to figures like the Emir Abd el-Kader as pioneers of dialog and promoters of peace and understanding. Happily, there are many such role models for Muslims today. I received notice this morning of the new issue of Arches Quarterly, a publication of the UK-based Cordoba Foundation, which the emir would certainly have supported.

So my point is this: let’s join hands across our cultural, religious and national barriers, in order to meet the pressing challenges of our day. I believe we can do this, as people like Eboo Patel have demonstrated, as convinced Muslims, Jews, Buddhists or Christians. The emir is indeed a good role model for all of us. This Algerian exile crossed numerous borders both literally and metaphorically, pointing people to God, who alone has the power to teach us love and respect for our fellow creatures.