With radical Islam once again dominating the news, this time in France, it is important more than ever to know about the Islam of a great human being who was a Muslim and an Arab: Emir Abd el-Kader al Jazairy, the 19th-century military leader, peacemaker, reconciler, holy man, philosopher and statesman whose conduct, on and off the battlefield, remains an ever more relevant model of courage, compassion and chivalry.
Abd el-Kader was born in 1808 in the Ottoman province of Oran, today’s western Algeria. His tribe, the Hachem, was dedicated to the study of the Koran, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed and the settlement of disputes among the tribes. In the decades that followed, Abd el-Kader became admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and Mecca, not as a scholar but as a chivalrous David who united tribes under his leadership to resist the French Goliath who invaded Algiers in 1830. Algerians consider him to be their George Washington.
Like his contemporary, Robert E. Lee, he also knew when further resistance was a futile waste of life. Yet he won honor in France as an uncompromisingly stoic prisoner who forced its government to keep a pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after he surrendered voluntarily in 1847.
During these years Abd el-Kader’s name would be given to a settlement in the Midwest (today Elkader, Iowa), to a champion race horse (Little Ab) in Ireland and a ship built in Newburyport, Mass. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised him as a model of reconciliation, Britain’s William Thackeray would dedicate poetry to him and his name would be placed on the presidential ballot by citizens of Bordeaux even as he remained a prisoner of the French government.
Liberated by Napoleon III in 1852 and living in Damascus under a benevolent French patronage, Abd el-Kader protected thousands of Christians during a Turkish-inspired pogrom intended to punish them for not paying the head tax. Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln were among the many heads of state to honor the emir’s humanitarian intervention. Upon his death in 1883, the New York Times eulogized, “. . . The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world. . . . He was one of the few great men of the century.”
His life reminds Muslims that true jihad, or “holy exertion,” lies not in the zeal of bitterness to fight at whatever the cost, but in living righteously in accordance with Divine Law.
Unlike ISIS and al-Qaeda, Abd el-Kader treated his French prisoners respectfully, according to Islamic rules of warfare. These prohibit the destruction of nature, shooting someone in the face, mutilation of dead bodies, killing of women and children, priests and monks, rape and the mistreatment of prisoners. The emir ended the centuries-old desert custom of decapitating prisoners after they surrender. Accustomed to having the plunder distributed according their enemy headcount, the emir countered the angry protests of his soldiers by offering bounty payments for prisoners brought in unharmed. A soldier guilty of mistreating prisoners received a “reward” of 25 strokes with a cane on the soles of his feet.
During a life of struggle against French occupation, despair in prison and exile in foreign land, he never allowed the demons of hatred and revenge to trump compassion and forgiveness. The emir’s life story offers an alternative narrative about Islam, one that has been embraced by mainstream scholars today from New York to London, Lebanon and Turkey to Pakistan and Malaysia.
One of them is Mohammad Amar Khan Nasir, the editor of the Pakistani monthly Al-Sharia. He summarized for me the emir’s importance to the Muslim world today:
“First, he never was overwhelmed by the blind zeal to fight at all costs and was capable of making wise judgments. Secondly, he is strictly guided in his decisions by the legal limitations and moral obligations of Divine Law — he knows when it is permissible to kill Christians and when to risk his own life to save them. Thirdly, despite his political animosity toward France, he is not blind to what is common between their religion and his own . . . . And finally, he can put himself in his adversaries’ shoes and look into complexities of the situation and understand the factors that make them follow a certain course. Abd el-Kader is not only a symbol of resistance and struggle against foreign domination, but the embodiment of true theological, moral and rational ideas taught by Islam.”
In other words, the emir possessed four qualities of greatness — self-control, duty to higher law, recognition of commonality amidst difference and an unusual ability to empathize with his adversaries, all qualities in short supply throughout today’s world. His life was based on the Golden Rule, as one might expect from a man whose name means “servant of God,” and he lived it according God’s will — as revealed in the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran, the holy book which the emir called the final brick in God’s house, uniting the wisdom of Moses with the wisdom and goodness of Jesus Christ.
Warfare, betrayal, imprisonment and the shame of having made his family victims of empty French promises might have given the emir good reason to have been bitter toward his enemies. Yet he nursed neither hatred nor desire for revenge. Instead, as a prisoner in France, he learned to appreciate French technical expertise and especially the loving attention given his sick family members by the Dominican nuns, and the sympathetic admirers in France who tried to make his life easier while in prison. His lifelong jihad — to keep destructive passions under control — was a jihad that Muslims and non-Muslims alike could benefit from emulating.
Abd el-Kader’s monk-like life reminds us of some of the loftier spirits of our European heritage: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he doesn’t need, of Antoine Saint-Exupery’s famous line in his fanciful children’s story, “The Little Prince”: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not exactly slogans for a society which has become a frenetic treadmill of living beyond one’s means to acquire “things.”
The emir would be horrified by what is being done today in the name of Islam, just as he was in 1861, when he rescued Christians from death at the hands of an ignorant mob. Is the emir an exception? On one level, yes. Yet, though his large-scale intervention (with his sons and followers) made international news because of his celebrity status, many local Muslims living in the mixed neighborhoods also sheltered Christians. In Paris last week, one of the Jewish butchers was protected by a Muslim and one of the policemen killed was also a Muslim.
As I am now introducing the emir to officers at Marine Corps University War College in a class I will be teaching this winter, I leave the last word to the commandant of the Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq: Gen. James Conway: “One of the things Western nations can and must ensure is that this Long War does not somehow evolve into a cultural war between Muslims and Christianity,” he wrote. “Of course the extremists would like nothing better.”
The commandant and the emir were cut from the same cloth. So long as the majority of Muslims and non-Muslims can think clearly, make elementary distinctions and avoid the wholesale labeling of groups that comes with the steady drip of one-sided news, there can be hope that the commandant’s fears will not come true.
John W. Kiser is the author of “Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Abd el-Kader” (Monkfish Book Publishing, 2008) and “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith Love and Terror in Algeria” (St. Martins Press, 2002) and other nonfiction works. For more, see abdelkaderproject.org.