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Why a Book About an Obscure Arab Hero?
Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
History, according to the truism, is written by the victors. Yet, it was the French victors who paid homage to the moral, intellectual and spiritual qualities that made Abd el- Kader a widely recognized " great man" of the mid 19th century. Emir Abd el-Kader inspired respect from Missouri to Moscow. His story is about many things, but ultimately it is about struggle: struggle against French invaders, struggle with Arabs who rejected his leadership, struggle with depression and despair in French prisons, struggle to live as a good Muslim.
Today, he would be dismissed by many in the West as a "fundamentalist"-- a label signifying to the secularist a retrograde, narrow-minded, extremist. He was indeed a fundamentalist in this sense: To be rightly guided meant only one thing for him-to do God's will according to the teaching of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. He was also a man of great intellectual curiosity, marked by Greek thought, who squared his faith with a deep humanity and a progressive belief in the value of knowledge to improve lives. For him there was no contradiction between faith and reason, or between a rigid orthodoxy and acknowledging the diversity of God's ways. Nor was there a contradiction between being a puritanical, Law-abiding Muslim and a compassionate humanitarian who respected the accomplishments of European culture.
Abd el-Kader's story is part of a larger one of European arrogance and greed masquerading as a "civilizing" force. Abd el-Kader's resistance to French imperialism and France's belief in its own virtue and the superiority of its civilization has many parallels with America's efforts to democratize the Arab world today. America failed once before to learn from France's experience. Then it was Vietnam; today, the Arab world. The story of France's poisonous struggle in Algeria offers guidance for Americans today. Abd el-Kader's mixture of strict orthodoxy, spirit of inquiry, rigorous self discipline and compassionate humanity is a warning to those who think in stereotypes.
Read the Introduction to Commander of the Faithful here.
Did You Know?
- In 1846, a village in the Missouri Territory was named after the Emir. Today it's known as Elkader, Iowa.
- The emir's regulations for the treatment of his prisoners were a Koranically correct forerunner of the Geneva Convention.
- Citizens of Bordeaux put Abd el-Kader's name on the ballot as a candidate in the French presidential elections of 1849.
- A horse named Abd el Kader (called 'Little Ab' by the racing public) was twice winner of the British Grand National Steeple Chase.
- "Allowing for certain exceptions of a theological nature, there is no Christian virtue that Abd el-Kader does not practice to the highest degree," wrote Dominican Sister Natalie who cared for the emir's family in prison.
- The emir's most influential biographer was a descendent of the Duke of Marlborough, Col. Charles Henry Churchill, British military attaché in Lebanon.
- The Suez Canal would not have been built in 1869 without Abd el- Kader's influence among the Arabs, and support for the French project.
- President Lincoln honored Abd el-Kader as a great humanitarian for saving thousands of Christian lives in 1860.