Why a 19th Century Muslim Warrior is a Man for Our Times

Note: For more from John Kiser, visit the Patheos Book Club.

In 1808, a child of destiny was born in the Ottoman province of Oran, today western Algeria. His tribe, the Hachem, was dedicated to the study of the Koran, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and settling disputes. In the decades that followed, his name would be given to a settlement in Iowa, to a ship built in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and to a champion racehorse in Ireland. William Thackery would dedicate poetry to him. Abd el-Kader's name would be placed on the presidential ballot by citizens of Bordeaux while he was still a prisoner or the French government. President Lincoln would honor him and so would the New York Times. A victim of historical amnesia in the West following his death in 1883, the story of Abd el-Kader's rise to world fame offers lessons for today.

During the mid-nineteenth century, Abd el-Kader was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and to Mecca—first as a chivalrous adversary of the French after they invaded North Africa in 1830, later as a stoic prisoner who forced France to honor its pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after surrendering in 1847. Exiled in Damascus, he protected thousands of Christians during a Turkish-inspired pogrom. President Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, French generals and former prisoners sang his praises. 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."

For Muslims, Abd el-Kader reminds them that true jihad, or "holy exertion," lies not in the zeal of bitterness to fight whatever the cost, but in living righteously in accordance with Divine Law. During a life of struggle with foreign occupation, despair in prison and exile in a foreign land, he never allowed the demons of hatred and revenge to trump compassion and forgiveness. His story is timely. It is one of struggle, of restraint and self-control harnessed to Divine law, as one might expect from a man whose name means "servant of God."

Abd el-Kader waged war according to Koranic rules of conduct. These prohibit the destruction of nature, shooting 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 custom of desert warfare of decapitating prisoners taken on the battlefield. Prisoners were an unwanted burden, and the distribution of plunder was determined by the number of enemy heads taken. To counter the protests from his soldiers, the emir offered bounty payments for prisoners brought in unharmed, but for those guilty of mistreating prisoners, his "reward" was 25 strokes with a cane on the soles of their feet.

Exhausted after fifteen years of sacrifice and suffering in the face of superior French military power, Abd el-Kader persuaded his die-hard lieutenants to lay down their arms in what had become a futile armed resistance. The Koran forbids vain and useless suffering and no one could accuse the emir of not giving his all for the cause of God. His offer of a truce surprised French generals and enabled the emir to extract from them a promise of free passage to the Middle East to live in permanent exile. A month later the monarchy fell and a new republican government renounced the agreement.

The emir insisted the new government honor the word of its generals. The War Ministry tried bribing the emir to remain in France as an honorary citizen ,where he and his extended family could enjoy the blessings of it "higher" civilization. Untempted by offers of riches, he was willing to die in French prisons if that was necessary to shame France into honoring its agreement. Abe el-Kader's piety, intellectual curiosity, stoicism, and willingness to address himself to the higher instincts of the French, won him admirers among generals, former prisoners, clerics, poets, politicians and even English nobility. In October 1852, a sympathetic President Louis-Napoleon liberated the emir who had lost twenty-five members of his extended family to pneumonia, tuberculosis and depression.

Eight years later, when a Druze mob in Damascus demanded he turn over the Christians under his protection, the 52 year-old warrior threatened to teach them a lesson in Islamic morality and in making elementary distinctions. He reminded them of the Koranic verse that condemns the killing of innocents (whoever kills man who has never committed murder or created disorder in the land will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity). The Christians he had once killed had invaded his country. Those in Damascus were not his enemies.

Warfare, betrayal, imprisonment and the shame of having made his family victims of false promises might have given the emir good reason to have been bitter toward his enemies and to have held a grudge against all Christians. Yet, he nursed neither hatred nor a desire for revenge. Instead, he learned much from his experience in French Chateaux-prisons and valued the sympathetic admirers in France who tried to make his life easier. His lifelong jihad to keep destructive passions under control was a jihad Muslims and non-Muslims alike could benefit from emulating.

9/1/2011 4:00:00 AM
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