Emir Abdelkader al-Jazairy: A Hero for Humanity, 1808-1883
by John W Kiser, 2016
There are two busts side by side in the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. One is of Henry Dunant, the Swiss Calvinist and humanitarian activist who founded the Red Cross in 1859. The other is Emir Abdelkader, the Algerian warrior, scholar, holy man whose most feared weapon in his struggle against French armies invading North Africa was his humanity. Dunant was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1864. At the time of death in 1883, Abdelkader had won the accolades of the world for his chivalry on the battlefield, restraint, moral courage and humanitarian spirit.
Horrified by witnessing the suffering of twenty thousand unattended wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefield of Solferino in 1859, Dunant became obsessed with the need for countries to develop voluntary relief societies to care for wounded soldiers. While doing business in Algiers, he learned of Emir Abdelkader’s chivalrous conduct on and off the battlefield during his seventeen year struggle against a French occupation that began in 1830. After more investigation, Dunant counted him as one of the inspirational sources of the Geneva Code of Conduct.
The emir, he learned, initiated the first prisoner exchanges with the French, forbade decapitation of French soldiers who were wounded or surrendered on the battlefield. He insisted on respectful treatment of French prisoners, had their wounds treated and gave them the same rations as his own men. By selecting his caliphs for both their moral and fighting qualities, he enforced other rules of Islamic warfare: no mutilation of the dead, no shooting in the face, destroying nature, killing of women, children, old men, or animals (except to eat). Destroying sacred sites, shooting priests and monks were forbidden, all rules of warfare promulgated by Abu Bakr, the first of the “rightly guided” caliphs.
Dunant was not alone. During the mid-19th century, Abdelkader would be admired by people of all social ranks, nationalities and religions: An American lawyer in Dubuque names a settlement in his honor in 1846, today Elkader, Iowa; 1852, an Irish racehorse owner wins Grand National Steeplechase Championship with a small underdog horse named Abdelkader, or Little Ab as his fans called him; former prisoners seek the honor of guarding him during his five years of French imprisonment (1848-52). Pope Pius IX, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, Emir Shamil in Russia sing his praises for protecting Christians in Damascus during the rampage of 1860. On his Damascus death bed in 1883, The New York Times wrote an eight hundred word obituary hailing him as “…one of the few great men of the century.”
Who then was Emir Abdelkader? Algerians sometimes call him their George Washington. At age twenty-five, he became the first Arab leader to organize tribes into a proto-Arab state to resist a French occupation that had began with the sack of Algiers in 1830, a western outpost of a decaying Ottoman Empire. Unlike General Washington, the political seedling Abdelkader created did not bear fruit until 132 years later when Algerians won independence from France.
The emir’s story is about struggle. He struggled against French invaders and Arab tribes that rejected his leadership. He struggled with betrayal, humiliation and depression in France, and finally, struggled to educate Muslims by example, especially by his openness toward others, and not allowing despair, bitterness or revenge to dominate his spirit.
Abd el-Kader means servant of God, for sure a challenging name to wear. Yet, he came as close as any human might to fulfilling his implied calling. Following his rescue of Christians in Damascus during the politically inspired pogrom of 1860, Abdelkader received a letter of gratitude from the French Bishop Pavy in Algiers. The emir wrote back: “That which we did for the Christians we did to be faithful to Islamic Law, and out of respect for human rights…. The law places greatest importance on compassion and mercy and all that preserves social cohesion.” Abdelkader then ended his letter with an observation that is painfully obvious today: “Those who belong to the religion of Mohammad have corrupted it, which is why they are now like lost sheep.” Without coercion, Abdelkader’s life was that of a teacher who taught by example.
An Arab warrior, a Muslim of deep, informed faith, Abdelkader inspired the lives of others with his physical endurance and moral courage, his wide learning, spiritual depth that was capped by his ability to empathize and forgive enemies. From where did these traits come? There were many influences:
- The traditions and teachings of the 11th century saint Abdelkader al-Jilani that inspired his Kaderiyyia Sufi tradition. Al-Jilani taught that Muslims had a duty to pray for the well-being of all people and to hold a place of special respect for Jesus Christ. In this tradition, Jesus is set apart from other prophets by his power of love.
- The teachings and influence of his parents that emphasized the continuous pursuit of knowledge, purity of heart, patience and contempt of material riches.
- His mother who taught that ritual purity is only half the faith, a reminder of the harder half—to purify one’s inner self. To be a true servant of God, one must be free of egotistical desires and violent passions of hatred, anger and revenge.
- His scholarly father who taught him the complexities of interpreting God’s word, the importance of context, the different levels of understanding and different forms of behavior that are also righteous.
- His life as a Bedouin hunter and horseman, which taught patience, endurance, courage and warrior skills.
- Sincere piety and strong moral compass rooted in the teachings of all the prophets (Torah, Psalms, Gospels, Koran).
- A broad education that included, in addition to the Law, math, history, astronomy, Greek philosophy, plant pharmacology, art of rhetoric and recitation of the Koran.
- His exposure to the larger world, thanks to his father who took him on a haj at age twenty-four that took him to Tunis, Cairo, Damascus and exposure to the world’s diversity.
Abdelkader believed the pursuit of knowledge to be the highest good and the ultimate purpose in life. He distinguished, however, between knowledge of worldly things, which he likened to pools of rainwater that come and go, and knowledge of the divine within, which is like an everlasting spring.
The most important form of knowledge is political knowledge because it affects how people live together. Man is a social animal. He needs to cooperate to survive. No knowledge is more important than that needed for living in the community and guiding human behavior justly. Such justice requires access to higher wisdom, transmitted via the prophets who are only vessels for mediating God’s wisdom. Nor is there any contradiction between the different prophets. They all subscribe to the fundamental moral rule: Be just. Do not let hatred turn you away from justice. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All have a common message—glorify God and show compassion for His creatures.
At least three elements of his character make Abdelkader a worthy heroic role model in today’s diverse and shrinking world:
He was “local” and “universal” at the same time. He was deeply and authentically Muslim. He had no identity crisis, yet he also grew spiritually, especially during French imprisonment, when he experienced the goodness of Christians and non-believers alike. His religion wasn’t a safety belt holding his identity together, but a platform for probing the meaning of God’s creation. His religious identity made him bigger, not smaller.
He was a unifier not a divider. The plurality of beliefs was simply a reflection of the infinite nature of God and the inexhaustible ways to praise God. He saw no conflict between politics, religion and science. Politics should be governed by a desire to lead people to live together in harmony, religion should provide a common moral base of shared values and common origin, and science will teach us to grasp the basic unity of mankind.
Last, Abdelkader’s life was guided by his sense of obedience to Divine Law, combining knowledge and virtue. His virtues were once known in the Christian world as The Cardinal Virtues: strong intellect, moral courage, justice and self restraint. Without cultivating these qualities in our youth and in our leaders, there will be little moral progress in the world.
Muslims throughout the world today are struggling for the soul of their faith. The Islam that was once on the forefront of intellectual achievement in the world was, like the emir, an Islam that sought knowledge and understanding wherever it could be found. There was no such thing as a pure Islam which some Islamists today seek, just as there is no pure Christianity. The struggle today is over role models for young Muslims…. And for that matter, youth everywhere.