Decency… A Timeless Religion
by John Kiser
Since religion seems to be on the chopping block these days, here’s a story.
A few years ago I received an email from Sayyid Mohammad Syeed, president of the Islamic Society of North America. “March on Christian Soldier. We Muslims will follow you anywhere.” I chuckled. Never before had I been called a “Christian.”
His meaning was not clear at first, but I accepted his exhortation as praise. My book Commander of the Faithful: The Life &Times of Emir Abd el-Kader had been generously praised throughout the Muslim world following its 2008 launch in Iowa. Why Iowa? It was there in 1846 that a local lawyer, Timothy Davis, named a new settlement in the emir’s honor.
Why? Davis no doubt related to the David vs Goliath nature of the emir’s struggle with French colonization in what is today’s Algeria. For fifteen years Abd el-Kader had fought honorably, negotiated skillfully and displayed unprecedented battlefield ethics. Perhaps Syeed was simply saying “thank you” for a story that demonstrated the good, the bad and ugly on both sides, yet captured the faith-based wellspring of Abd el-Kader’s life that ultimately won recognition from President Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, Queen Victoria, the American Masons, and millions of others from Missouri to Moscow to Mecca.
Three years after the book’s publication I spoke at the University of Lyons in France, but was asked first to meet with the local imam. He wanted to know why I was interested in Abd el-Kader. I answered by reciting a favorite passage from his writings: “Each of His creatures worships and knows Him in certain ways and is ignorant of Him in others. No one of His creatures knows God in his entirety. There is no error in this world except in a relative manner.” I liked his thinking. It was rational, humble, inclusive. “You are a Sufi,” he exclaimed. So now I am a Sufi as well as a Christian. I understood. The two Muslim leaders were saying the same thing: It’s the mind, attitude and behavior that matters. We don’t care what your label says. We like you.
These encounters reminded me of a conversation years ago during a hiking expedition in Utah. Nature being a church offering infinite paths of worship, our conversations often touched the Big Beyond. The CFO of a large hospital had a good take on the unknown. If there is a God, he’s only asking one question: How’d you treat your fellow human beings and the rest of my creation? About that time, my business took me to godless Eastern Europe where I met a Czech chemist, Otto Wichterle, who had invented soft contact lens technology. “My religion is decency,” was all he had to say on the subject.
Then there was Reverend Jack Crocker, my headmaster at Groton School way back in the pre-coed era. Speaking to our graduating class about the purpose of a Groton education, he made it simple: To produce a decent fellow.
In 2019, thanks to the growing audience in the Muslim world (especially Pakistan), I was invited to be a featured speaker at ISNA’s three day conclave in Houston. Sayyid Syeed asked me to talk about Abd el-Kader’s model of leadership in war and peace. It was a model rooted in the 11th century traditions of Abd el-Kader al-Jilani (now in Iran), and demanded the humane treatment of prisoners taken on the battlefield. The Emir’s code of ethics set new standards, becoming a pillar in the not yet formulated Geneva Convention promoted by a Swiss businessman, Henri Dunant.
Today, in the foyer of the International Red Cross, there are two busts. One is the Calvinist Dunant and the other is Emir Abd el-Kader. Both were very decent fellows.