E1: Who was Emir AbdelKader, the hero of humanity?

In the heart of Middle America, in the northeast corner of the State of Iowa, there’s a small town, a town so tiny it doesn’t even have a traffic light.

In 1846, Timothy Davis founded that settlement, and named it Elkader, after an Algerian Sufi whose exploits had taken the Western world by storm.

What might possess a midwestern American of the 19th century to name his town after a North African Muslim sheikh?

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In the heart of Middle America, in the northeast corner of the State of Iowa, there’s a small town, a town so tiny it doesn’t even have a traffic light.

In 1846, Timothy Davis founded that settlement, and named it Elkader, after an Algerian Sufi whose exploits had taken the Western world by storm.

What might possess a midwestern American of the 19th century to name his town after a North African Muslim sheikh?

I’m Muddassar Ahmed from Toledo Society, and I’m excited to welcome you to the first episode of a 3-part series, ‘Who Was Emir Abdel-Kader, the Hero of Humanity?’


People might have asked you: ‘If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be?’ Well, I know my answer. It’s The Emir, Abdel-Kader. Emir means ‘Commander of the Faithful.’ It’s a title Abdel-Kader certainly earned.

Because that’s what he was. A Commander. But not just that.

Emir Abdel-Kader was an extraordinary human being who led a phenomenal life, who grew from being an ordinary Algerian Sufi to a world-historical figure with a legacy that stretches across four continents.

I first stumbled upon Abdel-Kader’s legend by listening to a popular song, fittingly enough called ‘Abdel Kader,’ by the famous Algerian Rai singer Cheb Khaled, who also sang the very well-known song ‘Aisha’.

I started out curious, just wondering who the lyrics celebrated, and quickly became fascinated.

Indeed, when Abdel-Kader died, in 1883, the New York Times surveyed the remarkable achievements of his life and wrote that he should be counted one of the few great men of that century.

Abdel-Kader’s one of the most interesting people in history, and yet so few people know about him. How did Abdel-Kader become who he was? Why did Abdel-Kader become who he was?

And how did he end up with a town named after him in Iowa?

Here’s what I learned.

At a time of rampant Islamophobic colonialism, Abdel-Kader profoundly changed how much of the Western world, and many Western leaders, thought about Muslims.

He was an interfaith leader when the world was being divided by wars of religion.

Through his laws of war, he helped inspire the Geneva Convention. In fact, his statue is one of two at the headquarters of the International Red Cross in Geneva.

His life was marked by adventure, courage, resilience, compassion—and, above all else, faith in God and dedication to humanity.

Abdel-Kader was born in 1808, in the town of Mascara, in what is today Algeria and what was then the westernmost frontier of the declining Ottoman Empire.

He came of age in his father’s zawiya, which is kind of like a Sufi lodge.

Like other students in the lodge, he was educated traditionally. Theology, Shariah, Arabic language, and grammar.

By the age of 5, Abdel-Kader could read and write. By the age of 14, he had memorized the Qur’an, earning the title of ‘Hafiz,’ or Protector of Scripture.

A year later, Abdel-Kader went on to advanced study, and was praised for his excellent oratory, his way with poetry, his skill in debating.

So he was, by the standards of then and now, a pretty smart guy. But maybe not so different from other smart guys of his time. But he was destined for greater things, because, in the distance, a storm was brewing.

Europe was rising, and the colonial project was scrambling to plunder Africa. The French looked south across the Mediterranean, and saw a valuable prize in Algeria.

In 1830, the French invaded.

Despite valiant resistance under Hussein Dey, the Ottomans faltered, and Algeria was conquered. Desperately, the local population searched for a champion to expel the invaders.

Abdel Kader would be that hero.

Just two years later, his people elected him Emir, or Commander of the Faithful, and only a year after that, Abdel-Kader had succeeded in uniting the warring tribes of the region, bringing solidarity in a land that had been insecure and unstable.

In 1834, Abdel-Kader’s forces and the French signed the Treaty of Desmichels, which further cemented his reputation as a leader of his people.

Not only was Abdel-Kader a military Commander, though, he’s actually a thoroughly decent man.

His impeccable character meant even his enemies spoke highly of him. It was said that “the generous concern, the tender sympathy” he showed his prisoners was “almost without parallel in the history of war.”

He even showed great respect for the religion of any captives, which as you know, something even modern-day leaders have a really hard time with.

But despite his brilliance as a leader, his personal character, and his skills as a tactician, he was unable to militarily defeat the French.

Indeed, within two decades of the colonial invasion, Abdel-Kader would be a captive of France. A lesser person would have given in to his circumstance, turned to random violence, or to depression.

But Abdel-Kader did not, not just because of his upstanding character, but because he had a greater plan, too.

Abdel-Kader understood that the time for military conflict had passed, and the task of the time was to convince the colonial power of the humanity of its subjects. 

He did so, and became, in captivity, a still greater hero, a living legend on the world stage. A Muslim celebrity—in xenophobic Christian Europe.

Sting music

It so happens that the way Abdel-Kader lived his life in captivity so moved his jailers that it led to his release.

Forbidden from returning to his native Algeria, he traveled instead to Bursa, in today’s Turkey, and then, in 1855, he journeyed to Damascus in what was then also a part of the Ottoman Empire.

Settled in Damascus, he turned his energies to his passion for theology and philosophy.

It was during this time he wrote one of his most famous works, The Arabian Horse. As it happens, a horse named Abdel-Kader, called ‘Little Ab’ by the racing public, was twice winner of the British Grand National Steeple Chase, in 1850 and 1851.

In fact, Little Ab was the first repeat winner of the Steeple Chase.

But back to Abdel-Kader.

While he might have thought he was going to live a low-key scholarly life with his family, his exile in Damascus was interrupted, again, by conflict.

While Abdel-Kader had warned the French consul and Damascus officials of the growing potential for violence, his pleas had fallen on deaf ears.

In 1860, a conflict between the Druze and Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon reached Damascus. Over 3,000 Christians were killed in a brutal massacre, which local authorities were unable, or perhaps unwilling, to stop.

In the midst of this chaos, Abdel-Kader sent his eldest sons out into the streets to offer Christians shelter in his very own home, despite considerable risk to himself and to his family. A French newspaper reported eyewitness Christian accounts of Abdel-Kader’s intervention:

“We were in consternation, all of us quite convinced that our last hour had arrived. In that expectation of death, in those indescribable moments of anguish, heaven, however, sent us a savior! Abdel-Kader appeared, surrounded by his Algerians, around forty of them. He was on horseback and without arms: his handsome figure, calm and imposing, made a strange contrast with the noise and disorder that reigned everywhere.”

When rampaging crowds armed with swords and blades arrived at his door, Abdel-Kader greeted them with a speech which is still recited in the Middle East.

“You pitiful creatures!” Abdel-Kader shouted. “Is this the way you honour the Prophet Muhammad? God punish you! Shame on you, shame! The day will come when you will pay for this … I will not hand over a single Christian. They are my brothers.”

Sting – music

When the rioting in Damascus abated, Abdel-Kader led humanitarian efforts to assist the beleaguered Christians of the region; the French were so moved that he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour.

This was not his only recognition.

The Emir Abdel-Kader also received the Grand Cross of the Redeemer from Greece; the Order of the Mejidiyye, First Class, from the Ottomans; and the Order of Pius IX from the Vatican.

Even United States President Abraham Lincoln thought fit to honour him with a gift as well. Basically, everyone knew about Abdel Kader and the way he had saved the lives of people unlike himself.

STING – music

When Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage were founding a town in north-eastern Iowa in the 1840’s, they called it ‘Elkader’—impressed by Abdel-Kader’s resistance to foreign rule and noble character, which, they felt, resonated with American values.

Why all this attention, then and now?

Abdel-Kader was a special person. He was the same in victory as he was in defeat. He acted in private the way he did in public. He fought the good fight but he was wise enough to recognize when the battle was up.

But, in defeat, he didn’t turn to extremism or lash out at the world. He rededicated himself to peace, to finding new ways of bringing people together. In exile, he studied, he taught—and he saved lives.

The lives of people very different than himself.

Abdel-Kader’s ability to combine religious and political authority has led to his being acclaimed as “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints.”

At the same time, he’s not an uncomplicated guy.

Abdel-Kader was not a so-called “moderate,” because he fought back against the French occupation of his homeland.

At the same time, he was not an extremist, because throughout his life, on the battlefield and off, he spoke of Christians and Muslims as brothers in humanity.

Abdel-Kader, it must be remembered, set up his own state in western Algeria. He employed Christian and Jewish advisors, not in spite of his Muslim faith, but because of it.

His main grievance was with foreign occupation, not the French culture or Christian religion.

Indeed, he made peace with the French, though the French later violated that truce by invading his lands yet again. Even given such treachery, Abdel-Kader sought out a priest to minister to his Christian prisoners.

He even gave them back their freedom when he could no longer feed them.

Like Saladin, he was glorified by his allies, and celebrated by his enemies.

Basically, Abdel-Kader was a man who lived on his own terms, committed to the values he believed in. And that mattered to me, you see, because I grew up a Muslim and a Westerner, at a time when many people believed these things were incompatible.

For a long time, I looked for someone who might help me navigate the confusion of modern life, someone who stood up for values I could believe in, who held true to himself, and dedicated himself to breaking boundaries.

In Abdel-Kader, I found more than I bargained for.


From Toledo Society, I am Muddassar Ahmed, and you’ve been listening to episode one in a three-part series: “Who Was Emir Abdel-Kader, the Hero of Humanity?”

In the next episode, we’ll look at the phenomenal legacy of Abdel-Kader, the transformative way in which he made his mark on four continents.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode and season and don’t forget to let us know your thoughts, rate us and please donate as well! 

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