E3: Who was Emir AbdelKader, the hero of humanity?

I grew up Muslim and British. Some people use their differences as an excuse to keep away from other people. Their universe is limited to those who look like them, or sound like them, or pray like them.

But even from a young age, I wanted to believe that we had more in common than what drove us apart. I cherished our diversity, and believed it was a good thing; the more different kinds of people contribute to society, the better off we all are.

When I came across Abdel-Kader, I have to admit I was surprised.

Even though we were from different times and places, I was amazed by his generosity, moved by his courage, and inspired by his humanitarianism. He was proud of his religion, but at the same time he believed in our common humanity.

Abdel-Kader once said: “Don’t ask about a man’s genealogy, but about his character, his life, and his deeds. Drink the water. If it is pure, so is the source.”

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Transcript

I grew up Muslim and British. Some people use their differences as an excuse to keep away from other people. Their universe is limited to those who look like them, or sound like them, or pray like them.

But even from a young age, I wanted to believe that we had more in common than what drove us apart. I cherished our diversity, and believed it was a good thing; the more different kinds of people contribute to society, the better off we all are.

When I came across Abdel-Kader, I have to admit I was surprised.

Even though we were from different times and places, I was amazed by his generosity, moved by his courage, and inspired by his humanitarianism. He was proud of his religion, but at the same time he believed in our common humanity.

Abdel-Kader once said: “Don’t ask about a man’s genealogy, but about his character, his life, and his deeds. Drink the water. If it is pure, so is the source.”

Such wise words, from a time when the world was even more divided than it is now.

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

Intro:

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam, divided into orders that long ago spread across the world. Abdel-Kader’s father was a wise Sufi leader, and he raised Abdel-Kader to be a Sufi just like himself. 

In his writings on Algeria, famous French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville even mentioned Abdel-Kader’s father by name. But Abdel-Kader’s father made sure his son was educated not just in the ways of Islam, but of the wider world.

While coming of age in 19th century Algeria, he studied Greek philosophy, geometry and mathematics, rhetoric and poetry, and learned, like many of his tribe, the life of a desert horseman.

His father took him to Syria and to Egypt, where he met the great reformer and leader, Muhammad Ali, who was busy transforming his country into a modern nation, with the latest technology and most sophisticated institutions.

Abdel-Kader impressed Muhammad Ali—but must have been impressed in turn. He returned to Algeria conscious of how fast the world was changing, and deeply aware of the Muslim world’s need to catch up with Europe.

Without understanding these childhood experiences, we can’t understand Abdel-Kader. We might appreciate his military strategy, or his remarkable courage under fire, but we’d miss the deeper vision behind it.

After all, there’s a reason the same man who built a state to resist the West later in life supported the Europeans in building the Suez Canal.

Or we might focus on Abdel-Kader’s intervention to save Syrian Christians and European diplomats and miss the deeper spiritual values behind it.

Abdel-Kader was a scholar and a sage who was forced by circumstance to turn to the sword; he became a noble warrior, but only for as long as he needed to be, and not for a moment longer.

Sting Music

Sufism grew out of the Muslim tradition and it emphasizes the inner and private development of each person. If it is wrong to speak ill of others, as Islam teaches, then Sufism encourages you not to even think ill of others.

As you are without, be so within.

For generations, Sufism was at the heart of the Islamic world, whether in Southeast Asia or Northwest Africa. Abdel-Kader’s Algerian experience was no different.

He was raised in a Sufi lodge, followed Sufi saints, and drew much of his authority from his learning and piety. This spiritual history is critical to understanding how Muslims, Abdel-Kader included, responded to colonial invasions.

When European colonizers attacked Muslim societies and violently overthrew their governments, Sufis were the first to offer resistance. That’s how Abdel-Kader found himself at the heart of a war to save Algeria from French occupation.

Yet Abdel-Kader believed, as a Muslim, that there were clear limits to conduct in war.

It was also part of Abdel-Kader’s genius that he knew when war could no longer achieve its objectives—and it was part of his resilience as a human being and man of faith that Abdel-Kader did not take defeat on the battlefield to mean defeat in life.

He withdrew to a life of learning and writing, some of his earliest passions. He was happy doing so, but when the Christians of Syria came under attack, he knew that as a servant of God he could not be silent.

Far away, in the mountainous Caucasus, history was going the same way. Just swap out the names of the countries involved. Russia invaded Chechnya, and Sufis mobilized in resistance. Their war was led by a Commander called Imam Shamil.

Like Abdel-Kader, Imam Shamil was a Sufi inspired by Islam’s universal and humanitarian values. Imam Shamil took great care to protect innocent life, respect different religions, and cherish human brotherhood.

Shamil recognized a kindred spirit in Abdel-Kader. The 19th century Chechen Imam is on record praising his Algerian counterpart for ‘his courage to do what his faith required—to protect the innocent.’

Abdel-Kader’s courage in protecting innocent life had a surprisingly powerful influence on the world we are fortunate to live in today.

Sting Music

The 2013 International Humanitarian Law Conference in Algiers reveals one of Emir Abdel-Kader’s most profound legacies.

The conference took place in 2013 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the 130th anniversary of Abdel-Kader’s death, and the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence.

This conference concluded that Abdel-Kader was “an undisputed leader in the codification of modern, international humanitarian law.”

While Abdel-Kader’s principles for the treatment of prisoners were Qur’anically-inspired and sanctioned, they were also a major source of the Geneva Convention’s ruling on the treatment of prisoners of war, upheld by the United Nations.

In other words, the way Abdel-Kader treated his prisoners, with such integrity, compassion, and respect, might have been inspired by his Muslim faith. But that treatment also inspired the Geneva Convention.

I like to think the Emir would be astonished by how much influence he had over the world we live in. I like to think he’d be moved by the overlap between traditionally. Muslim and modern Western beliefs about the sanctity of life.

We have more in common than drives us apart.

Sting Music

Some of the French who supported conquering Algeria wanted the territory for its resources and strategic location. Others went much further, and advocated a policy of extermination, a genocide of the local population so the French could settle the land.

Such extreme Islamophobia meant that Abdel-Kader was, at first, passionately hated. He was seen as the representative of a corrupt, backwards religion, which barely deserved to be called a civilization, and may even have deserved annihilation.

Grudgingly, however, the French came to respect him, and then even admire him. Soon the world celebrated him.

Though French and European colonialism was changing the world for the worse, he was changing it for the better.

Islamophobia in 19th century Europe was a lot worse than it is today and even under these circumstances, Abdel-Kader managed to reach the hearts and minds of Europeans everywhere. He made the sternest Islamophobes doubt themselves.

On meeting him, a French general described him in glowing terms: ‘His clothes were no different than the most common Arab. He is pale and resembles portraits one sees of Jesus Christ. His entire physiognomy is that of a monk.”

Abdel-Kader died in 1883, and was buried, at his request, beside the tomb of a great Spanish Sufi, Ibn Arabi, who had also made his way to Syria, centuries before. With Abdel-Kader’s passing, the New York Times wrote of the:

“…nobility of his character, no less than the brilliancy of his exploits in the field, long ago won him the admiration of the world.”

The newspaper continued: “If to be an ardent patriot, a soldier whose genius is unquestioned, whose honor is stainless; a statesman who could weld the wild tribes of Africa into a formidable enemy, a hero who could accept defeat and disaster without a murmur – if all these constitute a great man, Abdel-Kader deserves to be ranked among the foremost of the few great men of the century.”

Sting Music

I hope there are more Abdel-Kaders around the corner. Until then, we can still study his life and practice his values and principles to positively change the world around us.

Muslims, and especially young Muslims, are eager for people who embody the values they know are at the heart of their faith.

Muslims, and especially young Muslims, need to know that their faith and their co-religionists also helped to shape the world we live in today.

When I launched this series, I decided to call Abdel-Kader a ‘hero of humanity’. And now, finally, I can tell you why he’s a hero. Not just because of his bravery in battle, or his pious determination in prison, or his courage in his old age.

It’s simpler than that.

He was the same within as he was without.

We know this because he was the same in private and in public.

He acted the same way, whether his followers were watching or he was shut away in a a cell, far away from the world’s attention. His behavior wasn’t a performance. He was driven by values and a code of honor.

That meant he wasn’t aggressive for the sake of being aggressive, or passive for the sake of being passive.

When the need called for it, he resorted to arms to defend people’s rights. But when that time had passed, Abdel-Kader left the battlefield, but he never left behind his commitment to people’s dignity and humanity.

CLOSING

Like many people born into a faith tradition, I search for spiritual meaning and direction. I find guidance in the life of a freedom fighter, an underdog, a prisoner who maintained his beliefs in extraordinary circumstances, and who worked to protect all faiths.

I’m not Algerian, not even African or Arab, but I find inspiration in Abdel-Kader’s life and story. It fills me with pride and, when I’m moved by something, I simply must share it. I have no choice but to: How can I keep such a wonderful story to myself?

Studying the life of Abdel-Kader makes me wonder: How many more people are there, out there, like him?

And who out there, maybe even listening in now, might be the next Abdel-Kader?

From Toledo Society, I am Muddassar Ahmed, and you’ve been listening to the final episode of our series, “Who Was Emir Abdel-Kader, the Hero of Humanity?”

And what better way to leave you than with Algerian singing sensation Cheb Khalid’s wildly popular song, ‘Abdel-Kader’?

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

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