Who was Emir AbdelKader?

E2: Who was Emir AbdelKader, the hero of humanity?

Over three hundred years ago, a poorly-armed Algerian Muslim leader battled one of the best-equipped armies in the world – and against all odds, held his ground.

For a while.  The story of that struggle, and the legacy of that warrior, is one of the greatest stories in Islamic history.

That warrior was of course Abdel-Kader, an Algerian Sufi.

He was more than just a warrior; Abdel-Kader was also a statesman, a diplomat, a Muslim scholar, a strategist and tactician, and a humanitarian.

He’s one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century, but more than that, he matters a lot to the 21st century.

And to me…

Listen online at the bottom of this page, or wherever you get your podcasts:
Download now on Apple Podcasts.
Stream for free on Spotify.

Transcript

Over three hundred years ago, a poorly-armed Algerian Muslim leader battled one of the best-equipped armies in the world – and against all odds, held his ground.

For a while.  

The story of that struggle, and the legacy of that warrior, is one of the greatest stories in Islamic history.

That warrior was of course Abdel-Kader, an Algerian Sufi.

He was more than just a warrior; Abdel-Kader was also a statesman, a diplomat, a Muslim scholar, a strategist and tactician, and a humanitarian.

He’s one of the most interesting personalities of the 19th century, but more than that, he matters a lot to the 21st century.

And to me.

Sting

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

Intro

During the time of King Charles X, the imperial French army defeated the Ottomans in Algeria, and occupied the country. While the French consolidated their control over his homeland, a young Abdel-Kader was traveling to Alexandria, Egypt, and Damascus, Syria, to study with great religious scholars.

Abdel-Kader returned, energized by his learning, and eager to oust the French from his homeland. An opportunity presented itself when Abdel-Kader’s father was asked to lead a campaign against the French, but he refused and abdicated. That responsibility fell to the young Abdel-Kader instead.

In the fall of 1832, this 24 year-old young man found himself unexpectedly elected Emir, or Commander of the Faithful, of all Muslims of Algeria.

Sting

Abdel-Kader quickly established himself in western Algeria, and used his formidable skill in diplomacy and religion to get the major tribes of his region to unite behind him. The French Commander-in-Chief, General Desmichels, quickly came to understand that Abdel-Kader was fast becoming a formidable enemy.

Though he had limited technology and weaponry, Abdel-Kader’s tactical brilliance in battle pressured the French to give over an entire province to his control. They figured this would limit Abdel-Kader’s influence, but instead this raised his profile, and rallied more Algerians to his cause.

Very soon, Abdel-Kader was winning the battle for hearts and minds, and building a modern society, attracting multiethnic and multireligious talent to his cause. Frustrated by his growing influence, the French appointed a new Commander-in-Chief, and resumed hostilities. Abdel-Kader had no choice but to go to war again.

And that’s something important to understand.

Unlike the world we live in today, back in the 19th century, nations didn’t really have fixed boundaries. They were either expanding or contracting. More powerful nations swallowed up weaker nations. There was no United Nations to appeal to, no concept of international law or universal human rights.

Which makes Abdel-Kader’s career all the more astonishing. 

StingIn 1834, in the scorching heat of summer, French and Algerian forces clashed at the Battle of Macta, which was a resounding victory for Emir Abdel-Kader. Hostilities continued, but to the disadvantage of the French. At the Treaty of Tafna, the French surrendered even more control to Abdel-Kader, with one caveat.

He would have to recognize French imperial authority.

That only made him seem more powerful: Now he was negotiating with Paris itself.

After this great victory, some of the Emir’s followers called on Abdel-Kader to declare himself ‘Sultan,’ but Abdel-Kader declined the title—he was content in his authority as a spiritual leader, and as a leader of the resistance. His job was to understand what God wanted of him, and to bring it about in the world.

Some religious people are narrow-minded and provincial. The more they believe, the less room they have for people different from themselves. But there is another kind of religious person, the kind of person who starts to think universally, and begins to believe all people deserve the same rights.

Sting

Over the following years, Abdel-Kader’s territory expanded across Algeria, and in this land he built a remarkable state. He convinced Jews and Christians to join him in building his country and running his government.

He lived frugally and encouraged others to live within their means. Abdel-Kader shunned accolades for himself, but cultivated scholarship, celebrated poetry, and urged his people to invest in modern education.

His new nation of Algeria had much promise, but also had a problem.

In 1839, the treacherous French not only violated the Treaty of Tafna, but launched a scorched-earth campaign, brutalizing the Algerian people.  

Though Abdel-Kader would fight to defend his country and his people, he was unable to effectively counter French aggression.

Sting

But even when severely weakened, Abdel-Kader upheld morality, decency, and compassion. When he lacked sufficient resources to feed his French prisoners-of-war, much to their surprise, he released them.

He went out of his way to protect houses of worship, as well as priests and nuns.

In the end, though, the French were just too powerful. No matter how remarkable his victories, Abdel-Kader couldn’t sustain a conflict against an industrial war machine.

By 1842, Abdel-Kader had lost almost all his territory.

In 1847, Abdel-Kader was forced to surrender to the French. Just a few days before Christmas, he agreed to live the rest of his life in exile in the Alexandria that enchanted him when he was a young man. To prove his goodwill, Abdel-Kader even handed over his beloved war horse to the French governor.

At his surrender, a sisterhood of nuns joined him—they had been moved by his decency, and keen to ensure he was not mistreated. Maybe they had a hunch, a feeling that the French would betray him. And as it happens, they did.

The French went back on their word, though Abdel-Kader had been nothing but faithful to the terms of his surrender. The French captured Abdel-Kader and instead of taking him to a peaceful exile in Egypt, sent him to France, with his family and followers, where they were cruelly imprisoned.

Sting

But as news of Abdel-Kader’s fate and condition spread across France, public agitation grew. The Emir was highly regarded by the French elite, and famous among the French public. He was recognized as a noble leader who had the respect of his countrymen, a man who fought heroically, and treated his enemies with compassion and decency.

Here was a man who put others before himself. His homeland before pride. His faith in God before his own glory. Domestic and international pressure escalated; even the British government was involved in making the case for the Emir’s freedom.

In 1852, after almost five years of captivity, then French President Louis Napoleon Bonaparte released the Emir and his entourage.

President Bonaparte agreed to a 100,000-franc annual pension, on the condition that  Abdel-Kader never again return to or interfere in the affairs of his beloved Algeria.

It was a bittersweet victory, but the Emir upheld the terms of his release to the end of his life.

Sting music

By 1855, the Emir had settled in Ottoman Damascus. Shortly afterwards, a conflict erupted, between members of two religious communities, the Druze and Maronite Christians, living in the city.

The Emir intervened and played the part of peacemaker. Abdel-Kader not only protected Christians with his tongue, but with his body, and at the risk of his life.

Many in France were stunned, and deeply moved.

Here was a man whose homeland they had invaded, who they had imprisoned, but who then stood up for their co-religionists in a bloody conflict. Abdel-Kader was elderly, and exhausted from years of war and imprisonment, but boldly rushed forward to protect the vulnerable Christians in a moment of heated sectarian tension.

And all of this, at a great risk to himself.

What was to say Abdel-Kader would not be killed for defending them?

What sort of person makes that kind of sacrifice?

This was an age when Islamophobia ran rampant throughout Europe. The popular opinion of Muslims was not very good, and frequently hostile. Muslim-majority countries were seen as fair game in competitions for conquest and control, and many European intellectuals assumed Islam was inherently backwards, ignorant, and regressive.

In that kind of world, the legacy of Emir Abdel-Kader seems all the more remarkable.

When the French proposed the Suez Canal, Abdel-Kader played a critical role in drumming up Arab support for the massive project. He was present at the opening, too: This is a reminder not just of his desire to be a bridge between worlds, but of his ability to think strategically, beyond the immediate and into the future.

He understood the importance of this project to the Muslim world, and threw his weight behind it.  

It may seem to us that the worlds of the West and of Islam are doomed to misunderstanding, tension, or even outright conflict, but in the Emir Abdel-Kader we find an alternative vision. Rather than encourage tension between Christians and Muslims, he encouraged the Islamic mission of understanding and compassion.

And this melted the hearts of the French public, and European society, humanizing Muslims. So much so that, during his captivity, the citizens of Bordeaux, France, mobilized to have his name placed on the French Presidential ballot! They preferred a Muslim Abdel-Kader ruling France in place of its current government.

STING:

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

Coming up in our next and final installment, we’ll explore how Abdel-Kader became the kind of man he was, and how those lessons still speak to us, one hundred and fifty years after his death.

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! 

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?

Listen online at the bottom of this page, or wherever you get your podcasts:
Download now on Apple Podcasts.
Stream for free on Spotify.

Transcript

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?’

Intro:

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.

CHEB KHALID SONG

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!