Abd el Kader responded to French atrocities in Algeria with a humanity even more uncommon then than it is now.
Saluting Islam's merciful warrior
In 1891, a French army officer published a book in which he recalled the horrors of the French conquest of Algeria, which had begun in 1830 and, by some accounts, by the turn of the century had led to the extermination of an estimated one million Algerians. "We would bring back a barrel full of ears harvested, pair by pair, from prisoners, friends or foes," wrote Count d'Hérisson in La chasse à l'homme (The Manhunt); the French army, he said, had inflicted "unbelievable cruelties".
The French colonisation of Algeria began on a pretext - to punish a supposed insult to a French diplomat - with the real aim of giving France a foothold on the far shores of the Mediterranean and a chance of curbing the free-ranging British navy. According to Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, a modern French historian, "the means employed were atrocious". Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique in 2001, he said the army "massacred or deported villagers en masse; raped women and took children hostage; stole harvests and livestock and destroyed orchards ... The careers of several field marshals and a minister of war owed a great deal to the piles of Algerian and Kabyle corpses."
Such horrors were not uncommon during Europe's years of ruthless imperial expansion; but the truly surprising feature of France's 70-year reign of terror in Algeria was how one Islamic warrior responded to it - not with equally mindless violence and terror, but with a mercy and humanity even more uncommon then than it is now. The extraordinary but largely forgotten story of Emir Abd el Kader, one of the key leaders of the tribal resistance to French aggression in Algeria, has now been told in a book by an American author. In Commander of the Faithful, John Kiser restores to the spotlight the reputation of the only Arab after whom a town in the US is named.
The book, with its provocative sub-title, "A story of true jihad", has inspired both Muslim and Christian commentators and leaders to compare and contrast the activities of Kader with those of the jihadists of today. "Today more than ever, Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to be reminded of the courage, compassion and intellect of Emir Abd el-Kader," Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan has said. Kader was a "truly great treasure for the world", whose conduct "in war, prison and in exile represented the true concept of jihad" and "provides Muslims with a much-needed antidote to the toxic false jihads of today, dominated by anger, violence and politics".
For Muhammad Ammar Khan Nassir, the editor of Pakistan's monthly Al Sharia, Kader's story as told by Kiser is "highly relevant to what is going on in the Islamic world. Abd el-Kader is the embodiment of the true moral, theological and rational ideas taught by Islam." In 2005, Dr Reza Shah-Kazemi, a research associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London and founding editor of Islamic World Report, wrote that, while "few doubt that the ongoing injustices in Palestine and other parts of the Muslim world give rise to legitimate grievances", there was "nothing in Islam that justifies the killing or injuring of civilians, nor of perpetrating any excess as a result of hatred, even if that hatred is based on legitimate grievances.
"The pursuit of justice must be conducted in accordance with justice; the means should not undermine the end: 'O ye who believe, be upright for God, witnesses in justice; and let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust. Be just, that is closer to piety'." And this was the creed by which Kader, a scholar and warrior, lived his remarkable life. In 1841, General Bugeaud, the new French governor-general and a self-confessed "ardent coloniser", landed in Algiers to take control of 80,000 troops and launch a ruthless campaign to crush the Arab resistance. He became known in the British press at the time as "the butcher of the Bedouins". That year, however, Bugeaud found Kader to be not the merciless adversary of French myth, "who was said to be little better than a savage beast", but a man who knew the meaning of honour.
The despairing wife of a captured French officer, holding her young daughter, had gone to the Bishop of Algiers, begging him to intercede with Kader for the life of the child's father, her husband. With little hope, the bishop wrote to Kader. To his surprise, the Emir's response was immediate: why not ask for the freedom of the hundreds of captured Christians, he said, in exchange for "an equal number of Muslims who languish in your prisons? It is written: do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Some prisoners were exchanged, before the French put an end to the practice. The invader's "columns from hell" continued to prowl the country; Kader, meanwhile, strove to end the time-honoured practice among his warriors of cutting off the heads of anyone found alive after a battle. "At a time when the French were mutilating Arab prisoners, wiping out whole tribes, burning men, women, and children alive; and when severed Arab heads were regarded as trophies of war? the Emir manifested his magnanimity, his unflinching adherence to Islamic principle, and his refusal to stoop to the level of his 'civilised' adversaries," wrote Dr Shah-Kazemi.
Instead, Kader offered his men rewards for live prisoners and even questioned his captives to make sure they had been treated well, as he had ordered. It was Kader's religious knowledge, writes Kiser, that gave him the authority he needed to persuade his warriors "to adhere to the reformed morality ... After all, he was only implementing the admonitions of the Prophet himself. The emir knew the hadiths by heart."
By the summer of 1847, Kader - increasingly harried by the French, aided by tribes which had betrayed him - was on the run, once again "a pure Bedouin, a child of the wind", deprived of fixed bases and his dwindling army and nation reduced to little more than "a migratory city of goat and camel skins". Eventually, Kader retreated to Morocco, but the end was in sight: Muslims were turning on their brothers, betraying the cause, and on Dec 21 Kader called together his council. It was time to surrender and, with 100 followers - including, to the surprise of the French, 21 European women who had married Arabs and chose to remain by their side - he was sent into exile. He agreed never to return to Algeria and he kept his word.
His finest hour, however, was yet to come. After a period of imprisonment in France, Kader was sent first to Turkey and then to Damascus, where, according to Colonel Charles Churchill, a British army officer who was to become his friend and biographer, "The whole Mohammedan population turned out to receive him ... to feast their eyes by gazing on the renowned champion and hero of Islam ... no such Arab had entered Damascus since the days of Saladin."
Kader, surrounded by his extended family, hoped to live out the rest of his days in peace and prayer among the Muslims, Christians and Jews of the city. It was not to be. Throughout 1860, rumours of an impending widespread "correction" of Christians filtered through to Kader. In vain he wrote to various Muslim leaders in the region, hoping to head off the impending disaster. Then, on July 9, 1860, a row over taxes flared into wholesale reprisals against the Christian community in Damascus.
According to contemporary accounts, as mobs began to rampage through the streets in a hunt for Christians, Kader and his two sons rallied their battle-hardened Algerian soldiers and plunged into the Christian quarter, rescuing anyone they could find, including priests and diplomats from European nations. "The furious mob ... glutted with spoil, began to cry for blood," wrote Col Churchill. "Men and boys of all ages were forced to apostatise and were then circumcised on the spot ... women were raped or hurried away to distant parts of the country where they were put in harems". The Turks, he added, "connived at it, they instigated it, they shared in it. Abd el-Kader alone stood between the living and dead."
At the head of his heavily outnumbered men, Kader confronted one mob, imploring them to turn back. According to Churchill, in his Life of Abdel Kader, published in 1867, the response was: "What! You the great slayer of Christians, are you come out to prevent us slaying them in our turn? Away!" "If I slew Christians," the emir responded, "it was in accordance with our law - Christians who had declared war against me and were arrayed in arms against our faith."
By the following day, the emir's house had become a refuge for hundreds of Christians, including diplomats from France, his old enemy. A baying mob gathered at the gates, demanding that the Christians be handed over. Again the emir and his band of veterans, weapons drawn, confronted them. "Wretches," Churchill recorded Kader as saying. "Is this the way you honour the Prophet? Not a Christian will I give up. They are my brothers. Stand back, or I give my men the order to fire." His men reportedly shouted, over and over, "God is great".
Whatever was said on the steps of the emir's fortess-like home that day, the crowd melted away, but five days of riots left thousands of Christians dead in the city. Thousands more, however, owed their lives to Kader and his men, who later accompanied a party of 3,000 to safety in Beirut. The story of Kader's actions flickered like a flame around the Christian world. For Le Gazette de France, "One of the most beautiful pages of the history of the 19th century will be devoted to him"; "When the carnage was at its worst," reported Le Pays, "the emir appeared on the streets, as if sent by God".
His fame crossed the Atlantic, where the New York Times noted that 20 years ago the emir had been "an enemy of Christendom, hunted through the ranges of his native hills". Today, however, "the Christian world unites to honor the dethroned Prince of Islam, the most unselfish of knightly warriors, risking limb and life to rescue his ancient foes ... This indeed is a chapter of glory". It was, as the Times concluded, "no light thing for history to record that the most uncompromising soldier of Mohammedan independence became the most intrepid guardian of Christian lives and Christian honor in the days of his political downfall and in the decline of his people".
Honours and tributes poured in from world leaders, including the Pope, Queen Victoria, Napolean III and Abraham Lincoln, who sent Kader a pair of Colt pistols. The emir survived another 20 years, succumbing to kidney failure on May 25, 1883, at the age of 76. He was, wrote the New York Times three months before his death, "foremost of the few great men of the century". Today, as Americans battle Muslim fighters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, history throws up an irony in the name of a small town in Iowa, in the American Midwest.
In 1846, Timothy Davis, a New York lawyer who had headed west to make his fortune, teamed up with two other men to build a mill and a settlement on the banks of the Turkey River. At the time, in an America where the yoke of British occupation had been thrown off only a generation earlier, the exploits of Kader were being widely reported in a press hostile to the French brand of imperialism. Davis, inspired by the struggle of the "daring Arab chieftain" in Algeria, named the new town Elkader in his honour.
And, on the banks of the Turkey River, the story of the emir was not forgotten. Researching Commander of the Faithful, Kiser found the following tribute to the Muslim warrior, recorded in Elkader High School's 1915 year book: "A scholar, a philosopher, a lover of liberty; a champion of his religion, a born leader of men, a great soldier ... a chivalrous opponent; the selection was well made, and with those pioneers of seventy years ago, we do honor The Sheik".
Commander of the Faithful, by John W Kiser, is published by Monkfish Book Publishing Company, New York. More information at www.truejihad.com