Emir Abd el-Kader: Necessary Friend, Necessary Foe
Emir Abd el-Kader was to France both “friend and foe”, in the words of Louis Lataillade (1984). His role as foe is easy enough to understand: as “the symbol of national resistance to colonial occupation” (Cheikh 7), Abd el-Kader was well known in his time and after as a brilliant strategist who took on a French army much larger and more powerful than his own. His power was not limited to the battle field either: Abd el-Kader managed to draw together the various tribes in Algeria through a combination of shrewd leadership and moral example, birthing the “new idea” of the Algerian state in the process (Aouli et al 261). Yet his role as friend is a bit harder to understand. He was certainly admired by his enemies, most notably France, not only for his courage on the battlefield, but also for his “decency towards prisoners of war” (Cheikh 19) and his most famous and noble act, saving 11,000 Damascus Christians from certain extermination (Kiser 301), for which the French Senate gave him and all his fellow Algerians French nationality (ibid 314). Yet physical bravery and political courage, even if remarkable, are more noteworthy in someone unexpected: in this case, a Muslim.
It is hard to underestimate the bigotry towards Islam in the Europe then colonizing North Africa and the Middle East. Despite legends of their past prowess, the Muslims of the 19th century were often characterized as overly sexualized, basically slothful, and certainly lacking the self-restraint and moral rigor of the ideal European man. Abd el-Kader proved these stereotypes wrong, not because he was the sort of Christian liberal that Europeans wanted Muslims to become but because he was a conservative Muslim who himself had all the virtues Europeans claimed his people lacked. In presenting himself as scholar and soldier, ascetic and aesthete, Abd el-Kader presented a Muslim—and therefore an Islam—much more complicated than any stereotype. Much like Martin Luther King Jr., Abd el-Kader was able to challenge a superior power by moral force, in so doing gaining the respect and admiration of his antagonist. Even after he worked comfortably with Europeans—assisting with the development of the Suez Canal, insisting on the coexistence of different religions—what made him important was not only that he worked with Europeans with dignity but that he insisted on the same dignity when he was working against them.
In the process, Abd el-Kader challenged many of the stereotypes about Islam, helping to inspire the 19th century Arabic Awakening, or El Nahda (Bouyerdene 206; Cheikh 143). Scholars like Rifa'a Rafi' el-Tahtawi and Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani presented an Islam comfortable with modernity and able to compete with Europe both on Europe’s terms and on its own. Indeed, throughout the writing of El Nahda, one finds a continual reference to Japan, which managed to achieve technological and institutional modernity without utterly abandoning its own cultural background. While the stereotypes about Islam have changed—Muslims have gone from being called lazy and over-sexual to warlike and puritanical—the debates remain more or less the same, both within Islam and without it: What is the real Islam, and what is its relationship to modernity?
Perhaps the answer can be found in Abd el-Kader’s respect for education. He claimed to save men from the death penalty because he learned they were a taleb, or student. The etymology of the word taleb is instructive here, as it is the only word left untranslated in the book where I found this anecdote (“Encourager l’instruction apparaissait tellement primordial à mes yeux qu’il m’arriva plus d’une fois de faire grâce à un criminal d’une condamnation à mort parce qu’il était taleb.” Cheikh 34). Taleb comes from the Arabic root, ṭ-l-b, which means to ask or to seek, and what was most important for Abd el-Kader in education was not so much being a memorizer or studier but asking, seeking greater knowledge, even, as the Prophet’s famous hadith goes, “unto China.” Such knowledge was discoverable not only in other places—witness Abd el-Kader’s many travels throughout his exiles—but also through engaging the tradition of Islam as best one can.
It is here where one finds Abd el-Kader’s solution to the problem of Islam, as the answer is not only to repeat what was in the past nor to abandon tradition for some ever-changing future: it is instead to find what is best in tradition and to use it to deal with today’s challenges. He insisted, after all, that his protection of Damascene Christians was what any good Muslim would do (Kiser 302-303). In this sense, Abd el-Kader is conservative along the lines of Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani rather than Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab: he is not opposed to change per se, instead seeking within his tradition a means of understanding and accommodating that change. As he wrote regarding the laws of the prophets, “Religious law can change for the same reason a doctor may change his prescriptions” (cited in Kiser 271). Yet what is most important for this Sufi mystic was not only the law but the purpose of the law, which was ultimately a coming to know God through radical connection with others. As he wrote in the poem that closes Bruno Étienne’s biography: “Oh me! Who am I if I am not you/You! Who are you then if you are not me?” (423). It is this sort of radical solidarity—the precedent for which is certainly available in the Qur’an and Sunnah—that makes seeking knowledge not only a means of gaining facts but a method for a more just world.
These are issues I study every day as a scholar of Islam and education and, more broadly, as a religious person concerned about issues of justice and inter-religious dialogue. This semester, my dissertation committee member Jonathan Wyrtzen and I are co-teaching a course on the Sociology of Islam, and each day our primary goal is to distinguish between the local and the universal in Islam (Bowen 1998), a nearly impossible task. While Abd el-Kader would certainly not disagree with the political and intellectual importance of this distinction, he might suggest a strategy rooted as much in relationship as analysis. As the above poem indicates, Abd el-Kader found the truth of human existence in the honorable connection of a person to self, to others, and to God.
This mystical connection between everyone and God is what I find most personally appealing about Abd el-Kader. As a serious Catholic who has been studying Islam for the past six years, I admire his commitment to understanding other religions and insisting on their protection. To strengthen my Arabic and my knowledge of Islam, I lived for two summers in the Christian quarter of Damascus’s old city, six blocks from where St. Paul was baptized, surrounded by decedents of those saved by Abd el-Kader’s most famous act of courage. As I got to know the hodgepodge of (among others) Druze, Kurds, Syriacs, Maronites, Greek Orthdox, Sunni, Shia, Alawites, agnostics, and atheists who populate Damascus, I was thrilled by the continual opportunity to get to know not just other people, but other points of view, that is, seeing the world, as much as possible, as someone else might see it. I was forced to ask, in el-Kader’s words, who am I if not you and who are you if not me?
It was this commitment to both seeing the world differently and helping others to do so that led me to teach English at a Catholic all-girls high school for three years in inner-city Brooklyn, and it was that experience that led me to study two Muslim and two Evangelical high schools for my dissertation. It is also why I am so excited about participating in the Institute for Advanced Studies’ 9CS project on civic participation in schools. And it makes me good at my work: the principal at one of the Muslim schools I studied for my dissertation told me that she gets phone calls from journalists every week to study her school and she always says no, yet she trusted me when I told her that I meant to correct stereotypes of Islam in this country. As a Catholic, I know how nativists treated my own religion some 150 years ago in much the same way American Muslims are treated today, and I feel it’s only fair for me to correct the same suspicions of ulterior motives and incapacity for democracy once said about my Irish forebears.
Yet Abd el-Kader’s example is not only important as a model for challenging stereotypes and encouraging education. As a model of simplicity, Abd el-Kader also provides a vision of how our leaders could choose to live. When European leaders met Abd el-Kader, they were shocked by the simplicity of his dress, expecting someone of his station to be much more finely adorned (Bouyerdene 61). Imagine what our world would look like if all leaders—indeed, all people—chose to live so simply. The environment simply cannot sustain current levels of consumption, and even if one does not care about the animal and plant species entering one of the most devastating extinction events in the planet’s history, the strictly human cost will be tremendous. Pollution, climate change, and stripped cropland will have dramatic effects on everyone, especially the global poor.
Beyond the environmental side effects of rampant consumption, there is also the cost to the soul, which, after all, is what motivated the Sufi Abd el-Kader in the first place. My next book project after turning my dissertation into a monograph and completing research with the Institute for Advanced Studies’ 9CS education project—will be a study of just this problem. Titled Less, the book will examine secular and religious asceticism, looking at both the spiritual and environmental problems with consumption and examining possible solutions from religious and secular asceticism.
Of course, challenging stereotypes, insisting on simplicity, and modeling solidarity are never easy. As Martin Luther King Jr. and Abd el-Kader’s lives show, such commitments can lead to hostility, danger, and persecution. It is always easier to admire a saint after she’s dead, because once she’s dead, she doesn’t demand as much. Yet the challenge is not only for us—for me—to follow the example of Abl El-Kader in being a “foe” of prejudice, cruelty, and aggression but also, somehow, to follow his example of doing so as a friend.
Aouli, Smaïl, Ramdane Redjala, and Phillippe Zoummeroff. 1994. Abd El-Kader. Paris: Fayard.
Bouyerdene, Ahmed. 2012. Emir Abd el-Kader: Hero and Saint of Islam. Tr. Gustavo Polit. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, Inc.
Bowen, J. R. 1998. “What Is ‘Universal’ and‘ Local’ in Islam?.” Ethos 26(2):258–61.
Cheikh, Bouamrane. L’Emir Abd-el-Kader, resistant et humaniste (Etudes avec choix de textes). Alger: Editions Hammouda.
Étienne, Bruno. 1994. Adbeldkader. Paris: Hachette Livre.
Kiser, John W. 2008. Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd El-Kader. Rhinebeck, New York: Monkfish Book Publishing Company.
Lataillade, Louis. 1984. Abd El-Kader: Adversaire et ami de la France. Paris: Pygmalion.