Abd el-Kader: Embodiment of True Jihad - Part 1
During the early part of the nineteenth century, Algerian tribal leader and scholar of the Qur’an, Abd el-Kader, solidified his position as not only a freedom fighter, but as Louis Werner called him, a true “Prince of Brotherhood.” He not only fought against the French occupation of Algeria, but was an advocate for religious tolerance and the idea of cultural openness. He is considered by Algerians to be the founder of the modern day Algeria and has the distinction of having the only town in the United States with an http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_peoplename specifically named for him (Elkader, Iowa).
Abd el-Kader was 22 in 1830 and on a religious pilgrimage from his home in the western Algerian town of Mascara to Makkah, a two year long journey, with his father, the leader of the Hashim tribe when the French consul and the governor of the Ottoman Empire in Algeria had a disagreement over a financial matter between the two countries. This would lead to 130-year occupation of Algeria by the French and would see the young man spend the next 15 years bringing the various tribal factions of Algeria together as one in order to overcome the invading French forces. This period is considered the very beginning of the Algerian modern state and earned Abd el-Kader the title “Amir al-mu’minin”, or “Price of the Faithful”. What is very notable about this period is that while the Amir proclaimed jihad to liberate the country and indeed stuck to the religious code presented by the hadith writings and the Qur’an, in that spies and traitors were to be handled severely, but he also understood the fact that he was leading a mostly guerrilla army which required a continual degree of understanding and confidence in leadership. How to balance the Muslim law and still keep a unified front would be a serious obstacle to tackle. When he was asked under what conditions a Muslim might make peace with an infidel when the clear answer by the Muslim religious leadership was to emigrate from the country controlled by the infidels, Abd el-Kader stated that it was no possible for every Muslim to just pack up and leave if their homeland was conquered by infidels, thus leaving to be understood that coexistence was paramount. This ideal showed that his view of jihad differed from the view of jihad as victory at any cost but viewed it as achieving victory by righteousness and virtue.
The French were particularly savage in their treatment of the Algerians, falling nothing short of barbaric. In his book “La chasse a l’homme” (Hunting the Man), Count d'Hérisson provides the following, horrific account of these atrocities;
“We would bring back a barrel full of ears harvested, pair by pair, from prisoners, friends or foes, inflicting on them unbelievable cruelties. The ears of Arabs were worth ten francs a pair and their women remained a perfect prey.”
In contrast, Abd el-Kader earned a reputation for treating French prisoners sometimes better than his troops by ensuring they were fed and even releasing them if the food supply was not sufficient. He even issued a decree stating that;
“Every Arab who captures alive a French soldier will receive as reward eight Douro’s. Every Arab who has in his possession a Frenchman is bound to treat him well and to conduct him to either the Khalifa or the Emir himself, as soon as possible. In cases where the prisoner complains of ill treatment, the Arab will have no right to any reward.”
And to even go further, when asked what the reward was for a severed French head, the Emir bluntly stated that their reward would be “twenty-five blows of the baton on the soles of the feet.” He also ensured that the French prisoners were provided a Christian priest if the prisoners so wished, to minister to them. He wrote to the Bishop of Algeria, “Send a priest to my camp, he will lack nothing.”Conversely, the French made it a point to hide the emir’s treatment of the French prisoners from the French troops out of fear it would totally demoralize and change the attitudes of the French soldiers who viewed their Muslim adversaries as “barbarians.” The French Colonel Gery confided in the Bishop of Algeria,
“We are obliged to try as hard as we can to hide these things [the treatment accorded French prisoners by the Emir] from our soldiers. For if they so much as suspected such things, they would not hasten with such fury against Abd el-Kader.”
While Abd el-Kader’s resistance was most likely failed from the outset, the period provided prime examples of his tenacity, principles and character. It also afforded him the opportunity to engage in dialogue with leaders of the Catholic Church and would be an example of his desire to bridge the gap between Christians and Muslims. Louis Werner states in his article “Prince of Brotherhood” that Abd el-Kader believed that Christians and Muslims were not “fated to remain always at odds, refighting the Crusades in the modern age.” Abd el-Kader would write in 1849, “If Christian and Muslims had paid me any attention, I would have put an end to their quarrels. They would have become brothers, inside as well as out.”
After his surrender in 1847, Abd el-Kader was imprisoned in France until he received a pardon from Louis Napoleon in 1952 and then was exiled and eventually arrived in Damascus. It was during this period between his release from prison in 1852 and 1860 that he cemented friendships with westerners such as Arabist Wilfred Scawen Blunt, Ferdinand de Lesseps who was the builder of the Suez Canal, Lady Jane Digby and British consul Sir Richard Burton. His correspondence with these individuals and the Catholics would be a prime example of his desire to seek a common understanding between the east and the west. As Werner states, he even captured the “romantic, orientalist fascination” of his former adversaries, the French, and found himself the subject of paintings, literature and poetry.