HERE’S HOW A BOOK CAN SPRING TO LIFE: This week, the Iowa-based Telegraph Herald is reporting on a couple of unlikely strangers in the tiny northwest Iowa town of Elkader. TH newspaper Staff Writer Michael Schmidt wrote about the arrival of a restless globe-hopping author, John Kiser, accompanied by Fatima Remili, cultural affairs counselor at the Algerian Embassy in Washington D.C. TH, as the Times Herald is known in Iowa, published Schmidt’s story on the arrival of these guests.
This unusual pair of visitors showed up at that spot, because way back in its founding year of 1846, the three men who established this town wanted to honor a global hero. Their inspiration was a Muslim, Algerian scholar and warrior who was famous around the world. This was a noble hero who could reshape our understanding of Muslim political leadership today—except that we’ve completely forgotten about Emir Abd el-Kader, the central figure in Kiser’s latest nonfiction book about faith and history.
Kiser is determined to retrieve this story from the obscurity of dusty 19th-century newspaper archives and he’s eager to spread this story far beyond the pages of this illustrated book. That’s why he showed up in Iowa to award prizes this week in a high-school essay-writing contest in honor of the emir.
Elkader schools aren’t exactly the size of Chicago public schools, but a couple of essays by local students impressed the judges and won top honors. At ReadTheSpirit, we’re proud to report today that we’ll be adding to the praise for those students by sharing their names—and some of their work—next week.
Our online magazine is devoted to finding fresh ideas about spiritual connections that can transform our own lives—and build stronger, peaceful, diverse communities. John Kiser has a great idea in launching this revival of the emir’s life. Through his work, Kiser is putting Elkader and el-Kader back on the American map.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH JOHN KISER:
DAVID: Let’s start with his life. Who was this guy? He was born way back in 1808 in what is now Algeria. He grew up in a family of Quranic scholars and became a famous scholar himself. His specialty was in the Islamic law of settling disputes, which is why he was so devoutly committed to avoiding any abuse of human rights during warfare that broke out with the French.
JOHN: The short version of his life is that he was a Muslim who impressed the world with the sincerity of his faith and the strength and nobility of his character. This book I’ve written is basically a “good Muslim story,” which is something we really need today. And it is a story of nobility in the middle of real struggles.
Abd el-Kader was a scholar. He was brought up to be basically a Muslim version of a monk, a man of God who didn’t expect that circumstances would thrust him into the role of being a warrior and eventually a diplomat and statesman.
DAVID: What’s remarkable is that 19th-century newspapers heralded him as an almost romantic folk hero. There were paintings, lithographs and even photographs of him that circled the world. (At left is a photo of him with many of his awards pinned to his chest.) We think of global heroes as something we’ve invented in the age of the Internet. But this guy truly was a celebrity around the world more than 100 years ago, right?
JOHN: He was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow to Mecca—first as a chivalrous adversary of the French after they invaded North Africa in 1830; later as a stoic prisoner who forced France to honor its pledge of safe passage to the Middle East after his surrender in 1847. As an exile in Damascus, he protected thousands of Christians during a pogrom. President Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, French generals and former prisoners sang his praises. Upon his death in 1883, The New York Times eulogized, “…The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world… He was one of the few great men of the century.”
For Muslims, Abd el-Kader reminds them that true jihad, or “holy exertion,” lies not in the zeal of bitterness to fight whatever the cost, but in living righteously in accordance with Divine Law. During a life of struggle with foreign occupation, despair in prison, and exile in a foreign land, he never allowed the demons of hatred and revenge to trump compassion and forgiveness.
DAVID: Here’s some background to appreciate the situation. In 1830, the French invaded this region of northern Africa, which lies across the Mediterranean from France. The tribes living there had been under Ottoman rule, but that was fairly lax. This French invasion really was the opening wave of a long, sad story of colonization that continued more than 100 years into the 1950s. The French wanted a colony where their settlers could thrive and they didn’t mind pushing aside the existing population. Most of the histories of that century of French control describe the whole long story as tragic and abusive for the Algerians.
JOHN: When the French did this, it led to what I would call “culture-cide.” The invasion of 1830 started as a case of politically motivated gunboat diplomacy. This was a foreign adventure based on a political insult by the Turks that became a trigger for the French invasion. When the French got there and took Algiers, which had this huge treasury, there was a strong desire to stay. It was the equivalent of going some place and discovering oil. Some French wanted to stay here and make money. But, France was very divided between those who said it was a waste of time staying there—and imperialists who said this is very important for France.
Because the French were so divided, at first they didn’t commited enough forces to do anything but occupy a few outposts along the coast. Then over time, they kept making incursions and they’d move inland and they kept violating their own terms of occupation.
DAVID: Reading this history, it sounds a lot like American policies involving Indians at the time. It’s interesting, I think, that Americans sided with the emir eventually. But, from your book, a lot of the charm of his story had to do with this noble background from which he eventually strode onto the world stage.
JOHN: Part of what makes his story so appealing is that he wasn’t interested in becoming a commander. It was only after some years of these French incursions that the tribes went to Abd el-Kader’s father and said: Lead a jihad. The tribal leaders said: We have no choice. These French aren’t civilized.
DAVID: I love that part of the story. It mirrors a lot of what was going on from American Indian perspectives at the time. The European-American invaders in North America didn’t have any honor or civilization that made sense to the Indians. And, in Algeria, these tribes were looking aghast at the French as essentially barbaric in their behavior.
JOHN: Abd el-Kader’s father was a very respected scholar and holy man and he said: I’m really not up to this but my son who already had shown his spurs should become your sultan. So Abd el-Kader was acclaimed to be the new leader of a limited jihad of about seven or eight tribes in an area that united to oppose the French. From that base, he extended his leadership over more tribes until he had created a sort of federation of tribes.
DAVID: He gained a lot of power, but he didn’t take on a lot of airs. He didn’t enrich himself.
JOHN: Nobody could accuse him of being a hypocrite. He didn’t wear fancy clothes. No luxuries. He established his moral authority and his honor and chivalrous reputation—and he followed his own rules.
DAVID: We’ve just recommended a few books to our readers about Islam, including your own. If readers take the time to read some of these authoritative sources about Islam, they’ll quickly discover that what we think of as Muslim-fueled warfare today often is far from what the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet require. Extremist groups that promote savage strategies like suicide bombing and the killing of innocents—that’s all forbidden. Tell us about Abd el-Kader’s rules, because he never would have tolerated strategies we’re seeing today.
JOHN: Here’s an example: He insisted that prisoners be treated just the same as his own men, which meant basically that they got the same food rations. That was an important rule. At that time, prisoners taken on the battlefield customarily were decapitated because nobody wanted to care for prisoners in the desert. Plus your head count determined your share of your loot in the end so there was an incentive to bring back heads. Abd el-Kader condemned that and cited Muslim teachings on the matter. If someone surrenders, you don’t mutilate them or torture them or decapitate them.
DAVID: He had to be tough to lay down this practice, right?
JOHN: This rule raised a furor but he implemented it and he had very harsh punishments for any soldier who mistreated prisoners. He also offered incentives. He had a bounty that he gave soldiers who brought in prisoners who had not been mistreated. If a soldier had mistreated a prisoner, he had the soldier beaten on the bottom of his feet.
When he was in imprisoned later by the French, some of his greatest champions were his own former prisoners who said he never would have treated prisoners in the way he was being treated as a prisoner of France.
DAVID: His surrender to the French was also a humanitarian act, shaped by his Muslim faith.
JOHN: Islam forbids the kind of useless suffering that would have taken place if he had continued to fight against French forces. In the end, any tribe that supported the emir was burned out by the French. They basically turned to a scorched-earth strategy of starving people to death. The emir realized that this was too destructive to families. People were being captured, killed, starved. So, he said: We’ve given our best. We should negotiate a deal. That’s what he did.
He said, we’ll stop fighting if you give us free passage to the Middle East, where we’ll live in exile and never come back.
DAVID: To their credit, French commanders who fought against him agreed this was honorable, but political changes back home in France led to a complete reversal of the deal. He gave up under one agreement—but then didn’t get his free passage to the Middle East. He wound up a prisoner.
JOHN: Yes, the emir wound up spending about five years imprisoned by the French. Some of the members of his entourage died of tuberculosis, pneumonia and depression. It was a tragedy.
DAVID: Eventually, he was released, partly through another change in French leadership. He wound up in the Middle East. He went back to his life of scholarship, theology, philosophy. He loved horses. And, he was living in Damascus at just the right time, 1860, to once again demonstrate the nobility of Muslim leadership. There was a complex civil disturbance that broke out in the region and what’s relevant to his story is that a pogrom was touched off against Christians in Damascus that left several thousand people dead.
The emir wasn’t even directly involved, except that his natural defense of human rights made him step into the middle of the violence. (The 19th-century image at right was intended to show the emir protecting refugees in Damascus.) He called for the protection of Christians and even took them into his own home, right?
JOHN: Yes. He protected them personally. He was a man of aristocratic sensibilities, a man of his word. He was versatile, had good manners. He was a scholar, but also a man of great courage and military accomplishment. He had all the virtues that people around the world saw as chivalry.
In the wake of rescuing Christians and also sheltering the American consul and some other European diplomats in 1860, the whole world learned about him. This was big breaking news at the time: Muslim Saves Christians.
Abraham Lincoln sent him presents to honor him. Queen Victoria sent him a beautiful shotgun. Heads of state around the world honored him.
DAVID: Well, I think we’ve sketched enough of the high drama of this story for readers. Clearly this is not the kind of “Muslim story” we’re familiar with in popular culture today. I’m going to leave our story right here, hoping that many of our readers will want to pick up your book and read the whole grand adventure. There’s a lot more to it that we haven’t mentioned here.
JOHN: I hope people will learn his story all over again. That’s why we’ve started the essay contest to encourage students to read his story each year.
The emir possessed four qualities that contributed to his greatness: self control, duty to higher law, recognition of commonality amidst difference, and an unusual ability to empathize even with his adversaries—qualities in short supply throughout today’s world.
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