Book Review

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader, A Story of True Jihad

John W. Kiser

Spring 2009, Volume XVI, Number 1

A 19th century Arab who has a town in rural Iowa named after him; a man who received written thanks from Abraham Lincoln; a man who was nominated for the position of President of France: Abd el-Kader was truly an amazing man. Yet more amazingly, he is today largely unknown to the world outside of North Africa and France.

John Kiser seeks to fill that void with an interesting and readable biography of the man. It’s a timely biography, too, as Abd el-Kader also stands as one of the fi rst modern Arab leaders to use the call to jihad to fight off Western imperialism with views of a wider pan-Islamism.

Abd el-Kader, Kiser tells us, was born into a family of holy men—marabouts of the Qadirriyah Sufi order—in rural Algeria. He became many things: a religious scholar, the head of a rebellion against France’s early steps to colonize Algeria, a Sufi, a friend and protector of Christians, a man whose moral probity earned him the recognition and respect of his enemies and much of the Western world.

Much of the book describes the political turmoil in France as it debated the wisdom of seeking a colony in Algeria. At the time, in the early 1830s and 1840s, France was still recovering from its revolution and Napoleonic excesses. The form of government changed from monarchy to republic to empire. Each change brought new thinking about Algeria and the merits of colonization. Within the major political changes, the constant shufflings of power and appointments among ministers, generals, and counselors complicated and confounded the conduct of war. Kiser indirectly draws certain parallels to current events, leaving it to the reader to connect the dots.

As a tribal leader and a Muslim, Abd el-Kader felt it a religious duty to fi ght against foreign and Christian domination. With France itself moving toward the secular state, it is ironic that Abd el-Kader’s most useful moral support came from Catholic clerics.

The resulting war was brutal and brutish. For some years, Abd el-Kader was successful in holding off French encroachment into the Algerian countryside. His successes brought him supporters among the tribes of Algeria. Defeat, though, or even the hint of weakness would send his allies off, seeking protection from the stronger armies of France. He managed to win battles against the French, but also against other tribes. Notably, Abd el-Kader won a battle against Arab custom by proscribing the taking of heads of fallen enemies. At this point in history, when even the French were not above parading on pikes the heads of miscreants as an object lesson, Abd el-Kader insisted on dignity for the dead. This lesson has obviously gone by modern-day jihadists.

Chaotic tribal warfare met with chaotic colonial warfare and many died vainly on both sides. Several of his confrontations resulted in negotiated treaties with the local French authorities. None of those treaties were respected in the end. Abd el-Kader had to contend with enemies he understood, but who were undercut by their superiors in the capital.

Eventually, the weight of the French army weakened Abd el-Kader and in 1847 he sought one more treaty to end the fighting. The French accepted, with a son of the then-king signing, but then arrested him, relocating him, his family, and retainers to a series of detentions in mainland France. Over a period of five years, Abd el-Kader developed a popular French following. Officers against whom he had fought, French soldiers whom he had freed from captivity, French clerics whom he had assisted in their missions all wrote and spoke in his favor, pleading his cause and decrying the shame that fell on the country through its refusal to live up to its word.

In 1852, the soon-to-be Emperor, Louis-Napoleon, finally granted him release. Abd el-Kader would be required to never return to Algeria, to abjure Algerian affairs, and to live in exile in Bursa. The one-time capital of the Ottoman Empire was then an agricultural city with a long tradition of religious scholarship. Following a devastating earthquake in 1855, he received permission to relocate to Damascus.

Abd el-Kader played a major role in protecting the lives of Christians in the city during the massacre of 1860. He provided shelter to European diplomats and sent his armed retainers through the city inviting protection to some thousands of the city’s Christian inhabitants. At several times, he was able to convince the mobs that they should respect differences in religion and that their actions blackened the name of Islam. It was these actions that led to his renown in the wider Western world, to Lincoln’s letter and the naming of a city in the American Midwest.

Kiser gives an excellent overview of the politics of the time, the different actors and their motivations. He also covers the nascent conflict between and among the various religious groups in Lebanon, then still part of the same Ottoman province.

Kiser ends his book by noting the friendships Abd el-Kader developed in Syria with ‘Distinguished Misfits’. Both Richard F. Burton and Jane Digby, legendary in their time as now, became regular visitors to his estates. It is an apt conclusion inasmuch as Abd el-Kader, like the others, can be seen as a ‘misfit’ as well. Like them, he was far ahead of his time in relation to both his peers and to most of his enemies.

The book is most satisfying in its comprehensiveness. Likely due to a lack of source material, though, certain aspects remain lightly explored. There is more in the book about the dysfunctional French government and its uncertain plans for Algeria than there is on Abd el-Kadr’s theological fight against them. More would have been welcomed on the Qaddariyah Brotherhood from which he arose. There are tantalizing hints about the frictions between the Qaddariyah and Djilani/Jilani movements, but they are not addressed. What might have made the book not only superlative, but also extremely useful today, would have been an examination of Abd el-Kader’s theology, his ability to find a way to end his jihad against the French, and how he was able to reconcile friendship with non-Muslims in the Dar al Harb.

Even so, as an early exponent of political Islam and pan-Islamism, singular in his lack of extremism and in his sense of a renewed, albeit restricted caliphate, Abd el-Kader makes a fascinating subject for this welcome book.