About Emir Abdelkader

The following is a summary from Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abdelkader, 1808-1883 by John Kiser.

Practicing its own brand of gunboat diplomacy, France occupied Algiers in 1830 with a force of 30,000 soldiers. Greeted at first as liberators by Arabs unhappy with decadent Turkish rule, the ignorance, arrogance, and broken promises by the French occupiers soon alienated the population. Two years later, tribes in the province of Oran elected Abdelkader’s aged and reluctant marabout father, Muhi al-Din, to lead a jihad against the intruders. His first act was to abdicate in favor of his twenty-four year old son.

By 1832, Abdelkader’s bravery in battle, intellectual mettle and religious piety had demonstrated that he was prepared for the role his father unexpectedly cast upon him. As a youth, Abdelkader excelled at everything he did. Muhi al-Din believed his son was a prodigy with a divine destiny that required a thorough grounding in Islamic law, as well as in mathematics, philosophy, rhetoric and medicine. Horsemanship and hunting were essential for building character, especially courage and patience. To expose Abdelkader to the world’s diversity and complexity, Muhi al-Din took him on a two-year pilgrimage, stopping in Alexandria, Cairo, Mecca, Damascus and Baghdad. Abdelkader’s first loves were prayer and study, yet he was also prepared for military combat.

A resilient and divinely inspired Abdelkader won the begrudging respect of his French adversaries and the admiration of English onlookers during his fifteen-year struggle. His best weapons were his diplomatic astuteness, his desert-hardened horses and his Jewish intelligence network that kept him aware of political attitudes in France toward its poorly conceived African adventure.

General Lamoricière

Faced with French determination and scorched earth tactics against tribes supporting him, Abdelkader decided further resistance would cause only futile suffering. In December 1847, he negotiated a truce with veteran General Lamoricière. The terms: the general’s written word, confirmed by the governor general of Algeria (King Louis-Philippe’s son), agreeing to send him into Middle Eastern exile in return for his promise to never return to Algeria.

The Second Republic, born two months after Abdelkader’s surrender, disowned the agreement of the monarchy. The new government tried to save face by bribing him to release France from its word. Unmoved by offers of luxury living in France, he insisted on holding France to the word of its generals. Twenty-five members of the emir’s entourage died in clammy royal prisons from disease and despair — victims of French politics in which popular opinion distrusted the emir’s word, and wea  governments lacked the courage to honor its predecessors’ commitments.

In 1852, Abdelkader was liberated thanks to an admiring President Louis Napoleon and a lobby of Catholic clerics, intellectuals, military officers and former prisoners whom the emir had treated with unexpected humanity. Abdelkader was sent to Bursa in Turkey on a generous French pension where he lived for two years; then to Damascus where he was enthusiastically received by the Arabs and joined the mixed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intellectual stratum of the city.

Emir Abdelkader’s Prayer Rug

On July the ninth, 1860, his life of prayer, study and teaching was shattered. Angered by rebellious Christian minorities who refused to pay their taxes, Turkish authorities instigated reprisals that became a virtual pogrom. The emir used his palatial residence as a sanctuary for the European diplomatic community whose embassies were the first targets of the violence. Then, he and his Algerians plunged into the nearby Christian neighborhood and brought thousands to the safety of his home. Soon, an angry mob at his door demanded he turn over the Christians. Abdelkader refused, saying it was against the teachings of Islam to kill innocents. The crowd melted away in the face of his determination to defend those under his protection.

After the riots, Abdelkader was credited with saving 10,000 lives, including those of the American, British, French and Russian consuls. Hailed throughout Europe, Russia and America as a great humanitarian, he received the French Legion of Honor, gifts from Pope Leo IX, President Lincoln, Queen Victoria, and other heads of state. His most valued accolade, however, was a letter from Chechen Emir Shamil, who praised him for his courage to do what his faith required–to protect the innocent.

During the last twenty years of his life, the emir became a spiritual bridge between the European and Muslim worlds, epitomized by the role he played garnering Arab support for the Suez Canal project. Defying the skeptics, Abdelkader remained true to his word and never returned to Algeria. Upon his death in 1883, the New York Times hailed him as “ one of the few great men of the century.”


Battle of Machta, 1835

History, according to the truism, is written by the victors. Yet, it was the French victors who paid homage to the moral, intellectual and spiritual qualities that made Abdelkader a widely recognized “ great man” of the mid 19th century. Emir Abdelkader inspired respect from Missouri to Moscow. His story is about many things, though ultimately it is about struggle: struggle against French invaders, struggle with Arabs who rejected his leadership, struggle with depression and despair in French prisons, struggle to live as a good Muslim.

Today, he would be dismissed by many in the West as a “fundamentalist” — a label signifying to the secularist a retrograde, narrow-minded, extremist. He was indeed a fundamentalist in this sense: To be rightly guided meant only one thing for him—to do God’s will according to the teaching of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. He was also a man of great intellectual curiosity, marked by Greek thought, who squared his faith with a deep humanity and a progressive belief in the value of knowledge to improve lives. For him there was no contradiction between faith and reason, or between a rigid orthodoxy and acknowledging the diversity of God’s ways. Nor was there a contradiction between being a puritanical, Law-abiding Muslim and a compassionate humanitarian who respected the accomplishments of European culture.

President Lincoln’s Gift to the Emir

Abdelkader’s story is part of a larger one of European arrogance and greed masquerading as a “civilizing” force. Abdelkader’s resistance to French imperialism and France’s belief in its own virtue and the superiority of its civilization has many parallels with America’s efforts to democratize the Arab world today. America failed once before to learn from France’s experience. Then it was Vietnam; today, the Arab world.

List of books on Emir Abdelkader for further reading.