Innumerable obstacles stand between an author and gaining the widest possible audience. For John W. Kiser, the problem is subject matter. There probably aren't a lot of Americans interested in a favorable biography of an Islamic jihadist. And that's a shame because not only did that jihadist die 125 years ago, shortly before his death the New York Times described him "among the foremost of the few great men of the century." Equally important, Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader sheds light on today.
Kiser takes us inside the life of the Arab leader who headed a 17-year-struggle against the French colonization of Algeria. Yet Kiser does not focus just on warfare and strategy. Rather, he seeks to give a view that is as complete as possible. Toward that end, Commander of the Faithful is broken into three parts, one covering the events leading up to Abd el-Kader leading the fight against the French, another looking at the tactics and diplomacy he used against the French and, finally, his years of exile. With this approach, we see not only the source and development of Abd el-Kader's religious devotion but how those precepts played a role in virtually every action he took. Likewise, we learn how someone whose name was detested by the French would gain their admiration during his exile to that country.
Born the son of a religious-trained sheik in northern Algeria in 1808, Abd el-Kader was far better educated than most of his fellow tribesmen. In addition to study and memorization of the Koran, his father took him on a two-year pilgrimage that included not only Mecca and Medina but the capitals and cities of other states, such as Egypt. Kiser explores how the wide-ranging travel not only bolstered Abd el-Kader's interest in religion but also in western thought. Shortly after they returned, though, the French invaded Algeria. Soon, the French were committing many of the mistakes and dealing with many of the problems that continue to plague western action in today's world.