Thursday , February 22 2024
The biography of a 19th century Islamic jihadist reveals why he was praised as one of the "few great men" of his century.

Book Review: Commander of the Faithful – The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John W. Kiser

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.

Initially greeted somewhat gratefully by a population tired of corrupt Turkish rule, French ignorance of and attitudes toward cultural differences and the prominent role of Islam in Arab life led to revolt. In 1832, various tribes elected Abd el-Kader's father to lead a jihad against the invaders. The first thing he did in pursuit of that jihad was to abdicate in favor of his son, who became "commander of the faithful." Building various alliances among the Arab tribes — alliances that would always seem to shift — Abd el-Kader relied on the skills and weapons available to his forces to combat the more modern French military. Those alliances also helped him establish some order and exercise general sovereignty over the tribes, power frequently exercised with a view toward religious principles and the suras. By 1837, the French signed a treaty recognizing Abd el-Kader's sovereignty over two-thirds of Algeria. Kiser details not only the Arab strategy and tactics leading to that and other interim treaties but also Abd el-Kader's approach toward negotiating and how he intended to adhere to his word although the French rarely did.

The French soon broke the treaty and Abd el-Kader embarked on a guerrilla war. Realizing that a traditional military approach didn't work, the French engaged in what was essentially a scorched earth policy and produced what the New York Times called "a veritable carnage." To perhaps bring a sense of what was happening within the grasp of American readers, Kiser's chronology at the end of the book shows the events of Abd el-Kader's life next to events in the decline and decimation of Native American tribes. Still, when a French general announced in November 1843 that "all serious fighting is over," it would be nearly four years before Abd el-Kader surrendered. Even then, it was largely because many tribes had succumbed to French tactics and Abd el-Kader felt further fighting would "only create vain suffering."

Abd el-Kader's surrender in December 1847 was in large part predicated on his agreement — and a French promise to allow him — to leave Algeria for Alexandria, Egypt, or Acre, in what is now Israel. As before, though, France reneged. Abd el-Kader and his large household of more than 100 people were transferred to and held captive in France, albeit for much of the time on estates as opposed to prison cells. It is here that Kiser perhaps gives us the most insight into the man. He details how Abd el-Kader continued to adhere to his word and religious principles throughout this trying period. Commander of the Faithful also explores Abd el-Kader's interest in and study of theology, including Christian theology, and how his personality and intelligence ended up charming the French public.

After four years, he and his household were released, returning first to Turkey and eventually settling in Damascus, where he would reside until his death in 1883. There, he continued his study of Islam and theology, and became acquainted with a number of Western figures, including Sir Richard Burton. Most notably, in 1860 he personally sheltered numerous Christians who were the subject of a Turkish pogrom. When a mob demanded he turn them over, Abd el-Kader told them it violates Islam to kill innocent people. He was credited with saving thousands. His actions only bolstered his reputation and standing around the world and he would later visit France and other parts of Europe to great acclaim.

Today, it is virtually impossible to imagine major world publications praising an Arab Muslim who led his people in a jihad against an invading superpower. Commander of the Faithful helps us understand how that could occur and, more important, sheds light on how our views of Islam and the Middle East continue to be affected by misconceptions or ignorance.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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