The orgy of spending that Americans call Christmas is over. Christmas itself, of course, was never meant to be a commercial occasion, but rather a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. In our secular Christmas, we’ve lost sight not only of the person of Jesus, but of the virtues he embodied. So, this year, let’s consider honoring Jesus by recalling the life of Emir Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (picture above in 1875), a peacemaker, a reconciler, a holy man, and a warrior. As a Muslim, Abd al-Qadir naturally held Jesus in high esteem as a prophet, one born sinless from the Virgin Mary and whose return as the Messiah will usher in Judgment Day. We could learn much from his example.
In 1808, Abd al-Qadir was born in the Ottoman province of Oran (today, western Algeria). His tribe, the Hashem, was dedicated to the study of the Qur’an, the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, and settling disputes among the tribes. He was admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and to Mecca—first as chivalrous adversary of the French after they invaded North Africa in 1830, later as an uncompromisingly stoic prisoner who forced French government to honor its pledge to grant him passage to the Middle East after surrendering voluntarily in 1847. Living in Damascus under a benevolent French patronage, Abd al-Qadir protected thousands of Christians during a Turkish inspired pogrom intended to punish Christians for not paying the head tax.
During his lifetime, Abd al-Qadir’s name would be given to a settlement in Iowa, a ship built in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and a champion race horse (Little Ab) in Ireland. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about him as a model of reconciliation. William Makepeace Thackeray dedicated poetry to him. The citizens of Bordeaux put his name on the presidential ballot in 1849, even though he was by then a prisoner of the French government. Abraham Lincoln was one of many heads of state to honor the emir’s humanitarian actions while he lived in exile. 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.”
Unlike ISIS and al-Qaeda, Abd al-Qadir waged war according to Islamic rules of conduct. These prohibit the destruction of nature, shooting someone in the face, mutilation of dead bodies, killing of women and children, priests and monks, rape, and the mistreatment of prisoners. The emir ended the centuries-old custom of desert warfare of decapitating prisoners after they surrender, instead offering bounty payments for prisoners brought in unharmed. A soldier guilty of mistreating prisoners received a “reward” of twenty-five strokes with a cane on the soles of his feet.
During a life of struggle against French occupation, despair in prison, and exile in foreign land, he never allowed the demons of hatred and revenge to trump compassion and forgiveness. The emir’s life story offers an alternative narrative about Islam, one that has been embraced by mainstream scholars today from New York to London, Lebanon and Turkey to Pakistan and Malaysia. One of them is Mohammad Amar Khan Nasir, the editor of the Pakistani monthly, Al-Sharia. He summarized for me the emir’s importance to the Muslim world today:
First, he never was overwhelmed by the blind zeal to fight at all costs and was capable of making wise judgments. Secondly, he is strictly guided in his decisions by the legal limitations and moral obligations of Divine Law—he knows when it is permissible to kill Christians and when to risk his own life to save them. Thirdly, despite his political animosity toward France, he is not blind to what is common between their religion and his own.… And finally, he can put himself in his adversaries shoes and look into complexities of the situation and understand the factors that make them follow a certain course. Abd el-Kader [sic] is not only a symbol of resistance and struggle against foreign domination, but the embodiment of true theological, moral and rational ideas taught by Islam.
The emir possessed 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. This translated into a life of compassion, courage, and commitment to live according God’s will as revealed in the Torah, the Gospels, and finally the Qur’an, which united the wisdom of Moses with the wisdom of Jesus Christ.
Warfare, betrayal, imprisonment, and the shame of having made his family victims of empty French promises might have given the emir good reason to have been bitter toward his enemies and to have held a grudge against all Christians. Yet, he nursed neither hatred nor desire for revenge. Instead, he learned to appreciate French technical expertise and the loving attention given his family by Dominican nuns, and the sympathetic admirers in France who tried to make his life easier. His lifelong jihad to keep destructive passions under control was a jihad Muslims and non-Muslims alike could benefit from emulating.
Abd al-Qadir’s life reminds us of some of the loftier sentiments of our heritage: of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he doesn’t need, for instance, or of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous line in his fanciful children’s story, The Little Prince, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not exactly slogans for a society which has become a frenetic treadmill of living beyond one’s means to acquire “things.”
John W. Kiser is the author of Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Abd el-Kader, and The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria.