Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Abd el-Kader and the Massacre of Damascus.

The year was 1860, and the world was, as usual, in upheaval. In China, the Second Opium War was coming to an end. America was preparing itself for major surgery, in the form of the Civil War, that would finally cure the young nation of its congenital defect of slavery. And in the heart of the Middle East, in a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire that would later become modern-day Syria, an unholy concoction was brewing. That’s right: politics was mixing with religion.

Christians and Muslims had lived side-by-side in the holy land for over a thousand years. Muslim armies had conquered modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt in the middle of the seventh century, and while the Muslims maintained full political authority, Christians and Jews were allowed to freely practice their religion. The notion that non-Muslims were forced to convert at the point of a sword is laughable – in Egypt, for instance, it is estimated that Muslims made up only half of the population in the year 1200 – five hundred years later.

The area around Lebanon and Syria, in particular, was as religiously diverse as anywhere in the world in the mid-19th century. In addition to substantial numbers of Muslims (both Sunni and Shiite), Christians (Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Chaldean, Syriac, and others), and Jews, there were also religious groups like the Alawi and Druze, who had splintered out of mainstream Islam centuries earlier and were now considered their own religions.

By the standards of that era, these groups lived in relative harmony. Which is to say, by the standards of that era, the fact that these groups co-existed at all was a miracle. If you were a religious minority anywhere in the world, your life was in peril. Just the year before, the very first pogrom in Russia took place in Odessa, claiming the lives of many Jews. Not even America was immune to this sort of religious violence; in 1838, 18 Mormon men were killed in the Haun’s Mill Massacre in Missouri.

The Druze and Maronite Christians were concentrated in Lebanon. The two groups had never liked each other, and their relationship was getting worse. It didn’t help that outside powers were encouraging both sides. The French supported the Christians, the British supported the Druze, and with the Ottoman Empire crumbling by the day, the Turkish rulers were unable or unwilling to end the conflict.

In 1858, Christian peasants in Lebanon mounted an uprising against their Druze feudal lords. The Druze retaliated. The patriarch of the Maronite Christians then threatened to forcibly remove the Druze from the Lebanese mountains. Then things got ugly.

In May of 1860, a group of Christians fired upon a group of Druze outside Beirut, killing one. In the wave of violence that followed on both sides, dozens of villages were burned to the ground, and hundreds of people were killed. The violence spread outside Lebanon and into Syria, towards Damascus, where ambitious men were plotting to shape this heretofore random violence into something much more sinister.

Chief among them was the Turkish governor of Damascus, Ahmed Pasha, who wanted nothing more than to give his population a “correction” – today we would call it ethnic cleansing. In March, he had already begun meeting in secret with two chiefs from the Druze and the mufti of Damascus. Together they hatched a plan to bring about a full-on war in the Christian quarter of the city.

The plan appears to have been this: that the Druze would incite attacks against Christians, “forcing” the Turks to step in and escort the Christian community to a citadel outside the city for their protection. There, Druze conspirators would be waiting to slaughter them all.

With tensions rising between the two sides every day, it would only take a single match to light the fire. That match was lit on July 8th. Pasha arranged for some Muslim boys to draw images of crosses at the edge of the Christian quarter of the city, then to desecrate those images by spitting and throwing garbage at them. The bewildered kids were immediately arrested, with their punishment designed to provoke the rage of the greater Muslim community.

“On July 9, the culprits, mere props in a scenario planned by Ahmed Pasha, were ordered to be publicly beaten, then forced on their hands and knees to wash the streets they had slopped with garbage. Provocateurs did the rest.”

The massacre of Damascus had begun.


“I was told Abd el-Kader was the Algerian George Washington, the father of modern Algeria…Abd el-Kader was the first Arab to create a semblance of tribal unity in order to combat the French occupation. But in defeat, I noted a resemblance to Robert E. Lee. He was gracious, magnanimous, respected by his enemies, and deeply religious.”

Abd el-Kader was one of those men who, in Shakespeare’s words, had greatness thrust upon him. He certainly was not born into it. He was born in a remote region of the Turkish province of what we now call Algeria, in 1808, to a tribal family living on the edges of the Sahara desert. You would be hard pressed to find a region on Earth from which one of the century’s most influential men would be less likely to emerge.

Abd el-Kader was born into a tribe of warriors, men who for centuries had valued valor above all else, and prized nothing more than a fast and sturdy horse. His father Muhi al-Din was a marabout, a religious leader for his tribe, and a leader of a Sufi Muslim tradition known as the Kadiriyya order. It was expected from the time of his birth that Abd el-Kader would follow in his father’s footsteps. “His destiny, had it been his to guide, would have been that of a married monk, living a life of prayer, meditation, and teaching.”

Like all men of his tribe, Abd el-Kader was trained in horsemanship and swordplay and the other arts of warfare, but his primary training was in his religious studies. As a teenager he was sent by his father to the city of Oran to continue his studies. He would return home when he as 15; at the age of 17 he was married, and then set off with his father on the pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that would take two years to complete. This journey would include stops in Damascus and Baghdad, where “word spread of the amazing knowledge and intellectual agility of this young Maghrebin who could politely hold his own with the leading scholars of the city.” Abd el-Kader returned to his home village of Mascara in 1828, and likely would have spent the rest of his life there had events not interceded.

But they did. In 1830, King Charles of France saw an imperial campaign as a great way to counter unpopularity at home, and used a minor diplomatic incident as an excuse to invade Algeria. Algiers surrendered to the French quickly and fairly bloodlessly, although it was not enough to save the King; Charles abdicated later that year and transferred the crown to his cousin, Louis-Phillipe.

Had the French been more magnanimous in victory, the war might have been over quickly. The ruling Turks were hardly beloved by the local population, so if it was just a matter of paying taxes to a different leader, most of the citizens would have gone along with minimal protest.

But like so many foreign conquerors, the French soon turned the local populace against them by being unnecessarily harsh, by being completely tone-deaf to the local culture, and by kicking out the Turks, the only group of people who could have served as intermediaries. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1837, “Once the Turkish government was destroyed with no substitute to replace it, the country fell into appalling anarchy.”

The political vacuum cried out for leadership, which by default fell onto the religious leaders of the various tribes outside the city. The brutality of the French occupation forced these tribal religious leaders to unite against their oppressor. In 1832, the various tribes came together to nominate Abd el-Kader’s father Muhi al-Din to be their sultan.

Muhi al-Din agreed on one condition: that immediately after he accepted the position, he would abdicate in favor of his son. This was met with immediate approval; Abd el-Kader’s religious knowledge, strength, and courage were already famous throughout the region. At the age of 24, Abd el-Kader became the leader of his people in a war against foreign occupation. He would soon earn his title of “Emir al-Mumineen” – the Commander of the Faithful.

In retrospect, Abd el-Kader’s task was hopeless from the start. No amount of military brilliance could have made up for the difference in manpower and technology between the French army and the ragtag bunch of Algerian Bedouins. But man, did he try.

For 15 years, Abd el-Kader led his people in resistance against the French. He led his soldiers by example, staying in the saddle day and night, stopping only to pray, sometimes covering as much as 150 miles in a day to engage the enemy in battle. The French were astonished, and then impressed, at the military prowess of their young enemy.

Abd el-Kader wasn’t simply fighting a war against the French; he was also fighting to establish a nation among his own people. He commissioned a free-standing army. He established and collected taxes necessary to keep his army supplied. He created a cabinet of advisers, including a Jewish merchant who served as his ambassador to the French.

He had to battle not only the French, but the leaders of his own people, many of whom were not averse to working with the enemy or rebelling in other ways if it suited them.

By 1834, Abd el-Kader’s forces had achieved such success that the French general in charge with subduing them sued for a cease-fire, which was granted. Some extremists in his own community labeled him a heretic for negotiating with the French, forcing Abd el-Kader to wage another battle to defeat them.

A year later, though, another general in the French army used a flimsy pretext to break the cease-fire and marched upon Abd el-Kader’s forces. The French forces were ambushed and suffered a humiliating defeat, which burnished Abd el-Kader’s reputation, both with his own people and around the world.

This only made the French mad, though, and they returned in 1836 with more forces and more determination to exterminate their annoying adversary. Abd el-Kader learned quickly that he could not defeat the French army in a pitched battle, and resorted to lightning attacks, his cavalry emerging out of the desert to overwhelm a surprised French unit, then disappearing into the sand just as quickly.

Meanwhile, the exploits of this undermanned, underfunded guerrilla leader, standing up to the mighty French, began to draw the interest of the British and the Americans – the British because of their long-standing rivalry of the French, the Americans because of their own experience with fighting off British imperialization only a few decades before.

Abd el-Kader’s exploits were recounted in America in popular digests like Littell’s Living Age, and one reader was sufficiently taken by el-Kader to name a town after him. Timothy Davis, a lawyer who had settled in Dubuque in 1836 (Iowa had not yet become a state; it was still part of the Louisiana Territory), had acquired property on the Turkey River nearby which seemed ideal for a flour mill, and sketched out a new town to be built around the mill. “So Timothy Davis, a pioneer spirit, respected lawyer and distant admirer of this resilient underdog, named the new settlement after Abd el-Kader, wisely shortened for American tongues to Elkader.”

Elkader, Iowa was founded in 1846. It remains today as the seat of Clayton County, with a population of around 1500. It is the only city in America named after an Arab.

In 1837, General Thomas Bugeaud was put in charge of the French operations in Algeria. His initial assignment was to secure another peace treaty with Abd el-Kader, which he did. This treaty acknowledged France’s sovereignty over the coastal cities of Algiers and Oran, while conceding the interior desert regions to Abd el-Kader. Once again, the French government was not pleased with the terms of the treaty once the details became known. Furthermore, the text of the treaty in Arabic was slightly, but crucially, different than the text in French. In 1839, the French took advantage of the ambiguity by marching their army through a region of the country that was forbidden to them in the Arabic version. The war began anew.

By 1841, the French had become fed up with the resistance of Abd el-Kader and his small army. It was clear that their conventional war tactics were not working. General Bugeaud gave his recommendation to the French Parliament. “We need a leader who will be implacable and wage unlimited war.” He was referring to himself.

For the next six years, the French waged Total War. Over 100,000 soldiers – one-third of the entire French army – was stationed in Algeria, and they were not constrained by the ordinary rules of warfare. Houses were burned, livestock was shot, crops were destroyed. If Abd el-Kader was Robert E. Lee, then Bugeaud was William T. Sherman.

In the words of one of Bugeaud’s most trusted officers, “I shall leave not a single tree standing in their orchards, not a head on the shoulders of these wretched Arabs…I shall burn everything, kill everyone.” The same officer was responsible for suffocating hundreds of men, women, and children who had taken refuge inside a series of caves. In the English press, Bugeaud became known as “The Butcher of the Bedouins.”

By contrast, Abd el-Kader conducted war in as civilized a manner as possible. He devised a series of rules for the treatment of prisoners which were, in some ways, a forerunner to the official rules codified in the Geneva Convention in 1949. In one instance, he released a group of French captive soldiers because he did not have enough food to feed them. Some prisoners were so impressed with Abd el-Kader’s treatment of them that they formally defected to the other side, and served as foreign advisors to the emir.

Through intermediaries, Abd el-Kader set up a correspondence with the Bishop of Algiers, and agreed to release French prisoners of war in exchange for the bishop’s promise to press the French military to release Arab prisoners – which he did, with only limited success. If the French soldiers knew that they would not be slaughtered by the enemy if taken prisoner, they might not fight quite so passionately. As a French Colonel wrote, “We are obliged to try as hard as we can to hide these things [the treatment accorded French prisoners by the Emir] from our soldiers. For if they so much as suspected such things, they would not hasten with such fury against Abd el-Kader.”

Prisoners who were brought to Abd el-Kader were questioned to make sure they had been treated well on their journey; if they weren’t, the Algerian soldier responsible for their care was flogged. Female captives were turned over to the care of the one person in the world that Abd el-Kader trusted most: his own mother.

But the French were too strong, and Abd el-Kader’s Algerians were too disunited. By 1847 he wasn’t fighting a war so much as he was evading capture. His lieutenants were starting to surrender to the French. Abd el-Kader took his family to Morocco, seeking refuge there, but were refused by the Sultan, who did not want to anger the French. Many of his remaining loyal followers wanted to launch one last attack, to go out in a blaze of glory. Abd el-Kader refused.

“If I thought there were still a possibility to defeat France, I would continue. Further resistance will only create vain suffering. We must accept the judgment of God who has not given us victory and who in His infinite wisdom now wants this land to belong to Christians. Are we going to oppose His will?”

In December, 1847, Abd el-Kader sent word to General Lamoriciére, now leading the battle against him, that he was prepared to discuss the terms of his surrender. An agreement was reached, and signed by the King’s own son, that Abd el-Kader and his men would surrender, ending the 15-year war, in exchange for safe passage to Alexandria or Acre in Egypt, where Abd el-Kader planned to live out the rest of his days.

And once again, Abd el-Kader was betrayed when an agreement he reached with one Frenchman did not go over well with the rest of them. The French had more important things on their mind than what to do with Abd el-Kader – the monarchy of King Louis-Philippe was collapsing, and in February of 1848 he abdicated before he could be overthrown. The new government refused to ratify the agreement. Abd el-Kader and his family were instead forcibly moved to France, where they were held prisoner – in fairly luxurious surroundings – for over four years.

The French betrayal of Abd el-Kader only made him a more heroic figure in the eyes of the world. In 1850, a horse named Abd el-Kader (nicknamed “Little Ab”) was entered into the Grand National Steeple Chase in England. The horse, a 33-1 longshot, won. And won the same race the following year. The British author William Thackeray wrote an elegy to Abd el-Kader entitled “The Caged Hawk.” De Tocqueville himself called Abd el-Kader “a Muslim Cromwell.”

And within France, Abd el-Kader became a sort of celebrity. “A cult of sorts began to form around the personality of the emir. People streamed from all over France to visit him.” It was, I imagine, sort of the 19th-century version of going to see the Pope at Yankee Stadium. At one point Abd el-Kader was assigned a new French guard who had requested to be transferred; “he wanted the honor of guarding the emir to repay the consideration with which he had been treated as a former prisoner.” As a nun who cared for Abd el-Kader’s family wrote to her superior, “Allowing for certain exceptions of a theological nature, there is no Christian virtue that Abd el-Kader does not practice to the highest degree.”

In 1849, citizens of Bordeaux put Abd el-Kader’s name on the ballot as a candidate in the presidential elections. By 1852, French public opinion had turned in favor of their fallen enemy, and the elected President, Louis Napoleon (soon to be Emperor Napoleon III), announced that Abd el-Kader was to be freed. After a triumphant parade through Paris, Abd el-Kader and his family were sent to Bursa, a Turkish city not far from Istanbul. Bursa did not agree with the emir, though, and in 1855 – after obtaining approval from Napoleon – Abd el-Kader moved to Damascus.

On the way to Damascus, Abd el-Kader met and befriended the British military attaché in Lebanon, Colonel Charles Henry Churchill – distant cousin of Winston. Churchill would eventually write the definitive biography of Abd el-Kader of his time. When Abd el-Kader arrived in Damascus, as Churchill wrote, “Not since the days of Saladin had anyone received such a triumphal welcome.”


And so it was that in 1860, Abd el-Kader, the tragic hero of the Arab world, found himself in the epicenter of the maelstrom of mayhem. Abd el-Kader had retired from political life, but he still wielded a substantial amount of symbolic power, should he need it. He would.

Connected as he was to the elites of Damascus, Abd el-Kader had heard rumors that certain elements of Damascene society were planning to take advantage of the violence in nearby Lebanon to launch an attack on the local Christians. He was sufficiently concerned to inform the French Consul, and together they went to see the governor, Ahmed Pasha, not realizing that the conspiracy went all the way to the top. Pasha reassured them that there was nothing to the rumors.

Nonetheless, the rumors were so persistent that the Consul was persuaded to do something extraordinary: under the tightest of secrecy, he authorized the expenditure of French money to arm Abd el-Kader and a thousand of his Algerian men.

On July 8th, Abd el-Kader had learned the details of the plot between the Druze and the Turks, and had rode out of the city to confront the Druze cavalry before they attacked. He – and his small army – succeeding in, ahem, convincing the Druze to call off their attack. Meanwhile, though, he was oblivious to the fact that there was a mob already sweeping through Damascus.

He returned to the city on July 10th, and found chaos before him. “Abd el-Kader soon learned that the Turkish troops assigned to protect the populace had been ordered into the citadel or were lackadaisically watching as rioters were running amok, burning homes and slaughtering Christians.”

And at that moment, Abd el-Kader, the man who had led his Muslim people in a war against Christian invaders for 15 years, knew what he had to do. And that he had to do it quickly.

First he and his men hurried to the French consulate to offer safe harbor; the French were immediately joined by Russian, American, Dutch, and Greek diplomats looking to flee the scene. And then:

All afternoon of July 10, Abd el-Kader plunged into the chaos of the Christian quarter with his two sons shouting: “Christians, come with me! I am Abd el-Kader, son of Muhi al-Din, the Algerian…Trust me. I will protect you.” For several hours his Algerians led hesitant Christians to his fortresslike home in the Nekib Allée, whose two-story interior and large courtyards would become a refuge for the desperate victims.

“As night advanced fresh hordes of marauders – Kurds, Arabs, Druzes – entered the quarter and swelled the furious mob, who, glutted with spoil, began to cry for blood. Men and boys of all ages were forced to apostatize and were then circumcised on the spot…Women were raped or hurried away to distant parts of the country where they were put in harems or married instantly to Mohammedans,” wrote Churchill of the events. “To say that the Turks took no means to stay this huge deluge of massacre and fire would be superfluous. They connived at it, they instigated it, they shared in it. Abd el-Kader alone stood between the living and the dead.”

Abd el-Kader returned with his men, and every Christian they could pull away to safety, to his estate.

News spread among the rioters that the emir was protecting the Christians. The next day an angry crowd gathered at his door to protest. They were prepared to tolerate his harboring diplomats, but demanded that he hand over the local Christians under his protection. As the mob got larger and more unruly, the emir came to the door.

“Give us the Christians,” the crowd shouted after he had quieted it by his silent presence.

“My brothers, your behavior violates the law of God. What makes you think you have a right to go around killing innocent people? Have you sunk so low that you are slaughtering women and children? Didn’t God say in our holy book, Whoever kills a man who has never committed murder or created disorder in the land will be regarded as a murderer of all humanity?

“Give us the Christians! We want the Christians!”

“Didn’t God say there should be no constraint in religion?” the emir vainly replied.

“Oh holy warrior,” cried out one of the leaders in the mob. “We don’t want your advice. Why do you stick your nose in our business?”

“You have killed Christians yourself,” shouted another. “How can you oppose us for avenging their insults. You are like the infidels yourself – hand over those you are protecting in your home, or you will be punished the same as those you are hiding.”

“You are fools! The Christians I killed were invaders and occupiers who were ravaging our country. If acting against God’s law doesn’t frighten you, then think about the punishment you will receive from men…It will be terrible, I promise. If you will not listen to me, then God didn’t provide you with reason – you are like animals who are aroused only by the sight of grass and water.”

“You can keep the diplomats. Give us the Christians!” shouted the mob, sounding more and more like Romans in the Coloseum.

“As long as one of my soldiers is still standing, you will not touch them. They are my guests. Murderers of women and children, you sons of sin, try to take one of these Christians and you will learn how well my soldiers fight.” The emir turned to Kara Mohammed. “Get my weapons, my horse. We will fight for a just cause, just as the one we fought for before.”

“God is great,” his men shouted, brandishing their guns and swords. Faced with the emir’s battle-hardened veterans, the crowd melted away bravely hurling insults.

Well over a thousand Christian refugees were housed inside Abd el-Kader’s home, making it so crowded that people could not sit or lie down, let alone use the facilities. So Abd el-Kader arranged for small groups of his Algerian men to accompany the Christians, in groups of 100, to the citadel outside the city – the same citadel that the Druze had originally planned to use to slaughter them.

The residence was finally emptied out and cleaned. Abd el-Kader then circulated word that a reward of fifty piasters would be paid for each Christian brought to his home. For five days, the emir rarely slept, and when he did, it was on a straw mat in the foyer of his residence where he dispensed reward money from a sack he kept by his side. As soon as 100 refugees were collected, his Algerians escorted them to the citadel.

The worst of the rioting ended on July 13th, 1860 – one hundred and fifty years ago today. At least 3,000 Christians were killed before it was all over. Abd el-Kader was credited with saving upwards of 10,000 Christians, including the entire European diplomatic corps.

Word reached France a week later – both the horrifying news of the massacre, and the incredible news of Abd el-Kader’s pivotal role in stopping it. The French were in equal parts ecstatic and dumbfounded. Editorials praising his actions were printed in newspapers throughout the country. Le Gazette de France wrote:

“The emir Abd el-Kader has immortalized himself by the courageous protection he has given the Syrian Christians. One of the most beautiful pages of the history of the 19th century will be devoted to him.” Another paper wrote: “When the carnage was at its worst, the emir appeared in the streets, as if sent by God.”

Word traveled across the Atlantic in due course. On October 20th, the New York Times published its own editorial:

“For Abd-El-Kader this is indeed a chapter of glory, and of the truest glory, too. It is no light thing for history to record, that the most uncompromising soldier of Mohammedan independence, when that independence kept the mountains, sword in band, became the most intrepid guardian of Christian lives and Christian honor in the days of his political downfall, and in the decline alike of his people and of his faith. The defeats which surrendered Algiers to the Frank have been strangely and nobly avenged…To-day the Christian world unites to honor in the dethroned Prince of Islam, the most unselfish of knightly warriors, risking limb and life to rescue his ancient foes, his conquerors and the conquerors of his race and his religion, from outrage and from death.”

(Amazingly, the New York Times has archives that date back to 1851. You can read the full editorial here.)

Abd el-Kader was not the only Muslim who strove to defend the Christians of Damascus from the raging mob. In particular, in the area of Damascus known as Maydan, which (then and now) was home to the most devoutly religious Muslims in the city, Muslims hid and protected their Christian neighbors from the violence. But Abd el-Kader became the face of those Muslims who had stood up to defend the Christian community, and as such, honors and accolades descended upon him from all over the world.

The French immediately bestowed upon Abd el-Kader, who barely a decade before had been their greatest enemy, the French Legion of Honor. (This would be like America, in 1987, awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to Ho Chi Minh.) Russia, Spain, Prussia, Great Britain, and the Pope all awarded various distinctions on Abd el-Kader. And from the United States came a gift of a pair of finely wrought colt pistols – one source claims they were made of gold – delivered in a maple box which bore the inscription: “From the President of the United States, to his Excellency, Lord Abdelkader, 1860.”

(Two of my sources claim the gift was sent by President Lincoln, not President Buchanan. While this would make the story even better – one of our best presidents rather than one of our worst – Lincoln did not take office until March, 1861.)

Abd el-Kader was characteristically modest about his role. In a letter to the Bishop of Algiers, he wrote,

“…That which we did for the Christians, we did to be faithful to Islamic law and out of respect for human rights. All creatures are part of God’s family and those most loved by God are those who do the most good for his family. All the religions of the book rest on two principles – to praise God and to have compassion for his creatures…The law of Mohammed places the greatest importance on compassion and mercy, and on all that which preserves social cohesion and protects us from division. But those who belong to the religion of Mohammed have corrupted it, which is why they are now like lost sheep. Thank you for your prayers and good will toward me…”

The impact of the massacre was significant. As soon as word reached France, an army was dispatched to Lebanon. The Turkish sultan, looking to deprive the French of a reason to invade, dispatched his own army to Damascus to identify and prosecute the perpetrators. In the end, over 300 men were found guilty, half of whom were exiled from the empire. The others were sentenced to death, including the governor, Ahmed Pasha, who was shot. But the lingering question of who was the true instigator of the unrest – whether it was the Turks who wanted revenge, or whether it was even the British or French who were looking for an excuse to occupy Syria – remains unsolved to this day.

Meanwhile, the French and British both still had designs on the area, and as a bridge until the day came when they could officially colonize the region, the idea was floated of installing Abd el-Kader as the ruler of Damascus. The only problem was that Abd el-Kader had no interest. As he told a visiting French journalist, “My career in politics is over. I have no ambition for worldly glory. From now on, I want only the sweet pleasures of family, prayer, and peace.”

He was true to his word. Abd el-Kader lived out the rest of his days in Damascus, and his residence was on the must-visit list of any European who came to the city. In 1869, Abd el-Kader was influential in convincing the Arabs of the worthiness of a project to build a canal to link the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, which helped to make the Suez Canal a reality.

Otherwise, Abd el-Kader lived a life of simple spirituality, spending much of his time writing a commentary on the works of Ibn Arabi, the famous 13th-century Muslim scholar. He died of renal failure on May 25th, 1883, and was buried next to Ibn Arabi’s tomb in Damascus. The New York Times ran an obituary a few months before his death, which read in part:

“One of the ablest rulers and most brilliant captains of the century, if the estimates made of him by his enemies is correct, is now, in all probability approaching the end of his stormy career…The nobility of his character, no less than the brilliancy of his exploits in the field, long ago won him the admiration of the world…Great men are not so abundant that we can afford to lose them without a word. If to be an ardent patriot, a soldier whose genius is unquestioned, whose honor is stainless; a statesman who could weld the wild tribes of Africa into a formidable enemy, a hero who could accept defeat and disaster without a murmur – if all these constitutes a great man, Abd-El-Kader deserves to be ranked among the foremost of the few great men of the century.”


One of the youngest people to accompany Abd el-Kader on his journey into exile, first to France and later to Damascus, was Muhammad Yunus, who was just seven years old when he left Algeria. When the mob invaded Damascus. Muhammad Yunus Al-Jaza’iri (Al-Jaza’iri is Arabic for “The Algerian”) was in his early 20s, but he had already earned a position as a trusted confidant to Abd el-Kader and occupied a high place in the emir’s army, and he played a pivotal role in rescuing the Christians from the mob. Which isn’t surprising, as Muhammad Yunus’ own father, Muhammad Sha’aban, had been one of Abd el-Kader’s most trusted lieutenants during the war in Algeria. Also, Abd el-Kader was his uncle.

While Abd el-Kader’s fame made him untouchable, those around him were not so lucky. Muhammad Yunus was poisoned and died suddenly in 1880. The Druze were suspected, but nothing was ever proved.

When Muhammad Yunus died, Abd el-Kader himself was the executor of his estate, and until he passed away Abd el-Kader served as the guardian to Muhammad Yunus’ young son, Mahmoud, my great-grandfather.

Muhammad Yunus was my great-great-grandfather.

Abd el-Kader, as best as we can discern from the genealogy records, was my great-great-great-great uncle.

I’ve been writing professionally for 15 years, and particularly since 9/11 I have tried, when circumstances allow, to make this an underlying theme in my work: that Muslims and Christians can live together, that there is more that unites us than divides us, that it is only the extremists on both sides who want to see a Clash of Civilizations, and not co-existence, rule the day.

Just know that greater men have tread this way before. My efforts to do so are a speck of dust on top of a mighty mountain of tolerance my ancestors built in 1860. I am honored to play whatever miniscule part I can in echoing the message that Abd el-Kader spread so eloquently, and with such impact, 150 years ago today.

(All italicized words above are quoted directly from John W. Kiser’s wonderful book, Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader, without which this article could not have been written.)

Enjoy the All-Star Break, everyone. There will be a baseball post here soon enough.


Jammer said...

Long-time admirer of this site, and this is my first comment.

Bravo, Rany. That was a fantastic piece

Doug said...

Thanks for all the time and effort you put into this post Rany, it was both enlightening and enjoyable to read. There will be those detractors that say you should stick to talking about baseball, but I for one disagree. This post is a great tribute to the spirit of your great-great-great-great uncle.

Jason Norbury said...

Wow. And thank you.

Unknown said...

Stick to talking about baseball . . . and this. Thank you, Rany.

Curtis said...

Thanks. A truly fascinating read.

Unknown said...

Beautifully written Rany. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Rany

Dan Holden said...

I was going to give this one a pass until I saw the part about the Druze. I just finished The Hakawati and my curiousity was aroused.

I'm glad i didn't skip it. Thanks.

niggledork said...

That... was beautiful.

Chance said...

This period in history is often under-studied in the U.S. except as it relates to U.S. history (civil war), and many people feel that the story of Christians and Muslims is one of ancient hatred. I applaud your efforts to change this perception.

By the way, didn't the royals once have a pitcher named Justin Abdelkader? I am sure I know of an athlete by that name...

I will have to look it up.

Chance said...

I knew I knew that name...Justin Abdelkader plays for the Detroit Red Wings...my favorite hockey team.

Nick said...

Well done, Rany.

Anonymous said...


kw said...

This is history I am embarrassingly ignorant of, but now I can add Abd el-Kader to my list of heroes. Thank you for that gift.

Mike Fast said...

Thank you, Rany. Excellent story.

Ben said...

Rany, very nice story. Thanks for sharing this personal history. Looking forward to more good stuff in the future. Go Royals!

Anonymous said...

It's writing like this that shows you are one of Baseball's most underrated writers.

GregN said...

Amazing story. I know so much more than I did 30 minutes ago.
Thank you.

Karte said...

Wow. Just wow.

Excellent piece, Rany.

Justin said...

Brilliant writing and a great piece of history. Thanks for sharing, Rany.

Luke-a-Duke said...

I'll be completely honest, that as a Christian/huge fan of your work (both radio and blog), when I started to read this, I started to worry a bit and thought "Oh no - I hope this doesn't have an ending that makes Christians look bad" as I get a little paranoid since most other media seems to delight in taking shots at Christians so I automatically fear for the worst...

You can't look at Digg.com on any given day without at least one or two articles that delight in pointing out that apparently all Christians are bigotted, backwards, buffoons.

Thankfully, as always (and just like I still figured would be the case because I've come to trust your attitude towards others of different beliefs), you came through with a beautiful article that spelled out exactly how I feel about religions. That the God most worth following (whether Muslim, Christian, or any other interpretation of a supreme deity) would want us to not attack others based on their beliefs and make an attempt to win others to our views through our love and our positive actions, not through our anger or hate. Well done, old bean!

Rany, I love your baseball stuff, but between this and the wonderful Father's Day post, I'm almost coming around to the non-baseball stuff as the better blog entries to look forward to!! :D

Nate B said...

Good heavens this is my favorite read this month. Thanks so much for putting this to digital paper. Made my day.

Jayboid said...

Rany, All the best to what I believe a very brave action on your part. You have done more giving we “Ranians” a look at reality from a different perspective.

The older I become, the more I wish for acceptance of meaningful world history. Not the world history of twisting words one way to fit a modern cause. Nor, the twisting of words to disparage dissimilar voices. There are no innocents among us if we dig far enough in our ancestry. I do believe there are many many more heroes as well, if we choose to uncover real history.

I remember well listening to my Welsh aunt and uncle who lived long periods in Pre-war (2) Yemen recount so many pleasurable memories. The photos, the lavish art, the tales of such wonderful people were a part of their late lives. The Yemen of today is nothing like the nation they praised.

In short...........

The Arab World is as complex and fascinating as any history of any people. For this lucky blog follower, keep up the Syrian regional history.

Now.......what is your best poison ivy cure?

KCKman said...

Great post Rany. I too as a Christian thought that this was gonna be bashing of Christians. Sadly, the extreme(from both sides) are what gives those like me that congitation.

Keep up the good work. Can't wait to read some Royals postings.

God Bless

Unknown said...

Chills at the end. That was fantastic.

Nathan said...

I've just started reading this blog, Rany, but I can say without a doubt that is one of the most fantastic pieces I have ever read on these here Internets.

John said...


I have read the story of Abd el-Kader from other sources; he was one of the great men of his time, regardless of nationality or faith. If you are related to him, you should be very proud. If a Muslim asks me if his faith bothers him, I answer that Islam was the faith of Saladin and Abd el-Kader, both of whom I admire.

Even though I knew the story, I enjoyed reading the post. Great job.

Brett said...

Thank you for the history lesson. Fascinating story, and beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

Great writing.

I think you are doing dermatology a disservice by not giving all of your time to writing. Either that or you are one hell of a doctor.

I truly enjoyed the story and the message. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

wouldn't this fit better on a "Rany On The Sand Niggers" blog?

Chris M said...

Anon @ 11:04

As usual, we can depend on you to make the most idiotic posts of all time. You add a new one every day. Congrats on your stupidity and burying your head in the sand instead of being enlightened. What a sad little person you must be.

Anonymous said...

Mel Gibson everybody

Erik said...

It's my birthday for 13 more minutes, here on the west coast, Rany. Thanks a lot for this. What a terrific piece. Lunch is on me, when you get out this way. We'll talk Royals and many other subjects. Thanks again and again.

Joe said...

I think a career as a history story-teller is in the works. Your writing syle and passion for muslim and christian co-existence resemlbes hochchild's king leopold's ghost. i would definitely buy your books if they had excerpts half as good as this. Well done, love a good piece so far back in history that ties in with the father's day message of genealogy.

Unknown said...

Wow, I am glad I read this. I'm not sure if you have seen or heard of this, but Power of Nightmares is a great documentary on how extremists on both sides were able to use fear to create this aura of 'a clash of civilizations.'

kcghost said...

Not what I expect out of this site, but as a history buff it was a wonderful read.

I think it shows us that men of moderation have and do exist in the world. Unfortunately, it also shows us how rare it is for the forces of moderation and tolerance to be willing to stand up to the opposing forces.

Unknown said...

Thank you Rany. Very thoughtful and enlightening. I hope that others will blow your speck of dust to the find to create a storm of understanding.

Old Man Duggan said...

Fantastic. Have you ever entertained the notion of becoming a screenwriter? If only one time, this still could reach a much larger audience and should be told far and wide.

GeorgeM said...

I enjoyed this post, too, and have put a hold on that book at the library. I love the blog for the Royals content, but knowing more about the author, and some under-appreciated world history just adds to everything. Thanks for everything.

Kenneth said...

thank you so much for believing your readers are smart enough to enjoy this. I have been reading since last year.

All I have to say is THANK YOU very much.

Please feel free to divert from Baseball whenever you want.

Jake said...

Please tell me this is not the only place you plan to publish this work. Other people need to read this. The whole time reading I was thinking "this would make a great movie."

Anyway, I can tell that you are very proud of your heritage and you should be.

Anonymous said...

Rany is a piece of fucking shit. Fuck you Raghead. The only hint worse than a DM turncoat pussy is a Muslim DM turncoat pussy. Go suicide bomb someone bitch.

Fuck you Rany.

DuggansMom said...

Old Man Duggan is a bitch.

Anonymous said...

Rany the Propangandist? Fitting......

Still trying to figure out who could do more damage to the Royals- Dayton Moore or a suicide bomber?

Seriously Rany, nobody gives a shit about your filthy religion or those extremist assholes you are writing about. Islam is a crap religion and Muslims are the scourge of this Earth. We should nuke the whole Middle East. The world would be much better off.

Anonymous said...

powerful stuff...

Michael said...

Children, it's time for bed. Let the adults talk now.

Great story Rany. I as well had never heard this before. Thanks for the history lesson!

Anonymous said...

So....what is Allahs OPS?

Old Man Duggan said...

I really have utter disdain for all the juvenile xenophobic spewing of hate that somehow makes it to this comment section. Whatever you think you are accomplishing by weighing in with your suicide bomber jokes is producing the opposite result.

Carl said...

The Islamophobic commenters could really benefit from actually reading the post. They are just the type of ignorant, hateful people who end up in mobs, calling for Jesus to be crucified, or for el-Kader to release the Christians under his protection. Unfortunately, ignorance is fundamentally incapable of recognizing itself.

Rany, this was, in my humble opinion, the singularly best piece you have ever written. It made my day. I'd also agree with the above poster that if you're not writing full-time, you'd better be a helluva dermatologist.

Carl said...

And for the record, Allah/God would have an OPS almost as high as Miguel Cabrera's.

Anonymous said...

Came here looking for some Rany on the Royals but great piece none the less.

Anonymous said...

Duggan you thin skinned mommas boy, grow a sack.

And how many of you have ever stepped foot in the middle east? I have and it is crap.

Michael said...

OOH, I know, lets all play a game! Lets all come up with the most outlandish, retarded comments that we can and post them and see how many people comment on them so we can then jerk ourselves off to them! Doesn't that sound like fun?

Anonymous said...


Jason Dixon said...

"America was preparing itself for major surgery, in the form of the Civil War, that would finally cure the young nation of its congenital defect of slavery"

That's just brilliant writing...as is the rest of this wonderful piece.

Adam said...

Outstanding work. I applaud the writing, the wisdom of the content, and the decision to post this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. Wonderful writing.

Omar said...

Simply fantastic. Thank you, Rany, both for your stellar baseball analysis and for this wonderful post.

Anonymous said...


For nothing.

Anonymous said...

That was absolutely fantastic. The fact that you give writing away like this for free while others make money from complete crap is a crime.

NPK said...

Great post... thanks Rany.

Anonymous said...

Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters is a good book dealing with Muslim treatment of Christians in North Africa. It also provides some of the reasoning for the French decision to invade.

Jim M said...

Rany, I finally found time to read this, and have nothing more to add that the majority of the posters have said already. Bravo!! Just wanted to chime in on this... thank you again. I look forward to another installment when you have the time.

Clint said...

did you mean to post this on www.RanyOnReligion.com ?

Anonymous said...

Great story Rany. So tragic that we never learn from our mistakes.

And it's awesome that you're connected to that guy.

Anonymous said...

Can I punch you in the face, Rany?

Rick said...

So, why does "anonymous" hate Rany so much? I don't get it. IT'S JUST A BLOG. Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Rany.

Leslie said...

Great post. Thank you.

Kip W said...

That was fascinating. What a life!

Unknown said...

This was wonderful. I knew of him, and this event, but the clarity of your account is incredible.

I took the liberty of building a post around it, because it was, sadly, too topical to ignore, and, thankfully, to well written to not take advantage of.

Regretfully I cannot share your, specific enthusiasm for the Royals, as I am veins are blue blooded, through and through.

Go Dodgers.


dd-b said...

The 19th Century certainly had some stories in it! This is an excellent one, with which I was not previously familiar. Thank you for telling it!

Ryanzilla said...

That was possibly the best thing I have read all year and will read all year. Absolutely moving and beautiful.

As a human being I will now apologize for all hateful posts previously written as "They" will not and someone should.

From The Haters:
I'm sorry we hate we just don't know any better thanks to our inability to use the thinking box in ours heads that God gave us.
May we face our maker and be judged accordingly whoever the maker is.

Anonymous said...

What a remarkable man! It's an inspiring story, and you've told it well. How wonderful to have him as a relative.

brianeisley said...

This was an absolutely incredible story. And one I was completely unaware of, despite my deep interest in 19th-century history. el-Kader was a truly amazing man, and you should be very proud to be related to him.

And I agree, the people spewing hatred in the comments are exactly the people who most need to read it and think seriously about it. Too bad they won't. (Also, I note that these chuckleheads never, EVER, put their name on their garbage.)

I found this piece by way of Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who blogs about science fiction here; I have zero interest in baseball and have never read your blog before. But I have to say, you are one hell of a writer, and I hope to see more of your stuff in the future.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post!

Nine years after the events in Damascus described by Rany, another great 19th century figure turned up in Damascus, the famed explorer and scholar Sir Richard Burton. He and Abdul El-Kader became friends, apparently.

moe99 said...

Wonderful wonderful piece. Just one quibble, however. I think Wm T. Sherman has been unfairly maligned over the years for his behavior and I think if you read historians like James McPherson, you will find some agreement there. He was tasked with a most unpleasant job, and he did it in order to end the Civil War as quickly as possible. There is not enough space here to truly set out the full story, but I appreciate this quote from McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom:" "Like Lincoln, he [Sherman] believed in a hard war and a soft peace. 'War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,' sherman had told Atlanta's mayor after ordering the civilian population expelled from the occupied city. But 'when peace does come, you may call on me for anything. Then will I share with you the last cracker.'" p.809

zakir said...

Hi Rany,
This is an amazing story. I understand there's a recently-completed filmscript on Abd El-Kader and his life - can't wait for that movie to be produced!

Anonymous said...

Linked here via Making Light.

This is beautiful.

Thank you.

Matt said...

I've never read your blog and I'm not a Royals fan. But I was pointed to this by a friend who follows you and told me this is would be one of the best posts I've read all year. He was right. Thanks.

Dwight Williams said...

I also came here via recommendation from the Nielsen-Haydens. I thank you for this. A tale of one for whom starships might be some day be named.

Alma Alexander said...

Thank you for this. I read it breathlessly. I feel honoured to be (through you) a part of this history.

Sarah said...

I was directed here from kottke.org. This is an amazing article and I've forwarded the link on to friends. What a fascinating story!

Moktarama said...

This article was a beautiful piece, thank you for writing it.

As a frenchman, I do appreciate your piece very much : it was accurate but not filled with anger for any side, and reflected very well what was the talent of Abd el-Kader during the Algerian colonization in the beginning of the 19th century (as was Lee's one during the Civil War) .

As for the faith of your far-uncle, it effectively reflects what mainly was the islamic conception of life during most of its history : one of great tolerance for the other religions of the book (which were quite the only ones in this area) and an absolute disdain for the killing of innocents.

vivek said...

Beautifully written piece. It must feel good to have such illustrious ancestors.

Now I have found a beautiful historical example to share with those inclined to be intolerant of other people based on their faith.


Inshallah, you will be able to write more on such themes.

Lori said...

I am both pleased and enlightened by this article full of history. I am a Christian and now have a completely different outlook about Muslims and Christians living peacefully together. I thank God for you and feel that God lead me to your article for a reason. Thank you very much. God Bless

P.R.Subramanian said...

I am a Hindu living in India, where we have many examples of religious tolerance (the stories of religious intolerance are but a few). Though Abd el-Kader's story is well known, I did not know certain intricate details, which I do now. I am privileged to read about Abd el-Kadar through his living relative. In a world of hatred, these are gems that stand out showing the way forward for humanity. Branding Islam as a "terror faith" by some people shows their ignorance and intolerance. Please forgive those "anonymous" commentators, for they are ignorant and intolerant. Thanks very much for a fantastic article.

zilch said...

Thank you so much. I'm an atheist, but I've always thought that it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you follow your heart, and Abd el-Kader followed his heart.

cheers from sunny Vienna, zilch

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautifully rendered example!

Kariman said...

amazing...this would make an incredible movie!

M. Abbasi said...

Dear Rany, As a first generation, Muslim,Arab, I heard a lot about Abdel Kader Al Jazaeri, but not in so much detail. I applaud you for this piece, and hope it becomes a movie someday. This is much more interesting and relevant than Omar Al Mukhtar Movie.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
P.R.Subramanian said...

Can someone mail Pastor Terry Jones this article? How can a pastor, who is expected to have tolerance for other religions, behave in an irresponsible fashion (Burning the Koran)? I will be happy if somebody tells the (Ir)Reverend Terry Jones of Abd el-Kader fighting to save Christian lives, and how many people like Abd ek-Kader of today do their bit in maintaining religious harmony.

Anonymous said...

Came across this whilst reading for a PhD. Absolutely brilliant, hats off to you and good look in all your endeavours.

Amerloc said...

And a much-deserved link at http://longform.org/ brought me here all these months later to first read this piece, and then to thank you for writing it.

I'd Rather Play Outside said...

Excellent historic writing, an exemplary piece that lets the story tell itself. It made the family ties presented at the end of the post much more meaningful.

I'm not a baseball fan, but found this post on longform.org. Heard from my boyfriend that you're already quite respected among baseball followers. Please add us longform readers to that group!

Anonymous said...

I was linked here by the Slacktivist on Patheos. This is a beautiful example of religious tolerance and compassion for suffering, and the fact that it is not mentioned in the history books here is a gross oversight.

Kaelri said...

I, too, found this piece via slacktivist this morning, and I'm glad I did. This is a wonderful story that shows off both your extraordinary pen and your (completely unsurprising) passion for the subject. I'm embarrassed to say that I was not very familiar with el-Kader before today, but he's now on my list of people who make me proud to be a member of the same species.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Rany, on writing and disseminating such a meaningful piece of work.

The number of Muslim migrants living in Ireland, and the number of "New Irish" children born to them, is on the increase and naturally there is a mild increase in racist sentiment. Whenever and wherever I can, I try to point out the peaceful nature of Islam, and the long history of Arab enlightenment and culture. This post is officially top of my list of references.

I found this through Twitter, and I'll go on and bully others to come and read it.

ryendeckard said...

Fantastic article, and I find it inspiring that a man's actions can elicit emotions in me a hundred years later.

elevencrayons said...

I read about Abd el Kader two days ago in an edition of Saudi Aramco World I found in our school library and decided to read more about it. So I found this article you wrote.
I live in Indonesia where we have almost everything, from Chinese to Arabs to Malays to Americans. We have Muslims and Christians and Hindus and more. We've lived in harmony for decades and tried so hard to maintain it because bad people somehow just don't like us to live in peace. This article, with the comments, somehow reminds me that we still have people who believe peace in diversity is no Utopian dreams. Thank you.

reynard61 said...

Also here from "Slacktivist". Excellent work! This is the kind of historical writing that we need to see more of! Not just the dry, boring (and often factually deficient) crap that is found in most so-called "history" books these days.

Traidor said...

Rany, this is such a cool article, I mean, one of the best ever. Please take this the right way: my girlfriend just called saying she was feeling overanxious and couldn't sleep. I read it to her over the phone with Beethoven blaring in the background. She fell asleep somewhere in between Abd-El Kader removal to France and his relocation to Damascus. It took me almost 25 minutes to get so far (I was translating on the fly). Your writing is just too poignant, important and powerful. Tomorrow I'll tell her the rest and how it was all about the great-great-great-great-uncle of some guy that usually writes about baseball and has a day job. Reminded me a lot about our local hero: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Gervasio_Artigas

Dexter Peabody said...

I don't twit, but wanted to comment on your blog about American Muslims.
You will never convince the haters, but American Muslims could pacify others by renouncing, loudly, clearly, and often, Jihad and Sharia Law.
No amount of "Hey we're Americans just like you" will substitute for that reassurance.
Maybe that is happening already, and I just missed it...?

Lakeman said...

That was absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing.

Puddles said...

Thank you, Rany, for this beautifully written and gripping story. I came here through a link from John Kiser's book "Commander of the Faithful; the Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader".

Emir Abd el-Kader is my children's great-great-grandfather, so I already knew most of the story, and have even visited his house in Damascus and stood in the gate of the old city walls where he challenged and faced down the mob. But you have added so much more detail that I didn't already know and it was a fascinating and emotional read. Thank you, cousin.

There are so many lessons to re-learn from this history. More than a hundred and fifty years later, one can only reflect how much in need of an Emir Abd el-Kader both the Arab world and the US is today.

I agree with others who say this would make a great (and long-overdue) movie.

Frank.Cristelli said...

Do you ever sing about your blog to the tune of "Monie in the Middle" by Monie Love? Because I actually can't stop doing it.

GregTamblyn said...

Terrific story, beautifully written. I came here for baseball, and instead got an education. Thanks.

oak said...

As chaos has taken over Syria, refugees have poured into Europe, terrorists have attached Paris, and the United States now debates taking in refugees I thought about your story. A brilliant reminder of the type of leaders we should aspire to become and/or elect to lead us.