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.