By Reza Shah-Kazemi
14 August 2015
Not an Eye for an Eye: The Emir ¢Abd al-Q¥dir
The life-blood of terrorism is hatred; and this hatred is often in turn the disfigured expression of grievance—a grievance that may be legitimate. In the present day, few doubt that the on-going injustices in Palestine and other parts of the Muslim world give rise to legitimate grievances; but there is nothing in Islam that justifies the killing or injuring of civilians, nor of perpetrating any excess as a result of hatred, even if that hatred is based on legitimate grievances. The pursuit of justice must be conducted in accordance with justice; the means should not undermine the end: “O ye who believe, be upright for God, witnesses in justice; and let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust. Be just—that is closer to piety.”32
It would be profitable to dwell at some length at one of the most important figures of recent history, the Emir ¢Abd al-Q¥dir, leader of the Algerian Muslims in their heroic resistance to French colonial aggression between 1830 and 1847. For his conduct is a perfect exemplification of the principle enshrined in this verse, and, in general, he stands forth as a powerful antidote to many of the most insidious poisons afflicting the body politic of the Muslim world in our times. For his response to a truly despicable enemy—if ever there were one—was never tainted with the hint of injustice; on the contrary, his impeccable conduct in the face of treachery, deceit, and unspeakable cruelty put his “civilized” adversaries to shame. His enemy, the French, who initiated imperialistic aggression against the Muslims of Algeria, were guilty of the most horrific crimes in their “mission civilisatrice,” crimes that were in fact acknowledged as such by the architects of this mission, but justified by them on account of the absolute necessity of imparting “civilization” to the Arabs. This was an end which justified any means, even, ironically, the most savage. Bopichon, author of two books on Algeria in the 1840s, states the underlying ethos of the French colonial enterprise as follows:
Little does it matter that France in her political conduct goes beyond the limits of common morality at times; the essential thing is that she establish a lasting colony, and that as a consequence, she will bring European civilization to these barbarous countries; whe a project which is to the advantage of all humanity is to be carried out, the shortest path is the best. Now, it is certain that the shortest path is terror.…33
Terrorism well describes the policy carried out by the French. Testimonies abound as to the atrocities perpetrated by French forces. An evidently remorseful, if not traumatized, Count d’Hérisson recounts in his book La chasse à l’homme (Hunting the man) that “we would bring back a barrel full of ears harvested, pair by pair, from prisoners, friends or foes,” inflicting on them “unbelievable cruelties.” The ears of Arabs were worth ten francs a pair, “and their women remained a perfect prey.”34 Official French reports eventually registered with shame these monstrous acts. A Government Inquiry Commission report of 1883 frankly admitted:
We massacred people carrying [French] passes, on a suspicion we slit the throats of entire populations who were later on proven to be innocent; we tried men famous for their holiness in the land, venerated men, because they had enough courage to come and meet our rage in order to intercede on behalf of their unfortunate fellow countrymen; there were men to sentence them and civilized men to have them executed.35
How did the Emir respond to such unbridled savagery? Not with bitter vengefulness and enraged fury but with dispassionate propriety and principled warfare. At a time when the French were mutilating Arab prisoners, wiping out whole tribes, burning men, women, and children alive; and when severed Arab heads were regarded as trophies of war—the Emir manifested his magnanimity, his unflinching adherence to Islamic principle, and his refusal to stoop to the level of his “civilized” adversaries, by issuing the following edict:
Every Arab who captures alive a French soldier will receive as reward eight douros.… Every Arab who has in his possession a Frenchman is bound to treat him well and to conduct him to either the Khalifa [Caliph] or the Emir himself, as soon as possible. In cases where the prisoner complains of ill treatment, the Arab will have no right to any reward.36
When asked what the reward was for a severed French head, the Emir replied, twenty-five blows of the baton on the soles of the feet. One understands why General Bugeaud, Governor-General of Algeria, referred to the Emir not only as “a man of genius whom history should place alongside Jugurtha,” but also as “a kind of prophet, the hope of all fervent Muslims.”37 When he was finally defeated and brought to France, before being exiled to Damascus, the Emir received hundreds of French admirers who had heard of his bravery and his nobility; the visitors by whom he was most deeply touched, though, were French officers who came to thank him for the treatment they received at his hands when they were his prisoners in Algeria.38
One should note carefully the extraordinary care shown by the Emir for his French prisoners. Not only did he ensure that they were protected against violent reprisals on the part of outraged tribesmen seeking to avenge loved ones who had been brutally killed by the French, he also manifested concern for their spiritual well-being: a Christian priest was invited by him to minister to the religious needs of his prisoners. In a letter to Dupuch, Bishop of Algeria, with whom he had entered into negotiations regarding prisoners generally, he wrote, “Send a priest to my camp, he will lack nothing.”39 Likewise, as regards female prisoners, he exercised the most sensitive treatment, having them placed under the protective care of his mother, lodging them in a tent permanently guarded against any would-be molesters.40 It is hardly surprising that some of these prisoners of war embraced Islam, while others, once they were freed, sought to remain with the Emir and serve under him.41
The Emir’s humane treatment of French prisoners was kept secret from the French forces; had it leaked out, the result would have been devastating for the morale of the French forces, who had been told that they were fighting a war for the sake of civilization, and that their adversaries were barbarians. As Colonel Gery confided in the Bishop of Algeria, “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.”42
Over one hundred years before the signing of the Geneva Conventions, the Emir demonstrated the meaning not only of the rights of prisoners of war but also of the innate and inalienable dignity of the human being, whatever his or her religion.
Also highly relevant to our theme is the Emir’s famous defence of the Christians in Damascus in 1860. Now defeated and in exile, the Emir spent his time in prayer, contemplation, and instruction in the finer points of the faith. When civil war broke out between the Druzes and the Christians in Lebanon, the Emir heard that there were signs of an impending attack on the Christians of Damascus. He wrote letters to all the Druze Shaikhs, requesting them not to “make offensive movements against a place with the inhabitants of which you have never before been at enmity.” Here, we have an expression of the cardinal principle of warfare in Islam—never to initiate hostilities: “And fight in the way of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression. God loveth not the aggressors.”43
The Emir’s letters proved to no avail. When the Druzes—whose numbers were now swelled by members of the Damascus mob—were approaching the Christian quarters of the city, the Emir confronted them, urging them to observe the rules of religion and of human justice.
. “What,” they shouted, “you, the great slayer of Christians, are you come out to prevent us from slaying them in our turn? Away!”
“If I slew the Christians,” he shouted in reply, “it was ever in accordance with our law—the Christians who had declared war against me, and were arrayed in arms against our faith.”44
This had no effect upon the mob. As the Turkish authorities stood by, either unable or unwilling to intervene, the Christian quarters were mercilessly attacked, and many Christians were killed. The Emir and his band of Maghrebi followers sought out the terrified Christians, giving them refuge in the Emir’s home. News of this spread, and on the morning of the 10th of July, an angry crowd gathered outside the Emir’s house, demanding that he hand over the Christians. Alone, he went out to confront them, and fearlessly addressed them thus:
O my brothers, your conduct is impious.… How low have you fallen, for I see Muslims covering themselves with the blood of women and children? Has God not said: “He who killeth a single soul … it is as if he hath killed the whole of humanity?”[Qur’an 5:32] Has he not also said, “There is no compulsion in religion, the right way is clearly distinguished from error?”[Qur’an 2:256]
This only enraged the mob further. The leaders of the crowd replied to him, “O holy warrior! We do not need your advice.… Why are you interfering in our affairs? You, who used to fight the Christians, how can you oppose our avenging their insults? Disbeliever, deliver up those you have hidden in your house; otherwise we will strike you with the same punishment we have meted out to the disbelievers: we will reunite you with your brothers.”
Further words were exchanged, the Emir retorting, “I did not fight ‘Christians’; I fought the aggressors who called themselves Christians.”
The anger of the mob increased, and, at this point, the tone of the Emir changed, his eyes flashed with anger, and he sensed the possibility of battle for the first time since he had left Algeria. He hurled one last warning to the crowd, saying that the Christians were his hosts, and that for as long as one of his valiant Maghrebi soldiers lived, the Christians would not be handed over. Then, addressing his own men, he said, “And you, my Maghrebis, may your hearts rejoice, for I call God to witness: we are going to fight for a cause as holy as that for which we fought before!” The mob dispersed and fled in fear.…45
One should note carefully the words of the Emir to his own men, preparing them to lay down their lives for the Christians: he says that this act of defence is as holy as the war we fought to defend our homes and families against the French colonialists in Algeria. One fights for what is right, not only for “our” rights, whether as individuals or as members of a family, tribe, or even religion: the principles of the religion take priority over those who call themselves “Muslim,” and these principles apply in all circumstances, and most urgently when such people act unjustly. His action, together with the fact that he calls God to witness, must be seen as a graphic response to, and thus commentary upon, the call made in the following verse from the Qur’an: “O ye who believe! Stand up for justice, as witnesses to God, even against your own souls, or your parents or your kin, whether rich or poor, for God protecteth both. Follow not passion lest ye deviate….”46
The Emir then sent two hundred of his men to various parts of the Christian quarters to find as many Christians as they could. He also offered fifty piastres to anyone who brought to him a Christian alive. His mission continued thus for five days and nights, during which he neither slept nor rested. As the numbers swelled to several thousand, the Emir escorted them all to the citadel of the city. It is estimated that in the end, no less than fifteen thousand Christians were saved by the Emir in this action; and it is important to note that in this number were included all the ambassadors and consuls of the European powers together with their families. As Charles Henry Churchill, his biographer prosaically puts it, just a few years after the event,
All the representatives of the Christian powers then residing in Damascus, without one single exception, had owed their lives to him. Strange and unparalleled destiny! An Arab had thrown his guardian aegis over the outraged majesty of Europe. A descendant of the Prophet had sheltered and protected the Spouse of Christ.47
The Emir received the highest possible medals and honours from all the leading western powers. The French Consul himself, representative of the state that was still very much in the process of colonizing the Emir’s homeland, owed his life to the Emir; for this true warrior of Islam, there was no bitterness, resentment, or revenge, only the duty to protect the innocent, and all the People of the Book who lived peacefully within the lands of Islam. It is difficult to conceive of a greater contrast between the Emir’s conduct and the present self-styled “Mujahideen,” who indiscriminately portray the West as the enemy tout court, and perpetrate correspondingly unjust acts against innocent westerners. The Emir’s action exemplifies well the Qur’anic verse: “God forbiddeth you not from dealing kindly and justly with those who fought not against you on account of your religion, nor drove you out of your homes. Truly God loveth those who are just.”48
When the Bishop of Algiers, Louis Pavy, commended the Emir’s actions, the latter replied, “The good that we did to the Christians was what we were obliged to do, out of fidelity to Islamic law and out of respect for the rights of humanity. For all creatures are the family of God, and those most beloved of God are those who are most beneficial to his family.” Then follows this passage which is clearly rooted in the universality of the Qur’anic message and the “ontological imperative” of mercy that is its ineluctable concomitant. The practical import of this universality and this mercy is expressed dramatically by the courage of the Emir in his unwavering fidelity to these principles; these are not mere words but ultimate spiritual values, for which one must be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice if necessary:
All the religions brought by the prophets, from Adam to Muhammad, rest upon two principles: the exaltation of God Most High, and compassion for His creatures. Apart from these two principles, there are but ramifications, the divergences of which are without importance. And the law of Muhammad is, among all doctrines, that which shows itself most attached to, and most respectful of, compassion and mercy. But those who belong to the religion of Muhammad have caused it to deviate. That is why God has caused them to lose their way. The recompense has been of the same nature as the fault.49
What we are given here is a concise and irrefutable diagnosis of the contemporary malaise within the Islamic world: since the compassion that is so central to this great religion has been subordinated to anger and bitterness, the mercy of God has been withdrawn from those “who have caused it to deviate.” This is in accordance with the well-known saying of the Prophet œ: “He who shows no mercy will not have mercy shown him” (man lam yar^am, lam yur^am), as well as with this verse of the Qur’an: “In their hearts is a disease, so God increased their disease.”50 This disease of hard-heartedness needs to be accurately diagnosed; and, if we are to take seriously the greatest warriors of our recent past, a key ingredient of the remedy is universal compassion.
It is interesting to note that another great warrior of Islam, Imam ShamÏl of Dagestan, hero of the wars against Russian imperialism,51 wrote a letter to the Emir when he heard of his defence of the Christians. He praised the Emir for his noble act, thanking God that there were still Muslims who behaved according to the spiritual ideals of Islam:
Know that when my ear was struck with that which is detestable to hear, and odious to human nature—I allude to the recent events in Damascus concerning the Muslims and the Christians, in which the former pursued a path unworthy of the followers of Islam … a veil was cast over my soul.… I cried to myself: Corruption has appeared on the earth and at sea, because of what men’s hands have wrought [Qur’an 30:41]. I was astonished at the blindness of the functionaries who have plunged into such excesses, forgetful of the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, “Whoever shall be unjust towards a tributary, 52 whoever shall do him wrong, whoever shall deprive him of anything without his own consent, it is I who will be the accuser on the day of judgement.” Ah, what sublime words! But when I was informed that you have sheltered the tributaries beneath the wings of goodness and compassion; that you had opposed the men who militated against the will of God Most High…, I praised you as God Most High will praise you on the day when neither their wealth nor their children avail [Qur’an 3:10]. In reality, you have put into practice the words of the great apostle of God Most High, bearing witness to compassion for His humble creatures, and you have set up a barrier against those who would reject his great example. May God preserve us from those who transgress His laws! 53
In response to this letter the Emir wrote the following, which expresses so well the situation prevailing to an even more parlous degree in our own times:
When we think how few men of real religion there are, how small the number of defenders and champions of the truth—when one sees ignorant persons imagining that the principle of Islam is hardness, severity, extravagance and barbarity—it is time to repeat these words: “Patience is beautiful, and God is the source of all succour.” (ßabr jamÏl, wa’Ll¥hu’lmusta¢¥n.)(Qur’an 12:18)54
The patience and compassion advocated by these warriors is far from sentimental defeatism, nor is it simply making a virtue out of a necessity. It stems from the very values that motivated them to fight against aggression in the first place, values embedded in the subtle spirit of Islam—values of rigor combined with gentleness, strength and compassion, resolution and resignation, all such complementary qualities being rooted in the polarity within the divine nature itself: jal¥l (majesty) and jam¥l (beauty).55 If a warrior deprived of his jal¥lÏ qualities loses his virility, one who smothers his jam¥lÏ qualities loses his humanity. Let us also bear in mind that within the Sufi tradition, to which both the Emir and Imam ShamÏl belonged, spiritual realization cannot but result in compassionate radiance. Realization of the Absolute is, inescapably, radiation of mercy, since as we noted above, mercy and compassion are of the essence of the Real.56 If compassion in the fullest sense thus flows from realization, this realization itself is the fruit of victory in the “greater jihad,” to which we now turn.
Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi is a Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. He is founding editor of Islamic World Report, and has written and edited several books and articles on such topics as the Qur’an and Interfaith Dialogue, Comparative Religion, Jihad in Islam, Sufism and Shi’ism. He is working on a new English translation of Imam ¢AlÏ’s Nahj al-bal¥gha; and his book, Justice and Remembrance: An Introduction to the Spirituality of Imam Ali, is due to be published by IIS/IB Tauris in the autumn of 2005. His doctoral dissertation, a comparative study of Shankara, Ibn ¢ArabÏ, and Meister Eckhart, is due to be published in the winter of 2005 under the title, Paths to Transcendence by World Wisdom Books.