Abdelkader El Djezairi
Photographed by Étienne Carjat in 1865
|Birth name||Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine al-Hasani-|
|Born||September 6, 1808|
|Died||May 26, 1883 (aged 74)|
|Battles/wars||Battle of Macta|
Battle of Sig
Battle of Sidi-Brahim
|Awards||Legion of Honour (Grand Cross)|
Order of Pius IX
First Class of the Order of the Medjidie
Order of the Redeemer (Grand Cross)
Abdelkader ibn Muhieddine (6 September 1808 - 26 May 1883; Arabic: ? ?Abd al-Q?dir ibn Mu?yidd?n), known as the Emir Abdelkader or Abdelkader El Djezairi, was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and Sufi who unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, he built up a collection of Algerian tribesmen that for many years successfully held out against one of the most advanced armies in Europe. His consistent regard for what would now be called human rights, especially as regards his Christian opponents, drew widespread admiration, and a crucial intervention to save the Christian community of Damascus from a massacre in 1860 brought honours and awards from around the world. Within Algeria, his efforts to unite the country against French invaders saw him hailed as the "modern Jugurtha" and his ability to combine religious and political authority has led to his being acclaimed as the "Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints".
The name "Abdelkader" is sometimes transliterated as "?Abd al-Q?dir", "Abd al-Kader", "Abdul Kader" or other variants, and he is often referred to as simply the Emir Abdelkader (since El Djezairi just means "the Algerian"). "Ibn Muhieddine" is a patronymic meaning "son of Muhieddine", and "al-Hasani" is an honorary patronymic indicating his descent from Hasan ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad. He is also often given the titles emir "prince", and shaykh "sheik".
Abdelkader was born near the town of Mascara in 1808, to a family of religious belief. His father, Muhieddine (or "Muhyi al-Din") al-Hasani, was a muqaddam in a religious institution affiliated with the Qadiriyya Sufi order of Islam and claimed descendance from Muhammad, through the Idrisids. Abdelkader was thus a sharif, and entitled to add the honorary patronymic al-Hasani ("descendant of al-Hasan") to his name.
He grew up in his father's zawiya, which by the early nineteenth century had become the centre of a thriving community on the banks of the Oued al-Hammam river. Like other students, he received a traditional education in theology, jurisprudence and grammar; it was said that he could read and write by the age of five. A gifted student, Abdelkader succeeded in reciting the Qur'an by heart at the age of 14, thereby receiving the title of hafiz; a year later, he went to Oran for further education. He was a good orator and could excite his peers with poetry and religious diatribes.
In 1825, he set out on the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, with his father. While there, he encountered Imam Shamil; the two spoke at length on different topics. He also traveled to Damascus and Baghdad, and visited the graves of noted Muslims, such as Shaykh Ibn Arabi and Sidi Abd-el-Kader El Jilani named also El-Jilali in Algeria. This experience cemented his religious enthusiasm. On his way back to Algeria, he was impressed by the reforms carried out by Muhammad Ali in Egypt. He returned to his homeland a few months before the arrival of the French.
In 1830, Algeria was invaded by France; French colonial domination over Algeria eventually supplanted domination by the Ottoman Empire and the Koulouglis. There was a lot of pent-up resentment against the Ottomans when the French arrived, and due to numerous rebellions in the early 19th century, the Algerians could not oppose the French at all initially. When the French Africa Army reached Oran in January 1831, Abdelkader's father was asked to lead a harassment campaign against them; Muhieddine called for a jihad and he and his son were among those involved in early attacks below the walls of the city.
It was at this point that Abdelkader came to the fore. At a meeting of the western tribes in the autumn of 1832, he was elected Emir, or Commander of the Faithful (following his father's refusal of the position on the grounds that he was too old). The appointment was confirmed five days later at the Great Mosque of Mascara. Within a year, through a combination of punitive raids and careful politics, Abdelkader had succeeded in uniting the tribes in the region and in reestablishing security - his area of influence now covered the entire Province of Oran. The local French commander-in-chief, General Louis Alexis Desmichels, saw Abdelkader as the principal representative of the area during peace negotiations, and in 1834 they signed the Desmichels Treaty, which ceded near-total control of Oran Province to Abdelkader. For the French, this was a way of establishing peace in the region while also confining Abdelkader to the west; but his status as a co-signatory also did much to elevate him in the eyes of the Berbers and of the French.
Using this treaty as a start, he imposed his rule on the tribes of the Chelif, Miliana, and Médéa. The French high command, unhappy with what they now saw as the unfavorable terms of the Desmichels Treaty, recalled General Desmichels and replaced him with General Trezel, which caused a resumption of hostilities. Abdelkader's tribal warriors met the French forces in July 1834 at the Battle of Macta, where the French suffered an unexpected defeat. France's response was to step up its pacification campaign, and under new commanders the French won several important encounters including the Battle of Sikkak. But political opinion in France was becoming ambivalent towards Algeria, and when French General Thomas Robert Bugeaud was deployed to the region in April 1837, he was "authorized to use all means to induce Abd el-Kader to make overtures of peace". The result, after protracted negotiations, was the Treaty of Tafna, signed on 30 May 1837. This treaty gave even more control of interior portions of Algeria to Abdelkader, but with the recognition of France's right to imperial sovereignty. Abdelkader thus won control of all of Oran and extended his reach to the neighbouring province of Titteri and beyond.
The period of peace following the Treaty of Tafna benefited both sides, and the Emir Abdelkader took the opportunity to consolidate a new functional state, with a capital in Tagdemt. He played down his political power, however, repeatedly declining the title of sultan and striving to concentrate on his spiritual authority. The state he created was broadly theocratic, and most positions of authority were held by members of the religious aristocracy; even the main unit of currency was named the muhammadiyya, after the Prophet.
He first military action was to move south into the Sahara and at-Tijini. Next, he moved east to the valley of the Chelif and Titteri, but was resisted by the Bey of Constantine, Hajj Ahmed. In other actions, he demanded punishment of the Koulouglis of Zouatna for supporting the French. By the end of 1838, his rule extended east to Kabylie, and south to Biskra, and to the Moroccan border. He continued to fight at-Tijini and besieged his capital at Aïn Madhi for six months, eventually destroying it.
Another aspect of Abdelkader that helped him lead his fledgling nation was his ability to find and use good talent regardless of its nationality. He would employ Jews and Christians on his way to building his nation. One of these was Léon Roches. His approach to the military was to have a standing army of 2,000 men supported by volunteers from the local tribes. He placed, in the interior towns, arsenals, warehouses, and workshops, where he stored items to be sold for arms purchases from England. Through his frugal living (he lived in a tent), he taught his people the need for austerity and through education he taught them concepts such as nationality and independence.
The peace ended when the Duc d'Orléans, ignoring the terms of the Treaty of Tafna, headed an expeditionary force that breached the Iron Gates. On October 15, 1839, Abd al-Qadir attacked the French as they were colonizing the Plains of Mitidja and routed the invaders. In response the French officially declared war on 18 November 1839. The fighting bogged down until General Thomas Robert Bugeaud returned to Algeria, this time as governor-general, in February 1841. Abdelkader was originally encouraged to hear that Bugeaud, the promoter of the Treaty of Tafna, was returning; but this time Bugeaud's tactics would be radically different. This time, his approach was one of annihilation, with the conquest of Algeria as the endgame:
I will enter into your mountains, I will burn your villages and your harvests, I will cut down your fruit trees.-- General Bugeaud
Abdelkader was effective at using guerrilla warfare and for a decade, up until 1842, scored many victories. He often signed tactical truces with the French, but these did not last. His power base was in the western part of Algeria, where he was successful in uniting the tribes against the French. He was noted for his chivalry; on one occasion he released his French captives simply because he had insufficient food to feed them. Throughout this period, Abdelkader demonstrated political and military leadership and acted as a capable administrator and a persuasive orator. His fervent faith in the doctrines of Islam was unquestioned.
Until the beginning of 1842 the struggle went in his favor; however, the resistance was put down by Marshal Bugeaud, due to Bugeaud's adaptation to the guerilla tactics employed by Abdelkader. Abdelkader would strike fast and disappear into the terrain with light infantry; however the French increased their mobility. The French armies brutally suppressed the native population and practiced a scorched earth policy in the countryside to force the residents to starve so as to desert their leader. By 1841, his fortifications had all but been destroyed and he was forced to wander the interior of the Oran. In 1842, he had lost control of Tlemcen and his lines of communications with Morocco were not effective. He was able to cross the border into Morocco for a respite, but the French defeated the Moroccans at the Battle of Isly. He left Morocco, and was able to keep up the fight to the French by taking the Sidi Brahim at the Battle of Sidi-Brahim.
Abdelkader was ultimately forced to surrender. His failure to get support from eastern tribes, apart from the Berbers of western Kabylie, had contributed to the quelling of the rebellion, and a decree from Abd al-Rahman of Morocco following the Treaty of Tangiers had outlawed the Emir from his entire kingdom. On 21 December 1847, Abdelkader surrendered to General Louis de Lamoricière in exchange for the promise that he would be allowed to go to Alexandria or Acre. He supposedly commented on his own surrender with the words, "And God undoes what my hand has done" (although this is probably apocryphal). His request was granted, and two days later his surrender was made official to the French Governor-General of Algeria, Henri d'Orléans, duc d'Aumale, to whom Abdelkader symbolically handed his war-horse. Ultimately, however, the French government refused to honour Lamoricière's promise: Abdelkader was shipped to France and, instead of being allowed to carry on to the East, ended up being kept in captivity.
Abdelkader and his family and followers were detained in France, first at Fort Lamalgue in Toulon, then at Pau, and in November 1848 they were transferred to the château of Amboise. Damp conditions in the castle led to deteriorating health as well as morale in the Emir and his followers, and his fate became something of a cause célèbre in certain circles. Several high-profile figures, including Émile de Girardin and Victor Hugo, called for greater clarification over the Emir's situation; future prime minister Émile Ollivier carried out a public opinion campaign to raise awareness over his fate. There was also international pressure. Lord Londonderry visited Abdelkader in Amboise and subsequently wrote to then-President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (whom he had known during the latter's exile in England) to appeal for the Emir's release.
Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later the Emperor Napoleon III) was a relatively new president, having come to power in the Revolution of 1848 while Abdelkader was already imprisoned. He was keen to make a break with several policies of the previous regime, and Abdelkader's cause was one of them. Eventually, on 16 October 1852, Abdelkader was released by the President and given an annual pension of 100,000 francs on taking an oath never again to disturb Algeria. He then took up residence in Bursa, today's Turkey, moving in 1855 to Amara District in Damascus. He devoted himself anew to theology and philosophy, and composed a philosophical treatise, of which a French translation was published in 1858 under the title of Rappel à l'intelligent, avis à l'indifférent, and again in 1977 under the title of Lettre aux Français. He also wrote a book on the Arabian horse.
While in Damascus he befriended Jane Digby as well as Richard and Isabel Burton. Abdelkader's knowledge of Sufism and skill with languages earned Burton's respect and friendship; his wife Isabel described him as follows:
He dresses purely in white...enveloped in the usual snowy burnous...if you see him on horseback without knowing him to be Abd el Kadir, you would single him out...he has the seat of a gentleman and a soldier. His mind is as beautiful as his face; he is every inch a Sultan.
In July 1860, conflict between the Druze and Maronites of Mount Lebanon spread to Damascus, and local Druze attacked the Christian quarter, killing over 3,000 people. Abdelkader had previously warned the French consul as well as the Council of Damascus that violence was imminent; when it finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians, including the heads of several foreign consulates as well as religious groups such as the Sisters of Mercy, in the safety of his house. His eldest sons were sent into the streets to offer any Christians under threat shelter under his protection, and Abdelkader himself was said by many survivors to have played an instrumental part in saving them.
[W]e were in consternation, all of us quite convinced that our last hour had arrived [...]. In that expectation of death, in those indescribable moments of anguish, heaven, however, sent us a savior! Abd el-Kader appeared, surrounded by his Algerians, around forty of them. He was on horseback and without arms: his handsome figure calm and imposing made a strange contrast with the noise and disorder that reigned everywhere.
Reports coming out of Syria as the rioting subsided stressed the prominent role of Abdelkader, and considerable international recognition followed. The French government increased his pension to 150,000 francs and bestowed on him the Grand Cross of the Légion d'honneur; he also received the Grand Cross of the Redeemer from Greece, the Order of the Medjidie, First Class from Turkey, and the Order of Pius IX from the Vatican.Abraham Lincoln sent him a pair of inlaid pistols (now on display in the Algiers museum) and Great Britain a gold-inlaid shotgun. In France, the episode represented the culmination of a remarkable turnaround, from being considered as an enemy of France during the first half of the 19th century, to becoming a "friend of France" after having intervened in favor of persecuted Christians.
In 1864, the Lodge "Henry IV" extended an invitation to him to join Freemasonry, which he accepted, being initiated at the Lodge of the Pyramids in Alexandria, Egypt.
In 1865 he visited Paris on the invitation of Napoléon III and was greeted with both official and popular respect. In 1871, during an insurrection in Algeria, he disowned one of his sons who was arousing the tribes around Constantine.
He wrote Rappel à l?intelligent, avis à l?indifférent (Call to the Intelligent, Warning to the Indifferent). Abdelkader died in Damascus on 26 May 1883 and was buried near the great Sufi Ibn Arabi in Damascus.
His body was recovered in 1965 and is now in the El Alia cemetery in Algiers. This transfer of his remains was controversial as Abd el-Kader had clearly wanted to be buried in Damascus with his master Ibn Arabi.
From the beginning of his career, Abdelkader inspired admiration not only from within Algeria, but from Europeans as well, even while fighting against the French forces. "The generous concern, the tender sympathy" he showed to his prisoners-of-war was "almost without parallel in the annals of war", and he was careful to show respect for the private religion of any captives.
In 1843 Marshal Soult declared that Abd-el-Kader was one of the three great men then living; the two others, Imam Shamil and Muhammad Ali of Egypt also being Muslims. Currently he is respected as one of the greatest of his people.
The town of Elkader in Iowa in the United States is named after Abdelkader. The town's founders Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage were impressed by his fight against French colonial power and decided to pick his name as the name for their new settlement in 1846.
Media related to Abdelkader El Djezairi at Wikimedia Commons