Throughout the fierce fighting the Amir never forgot the essential, God-created humanity linking French and Algerians. He did not reproach his enemy for being Christians but for having invaded his country. His treatment of French prisoners was thoughtful and humane. To a French bishop who wrote to him requesting the freeing of an important prisoner, Abd-el-Kader replied: ‘As a servant of God you should rather beg for the liberation of all Christian prisoners.’ He also quoted the Gospel: ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’ (St Matthew 7: 12), adding: ‘You would be truly worthy of your calling if you also demanded the release of our prisoners in French jails.’ And he offered to host a Catholic chaplain to give spiritual assistance and relief to the French prisoners.
To this high-minded, generous spiritual man, Christians owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.
In July 1860 a tragedy unfolded in Damascus. Begun in Lebanon with bloody clashes between Druses and Christians, it quickly spread to neighbouring Syria, then under Turkish rule. Aware that the Ottoman government had colluded with massacres in Lebanon, the lowest kind of riff-raff determined to exterminate the defenceless Nazarenes in Damascus. Provocations were staged by drawing crosses on the grounds, which hate-mongers stamped on and spat upon. The Christians still kept their cool. The Turkish authorities then faked punishing the perpetrators, in order to inflame Muslim intolerance. At last armed fanatics burst into the Christian quarter, burning, plundering and slaughtering the inhabitants. The police just joined in. Thousands perished in the bestial pogrom.
It was then that Abd-el-Kader opened his mansion to the fleeing victims. Risking his own life, the Amir blocked the way to the assassins, thus saving thousands of Christians. A moving painting by Jan-Baptiste Huysmans shows the formidable Muslim hero sheltering the old, women and children from the murderous mobs. The Amir’s erect figure radiates valour and strength. Confronted with such a self-righteous colossus the butchers pulled back.
The Amir’s conduct is all the more praiseworthy, considering the treacherous way the French had treated him. The Algerian resistance been desperate, Abd-el-Kader had surrendered on condition he was offered liberty and safe passage abroad. Instead the French broke the treaty, arrested him and kept him imprisoned for five years in the castle of Amboise. A lesser man would have been embittered, thirsting after revenge. Some anthropologists contend such is the honour code of tribal societies. Whatever the truth of that, Abd-el-Kader showed how his profoundly Islamic sense of mercy and compassion was higher than any ‘cultural’, lower customs and emotions. Thus religion can rise above and even against mere convention.
The hero’s spirituality was of course steeped in the Qur’an. His own book, Kitab al-Mawaqif, consists of uplifting stories and meditations inspired by the thought of Ibn Arabi, a fountainhead of Islamic mysticism. As it happens, Ibn Arabi in his own time was detested by Ibn Taymiyya, a medieval ‘alim of a very different persuasion. A defender of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islam, Ibn Taymiyya detected bida’, innovation or heresy in many Sufi practices. He even wrote a treatise against Ibn Arabi. More fatefully, Ibn Taymiyya promulgated a hostile fatwa against other Muslims, thus starting the questionable practice of takfir, i.e. declaring fellow believers infidels. As a result, armed jihad against such Muslims became lawful and even commendable, according to Ibn Taymiyya. A red, often bloody thread thus connects Ibn Taymiyya to the Wahhabis, Salafis and Takfiris today doing their bit to cause murder and mayhem in Syria.
Syrian Christianity goes back a long time. At least to St Paul to whom the risen Christ revealed himself on the road to Damascus. A tremendous event in world history, as it propelled the Apostle on another road, that of winning the Greek and Roman world over to the new faith. Ever since the Nazarenes have thrived in Syria, indeed up to the present time. But now rebels and terrorists, Jihadis and al-Qaeda gangs target the Christians, harass them, burn their churches, murder, rape and kidnap. Two bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, have been abducted and are still missing. Many of their flocks have fled abroad. Is this the new Middle East? Will the future see the wiping out of the people of the Cross in the lands where their Lord was born, preached, was crucified and rose again? While their European coreligionists and the politicians look nonchalantly the other way? Could be...
Another Abd-el-Kader would not just have to protect Christians. The gory confrontation between Sunnis and Shias is part of the larger, depressing scenario. He would have to fix that, too. Not for the poor priest to suggest a solution to that millenarian rift within Islam but...off the top of my head...could not perhaps a Mahdi-like figure help? I do not mean the actual, final, awaited Islamic redeemer. I mean, more like a foreshadowing, or an anticipation of the true Mahdi, as Dr Timothy Furnish has argued in a useful paper. Such Mahdi-like person, under divine guidance, might cause the two branches of Islam to wise up, stop fighting each other and achieve reconciliation.
Sounds utopian? Well, as I myself contended in my modest MA dissertation, why shouldn’t God surprise his votaries? In Christianity we speak of a ‘God of surprises’, so...it is up to God, surely. No?