March 21, 2011




Abd al-Qadir was born near the town of Mascara near Oran on 6th September, 1808 in a Banu Ifran Berber family, thereby claiming to be the descendent of Muhammad. His father, Muhyi al-Din-al Hasani was a Shaykh in Qadiri Sufi order of Islam. Besides being trained in horsemanship, theology and linguistics, he memorized the Quran at an early age.

In 1825, he set out for Hajj with his father. While in Mecca he encountered Imam Shammil, the third Imam of the Caucasian Caliphate and the leader of the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War and the two spoke at length on various topics. He also traveled to Baghdad and Damascus where he visited the graves of noted Muslims and was impressed by the reforms carried out by Muhammad Ali in Egypt. The experiences on this tour were to have a life long impact on young Qadir’s mind.

In 1830, soon after his return, Algeria was invaded by France and the French supplanted what had been the domination in name only by the Ottoman Empire. Qadir’s father launched attacks against the French and their allies. Soon the tribal elders choose 25 year old Qadir as the leader of the Jihad against the Europeans.

Qadir was appointed as Emir al-Muminun (Commander of the Faithful) and was quick to gain the support of the West Algerian tribes. A devout and austere marabout, he was also a cunning politician and a resourceful warrior. He is remembered as a strong and an authoritarian leader, but was nevertheless pragmatic and used European officials in fields were his own subjects lacked experience. He was particularly noted for his chivalry: on one occasion he set free French captives simply because he didn’t have enough food to feed them.

From his capital at Tlemcen, Abd al-Qadir set about building a territorial Muslim State based on communities of the interior but drawing its strength from tribal and religious brotherhood. He se up juridical equality between the tribes, established a bureaucratic system and equal taxes for all his subjects. He assembled an army that counted 200 troops but which was strengthened by locals in times of war. His government undertook public works and set up agricultural and manufacturing co-operatives to boost the economy. He fought running battles with French forces including the French Legion, organized in 1831 for Algerian services.

Abd al-Qadir signed several tactical truces with the French, but these did not last long. By the Desmiches Treaty of 1834, he got control over the region around Oran while he recognized French supremacy in the Northern areas. His expansion was checked by the defeat at the hands of French general, Thomas Bugeaud (1836) but he ended up negotiating a favorable deal with the colonists in the following year. At the Treaty of Tafna, he recognized France’s sovereignty in Oran and Algiers and was allowed to rule over remaining two-thirds of the country, mainly in the interiors. Besides, this treaty also helped him salvage his reputation among the tribes just as the Shaykhs were about to desert him.

When French troops marched through a mountain pass in his dominion, he cited this as a violation of the peace pact and renewed hostilities with the French on 15th October, 1839. He destroyed the European settlements on the Mitidja Plain and on one occasion marched up to the outskirts of Algiers. The French retaliated by suppressing the natives and practiced a scorched-earth policy. Abd al-Qadir’s failure to get support of the Eastern tribes, Kabyles, Berber mountain tribes etc contributed to his downfall. One by one, the Emir’s strongholds were captured and his trusted generals were either killed or captured. He lost Oran (1841), Tlemcen (1842) and by 1843, his Muslim state had completely collapsed.

He took refuge with his ally, Abd ar Rahman – the Sultan of Morocco. He moved back to Algeria and set up a state in the South. Facing new challenges, he returned to Morocco where he was denied protection and financial support from the Sultan owing to French diplomatic and military pressure. He was obliged to surrender to the commander of the Oran province, General Louis de Lamoriciere on 21st December, 1847 in exchange for the promise that he would be allowed to go Alexandria or Acre. However, the French government refused to honor their generals’ word and Abd al-Qadir was exiled to France.

Qadir and his family were first detained at Toulon, then at Pau and finally transferred to the Chateau de Amboise in November, 1848. In October, 1855 he was released by Napoleon III and given an annual pension of 1, 00,000 Francs on taking an oath never to disturb Algeria again. He took up residence at Basra and then moved to Damascus. He devoted himself anew to theology and philosophy, composed a philosophical treatise and also wrote a book on Arabian horses.

In July, 1860 conflict between the Druze Muslims and Masonite Christians of Mount Lebanon spread to Damascus and the local Druze population attacked the Christian Quarter and slaughtered 3,000 people. However, Qadir and his personal guard saved a large number of Christians, bringing them to the safety of his house. For this action, the French government bestowed on him the Grande Cross of the Legion d’Honneur and increased his pension to 4,000 Louis. He was also honored by the American President, Abraham Lincoln with several guns which are now in display in the Algiers museum. In 1865 he visited France on an invitation from Napoleon III where he was greeted with both official and popular respect. Declining all invitations to return to a public life, he devoted himself to scholarly pursuits and charity until his death on 26th may, 1883 in Damascus.

Although there is still some controversy regarding his devotion to his people after his arrest, Abd al-Qadir is recognized and venerated as the first hero of Algerian independence. His green and white standard was adopted by the Algerian liberation and become the national flag of independent Algeria. He was buried in Damascus in the same mausoleum as Ibn Arabi, until the Algerian government brought back his remains to the country to be interred with the ceremony on 5th July, 1966 – the fourth anniversary of Independence and 136th anniversary of the French conquest. The Emir Abd al-Qadir university and a mosque bearing his name were constructed as a national shrine in Constantine, Algeria.

When a new community was being planned on what was then the American frontier in 1846, founders Timothy Davis, John Thompson and Chester Sage – none of them Arabs or Muslims were so impressed with what they had heard about an Algerian leader’s valiant struggle for freedom that they decided to name their town after him. In fact this town – Elkader in the State of Iowa has retained its Algerian influence by establishing a sister city connection with Mascara – the birthplace of the man after whom their town is named. The town of Elkader is an indication of the international fame and popularity of Emir Abd al-Qadir.