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Book Review: Commander of the Faithful

I am happy to share with you Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader, a new book by John Kiser.

Why, you might ask, should I read a book about a mid 19th century Muslim warrior-saint who was defeated by the French, yet praised and admired by people as diverse as President Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, Emir Shamil, France’s Marshal Soult and Charles Henry Churchill, an ancestor of Winston; whose name was given to settlements in the Midwest and to a champion race horse in Britain, boats built in Massachussetts?

Abd el-Kader is an example of the kind of Muslim the United States should be engaging–conservative, committed to his faith, not perceived as “Westernized,” respected for his religious authority, intellect and courage by fellow Muslims.  If, today, he were opposing America in Afghanistan or Iraq, Abd el-Kader would likely be demonized as an “Islamic fundamentalist. Yet fundamentalism, as lived by the emir, is something to welcome, not feared. It meant a life-long pursuit of knowledge and living according to the Law, not selectively, but sincerely, integrally and compassionately.

We casually use labels to put diverse Muslims in convenient boxes, yet labeling is precisely what hinders our ability to develop intelligent, nuanced responses to the threat that al-Qaedaism poses—which is different from “Islamism,” which is different from Islam.  Each has its own gradations and internal differences. Terms such as “moderates” and “extremists” have little meaning and are basically circumstantial. Both terms could have been applied to the emir at different stages of his life by different people. He killed Christians when they attacked his country and saved their lives when they were being slaughtered by Turks. Labels, based on projecting our own cultural understanding of the terms, lump good people with a few truly undesireable ones. We need scalpels not butcher knives in this fight.

Appreciating the complexity of a past world warrior hero such as Emir Abd el-Kader, who confounds current labels, is deeply relevant to the way in which we carry forward the struggle against al-Qaeda and its brand of false jihadis.  His life was the real jihad and Abd el-Kader’s story should be read by all who wish to have a better understanding of the Muslim world today.  France’s 132 year “long war” in Algeria that began with its 15-year struggle against Abd el-Kader is a cautionary tale for thoughtful Americans to consider.

I believe you will find this book both highly readable and informative. Madrasa leaders in Pakistan are asking for the book to be translated into Urdu so it can be used as a teaching tool to discuss the true meaning of jihad. 

John W. Kiser

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