The life of Amir Abd el-Kader was marked by a litany of difficult decisions— questions of whether to respond to violence and oppression strongly or weakly, to remain unyielding in retaliation or to surrender and, in doing so, stop unnecessary death. Upon closer analysis, the challenges and decisions which confronted the Amir are not so drastically different from more modern concerns of international intervention or political upheaval. In reading of the Amir’s life and prior to this, the Ghost Dance of the Lakota people and the development of the Khalsa in the Sikh religion, there has been a desire to identify and separate religious responses to suffering from other, equally legitimate but perhaps more seemingly political, economic, or militaristic responses. This categorization is useful for a society that has, since the enlightenment, become increasingly compartmentalized, ever seeking to separate actions and responses according to their perceived motivations. But, when looking to the life of Abd el-Kader, whose actions often seem to defy such categorization, it becomes difficult to see the divides separating religious responses from humanitarian, political, economic, militaristic, or personal ones as anything more substantial than convenient and occasionally, dangerous fictions.
In order to discuss the ways in which Abd el-Kader’s actions complicate notions of religious response, this essay will focus on two of the Amir’s responses / actions: the 1847 surrender to French forces and the Amir’s intervention to rescue Christians living in Damascus in 1860. On the most fundamental levels, both actions contest traditional notions regarding the purpose of jihad and the edicts outlined in hadiths; both represent what seem to be personal transformations in the Amir’s reaction to non-Muslin oppressors; both demonstrate a desire to negotiate Muslim traditions and beliefs with a world which was quickly becoming more globalized. In both cases, the actions of the Amir reflect the concerns faced by almost all religious communities:
All religious communities face this tension between religious inspiration and religious action … The troubled waters that need to be navigated in this global age lie between two shores: Respecting the right and reality of religious conviction and motivation and recognizing the problem of religious action in the pluralistic public square, (Heck, 96).
In this manner, the Amir’s life and actions represent a multiplicity of concerns, not all of which can or should be isolated to the causality of religion.
In order to discuss Abd el-Kader’s actions and the possible motivations which incited his response, the role of Jihad within the Islamic tradition and within the life of the Amir needs to be addressed. In more recent times, the mention of jihad brings to mind militant, typically fanatical groups— a perceived threat to western society, whose presence, at times, seems almost corporeal. Such sentiments are...