This Christmas season America and the rest of the non Muslim world is wrestling with the Big Question. Is the ISIS expression of the Islamic faith symptomatic, as some would like to believe, of a “violence gene” baked into their religion that should make us view all Muslims as ticking time bombs? Or, are followers of the Islamic tradition no different than those of all faiths and ideologies…populated by different kinds of believers who, depending on their circumstances and natural tendencies, can be peaceful or violent, forgiving or not, self restrained or not?
Violence is embedded in human nature. Even Jesus was capable of violence, railing at the money changers in the Temple and knocking over their tables in a fit of very human rage. We also know that Jesus broke bread with prostitutes, lepers and the most despised of all — tax collectors. Following the violence inflicted in the name of Islam in Paris and San Bernardino, Muslims as a whole have the honor of being first place on the pariah hit list, even in so-called polite society.
So, in the spirit of Jesus and Christmas, let’s break bread with a Muslim. And for those who have no Muslim friends or acquaintances, let me introduce a Muslim worthy of praise and emulation by people of different creeds, colors and cultures. His name is Emir Abdelkader, which means “servant of God.” As a theocrat, he is a John Winthrop; as a father of his country, a George Washington, and as a chivalrous warrior who fought the good fight but did not believe in useless suffering, a Robert E. Lee. As a devout and learned Muslim, he accepted Jesus as a sinless prophet, born of the Virgin Mary and who rose to Heaven with Moses and Mohammad. Muslims frequently name their sons Jesus, or “Issa”.
Unlike ISIS and al-Qaeda, Abdelkader served God by waging war according to Islamic Law, rules of conduct prohibiting the destruction of nature and livestock, shooting in the face, mutilation of dead bodies, killing innocents, destruction of places of worship, rape, the mistreatment of prisoners or killing of priests and monks.
Who was this God-fearing theocrat? Born in 1808 near Oran, then part of the Ottoman Empire his Hashem tribe was dedicated to the study of the Qur’an and settling disputes among the Bedouins. He would become admired from the Great Plains to Moscow and to Mecca — first as a chivalrous adversary of the French following their invasion of North Africa in 1830. Seventeen years later, Abdelkader became admired throughout France and Europe as a stoic prisoner who forced the French government to honor its pledge to grant him passage to Mecca after surrendering voluntarily. Exiled in Damascus in 1860, but following his duty to protect minorities and innocents, Abdelkader rescued thousands of Christians during a Turkish inspired pogrom.
Warfare, betrayal, imprisonment, might have given the emir good reason to hate his enemies and to hold a permanent grudge against all Christians. Yet, he nursed neither hatred nor desire for revenge. Instead, he learned to appreciate French technical expertise and the loving attention given his family by Dominican nuns and sympathetic admirers.
Abraham Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, and Muslim freedom fighter Emir Shamil were among those who honored the emir’s humanitarian actions on behalf of the Christians. Upon his death in 1883, the New York Times eulogized: “The nobility of his character won him the admiration of the world.… He was one of the few great men of the century.”
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With the constant media drip of ugliness in the name of Islam, Abdelkader’s story represents an Islam that is embraced by mainstream Muslims around the world, but sadly lacks mediagenic qualities. Mohammad Amar Khan Nasir, the editor of the Pakistani monthly Al-Sharia summarized for me back in 2008 the emir’s importance as a model Muslim:
Abd el-Kader is the embodiment of true theological, moral and rational ideas taught by Islam. First, he is not overwhelmed by the blind zeal to fight at all costs and was capable of making wise judgments. Secondly, he is guided in his decisions by the limitations and moral obligations of Divine Law, knowing when it is permissible to kill Christians and when to risk his own life to save them. Thirdly, despite his animosity toward France, he is not blind to what is common between their religion and his own. Finally, he can put himself in his adversaries’ shoes, and understand what makes them follow a certain course.
Throughout the United States this Christmas, all too many families will be weeping for their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers because of explosive violence that is terrorizing our country. A tiny number of these attacks are committed by American Muslims when compared to the vast number of dead and wounded from domestic violence, gang mayhem, drug violence, racism, religious fanaticism and psychopathic human IEDs who win the most headlines with their mass killings.
Abdelkader was a man of peace, reconciliation and compassion whom destiny recruited to lead a jihad of the sword against French invaders. But his true jihad was that of self-mastery that won him the world’s admiration by his moral leadership on and off the battlefield, and by keeping destructive passions under control. His was a jihad Muslims and non-Muslims alike could benefit from emulating as Christmas approaches.
John W. Kiser is the author of Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Abd el-Kader, and The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria and an instructor at Marine Corps University.