Emir Abdelkader was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a tenacious struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and philosopher from the mystical Sufi tradition, he unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, after a meeting of tribesmen elected him as leader. He built up a coalition of Algerian tribes from across the region, successfully holding out for years against one of the most powerful armies in Europe (as well as the second largest colonial empire at the time).
Abdelkader was well regarded by allies and opponents alike, not only for his military and political acumen, but for his markedly good character. He sought counsel from both Jews and Christians, and respected their religious traditions, seeking to create an Algerian state for all faiths. He was honorable and merciful to combatants, ensuring that prisoners were treated well; in one instance, he released prisoners because he could no longer afford to care for them properly. France’s highest-ranking military leader declared him one of the three greatest living men (the other two were Egyptians also known for their skills on and off the battlefield).
Due to this well-earned grudging respect, when the sheer weight of the French military finally forced him to surrender, Abdelkader was permitted to live in exile in Ottoman-ruled Damascus, with the French government paying his pension, on the condition he would never disturb Algeria again. He lived a quiet life dedicated to debating and writing Islamic theology and philosophy, until another event again catapulted him into fame and world renown.
Years into his exile, a conflict broke out in the region between Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Abdelkader warned local authorities and French diplomats that the Christians of Damascus were in danger. When violence finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians and ordered his sons to go throughout the city to offer Christians aid and protection. Reports from various survivors and religious orders attested to Abdelkader’s decisive role in saving thousands, and he became an international celebrity.
His erstwhile enemy France increased his pension and awarded him the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Greece, Turkey, and even the Vatican also bestowed him with official honors; he is one of the few non-Christians to have the Order of Pope Pius. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized his deed, giving him a pair of inlaid pistols that are now on display in Algeria’s national museum.
For these reasons, he was widely hailed across the world as the “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints”.