Remembering Abdel-Qader

David Tresilian , Tuesday 30 Aug 2022

The emir Abdel-Qader, leader of the resistance to the 19th-century French conquest of Algeria, is the subject of a new exhibition in the French port city of Marseilles, writes David Tresilian

The emir Abdel-Qader
The emir Abdel-Qader


The subject of his own eponymous exhibition at the MUCEM Museum in the French port city of Marseilles until the end of August, the emir Abdel-Qader was the leader of the resistance to the French conquest of Algeria after 1830 and for a time also the head of an independent Algerian state.

However, he was also much more than just a military and political leader – as if this were already not enough – since he was well known in later life for his writings on religion. He had a moral authority that was widely noted in his lifetime, underlined when he intervened to end the sectarian disturbances that rocked Damascus in 1860 and bring about the peaceful reconciliation of the warring sides.

Even during his early life when he set aside his religious and other interests in order to lead the Algerian resistance against the French invaders and organise an independent Algerian state, Abdel-Qader achieved a wider celebrity for the justice of his rule and his tenacity in resisting French attempts to bring the whole of Algeria under European control.

After the devastating military defeat at the Battle of Smala in 1843 and his surrender some years later, Abdel-Qader became famous for the dignity with which he bore his imprisonment in France. He was released in 1852 on the initiative of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, then ruling France as the emperor Napoleon III, and made his way first to Bursa in Turkey and then to Damascus in Syria, at the time a province of the former Ottoman Empire, where he wrote his religious works.

Abdel-Qader’s life thus appears to fall into two parts – first as a military and political leader and then as a writer and religious thinker, with the turning point in or around 1847 in the wake of the Algerian defeat by France. However, in fact, as the MUCEM exhibition suggests, things may not have been so clear cut, since Abdel-Qader, born in 1808 and benefitting from a traditional religious education, perhaps only became a military and political leader as a result of external circumstances. He was obliged to abandon an earlier intention to lead a religious career in order to rally and then lead the Algerian forces in the war against France.

Similarly, later in his career, the political and the religious interweave during his long sojourn in Damascus until his death there in 1883, since for Abdel-Qader his religious faith seems to have motivated his political action, notably his intervention in favour of peaceful dialogue in the 1860 riots. It seems to have led him towards an outward-looking engagement with the world and with contemporary developments.

These largely had to do with the relationship between Europe and the provinces of the Ottoman Empire that were being invaded or detached from Ottoman rule by the competing European powers. This is what happened to his native Algeria after 1830, and of course it is also what had happened some 30 years earlier to Egypt. European intervention, whether direct or indirect, was a fact of life not only for the provinces of the Empire but also for its central regions, nibbled at by Russia throughout the century and only rebuffed by an alliance of the other European powers.

Thus, Abdel-Qader, brought up within the framework of a traditional religious worldview and the author of a set of meditations inspired by the mediaeval religious thinker Ibn Arabi, was early on obliged to turn away from this towards the imperatives of contemporary politics and warfare, forced on him by the French invasion of Algeria.

Had he only been the author of religious meditations and similar works, it is unlikely that his writing would be widely read today outside its natural constituency of the pious and religious scholars. However, owing to the other side of Abdel-Qader, the political and military leader of genius, many will want to turn to it in search of clues to his ability to mobilise religion and developing national consciousness in Algeria as the basis for a post-Ottoman political order that could hold the French at bay.

As the MUCEM exhibition makes clear, Abdel-Qader lived during a turbulent period during which the pre-existing order in first Egypt and then Algeria was overthrown as a result of European military intervention.

One interest of Abdel-Qader’s career is that he managed for a time to convert religious opposition to the arrival of the French troops in Algeria into a form of early national feeling that later saw him identified as a significant precursor of Algerian nationalism. More remarkably, he found this formula independently, since even taking into account his observations of Mohamed Ali’s economic modernisation and nation-building project in Egypt that was taking place at the same time, the circumstances of the two countries were very different.

Abdel-Qader’s project in Algeria, had it been allowed to succeed, could have indicated a way forward for his country that could have been significantly different to that being tried at the same time in others. It focuses many of the developments that were taking place in the wider region, while also being one of the great might-have-beens of Algerian history.


PILGRIMAGE AND WAR: The exhibition begins with Abdel-Qader’s early life and education, including his extended pilgrimage to Mecca in 1825 and his visits to Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. However, the main focus is Abdel-Qader’s response to the French invasion of Algeria and the subsequent colonial war.

This began in 1830 with an attack on and later occupation of Algiers and continued intermittently over the years that followed as French forces absorbed more and more of the east of the country, progressively taking over much of Kabylia and Constantine. Meanwhile, in western and central Algeria Abdel-Qader managed to unite the local people against the French invaders, and in 1837 a treaty was signed between his nascent state and the French forces guaranteeing its independence.

Objects relating to this period are on show in the exhibition, including some later confiscated by the French forces and finding their way into the military museum in Paris from which they have been loaned. There is a copy of the 1837 treaty between Abdel-Qader’s new state and France written in French and Arabic, for example, and there are examples of the coinage that the new state struck during the short period of its existence, basically from 1837 to 1843.

It was in the latter year that an almost fatal blow was struck against Abdel-Qader’s new Algerian state when his forces were surprised at the Battle of Smala and suffered a defeat from which they never recovered. Abdel-Qader himself escaped to neighbouring Morocco, where for a time he was able to rely on local support. But eventually the pressure made the situation untenable, and in 1847 he was forced to surrender himself into French hands. A monumental painting of the Battle by French painter Horace Vernet was later completed for exhibition at the Palace of Versailles.

The second section of the exhibition, covering Abdel-Qader’s imprisonment in France between 1848 and 1852, consists of memorabilia from this period and introduces new materials to the mix. Intriguingly, Abdel-Qader, whether or not acting on his own volition, but apparently with his cooperation, became a romantic figure for many in France during these years, his confinement in a castle in the south of the country making him a magnet for those wishing to see in him the incarnation of certain 19th-century themes.

The French media of the time seems to have been attracted by this aspect of Abdel-Qader, projecting on him ideas of the passage of traditional society before the forces of historical change – the process was always much more violent than the language suggests – and the exhibition makes much of the ways in which Abdel-Qader was turned into something like a celebrity figure in France. His picture appeared in the newspapers, and the young emir was a gift for France’s orientalist painters. It seems that the striking portrait of Abdel-Qader that opens the exhibition by society painter Marie-Eléonore Godefroid was done from media images, indicating the kind of glamourous iconography surrounding him.

For reasons that are never really explained, Abdel-Qader seems to have bought into this aspect of his appeal in Europe, posing for early photographers and cooperating with a media that emphasised the exotic and picturesque. The exhibition contains many early photographs of Abdel-Qader – he started to pose almost as soon as the technology became available – together with some discussion of what these images were designed to achieve. There is an article in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition in which author Ahmed Bouyerdene presents an intriguing religious explanation.

The third section, perhaps the most difficult to illustrate, covers Abdel-Qader’s subsequent exile in Damascus, where he lived between 1856 and 1883. It was here that he composed his religious works. It would have been interesting to find out more about these even if their content can be difficult to convey. As it is, their significance can only really be hinted at in the exhibition itself, though there are many thought-provoking objects, including an early copy of Abdel-Qader’s major work, the Kitab al-Mawaqif, the “Book of Halts,” a set of religious meditations.

Fortunately, the catalogue to the exhibition includes detailed commentary on this aspect of Abdel-Qader by experts Eric Geoffrey and Thierry Zarcone. Abdel-Qader’s religious views, Geoffrey says, must be understood against the background of his Sufi upbringing and his special study of Ibn Arabi, of whose work he financed the first modern edition. For Zarcone, Abdel-Qader’s religious views are close to those of his slightly later contemporary Mohamed Abduh in Egypt.

In an interview accompanying the exhibition, curators Florence Hudowicz and Camille Faucourt say that the aim has been to suggest something of the multi-faceted character of Abdel-Qader – political and military leader, romantic figure, and religious thinker in his own right. Perhaps there is some skewing of the objects on display to what is available in French museums and archives, though as the curators also say this is the first time that many of these materials have been brought together.

They also say that they hope the exhibition, one of many in France this year relating to the complicated history of Franco-Algerian relations, can encourage greater public discussion and understanding. It would be welcome, too, if the exhibition could move across the Mediterranean for a further stint in Algiers.

Historically, French and Algerian estimations of Abdel-Qader have tended to diverge, and post-independence governments in Algeria early on incorporated him into nationalist historiography, even repatriating his remains from Damascus in 1966. With the picture of Abdel-Qader emerging from this exhibition already having so many layers, it would be fascinating to see what additional elements could be added in Algiers.


Abdel-Qader, MUCEM Museum, Marseilles, until 22 August.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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