My reli­gion is de­cency

Rappahannock News - - Election 2019 - By John Kiser The writer lives in Slate Mills

Since reli­gion seems to be on the chop­ping block these days, here’s a story.

A few years ago I re­ceived an email from Sayyid Mo­ham­mad Say­eed, pres­i­dent of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of North Amer­ica. “March on Chris­tian Sol­dier. We Mus­lims will fol­low you any­where.” I chuck­led. Never be­fore had I been called a “Chris­tian.”

His mean­ing was not clear at first, but I ac­cepted his ex­hor­ta­tion as praise. My book Com­man­der of the Faith­ful (Life &Times of Emir Abd elKader) had been gen­er­ously praised through­out the Mus­lim world fol­low­ing its 2008 launch in Iowa. Why Iowa? It was here in 1846 a lo­cal lawyer, Ti­mothy Davis, named a new set­tle­ment in the emir’s honor.

Why? Davis no doubt re­lated to the David vs Go­liath na­ture of the emirs’ strug­gle with French col­o­niza­tion in what is to­day’s Al­ge­ria. For fif­teen years Abd el-Kader had fought hon­or­ably, ne­go­ti­ated skill­fully and dis­played un­prece­dented bat­tle­field ethics. Per­haps Sayyid was sim­ply say­ing “thank you” for a story that demon­strated the good, the bad and ugly on both sides, yet cap­tured the faith-based well­spring of Abd el-Kader’s life that ul­ti­mately won recog­ni­tion from Pres­i­dent Lincoln, Pope Pius IX, Queen Vic­to­ria , the Amer­i­can Ma­sons, and mil­lions of oth­ers from Mis­souri to Moscow to Mecca.

Three years later I spoke at the Univer­sity of Lyons in France, but was asked first to meet with the lo­cal imam. He wanted to know why I was in­ter­ested in Abd elKader. I an­swered by recit­ing a fa­vorite pas­sage from his writ­ings: Each of His crea­tures wor­ships and knows Him in cer­tain ways and is ig­no­rant of Him in oth­ers. No one of His crea­tures knows God in his en­tirety. There is no er­ror in this world ex­cept in a rel­a­tive man­ner.” I Iiked his thinking. It was ra­tional, hum­ble, in­clu­sive. “You are a Sufi,” he ex­claimed. So now I am a Sufi as well as a Chris­tian. I un­der­stood. The two Mus­lim lead­ers were say­ing the same thing: It’s the mind, at­ti­tude and be­hav­ior that mat­ters. We don’t care what your la­bel says. We like you.

These en­coun­ters re­minded me of a con­ver­sa­tion years ago dur­ing a hik­ing ex­pe­di­tion in Utah. Na­ture be­ing a church of­fer­ing in­fi­nite paths of wor­ship, our con­ver­sa­tions of­ten touched the Big Be­yond. The CFO of a large hos­pi­tal had a good take on the un­known. If there is a God, he’s only ask­ing one ques­tion: How’d you treat your fellow hu­man be­ings and the rest of my cre­ation? About that time, my busi­ness took me to god­less Eastern Europe where I met a Czech chemist, Otto Wichterle, who had in­vented soft con­tact lens tech­nol­ogy. “My reli­gion is de­cency,” was all he had to say on the sub­ject.

Then there was Rev­erend Jack Crocker, my head­mas­ter at Gro­ton School way back in the pre-coed era. Speak­ing to our grad­u­at­ing class about the pur­pose of a Gro­ton ed­u­ca­tion, he made it sim­ple: To pro­duce a de­cent fellow.

This year, thanks to the grow­ing au­di­ence in the Mus­lim world (es­pe­cially Pak­istan), I was in­vited to be a featured speaker at ISNA’s three day con­clave in Hous­ton. Sayyid Say­eed asked me to talk about Abd el-Kader’s model of leadership in war and peace. It was a model rooted in the 11th cen­tury tra­di­tions of Abd el-Kader al-Ji­lani (now in Iran), and de­manded the hu­mane treatment of pris­on­ers taken on the bat­tle­field. The Emir’s code of ethics set new stan­dards, be­com­ing a pil­lar in the not yet for­mu­lated Geneva Con­ven­tion pro­moted by a Swiss busi­ness­man, Henri Du­nant.

To­day, in the foyer of the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross, there are two busts. One is the Calvin­ist Du­nant and the other is Emir Abd el-Kader. Both were very de­cent fel­lows.

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