Introduction: The French Colonisation of Algeria
During the 1800s through to the late 1900s, France was one of the great European imperialist powers, its territories dotted the globe. In 1830, France had conquered Algiers and began occupying the rest of the nation. This would eventually lead to a painful story – one of struggle, and the courageous pursuit of self-determination and cultural identity. Over the period of a century, the people of Algeria were subject to oppression, brutality, and cruelty at the hands of the French occupation, and much of the discourse surrounding it today remains chained to its traumatic history.
Article I of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—a result of the French Revolution in the late 1700s—had affirmed, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” yet many Algerians found themselves excluded from its narrative. (1) The colonial French authority was determined to uproot the Arabic language and Islam from Algeria, stripping Algerians of their freedom and identity. The history of Islam became a banned subject, along with the Arabic language and Qur’anic education. Many mosques were converted to churches, and some were either destroyed or converted into public buildings. These combined actions were slowly forcing the Algerian people into cultural illiteracy.
This was part of France’s “civilising mission”, which was used as justification for the subjugation of “lesser peoples” who needed to be “freed” by modernised Frenchmen. Underneath this guise, however, was an endeavour to bolster a sense of French glory.
However, Algeria would eventually prove to be a perplexing problem with regards to France’s cold-blooded mission.
Abdulḥamīd ibn Bādīs
Born on December 4th 1889 to a middle-class family, Abdulḥamīd ibn Bādīs began his life in a picturesque village in the city of Constantine. His family had inherited a fine tradition of scholarship and intellectual brilliance, and although such education was under severe restriction at the time, the young Abdulḥamīd was entrusted to the care and tutorship of a religious teacher, Sheikh Hamdan Lounissi. During this time, Lounissi exerted a significant influence on Ibn Bādīs. Lounissi was a staunch defender of the rights of the Muslims in Constantine, and he took a pledge from Ibn Bādīs to never take any position in the French government, lest his skills and education aid the occupiers. Ibn Bādīs fulfilled his pledge, the fruits of which were reaped later.
Ibn Bādīs travelled to Tunis in the year 1908 in pursuit of higher education. He enrolled at the renowned and prestigious university of al-Zaytuna, where he remained until 1912. Upon his return home following his graduation, Ibn Bādīs refers to an incident that seems to have shaped much of how he was to conduct himself thereafter. He refers to his mother’s reaction, and how she filled their home with the sound of traditional celebratory ululation. In reference to this, he writes: “It still rings in my ear until today, and I will never forget it for as long as I live. It made me realise the extent of the responsibility that I now carried on my shoulders considering I was now a scholar; it had an everlasting, permanent effect on me.” (2)
The young Abdulḥamīd was given great responsibilities from a young age, which undoubtedly left the greatest marks on his heart and mind.
In the following years, he travelled through the Middle East, where he rubbed shoulders with many scholars, teachers, and reformers. During his pilgrimage in Mecca, he met many prominent and influential leaders of the time, including al-Bashir al-Ibrahimi, Hussein Ahmed al-Hindi, and others who were taken with his knowledge, charisma, and insight.
Ibn Bādīs had intended to stay in Arabia, however, Sheikh al-Hindi strongly advised him against this, asking him, “Who will you leave Algeria to?” Sheikh al-Hindi suggested that the people of his homeland were more in need of him, and were in fact more of a priority than anyone or anywhere else.
Seemingly, this had ignited a flame deep within his heart, which inspired and spurred him to revive the call for an Algerian Islamic identity upon his return to Algeria.
As the proverb says, “Begin with the end in mind.” This was how Ibn Bādīs lived. Al-Ibrahimi reinforced this, saying that their aim from as early on as when they were in Arabia was that they “would not proceed to seek further knowledge but rather to nurture the Algerian nation upon the correct mind set, even with little knowledge.” (3)
During this time, Ibn Bādīs heard a man referring to the state of a worn-down and fatigued Algerian people in words of despair, repeating the famous Arabic couplet:
لقد أسمعت لو ناديت حيا … ولكن لا حياة لمن تنادي
“They would have responded to you if they were alive, but there is no life in those whom you are calling.”
Ibn Bādīs responded by saying:
لا تقل ” لا حياة لمن تنادي ” ، ولكن قل ” لا منادي ينادي “
“Do not say, ‘There is no life in those whom you are calling,’ but say, ‘There is no caller.’” (4)
Indeed, from then on, he spent the rest of his life calling.
Prior to this, there had been Algerian resistance over the decades since the occupation in 1831, yet hundreds of thousands of Algerian lives were lost due to a total war policy instated by the French in response. Thomas Robert Bugeaud, who was governor-general during the initial years of the occupation, launched a ‘scorched earth’ policy, essentially in reference to a brutal and senseless destruction of all that stands in their way, aimed primarily at threatening and demoralising the Algerian people. (5) In light of this history, Ibn Bādīs realised that an alternative strategy was inevitable.
Freeing minds through education
Not only was the occupation jarring because of its brutality, but also because it brought up questions regarding identity. What did it mean to be Algerian?
The political philosopher Frantz Fanon, who lived for some years in French-occupied Algeria, once wrote, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land, but from our minds as well.” (6). Ibn Bādīs concentrated on the idea of “intellectual imperialism”, hence his strong emphasis on education. He aimed to tap into the depths of the Algerian conscience with beliefs that he knew were dear to the Algerian people, and their Islamic and Arabic heritage undoubtedly had a profound hold on the hearts and minds of his people. This remained the most significant driving force for Ibn Bādīs and his movement. Ibn Bādīs was essentially raising an entire generation with a particular goal in mind, albeit with a long-term process. In reference to this, the sociologist Jacques Berque noted, “The Shaykh [Ibn Bādīs], while taking care not to defy French sovereignty, insisted on an ‘intellectual and moral reform,’ and in so doing raised the question of identity, touching on the impulses of the majority.” (7). Berque goes on to write, “Claiming Algeria as his homeland or ‘watan’ [but not openly as a ‘state’ or dawla], Islam as his religion, and Arabic as his language, he combined tactical subtlety with foreknowledge of the role that culture could play in decolonization.” (8)
Following his return to Algeria, Ibn Bādīs focused on nurturing and teaching multitudes of men, women, and children in different mosques across Constantine. In the mornings he would teach children and young adults, and in the evenings, he would teach the elderly. He taught them the Qur’ān, the principles of faith, the Arabic language, literature, and history.
In his unyielding pursuit to rouse his people, he was highly concerned with the education of children, as well as the crucial role of women in society, as he knew that they were indispensable for reform to take place. Ibn Bādīs famously stated, “When you teach a boy, you have taught an individual, but when you teach a girl, you have taught a nation.” (9)
Using his Arabic rhetorical and oratorical skills, along with his deep knowledge of Islamic tradition, he addressed a wider audience on the threat posed by the French occupation, and that it should be of great concern to every Algerian, man and woman.
Ibn Bādīs would affirm he would “fight the occupation with knowledge,” and accordingly, there was a clear solution: the education and rediscovery of the core Islamic principles upon which previous nations had built much of their achievements and successes, and without which the coming generations were to remain a subject of pity, ridicule, and subjugation. He would often say, “How can one sleep when the nation is in this state of humiliation?” Therefore, it was imperative that their faith, along with the Arabic language, was to be a central theme in the lives of the Algerian people, reinstating their cultural identity and uniting them as one force.
Ibn Bādīs would repeat these lines of poetry in schools and mosques, engraving it in the hearts and minds of the young Algerians:
شَعْـبُ الجـزائرِ مُـسْـلِـمٌ وَإلىَ الـعُـروبةِ يَـنتَـسِـبْ
مَنْ قَــالَ حَـادَ عَنْ أصْلِـهِ أَوْ قَــالَ مَـاتَ فَقَدْ كَـذبْ
“The Algerian nation is Muslim, Arab to its core. Whoever claims that it has abandoned its roots or that these roots have died has uttered a lie.” (10)
Language and the Algerian identity
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Language is a keystone of human identity – it identifies the society we belong to, impacts how we perceive the world, and undoubtedly influences our personality. Therefore, outlawing a native language and imposing another is a particularly cruel method of exerting power and authority, as it shakes the very foundations of identity and society. During the colonial period, French officials passed such laws in order to subvert the native population and its culture by discouraging the teaching of Arabic and replacing it with the French language.
Language was an aspect that Ibn Bādīs did not underestimate. In fact, one of his main objectives was to revive the Arabic language in Algeria. He saw the imposition of the French language as a systematic subversion of Algerian people by French colonial administrators. At a time when an ever-growing number of Algerians were being assimilated into a French identity—largely through language—Ibn Bādīs vehemently resisted the infiltration of the French language into Algeria as a replacement for Arabic. Regarding this, he said, “I would rather take a bullet to my chest than for the French language to enter into the Arabic schools.” (11) Consequently, the Arabic language became a language of rebellion, national pride, and resistance.
Resistance through the media
During the first half of the twentieth century, the impact of French colonialism was felt in all its intensity across Algeria. Muslim traditional society no longer existed in its intact form. At this critical time, the role of Ibn Bādīs became even more pronounced.
Discontent with the prevailing miserable order, and determined to offer an alternative vision for Algeria, Ibn Bādīs brought together a group of reformists to discuss strategies. Before long, Ibn Bādīs and al-Bashir al-Ibrahimi established a newspaper titled Al-Muntaqid (The Critic) in July 1925. Its slogan read, “The truth is above everyone, and the nation is before everything.” (12) Through this, he concentrated his efforts on the reconstruction of the Algerian nation. In his words, he stated unmistakably that he was serving Islam, justice, and the fatherland.
Due to his involvement in the national question, as well as his support for the rebellion in neighbouring Morocco, he came into conflict with the French authorities, who closed down Al-Muntaqid in November 1925. Immediately afterwards, he founded a new and successful monthly newspaper, Al-Shihab (The Meteor), which soon became a platform for reformist thinking in Algeria, until its eventual closure in 1939. During this time, he also set up a network of independent schools for the propagation of Islam and the teaching of the Arabic language. (13)
One hundred years of French rule
In 1930, triumphalist celebrations were held across Algeria to commemorate the centenary of the French occupation. They applauded themselves that Algeria had now become a part of France. Cardinal Lavigerie, the Archbishop of Algiers at the time, smugly stated on this occasion: “The era of the Crescent in Algeria is over.” (14)
Unsurprisingly, Ibn Bādīs strongly resisted this, saying, “Their government has oppressed us with respect to our religion, language, honour, sanctity and every one of our rights, and we said to it that we are not France, nor are we the enemies of France. France, however, overlooked our sentiments, cut off our livelihoods, closed our schools, hunted down our educators and students, closed our mosques, and the nation’s most basic rights are refused. So how can we declare our allegiance to it?” (15)
It was at this time that his ambitious streak reached grand proportions, as he began to develop a formal organisation, determined to take another step on the ladder of reformation and freedom.
The Association of Algerian Muslim Ulema
In order to spell out his ideas regarding the future of the Algerian people, Ibn Bādīs founded the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulema in 1931. This was essentially a body of Muslim scholars who, under French rule, advocated the restoration of an Algerian nation rooted in Islamic and Arabic traditions. This group was not a political party, but it promoted a strong sense of Muslim Algerian nationality among the Algerian masses. Through the Association, more than 200 schools were opened, the largest being in Constantine, the hometown of Ibn Bādīs, with around 300 students. (16)
Initially, the French were pleased with the notion that the Algerian people had become somewhat detached from their culture and religious identity. Therefore, they felt little reason to counteract what they saw as the slow and limited advancement of Ibn Bādīs. However, the tides were destined to turn, and there was a popular response to the programs of the Association. To counteract the growing influence of the organisation, the French government issued the circulaire Michel, which banned members of the Association from teaching in mosques. The French had seriously underestimated the overarching aims and ambitions of the newly-found think-tank.
However, after the Association had found its national voice and was in a firm position, Ibn Bādīs began to oppose the French occupation more ferociously. Following the Blum-Violette proposal in 1936, which would enable a small number of Algerians to obtain French citizenship, Ibn Bādīs began warning his people: “France makes promises which it betrays every time, whilst Algeria is befooled time and time again, yet remains desperate. Despair has gripped many of us, but by Allāh, their constant procrastination will never cause us to grow weary but will only push us to take greater risks and to make greater sacrifices. Political opinions speak lies, and their omens are evil.” (17) He then went on to say in defiance: “Our Algerian nation is not France, it will never be France, it does not want to be France, nor will it ever become France, even if it wanted to.” (18)
Due to his outspokenness on the subject, and his urging of the Algerian people to oppose the French occupiers and fundamentally distrust them, he was confronted by the French authorities, to which he responded, “I could not have cared less with regards to your hate-filled expressions of harassment. Allow me to drum home a key point: your harassment does not frighten the very youngest of our students, let alone our elders. Sadly, however, you seem quite oblivious to the history of how nations rise and fall and how tables turn.” (19)
And so it did. In the year 1938, after 25 years of lectures and sermons on the subject, he completed his tafsīr of the Qur’ān. The occasion was celebrated across Algeria in what was to result in an entire week of celebrations, sending shockwaves through the lines of the French occupiers. For Ibn Bādīs, tafsīr was a means for advancing ideas, bringing about reform, reawakening, and a full-fledged national movement. He retained complete faith in Algeria’s eventual independence from France.
Slowly but surely, brick by brick, Ibn Bādīs tactfully fulfilled his pledge and accomplished his mission. He was described with regards to his approach as “one who chiselled at a stone beneath a rusty torrent, until he was able to abolish this rock, moving its harm out of the nation’s way.” (20)
The birth of his legacy
On April 16th 1940, at the young age of 49, Abdulḥamīd ibn Bādīs died in his birthplace of Constantine, leaving behind a weeping and grieving Algeria.
Prior to his demise, he had made a promise that was captured in a couplet of poetry:
حتى يعود لقومنا … من مجدهم ما قد ذهب
هذا لكم عهدي به … حتى اوسّد في الترب
فاذا هلكت فصيحتي … تحيا الجزائر والعرب
“So that the glory of its past may return to our nation, I give you my pledge until I am lowered into my grave. If I die before, then my legacy is, ‘Long live Algeria and the Arabs.’” (21)
And so, his legacy lived on. After his death, he became a national hero whose teachings would eventually be used in the Algerian Revolution. Al-Bashir al-Ibrahimi would later say: “The very first voice that was heard calling for the liberation of Algeria was an echo of Ibn Bādīs, and the very first brick that was laid towards Algeria’s revolution down to its very details was laid down by Ibn Bādīs.” (22)
It is due to the likes of Ibn Bādīs and others, and their commitment to Algeria and its people, that the Algerian Revolution was born in 1954, leading to one of the most savage wars of decolonisation of the century. Ibn Bādīs became a powerful source of inspiration for many Algerians. Upon having their minds freed of the shackles of occupation, the Algerians were now prepared to give their lives and come face-to-face with the French occupation. The conflict between French military forces and local revolutionary groups led to widespread torture, rape, and massacres across Algeria, in a cruel attempt to terrorise the Algerian people into submission. This resulted in the deaths of more than 1.5 million Algerians. Following a war that lasted seven and a half years, Algeria officially became independent from France in 1962.
The Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi said: “The miracle of resurrection happened through the words of Ibn Bādīs. The hour of awakening had finally arrived, as the previously sedated Algerian nation began to move, and what a beautiful and blessed awakening it was.” (23)
Today, what remains of his legacy can be heard in daily pledges recited by the pupils across numerous schools in Algeria. The pledge of Ibn Bādīs went on to become the motto of the independent Algeria:
الإسلام ديننا … والعربية لغتنا … والجزائر وطننا
“Islam is our religion, Arabic is our language, Algeria is our homeland.”
Today, despite their plight, in the face of their oppressors, and in the spirit of determination, the Algerians take a solemn oath in their national anthem every day:
وعقدنا العزم أن تحيا الجزائر
فاشهدوا … فاشهدوا … فاشهدوا
“Bear witness, bear witness, bear witness, we have pledged unrelenting determination that Algeria shall live.”
(1) Van Kley, Dale (1997). The French Idea of Freedom. California: Stanford University Press, 10.
(6) Fanon, Frantz (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
(7) Berque, Jacques (1985). Politics and Nationalism in the Maghrib and the Sahara, 1919-35. In: General History of Africa, VII Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 (ed. Boahen, A. Adu). California: University of California Press, 614.
(8) Berque, Jacques (1985). Politics and Nationalism in the Maghrib and the Sahara, 1919-35. In: General History of Africa, VII Africa under Colonial Domination 1880-1935 (ed. Boahen, A. Adu). California: University of California Press, 614.
(16) Fanon, Frantz (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
(17) الميلي: ابن باديس ص180.
(19) محمود قاسم: ابن باديس ص73.
(20) محمود قاسم: ابن باديس ص73.