Shaykh 'Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis (1889-1940) was the leader of the Islamic Reform Movement in Algeria between the two world wars. At a time when highly visible Algerian politicians were advocating Algeria's assimilation into France, Ben Badis and his followers vigorously affirmed the cultural and historical distinctness of the Algerian nation.
'Abdal-Hamid Ben Badis was born in 1889 at Constantine, which was the cultural and commercial capital of eastern Algeria. Both his father and grandfather held high offices in the French colonial administration and one of his brothers was a French-educated lawyer. But 'Abd al-Hamid chose a different path. After a private traditional education in Algeria, he enrolled at the venerable Zaytuna mosque university in Tunis, where he completed his studies in 1911. Subsequently he made the pilgrimage to Mecca and visited several major Middle Eastern cities.
In the Arab East and in Tunisia, Ben Badis was progressively won over to the world view and the agenda of the Islamic Reform (Islah) Movement. Pioneered at the turn of the century by Muhammad 'Abduh of Egypt, the reform movement called for the renewal and modernization of Islam by purging it of accumulated beliefs and practices inconsistent with the Koran (Qur'an) and the Tradition (Sunna) of the Prophet and by opening it up to the scientific methodology and learning that Muslim leaders of recent centuries had wrongly shunned. By invoking the example of the salafs, or earliest Arab Muslims, the reformers' program also promoted allegiance to Arab ancestors, to the Arab "métropole" in the east, and to the Arabic language, thus explicitly repudiating Europeanized Algerians' notion that salvation lay in merger with or into France.
In 1924 Ben Badis brought together in Constantine a group of reformists to discuss strategies. The next July they began publishing al-Muntaqid (The Censor) with the twin objectives of promoting the internal renewal of Algerian Islam and of protecting it against the many forms of secularist attack emanating from the colonial world. When the authorities closed this journal in November 1925 because an article supported the Rif rebellion in Morocco, Ben Badis replaced it with the monthly al-Shihab (The Meteor), which remained the reformists' principal publication until it was shut down at the advent of World War II. The reformists also began, in the 1920s, a network of independent schools for the propagation of Islam and the teaching of the Arabic language.
In attempting to renew Algerian Islam, Ben Badis and his colleagues were necessarily critical of an existing Islamic establishment they held responsible for Algerian Islam's sorry state. Sometimes they targeted the state-salaried ulama who staffed the official sponsored mosques. Far more frequently they attacked the marabouts (holy men) and the mystic brotherhoods and zawiyas whose unorthodox versions of Islam were deeply ingrained in popular culture and dominated the countryside where the great majority of Algerians lived. Since the official clergy were agents of the state and many of the zawiya leaders had been coopted by it as well, the reformists' attempts at religious renewal could not help but bear considerable political significance.
By 1931 some of the zawiya heads, smarting under reformist attacks, sought an agreement with the reformists on the basis of a common program of religious and moral renewal. Thus was created the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama (AAMU) with 'Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis as its head. After a year of very uneasy symbiosis, the reformists expelled the traditionalist members and went on to form a purely reformist organization. There ensued a veritable war of religion in Algeria over the next four years. In 1933 alarmed authorities forbade Ben Badis and the reformers to preach in official mosques. The religious war culminated with the assassination in 1936 of the official Malikite mufti of Algiers.
As the 1930s went on, Ben Badis found himself increasingly drawn into the political debates of the time. In 1936 Ferhat Abbas, Algeria's best known liberal, wrote that, having found no trace in history or in the present of an Algerian fatherland, France was his fatherland. Ben Badis replied that "We, too, have searched history and the present and have determined that an Algerian nation was formed and exists in the same way as all other nations were formed and exist. It has its religious and linguistic unity, its culture, its traditions, and its good and bad traits like all other nations on earth…. This Muslim Algerian nation is not France, cannot be France, and does not wish to be France." But this explicitly political statement must be viewed in a cultural context. In other writings Ben Badis made a clear distinction between what he called "ethnic nationality" and "political nationality." Providing the integrity and individuality of each ethnic nationality was respected, it was possible and even desirable for two or more of them to share the same political nationality. Thus, an Arabo-Muslim Algeria could find an acceptable home within the French empire.
During the mid-1930s Ben Badis feared that secular nationalists might work out agreements with the French that would further impinge upon Algeria's ethnic character. For philosophical and tactical reasons he rejected the radical nationalism of Messali Hadj. But he did urge the organization of a common front, the Algerian Muslim Congress, which came into existence in June 1936 and included reformists, assimilationists, and communists. After trying and failing in this collaborative effort to extract meaningful concessions from the French, the reformists pulled out of the congress, which disappeared by 1938.
Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis died in April 1940. The disappearance of his dynamic leadership, together with tight wartime security measures, produced a rapid decline in the influence of the AAMU. Historians believe, however, that it is due mainly to the efforts of Ben Badis and his followers that the concept of a distinct Arab and Muslim Algerian nation became a fixed element in the national discourse. The daily pledge pupils recited at the reformist religious schools went on to become the motto of independent Algeria: "Islam is our religion; Arabic is our language; Algeria is our fatherland."
Further Reading on 'Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis
The best account of the rise of Algeria is John Ruedy, Modern Algeria. The Origins and Development of a Nation (1992). The other reliable sources are in French: Ali Merad, Le Réformisme musulman en Algérie de 1925 à 1940 (1967); Charles-Robert Ageron, Histoire de l'Algérie contemporaine, Vol. II (1979); and Mahfoud Kaddache, Histoire du nationalisme algérien. Question nationale et politique algérienne, 2 vols. (1981).