27 April 2016

The Intellectuals: Lalla Zaynab and Lalla N’Soumer - Indomitable Sufi Scholars

By Laura Rahme

“Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
– Rumi, Persian Sufi mystic.

Sufism in Algeria rose in importance during the 16th century, under the Ottoman Empire.  One of the most powerful Sufism school of thought in Algeria is the Rahmanya. It emerged between the 12th and 18th centuries. It offered spiritual teaching and education, monetary assistance to its adherents, a refuge for the needy, and was instrumental in maintaining community cohesiveness and social integrity.

Lalla Zaynab was an erudite scholar from the Rahmanya order. It was believed that she possessed Baraka – a spiritual force flowing from God, giving her the ability to perform miracles. Born in 1850, this remarkable ascetic who had taken vows of celibacy, proved a veritable force against the schemes of the French colonists.

The Zawiya of El Hamel
Portrait: Lalla Fatma N'Soumer

Lalla Zaynab was the unique child of Shaykh Muhammad ibn Abi al-Qasim who ran the Zawiya (lodge or monastery) of El Hamel. The zawiya played a key role in teaching the Quran, spreading Rahmanya teachings, feeding the poor, providing relief to flood victims and enabling scholars to occupy positions of great importance. Like many zawiyas in the country, which numbered 160000 by 1887, it helped preserve Algerian identity and cultural heritage. By 1890, there were several hundred students and scholars studying at the El Hamel zawiya at any given moment. It was visited by 7000-8000 pilgrims annually.

In addition to Islamic jurisprudence, Quran and Sufi doctrines, students learned chemistry, mathematics, astrology, astronomy and rhetoric. Shaykh Muhammad reminded the community that the pursuit of science was a duty of all Muslims, a belief which harked back to the medieval Islamic era.

While the French authorities were not known to praise Algerian Muslim leaders, Shaykh Muhammad b. Abi al-Qasim was often described as having “great intelligence, vast knowledge, and [being] pure of morals."

Nevertheless, the French were paranoid about any politically active Sufi brotherhood and their threat to the French empire. They closely monitored all Algerian leaders.

the zawiya of el hamel
A Female Scholar at the Head of the El Hamel Zawiya

Lalla Zaynab had lived secluded in the zawiya for years and as her father’s confidant, had a thorough understanding of its day to day operations. Well versed in all manuscripts and books of the zawiya library, she was the natural successor to her powerful father. But the local French authorities would not see this as beneficial. Their low regard for her gender led them to believe that as a woman, she would be more likely influenced by anti-French forces.

The French were keen to have the shaykh’s nephew, Sidi Mohamed, lead the zawiya. He was not only ambitious and of average intelligence, but also most devoted to French interests. On top of that, he spoke French! However, they also noted that unlike the virtuous and pious Zaynab, Sidi did not have the esteem of his local community, who considered him avaricious and attached to the things of life.

This did not deter the French. A few months before the Shaykh’s death, on 10 Mars 1897, Captain Crochard certified that he had received a letter from the Shaykh, confirming that he designated his nephew, Sidi Mohamed, as his successor.

Following the Shaykh’s death on 2 June 1897, Sidi Mohamed was eager to install himself in the shaykh apartments and inherit the immense fortune. No sooner did he arrive than he was met by the defiant Lalla Zaynab who, brandishing an official will drafted in 1887 declared that she was her father’s sole heir and that she did not acknowledge Sidi Mohammed’s moral and spiritual authority.

Lalla Zaynab met opposition from her cousin, who attempted to have her shut in the harem, but the community who loved her rose against him and his supporters. For the locals, while there was initial reticence as to whether Zaynab was the most befitting leader, it was not due to her gender. Instead, the people were anxious to know whether she, too, possessed her father’s Baraka. A voice apparition from the Shaykh declaring that his daughter had inherited his healing and supernatural powers had soon quashed any doubts.

The French Threaten Lalla Zaynab

Lalla Zaynab
Upon Lalla Zaynab’s triumph, Captain Crochard was out of his mind. He wrote, “this woman has destroyed everything I have put in place.” At this juncture, Commandant Fournier alerted the headquarters in Algiers, enquiring whether a military intervention might be needed to topple Lalla Zaynab and ensure Sidi Mohamed was made head of the zawiya in her place.

Eager to adopt more conciliatory measures, especially with a woman, Crochard attempted to speak with Lalla Zaynab in the hope of pressuring her to defer to her cousin, but she insisted that the letter Crochard held was a fake and wanted to hear none of it.

Crochard had run out of ideas. It seemed that only military force could achieve French interests.  

Would Lalla Zaynab and her community be forced to face the French army? And at what cost?

Consider here that the Shaykh’s fortune amounted to 2 500 000 francs which at the time was an enormous sum when in colonial Algiers, a labourer was paid an average of a mere 1.5 franc per day.

It would not be the first time that the French military would take on a zawiya. One had but to reflect on what had happened when they had first invaded Algeria…

The Joan of Arc of Algeria

From the time of the French arrival in Algeria, the zawiyas usually taught its students to struggle against French dominion.

Back in 1830, when confronted with the French invasion, the Ottoman Dey Hussein called upon the Rahmanya Shaykhs around the Kabylia area and Algiers, to defend the land from French colonial rulers.

At the time, the Rahmanya was led by a young Kabyle woman called Lalla N’Soumer. Born in the Djurdjura area of the Atlas Mountains of Algeria, this highly charismatic spiritual leader and scholar was soon to be referred to by the French as the “Joan of Arc of Djurdjura”.

Her real name was Fatma Sid Ahmed and she was known for her great scholarly gifts, wisdom and intelligence. In 1854, at barely 24, she rallied indigenous Kabyle people, leading an insurrection against the French troops, often throwing herself into the fray and combatting alongside the renowned freedom fighter Abd-el-Kader.

Lalla Fatma N'Soumer in battle
In all, Lalla N'Soumer led a formidable Rahmanya resistance against the French, heading an army of men and women and being successful during several battles including on 18 July 1854 when the French suffered heavy casualties. The French, led by Marshall Randon, asked for a cease-fire. But three years later, in 1857, having replenished and fortified their armies, they broke the cease-fire and again launched into battle. This time round Lalla N’Soumer’s armies were not victorious. 

Just as Joan of Arc had suffered a turn of fortune, Lalla N’Soumer was arrested and incarcerated. She died years later in prison at the age of 33. The French soldiers squandered the wealth of her zawiya and completely destroyed her library.
In fact, from the time of their arrival in Algeria, the French colonists had closed many zawiyas, burning books and manuscripts. French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said in 1847, "We dominated the land, changed its function, established charity centers, neglected schools, dispersed the zawiya...ignored religious men and judges of the law. In doing so we made Islamic society more miserable, and more ignorant, than when we first met."

Lalla Zaynab Takes on the French

If Lalla Zaynab was going to take on the French she would have to be more astute than Lalla N’Soumer.

Under pressure from Captain Crochard, Lalla Zaynab quickly understood that she could not survive a military intervention. Instead, and this is where her scholarly genius shone, she was going to fight the French using their own colonial law against them! She announced that she would press charges against Crochard and his superiors.

In August 1897, Lalla Zaynab met Maurice l’Admiral, an Afro-descendant lawyer from Guadeloupe known for his anti-colonial position and she proceeded to raise a case against the French military administration. Lalla Zaynab who spoke no word of French, instinctively understood how to use colonial law by drawing attention to the military administration’s failure to “respect the indigenous populations”. On top of that, she also had the genius idea of going further - she accused the French authorities of misogyny. Touché! French self-righteousness over its ‘better’ treatment of women was instantly placed into question.

Maurice ''Admiral illustration
Once Maurice l’Admiral began his independent judiciary intervention, the state of affairs underwent a transformation. Of particular concern was the bad publicity caused by French poor treatment of Muslim dignitaries. At the time, the French had commenced an international public relations campaign designed to convince Muslims in Morocco, Tunisia and elsewhere of the benefits of French rule. This case was detrimental to the desired image of French tolerance and benevolence.

In October 1897, Jules Cambon, governor general of Algeria was alerted by the authorities and told of Zaynab’s judicial case. Luckily for Lalla Zaynab, Jules was a man of culture, who later was to be elected at the French Academy. He was the first colonist to engage in dialogue with the order leaders and to show interest in Sufism. In no uncertain terms, he told Algiers Commandant Collet-Meygret that they had to renounce all military intervention against the El Hamel Zawiya.

The zawiya was saved.

Lalla Zaynab had used the pen instead of the sword and won.

For the following years the mystical scholar, Lalla Zaynab, ran the zawiya with authority and wisdom. She gave generously to the poor and the needy, continuing her father’s legacy. She was a revered figure for years to come. It is said that in her approach to confronting the French, Lalla Zaynab saw 70 years ahead of her time, what would become crucial to Algerian nationalism.

The Legacy of the Rahmanya

Today the Rahmanya legacy lives on and its teachings are more important than ever.
Established in 1990, the Rahmanya Association for Zawiya Scholarship emphasises spiritual education, efforts to preserve religious unity and avoid extremism and preservation of the Algerian Islamic identity.

Since 2001, an ordinance has asked for collaboration to protect the young from media influence and from religious extremism.


Tariqah Rahmania: Its Roots and Prospects, by Kacimi El Hassani and Mohammed Raouf, The Journal of Sophia Asian Studies No. 27 (2009), Sophia University Repository for Academic Resources.
Lalla Fatma N'Soumer, Amazigh World, 20 April 2007, http://www.amazighworld.org/history/index_show.php?id=1828, Accessed on 28 Feb 2016.
À La Tête D’une Grande Zaouïa En 1897 Lalla Zineb, L’insoumise, by Benchenouf Djamaledine, 20 April 2013, http://dzactiviste.info/a-la-tete-dune-grande-zaouia-en-1897-lalla-zineb-linsoumise/, Accessed on 28 Feb 2016.
Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, by Edmund Burke and Nejde Yaghoubian, University of California Press, 2006.

Rebel and Saint - Muslim Notables, Populist Protest, Colonial Encounters (Algeria and Tunisia 1800 – 1904), by Julia A. Clancy-Smith, University of California Press, 1994.

All images from Commons