The End of the Caliphate and the Battle to Lead the Muslim World

Author’s note: I wrote this essay as I was trying to make sense of what actually happened to the Caliphate as an institution after 1924. During the research it became clear how much competition there was to assume the office after the Ataturk declared Turkey a republic and abolished it. This is what I came up with — an exploration of the sequence of events that led to it being disbanded, the international Muslim response to it and the competition to assume the vacated office before its eventual demise.

The mountain of Tur is there in Sinai, but there is no Musa to ask for it — Muhammad Iqbal, Jawab-e-Shikwa

On the evening of October 28th 1923 Mustafa Kemal Pasa (Ataturk), Fethi Ismet and some military commanders met at his house for dinner. Kemal would furtively confide in them his intention to declare Turkey a republic the following day. When the next day came and many of the veterans of the Turkish War of Independence such as Huseyin Rauf, Ali Fuat and Musa Kazim weren’t in Ankara, the birth of the Turkish Republic would be declared with Mustafa Kemal its first president and Ismet Inonu its very influential first prime minister cum-president. The age of multi-ethnic, multi-religious empires was over and Turkey was in lockstep with this new trend. Rauf, Fuat and Kazim among others would find out second hand about the declaration with Rauf even giving critical interviews to Istanbul’s press scene, a city which was still de facto outside the purview of the new government emerging in Ankara.

The Ankara government, led by Ataturk wasn’t very popular in Istanbul, not least because they banned alcohol, but also left thousands of civil servants technically unemployed. “What’s the rush” Rauf would ask in an interview he gave that morning.[1] Though Rauf and Kemal were initially allies the break between them was part of the wider power struggles in the independence movement, as well as growing concern in Istanbul about the power of Ataturk’s new government. Throughout the war Ataturk maintained unity through his evocative appeals to the common religion of his men, and their religious duty to defend their homeland. “As soon the Sultan-Caliph is delivered from all pressure and cohesion” Ataturk said, “he will take his place within the frame of the legislative principles which will be determined by the [Grand National] Assembly.”[2]

He even appeased members of his faction when he allowed Islam to be declared Turkey’s official religion when the republic was born on the 29th October. “The ‘Kemalist project’ was, at best, in its infant stages by 1923” writes Rueben Silverman.[3] But by March 1924 Kemal’s biggest blow fell like a death knell. The caliphal office was abolished and the Ottoman family was driven into exile. The Ottoman Empire’s de facto prestigious role as the leader of the global Muslim community already in its sunset phase, was now decisively over. The caliphate was knocked out of its shell — the state in which it rested, to employ an interesting reading of the recent blockbuster Ghost in the Shell — with its ghost haunting Muslim societies from Cairo to Calcutta. And the absence of a replacement Caliph, Kramer says “was bound to intensify the contest among Muslim regimes for primacy in Islam.”[4]

The Economist would describe the event as a “repudiation of the Caliphate by the Turks”. It “marks an epoch in the expansion of Western ideas over the non-Western world, for our Western principles of national sovereignty and self-government are the real forces to which the unfortunate ‘Abdu’l Mejid Efendi has fallen a victim.” The Caliph, the article astutely remarked is an office of leadership for all Muslims, “it is therefore almost impossible to find a place for him in a national state”. Ziya Pasa, former statesman and leader of the reformist Young Ottoman society would complain much earlier of a ubiquitous new mood that viewed Islam as a “stumbling block to the progress of the state”. “Forgetting our religious loyalty” he would write, “in all our affairs and following Frankish ideas is now the fashion”.[5] He wouldn’t be able to resist the zeitgeist.

Reconciling the concepts of popular sovereignty and legal citizenship — the basis upon which the majority of the world’s Muslim majority nation-states would be founded — with the office of a universal Caliph to whom all believers answer and have duties, would be as difficult ontologically as it would be legally for a new state. The Russians attempted to manage a similar challenge in a 1774 treaty with the Ottoman Empire following the Crimean War by firstly recognizing the Ottoman Sultan as the “Supreme Muhammedan Caliph”, with the qualification that the Muslims of Crimea were to “conduct themselves towards him as is prescribed in the rules of their religion, without, however, compromising their political and civil independence.”[6] This treaty and other similar one’s notes Haddad, legalized and normalized a seeming contradiction between the Caliph’s spiritual and temporal responsibilities.[7]

Ataturk, not a man particularly interested in mincing words when he had a goal in mind, solved the paradox by simply liquidating the office. Though he initially thought of declaring himself Caliph (and even exporting the office at one point), he remained steadfast on the new course, even exonerating himself of any wrongdoing by relying on a technical argument that the Caliphate as an institution had become moribund following the Rightly Guided Caliphs. “He [Ataturk] used his antagonism toward the wartime leadership in Istanbul”, Ryan Gingeras told Hürriyet, “as a way to underline the inability of the Young Turks to rule” and while doing so also de-legitimized Ottoman rule. This allowed him to “consolidate a far more regimented and personalized rule over the republic” as he played on the idea that “the Young Turks didn’t just rule poorly but also handled things incompetently.”

For things to remain the same, sometimes everything has to change, and Ataturk would be the catalyst driving the reforms which were viewed as essential to protect Turkey’s hard earned freedom. As a young man Ataturk told a friend he would one day be the man that “appoints prime ministers”, and that he “would introduce at a single stroke the transformation” that Turkey needed in its social life. Ataturk viewed culture as a question of national security and expressed this view in a speech to a group of German officers:

“The Turkish army will have done its duty when it defends the country from foreign aggression and frees the nation from fanaticism and intellectual slavery. The Turkish nation has fallen far behind the West. The main aim should be to lead it to modern civilization.”

Secularization then wasn’t just a viewed as a fashionable new trend to satisfy the caprice of Turkey’s new leaders, but a strategy to ensure Turkey’s survival & independence. The objective for Ataturk’s new government, as outlined in his inaugural presidential speech, was to build a “new country, a new society, a new state… respected at home and abroad.” In April 1924, Sharia courts were abolished. In September 1925 it was a criminal offense to wear traditional gowns and turbans, unless you were an official religious leader. That same month Dervish orders were outlawed. On New Years Day 1926, the Gregorian calendar replaced the Islamic lunar calendar. On February 1926, the Swiss civil code was adopted, March that year the Italian penal code was introduced, then new commercial laws based on Italian and German sources came into effect in May. Then on November 1926, Ataturk erected a firewall around Turkey’s Ottoman past when he Latinized the alphabet.[8]

Cemil Meric, a prominent Turkish philosopher would describe it as the “the misfortune of the Turkish language”.[9] Novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar would describe the entire episode as the “fatality of Turkish history”.[10] Eulogizing him after his death however the Times placed him among “the leaders whom the new Europe has seen emerge from the confusion of war and revolution…” None of them it continued “has accomplished more, none has faced greater difficulty.” Akşam, a Turkish newspaper would run the headline “The big chief gives new directives to the nation and the government”. The New York Times headline story on November 11th was “Ataturk, a Military Hero, Formed a Surging Nation”.

A vox pop by TRT World surveying the views of Turks today of their country’s most influential modern leader.

Despite his military triumph over Anatolia’s occupiers, Ataturk’s Kemalist Revolution was at bottom the product of a deep defeat to the Europeans, which harmed the self-confidence of Muslim and other colonized peoples. To put an end to the Caliphate, Kemal would say, “put an end to the catastrophes into which the people had been dragged by following those who deceive themselves and misjudge our real rank and position in the world.”[11] Kemal was one of the most keen and alert observers of the reality that the Muslim world fell into “someone else’s power” as Albert Hourani would remark, an experience which induced “doubts about the ordering of the universe”.[12] Faced with this set of circumstances it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “in the choice between modernity, with its promises of tomorrow, and Islam with its memories of past glories,” Salman Sayyid writes in his book A Fundamental Fear, “the rulers of the leading Muslim state chose modernity.”[13] Ryan Gingeras, in his newly published book Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Ataturk, writes “Turkey, for all who first helped build it, was to be a country that only faced forward.”[14]

Ataturk and other powerful reform minded leaders in Asia and Africa “felt oppressed and humiliated by the power of the industrialized west and urgently sought to match it” writes Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra. And a “robust bureaucratic state” with a “suitably enlightened ruling elite” would have to forge citizens “out of a scattered mass of peasants and merchants, and endow them with a sense of national identity,” — an exotic import in the Muslim world.[15]

“The global human drama”, Mishra writes in his new book Age of Anger, “would henceforth be powered by appropriative mimicry.” These new leaders resented the traditionalist mindsets in their societies elites, as much as they resented European domination. “In their quest to give their people a fair chance at strength, equality and dignity in the white man’s palace,” Mishra continues, Ataturk, among others, “followed the Western model of mass-mobilization, state-building and industrialization.”[16] Ziya Gökalp, one of early Republican Turkey’s most prominent intellectuals, captured this mood when he wrote “European civilization will have a beneficial effect on us, not only with its science and technology, but also in matters of taste and morality.”[17]

Ataturk’s reformist program had a huge impact on other parts of the Muslim world too, due in part to the central role Turkey played among Muslims, but also because Turkey was among the first Muslim countries to free itself of foreign occupation under Ataturk’s determined leadership. Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, commenting after Ataturk’s death said “in him not only the Muslims but the whole world has lost one of the greatest men that ever lived.” Reza Khan of Iran would begin his own less successful project to modernize Iran. Though Habib Bourguiba — Tunisia’s founding president — said Ataturk “had tried to do too much too quickly,” he was an avid admirer of his reforms. Pan-Arabist ideologue, Sati al-Husri, saw Kemal’s reforms as the next stage in the history of human development. Ataturk, al-Husri said, led Turks to realizing the “evils which had been concealed behind the cloak of the Islamic caliphate.”[18] Dr Soetomo, a Dutch educated Indonesian nationalist (the most populous Muslim country today) considered the emulation of Ataturk crucial if Indonesia was to emerge as an independent nation-state.

Reza Shah Pahlavi made a state visit to Turkey in June 1934. He crossed the Gurbulak border checkpoint, after which he traveled by land to Trabzon and onto Samsun by ship before taking a train to Ankara where he arrived on the 16th June. The Shah spoke with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (L) in Azeri-Turkic (Credit: Office of the Prime Minister, Directorate General of Press and Information Archive).

Many Indonesian newspapers lionized Ataturk as a hero during the independence war, with Sarekat Islam’s bulletin Doenia Islam even featuring him in its leadership column giving him the Javanese title senopati, “a sobriquet for the first Sultan of Mataram.” Chiara Formichi says “Kemal had become the yardstick of political transformation and nationalist affirmation” in Indonesia.[19] Even prominent Muslim intellectuals like Rashid Rida and Muhammad Iqbal initially admired Ataturk. In his typical Nietzschean style Iqbal said that the Turks were “on the way to creating new values” in contrast to other Muslims who were repeating ways of old. In one of his last letters before his death Iqbal wrote “my time is up. Instead of praying for me, you should pray for the lives of Mr Jinnah and Ataturk.” They soon came to the conclusion however that Ataturk had erred due to a faulty understanding of Islam’s potential role as a life giving force, as well as its capacity to reform.

On the pulpit of the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus during Friday prayers on March 7th Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Khatib gave an impassioned speech recounting how the Ottoman Caliphate defended the honor of Muslims globally and that it was the prayers and efforts of Muslims which helped the Turks during their independence war. They repaid the goodwill he said by abolishing the Caliphate, and expelling the caliph which “has left a bitter impression on every Muslim believer”. In Sarajevo, similar scorn, displeasure and bewilderment was reported by the British Consulate among Bosnian scholars and intellectuals.[20] In al-Muqattam, Muhammad Shaker, who not long ago was himself asking questions about the Caliphate would write “the caliphate was never a national system, even for a day” and therefore the “leaders of the Turkish republic had no right to decide to abolish it.”[21]

By 1926, Indonesian periodicals like Medan Moeslimin would also shift their focus taking a more cynical view of Ataturk’s program. One article said “it’s not its economy or politics which is being reformed, but just its clothes, in accordance with the trend of the moment and general needs.” Penerangan Islam had accused him of “having gone crazy with power”. Fadjar Asia a different Sarekat Islam bulletin published an article with the headline “A new religion in the old capital of Islam”.[22] They may have had a point as Behcet Kemal Caglar, a Turkish poet famous for his devotion to Ataturk would describe Ataturk as “the God who landed on Samsun.” Kemalettin Kamu, another Turkish poet and politician, said Ataturk’s residence in Cankaya should be the nations new Kaa’ba.[23]

A poster from 1934. Mustafa Kemal takes the place of the sun, whose rays nourish Turkey’s reforms. Below we can see the steps taken as Turkey began to reform. It begins with the Turkish War of Independence, which is depicted by the bayoneting of a Greek, concluding with the change of alphabet and the overall position of women in society improving as can be see.

Shakib Arslan was another prominent intellectual of the period who didn’t buy into Ataturk’s reforms. Dubbed the “Prince of Eloquence” Arslan was a Lebanese Druze (who converted to Islam), a poet, writer and an Ottoman parliamentarian, who at a young age took an active part in the dynamic literary and intellectual scenes of Istanbul and Cairo. This is when he became acquainted with the various diagnoses of Islam’s malaise and the reformist thought of thinkers like al-Afghani and Abduh.

Throughout his life however Martin Kramer says, “Arslan chose as his vocation the defense of all Islam, becoming a fiercely patriotic Ottoman and a cosmopolitan pan-Islamist.”[23] Islam he believed was the last bulwark against Western domination, and his zealous commitment to this belief motivated him during his prolific career writing essays, articles, books and pamphlets. In the late twenties and early thirties the target of his polemics changed. As Ataturk’s reforms continued, Arslan would rail against “atheistic Kemalists” whose goals he said were nothing less than the “destruction of the pillars of Islam”, and the “elimination of the very foundations of Islam”. “The revolt of Ankara against the Caliphate” he later wrote, was against “Islamic principles, against eastern traditions and even Allah himself.”

He wasn’t in denial about the harsh reality that the Muslim world had fallen behind Europe, and came under its tutelage as a result. But his view differed with the more radical secular reformists as he didn’t believe it was necessary to abandon Islam to progress. Arslan warned Muslims thus:

“If you, O Islamic world, want to learn and to progress, then there is the example of the European world. For just as it achieved progress whilst remaining fundamentally Christian, so you can remain Muslim and move ahead to the degree that you exert effort. Your betterment does not depend on heresy”[24]

Although Arslan made it his mission to expose the revolt for what he thought it represented, Ataturk would eventually prevail in Turkey cementing its new trajectory when he disestablished Islam as state religion. “Whereas the Arabs, divided and ill-prepared, did not succeed” wrote historian George Lenczowski, “the Turks succeeded beyond expectations.”[25] He went on to build a homeland for the Turks and began focusing his energies on developing its institutions and economy and giving it a story which people could connect to. Rashid Rida reconciled himself with the reality that Muslims might have to live in a world without a caliph by proposing a continuation of the Caliphate without a state in which it could be embedded as a stopgap measure — something like the Pope, or a spiritual and not explicitly political caliph. Ataturk even offered Libyan Shaikh Ahmad al-Sanusi the post of a spiritual Caliph if the seat could be outside Turkey — al-Sanusi initially declined.[26] Arslan however was unwilling to accommodate himself to this solution suggested by his friend, initially favoring the idea of relocating the last Ottoman caliph — Abdulmajid — to Yemen or Basra, before looking elsewhere for a Muslim power with the capacity, will and resources to lead. He would set out for Egypt which he — rather ill-advisedly — thought could emerge as a new center of power for Islam.

Shakib Arslan leaving Alexandria aboard the ‘SS Esperia’ to return to his exile in Switzerland, 1939. After a long career writing and advocating for Muslims and Islam he eventually retired in Switzerland in relative obscurity (Courtesy: www.eltaher.org).

In the summer of 1882 after a swift invasion Egypt fell under British rule. Though Ferik Muhammd Zeki Pasha, a divisional general in the Ottoman army advocated for Istanbul to shift its geopolitical focus to North Africa, the tide was already beginning to decisively turn. British Admiral Seymour notes that the Egyptian’s “fought with determined bravery in Alexandria” though they lost out in the end.[27] Algeria had been under French control since 1830, Tunisia since 1881 and by 1911 the Ottoman Empire would lose all its North African domains when Libya fell to the Italians. Following defeat in World War I, and the re-negotiation of the Treaty of Sevres, historian George Lenczowski observes that Turkey became much more of a status quo country in international affairs, relatively satisfied with its borders with the exception of Hatay, which Turkey would acquire later in the 1930s. This gave freehand to the European colonial powers to shape the political future of North Africa without the menace of a Caliph to undermine their efforts.

Ottoman generals Mustafa Kemal and Enver Pasa are pictured here in Libya assisting the Senussi Sufi Order in their war against occupying Italian colonial forces in the Italian-Ottoman war between 29th September 1911 and 18th October 1912. (Via @ottomanrecord)

The British government declared a protectorate over Egypt in 1914 at the outset of the war and set up a new monarchy under the command of Fuad I, an Italian-educated descendant of an Albanian family that had governed Egypt when it was an Ottoman province. A few years later an uprising forced the British to make peace with Egyptian nationalists, declaring Egypt formally independent in 1922, with the exception of a British right to intervene, as well as retain control of the Egyptian military and Suez Canal. Fuad I and later his son Farouq would preside over a regime that was effectively a British vassal state. “Fu’ad (1921–1936) owed his throne to popular agitation,” writes political and cultural historian of Egypt Joel Gordon, “but recognized that British fiat had handed him the scepter.”[28]

This didn’t of course curtail his ambitions and sensing an opportunity he too would make his bid for the title Caliph. He also wasn’t alone in this aspiration either. Many Muslim leaders coveted the prestigious office from King Yusuf in Morocco, to King Amanullah of Afghanistan, Sharif Hussein and even Yayha, the Shia Imam from Yemen.[29] But as one Egyptian scholar noted in al-Ahram, Egypt was unique among Muslim countries: “‘in it [Egypt] are great numbers of scholars of the din [religion], students of knowledge and al-Azhar.” Other papers in Egypt also shared this view including Masr and al-Siyassa.[30] Perfectly poised to direct this energy to strengthen his domestic position, as well as his international prestige was King Fuad.

Resembling a “dysepeptic Mussolini” with a “Dali-esque moustache” writes Stuart Husband, King Fuad had a short temper, spoke no Arabic, and once described Arabs as “ces cretins”.[31] In him however Shakib Arslan saw what could be a future Caliph. “The most suitable throne for the caliphate” Arslan wrote, was “unquestionably the throne of Egypt”. The traditional qualifications Arslan believed were too restrictive. Islam needed material power to protect its interests and project its values he believed, then “even the Tartars and Turks among them will rush to pledge allegiance to the King of Egypt”, Arslan wrote to Rashid Rida.[32]

The Caliphate question became an important issue in Egypt between in the period 1924 and 1939 and a variety of different views were pronounced on the issue. Whilst Ali Abd al-Raziq infamously argued that the Caliphate had no basis in the Quran and was a perversion of Islam which unhelpfully blurred the lines between politics and religion, more orthodox views insisted on the institutions importance but took a different view on how it should be revived and work practically. The Muslim Brotherhood for example viewed the re-emergence of the Caliphate as the end result of the removal of foreign influence and revival of Islam in the lives of believers.

Muhammad Mustafa al-Maraghi was a particularly qualified and very well placed commentator on this question in Egypt. His colorful career saw him hold the post of Chief Qadi in Sudan between 1908 and 1919, Chief Inspector of Religious Courts in Egypt for much of the 20s, palace confidant and two spells as the Rector of al-Azhar. Kedourie notes that al-Maraghi’s attempt to weigh in on this conversation came during 1915 when he was still in Sudan seeking to clarify the Islamic doctrine on the Caliphate to Sir Reginald Wingate during a period in which the British were assessing the feasibility of bestowing the office of Caliph upon Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca.[33]

The British government enticed Sharif Hussein to join their war effort during WWI partly by promising him among other things, the office of Caliph after the campaign was complete. It was also a “consuming interest” for Hussein, already an incredibly power hungry and ambitious man.[34] But conditions changed and the Brits swiftly began tone down their support for Hussein, standing by as the French crushed his son Faisal in Syria. His position was weak, facing the armies of Ibn Saud in the Hejaz now as well. So desperate where Hussein and his sons that according to British agent Captain Nasiruddin, Abdallah (one of Hussein’s sons and erstwhile ruler of Transjordan) had reached out to Ataturk hoping to forge an alliance, as well as persuade Kemal to offer his family the Caliphate.[35] In exchange for Turkish recognition he even instructed his representatives to promise that he would mobilize his resources to fight with Turkey against Britain. This meeting happened in the rooms of the Egyptian delegation at the Lausanne Conference with Shakib Arslan among others acting as Hussein’s envoy.[36] Hussein would try a few more tricks, including inviting Caliph Vahdettin to seek protection with him, when the Sultanate was abolished. Vahdettin insisted he hadn’t abdicated and signed his application for asylum “Caliph of the Muslims” before leaving the Hejaz dissatisfied with the trip.

The doors kept slamming on Hussein and then Ataturk made his announcement in Ankara that the Caliphate was no more whilst Hussein was on a tour of Palestine and Syria. With Ibn Saud and his armed militia the Ikhwan closing in Mecca, he declared himself Caliph as a last ditch attempt to grasp at an opening which might improve his fortunes. The official announcement came from his son Abdallah ruler of Transjordan, who later told a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian the following: “They [the Turks] have rendered the greatest possible service to the Arabs. I feel like sending a telegram thanking Mustafa Kemal. The Khalifate is an Arab institution. The Prophet was an Arab, the Koran is in Arabic, the Holy Places are in Arabia, and the Khalif should be an Arab of the tribe of Koreish… Now the Khalifate has come back to Arabia.”[37]

Jordan celebrates 100 years since the “Great Arab Revolt”, which began with King Abdullah of Jordan’s great grandfather Sharif Hussein. At the newly unveiled Martyr’s Memorial, military units stood for inspection as King Abdullah II walked through the parade grounds saluting troops from across the kingdom’s military services.

It wasn’t long before Mecca fell to Ibn Saud, and Hussein’s position became completely untenable. He was “fully aware that his stock in the Muslim world was too low to make a successful claim” writes historian Conor Meleady, citing a report by Captain Herbert Garland.[38] Hussein fled to Jeddah then Cyprus. Upon his arrival the Colonial Office recognized “his past position and his pro-British connections” should mean he be treated “with all consideration possible”, but only accepted him as another private person, not eligible for any special privileges. As his personal guard, and other members of his entourage left him, he experienced financial difficulties and slowly drifted into obscurity before heading to Amman under his sons care. During his career he went from being an Ottoman dignitary and local hereditary ruler, to rebel against the Porte, King of Hejaz, King of Arabia, self-declared Caliph before quietly retiring with no significant post. The grandness of his ambition was matched only by his poor and impatient strategy which caused him to lose everything as a result.[39] Mustafa al-Maraghi’s assessment of Hussein — that he wasn’t able to discharge the duties of Caliph — was vindicated.

The British who previously surveyed views among Muslims to assess the likelihood of success if they were to make him Caliph believed that the piety of Hussein, as well as his Qureshite descent (a necessary condition for some scholars) would do the trick and help them create a puppet Caliph — the ultimate coup d’etat. This policy was primarily supported by British officials in Sudan and Egypt, whilst members of the Government of India, whose Muslim population had great sympathy with the Ottomans contested the political value of Sharif Hussein.[40] “It should not be forgotten” remarked al-Maraghi, “that the universal acknowledgment of all Mohammedans throughout the world to the Sultans of Turkey as Khalifs is a sufficient proof that they respect the latter opinion i.e. that it is not necessary for the Khalifa to be a Kurashi.”[41]

Al-Maraghi continued to outline a view of the Caliphate which implied it was more about the capacity of the Caliph to serve Muslims here and now, rather than in otherworldly affairs before making his point about why the Ottomans might no longer be an authority which can serve Muslims in this regard. “If the Mohammedans consider, as I am inclined to hold, that their faith has reaped no good from the Ottoman Khalifate, they are evidently the best judges as to whether the Ottoman Khalifate should be changed or not. They can very easily find an example in the deposition by the Turks of Sultan Abdul-Hamid and the appointment of his successor. Their reason in the step they have taken was that the country made no progress in the time of Abdul-Hamid. The Mohammedans can now decide on the situation from the actual conditions of the Empire under the new Khalifa.”[42]

Credit: http://martinkramer.org/sandbox/reader/archives/shaykh-maraghis-mission-to-the-hijaz-1925/

His measured tone, which downplayed the significance of Quraishite descent, concealed his hope that the institution would be moved to Cairo rather than Mecca. Egyptian rulers as far back as Hussein Kamil didn’t appreciate the effort the British put into promoting Sharif Hussein. In a memorandum British diplomat Sir Ronald Graham summarized the Egyptian view on this matter. He said the Egyptians considered Sharif Hussein a bedouin chief, not only incapable of subduing other Arab tribesmen, but even worst, the prospect of a Caliph being imposed on the Muslim world from his family would be the equivalent of Friar Tuck being made the Archbishop of Canterbury.[43]

On New Years Day 1924, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency would report that a movement had been started in Egypt to proclaim King Fuad Caliph which the king had a hand in.[44] New York Times picked up the rumor that King Fuad would make a bid despite his earlier reticence, and that the Egyptian government still ordered prayers to be done in Fuad’s name only as King an indication that something was brewing.[45] His major challenge to obtaining his desired goal was now another desert chieftain from the Najd region of the Arabian peninsula who captured Mecca in October 1924.

Abdulaziz Ibn Saud was part of a long line of fierce warriors from the Najd, who had been fighting, Egyptian, Ottoman and then the Sharif’s forces to conquer the Arabian Peninsula for over two hundred years. His families pact with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, earned his movement the derogatory moniker Wahhabi, a name used the describe the austere and puritanical sect Abd al-Wahhab founded and Ibn Saud’s armies historically championed. Motivated by a religious zeal to purify Islam from heretical innovations, and hunger for territory they were finally successful in uniting the territories between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea following two previous attempts which were put down by Egyptian and Ottoman forces respectively. After defeating other tribes on the Arabian Peninsula, the pretext for the final insurrection on Hussein was when pilgrims from the Najd region were denied access to holy sites. Ibn Saud called a meeting of the Ikhwan, and religious scholars, during which those scholars ruled that Hussein’s banning of Najdis from hajj was casus belli.[45] An invasion would be launched, and by December 1925 Islam’s two holiest — Mecca and Medina — fell under his rule.[46] Hussein as previously stated fled to Cyprus, leaving his son Ali bin Hussein in charge who was holding on to Jeddah, the last major city under their control, by the skin of his teeth.

Unlike King Fuad however, Ibn Saud didn’t have ambitions to assume the position of, or establish a Caliphate. Wahhabis, prominent Saudi anthropologist Madawi al-Rasheed observes, generally didn’t call for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate and indeed the movement spent many years fighting the last one. Al-Rasheed writes: “Neither their eighteenth-century classical sources nor contemporary publications endorse a call for this Islamic polity, a term that is solely reserved in their literature for three Islamic historical periods: the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, the Umayyads (661–750), and the ‘Abbasids (750–1258).”[47] Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his devotees al-Rasheed continues were “mainly concerned with purity of faith rather than the unity of the Muslim community or its incorporation in a single political entity.”[48] To this effect, King Fuad’s attempts to be declared Caliph were subversive to the weak infant Kingdom of Ibn Saud.

Egypt had long been scheming to regain its preeminent role in the Hejaz which it enjoyed exclusively before Ottoman rule during the Mamluk period, and maintained de facto after, as the Egyptian amir was responsible for supporting the believers undertaking the pilgrimage to Mecca. King Fuad had previously offered to improve Mecca’s water supply, develop the Holy Mosque and build monuments; offers which Hussein consistently rejected. The British grew frustrated with Hussein and withdrew their support, which Ibn Saud would exploit lethally to his advantage before his conquest, a period during which Ibn Saud attempted to keep cordial relations which the Egyptian throne.

It was at this time that Ibn Saud also attempted to reach out to the wider Muslim community who viewed his group as a sectarian and puritanical movement. Ibn Saud outlined his view that among other things, the Caliphate question should be agreed by ‘true representatives’ of Muslim communities.[48] He wouldn’t maintain this commitment, but the relatively powerful King Fuad continued to eye the Hejaz covetously and even attempted to secure an American loan of £100,000 to field an army large enough to drive Ibn Saud out of Mecca. The threat of a military invasion would persist, until an unambiguous warning came from Acting High Commissioner Nevill Henderson. “It is inconceivable” he wrote, “that any responsible Egyptian (I do not regard their Consul at Jeddah as such) will contemplate for an instant the dispatch of Egyptian troops to that hornet’s nest.”[49]

To this begin remedying this problem King Fuad would send Mustafa al-Maraghi to the Hejaz to mediate between Ali and what was left of his forces and Ibn Saud who had the upper hand. In September 1925 al-Maraghi boarded a steamship from Suez to Jeddah. At the time the Hejaz was a theater of active hostilities between Ibn Saud, and the last vestiges of King Hussein’s weakened forces. While some sources believed his mission was only one of mediation to iron out the differences between the House of Saud and the Ali bin Hussein, it was clear that it was more related to Fuad’s attempt to be named Caliph, and an even more ambitious attempt to establish an Egyptian protectorate over the Hejaz. Rashid Rida was among those who believed there was more to the visit of al-Maraghi. In a letter to Shakib Arslan he would write as much, adding that “no Muslim looks favorably on this mediation, as it is not innocent of foreign scheming.”[50] Egypt of course remained a British vassal state in all but name, but an important Muslim nation nonetheless, the offer of mediation which Ali had accepted, would make Ibn Saud look bad at a time when he was trying to cultivate international Muslim opinion in his favor.

Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, Egypt, 110 km north-east of Cairo, 13 September 1882. Lieutenant-General Garnet Wolseley (1833–1913), directing the battle at the end of the British expedition to Egypt to crush the revolt of Arabi Pasha. The success of the campaign marked the beginning of British control of Egypt. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On August 1925, King Fuad sent a telegram to Ibn Saud expressing his concern about the on-going hostilities between Ali bin Hussein and himself. The dispatching of al-Maraghi to mediate “was intended to establish the mission of mediation as a Muslim one, untainted by any association with Egyptian policy” writes Kramer.[51] It is noteworthy as mentioned earlier too however, that al-Maraghi was an advocate of an Egyptian Caliphate, merged with the throne of King Fuad. Upon his arrival al-Maraghi learned of how dire the situation of Ali’s forces were. His soldiers fought primarily for money, whose pay was months in arrears, with Ali’s only source of income being the Jeddah’s customs house yielding a meager £500 monthly. Ali expected financial aid and grants, which he hoped would help him rid Hejaz of Ibn Saud’s forces. Al-Maraghi wasn’t impressed and described him as being “weak-willed and slow witted.”[52]

Al-Maraghi, ever the considerate and thoughtful adviser suggested Ali write to Fuad, and clear up some outstanding issues regarding the status of the Hejaz, stipulating a series of conditions including “that the Hijaz not follow a policy opposed to Egypt’s or injurious to Egypt’s interests, internal or external.” The conditions if accepted would put Ali in a relationship with King Fuad remarkably similar to the relationship King Fuad had with the Brits. Teitelbaum says that the Egyptian demands “would do in the Hijaz what the Ottomans had formerly done there since roughly 1517, with the Hashemites again tethered to an overlord’s leash.” Desperate, with nowhere to turn, Ali who had previously described King Fuad as the “greatest and most powerful of Muslim kings” accepted the terms, as well as Fuad’s caliphal pretensions.[53] Al-Maraghi was again right in a previous assessment of Ali that “under the circumstances, all he wanted from the Egyptians was money, for which he was willing to promise the moon.”[54] Al-Maraghi just had to sell the new arrangement now to Ibn Saud who was eager to drive Ali out of the Hejaz.

With the war over the Hejaz still on-going, Ibn Saud continued to string the Egyptians along. His negotiator, Shaykh Hafiz Wahba wrote, “We did not want to antagonize Fuad, whom we held in great affection and esteem. But equally we did not want to conclude a peace; information reached us daily of how hopeless conditions in Jeddah and Medina were becoming every day; victory seemed even nearer.” Ibn Saud also offered an election overseen by an international Islamic committee to decide the fate of the Hejaz and even admitted he was no match for the Egyptian king as far as caliphal credentials were concerned as the “Caliphate must belong to a rich Islamic state able to bear the burdens”. He vowed to give him a pledge of allegiance at the right time.[55]

When he returned to Cairo, al-Maraghi would provide King Fuad with an insightful report about what he saw, which would no doubt contribute to his earlier belief that Hussein and his sons were in no position to hold the office of Caliph:

“We believe that the present government of the Hijaz rests on flimsy foundations, does not hold the favor of the people of the Hijaz, does not rest on a powerful army, and is not supported by influential states. If we might be so open as to express our opinion, we do not recommend assistance to the government of the Hijaz, because it is probable that any aid given to it would go to waste and not reach the desired aim. The appearance of Egypt as the financier of this government will not be met with satisfaction by Islamic public opinion, which loathes Husayn and his sons. The government of the Hijaz has come to an agreement out of weakness and dissipation of strength; it is probable that it would not keep its promises to Egypt were it to gain strength and its situation improve, and were it to break out of the encirclement which embraces it”[56]

This report by al-Maraghi would have been a cause for optimism in Fuad’s court, as whatever the outcome of the conflict between the ailing Ali, and the surging Ibn Saud, either way it would be in Egypt’s favor. Ali was incredibly weak, with al-Maraghi already managing to extract the necessary concessions from him, and Ibn Saud had given his word that he would recognize King Fuad as Caliph.

By the end of 1925 Jeddah fell to Ibn Saud. February 1926 he declared himself King of Hejaz and Sultan of Najd, an affront to the Egyptians, who were under the impression they would have a pliant regime in the Hejaz after Ali fell. As soon as the Soviet mission in Jeddah learned the news, Karim Khakimov a Soviet envoy and friend of Ibn Saud drove his personal vehicle to his home in the desert to make the Soviet Union the first country to recognize his new title as king.[57] Global Muslim opinion however wasn’t so sympathetic. King Fuad knew this and was much better placed to begin wrestling over the future of the institution of the Caliphate. Egypt’s scholarly community had already been planning to arrange a conference in Cairo to discuss and reach an arrangement on its future. They previously released a statement, co-written by al-Maraghi, which told Muslims they were no longer duty bound to obey the Ottomans who were deposed, and that they should attend a conference in Cairo to “designate the new Caliph.”[58] Though King Fuad had the support of some scholars in Cairo, he still faced domestic opposition from the Wafdist dominated parliament.

The conference in Cairo in 1926 went ahead anyway between 13th and 19th May but was “not strictly a religious matter, for the royal palace had a hand in the effort,” writes Kramer, a view shared by Rashid Rida in a letter to Shakib Arslan expressing his surprise at how quick everything was organized. The scholars he said issued their declaration on the conference after “having ascertained the feeling of ‘Abdin Palace on the matter” wrote Rida.[59] Alongside poor attendance (though invitations went far and wide with an ecumenical spirit), the questions about why it was really organized, as well as some serious religious, and non-religious domestic opposition led to a last minute revision of the agenda, to avoid the question of electing a caliph, instead concluding that a Caliphate, per se, was still possible.[60]

Ibn Saud seized the moment even though he previously said he’d attend, and accept any decision by the conference as binding provided it represented a majority of the world’s Muslims. He would organize an international Muslim conference of his own on June 7th, less than three weeks after the Cairo conference. The Islamic Congress held in Mecca, in contrast to the Cairo iteration, “which had been poorly attended and which had ended inconclusively” says George Lenczowski, “proved a success.”[61] Lenczowski continues,

“Ibn Saud made clear to the sixty assembled delegates that his conquest of the Hejaz was definite and that temporal matters were to be excluded from the discussion. At the same time he declared the Holy Land (meaning the Hejaz) to be the trust of Islam as a whole and asked for advice as to the best way to serve the religious needs of the faithful.”[62]

A reporter for The Spectator called Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah who attended the conference described the Ibn Saud as a “stalwart desert warrior [who] did not hesitate to vindicate his recent actions”. Ibn Saud himself opened proceedings, thanking the delegates for their attendance before ruminating on the general malaise of Muslims and then lambasting Hussein and his sons for being weak, corrupt and denying his people the right to perform the pilgrimage. They agreed on a series of major projects including a railroad to connect Mecca and Jeddah before electing a president for when the Congress would be called next with Molvi Abdul Wahid from India assuming the presidency. He was the oldest member person at the meeting.[63]

Abdulaziz Ibn Saud makes the cover story of Life magazine on 31st May 1943.

Unlike King Fuad, Ibn Saud’s goals were far more limited. Ibn Saud had what we would describe today as a serious public relations problem before and after his conquest of the Hejaz. Many thought that a man leading a movement with such blind religious zeal, and a wanton commitment to use violence wouldn’t be good for the holy cities. Ibn Saud simply needed explicit or implicit recognition by Muslims of his pre-eminent position in the Hejaz which the conference brought him. These events however would have repercussions in the wider Muslim world.

Muslims had become intensely divided on this issue. When plans by leading Javanese ‘ulama to participate in the Mecca conference were sabotaged by the competing modernist Muhammadiyah, who favored attending the Cairo conference and excluded traditionalist religious scholars from their delegation, the traditionalists went on a counter-offensive. They used the occasion of the gathering of the ‘ulama who traveled to Arabia to establish a rival Muslim organization, called the Nahdlatul Ulama.[64] Turkey didn’t have representatives at either conference, and at Mecca no delegates from Iran, Iraq or Yemen in attended. In Egypt a group led by Shaykh Yusuf al-Dijwi were very vocal in their opposition to an Egyptian caliphate because he believed the “legal order in our country is invalid.” He even touted Afghanistan as a better place for the lofty office of the Caliph because they preserved Islam’s holy laws. “If Afghanistan had what Egypt has, in geographic location and situation at the meeting point of east and west, and scientific and economic centrality, the Muslims from one corner of the world to another would be stirred to recognize its amir as caliph” al-Dijwi said.[65]

The Egyptians were eager for delegates from Iran to attend their conference with the Egyptian envoy to Iran, Abd al-Azim Rashid Pasha, lobbying Tehran at his own initiative, despite his keen awareness of doctrinal differences — “this country has a strange belief about the caliphate” he would say. Though he had received a positive response by the Iranian scholars in principle, the issue rested with the government, which embarrassed Iranian authorities who weren’t so keen. An intimate of Reza Khan, the Iranian Shah would tell Rashid Pasha that the Shah preferred the conference to be held at a more neutral site like the Hejaz as he was sure the country in which the conference was hosted would obtain the prestigious office. After some more back and forth, the Iranians wouldn’t arrive.[66]

The Indian Khilafat Movement attended but disappointed the Egyptians with the size of their delegation. When rumors circulated in Delhi that the scholars of Azhar were moving to make King Fuad the Caliph, Shawkat Ali cabled Saad Zaghlul saying he hoped the Egyptian scholars “do not intend any hasty action regarding future of khilafate.” The Indian Muslims it turned out retained hope that the Turks would appoint someone to the office.[67] One of the attendees would eventually comment that the only thing the Cairo conference achieved was that it “demonstrated to the entire world the absolute collapse of the caliphate.”[68] Shaikh al-Zawahiri remarkably claimed credit in his memoirs for saving the conference from utter failure by rapping it up as quickly as possible and not making any damaging resolutions.[69]

The entire question would then begin to take the back seat as various Muslim peoples either struggling for independence or undergoing serious domestic upheaval began focusing on their own issues. In a bid to increase his standing among Muslims Ibn Saud would reach out to Shakib Arslan whose view of Ibn Saud who he once described as a “petty amir” had significantly changed. Whilst preparing for his pilgrimage in 1929 he described Ibn Saud as the man most likely to prove that the “Arab nation is not dead.” Cleveland notes that the “pilgrimage of as noted a figure as Arslan, with all its attendant publicity, would, if completed smoothly, enhance Ibn Saʿud’s prestige by showing that he could keep the pilgrimage open and safe.”[70] Arslan, Cleveland says, actually had less difficulty in the Hejaz, than on his journey there as King Fuad was eager not to make the trip easy for him. Upon his arrival for hajj his friend Rida would write to him once more, sending him a some guidance and material to study during the pilgrimage.

A conference would be called much later in Jerusalem in December 1931 — Jerusalem General Islamic Congress — as a last ditch abortive attempt to resuscitate the office. That meeting was equally inconclusive on the question of the Caliphate but made some important points about Muslims supporting Palestine and establishing an Islamic university in Jerusalem. Shawkat Ali, even made a statement arguing that the conference was redundant as there was a living Caliph in Europe — Abd al-Majid of the House of Osman.[71] The position being competed over remarks Pankhurst, had become a title one sought out, rather than a role with specified duties, and a demonstrable capacity to discharge those duties. These congresses then “were not aimed at re-establishing a caliphate, but merely electing a caliph.”[72]

Jerusalem General Islamic Congress in 1931. Leader attending the Congress also included Shukri Quwatli, President of Syria, Riad al-Sulh, Lebanese Prime Minister and others. (Credit: http://www.motamaralalamalislami.org/images/pic-1.gif)

As the Caliphate began to drop down the list of priorities for Muslim elites, pan-Islamic politics began to take a new shape with a series of movements championing Islam within their geographic regions — sometimes merging Islam syncretically with their nationalist movements but often harboring trans-national aspirations. In his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Muhammad Iqbal explained that

“God is slowly bringing home to us the truth that Islam is neither Nationalism nor Imperialism but a League of Nations which recognizes artificial boundaries and racial distinctions for facility of reference only, and not for restricting the social horizon of its members.”[73]

This Iqbal argued was the new trend in modern Islam. “For the present” he continued, “every Muslim nation must sink into her own deeper self, temporarily focus her vision on herself alone, until all are strong and powerful to form a living family of republics.”[74] Doyen of contemporary Islamic thought in Turkey, Ismail Kara, described these shifts as expressing a “new idea of existence and defensive struggle under new conditions” which for him represents a serious break with what came before it. He believes this departure rejuvenated the Islamic tradition, but it also had real world consequences.

In 1928 Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood to protect and revive Islam in Egypt by distilling some of the modernist ideas of Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, and giving them an organisational platform to sustain them. His Brotherhood would inspire others across the Arab world to set up their own organisations, often inspired by or directly aligned with the Egyptian branch. Abul A’la Maududi founded political party Jamaat e-Islami in 1941 with the goal of reviving Islam in British India after which the Muslims of the Sub-Continent moved to create Pakistan. Hizb ut-Tahrir was founded in Jerusalem in 1952 by a judge called Taqiuddin al-Nabhani with the goal of resuscitating the Caliphate with chapters in many Muslim and non-Muslim countries. In Nigeria, this gained expression through the struggle of Muslims to have Islamic Law recognized when the constitutions for the Second and Third Republic were being drawn up from the late 1970s onward.[75]

As the Jewish colonization of Palestine began Rashid Rida and others diverted their attention to Zionist settlers. Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama in Indonesia began turning their attention to social, economic, religious issues in their country. Muslim Africa would continue to labor under British and French rule, with nationalist movements springing up across the continent from Somalia to Algeria and Senegal by mid-century. The Jadidists of Central Asia were also eventually cast aside by the Communists as the region was incorporated into the Soviet Union. The next century despite the realization of independence, would bring little joy for many Muslims. Some of these movements and many political thinkers would highlight the absence of a Caliph as their diagnosis for the problems Muslims faced. The desperateness of the attempts by Muslim leaders to grasp for its glory and all that it would endow was undone by how seamlessly it slipped between their fingers. The protective cloak of the Caliph was torn away and banished to history. We “are unveiled before the nations of the world” Muhammad Iqbal would write in his poem Secrets of the Self .

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Journalist. Writer. Producer. Politics. Culture. History. East Africa. Muslims. Art. Wields a dangerous Muslamic ray gun at all times | Istanbul | @fromadic92

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