On this day, the 600 year old Ottoman Caliphate was formally abolished. The date should resonate in the Islamic world, invoking a sad loss, representing a significant turning point in Islamic history, but it does not, around the Islamic world it’s a normal day like any other. But why is that? Given that Muslims in general are still committed to Islam, it is unlikely that they have lost interest in their history, essential part of a nation’s identity. The only other explanation that comes to mind is that the event was not significant, the destruction on the 3rd of March was merely symbolic; the palace was closed, the Caliph with his family members were expelled quietly, as if some employees in a private firm were made redundant. Hence, the nation continued with the new secular government of Mustafa Kemal, it was business as usual. If the event represented a change of system that would have caused shocks in society, which implies, the Ottoman State as a fully functional Caliphate was already dead and buried, what remained was merely a historic relic.
The obvious question that follows is, when the Caliphate as a fully functional state ceased to exist. Over the years, I have heard various opinions on it, one of the popular opinions is 1809 with the removal of Sultan Abdul Hamid. In any case, pin-pointing the exact time is irrelevant, because the death of the state was a slow process; one can see the decline passing various milestones, with its borders shrinking. In contrast, whenever a society undergoes a radical transformation, through the establishment of a new ideology, the upheaval is marked by violence and the loss of life.
By examining the events around the period of 1924, and the Muslim reaction, this would further verify the death of the Ottoman Caliphate and significance of the 3rd of March.
On the day, the Grand National Assembly dissolved the institution of the Caliphate, and declared Turkey a secular republic with Mustafa Kemal as President. With the exception of the Khilafah movement in India, and some scholars from the old Islamic institution of Al-Azhar, bulk of the Muslims remained silent, knowingly or otherwise. This is expected for places that were never under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Caliphate, where the influence was very minimal. Within the borders of the Caliphate, Turks and Arabs constituted bulk of the population, particularly in the last 100 years of the Caliphate.
The Arab world had already given up on the Ottoman Caliphate; the Arab nationalist fervour coupled with the puritanical teachings of Abdul Wahab led to the Arabs siding with the infidel British forces. Better the infidel British crusaders than the Sufi dominated Ottomans, suffering from religious innovations (bid‘a) and building tombs over the graves of saints. In fact, the notion that the British and the Allied powers were sent by God as a source of punishment for their sins would have resonated amongst the Bedouin bandits! Similar lines were said during the Mongol invasion of Baghdad and the same when the army of Attila came knocking on the doors of the mighty Roman Empire. The Arab revolt contributed to the defeat of the Ottomans in the First World War. The Arabs betrayed the Caliphate, and in turn, they were betrayed by the British (Sykes-Picot Treaty) and the French colonialists, they had other plans, including handing over Palestine to the Zionists. What goes around comes around as the old proverb states.
That leaves the Turks abandoning the ship that they owned. Indeed, the Caliphate served them well for over 600 years; the Ottomans dominated Europe, conquered large parts of South East Europe reaching the gates of Vienna. Like the Arab Caliphate did earlier through Spain, until driven back from France by Charles Martel. All goods thing come to an end, nothing lasts forever including life itself, and one day this planet will also vanish. The decline is inevitable; it’s only a question of when. An empire or a civilisation is never destroyed by outside forces, until it is destroyed within, noted by the eminent historian Gibbon. In the 18th century, the Ottomans became relatively stagnant, whilst rival European powers continued to accelerate with scientific and technological advances. The tables were turning rapidly.
One of the fruits of the scientific era was the birth of the Industrial revolution, this alone gave the European nations considerable advantage; machines produced weapons rapidly in larger quantity. In addition, European powers colonised various parts of the world that provided raw materials, natural resources and plenty of man power. There were attempts to modernise the ailing Ottoman state, so that it would compete with the European powers, for example a huge naval force was built. However, it was all too late; the Ottoman state was playing catch-up in second place.
A fatal blow was delivered when the Ottomans entered the First World War; the Caliph at the time declared Jihad for the last time, as they sided with the central powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, against the Allied forces of Britain, France and Russia. The decision was taken by the three powerful Pashas who were effectively in charge; the Caliph, the sick man of Europe, merely nodded with approval. The Ottoman state was too weak to fight; it lost huge swaths of territory and man power. One Russian soldier noted arriving near Trabzon; the Turkish soldiers were dropping like flies in freezing condition lacking adequate clothing. The historians are still debating why the Ottoman State entered the war, when it could have done better remaining neutral. It was during the attempted invasion of the Dardanelles to capture the old Christian city of Constantinople (Istanbul) that Mustafa Kemal gained reputation, as he successfully repelled the invasion and saved the city.
The loss and humiliation resulted in the accumulation of anger towards the Caliphate, reinforced by those who were already opposed ideologically to the Caliphate; there were plenty of them, Young Turks, Nationalists, and Socialists etc. Following the war, the Turkish nationalists led the resistance to expel the Allied forced. In contrast, the Caliph was doing very little, the thrust of his policy was appeasing the Allied powers with the hope of finding a favourable peace treaty; this in the eyes of many constituted incompetency at best and treachery at worst, especially as the Greeks were pushing deeper into the heart of Anatolia and the Armenians in the Eastern front aided by Russia posed another danger. The nationalist forces managed to repel the Greeks, and neutralise the Armenians and Russia earlier by signing an agreement, thus securing the eastern border. Mustafa Kemal came out as a hero and a savour of Turkey. Eventually, the war ended with the French initiative that led to the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognised the government in Ankara as legitimate; modern Turkey with its borders was born.
It was Mustafa Kemal with the nationalists, established the Assembly in 1920, during the Turkish war of independence. The plans were already set in motion. In 1922, Mustafa Kemal informed journalists of his plan to abolish the office of the Caliphate. After the failure of Caliph to aid the nationalist-led resistance during the war of independence, its credibility was severely undermined. Hence on the 3rd of March, it was merely a formality that the Caliph was to be deposed and expelled like some ambassadors of a foreign nation. There were some resistance calling for the preservation of the Caliphate, but not enough, the fate of the Caliphate even as a historical relic was sealed.
That is history, now to the present and the future. Will the Caliphate return? If it does, it will be confined to various nation states. The Caliphate in its glory days could not maintain total unity of the various Muslim nations; in fact it started to fragment after the demise of the fourth Caliph. The nation states of today are far more complex, with a much larger population base and nationalistic sentiments have been entrenched deep into society over many decades. In addition, the various sectarian and theological divisions have emerged over centuries. For the Caliphate to be universally accepted by all, Sunnis, Shias, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Malays, Africans etc, it needs to have some sort of endorsement from the divine. The only person who fits that description is the Mehdi.
Yamin Zakaria (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Published on 03/03/2013