by Faridah Zaman

When the Grand National Assembly of Turkey deposed Sultan-Caliph Mehmed VI in 1922, they deposed the last figure to hold the dual office of Sultan-Caliph of the Ottoman Empire, a vast multi-ethnic and multi-confessional empire that had, at its greatest extent, stretched from North Africa through southern and eastern Europe, to the Middle East. The spiritual authority of the Caliph, nominally head of the global (Sunni) Muslim community, stretched even further. Mehmed VI’s deposition was followed by the abolition of the office of the sultanate. In his place, a purely spiritual caliph, Abdülmecid II, was appointed in 1922.

While many Indian supporters of the Ottoman Caliphate felt betrayed by the change wrought by Turkish nationalists in 1922, some were cautiously optimistic. Leading lights of the post-war pan-Islamic Khilafat Movement—a movement that aimed to save the Ottoman Caliphate from European predation in the aftermath of WWI—believed that the caliphate’s republican ideal could be restored by its separation from the sultanate. One such voice was that of the Shi‘a jurist and historian Sayyid Ameer Ali (1849-1928), who had done more than any other to give the Khilafat Movement an ecumenical purchase. In 1923, he wrote, counterintuitively, of the wisdom of this move, for it rid the caliphate of its association with the inherently absolutist office of the sultanate, and would allow for the rules and regulations that sanctified the constitutional head of the Islamic commonwealth to become important once again (Edinburgh Review 237/483 [1923], pp. 180–95). Ameer Ali hoped that the newly appointed Abdülmecid II would work with the people’s representatives to promote the public weal and thus revive the memory of the early days of Islam.

This was not, however, to be the case. In March 1924, news came of the deposition of Abdülmecid II (pictured) and the abolition of the institution of the Ottoman Caliphate altogether by the Grand National Assembly. The Assembly telegrammed Indian caliphate supporters to announce not only that “the Khilafa has been deposed” but that “the Khilafat office being essentially contained in the sense and meaning of the Government and the Republic the Khilafat office is abolished. In fact, the Khilafat means Government, which means the state.” The Grand National Assembly added that “the existence of a separate Khilafat office with the Turkish Republic proved to be disturbing to the foreign and internal political union of Turkey….” The real interests of Islam, it argued, would be served by the constitution of Muslims into “independent governments” (Times of India, 12 March 1924, p. 9). Reference to “disturb[ance]” of the “foreign and internal political union of Turkey” was a telling remark; it was likely a reference to the Indian Khilafat Movement itself, whose leaders frequently sought to counsel, direct, and occasionally to censure successive sultan-caliphs and now the National Assembly of the new Turkish Republic.

Unsurprisingly, Indian caliphate supporters were alarmed by news of the caliphate’s abolition. Many had expected Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later, Atatürk), after consolidating his military and political victories and successfully revising the terms of the Turkish peace settlement in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, to “revive Islam’s fundamental institution,” purging it of such excrescences as were not required by the sharia, in order to “re-establish it on form of a democratic basis [sic]…” “We believe,” Khilafat leaders wrote, “that the Khilafat and the Republic are not incompatible with each other and the continuation of the Khilafat after its reform will not only not be detrimental to the internal unity of Turkey but will also be a source of strength to the Turkish nation in its relations abroad.” They pleaded with the National Assembly to consider the advantages of a caliphate established on “true democratic foundations.” What’s more, to abolish it now would be to “cause diversion and dissipation” in the Muslim world at a time of upheaval and “open the door to hosts of underserving claimants.”

While there were continued Indian attempts to intercede in the fate of the caliphate, there were also more prosaic assessments about the meaning of the decision. For instance, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958)—a theologian and leading figure in the Khilafat Movement—wrote a series of articles in the Urdu newspaper, Zamindar (Lahore),in the spring of 1924, titled “The Khilafat Problem and the Turkish Republic,” in which he argued that Mustafa Kemal’s actions merely rectified the unsatisfactory division of spiritual and temporal powers that had existed since 1922 (pp. 195-196).

Mohammad Barkatullah Bhopali (d. 1927) produced one of the most extensive analyses of the genesis, meaning and implications of the Turkish decision, published soon after the dramatic events of March 1924 under the title The Khilafet. Barkatullah was, in many ways, a singular figure. Originally hailing from the Indian princely state of Bhopal, he was known to contemporaries as a “scholar of Islamic religion, history and literature;” he had spent over a decade in England, six years in the United States (during which time he had been involved in the revolutionary anti-colonial Ghadar movement) and a considerable number of years in Central Asia and Japan. His most notable output to date was arguably the pan-Islamic newspaper, Islamic Fraternity, published from Tokyo. In a foreword to The Khilafet, Barkatullah’s work was described as driven by his ambition to “see Islam restored to its old basis as a social, practical and democratic religion.” While the book was first published in English, Barkatullah intended to eventually publish it in Arabic, Urdu, French and other Continental languages.

Barkatullah’s The Khilafet is often mentioned but rarely extensively discussed in scholarship. In many ways, it is not a wholly exceptional text—as I have already alluded to and written about elsewhere, the idea that the Ottoman Caliphate had betrayed the true meaning of the institution in Islam was a frequent refrain among Indian Muslims from at least the early twentieth century. The fact that this critique was made during a period that witnessed the most fervent pan-Islamic activism has rendered this persistent line of critique somewhat invisible. Barkatullah’s work is nevertheless interesting because he was writing in a moment in which there was no longer any question of reforming the Ottoman Caliphate; to the extent that he endeavored to imagine a wholly new future for the caliphate in Islam, he was required to draw a line under the Ottoman period entirely. As such, his critique of the Ottoman Caliphate was more extensive and severe than any Indian Muslim writer before him had ever dared to venture and warrants revisiting on the centenary of its publication.

Barkatullah’s work opened with a moving description of the departure of the last Caliph from Istanbul following the decision of the president of the Turkish Republic to abolish the Caliphate on 1 March 1924 (p. 1). He proceeded to sketch the history of the past century of the Ottoman Empire, starting with the decision of the European nations to “egg” Christian subjects into rebellion, thereby weakening the empire. He referred to the efforts of the European nations to force a constitution on the Ottoman Empire under which she would govern the Empire under European tutelage. Ottoman “patriots,” such as Midhat Pasha, however, had visions of a constitution of their own design through which they could end the perennial problem of internal rebellion and foreign interference (p. 3). They created an Imperial Parliament in which all elements of the nation would be represented and they promoted the education of all communities in the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The then Sultan-Caliph, Abdul Aziz, however, was a “despotic monarch” who would not have his autocratic power limited; Midhat Pasha and colleagues were forced to dethrone him and install Murad V in 1876. Murad V, it turned out, was sickly, but a young prince in the court let it be known that he would support the constitution and call the Imperial Parliament. Thus, Murad was dethroned, and Abdul Hamid II was installed on the throne. Barkatullah tells of the shock felt by European powers when the constitution promulgated by the Turks themselves turned out to be far more liberal than anything they had envisioned; this was a moment of triumph for the Turks (p. 4).

The accord between the constitutionalists and the sultan, however, was not to last, for Abdul Hamid II used the 1877 war against Russia as an opportunity to “become autocratic and establish a reign of terror” (p. 4) that “stalked over the length and breadth of the empire with ruthless tyranny for [the next] thirty years with impunity” (p. 6). He persecuted the leaders of the 1876 constitutional revolution, and effectively extinguished the lights of progress, liberty, and reform. Barkatullah compared this trajectory with the extraordinary advances in sciences in the “civilized world,” and the great strides made by Germany, Italy, and Japan in this same period. (Abdul Hamid II was, in this period, the embodiment of the “sick man of Europe”).

Given this context, Barkatullah argued that it was not possible for Mustafa Kemal to simply limit the despotic power of the sultanate as some hoped, for the Ottoman experience had shown that such power could not be constrained; in a notable move, Barkatullah argued that the problem lay not with individual personalities, such as Abdul Hamid II, but that the very office of the Sultan-Caliph: “the very existence of the spiritual and temporal authority in one person puts a premium upon despotism, tyranny and abuse, either by the sovereign himself, or by his ministers in virtue of that authority” (p. 8). Barkatullah did not, therefore, believe the matter was one of good or bad caliphs—indeed, the final caliph, Abdülmecid II, was generally well admired—but one of intrinsic weakness. Behind the 1924 decision to abolish the caliphate was a half-century of “incessant struggle between despotism and liberty” (p. 10).

From this point on, Barkatullah’s book covered more familiar ground. He recounted the early history of Islam and established that it had been democratic and republican in its ideals and that the Prophet Muhammad had ruled for the good of humanity and the public weal (pp. 13-15). Islam’s message was to end the despotism of kings and the autocracy of priests and establish that rulers were meant to be servants of the people (p. 18). Barkatullah was clear that the early caliphs—the “rightly guided”—made no pretensions to infallibility, nor claimed the absolute obedience of their subjects (pp. 22-23). In his sketch of early Muslim life in Arabia, Barkatullah repeatedly stressed the “communistic” and fraternal way of living (p. 24). In choosing this language, Barkatullah echoed the socialist strains of the Ghadar movement as well as earlier Indian pan-Islamic texts, such as Mushir Hussein Kidwai’s Islam and Socialism (1913).Barkatullah went as far as to say that common property was the ideal to which Islam strove, but exigency required the development of what he called a “secular” government and forms of public income to sustain it (pp. 25-26). Perhaps most notably, Barkatullah stressed that “the constitution of the Islamic government was made upon the basis of consultation” (p. 27). He was also clear, however, that “obedience to the commands of the holders of government authority delegated by the nation [was] the only practical way of conducting the affairs of a commonwealth”—obedience was the cohesive force that maintained the unity of individuals and communities (p. 28).

Implicit in Barkatullah’s account was that the abolition of the offices of sultanate and caliphate could, and perhaps should, have happened much earlier, for the caliphate’s autocratic tendency had set in in the seventh century with Mu‘awiya I, the first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate; Barkatullah here drew a detailed parallel with the effect of Constantine on Christianity (pp. 46-51). He praised Mustafa Kemal and the Grand National Assembly for having the “moral courage” to finally abolish the Caliphate (pp. 53-54); now, for the first time in thirteen centuries, Muslims would have the “chance to elect the successor of the Prophet in the true sense of election.” The idea was not wholly fantastical; Barkatullah was thinking about a Muslim congress planned for Cairo the following year, where a new caliph might be chosen by representatives hailing from across the Muslim world (p. 55). Though this did not transpire, such was Barkatullah’s confidence in the prospect that he spent a considerable portion of The Khilafet charting what the future organization of Islam under a new, purely spiritual caliphate—supported by an elaborate network of institutions extending down to the village level—ought to look like (pp. 59-80).

Barkatullah’s idiosyncratic career wove in and out of some of the most radical Indian anti-colonial projects of the early twentieth century. He was unusually well-travelled, well-informed, and an erudite writer. And yet he did not fully appreciate the complexities of the century of Ottoman government since the Tanzimat era, and the half-century of constitutionalism since 1876. The Manichean struggle between liberty and despotism he presented oversimplified the multiplicity of ideas and actors that animated the late Ottoman Empire, and his characterization of Ottoman constitutionalism as a reaction against Europe arguably effaced the circulation of ideas between Europe and the Ottoman Empire in these dynamic decades. His vision of a future caliphate, detailed as it was in some respects, was vague on the relationship between temporal and spiritual authority. He could not move beyond a vision of the caliph as a singular personality – a person of “broad outlook, wide vision, [and] sublime ideal,” who could reconcile all Muslims in “perfect liberty,” but one person nevertheless (pp. 84-96).

The Khilafet was also, I suggest, the culmination of a certain strain in Indian Muslim political thought in the early twentieth century—one that had been able to hold the “republican” ideal of the caliphate and the reality of Ottoman (mis)rule conceptually apart. This might prompt us to reconsider the contemporary—and largely still prevailing—view of the Indian Khilafat agitation as a movement that was motivated by an anachronistic, if not perverse, conception of power in the twentieth century. The abolition of the caliphate in March 1924 became, counterintuitively, the moment when the republican ideal of Islam seemed most alive to Barkatullah, with fresh possibilities for a revived institution that would knit together the Muslim world anew. A century on, during which no such caliphate has materialized, this seems a quixotic hope at best and a form of willful naivety at worst. But Barkatullah’s belief in the democratic potential of the Muslim world conveyed the spirit of optimism that marked much interwar Muslim political thought, which reckoned with the rise of nationalism and nation-states without entirely forsaking the idea of collectively determined futures.

Faridah Zaman is an Associate Professor of the History of Britain and the World, and Fellow and Tutor of Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Edited by Artur Banaszewski

Featured Image: Official delegation informing Caliph Abdülmecid II of his dethronement, 3 March 1924, photographer unknown, public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.