The First World War and the Dissolution of the Caliphate

The First World War and the Dissolution of the Caliphate

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The Balkans was the powder keg that ignited the Great War. Surrounded by the Adriatic Sea to the west, the Black Sea to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the strategic Balkan Peninsula funnels down and meets up with the landmass of Asia at the Sea of Marmara. The ancient city of Istanbul sits astride the Bosporus Strait that separates Asia from Europe and provides the only outlet for shipping from the Black Sea to the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

The Balkan Peninsula lies at the crossroads of three great religious traditions. The expansive Islamic world extends from West Asia into the Peninsula with a large concentration of Muslims in Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Kosova and Skopje. Catholic Europe meets up with the Islamic world along an axis linking Istanbul with Vienna. Bisecting it almost at ninety degrees is the Orthodox Christian world running roughly along an axis linking Athens with Moscow. Compounding the mix of beliefs are a multiplicity of nationalities and ethnic groups: the Croats, Slovans, Czechs and Hungarians to the north; Bosnians, Albanians and Macedonians to the west; Serbs, Bulgars and Romanians to the east; Turks and Greeks to the south. The simultaneous presence of myriad religious beliefs, nationalities and ethnic groups has produced a volatile mixture of competing interests throughout history.

Towards the turn of the 19th century, Islamic influence extended deeper into eastern Europe, northern Thrace and the territories around the Black Sea. This was a result of Ottoman rule, which had kept the Balkans united for more than 500 years under a single political umbrella. The regression of Ottoman power encouraged the ambitions of the Hapsburgs in Austria-Hungary and Czarist Russia. The Czars encouraged local nationalist uprisings against the Turks, hoping to dominate the emerging Eastern Orthodox states while the Austrians expanded their influence with fellow Catholic Croats. While these three great land empires contested for turf in southeastern Europe, the maritime powers of England and France had their own interests in preventing Russian access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and containing the rising tide of German power in continental Europe.

Economic interests dominated the geopolitics of the times. After the war of 1871, Germany, under Bismarck, emerged as the single most powerful land power in continental Europe. Germany sought to cultivate influence in the Balkans and to keep the competing Austrian and Russian interests at bay by arranging a series of treaties with the local nationalities. Germany also sought to compensate for its late arrival on the colonial scene by expanding its influence in East Africa and the Persian Gulf. German diplomatic activism alarmed England and France who held the lion’s share of colonies in Asia and Africa. The interests of France, England and Russia thus converged in containing German ambitions and the three entered into a treaty called the Triple Entente. To counter this coalition, the Germans formed their own alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy.

The military weakness of the Ottomans was obvious to the European powers after the Crimean War (1854-1856) and the geopolitical game was to see who would pick up the pieces once the empire came apart. To the British, Egypt was the key to the Indian Empire. The French, remembering the Norman kingdom of the Levant, desired Syria and had their eyes on Morocco as well. The Russians, as the self-proclaimed champions of the Eastern Orthodox Church, claimed Istanbul and the Straits of Dardaneles but their interests lay in access to warm waters, which the British and the French were equally determined to deny them. Even the Italians, latecomers to the imperialist game, had their eyes on Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The competing ambitions of Austria-Hungary and Russia and their covert support for Balkan nationalisms added to the convulsions in the Balkans. Both sought to expand their influence at the expense of the Ottomans. Sultan Abdul Hamid (1876-1909) waged a valiant battle to frustrate the European ambitions. But he was up against heavy odds. The Empire was deep in debt after the Crimean War. The cost of containing Balkans nationalisms was high. Military pressures from the Austrians and the Russians were unrelenting. The debt burden kept mounting until, at times, more than 80% of the Ottoman budget was earmarked for debt servicing. To service these debts, Sultan Abdul Hamid had to swallow a series of capitulatory agreements with the European powers and acquiesce in the British occupation of Egypt (1882). The stresses on the old Ottoman system kept building until it cracked under the double hammer of European pressures and internal calls for reform. Finally, in 1908 Sultan Abdul Hameed was forced to surrender his powers to the Young Turks.

That same year, in 1908, the empire of Austria-Hungary, encouraged by Germany, annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a move that let loose the fires of nationalism in the Balkans. The first to explode was Albania. Seeking to expand their influence further south, the Hapsburgs encouraged the Catholic minority in Albania to demand greater autonomy from the Ottomans. Taken in by propaganda, a large number of Muslims also joined in the protests, demanding a greater share of political power in the empire and recognition of Albanian language and culture. While the Ottomans were preoccupied with Albania, the Italians invaded Libya (1911). The cities of Tripoli and Benghazi were bombarded and the Ottoman garrisons were forced to surrender. The Ottomans sent two of their ablest generals, Enver Bey (later to become the Ottoman Defense Minister during World War I) and Mustafa Kemal (later to lead the Turkish War of Independence) to prevent the Italians from penetrating deeper into Libya. The generals were partially successful in their efforts thanks to the support they received from the Sanusiya Sufis and the Italian advance was contained to the coastal cities.

The Italian invasion of Libya and the disturbances in Albania were only a prelude to a total onslaught on European Ottoman territories. When the Catholic Hapsburgs annexed Bosnia, each of the Balkan rump states pressed their claims on Macedonia. The Czar in St. Petersburg openly supported the aggressive designs of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece. In 1913, these states reached an understanding on carving up the Balkans and began a combined assault on the Ottomans. While the Turks were busy defending Libya, the Serbs advanced on eastern Albania and took Kosova. The Montenegrins overran northern Albania, the Greeks moved into western Thrace, while the Bulgars occupied the city of Edirne and advanced towards Istanbul. The combined strength of the invading armies was 700,000 against Ottoman defensive garrisons numbering 100,000. Unable to defend themselves, the Ottomans retreated on all fronts. Serb terrorism against Turkish peasants increased. Tens of thousands of Muslims were butchered by the so-called Christian armies and more than a million refugees were sent reeling towards Istanbul. The Balkan War of 1913 marked the end of the Ottoman Empire in Europe. By the Treaty of Bucharest (1913), the Ottomans withdrew from the Balkans, except for a small portion of Thrace.

Occupation of Balkan territories did not satisfy the rival claims of the Eastern Orthodox states, which were soon at each other’s throats. Bulgaria felt cheated and fought a losing war with Serbia and Greece. The Serbs, encouraged by the Russians, initiated a guerilla war against the Catholic Hapsburgs in Bosnia to force them out and swallow up the territory for themselves. With the Balkans in turmoil, Francis Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, set off for Sarajevo to bring the situation in Bosnia under control. There, a Serbian terrorist, Gavrilo Princip, murdered him on June 18, 1914. Austria, holding Serbia responsible for the murder, declared war on July 28. Russia, as protector of Eastern Orthodox Serbia, declared war on Austria. Germany, bound to Austria by language and treaty, declared war on the Czar. The Russians, French and the British were bound as partners in the Triple Entente. France and England therefore joined the fray on the Russian side. On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France. On August 4th, Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun.

Ottoman entry into the war was not inevitable. In historical hindsight, Istanbul could have successfully waited out the war and could have even benefited from the bloodshed between the European powers. But the Ottoman defense minister, Enver Bey saw in the ensuing hostilities a golden opportunity to recover lost Balkan territories and to contain the Russian threat. Initial German successes against the French and the Russians seemed to indicate that Germany and Austria-Hungary might well win the war. In their initial thrust, German armies occupied Poland in August 1914 and pushed deep into Serbia and Romania. On the western front, they attacked through Belgium, broke through French defenses and in September 1914, were within 20 miles of Paris. Opinion within the Turkish cabinet was divided. Turkey was not ready for war after the disastrous Balkan War of 1913. But Enver was determined on his course. Negotiations with the Germans were conducted in strict secrecy. Only Enver and the Grand Vizier knew of the negotiations and the defense treaty was presented to the cabinet as a fait accompli only after it was signed and sealed. Sensing that most Turks were still vacillating, Germany sent two billion kurush of gold to Istanbul on October 21, 1914. To the debt ridden Ottomans, this infusion of cash was most welcome news. The gold tipped the scales and the Ottomans went to war. Hostilities commenced between the Ottoman and Russian navies in the Black Sea. On November 5, 1914, Britain, France and Russia declared war on the Ottomans.

Thus it was that the Ottomans entered the Great War for which they were not prepared. At great historical moments, the instincts of those in power play a decisive role in the fate of nations. Enver Bey and his supporters were so preoccupied with the Russian threat that they did not grasp the full import of their fateful decision. Their instincts failed them at this critical moment. Germany nudged the scales in favor of war by a delivery of gold to an empire that was exhausted by war and was deeply in debt to the bankers of Europe.

Ottoman goals during the First World War were different from those of the Germans. Their primary objective was to forestall Russian ambitions on Anatolia. A secondary objective was to recover the territories in the Balkans lost during the Balkan War of 1913. The Germans initially encouraged Turkish aims in the Balkans. But when many of the Balkan states opted for neutrality, the Germans pushed Turkey towards opening a second front against the Russians in the Caucasus and Azerbaijan. A German-Turkish region of influence was established around Tabriz and the Germans tried to get Persia involved in the war against Russia. The Russians responded by occupying northern Persia. Great Britain was a nominal ally of Russia, but its long-term strategic interests dictated that the Russians be denied access to warm waters. Concerned that the Russians might break through to the Persian Gulf, a British-Indian force occupied Isfahan and southern Persia. During much of the Great War, Persia remained a country occupied by three contesting powers, Russia to the north, to the south and German-Ottoman garrisons to the west.

From a Muslim perspective, the conduct of the Great War may be divided into three phases. The first phase, 1914-1916, was a stalemate with neither side scoring decisive victories. The second phase, 1916-1918, was marked by Arab uprisings in the Hejaz and Syria and a methodical advance of the British-Indian armies to occupy the Arab provinces. Two other major events occurred towards the end of the war. The United States entered the war in April 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war in October 1917. Both events profoundly affected the course of the war. In the third phase, the Ottoman Empire was dismembered, Greece invaded Anatolia and was beaten back, Turkey became a republic and the Caliphate was abolished.

The first major engagement for the Ottomans occurred right at the outset of the war. The British naval secretary, Winston Churchill, ordered an assault on the Dardaneles. His strategy was to occupy the Straits, then move on to Istanbul and thus knock the Ottomans out of the war. In April 1915, a combined force of British, Australian and New Zealander troops, almost a million strong, landed on the western side of the Straits. The French tried similar landings on the eastern side of the Straits. A determined Ottoman resistance beat back the invading forces time and again. After an effort lasting more than nine months, the invading armies withdrew (January 1916), having suffered 213,980 casualties during this single campaign. It was here, in the Dardaneles campaigns, that Kemal Ataturk first distinguished himself.

The real threat to the Ottomans was from Russia to the northeast. The Armenians saw a golden opportunity in the war to drive the Turkish population out and establish an independent Armenian state in eastern Turkey. A systematic campaign of terror was initiated against the Turkish peasants before the Russian invasions. The Czar’s armies advanced on a broad front taking the province of Kars and finally capturing Erzurum, Trebizond and Erzincan. The Armenians supported this push with massive propaganda against the Turks and the supply of war material. The Russians and the Armenians forced out the Turks from their homes in eastern Anatolia and tens of thousands were slaughtered as they sought to flee the Russian advance. The Ottomans finally established a defense line west of Erzurum under the leadership of Ahmed Izzet Pasha and stabilized the front. In retaliation, 200,000 Armenians were expelled and a large number of them perished.

All parties to the conflict used religion to further their national interests. The Ottoman Sultan, who was also the Caliph, declared a jihad on England, France and Russia, expecting support from the Turkomans in Central Asia and the Muslims in India. The British in India were particularly vulnerable. India, with a population of over 300 million at the beginning of the war, provided the empire with a vast pool of manpower. The Indian army, one million strong, was extensively used in Iraq, Egypt, North Africa, Palestine and Syria. It was recruited primarily from the regions between Delhi and Peshawar and had a strong Muslim component. The British similarly recruited a large number of Egyptians for their war effort, while the French did the same in Algeria. For the first time in modern history, a large number of Muslim soldiers were faced with a dilemma, either to fight fellow Muslims while serving in the armed forces of a colonial (nominally Christian) power, or to refuse to do so. The British successfully combated the Ottoman call to jihad in India and Egypt and the Ottomans were only partially successful in neutralizing the Muslims in India. In more than one campaign in Iraq, Indian Muslim troops fired over the heads of defending Ottoman troops to avoid killing fellow Muslims. The Russians achieved similar results in Central Asia, through both propaganda and force.

On the Iraqi front, a British-Indian force entered the Shatt al Arab in November 1914 and occupied Basra. Ottoman resistance was determined. In November 1915, the Ottomans smashed the British forces near Baghdad, cut off their supply lines from Basra and sent them reeling back towards the Persian Gulf. On the Egyptian front, a strong force of 80,000 Ottoman soldiers moved south from Syria towards the Suez Canal. British resistance was stiff and a stalemate developed around the Suez Canal area, which lasted until the summer of 1916.

With the military lines grinding to a halt on all fronts, the focus shifted to the propaganda war and in this sphere the Entente Powers had an advantage. The Ottoman Empire contained within it a large number of national and religious minorities who could be incited against the Porte in Istanbul. The Balkan caldron had led to the onset of hostilities. The Armenians were sandwiched between the Russians and the Turks. Now the focus shifted to the Middle East. The Arabs in peninsular Arabia were restive and impressionable. Palestine evoked deep emotions among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Lebanon had a large Maronite community. These were materials tailor-made for a propaganda war. British intelligence was particularly active in this area. Three major agreements signed during the period 1916-1918 not only changed the course of the Great War but had a major impact on historical developments in West Asia in the latter half of the 20th century. The first, between Henry McMahon of Britain and Sharif Hussain of Hejaz, enlisted the support of the latter for the British war efforts in return for a promise to set up an independent Arab state. The second, between Great Britain and Emir Abdulaziz Ibn Saud entailed a subsidy by the British to the latter in return for a promise not to attack Sharif Hussain in Hejaz. The third, between the British and world Zionist leaders, to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Needless to say, there were glaring contradictions in these promises and declarations.

The Entente Powers reached secret agreements among themselves to divide up the Ottoman provinces at the termination of hostilities. The most notorious of these, the Sykes-Picot agreement (May 16, 1916), gave Egypt, Iraq and Palestine to the British. The French were promised Syria and Lebanon. The Straits as well as Istanbul were promised to the Russians along with the provinces of eastern Anatolia. Anatolia itself was to be partitioned between the Russians, British, French, Italians, Greeks and Armenians. Similarly, Persia was to be partitioned into a northern Russian zone and a southern British zone. Thus were sown the seeds of strife that were to drive a wedge between the Turks and the Arabs, destroy the historical good relations between Muslims and Jews and haunt West Asia throughout the rest of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, a combination of internal sabotage and a mobilization of the British Empire gave the British an advantage. By October 1916, the Arab revolt was in full swing, aided and abetted by British intelligence officers such as T.E. Lawrence, which changed the course of the war. Sharif Hussain, believing that the Entente Powers would indeed honor their pledge to create an Arab state under him, organized guerrilla attacks on Ottoman garrisons. His commandos successfully destroyed the Hejaz railway and overran the cities of Mecca and Jeddah. Hundreds of Ottoman soldiers were killed in the desert. The Ottoman garrison at Madina was surrounded while that in Yemen, at the entrance to the Red Sea, was isolated.

The enormous advantage enjoyed by the British Empire in manpower and material began to have its effect. In December 1916, the British attacked on two fronts. British-Indian armies advanced along the Shatt al Arab while another front was opened through the Sinai towards Palestine. By the summer of 1917, British forces had occupied Baghdad and were advancing towards Mosul in northern Iraq. Ottoman resistance was weak, as most of the Ottoman forces had been diverted to northwestern Persia to support German ambitions in the oil fields of Azerbaijan.

The British advance on Palestine was even more ominous. Moving methodically, building a railroad as they went to keep their forces supplied through the Sinai desert, the British took Gaza, Accra, Jaffa and Ramalleh. The Ottomans valiantly defended Jerusalem but the city fell, under repeated assaults, on December 9, 1917. The French landed on the coast of Lebanon and took control of Beirut. Allenby continued his march through Syria. The Arab nationalists in Damascus rebelled and the Ottoman forces were withdrawn from that city. As he led the victorious British-Indian forces past the tomb of Salahuddin, Allenby is reported to have stopped, tapped his shoes and said: “We are here! We are here!” The Crusader dream had finally come true!

Even as late as the summer of 1916 it was not obvious who would win the war. The Ottomans had successfully beaten back the British-Indian armies in Iraq and Egypt and had stopped the Russian advance in eastern Anatolia. The western front between Germany and France was a stalemate with trench warfare exacting its toll on all sides. German submarines were taking a heavy toll on Trans-Atlantic shipping. The rate of tonnage sunk was just about equal to the Allied capacity to replace it.

American entry into the war was not inevitable. The United States had strong ethnic ties both with England and Germany and, initially, provided credit and material to both sides. The loss of American shipments to Great Britain was of concern to the Americans but Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to get involved in a European conflict. However, as the stalemate continued and the war took its toll, there was increasing concern in the financial community of New York that if Germany were to win the War, Britain might not be able to pay back her war debts. This fear tilted the scales in favor of the interventionists. Public opinion in the United States was prepared and President Wilson finally entered the War as an ally of the Entente Powers in April 1917. The Ottomans, however, never formally declared war on the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia exploded. It had entered the war first to help Serbia and had expanded its operations on the Polish front to divert the Germans pressing in on Paris. Except in northeastern Anatolia, the Russians paid a heavy price in war casualties, suffering major reverses at the Battle of Tannenberg (August 1914) and during successive thrusts at Poland in August 1916 and April 1917. The war caused major shortages and the Russian economy was in a shambles. The peasants starved while the aristocrats in Moscow reveled in their luxuries. This was an explosive social political mixture, ready for ignition. In April 1917 the Germans released the Bolshevik leader Lenin to Russia, hoping to increase pressure on the Czar to pull out of the war. Lenin called for an end to hostilities and the establishment of a Soviet Republic embracing all the nationalists of the Czarist empire. After the defeat of April 1917 on the western front, the Russian army began to collapse. The Revolution followed in October 1917 and it sealed the fate of the Czar. In November 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power. The Allies, alarmed at the prospect of a peasant revolution sweeping through Eurasia, intervened and offered assistance to the “White Russians” fighting the Bolsheviks. The British, French, Japanese and Americans alike landed their troops in Russia but were ultimately expelled by the victorious Bolsheviks.

The Russian Revolution was a major turning point in the history of the Great War. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 removed the Russian threat to Anatolia from the east. On December 5, 1917, the Russians entered into a treaty with the Ottomans, renouncing all claims to Ottoman territory. It is conceivable that the Russians would have successfully overrun eastern Anatolia and western Iran if their armies had not dissolved in the chaos of the Revolution. Once they were out of the war, the Russians made public the secret provisions of the Sykes-Picot agreements splitting up the Ottoman Empire between the European powers. This caused some embarrassment to the British in the eyes of their Arab clients. But it was too late, because by now the United States had entered the war and was supporting the war efforts of the Entente powers and the tide of the war had turned.

With the resources of the United States, the war of attrition in Europe tilted to the advantage of France while the British successfully completed their invasions of Syria and Iraq. Both Germany and the Ottomans were financially broke and the collapse of the Central Powers came quickly in the summer of 1918. The Ottomans made overtures for peace through President Wilson, believing that his 14-point program would apply to Turkey. When no reply came, the Ottomans had no choice but to accept an unconditional surrender. The British won the right to occupy Istanbul and the Straits. The Italians landed in southern Turkey. The French extended their zone from Syria into southern Anatolia while the British took all of the Kurdish areas in southeastern Anatolia. Turkey was left with a small area around Ankara.

The terms of the Armistice were exceedingly harsh. Turkey was to dismantle its armed forced except for a lightly armed force of 50,000. The administration and finance were to be under the direction of officers of the victorious powers. Discrimination against Muslims became an accepted norm. Only Christians were allowed to attend state schools. Christian missionaries were put in charge of Muslim orphanages where Turkish children were openly converted to Christianity. Police forces were put under the direction of Greek and Armenian officers who promptly butchered a large number of recently discharged Turkish soldiers while the victorious forces not only looked the other way but also condoned such practices.

The British and the French desired nothing less than the total dismemberment of the Empire and the subjugation of Arab and Turk alike. Even before the Ottoman surrender, it was obvious that the promises made to the Arabs were only a ruse. At the London Conference in 1919, Sharif Hussain was not even invited to attend and only the last minute intervention of the British foreign office enabled him to sit in as an observer. The occupation of Arab lands was total and complete. The sacred sites in Jerusalem as well as the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf were entirely at the disposal of Europe.

One of the strategic goals of Britain and France was to destroy the Caliphate. This institution, established by the Companions of the Prophet to provide historical continuity to Islam, had survived 1300 years of turbulent Islamic history. Not even the savagery of the Mongols could extirpate it. The Caliphate had moved from Madina to Damascus (662), from Damascus to Baghdad (751), from Baghdad to Cairo (1262) and from Cairo to Istanbul (1517). Even when its influence was at low ebb, it was the universally accepted hinge around which Islamic politics revolved. In Istanbul it had proved to be a binding institution for the Ottoman Empire uniting the Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Bosnians, Berbers, Egyptians and the Sudanese into a universal community. The victorious European powers were quite aware that with the Caliphate, the Muslims were a unitary force. Take the Caliphate away and what is left is a plethora of nationalities, each jockeying for power and position.

The attempts to terminate the Caliphate brought a worldwide reaction. In India, the Caliphate Movement was born. Its stated goal was to put pressure on Great Britain not to adopt a policy that would remove the Caliphate. The Movement gained the support of Indian national leaders, including Gandhi and it continued until the Turks themselves decided to dissolve the institution.

Turkish resistance to the occupation began almost immediately after the Armistice. All strata of Turkish society, from the poor peasants to the bureaucrats-and the Sultan himself-contributed to the resistance either covertly or overtly. Societies for the Defense of Turkish Rights sprang up in the areas directly under foreign occupation. At first they tried to convince the occupation forces of their human rights. When this proved futile, armed resistance ensued. The “Societies” rapidly coalesced into the “National Forces” and received direct support from the nationalist government in Ankara. Men and material were smuggled under cover of night from the independent zone to the occupation zones. At first the nationalists received material support from the Bolsheviks in Russia who hoped that the turmoil in Anatolia provided them with a golden opportunity to foster communist rule in Turkey. The nationalists played the Bolshevik card very adroitly, receiving arms for the Turkish War of Independence, but keeping the communists at arms length.

It was the Greek invasion that galvanized the Turks and determined the shape of post-war Turkey. The Greeks had always coveted Ottoman territories and they saw an historic opportunity to grab what they could. The Western powers connived with the Greeks. On May 14, 1919, a flotilla of British, French and American ships landed a division of Greek troops in Izmir. The city was turned over to the invaders and a general massacre of the Turks followed. From Izmir, the Greeks moved towards Bursa, raping and killing as they went. The local Greek population joined in the mass pillage.

At critical moments, history throws up strong personalities, who bend the flow of history by the sheer power of their will. Mustafa Kemal was one such man. Although considered controversial by many Muslims because of his secular leanings and his part in the dissolution of the Caliphate, there is no question that he was the one leader to whom the Turkish nation turned in the hour of its need.

Born into a poor family in Thrace, Kemal showed unusual capabilities as a young man, attended the officer’s academy in Istanbul and distinguished himself in military service in Libya and Syria. This was a difficult time for the Turks. The Empire was in shambles and the Turks were searching for new modalities for their changed relationship with the world. The idea of a Turkish nation, shorn of its attachments to Arabs and other non-Turkish peoples, was gathering momentum. Two separate centers of power sprang up in Anatolia, one based in Istanbul around the Sultan-Caliph, the other based in Ankara around a national parliament. The British openly encouraged disaffected groups to wage armed warfare on the nationalists. The Soviets, while supporting the nationalists, had their own agenda. Against this background, Kemal was trying to organize an army to repel the invaders. Representations were made to Moscow, which was more than willing to help with arms, hoping that in the process Turkey would join the Communist camp.

On June 19, 1919, Kemal met with leaders of the resistance movement at Amasya and drafted a protocol for a National Resistance Movement, which declared that the Turkish fatherland was in danger and it was the movement’s goal to rid the country of all foreign forces. At this stage, Kemal and his supporters were still in support of the Sultan-Caliph. The position of the Istanbul government was less equivocal about the nationalists. Considering that Istanbul was under occupation, the grand vizier and the Sultan were scarcely in a position to openly take an independent position, maintaining instead that the future of the Turkish nation lay in cooperation with the occupation forces. Their actions, however, showed great sympathies for the nationalists. Indeed, when Ali Reza Pasha became the Grand Vizier in October 1919, he negotiated with the nationalists a protocol reaffirming that no Muslim province of Anatolia would be ceded to the enemy. The British would not tolerate such cooperation. They pressured the Istanbul government to condemn the nationalist movement. Many of the national deputies were arrested and extradited to Malta.

In August 1920, the Treaty of Sevres was imposed on the Istanbul government. The Treaty gave all of Thrace to Greece right up to the gates of Istanbul. The districts of Izmir and Bursa were also left under Greek administration. The Turkish army was to be disbanded. What remained of Turkey would be under the financial and military control of the invading powers. The nationalists in Ankara rejected the treaty. To them it was another indication that the Sultan was not a free agent and could not be entrusted with the affairs of the nation.

The Greeks began a general offensive in June 1920 to capture more territory. Alashehir, Bahkesir, Bandrma and Bursa fell one after the other. In October 1920, a second offensive began. Simultaneously, the Armenians went on a rampage in eastern Turkey, advancing as far as Erzurum. The Turkish forces first contained the Armenian advance and pushed them back beyond the old Ottoman borders. The Armenians sued for peace. Meanwhile, Turkish resistance forces made their stand against the Greeks at the Inonu River under the leadership of Ismet Inunu. The Greek invaders were beaten and started to retreat. Seeing the strength of the nationalist movement, the Entente Powers tried the diplomatic trap. A conference in London held in March 1921 tried to coax the Ankara government to agree with the Istanbul government. But by now the break between Istanbul and Ankara was complete. The nationalist representatives would not even talk to the Istanbuli representatives.

It was in London that the nationalists achieved their first diplomatic victory. France backed out of the capitulation agreements, soon followed by the Soviets (March 1921). The Italians had no stomach for fighting. But the Greeks had not given up yet. After the London conference, they tried again, this time with superior forces. Their offensive carried them all the way to the gates of Ankara. The battle raged at the Sakarya River. Finally, on September 2, 1922, the Turks broke through and sent the Greek armies reeling towards Izmir. Athens tried to keep Izmir through diplomacy, using Britain as an intermediary. But Kemal would have nothing of it. The Greek enemy was pursued and by September 18, 1922, the invading Greeks had either been destroyed or chased back across the Aegean Sea. Kemal surrounded the occupying British forces in the Straits and forced them to withdraw. The Turks had won their war of independence.

The internal situation in Turkey was far from stable. The National Resistance Movement had represented all elements of society-from left wing communists to right wing ulema. But the cooperation of the Sultan-Caliph Vaheeduddin with the British during the Turkish war of independence had destroyed whatever trust existed between the nationalists and the Sultanate. In October 1922 Vaheeduddin, cognizant of his untenable position, fled Istanbul on a British destroyer. Abdul Majid II was chosen as the next Caliph. When those opposed to the nationalists congregated around the Caliph and tried to destabilize the nationalists, the Turkish National Assembly responded by abolishing the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. The Islamic world was shocked. Protests came from all over the world. But it was too late. The experience of the First World War had taught the Turks that the Caliphate was a burden they could no longer carry and they decided to abandon it.

Thus it was that in the 20th century, the Caliphate, an institution that had survived 1300 years of turbulent history, was betrayed by the Muslims themselves and was finally abolished.

The Constitutional Revolution in Persia – 1906

The Constitutional Revolution in Persia – 1906

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The Constitutional Revolution in Persia was the first mass movement of the 20th century in the Islamic world. It brought to the surface all the political and social currents that have shaped Islamic history in the last century–nationalism, pan-Islamism, the role of the ulema, international economic penetration, colonialism, foreign intrigue and internal despotism. The Persians waged a valiant battle to preserve their independence in the face of tremendous odds and, through sheer determination, succeeded where most other nations failed.

Towards the end of the 19th century Persia was caught between the claws of the Russian bear and the jaws of the British lion. The Russian armies had devoured the Caucasus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrigistan, Turkmenistan and had made Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia into Russian satellites. Only the independent Islamic territories of the Ottoman Empire and Persia stood in the way of Russian ambitions to reach the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Britain had consolidated its hold on its Indian Empire and had emerged as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean. Britain and France had reached an entente with respect to the territories of North Africa. While the Ottomans were recovering from the disastrous war with Russia (1876-1878), and were kept busy with insurrections in Greece and Bulgaria, Britain had moved to tighten its grip on Egypt while France swallowed up Tunisia and Algeria and was moving in on Morocco.

Russia used blatant military power to subdue its neighbors while Britain and France used economic penetration as a means for political control and ultimate colonization. Tunis and Egypt illustrate this observation. The Beys (local rulers) in Tunis borrowed heavily from the French to support their personal lavish life styles (1865-1870). As they got deeper into debt their credit rating dropped, so the interest rates charged for additional loans zoomed up. When the Beys could not make payments on the principal and interest, the Europeans appointed a Public Debt Commission with the power to confiscate revenue. French overseers were appointed in the key ministries of finance and internal affairs. When the Tunisians protested, the French moved in with military force to “maintain order”. Similarly, in Egypt, the Khedives borrowed heavily to finance the Suez Canal and their own extravagance, using Egyptian cotton as collateral. When the price of cotton fell in the world markets, Egypt could not pay its debts. The Europeans forced the Egyptian Public Debt Commission on Cairo and appointed English and French overseers in the departments of finance and internal affairs. An Armenian was hoisted as the prime minister. Khedive Ismail Pasha protested, but to no avail. He was forced out and was replaced by his more compliant son, Tawfiq Pasha. When public outrage at this heavy handedness erupted, and Turabi Pasha channeled it into a nationalist movement, the British sent in their navy, bombarded Alexandria and occupied Cairo (1882). The pretext, here again, was “to maintain order” so that the economic life of the country was not disturbed and debt collection could proceed smoothly. In effect, it was the death of Egyptian independence. Britain needed Egypt as a key transit point for its Indian Empire and sank its teeth deeper into the Nile valley, crushing a nationalist movement in the Sudan under the Mahdi (1884) and consolidating its hold on Egypt.

At the end of the 19th century, Persia was a poor land ruled by a despotic Shah and exploited by an oppressive ruling class. Nasiruddin Shah (1848-1896), fourth in the Qajar dynasty, ruled with an iron hand. He and his entourage lived in opulence, wasting precious resources on luxuries and ostentatious trips abroad while the vast majority of the people sank into abject poverty. Most people subsisted on agriculture, and land was the primary source of tax revenue. The Shah auctioned off tax collection to the highest bidder. The tax collectors, during their uncertain tenure, bilked the farmers to recover the amounts they had spent bribing the officials to obtain their contracts and compensate themselves for their efforts. The national budget showed a perpetual deficit. There were scant funds to maintain an efficient administration or an effective armed force. To finance his opulent life style, the Shah negotiated loans from English and Russian banks, mortgaging customs duties and hawking trade concessions in return. Resentment grew against the deteriorating conditions of the masses. In these difficult times, only the ulema stood between tyranny and justice, articulating the frustrations of the people and standing up for their rights. This they could do because the Persian ulema sprang from among the masses and identified with them in their struggles. The Shah and his henchmen resented the independence of the ulema and did their best to bend them to the official will, banishing some of them from Persia and subjecting others to untold humiliations. Persia was like a tinderbox; all that was needed was a match to light the fire.

The incident that sparked the Constitutional Revolution was the Tobacco Concession of 1890. That year, Nasiruddin Shah granted a concession to an Englishman, F.G. Talbot, for the production, processing, distribution and sale of all tobacco grown in Persia for a period of 50 years in return for a paltry sum of 15,000 British pounds payable annually to the Persian government. The projected annual net profits of the Company were more than 500,000 pounds so that Persia’s share of these profits was a trivial 3 percent.

The Talbot monopoly would have killed the indigenous tobacco industry. No farmer would be able to sell his product in the open market because a single buyer-the Talbot Tobacco Company-would control all purchases. Competition would die. The tobacco workers, of whom there were over 100,000 in the country, would be at the mercy of the company. Prices would rise and fall at the whims of foreigners who could stimulate production or choke it off to suit their own agendas.

Not to be outdone by the British in controlling the commerce of Persia, Prince Dolgorosky of Russia obtained a first refusal on any railroad project within the country for five years. A series of other concessions to foreigners followed. In 1891, Baron Julius de Reuter of England obtained exclusive privileges to issue bank notes and to exploit mineral resources. Shortly thereafter the Shah sold a lottery syndicate to a British company for 40,000 pounds claiming that the proceeds would be used to further education. These concessions, if implemented, would tighten the stranglehold of Russia and Britain on the economic life of the country. Was the example of Tunis and Egypt to repeat itself in Persia?

Resentment kept building up against the arbitrary rule of the Shah and the manner in which he was selling out his country to foreigners. Two of the towering personages of the age who articulated this resentment and became prime movers in the events that followed were Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani, a pan-Islamic activist, and Shaykh Hassan Tabrizi, a noted Persian scholar.

Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani was undoubtedly one of the most influential Muslims of the era. Some consider him to be the principal figure in awakening Islamic political sentiments in Persia, Afghanistan, India, Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. Others criticize his role in the destruction of Islamic institutions, including the Sultanate of Persia and the Ottoman Caliphate and suspect that he was working in collusion with one European power or the other. The verdict of history on whether he was a patriot or a turncoat is not clear. It is easier to make a case that while he fervently believed in his grand pan-Islamic vision, he was caught in the whirlwinds of the times like so many Muslims of that era and became a partner in the demise of political institutions that had provided stability to the Islamic world for 500 years.

Seyyed Jamaluddin was born in 1838 at Asadabad near the Afghan-Persian border. He was called a Seyyed because his family claimed descent from the family of the Prophet through Imam Hussain. The title of “Afghani” refers to his Afghan-Persian heritage. As a youth, Seyyed Jamaluddin studied the Qur’an, Fiqh, Arabic grammar, philosophy, tasawwuf, logic, mathematics, and medicine, disciplines that were the backbone of an Islamic curriculum at that time. In 1856, at the age of eighteen, he spent a year in India and felt the rising pulse of the subcontinent, which was soon to erupt in the Sepoy Uprising of 1857. From India, Seyyed Jamaluddin visited Arabia where he performed his Hajj. Returning to Afghanistan in 1858, he was employed by Amir Dost Muhammed. His talents propelled him to the forefront of the Afghan hierarchy. When Dost Muhammed died and his brother Mohammed Azam became the emir, Jamaluddin was appointed the prime minister.

In 1869, Seyyed Jamaluddin fell out of favor with the emir and left Kabul for India. In Delhi, he received the red carpet treatment from British officials, who were at the same time careful not to let him meet the principal Indian Muslim leaders. That same year he visited Cairo on his way to Istanbul where his fame had preceded him and he was elected to the Turkish Academy. However, his “rational” interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet was deeply suspect in the eyes of the Turkishulema and he was expelled from Istanbul in 1871.

Back in Cairo, Jamaluddin had a major role in the events that led to the overthrow of Khedive Ismail Pasha who had brought Egypt to its knees through his extravagance. European influence increased, and Jamaluddin was at the head of the Young Egyptian Movement and the nationalist uprising under Torabi Pasha (1881) that sought to expel the Europeans from Egypt. The British, suspicious of his motives, sent him back to India just before their occupation of Cairo in 1882.

From India, Seyyed Jamaluddin embarked on a journey through Europe and resided for various lengths of time in London, Paris and St. Petersburg. In Paris he met and influenced the Egyptian modernist Muhammed Abduh. Together, the two started a political organization Urwah al Wuthqa (The Unbreakable Bond) whose avowed purpose was to “modernize” Islam and protect the Islamic world from the greed of foreigners. Its strident anti-European tone annoyed the British who engineered to have the organization and its mouthpiece, the Minaret, shut down.

In 1889 Sultan Nasiruddin Shah of Persia visited St. Petersburg and invited Jamaluddin to return to Tehran, promising him the post of prime minister. A reluctant Jamaluddin saw an opportunity to influence events in the Islamic heartland and returned, soon to find himself out of favor with the monarch. Fearing the wrath of the Shah, Jamaluddin took refuge in the Shrine of Shah Abdul Azeem and from the sanctuary, denounced the Shah as a tyrant and advocated his overthrow. It was while he stayed in the sanctuary that Jamaluddin met and influenced the principal figures who had a major impact on the subsequent turbulent events in Persia, including the assassination of Nasiruddin Shah.

The Shah, furious at Seyyed Jamaluddin’s tirades, banished him from Persia in 1891. The Seyyed arrived in Istanbul and was warmly received by Sultan Abdul Hamid II who nonetheless kept a close watch on his activities. Jamaluddin Afghani spent the rest of his life in Istanbul and died of cancer in1896.

Two principal themes run through the life and work of Seyyed Jamaluddin Afghani. First, his proclaimed goal was to unite the Islamic world under a single caliph resident in Istanbul. Towards this end, he sought a rapprochement between the Ottoman Empire and Persia, working to have the Shah recognize the Ottoman Sultan as the Caliph of all Muslims, while the Caliph recognized the Shah as the sovereign of all Shi’as. He wrote to the leading theologians of Karbala, Tabriz and Tehran, passionately arguing his case and was partially successful in bringing them to his point of view. However, the rapprochement did not take place due to the political turbulence in Persia. Second, he sought to “modernize” Islam to make it responsive, as he saw it, to the needs of the age. The movement that he started, which was spread by his disciple, Muhammed Abduh of Egypt, was called the salafi movement. It derives from the word “as salaf as salehin” (the pious ancestors) and refers to the legal opinions advanced by the first three generations after the Prophet. It was essentially a rationalist and apologist movement, which sought to bring about a nahda (renaissance) of Islamic thought. Muhammed Abduh sought to replace the four schools of Sunnah Fiqh (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii and Hanbali) with a single Fiqh. He taught that the laws of the Qur’an could be “rationalized” and if necessary, reinterpreted. The Salafi movement had a major impact on Arab intellectual circles around the turn of the 20th century and also influenced the Aligarh movement in India as well as the Muhammadiya movement in Indonesia. The movement, however, had no roots either in Islamic traditions or Islamic history. The nahda was suspected of attempting to secularize Islam, just as the renaissance of the 16th century had secularized the Latin West. As a mass movement, the Salafi movement was a failure and was rejected by the Islamic world.

Returning to events in Persia, the Tobacco Concession of 1889 roused a public outcry. When the Talbot Tobacco Company started its operations in 1891 riots broke out in the major cities. The disturbances in Tabriz were particularly intense. An alarmed Shah invited the Russians to intervene and bring order to Tabriz but the Russians refused.

At this juncture Jamaluddin Afghani saw a golden opportunity to engineer the overthrow of the hated Shah. From Istanbul, he wrote to the leadingulema in Persia, including Hajji Mirza Abul Kasim of Karbala, Hajji Mirza Muhammed Hassan of Shiraz, Hajji Shaykh Muhammed Taqi of Isfahan and Hajji Mirza Jawad of Tabriz. He emphasized to them the dangers facing the Islamic world from European intrigue. He pointed out how economic penetration had resulted in the enslavement of Egypt and Tunis, and if the Persians did not resist the tyrant Shah, the same fate awaited them too. He underscored the need for independent ulema who alone could serve as the backbone of resistance to the European onslaught. He pointed out how the destruction of the power of the ulema in India and Central Asia had led to the colonization of those lands while Afghanistan was saved from the same fate by the vigilance of the ulema. The Shah, wrote Jamaluddin in his letters, had forced many of the ulema to flee the land of their birth along with thousands of patriotic Persians. In short, he roused the religious and patriotic fervor of the clerics to take a stand against the Tobacco Concession and to reign in the Shah.

Jamaluddin Afghani’s letters had their desired effect. The ulema were stirred into action. The subsequent events gave a stunning display of their power and the role of religion in the politics of Persia. These events were a forerunner of the upheavals that accompanied the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and the Iranian Revolution of 1978.

It is not generally known that the first effective application of non-violent methods in modern times to achieve social and political goals was in Persia under the ulema and not in India under Gandhi or in the United States under Martin Luther King. It was the Muslims of Persia who showed in 1890 that nonviolent civil disobedience was a powerful weapon in combating injustice and tyranny.

Moved by the eloquence of Jamaluddin Afghani, Hajji Mirza Hassan Shirazi wrote to the Shah that the sellout of the tobacco industry was against the interests of the people and contrary to the injunctions of the Qur’an. When it did not elicit a satisfactory response, the learned cleric gave a fatwa that under the circumstances, the consumption of tobacco was haram (forbidden). He enjoined the people to abstain from tobacco. This was the first instance of peaceful disobedience in modern times and it was a political masterstroke. The tobacco boycott was a stunning success. Habitual smokers gave up smoking. Merchants closed their shops. Pipes were set aside. The poor as well as the rich obeyed the command of the learned Hajji Mirza.

The successful boycott thrust the religious leadership into the forefront of the national struggle, a role that has continued to this day. The peaceful Islamic spirit of the Persian people never shone so brightly as it did in that hour. It was a convincing demonstration of the positive role of religion in the national struggle against foreign domination. The people showed discipline and cohesion and affirmed their solidarity with their spiritual leaders. They demonstrated that there were limits to their toleration of injustice, whether it was forced upon them from within or imposed from abroad.

The boycott had its desired effect. The shares of the Imperial (British) Bank, which had financed the Talbot Tobacco Company, fell by 50%. Faced with the overwhelming will of the people, the Shah relented and withdrew the Tobacco Concession (1892). The Persian government agreed to compensate the Talbot Company a sum of 500,000 British pounds. The prestige of Britain suffered while that of Russia, which had refused to intervene in the turmoil, went up.

Sultan Nasiruddin Shah did not survive the aftermath of the Tobacco Concession for long. A zealot, Mirza Muhammed Riza of Kirman, who had been influenced by the ideas of Jamaluddin Afghani, assassinated the Shah in 1896. Mirza Muhammed was captured, tortured and executed.

The new Sultan Muzaffaruddin Shah was a man of weak health and still weaker resolution. He was no less inclined than his father to a life of luxury. He too sought loans from European bankers at exorbitant interest rates to finance his life style. Ultimately, his rule also foundered on the rock of foreign loans.

Immediately upon his accession, Muzaffaruddin Shah planned an ostentatious state visit to Europe. As the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and there was no money in the treasury, the Shah floated a loan of one million British pounds in London. The credit rating of Persia was so poor that the loan was not subscribed to and the Shah had to abandon the planned trip. Determined to raise funds for a future trip, he turned his attention to fleecing his own subjects.

The Russians stepped in where the British had stumbled. They offered the Shah a loan of 20 million Russian rubles at 5% interest repayable in 75 years. The cash-hungry Shah gladly accepted the loan and set off on his European tour, visiting among other places, Paris, St. Petersburg and Istanbul. The British, showing their pique at the Russian loan, snubbed the Shah and he was unable to visit London. By the time he returned from his grand tour, the Shah had consumed 11 million of the 20 million rubles. Of this amount, a sum of 4 million rubles (500,000 British pounds) was used to pay off the loan from the Imperial Bank, which had been used in 1891 to indemnify the Imperial Tobacco Company. Only 4 million rubles remained which he used to tighten his grip on the increasingly restless population.

In return for the loan, the Shah mortgaged the customs taxes from all the northern frontiers of Persia. Unable to find reliable henchmen who would collect and forward to him the customs taxes, he hired Belgian tax collectors to do the dirty work. The Belgians behaved like imperial lords, imposing high tariffs and treating the Persians with contempt.

Flush with their victory in penetrating the Persian court through their loan, the Russians moved to increase their influence. They inaugurated a subsidized shipping line between the Black Sea and the Persian Gulf, ostensibly to increase trade but in reality to augment their presence in the Gulf and become a player in the rivalry between the Ottomans and the British for control of Kuwait and Bahrain.

The Shah had, in effect, mortgaged the future of his country to finance his grand tours and his opulence. Strapped for cash, he approached the Czar once again for a second loan. A second loan of 10 million rubles was granted in 1902 but this time the loan came with strings attached. The Shah was required to accept Belgian oversight (Belgium was allied with Russia) over all the financial operations in Persia. The Belgians spread out into every single branch of the government, making their imperial presence felt. Not a ruble could be spent nor one collected without their knowledge and consent.

Britain had kept a close watch on the increasing influence of Russia. The Boer War in South Africa had temporarily distracted her. Having successfully concluded that war, Britain reasserted its position in Persia and the Gulf. Its strategic interest was to guard the sea-lanes and land routes leading to its Indian Empire and it perceived that threats to this strategic interest could emerge from Russia, Germany or the Ottomans. The British position was stated in the Monroe doctrine of 1903. It asserted that the right to establish railroads or railroad terminals in the Gulf was the exclusive privilege of Britain and any attempt on the part of another power to do so would be resisted by force of arms. This was a clear warning to the Russians and to the Germans who were negotiating with the Ottomans to build a railroad through Iraq to Kuwait.

Events in Russia provided momentum to the protests in Persia. The Russian-Japanese war (1904-1905) over control of Manchuria and Korea ended in a complete victory for Japan and the surrender of Russian forces. The war demonstrated that the armies of the Czar were not invincible and could be beaten by an Asian power. In response to the defeat and as an expression of other grievances, there were popular demonstrations in St. Petersburg. The Czar was forced to create an Imperial Duma (Russian Parliament) and to institute reforms and share some of his imperial powers with the people.

The defeat of the Czar’s armies and the creation of the Imperial Duma encouraged the Persians. The ulema of Tabriz, Karbala and Najaf wrote to the Shah advising him to rescind the concessions. The reply was vague, so the ulema declared that they were asking Sultan Abdul Hamid of the Ottomans, as Caliph of Islam, to take Persia under his protection. In Tehran, the protests culminated in the mass migration of the ulema to the sanctuary of Shah Abdul Azeem in December 1905. The townsfolk, workers, merchants and bureaucrats followed suit. The throngs swelled to more than 20,000 people. This was the Persian equivalent of a peaceful “sit-in” to show the Shah that the people had had enough and would not tolerate oppression any more. Threats from the Shah and his prime minister proved fruitless and the Shah had to cave in. Under his own signature he wrote to the ulema promising reforms, the removal of the corrupt officials and the constitution of a Majlis e Adalat (Court of Justice).

The Shah did not keep his promises. Restlessness grew with each passing month and protests broke out again in June 1906. The shops were shuttered and a large number of people took refuge in the Juma’ Masjid where the ulema denounced the Shah and his henchman. More migrations from the capital to other shrines followed until the capital city looked like a ghost town. The governor tried coercion by locking up the shops of merchants participating in the hitherto peaceful protests but this method did not work. In desperation, he surrounded the Juma’ Masjid and ordered its occupants out. The order was refused; a fight took place, in which one of the clerics died. The burial procession for the dead cleric attracted thousands of mourners. The Shah’s troops dispersed the mourners killing scores of people.

The ulema, witnessing the violent methods of the authorities, agreed to vacate the Juma’ Masjid and to move south, to the city of Qum. Multitudes deserted Tehran and marched out with the ulema. The governor, seeing that the shops were still closed, ordered them opened and threatened that if his orders were not obeyed, he would command his soldiers to loot them. Determined to continue their non-violent protests, some of the ulema sought refuge in the British Embassy. The Embassy granted permission and soon the number of refugees there swelled to 15,000.

The Shah was checkmated. He could not force an evacuation from the British embassy. The protests had engulfed the entire nation. He dismissed the unpopular governor of Tehran and wrote a letter under his signature promising to punish those responsible for the repression. By now the people had lost faith in the promises of the Shah. They demanded constitutional reform and the formation of a Majlis with legislative authority. The demands included that the Majlis be composed of 200 members elected by eligible males between the ages of thirty and seventy. The Shah was in failing health and his resolve flickered. In September 1906 he accepted all of these demands.

A committee was immediately constituted to draft the electoral laws. The committee worked overtime and within thirty days submitted a draft to the Shah for his signature. The draft envisaged a total of 156 members for theMajlis, 60 to be elected from Tehran and the remainder from the provinces. Members were to be elected for a term of two years. Direct elections were prescribed for Tehran and indirect elections were proposed for the provinces. The Shah approved the draft and the Majlis was born.

Within a month, the Majlis members from Tehran were elected and went to work. The electoral law had made a provision, on an interim basis, for the Tehran delegates to commence work even before the arrival of delegates from the provinces. This was done to prevent the Shah from sabotaging the Majlis even before it started its work. Two of the important issues facing the nation were the drafting of the Fundamental Laws and the financial crisis. By November 1906 the Majlis prepared a draft for the Fundamental Laws. The religion of the state was to be Islam and the Ithna Ashari Fiqh, the governing school of jurisprudence. The lives and properties of all citizens and all foreign subjects were guaranteed. The people of Persia were guaranteed equal rights and due process before the law. The Qajar dynasty was accorded sovereignty as a trust conferred by the Divine. The Majlis was given “the right in all questions to propose any measure, which it regards as conducive to the well being of the government and the people, after due discussion and deliberation thereof in all sincerity and truth”. Five members of the Majlis were to be from the ulema, who had the privilege of screening legislation to ensure its compliance with Islam. Local government was slated to be in the hands of elected anjumans (provincial assemblies and municipal councils).

To solve the financial crisis facing the country and to extricate it from foreign control, the Majlis proposed the creation of a national bank with a capital of 6 million tumans, so that the authority to create credit and to manage the inflow and outflow of capital from the country, rested with Persians. The foreign banks, controlled by Britain and Russia, had on more than one occasion demonstrated their stranglehold on the financial affairs of the country. In 1906, in response to an increase in the international price of silver, large amounts of Persian tumans were smuggled into British India, where they were melted down into Indian rupee coins, which had smaller silver content. When silver coins became scarce, the Imperial Bank, controlled by Britain, flooded the Persian market with paper currency. Inflation rose, compounding the financial problems of Persia. The Majlis was aware of the critical role that finance played in foreign control and its members were conscious of the fate of Egypt, which had fallen prey to foreign financial interests. The Majlis members and the ulema made a fervent appeal to the people for subscriptions to the new bank. The response was overwhelming. Rich and poor alike came forward with subscriptions. But this project was not successful due to the determined opposition of both Britain and Russia. The foreign banks withheld credit and made paper money scarce, choking off commerce and contributions alike. As a result the financial strings of Persia remained in foreign hands.

Under prodding of the ulema, Sultan Muzaffaruddin Shah signed the constitution from his deathbed on the last of 1906. He died a week later and was succeeded by his son Muhammed Ali Mirza who was even more averse to the controls imposed on him by the constitution than was his father. He snubbed the leaders of the Majlis and did not even invite them to his coronation. The provincial governors continued to hamper the progress of the elections. A frustrated populace protested and riots broke out in Shiraz, Tabriz, Kirmanshah, Maku and Fars.

The principal concern of the new Shah, like that of his father, was to raise loans to finance his lavish lifestyle. A new loan of 400,000 British pounds, to be underwritten jointly by Britain and Russia, was in the negotiation phase. The Majlis acted swiftly and decisively to block it and to forbid any fresh loans without its consent. It passed a resolution that the annual expenditures of the Shah were subject to approval by the Majlis and that he should be held to the allotted budget. It also demanded that the detested Belgians who had been imported to oversee the finances of the country be dismissed forthwith.

Faced with popular unrest and countrywide demonstrations, Muhammed Ali Shah fired the Belgians but bid his time to throttle the Majlis. He invited Mirza Ali Asghar Khan, who had served as prime minister during his father’s reign (1901-1903) but who had been forced out of the country by popular demand because of his repressive methods, to return and assume the position of prime minister. Mirza Ali was a wily politician who had served his old master, the previous Shah well and was opposed to the constitutional reforms. The Majlis, in a gesture of goodwill, allowed him to return to Persia from Europe after declaring verbally that he supported the constitution. The Shah promptly appointed him prime minister and Mirza Ali set out, step by step, to destroy the Majlis.

The principal figure in the plot to derail the reforms was a cleric, Shaykh Fazlullahi Nuri. He was hired by the Shah’s agents to cast suspicion on some of the Majlis members. Shaykh Fazlullahi was one of the clerics elected to the Majlis, but he resigned his post and retired to the sanctuary of Shah Abdul Azeem on the outskirts of Tehran from where he denounced his former colleagues as atheists. The shaykh then conspired to forge certain documents to prove that certain members of the anjumans in Azerbaijan had used blasphemous expressions against the Prophet.

The Shaykh’s agents were successful in fomenting riots in Tabriz and Kirman, providing a pretext for intervention by the Shah and his foreign sponsors. Neither the Czar of Russia nor Sultan Abdul Hamid of the Ottomans was happy with the constitutional reforms in Persia, which they feared would spill over into their own countries. There was also a deep suspicion in Istanbul that the reforms were engineered from outside to destroy traditional institutions in the Islamic world, making it easier for the European powers to destabilize and ultimately occupy the Muslim heartland.

In July 1907 the Ottomans sent in troops to occupy border areas in Kurdistan, presumably to quell disturbances there, but in reality to put pressure on the Majlis. Meanwhile, the Czar sent a stern note to the Shah saying that Russia could not indefinitely tolerate disturbances on her borders. Britain, which had up until that time pretended to be a friend of the Constitutional Revolution, made an about face and advised the Persians to listen to and accommodate the Russians.

The problems facing the Majlis continued to mount. Military and diplomatic pressures from Russia and the Ottomans increased. The treasury was empty and there were no funds to pay the troops. The Majlis was vehemently opposed to any fresh loans from Russia or Britain. The prime minister, who was one of the Shah’s men, persisted in his efforts to obtain a loan from the Russians, a move so unpopular that he was shot dead by a zealot, Abbas Aqa. So great was the antipathy towards foreign domination that the body of the assassin Abbas Aqa received a mass funeral worthy of a national hero. Celebrations were held on the fortieth day after his burial and orators compared him to those who died with Imam Hussain at the historic Battle of Karbala.

The international scene grew more ominous as Britain and Russia agreed to partition Persia and signed the Anglo-Russian Agreement. The Agreement divided Persia into three zones. The northern and by far the largest and most populous zone, extending from Azerbaijan to the Afghan border, was allocated to Russia. The southern zone, adjoining Baluchistan and straddling the entrance to the Persian Gulf was allotted to the British. A central zone, separating the Russians and the British, was left for the Persians to govern. Russia saw the advantages of an entente with Britain on the Persian question, since it was turning its attention to the Far East and its rivalry with the empire of Japan for control of Manchuria. So it was in 1908 that Russia and Britain reached the same kind of understanding with respect to Persia, as had France and Britain with respect to North Africa and Egypt in the 1870s.

The proposed partition of Persia was the culmination of a developing entente between the principal European powers in the latter half of the 19th century. After the Napoleonic wars Britain realized that there was more to be gained by working with rather than against its principal rival France in the Great Game of world colonization. Diplomacy was a cheaper way to achieve its goals than war. An understanding gradually developed between the two powers whereby England accepted French domination over Algeria, Tunis and Morocco, while France acquiesced in British domination over Egypt. Russia was a latecomer to this game. It faced a major obstacle in the Ottoman and Persian Empires in its desires to reach the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

It was in the joint interest of Britain and France to keep the Russians out while they consolidated their hold on North Africa and Egypt. Hence, they intervened on behalf of the Ottomans in the Crimean War (1854-1856) to ensure that Russia did not dominate the Ottoman Empire. After the emergence of a unified Germany under Bismarck, Russia too was convinced that its interests lay in cooperation with Britain and France to contain Germany and win its share of the spoils as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.

After the Russian-Ottoman war of 1876-1878, England sided with Russia in ensuring that the Czar got his share in the eastern Ottoman provinces of Armenia and Azerbaijan and his domination of Romania and Bulgaria was confirmed. Towards the end of the 19th century, the evolving entente extended to include British and Russian understanding over Persia. The collusion of Britain, France and Russia to divide up the Ottoman Empire and Persia bound the Entente Powers in the Great Game and it explains why they fought as a unit against the encroachments of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the First World War.

Despite the avowed denials from London and St. Petersburg, the Anglo-Russian Agreement for the partition of Persia could be read like an open book. The Persian masses and scholars alike were alert to the impending calamity. Only the Shah seemed oblivious to the future of his country but since he was the one who had mortgaged his country for a pittance, his only recourse was to hang on to power no matter what the cost.

The assassination of Prime Minister Abbas Aqa had thrown the political landscape into turmoil. The next prime minister, a protégé of the Shah, lasted but a few weeks while protests and sit-ins multiplied in the provincial towns. The Shah, while swearing by the Qur’an in public that he was faithful to the constitution, secretly planned a coup against the Majlis. To finance his planned operations, he raised a loan from the Russian Bank, mortgaging crown jewels and hawking jewelry belonging to the queen.

The Shah made his move on December 15, 1907 and sent a battalion of Cossack troops to surround the Majlis building. His selected goons mounted rooftops around the building to intimidate anyone who dared oppose the Cossacks. Some hired mullahs blared their denunciation of the Majlis, calling its members unbelievers and blasphemers. The Majlis, caught off-guard, offered no resistance. But as news of the planned coup spread, Persia exploded in protest. In Tehran, the merchants shuttered their shops. Commerce came to a halt. Armed guards belonging to the various political parties came out to oppose the Cossacks. Telegrams were sent from the provincial capitals calling for the ouster of the Shah. Tabriz sent an armed detachment of 1,000 horsemen. Faced with this avalanche, the Shah called the Cossacks back, swore on the Qur’an that he would abide by the constitution and the first standoff between the Majlis and the sovereign ended in a stalemate.

This was however a temporary truce and tensions between the two sides continued to mount. Each side blamed the other for acts of violence, which increased day by day. The situation was volatile enough as it was but the intervention of Russia and Britain at this juncture added fuel to the fire.

On June 2, 1908, a joint delegation of Russian and British ambassadors met the Persian foreign minister and threatened that Russia would intervene militarily unless the threats against the Shah ceased forthwith. The next day, under cover of panic created in the capital by Russian agents and paid hirelings, the Shah fled from his palace to the King’s Gardens located outside the city, under a Russian armed escort. On June 4, he invited some of the notables of the Majlis to meet with him and discuss matters of mutual concern. Upon their arrival, the treacherous Shah ordered the Cossacks to arrest them. On June 7, the Shah declared martial law and put a Russian, Colonel Liakhoff, in charge of maintaining order in the capital. He sent a message to the Majlis demanding the shutting down of the free press and the expulsion from the capital of the political leaders and the editors of major newspapers.

These demands were impossible to meet and as negotiations continued, the Shah ordered the movement of more arms and ammunition from the city to the King’s Gardens. On June 23, a brigade of Cossack horsemen, under command of Liakhoff and his Russian staff, entered the courtyard around which were located the Majlis building and an adjoining mosque. The deputies were locked up in the Majlis building. Liakhoff ordered the placement of heavy guns at strategic locations around the courtyard and started a bombardment, which soon reduced the Majlis building and the mosque to rubble. A large number of deputies and several defending youth, were slain. Those who were not killed, or who could not escape, were taken prisoner and hauled away, chains around their necks. Some of the deputies sought refuge in the British embassy but were refused entry. Others, like Hajji Mirza Ibrahim, were shot while resisting attempts by the soldiers to strip them naked in public. Some were hauled off to the King’s Gardens and strangled. Included among those killed on that fateful day were the great orators Aqa Seyyed Jamaluddin and the Malikul Mutakkallimun, both from Isfahan, who were the backbone of the mass movement that had organized schools and social services in Tehran and the provincial capitals.

The Shah promoted Colonel Liakhoff to be the martial law officer for Tehran. Determined, cold blooded and ruthless, Liakhoff let loose a reign of terror in the capital. Houses belonging to deputies, their relatives and sympathizers were looted and hundreds were killed in cold blood. Tehran turned into a city under occupation and witnessed the dance of death and destruction for several days.

News of the reign of terror in Tehran reached the provinces and a national resistance movement began. Tabriz, the second largest city in Persia, was in the vanguard of this movement. The Constitutionalists, under the leadership of one Sattar Khan, occupied the administrative headquarters and declared that they no longer recognized the Shah. The surrounding villages joined the uprising so that Tabriz, in essence, became a city-state, opposed to the Shah and run by the constitutionalists.

In response, the Shah unleashed the notorious Shahseven tribe upon Tabriz. The unruly men of this tribe were known for their love of plunder and loot. They attacked the villages around the city, killing the men, abusing the women, looting their belongings and were successful in cutting off all roads into and out of the city. The Constitutionalists garrisoned the town and stopped the advance of the Shahseveners. As the siege of Tabriz progressed, and food supplies in the city became scarce, the Shah, to put additional pressure on the Constitutionalists and force Tabriz into submission, dispatched contingents of Silahkhuri and Cossack troops under the command of Russian officers. Undaunted, the city held on, the Silahkhuri troops were beaten back, the Cossack advance was brought to a standstill; the siege dragged on for months.

More ominous were the moves of the Russian army to the north. The Czar was no lover of constitutional reforms. The recent success of the Young Turks in Istanbul in forcing Sultan Abdul Hamid II to reinstate the Ottoman constitution (1908) had given the Czar additional cause for concern. But the Russians also knew that any foreign intervention in Persia would meet with mass opposition. The Czar therefore chose a cautious approach, acting with Britain to ensure the protection of European property, but otherwise staying clear of the civil war between the Shah and the Constitutionalists. A British gunboat appeared off the Persian Gulf port of Bandar Abbas to show the flag, while a column of Russian troops entered Azerbaijan and marched to Tabriz without opposition either from the constitutionalists or the Shah’s forces. The siege of Tabriz was lifted, food supplies were brought in, the Shahseveners were dispersed and the city resumed a semblance of normalcy.

The fall of Tabriz did not mean the end of the uprising. In Isfahan to the south, and Rasht to the north, new armies arose under the leadership of the Bakhtiari dervishes. The Bakhtiaris were a Sufi order and had fought through the centuries on the side of justice and fair play in the many feuds and wars that had raged in Persia. They were resolute warriors, tough, resilient, like their brethren Naqshbandis in the Caucasus and the Jazuliyas in far-away West Africa. The southern armies from Isfahan were under the proven and capable leadership of Sardar e Asad and Shamsam us Sultan. The northern armies from Rasht were under the command of the equally capable Nasrus Sultana Muhammed Wali Khan. Both armies, after overcoming local resistance from the Shah’s forces, were poised to march on Tehran.

The mobilization of Bakhtiari dervishes set off alarm signals in London and St. Petersburg. Hoping to preserve a semblance of power for the Shah, they advised him to accommodate the nationalists and reinstate the Majlis, if only to buy time. But the Shah remained stubborn and noncommittal. The Czar sent a blunt warning to the Nationalists that unless the northern armies stopped their march, the Russian army might intervene. A contingent of Russian troops did land at Anzali on their way to Tehran. But this saber rattling failed to impress the Bakhtiari. The northern armies moved on Qizwin, on the approaches to Tehran, while the southern armies advanced upon Qum, the spiritual capital of Persia. On June 12, 1909, advanced columns of the Bakhtiari troops entered Tehran. Resistance from the Cossack brigade was heavy but after several days fighting, the Cossacks surrendered and the Shah took refuge in the Russian embassy. There was jubilation in the capital. The leaders of the conquering armies met on July 16, 1909 with the ulema and the available members of the Majlis and deposed Muhammed Ali Shah. His young son, Ahmed Mirza was placed on the throne as Sultan Ahmed Shah.

Thus ended the Constitutional Revolution that began with the Tobacco Concession of 1891, and after a struggle lasting 18 years, succeeded in eliminating the tyranny of the Shah. It brought the rule of law to Persia where previously there was rule by dictate. It succeeded in preserving the independence and territorial integrity of Persia in the face of the avowed intent of Britain and Russia to partition and occupy the land. It awakened the latent nationalism of the Persians and it presaged the nationalist movement of Mosaddegh in 1954. And it propelled the ulema to the forefront of the national struggle, an element that was to show itself with volcanic power in the Iranian Revolution of 1978.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Sultan Abdul Hamid II inherited an empire that was bankrupt. Beginning with the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Ottoman debt mounted steadily. The burden of keeping a large standing army and modernizing it in the face of perpetual foreign threats required continued borrowing, so that by 1878 the public debt stood at more than 13.5 billion kurush. The cost of servicing this enormous debt was more than 1.4 billion kurush, a sum equal to 70% of all revenues. The heavy debt burden cast a long shadow on all aspects of the Sultan’s reign, including international relations, education, agriculture and political reform.

A militarily and economically weak Ottoman Empire was the object of European imperial ambitions. Russia had emerged as a major Eurasian power, having swallowed up the Turkoman territories of Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Russian Czar desired open access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean to become a player in the great game of world domination. But the Ottoman Empire, sitting astride a wide arc extending from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of Persia, blocked this access. To achieve his aims and pressure the Ottomans into giving him concessions, the Czar used a combination of direct military threats and indirect pressure through his Serbian and Bulgar surrogates. France, after occupying Algeria, had her eyes on Morocco and Tunisia. The Italians wanted Libya. The empire of Austria-Hungary sought Bosnia-Herzegovina. The interests of Great Britain lay in Egypt and in the control of access routes to her Indian Empire. Only Germany, which had emerged as the dominant power on the continent under Bismarck, preferred the status quo. But she too was willing to sacrifice Ottoman territorial integrity to preserve her interests. Realizing that a war between Russia and Austria-Hungary over their competing ambitions in the Balkans would force him to take sides and shatter his domination of continental Europe, the Kaiser of Germany engineered an alliance between himself, the Emperor of Austria-Hungary and the Czar of Russia. This alliance was called the League of Three Emperors.

In the nationalistic mosaic of 19th century Europe, the Ottomans stood alone in their insistence on maintaining a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multi-national state. But the all too apparent fissures in the empire, along national and religious lines were an invitation to foreign meddling. The European powers, using these religious and ethnic divisions as political opportunities, were determined to swallow up the Ottoman Empire A bankrupt Ottoman state, dubbed the “sick man of Europe” by the Czar, could not defend itself and was constantly looking for allies who would guarantee its territorial integrity. Against these heavy odds, Sultan Abdul Hamid waged a valiant struggle to rescue the empire, if he could, or at least salvage its core Islamic component if he lost the predominantly Christian provinces. In this pursuit, he substituted diplomacy for war, playing off the ambitions of one European power against another, compromising where he could and buying time to reform the institutions that held the empire together. To a large extent, he succeeded. But he had arrived on the stage of history too late. His autocratic style won him the displeasure of his people. And the very success of his reforms set in motion powerful forces that ultimately toppled him from power and led the empire to its demise.

Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) was the son of Sultan Abdul Majid (1823-1861) and a Circassian mother. As a child, he received an education worthy of a caliph and Sultan. His tutors included some of the leading ulema and shaykhs of Istanbul. He was well versed in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet and in the Hanafi school of Fiqh. He was trained in Sufi practices as well, particularly the Naqshbandi and Helveti orders, which had a significant following in the empire. As a prince, he sought out bankers, diplomats and leaders of the Tanzeemat reforms, discussing with them issues that affected the empire and in the process, he acquired a broad understanding of economics, administration and international politics. As a young man, he was retiring in nature, avoiding the frivolities that so often consumed other princes. He was fastidious in prayer, reclusive by nature, pious in his religious observances and charitable in disposition. These qualities were to serve him well later, endearing him to the Muslim masses worldwide and enabling him, for the first time in the 19th century, to provide a semblance of political focus for the global Islamic community.

Immediately after his accession, Sultan Abdul Hamid came up against the Russian ambitions in the Balkans. The Czar, declaring himself the champion of all Slavs and the protector of the Eastern Orthodox Church, encouraged an insurrection in Serbia. The Ottomans successfully put down the uprising in 1876. Realizing that active intervention on behalf of the Serbs carried a risk of war with Austria-Hungary, the Czar shifted his focus to Bulgaria. The excuse for intervention was the supposed mistreatment of Christian Bulgars by the Ottomans, while the objective was the creation of a greater Bulgaria, under Russian domination, extending south from the Danube all the way to the Aegean Sea. The western shores of the Black Sea would then be under Russian domination and the armed forces of the Czar would have access to the Mediterranean. However, this plan too required the cooperation of the Austrians. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Austrian troops had occupied Romania with the connivance of the Russians. For Russian troops to reach Bulgaria, they would have to cross Romania, now under Hapsburg domination. Fearing that overlapping Russian and Austrian ambitions might lead to war, Bismarck of Germany proposed a division of the Ottoman Empire, with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia going to the Hapsburgs while Romania and an enlarged Bulgaria would come under Russian domination. The British, fearing that a further expansion of Austrian and Russian influence towards the Mediterranean would threaten their own interests, opposed this plan and proposed instead a conference in Istanbul to reconcile the competing ambitions of the powers.

At the Istanbul Conference, held in November 1876, Britain proposed a series of “reforms” which, while mollifying Russia and Austria-Hungary, would keep them out of the Mediterranean. Bulgaria, while nominally staying within the Ottoman Empire, was to be partitioned into two provinces. The governor of each province would be a Christian, appointed with the concurrence of the European powers. Except for tobacco and customs duty, all revenues would go to the provincial government. The judicial system would be overhauled and new judges appointed with the approval of the powers. Separate police forces would be created for Christian and Muslim villages. Ottoman troops would be withdrawn from the province and their place taken up by Belgian troops. Britain proposed similar “reforms” for Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Ausstria-Hungary would provide oversight for their implementation. These proposals, if implemented, would have meant virtual independence for both Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and would have legalized the intervention of the powers into the affairs of these two important Ottoman provinces.

The Bulgarian issue had emerged as an important one due to a Russian engineered insurrection in that province. The Bulgars captured a large number of towns and slaughtered thousands of Turks. Unable to control the uprising, the Ottoman governor of the province, Nadim Pasha, organized local militias to protect Muslim villages. Massacres and counter massacres followed. The Europeans, always quick to point fingers when Christians were killed, while closing their eyes to massacres of Muslims, played up the Christian casualties. In the British parliament, Gladstone, in a rousing speech, referred to the Ottomans as “the unspeakable Turks” and demanded a concerted European action to curb the Ottomans. The Czar threatened military action unless sweeping reforms were implemented in the province under Russian supervision.

To preempt the European powers, the Ottoman Porte (the vizierate) pushed for the promulgation of a constitution that would remove any pretext for foreign intervention. At the request of Midhat Pasha, Chairman of the Council of State, Sultan Abdul Hamid authorized the formation of a Constitution Commission. Working round the clock, the Commission produced a constitution, which embodied far-reaching reforms and touched on every aspect of Ottoman administration.

While retaining the ultimate authority of the Caliph/Sultan and his privileges to mint coins and have his name invoked in the Friday khutba, the reforms guaranteed individual liberty to all citizens, equality before the law, freedom of worship, sanctity of privacy, the right to property and protection from arbitrary arrest. There was to be no discrimination in government jobs and the civil service was to be a meritocracy. A two-tier Parliament was established after the pattern of the liberal European monarchies with a lower house, majlis e mebusan, consisting of elected delegates and a smaller upper house, majlis e ayan, whose members were appointed by the Sultan. Freedom of expression within the Parliament and immunity from prosecution of the deputies for their views was guaranteed. The Sultan appointed the grand vizier and the council of ministers. The grand vizier, as the chief executive officer of the empire, presided over the meetings of the ministers and coordinated their activities. In times of emergency, such as those involving the security of the state, he could issue emergency orders. The Parliament had the authority to approve annual budgets, provide oversight for the expenditures of the various ministries and enforce fiscal discipline. It was empowered to ratify legislation initiated by the Council of Ministers. If ratified, the legislation was then submitted to the Sultan, through the grand vizier, for his final approval. The Council of State, which had come into existence during the earlier phases of the tanzeemat, was retained to provide assistance to the parliament and the Council of Ministers in the drafting, preparation and documentation of legislation.

The deputies of the lower house were elected and had a term of four years, whereas those of the upper house were appointed by the Sultan for life. Except in matters of personal law, wherein the Shariah and millet courts were retained, the jurisdiction of secular courts was expanded to cover all aspects of life. Representative councils were retained at the provincial, district and county levels to provide inputs on education, agriculture, trade and commerce. A Supreme Court was set up with the authority to try wayward judges, members of the parliament and ministers. Islam remained the state religion but freedom of worship was guaranteed to all millets. All citizens were henceforth to be considered Ottomans, irrespective of their ethnic or religious affiliation. Each millet was free to elect its own representative council and organize its internal affairs. Thus a major move was made towards parliamentary democracy that provided a voice to the people, guaranteed individual rights and took significant steps towards mollifying European concerns about the rights of Christians in the empire. To implement the reforms, Sultan Abdul Hamid appointed Midhat Pasha, who had served as chairman of the Council of State and the principal architect of the reforms, as the grand vizier.

The European powers were not interested in reforming the Ottoman Empire. The disaffection of the Christians was merely a pretext for intervention into Ottoman affairs. Russia, in particular, was not satisfied with anything less than an outlet to the Mediterranean. At the Istanbul Conference, the European powers backed Russian demands to divide up Bulgaria and Bosnia-Herzegovina and administer them under European oversight. Sultan Abdul Hamid knew the military vulnerability of the empire and sought to avoid war. In addition to promulgating the constitution in December 1876, he forwarded his own plan to appoint an inquiry commission, with international participation, to look into charges of atrocities in Bulgaria and punish those responsible. Midhat Pasha, who was serving as the principal Ottoman negotiator with the powers, did not present these plans at the conference, but instead submitted the European demands to the Ottoman parliament. The newly elected representatives were furious at this affront to Ottoman sovereignty and rejected the demands. The Istanbul Conference broke up in disarray.

Even as negotiations were underway at the Istanbul Conference (December 1876-January 1877) and the Ottoman parliament met (March 1877) to implement the reforms, the Russians made active preparations for war. The Czar bought the neutrality of the Austria-Hungary Empire by promising them the principality of Bosnia-Herzegovina and hegemony over Serbia. The Austrian military contingent stationed in Rumania since 1854 was withdrawn, clearing the way for a Russian advance upon Istanbul through Rumania and Bulgaria The British too, signaled their neutrality in the event of a Russian-Turkish war by declaring that they would not interfere as long as the status of the Straits or Istanbul was unaltered. Germany, whose principal preoccupation was avoidance of war between Austria and Russia, went along with Austrian neutrality. Thus the road was cleared for the Czar’s army to invade the territories of its neighbor to the south.

The Russians began the war in May 1877 with an attack on the Ottoman eastern provinces. The following month, in June 1877, they opened a second front in the west across the Danube River. The Russian invasion was in clear violation of the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1856 at the conclusion of the Crimean War, by which the European powers had collectively guaranteed the integrity of the Ottoman Empire. But this was the age of colonialism. Each treaty that the Europeans signed with the Ottomans was but a ruse to subvert and occupy additional Ottoman territory.

The Russian objective in the east was a rapid drive on the city of Erzurum, from where they could cut a swath through southern Anatolia and Syria to the Mediterranean, isolating the Turkish heartland. In the west, the goal was a rapid drive on Istanbul through Rumania and Bulgaria to force the Turks to capitulate before the European powers changed their mind about their professed neutrality. The Ottomans, even though they had spent large sums on armaments since the Crimean War, were hampered by a lack of trained officers. The Czar, through skillful propaganda as the self-proclaimed protector of the Eastern Orthodox Church, took full advantage of the disaffection of the large Christian population in the Balkans. In the eastern sector too, he incited the hitherto peaceful Armenians to harass the Ottoman armies.

Aided by local Christians, the initial advance of the Russian armies was swift. Ardahan fell in May 1877; the Ottomans lost a sizable number of men and material. On the western front, the garrison town of Sistova fell in June. Advance contingents of Russian troops crossed the Shipka Pass, captured Sofia and Nicopolis and threatened Erdirne.

Large-scale massacres of Muslim peasants followed each of the Russian conquests. The Russians distributed guns and ammunition captured from the retreating Ottomans to the local Christians who turned on their Muslim neighbors. Village after village witnessed horror scenes of mass killings. The haggard survivors of the slaughter streamed towards Istanbul. Over 250,000 refugees entered Istanbul and Anatolia in the first three months of the Russian campaigns. Over the next two years (1877-1879), this number doubled, imposing a tremendous burden on Ottoman resources. This was the first of the large-scale massacres of Balkan Muslims, which continued on and off for more than a hundred years, culminating in the Serbian massacres of Bosnians in 1990-1992.

These early reverses shocked the Ottomans. The Porte appealed to the European powers under terms of the Paris Treaty to pressure the Russians to withdraw. The replies from Austria and Germany were vague. The British cabinet issued equally vague statements and did nothing to deter the Czar.

Meanwhile, the Russian aggression had to be met. The Sultan’s response was characteristically Islamic. He took out the Prophet’s mantle from the Topkapi palace, declared the resistance to Russia a jihad, proclaimed himself a ghazi after the example of the early Ottoman Sultans and appealed to Muslims worldwide for support. This pattern of appeal to the global Muslim community was to be repeated, time and again, during the reign of Abdul Hamid.

The response from the Turks, Arabs and Albanians was overwhelming. Men came out in droves to join the armed forces. Women offered their jewelry to finance the war effort. The Sultan selected the best available generals for the defensive campaigns. Ahmed Muhtar Pasha was appointed the commander of the eastern forces. Muhtar reorganized his troops, dispersed over the eastern districts, and stopped the Russian advance at Kars. On the western front, Sulaiman Pasha was appointed the commander, while the defense of the Bulgarian passes was delegated to Osman Pasha. Sulaiman brought reinforcements by sea to Alexandropolis, swiftly moved north through western Bulgaria and drove the Russians back across the Shipka Pass. The Russians regrouped and with a large horde of over 100,000 men, backed by the main Romanian regiments, made a thrust at the strategic town of Plevna. Meanwhile, Osman Pasha had reinforced the town, built a fortress, dug trenches and had brought in heavy guns to defend the surrounding terrain. From this bastion, he held off repeated assaults by the combined Russian-Romanian forces, earning for himself and his men the admiration of Europeans and the gratitude of his fellow countrymen. The Sultan, in recognition of this heroic defense, conferred the title of ghazi on Osman Pasha.

The front lines were stable throughout the summer of 1877. But with the passage of time, the weight of the vast Russian Empire and of their Christian sympathizers within the Ottoman Empire, began to be felt. By October 1877, the Ottoman lines began to crack. On the eastern front, Kars fell in November, although Mohtar Pasha was able to withdraw the bulk of his forces to Erzurum. Azerbaijan, Armenia and eastern Anatolia were in Russian hands. On the western front, the heroic defense of Plevna continued. The Russians surrounded the garrison and cut off the supplies of food, hoping to starve the defenders into submission. Despite the lack of food and the harsh winter, the Ottomans held on, hoping for fresh reinforcements from Istanbul. But the Russian juggernaut tightened. In December, Osman Pasha ordered his troops to fight their way out. In hand to hand combat, over 30,000 Ottoman troops died. Thousands more perished in the icy mountainous terrain. Plevna surrendered. Showing no mercy, the Russians and their Romanian comrades butchered the survivors in the city.

With the fall of Plevna, the bulk of the Russian army was free to move southward. Sofia and Erdirne fell in rapid succession. An advanced detachment under Grand Duke Nicholas reached the outskirts of Istanbul. The capital city, already swollen with hundreds of thousands of refugees, braced for an assault. The rapid advance of the Russian armies towards Istanbul caused an alarm in Vienna and London. Should the Russians occupy the empire, the Ottomans would default on their loans to the European bankers. Panic set in in the London financial markets. Realizing the threat to its financial interests and its imperial interests in Egypt, the British cabinet issued a stern warning to the Russians not to advance on the Straits. A humbled Sultan Abdul Hamid wrote to Queen Victoria asking her to arrange an armistice and requesting the British fleet to anchor in Istanbul as insurance against Russian occupation. The Czar, exhausted from his campaigns against the Turks, was in no position to wage a wider war with Britain and Ausstria-Hungary. He wrote to the Sultan assuring him that the Russians had no intention of occupying Istanbul.

In March 1878, the Russians and the Ottomans signed a Treaty at San Stefano, a small village located on the outskirts of Istanbul. By its terms, the Ottomans ceded the districts of Kars, Ardahan and Batum in the east to Russia. The Straits would be open to Russian shipping. The independence of Rumania, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria was acknowledged. Montenegro and Serbia were expanded to include large portions of Bosnia and Albania. Bulgaria was rewarded with all of eastern Rumelia and northern Thrace and its territories grew more than three fold to extend from the Danube River to the Aegean Sea. The dream of the Czars to create a Balkan political landscape dominated by Russia was fulfilled. The Ottomans agreed to pay a war indemnity of 24 billion kurush to the Czar over a period of 100 years. Summarily, the terms were nothing short of surrender by the Ottomans.

The Treaty of San Stefano was unacceptable to the other European powers. Britain and France were opposed to a Russian dominated Bulgaria extending to the Aegean Sea. Austria objected to Russian influence over Serbia and Montenegro. Bismarck of Germany, allied with Austria and Russia in the League of the Three Emperors, realized that unless rapid steps were taken to defuse the situation, war might erupt between his two allies. Therefore, he agreed to convene a conference of the principal powers in Berlin, in which all the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano would be renegotiated. The Treaty of Berlin, which concluded in July 1878, divided Bulgaria into three parts. The northern part would be autonomous under Russian guidance but would pay an annual tribute to the Sultan. The second part, east Rumelia, would be under Ottoman control but with a mixed Muslim-Christian administration supervised by the powers. The southern part, consisting of Thrace and southern Rumelia were returned to direct Ottoman administration. Bosnia-Herzegovina was placed under Austrian control. The independence of Montenegro and Serbia was affirmed. As a “precaution” against further Russian military pressure against the Porte, Britain occupied Cyprus on the pretext that it could rapidly respond to any future threats by the Czar. Ottoman war indemnities to Russia were reduced to 350,000 kurush annually for 100 years. The Conference of Berlin thus sealed the fate of the Ottoman Empire in Europe with only a rump swath of territory left to link Istanbul with Albania. To the east, the Ottomans lost several districts in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Perhaps, as significantly, the cost of the war exhausted them financially. The war indemnities to Russia added to the already crippling debt payments to European bankers.

The Russian invasion of 1877-1878 and its aftermath had a profound impact on the young Sultan. Abdul Hamid realized the futility of holding on to European territories in which the Christians were a majority. His Christian vassals had rebelled and had aided the Russians, despite the reforms instituted under the tanzeemat and despite the representation given to them in the new Ottoman parliament. He was deeply disappointed with the principal powers which had let down the Ottomans despite their treaty obligations. It became apparent that the principal powers desired nothing less than total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. These fears were soon confirmed by French moves on North Africa and British moves on Egypt. The war had brought hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees into Istanbul, fleeing the mass slaughter that followed the Russian advance. Having lost everything in their flight, these refugees were extremely bitter towards their Christian neighbors. These factors made the Sultan turn his back on Europe and reorient his focus towards the Muslim Middle East.

The question before the Sultan was this: How could the Caliph disengage from Christian Europe without humiliation so that the Muslim core of the Empire was preserved and provided a nucleus for future Islamic political renewal? This was a paradigm shift for the Ottomans who had carved out their European empire (1350-1453) long before their thrust into Syria, Egypt and Arabia (1517).

The Sultan’s tilt towards the Islamic Middle East contrasted with the main thrust of the tanzeemat towards multi-religious Ottomanism and introduced an element of tension in the Ottoman governing circles which persisted well into the 20th century. Ottomanism was also challenged by the rising tide of nationalism in the Balkans. This introduced a second element of tension in the empire. A third element of tension was traditionalism versus modernism. There were those in the empire, the ulema and the kadis, who desired a slow evolution of society and its institutions from its Islamic past. And there were those among the more secular men of the tanzeemat and the non-Muslim millets, who desired a more secular approach. These tensions were exacerbated by the continuing imperial ambitions of the European powers.

To save what was left of the empire, the Sultan desired a faster modernization of the empire using a centralized approach. The men of the tanzeemat, too, desired reforms, but despite the experience of the war and the letdown by the Christians in the Balkans, they persisted in the belief that constitutionalism was the best way to bring about change. The two approaches were bound to clash, and they did. And in its aftermath, the empire first moved towards autocracy and pan-Islamism and then swung back towards parliamentary rule and secularism.

The stipulations of the Berlin Treaty and the intentions of the principal powers to respect Ottoman sovereignty were soon tested in Tunisia. The North African territories around Tunis were long under the control of local beys. The Ottomans had maintained nominal control over the beys through a provincial governor and a military garrison. The French, after consolidating their hold on Algeria (1830), extended their ambitions to Tunisia. The first moves were made on the economic and financial fronts. The free spending beys borrowed heavily from the French bankers and soon found themselves in so much debt that they could not make payments on the interest and principal. To extract the debt payments, the European powers established the Tunisian Debt Commission in 1869 and assumed control of its public services as well as raw materials. In 1881, the British offered Tunisia to the French to buy their acquiescence to British occupation of Cyprus. Realizing that a refusal would mean Tunisia would be offered to the Italians, the French army moved into Tunis and declared it a French “protectorate”. Sultan Abdul Hamid protested under terms of the Berlin Treaty, but in realpolitik only the voice of the powerful speaks. The European powers turned a deaf ear to the Sultan’s pleas.

More serious was the British occupation of Egypt, the jewel of the Ottoman Empire. By 1878, the focus of global history had shifted from the Mediterranean to Asia. The interests of Great Britain were now focused on its Indian Empire. British interests lay in controlling the sea-lanes to India. That meant control of Egypt, which was still nominally an Ottoman province. Egypt was the cultural center of the empire and was, until its occupation by Sultan Selim I, the seat of the Caliphate. It was the most populous of the Ottoman provinces and the gateway to Africa.

Economic penetration was the means for British entry into Egypt, as it was for the French occupation of Tunisia. The Khedives of Egypt, Sait and Ismail, had contracted huge loans at enormous discounts, first to build the Suez Canal, then to support their own lavish life styles. By 1875, the debt had increased to 100 million British pounds and it required more than two thirds of all Egyptian revenues to keep the debts serviced. The financial condition of Egypt was thus a mirror image of that of the Ottoman Empire. When the Egyptians defaulted in their debt payments, the European powers formed the Egyptian Debt Commission with the authority to confiscate specific revenues. To ensure compliance, the powers imposed an Armenian nationalist as the prime minister of Egypt, while an Englishman became the finance minister and a Frenchmen, the minister of public works.

The stipulations of the Egyptian Debt Commission meant the effective surrender of Egyptian sovereignty to the Europeans, which caused a public uproar. Riding on popular resentment, a group of Egyptian army officers forced the Khedive to remove the foreigners in the ministry and appoint Egyptians instead. When the Khedive dismissed the foreigners, the British and French, in consortium, demanded that Khedive Ismail be replaced by his son Tawfiq who was more compliant and more willing to accept the British-French terms. However, since Egypt was technically an Ottoman province, the dismissal of a Khedive still required the consent of the Sultan in Istanbul. Sultan Abdul Hamid at first vacillated, but he had no choice; Ismail was dismissed and Tawfiq was appointed in his place.

The Sultan sent a delegation to Cairo to discuss and resolve the financial issues with the European powers. While negotiations were going on, a combined armada of British and French navies appeared off the coast of Alexandria to put pressure on the negotiators. This was like pouring oil on a fire. Egyptian nationalist sentiment flared up and mob violence claimed the lives of several foreigners. This was the pretext the British were waiting for. Using the excuse of protecting European lives, the British navy bombarded the undefended city of Alexandria, killing several hundred people. The French, who had initially demanded military action against Egypt, became concerned that a combined assault would only propel Britain into a dominant position in Egypt and pulled out of the alliance. Undaunted, a British force landed in Alexandria and after occupying the city, moved on Cairo. On September 3, 1882, the nationalist Egyptian forces met the invaders at the battle of Tel el Kabir but were defeated. Four days later the British army was in Cairo.

The loss of Tunisia to France and of Egypt to Britain meant that the Ottoman Empire was now an Asian entity consisting of its Anatolian heartland and the Arab provinces of Syria, Iraq and Arabia. The war with Russia and the loss of Egypt and Tunisia had cost the Empire more than 60% of its population. There was a large influx of Muslim refugees from the Balkans. These refugees, having lost everything they had, were extremely hostile to the Christians and were determined to continue their struggle against Russia.

The suffering of the Balkan Muslims elicited sympathy among Muslims elsewhere in the empire and was the first reason for pushing popular opinion in the direction of Islamic solidarity. A second reason for increasing pan-Islamic tendencies was the early upbringing of the Sultan himself. As a young man Sultan Abdul Hamid was trained by the leading ulema and shaykhs of the time. He was a pious man who avoided frivolities, was austere, kept his prayers and observed the injunctions of the Qur’an and Sunnah. By instinct and by training, the Sultan was disposed to seek closer ties with the Muslim world.

The third was an upsurge of revivalist feeling among the Muslims worldwide, expressed most fervently by the Mahdi of the Sudan (d.1884). The Tijaniya movement in the Maghrib and the Sanusiya movement in Libya increased religious fervor amongst the Muslims of North Africa. In Afghanistan and Central Asia, the rhetoric of Jamaluddin Afghani had aroused pan-Islamic passions. In the Caucasus, resistance to Russian aggression was led by the Naqshbandi Sufi tareeqa. With the arrest of Shaykh Shamayl (1854), the movement had gone underground but antipathy towards Russian rule continued.

A fourth reason was popular resentment at the economic exploitation of the empire through public debt and the Capitulations. The public debt, incurred at enormous discounts, crippled the Ottomans, consuming at times as much as 80% of all revenues. The Capitulations were used to obtain favorable trading terms for mass-produced European goods. The young and undercapitalized Ottoman industries could not compete with the European products, so the empire stayed primarily a supplier of raw materials to Europe while consuming goods manufactured in Western Europe and America.

Lastly, with the advance of colonialism, vast areas of the Islamic world had come under European domination. France in North Africa, Russia in Central Asia, Britain in India and Austria-Hungary in Bosnia had large Muslim populations under their rule. These powers were as vulnerable with respect to their Muslim subjects as were the Ottomans with respect to their Christian subjects. The Ottoman Sultan was also the Caliph of Islam. He occupied a position in the Islamic religious-political space similar to that of the Pope in Rome with respect to Roman Catholics. The prestige of this position could be used to pressure the Christian European powers and make them take their hands off the only remaining independent Islamic state.

Conviction, hardened by realpolitik, impelled the Sultan to don the mantle of caliph with unapologetic openness. Abdul Hamid made a concerted effort to cultivate close relationships with Muslims not just in the empire but in Muslim India and Central Asia as well. He insisted on exercising his privilege, as caliph, of appointing the principal religious dignitaries in the Balkans. Writers like Namuk Kamal emphasized the Islamic origins of the empire and the contributions that the Turks had made to the continuing unfolding of Islamic civilization. The Sultan made it a point to go for Friday congregational prayers at the Aya Sophia in an open carriage so that the public would see him. Ramadan, the month of fasting, became a special month of celebration. Each evening, before breaking the fast at sunset, the Sultan sat on a brocade chair in the hall of audience. Lining the hall on either side were rows of shaykhs, ulema and visiting dignitaries. The Sultan made it a point to invite some commoners to join him for the breaking of the fast so as to establish religious rapport with the masses.

The European powers viewed these moves with suspicion but were powerless to stop them. Implied in this assertive religious posture was the threat that any further moves against the domains of the caliph might result in a worldwide uprising of Muslims against their colonial masters. Wherever there was the slightest injury to Muslims, whether it was in Russia, British India, or French Africa, the Sultan sent a note of protest to the concerned power, thereby earning the respect and religious loyalty of Muslims worldwide. The British were particularly concerned about the huge number of Muslims in India and made their own propaganda efforts to portray themselves as friends and protectors of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan welcomed Muslim dignitaries from all over the world into his palace where they were received with the honor and prestige reserved for heads of state. One of the principal dignitaries so received was Jamaluddin Afghani, a reformer from Afghanistan, who traveled throughout the Muslim world to forge political and cultural unity among Muslims. Religious fervor rose and the Sultan won the support of the ulema worldwide and established his legitimacy in the eyes of a majority of his subjects and also of a large number of Muslims globally. Muslims around the world looked to him for guidance in matters ranging from religious observances to the wearing of the fez.

The benefit of this assertive religious posture was that it kept the European powers off balance for more than a quarter century. The empire was at relative peace. The European powers, instead of seeking military occupation and colonial rule, were content to compete with each other for economic benefits, raw materials and markets. The price paid for this pan-Islamic tilt was that it took away whatever pretence the empire had as a multi-religious state. The disaffection of the Christian minorities grew, even as the reforms of the tanzeemat gathered momentum, providing equal opportunities for the millets.

Sultan Abdul Hamid was convinced that the only way to modernize the empire was through a centralized structure directed by his own person. This conviction was reinforced by the events of the first two years of his reign. He was deeply disappointed by Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha, widely credited as the father of the Ottoman Parliament, over his handling of negotiations at the Istanbul Conference of 1876. Midhat’s own experience with the European powers had led him to take a hard stand at the Conference against the better counsel of the Sultan in favor of continued negotiations and compromise. The breakdown of the Conference led to the Russian invasion and a humiliating defeat. In addition, the politicians in the Parliament were more interested in enhancing their own political careers than finding solutions to the pressing issues facing the empire. The Christian nationalists used the floor of the Parliament as a platform to air their own demands for autonomy for their regions, or independence. In January 1878, with the Russian army approaching Istanbul, the Sultan sought the counsel of the Parliament to invite the British fleet into Istanbul harbor as a precautionary deterrent to a Russian occupation of the capital. Instead of counsel, the Sultan got lectures from petty citizens about the conduct of the war. A disillusioned Sultan lost his faith in the integrity of the bureaucrats and concluded that the empire was not yet ready for parliamentary democracy, that the best chance for a survival of the empire was through a centralized structure directed by himself. In February 1878, he dissolved the Parliament in accordance with provisions of the Constitution and directly assumed all powers.

What emerged in place of parliamentary rule was a highly centralized structure centered on the palace. The Sultan was the focus of authority and power. The centralization of power required that there be intermediaries between himself and the bureaucrats. The Sultan drew upon a model that had evolved in the earlier Islamic empires. Just as earlier caliphs had used hajibs to distance themselves from the ammah, so did Sultan Abdul Hamid use the mabayeen (intermediaries) to convey his wishes to the civil servants. Mabayeen means in between. This was the equivalent of the hajibs who had, in earlier centuries, separated the caliphs and Sultans from the ammah, the common folk.

The principal mabayeen and the chief of staff of the Sultan’s staff, was called mabayeen mushiri. Between 1878 and 1897 this post was held by Ghazi Osman Pasha, who had distinguished himself at the battle of Plevna (1877) and had earned the respect and confidence of the Sultan. He was a distinguished general. Ghazi Osman Pasha was a principal influence on the Sultan in matters relating to the army and foreign affairs. The mabayeen mushiri chaired the Privy Council, consisting of retired army officers and high-ranking bureaucrats, who provided advice to the Sultan on important matters. Next in closeness to the Sultan was the katip or the scribe who communicated the Sultan’s commands to the bureaucrats and influenced the Sultan through his involvement in the communication process. The harem had its own influence on the Sultan through the chief eunuch or the agha. These three positions were the principal mabayeen between the Sultan and the outside world.

Abdul Hamid kept a close watch on all of his appointees, as well as on the extensive bureaucracy in the state, through an efficient system of police and spy network. The police functions were centralized and the department not only had the authority to maintain law and order, but to conduct surveillance on travelers, the press and writers. The Sultan, to keep himself informed of the minutest happenings in the empire, entrusted the Police Ministry only to his most trusted confidants. In addition, various advisors served him in matters of personal finance and foreign affairs.

The executive, legislative and judiciary functions were combined in the office of the grand vizier. The grand vizier was responsible for coordinating the affairs of state and of the work of the ministries. The grand vizier presided over ministerial meetings and chaired the important commissions established by the Sultan such as the commission on refugees. Among the important ministries were the Ministry of Internal affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the War Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Awqaf and the Ministry of Public Works. The legislative arm of the state, the Council of State, worked through the grand vizier, as did the Ministry of Justice, which provided oversight for the secular courts. One of the most successful of the grand viziers during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid was Mehmet Sait Pasha. He served in that capacity seven times between 1878 and 1909 and was twice called upon by the Young Turks to assume the position of the chief executive after Abdul Hamid was deposed.

The Shaykh ul Islam, as the chief religious functionary of the state, had oversight authority over mosques, madrasas, orphanages and religious publications. He interpreted the Shariah and ensured that its dictates were implemented in the Shariah courts. The shaykh, along with the grand vizier, the khedive of Egypt and the prince of Bulgaria formed the highest echelon of functionaries at the court of the Sultan.

The modernization programs sought by Abdul Hamid required sufficient funds for their implementation. The Sultan was hamstrung by the enormous accumulated debt that he had inherited. In 1876, the foreign debt alone stood at over 12 billion kurush. The Russian-Turkish war of 1876-1878 and its aftermath added another 4 billion kurush to this enormous burden. Together with unpaid interest, the total foreign debt stood at 23 billion kurush. In addition, the internal debt stood at another four billion kurush. Interest payments alone consumed more than 80% of the budget.

There was a real possibility that the Ottomans would succumb to this debt burden just as had Egypt and Tunisia. Sultan Abdul Hamid’s first priority was to renegotiate the loans in conjunction with much needed economic reforms. Through negotiations, the total foreign debt was reduced from 23 billion to 12 billion kurush. The interest payments were negotiated down to about 20% of the budget. In return, specific revenues from tobacco, spirits, silk, salt, document fees and tributes from Bulgaria, Montenegro, Cyprus and Greece were turned over a Public Debt Commission consisting of representatives from the principal European powers and Ottoman functionaries.

To compensate for the lost revenues, the Sultan embarked upon a wide range of economic reforms. He instituted a budgetary process and established an audit department. The department heads were encouraged to trim their budgets. The Sultan removed his personal expenses from the budget and met them through his own resources. The privy purses of the princes were reduced. To increase revenues, agriculture and industrialization were encouraged. An agricultural bank was established to provide low interest loans to farmers. Surplus from the bank was used to finance education, to meet extraordinary budget requirements such as refugee resettlement and to pay for modernization of the armed forces. Foreign investment was encouraged for building railroads, telegraph lines and building silk, tobacco and fabric processing factories. The Hijaz railroad, linking Damascus with Madina, was built entirely with domestic funds and contributions from Muslims worldwide, facilitating the movement of pilgrims from the eastern Mediterranean regions to Mecca and Madina. The net result of these reforms was that the Sultan succeeded in holding debt payments to about 7% of the budget while increasing revenues by almost 40% between 1878 and 1908, the last year of his reign. A side benefit of industrialization was that the European powers were deflected from seeking political military hegemony over the Ottomans to economic competition for mutual benefit.

The needs of the armed forces, and a civilian bureaucracy required to administer the vast empire, demanded an efficient, trained work force. Sultan Abdul Hamid knew that the Ottomans could not catch up with the West unless the educational system was reformed and expanded. Education was therefore given the highest priority. The Sultan saw to it that the education reforms that were initiated during the tanzeemat were completed during his reign. Since the debt burden was overwhelming, the Sultan invested from his personal resources to upgrade the standards of education in the Muslim religious schools, expanding their syllabus to include instruction in physics and mathematics. The millet schools as well as the missionary schools run by foreigners witnessed a similar increase in attendance. A surtax of 39% on agricultural produce was imposed, with two thirds of the revenues so generated earmarked for agricultural improvements and the remaining one-third for public education. Enrollment in the army Rushdiye schools was greatly expanded. The army took the lead in improving technical education. With a better cadre of students available, the War Academy, the Army Engineering School, the Army Medical School and the Merchant Marine School embarked on a program of modernization. Army instructors from Germany and agricultural instructors from France were brought in to upgrade the faculty. Enrollment in the technical schools increased four fold. The University of Istanbul was reopened in 1900 with the faculties of Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Religion and Social Sciences. Performance-based examinations replaced the old system of favoritism for admission to the technical schools and the university. The Sultan’s educational reforms opened the doors to children of the less affluent classes giving them an opportunity to compete for the higher posts in civil service and the army. Predictably, the rise of an educated class which sprang from the lower ranks of society gave rise to demands for increased political participation and ultimately led to the Young Turk revolution and the overthrow of the Sultan himself (1909).

The greatest tribute to Sultan Abdul Hamid is that even today many Muslims around the world invoke his name with nostalgia for a bygone era when a venerated caliph provided a semblance of political focus for the global Islamic community and gave it a sense of universal brotherhood. Muslims as far away as India and Nigeria looked to him for guidance in matters small and large. His office radiated religious, political, cultural and social influence across the Islamic world. The Ottoman fez became not only a hat for the Turks but for Indian Muslims, Egyptians, Moroccans and Malaysians. His failure was that he pursued his modernization program through a highly centralized, personal style, which opened him to charges of despotism. He came on the stage of history at a time when the empire was bankrupt and could not defend itself against its many enemies. In the face of aggression from without and sabotage from within, hammered by forces of nationalism and weakened by internal terrorism from some of the millets, he waged a valiant battle to preserve what was left of the once mighty empire. In this effort, he was partially successful, preserving its Islamic core for forty years and keeping the empire out of a major war for as long. But his methods and the internal tensions built up by the very modernization processes he had fostered, finally did him in.

The Tanzeemat of the Ottoman Empire

The Tanzeemat of the Ottoman Empire

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Tanzeemat (Turkish, plural of tanzeem, organization, discipline) is a term used for the processes, institutions and administrative changes initiated between 1839 and 1878 by the grand viziers Mustafa Rashid Pasha, Mohammed Amin Ali Pasha and Mustafa Fuad Pasha and implemented during the reigns of Sultan Abdul Majid (1839-1861) and Sultan Abdul Aziz (1861-1876). With some modifications, the tanzeemat continued during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) and lasted until 1908. The over-arching goal of the tanzeemat was to save the empire by reforming its legislative, administrative and judiciary institutions and processes. They sought to improve administrative efficiency, streamline tax collection, modernize education and make the government more responsive to the people by giving them a voice in its operation. In the process, the architects of the tanzeemat experimented with centralization and decentralization, Ottomanism and secularism, pan Islamism and pan Turkism. They were successful in modifying the structure of Ottoman institutions. In so doing, they changed the character of Ottoman society and set in motion secular forces that ended with the emergence of the Young Turks (1908) and the destruction of the Sultanate itself (1913-1924).

In 1800, the Ottoman Empire was still the largest land empire in the interconnecting landmass of Afro-Eurasia. Extending from Algeria in the Maghrib, it embraced all of the lands of the southern Mediterranean. From Egypt it branched out to include portions of the Sudan and the coastal lands of the Red Sea, jetting into the Sinai and including the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Iraq, Anatolia and northern Azerbaijan. In Europe it had lost Hungary, Transylvania and Crimea, but it still controlled the Balkans including Romania, Bosnia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and Rumelia. It had a population of 20 million, about three fourths Muslim and the rest divided between Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian and Coptic Christians as well as a prosperous Jewish community. This vast empire was self-sufficient in food, with the fertile lands of Egypt, Iraq and Rumelia producing enough grain to sustain the population.

The Ottoman Empire was multi-ethnic, multi-national and multi-religious. While the Muslims were more numerous in West Asia and North Africa, the Orthodox Church had a major presence in the Balkans. Further north, in the border areas of Bosnia, as well as in Lebanon, the Catholics had a strong position. The Armenians were primarily resident in the area around Lake Van, while the Coptic presence was noticeable in Egypt and Syria. Each of the major religious groups was itself divided into a plethora of nationalities. The Turks, Arabs, Egyptians, Berbers, Albanians, Bosnians and Circassians were the major ethnic groups among the Muslims. The Eastern Orthodox included the Greeks, Bulgars, Serbs and the Romanians. These nationalities competed for turf and privilege and were often at loggerheads with each other. The presence of religious shrines in Palestine, considered holy by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, added to the religious tensions in the empire and on more than one occasion, kindled the flames of war.

This multi-religious, multi-ethnic state was organized in accordance with the dictates of the Shariah. Each religious group was called a millet, which meant that the state accepted it as the follower of a prophet, with a revealed book and a code of ethics. In numerical terms, there were three major millets in the empire: the Muslims, the Orthodox Christians and the Catholics. In addition, the Jews, Armenians, Copts and Druze were also accorded the status of millets. The Armenians, with about 6% of the population, were dispersed in eastern Anatolia, Azerbaijan and the southern Caucasus. The Copts, with about 3% of the population were mainly in the Cairo-Alexandria belt. The Jews, constituting about 2% of the population, had a notable presence in Istanbul, Solonika and Sarajevo. In accordance with the Shariah, each millet was accorded full autonomy in the observance of its personal laws and in matters relating to its religious observances. Where a judicial matter involved the followers of more than one religious group, it was taken up by mixed courts, or resolved in a higher court, presided over by a kadi (judge).

Military service was obligatory for Muslims. A Muslim young man, when called upon to do so, had to serve up to four years in the army followed by six years in the reserves and ten years in the home guard, although wealthy Muslims could buy an excuse at a price fixed by the state and send a substitute instead. The non-Muslims were exempt from military service in payment of the jizya. This was a tax levied only on able-bodied men; the old, the infirm, women and children were exempt from it. In return, the state provided them military protection and an opportunity to further their civilian careers while the Muslim young men served in the army. In monetary terms, the jizya was less than the sum a Muslim man had to pay to buy an excuse from military service. As we shall see, this system of administration, while it accorded autonomy and dignity to persons of all faiths, was used by interested European powers, acting presumably as protectors of one religious group or another, to exert pressures and demand concessions from the Ottomans.

Five major institutions held the empire together: the army, the civilian bureaucracy, the Vizierate or the Porte, the Grand Mufti or Shaykh ul Islam and the office of the Sultan-Caliph. In addition, the harem exerted significant influence on the decision making process through the Chief Eunuch, who acted as a conduit of communication between the Queen Mother, the ladies of the palace and the state functionaries. The standing army varied in strength from time to time. In 1800, it stood at 120,000 men, supplemented by about an equal number of sipahis, auxiliary troops and Tatar cavalrymen. Morale and discipline were high but the armed forces were at a measurable disadvantage with respect to their European counterparts in armaments, techniques and organization. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and European rapid firing muskets and long-range cannons had far outstripped the gunnery then in use by the Ottomans. Napoleon Bonaparte had given a stunning demonstration of the superiority of European arms and battle formations during his invasion of Egypt and Syria (1799).

A vast bureaucracy administered the empire in collaboration with the local fiefs, landlords and village notables. Tax collection was inefficient and at the mercy of the tax farmers (local landlords and chiefs delegated with the responsibility of tax collection) who pocketed a portion of the collections in return for their services. The system was stable, albeit at the expense of the cultivators, whose only interface with the ruling elite was though the taxman. The executive branch was headed by the sublime Porte, (or theVizierate) presided over by a grand vizier appointed by the Sultan. It was the grand vizier who carried out the fermans, or edicts, of the Sultan. Assisted by a Council of Ministers, he acted as the interface with foreign powers and often led the armed forces in war. The judiciary was nominally independent and under the overall supervision of the Shaykh ul Islam, who was also appointed by the Sultan. The shaykh was the custodian of the Shariah and his person carried enormous prestige with the ulema. His consent was sought prior to a declaration of war, or on occasions, before the dethronement of a Sultan. The power of the various functionaries flowed from the authority of the Sultan-caliph; they served with his consent and at his pleasure. He appointed or fired any of the executives or judges in his realm, including the grand vizier and the Shaykh ul Islam. In addition, as the Caliph of all Sunni Muslims in the world, he had the responsibility to protect the ummah against the “infidels” and to discharge the functions of the guardian of faith and the Shariah. Only the Shaykh ul Islam could make a pronouncement about a specific act of the Sultan and that too at great risk to his own person. The ladies of the court wielded significant power in the affairs of the realm and this they exercised by influencing the Sultan in his appointment of senior executives and through the chief eunuch who conveyed their wishes to the principal functionaries.

The structure of the empire was pyramidal with the Sultan-caliph at its apex. To their credit, the Ottomans were well served by a series of capable monarchs and grand viziers, who held the empire together for 600 years. In this grand undertaking, they proved themselves to be extremely resourceful in utilizing the injunctions of the Shariah to construct political institutions and evolve social systems that stood the test of time. Themillet structure, which provided judicial and legal autonomy to each religious group, was a major anchor of this system. It was sanctioned by the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and proved as capable of ensuring social and political stability in the 17th century as it had in the 7thcentury. It provided a framework in which a heterogeneous society composed of different religious groups, could work as a unit towards the creation of a civilization. But in the 19th century, this grand vision of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire came up against the competing European idea of nation states. Religion became secondary to nationalism and a mere vehicle for an expression of national aspirations. The powerful states of Russia, Austria-Hungary, France and Britain were able to use religion as a mechanism to incite the various nationalities within the Ottoman Empire against it and further their own interests.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was like an old oak tree that had decayed from within. A patent weakness in military technology, coupled with the inefficiency of an age-old bureaucracy, had sapped its vitality. Gone were the days when Europe trembled at the prospect of Sulaiman the Magnificent marching into Central Europe and knocking at the gates of Vienna.

Now it was the turn of Europe to counterattack, dismember the empire and benefit from its demise. The Ottoman Empire was able to survive another hundred years, not so much because of its military prowess, but because of the rivalries among the principal European powers as to who would pick up the pieces once the empire dissolved. The resulting balance of power did provide the Ottomans a respite in which to reform their institutions, catch up with Europe in technology and perhaps even save the empire from an inevitable demise.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the triumph of European arms over the more traditional arms then in use in Asia and Africa motivated emirs and Sultans alike to seek the technology and techniques of the West. The first to make a move in this direction was Tippu Sultan of Mysore, India. Starting in the year 1760, he and his father Hyder Ali, sought out French assistance in military organization and weapons technology. They were successful in creating the finest fighting machine in India, armed with long-range rifles, rockets and cannon, which held the British Empire at bay for forty years. Tippu fell in battle in the year 1799, a victim of schisms among Indian princes and of British scheming. The next to seek modernization of his armed forces was Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt. As Napoleon withdrew from the Nile delta (1799), Mohammed Ali reorganized the Turkish-Egyptian garrison in Cairo, supplied it with French muskets, brought in French instructors and built it into a fine fighting machine. In 1805, when the British tried to take Alexandria by force of arms, Mohammed Ali was able to beat them back.

In the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839) initiated a series of reforms against the opposition of the Janissaries and the entrenched conservatives. A military wakeup call came in 1820 when a rebellion broke out in Greece. Small bands of Greeks, armed and trained by the European powers, were able to inflict severe damage upon the Ottoman garrisons. Sultan Mahmud II was able to use the Ottoman reverses to dismantle the Janissaries (1826) and start the modernization of the army.

The Greek rebellion must be looked at in the broader context of the increasing military power of Russia and its long-range ambition to reach the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire, extending in an arc from the Adriatic to the Caspian Sea, was like a solid wall preventing this access. Indeed, the strategic location of the Ottoman Empire to the south of the Russian Empire was the single most important factor in the Balkan wars that raged throughout the 19th century and spilled over into the 20thcentury. In 1769, the Russians took the important base of Azov on the Don River and broke through to the Black Sea. In 1789 they captured the Crimea, denying the Ottomans the manpower of the Crimean Tatars and the use of the seaports on the northern shores of the Black Sea. Russia could now dream of reaching the Mediterranean through the Dardaneles. In the succeeding decades, Russian pressure on the Ottomans continued. The toll on Ottoman manpower and resources was enormous. As the vulnerability of the Ottomans became apparent, Britain, France and Austria-Hungary saw in an expansionist Russia a threat to their own interests. France had her eyes on North Africa; Britain coveted Egypt, while Austria-Hungary had her designs on the Balkans. Hence, the western powers sought to prop up the Ottoman Empire against Russia, even while they chipped away at it from the south and the west.

One military debacle after another faced the Ottomans in the decades of the 1820s and 1830s. The Greek revolt gathered momentum and by 1827, the Greek national forces had taken control of Morea. France, Britain and Russia demanded Ottoman acceptance of Greek independence, but when the Porte refused and called in naval reinforcements from Egypt, a joint European naval attack force destroyed the Ottoman and Egyptian navies at the Battle of Navarino (1827). This event marked an important milestone in the history of the Mediterranean.

Stripped of their navy, the Ottomans could not supply and defend their distant provinces in North Africa. Algiers fell to a determined French assault in 1830. Algeria became a French colony and remained so until the Algerian War of Independence in 1960. Meanwhile, the Russians, declaring themselves to be champions of their fellow Orthodox Greeks, invaded the empire and in a two-pronged drive around the Black Sea, moved through Romania and Bulgaria to within thirty miles of Istanbul. In the east, they occupied Erzurum and Trebizond and threatened complete occupation of Anatolia. The Ottomans were saved by the diplomatic intervention of Britain and France. This was a convincing demonstration of a Russian military capability to reach Istanbul. Ottoman preoccupation with this threat was a primary driver of their foreign policy through the rest of the century. By the Treaty of Edirne (1828), the Ottomans ceded to the Russians the region of the southern Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and accepted Russian intervention in the provinces of Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. The independence of Greece was formally ratified in 1830.

Further military reverses were awaiting the Ottomans. In 1830, Mohammed Ali Pasha, Governor of Egypt, demanded compensation from the Porte for his assistance during the Greek insurrection, as well as the hereditary title of Khedive. When the Porte refused, Mohammed Ali sent an expeditionary force into Syria under his son Ibrahim Pasha to compel the Sultan to agree to his demands. In a series of engagements, Ibrahim overcame Ottoman resistance, advanced through Gaza, Haifa, Damascus and Beirut to take Konya (1833). The Egyptians could have taken Istanbul, but European intervention forced Mohammed Ali to call off his troops in return for recognition of his demands by the Sultan. The triumph of the Egyptian forces, supplied with European arms, spurred the modernization of the Ottoman forces. Sultan Mahmud ordered an acceleration of the reforms he had started twenty years earlier, instituting training for army officers, sending them to Europe for instruction, starting technical institutes, reforming education and overhauling the administrative apparatus. He brought in Russian officers to train the infantry, British engineers to build forts, and Prussians to supply and train artillerymen. The initiatives taken by Sultan Mahmud provided the momentum for the reforms that were to follow after his reign.

The tanzeemat were led by Mustafa Rashid Pasha, who started life as the son of a clerk and became one of the most powerful grand viziers in Ottoman history. He started his career as a scribe, and while on assignment to Morea in the 1820s, witnessed first hand the debacle of Ottoman forces at the hands of the Greek nationalists. He saw first hand the inefficiency of the administration while employed in the Ottoman bureaucracy. During the Russian-Turkish war of 1826-1828, he was a seal bearer to the grand vizier. He impressed his superiors with his dispatches from the theaters of war and was given increasing responsibilities. In 1833, he was a member of the team that negotiated with Mohammed Ali Pasha of Egypt. As foreign minister (1837-1840) and ambassador to France (1840-1845) he traveled through Europe and had an opportunity to study its institutions. He became grand vizier in 1846 and served in that capacity for six terms of various durations until his death in 1858. It was largely through his initiative that Sultan Abdul Majid I issued the imperial proclamation of 1839, which guaranteed equality before the law to all citizens of the empire and set in motion the reform processes.

The tanzeemat centralized power in the Porte at the expense of the palace and the provincial governors. Sultan Abdul Majid and Sultan Abdul Aziz supported the Tanzeemat even while attempting to control them through their own appointments. The mechanism for legislative reform was the establishment in 1838 of the Supreme Council of Judicial Ordinances, consisting of senior members from the various ministries and the bureaucracy. It became the principal body for formulating legislation. Suggestions for possible legislative action were submitted to the Council by the various departments and ministers. The Council discussed, debated, modified and prepared the legislation, which was then submitted to the Sultan for his approval. An attempt was made to evolve a consensus in the Council, but disagreement was tolerated, and where there was no meeting of the minds, the majority opinion was submitted to the Sultan with the minority dissenting opinion included as an appendix, so that the Sultan could make up his own mind as to the pros and cons of a proposal. This was a major shift from the old Ottoman system wherein legislation originated from the Imperial Council attached to the palace. As time went on, the Supreme Council was also given the authority to initiate its own legislation and submit it to the Sultan. The volume of legislative work was enormous and as the burden increased, the process of reform slowed.

The second generation of Tanzeemat reformers, led by Grand Viziers Ali Pasha and Fuad Pasha, were impatient with the pace of change. In 1858, they supplemented the Supreme Council with another legislative body, the High Council of the Tanzeemat to speed up the process. There was some confusion between the two bodies due to overlapping responsibilities. Therefore, in 1861, the two Councils were merged into a single legislative body, the new Supreme Council of Judicial Ordinances, with separate departments for legislative, administrative and judiciary matters and clearly defined areas of responsibility. Overall coordination of the legislative functions was performed by the Council of Ministers, whose members were appointed by the Sultan. The ministers could change the proposed legislation before its submittal to the Sultan. Since the ministers were appointed directly by the Sultan, the grand vizier, who had the overall executive responsibility in the empire, had only limited authority over his own ministers. This dissociation of responsibility from authority had its own inherent inefficiencies and the grand vizier had to get results more through goodwill than through sheer brawn. Although the tanzeemat allowed for inputs from the bureaucrats and the Sultans themselves were supportive of most of the initiatives, the legislative structure remained pyramidal; the process was directed from the top, creating a measure of tension between the palace, the Porte and the legislative councils.

The most pressing issue before the Ottomans was defense of the empire. The Ottoman dam contained the Russian flood. A vigorous program of modernizing the armed forces began in 1841. The army was divided into seven corps, one based in each of the major provinces. A mushir or field marshal, reporting to the grand marshal or sereskar in Istanbul, headed each corps, which was further divided into regiments and platoons with a specific number of cavalry, infantry and artillerymen as required for the defense of each district. The total strength of the army was increased to 185,500 with each corps containing 26,500 men. This standing army was supplemented, in times of war, with an additional 60,000 sipahis, or irregulars. Rapid firing muskets and large cannons were bought from Prussia. Prussian officers were hired to train the Ottomans in the use of these weapons. An efficient system of storage and supply was set up at each of the principal army bases. All eligible Muslim males were required to serve in the army for a period of four years, starting at age seventeen, followed by seven years in the reserves and twelve years in the home guard. The navy received added attention too; however, after the disastrous Battle of Navarino (1827), the Ottoman and Egyptian navies did not recover their former stature and their role in subsequent military developments was marginal at best.

The superiority of European naval technology was obvious as early as the Battle of Lepanto (1571). After the Battle of St. Gotthard (1680), this superiority had shown itself in the land forces as well. The Ottomans managed to hold the line for much of the 18th century because the European powers were pre-occupied with their own internal rivalries over control of the Americas and the Indian Ocean. As these rivalries were sorted out, with the British emerging as the victors, the pressures on the Ottomans increased. Even the Russians, who were mired in a feudal society, learned from the west Europeans during the reign of Peter and forged ahead of the Ottomans. By the 1830s, the technology gap between Europe and Asia had become a wide chasm and the tanzeemat sought to redress this imbalance.

Modernization of the armed forces required a cadre of men trained in technical disciplines as well as in mathematics, physics and medicine. The need to revamp the educational system became acute as the technology gap between Europe and Asia widened. The old system of education in the Ottoman Empire was based on the maktabs. These were religious schools run by the local ulema and they were focused on imparting the children a basic knowledge of the Qur’an, the hadith, rituals of religious obligations and Ottoman history. Most of the students were boys. The few girls who did attend school dropped out after the first four years. Secondary schools or madrasahs offered more instruction in the traditional disciplines as well as optional courses geared towards preparing the students for service in the vast Ottoman bureaucracy. Higher education was designed to train a few alims, men versed in various schools of Fiqh, who could serve as local kadis in the courts of Shariah. Artisans and architects learned their trades through apprenticeship in the guilds attached to the local Sufi zawiyas.

This education was a caricature of the comprehensive system of education in the classical Islamic era. When the Fatimids founded the first university at Al Azhar in Cairo in 969 and the Abbasids established the Nizamiya College in Baghdad soon thereafter, the syllabus included not just Arabic grammar, Qur’an and Fiqh; it embraced philosophy, mathematics, logic and medicine. The education was integrative, holistic and it produced the hakims of the classical era, men like Al Ghazzali and Ibn Sina, who made profound contributions to the reservoir of human knowledge and provided the intellectual energy for a renovation of Islamic civilization.

In the intervening thousand years, the classical system of education had been demolished, the rational sciences were removed from the curriculum, Muslims turned their backs on philosophy and empirical science and Muslim society itself had been transformed. It did not produce the trained men and women who could maintain a competitive edge in the increasingly brutal confrontations with Europe. Frustrated, the army moved ahead with the establishment of a military academy in Istanbul wherein military sciences, physics, mathematics and medicine were taught but there was a dearth of qualified applicants with the pre-requisite education in mathematics and the natural sciences. The traditional system of maktabs had failed to keep up with the advances being made in science and technology. It did not even impart the rudimentary training in mathematics and physics that are pre-requisites to a career in science, engineering and medicine.

The tanzeemat sought to redress within a single generation the neglect of a thousand years. With a technologically advanced Europe breathing down their necks, they set out to reform the education system, its orientation, its content and its output. The initial momentum was provided by the initiatives taken earlier by Sultan Mahmud II (d. 1839), who had established a system of middle schools, called the Rushdiye schools, wherein arithmetic and physics were taught along with the traditional disciplines. Such schools had been established in the principal cities of the empire including Istanbul, Solonika, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Sarajevo and Erzurum. In 1846, a Council of Public Education was established within the Department of Trade but it would take another 20 years before a Ministry of Public Education was set up. Instruction in the public schools was enlarged to include science and mathematics in addition to Ottoman history, geography and the traditional religious subjects. Non-Muslim students received instruction in their own religious disciplines. To coordinate the work of various directorates in education, a Council of Education was set up by the Public Education Act of 1869. Each province also had an education director whose responsibilities included the supervision of schools, buildings, books, syllabus, examinations and teachers’ salaries.

Secular education received a major boost as a result of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Education was made compulsory for all children up to the age of twelve. In 1869, French specialists were brought in as advisors to the Ministry of Public Education. Following their recommendations, a three-tier system of education involving primary, middle and secondary schools was set up wherein mathematics, physics, natural sciences, history, Turkish, Farsi and Arabic languages as well as the local language were taught. At the higher levels, technical institutes were established. These included the War College, Civil Service College, Army and Navy engineering schools, the School of Medicine and the Military Academy. In each institute, besides specialized instruction in a specific field, the humanities and social sciences were also taught.

The evolution of an educational system more responsive to the needs of the empire was slow, in part because of the opposition of the religious establishment. Some of the ulema looked askance at the new education because it meant a decrease in their power. To mollify them, the old madrasahs were continued in parallel with the Rushdiye schools. In addition, there was a lack of trained teachers and textbooks as well as persistent difficulties with the non-Muslim minorities who remained recalcitrant and preferred to stay in their own millet schools. Acceptance of the new education was slow among the Muslims who associated a secular education with the West. As late as 1895, there were far more students in the traditional madrasahs than in the Rushdiye schools. Women’s education lagged far behind that of men. In 1895, whereas 90% of the men had received some schooling, only 30% of the women had done so. To redress this imbalance, a separate higher school for women was founded in Istanbul (1870) but admission remained low. In addition, the tanzeemat established schools for orphans and an industrial institute for poor children where they could receive training in a useful trade. There were also a number of foreign schools set up by missionaries, such as the American Robert College (1863). Their orientation was decidedly anti-Ottoman and anti-Muslim and their presence exacerbated the religious tensions in the empire. It was not until the reign of Sultan Abdul Hameed (1876-1909) that the foreign institutions were brought under the supervision of the state. The funding for the educational reforms came partly from the local communities and partly from the government. The local communities paid for buildings and books for the primary schools; the state helped with guidance on syllabus, oversight and examinations. At the secondary school and higher levels, the provinces and the central government shared the expenditures.

To further higher learning, Grand Vizier Mustafa Rashid Pasha established a Council of Knowledge in 1851. The Council arranged public lectures by eminent scholars and encouraged the translation of books from French, German and English into Turkish. In 1862, Grand Vizier Ali Pasha set up the Ottoman Society of Science, which published a Journal of Science and worked on conceptual issues relating to the development of a civil code to replace the Shariah. The University of Istanbul was established in 1870 with faculties of engineering, science, medicine, philosophy, law and religious studies. But it was closed in 1872 because of a lack of funding and was not reopened until 1900. It was during the same period that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan initiated the Aligarh movement in India and established Aligarh College (1875).

Thus it was a thousand years after Muslims established the first university at Al Azhar (969), the university system returned to Muslim lands via Europe. Those who had learned from the Muslims now had become their teachers and Islamic civilization, which had lit the torch of learning in Europe, was now borrowing back that light.

The establishment of a secular university increased the cleavage between the secularists and the ulema. Grand Viziers Ali and Fuad, as well as some Ottoman intellectuals in the empire, were keenly aware of the dangers in the developing antagonisms and worked to reduce them. Fuad established the Society for Islamic Studies in 1870, which offered extension courses in Islamic sciences as well as lectures on Shariah and Fiqh. Writers such as Ahmed Cevdat who had received their earlier training in a madrasah and had a keen respect for traditional education, attempted to bridge the gap. But such attempts were unsuccessful; the traditionalists lost the race, and the secularists co-opted the future of the empire.

Lack of sufficient funding precluded a far-reaching overhaul of the educational system. The empire was hard pressed for cash during much of the period of the tanzeemat, a situation that became acute as the Ottomans contracted huge debts to international bankers as a result of the Crimean War. In addition to the funds required for educational and administrative reforms, the modernizing of the armed forces and the huge bureaucracy required to administer the tanzeemat consumed additional resources.

The tax collection system, as a result, had to be streamlined and new sources of revenue had to be found. Taxes on land and sheep, jizya, payments from tributary states and commercial levies were the principal sources of tax revenue in the old system. A tenth of the agricultural produce was collected as tax. Tax on sheep was proportional to the number of animals. Jizya was an obligatory tax on non-Muslim able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 40, in return for which they were excused from serving in the armed forces. The residents of Istanbul and the principal cities were exempt from the agricultural tax and paid only the sales tax on consumer items so that the principal burden of taxation fell on the farmers. There were import and export duties; however, through the Capitulatory Agreements with the European powers, many of the items imported by foreign merchants were taxed at a preferential rate or not taxed at all. The Capitulations put the Ottoman merchants at a disadvantage and prevented the emergence of local industry that could compete with that of Europe.

Tax collection was inefficient. Local fiefs administered the agricultural and sheep taxes and pocketed some of the proceeds before forwarding the balance to the treasury. Many of the villages were no more than serfdoms where one or two families owned all the land. Tax collection in the cities was supervised by the trade guilds. Religious foundations, mosques and churches were exempt from taxation in return for which they were required to run the maktabs and maintain local roads and bridges. There were no checks and balances; responsibility and accountability were ill defined and the indirect tax collection system was abused at various levels.

The tanzeemat sought to replace indirect tax collection with a centralized, direct tax collection system. By the Tax Act of 1840, taxes were no longer collected by the tax farmers but by professional tax collectors appointed from Istanbul and made responsible to the treasury department. Extensive surveys of land, property, farm animals, rental income and salaries were undertaken to determine the tax basis for each. The property surveys were supplemented with an accurate census so that recruitment to the army and jizya from non-Muslim males of military age could be assessed fairly. Documentation of each item was thorough. A documentation fee was initiated on all documents and became a major source of revenue. In addition to direct taxation, every able bodied man between the ages of 16 and 60 was required to work on roads, bridges and public works for four days a week. Merchants and artisans in the cities were assessed a profits tax. Goods moving from one city to another were subject to a road tax and those consumed locally were taxed at the point of origin. Exports were taxed at the point of loading and imports at the point of off-loading. The Capitulatory Powers, however, resisted attempts to increase tariffs on certain imported goods, so that foreigners continued to enjoy unfair advantages in trade and commerce.

The reforms increased the tax revenues. But the increasing burdens of defense, centralized bureaucracy and foreign debt more than offset the increased revenue so that the budget deficit of the empire continued to increase. There were not enough trained tax collectors and the few available men were spread thin over large territories. The local fiefs and landlords took advantage of the relative inexperience of the new bureaucrats so that after an initial increase, tax revenues started to decline again. Consequently, the empire reinstated the tax farms and tried auctioning them off to the highest bidder. This only increased the burden on the farmers because the fiefs were interested in recovering their investment and enriching themselves, at the expense of the farmers, as rapidly as possible. The period of an auctioned tax farm was therefore increased to five years, with the stipulation that the tax collector was to help the farmers with seeds and crop cultivation. This was only partially successful; the farmers remained at the mercy of the local fiefs.

To increase the efficiency of administration and to assist in tax collection, the empire was divided into seven provinces or banats of approximately equal population and tax revenue. Districts within each province were divided into sanjaks. Each sanjak was administered by a muhassil whose authority and responsibility was clearly defined. Each sanjak was further divided into kazas. Such a division would correspond to the modern day division of provinces, districts and counties. To increase the participation of people in local self-government, each sanjak and kaza had an elected advisory council, consisting of Muslims and non-Muslims as well as the local kadi, police chief and tax collector. At the village level, a council of elders represented each millet. The representation was indirect. Only the local notables had any chance of getting elected; the poor had very little representation.

Since there were not enough bureaucrats to administer the tanzeemat, the role of the army in the administration was therefore increased. The provinces were put under the direct control of the field marshals or the mushirs. The mushirs functioned with the help of local notables who assisted with tax collection in cooperation with the appointed tax collectors and scribes. The powers of the sanjak councils were increased. They could ask for information from the mushirs, send complaints to the grand vizier, review court decisions, discuss local problems and offer solutions. In addition, some public funds were channeled to the provincial councils and they were given the responsibility for repairing and maintaining roads, bridges and canals.

Funding dried up after the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and the Councils lost their effectiveness. As a result, in 1864, the powers of the provincial governors were increased. Each governor was made responsible for all administrative, judicial, fiscal, social and security issues. He supervised the tax collectors, gathered information and provided oversight for education. Tax collection was centralized. All revenues were shipped to Istanbul from where specific amounts were returned to each district for administrative expenses. Departments of taxation, accounting, documentation, administration, education and public affairs were set up to assist the governors. The directors of these departments were appointed from Istanbul and were responsible directly to the center. An elected council of six members, three Muslims and three non-Muslims, was assigned to each department. Increased local representation protected the people from undue taxation, fostered local initiative and improved education, roads, transportation and the security of the people.

Even the Sultan was not untouched by the tanzeemat. The Sultans curtailed the growth of their expenses and their expenses as a percentage of the overall budget decreased. They made themselves more accessible to the public, traveled abroad on diplomatic missions and went for Friday prayers at the Aya Sophia Mosque in an open carriage.

The tanzeemat transformed Istanbul into one of the finest cosmopolitan cities on the Eurasian landmass by 1865. In 1858, following a detailed study, a municipal commission was set up for the European section of the city. In 1864, the municipal administration was extended to the whole city. The city was divided into 14 districts, each district managed by a council of 8 to 12 members. The municipal administration had responsibility for buildings, sanitation, market place, communication, lighting, building codes, layout, public facilities, commercial and tourist places, public health, orphanage and police functions. A budget was prepared for each district and accountability was assigned. These reforms came at the expense of the guilds and of the entrenched millet hierarchies. Despite the interference of European powers who were always ready to support the non-Muslim millets, the reforms were highly successful. In 1870, the same system of administration was extended to the other cities in the empire.

The tanzeemat brought in increasing secularization to the judicial process. The old judicial system was based on Hanafi Fiqh in which each religious group was given the privilege of maintaining its own millet courts. The tanzeemat sought to restrict the jurisdiction of the Shariah courts to civil disputes between Muslims and of millet courts to civil disputes among members of that millet, while creating mixed tribunals consisting of Muslims and non-Muslims when a dispute involved members of different religious groups. A uniform commercial code, along the lines of the French Commercial Code, was decreed. It established mixed tribunals consisting of Muslim and non-Muslim Ottomans and included representatives of European merchants. Court procedures were borrowed from the French and Italian penal systems.

By a decree of the Sultan, the life and property of all subjects was guaranteed. As confidence in the secular judicial processes increased, so did private and foreign investment in the empire. In 1856, the secular court system was expanded to the provincial and local levels. A court of appeals was set up to provide oversight of the lower courts. The promulgation of a uniform commercial code enabled the Ottomans to renegotiate certain provisions of the Capitulatory Agreements signed with France, Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia and for the first time, foreign citizens were brought under the Ottoman judicial system.

Communications and industry benefited from the tanzeemat. The major cities were connected by a telegraph system making it possible for a centralized bureaucracy to maintain efficient control over the provinces. Improvements in the roads and the introduction of steam ship service between the principal ports speeded up postal deliveries. Railroads were opened up for foreign investment and over 3,000 miles of railroads were completed by 1876. New production facilities for the manufacture of army gear, including guns, ammunition, clothes and headgear were started with state capital. Ottoman as well as foreign capital was invested in cloth manufacture, mining, oil extraction, rug manufacture and silk production.

Technology changes society. The printing press facilitated the growth of a vigorous media and the introduction of European ideas into the empire. Increased industrial employment coupled with a secular system of higher education produced a consumer-oriented middle class. The emerging secular elite challenged the traditional power structure of the ulema and the landed aristocracy. The ulema had long benefited from their monopoly of the educational and judicial systems. The introduction of secular education and a uniform commercial code after the pattern of the French commercial code eroded this monopoly. The power structure of the non-Muslim millets was similarly transformed. The Armenian Patriarch as well as the chief rabbi in Istanbul had to accept the oversight of elected councils dominated by laymen. The functions of the patriarchs and rabbis were confined to religious matters. The elected councils decided all other issues, such as taxation, education and community welfare. The religious establishment, both Muslim and non-Muslim, resented the reduction in their former power and privileges and their cooperation with the reforms was at best lukewarm.

The power of the Sultan, the religious establishment and the landed elite was reduced while the increasing power of the bureaucrats went unchecked. The increasing centralization of power produced a cadre of arrogant bureaucrats, cocky and self-assured that the direction they had charted for the empire was the correct one. This generated an intellectual backlash that sought to redress the erosion of the old institutions and to impose checks and balances on the bureaucrats. The men who led this movement were called the Young Ottomans who sought to restrain thetanzeemat bureaucrats through parliamentary democracy and a constitution. On the one hand they were impatient with the pace of the reforms; on the other, they wanted to transform yet retain the old institutions. They felt that the millet system had outlived its usefulness and they campaigned for equality of all Ottoman citizens under a single constitution, irrespective of their religion or nationality. Their efforts led to an indirectly elected parliament in 1876, but as we shall see, it was soon bogged down in procedural issues and was abandoned by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1879.

The reforms were taking place under the shadow of aggression from Russia, which had not given up its dream of capturing the Dardaneles, thus providing an outlet for its navy to the Mediterranean. Russia had shown in the war of 1828 that it had the military capability to penetrate the Turkish heartland and reach Istanbul. The military weakness of the Ottomans brought it into the vortex of European colonial politics. Austria and Russia both coveted the Balkans. The French had their eyes on Algeria and North Africa. The British desired to control Egypt as a passageway to their Indian Empire. All of these powers agreed on a dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire but each had its own ideas about who would pick up the pieces.

The presence of a large number of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire provided the European powers ample opportunities to interfere in Ottoman affairs. In the 1850s, their conflicting interests led to a general war involving Russia, Britain, France and the Ottomans. The wrangling of the Christian minorities for privileges in Palestine provided the trigger. Since their conquest of Jerusalem in 1517, the Ottomans had tried to keep the peace between the various sects by a juggling act of balancing competing claims. Following the war of 1828-1829, the Russian Czar obtained the permission of the Sultan to repair some of the Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Jerusalem declared his autonomy from the Patriarch of Istanbul and placed himself under Russian protection. The growing Russian influence whetted the appetite of the French, who were accepted as protectors of the Catholic minority in Syria and Palestine by the Capitulatory Agreements. Emperor Napoleon III of France, trying to improve his standing with his subjects following his abrogation of the French Republic (1851), demanded from the Sultan similar privileges for the Catholics. The Sultan, trying to maintain a neutral position between the claims of the Russians and the French, acceded to the French requests. In turn, the Russians demanded greater privileges for themselves including an acceptance by Istanbul that Russia was the protector of all Eastern Orthodox subjects in the Ottoman Empire. These demands irked the Porte. Ottoman public opinion was outraged at what it considered was Russian infringement of Ottoman sovereignty.

The British, at first inclined to side with the Russians against France, saw that Russian ascendancy would jeopardize their interests in the Ottoman Empire. Thanks to the Capitulary Agreements, the Ottoman Empire was a ready source of raw materials for British factories, as well as a good market for their products. British diplomacy now tilted against Russia. Encouraged by Britain and by popular resentment at home against Russian demands, the Porte at first agreed to the Czar’s demands and then rejected them. Enraged, the Czar threatened war unless Istanbul immediately capitulated. A conference in Vienna failed to produce a mutually acceptable solution; war ensued in July 1854 with an Ottoman advance into Romania and into the southern Caucasus. The Russians soon gained the upper hand on both fronts. A Turkish naval squadron sent into the Black Sea to destroy the Russian fleet fared no better. Alarmed that a Russian victory would leave the Czar in possession of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France declared war on Russia.

This was the beginning of the Crimean War in which Britain and France sought to contain the Russians by propping up the Ottomans against the Czar’s war machine. British and French naval squadrons advanced through the Dardaneles and bombarded Russian fortifications in the Crimea. The port of Sevastopol soon became the focus of a major trial of strength between the Russians on the one hand and a British-French expeditionary force on the other. Meanwhile, to avoid having to fight a war on two fronts, the Russians handed over the territories of Romania to the Austrians. The siege of Sevastopol continued for more than a year (1854-1855). The Russians surrendered the port city only after a long and bitter fight. To the east, however, the Russian armies advanced through the Caucasus into eastern Anatolia, capturing Kars, Van and Erzurum and threatening Central Anatolia. A brutal war of attrition went on even as the contestants wrangled over terms of a ceasefire. Finally, by the Treaty of Paris (1856), the forces disengaged. The warring parties agreed to relinquish each other’s territories. The autonomy of Romania and Serbia under Ottoman sovereignty was reaffirmed and the European powers declared themselves guarantors of the rights of the Christian inhabitants in the Balkans. The Czar obtained a concession as protector of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem.

Although the Crimean War ended with the Ottomans nominally retaining their territories, in the long term it proved to be the beginning of the end of the empire. The war effort was enormously expensive in men and material. To meet the heavy war expenditures, the Ottomans took their first loan from European bankers in 1854. The terms of the loan were harsh; they carried discounts of up to 40%, plus exorbitant rates of interest. Each year, to balance their budget, the Porte had to borrow additional funds from the Europeans. Despite the reforms of the tanzeematto increase revenues and the efforts of successive grand viziers to cut expenditures, the empire could not dig itself out of debt. It was about the same time that Egypt, the most important Muslim province of the empire, also contracted international debts to construct the Suez Canal. By 1875, both Cairo and Istanbul were up to their necks in debt.

The proportion of the budget earmarked for debt servicing continued to increase, so that by 1878, it consumed over 80% of all revenues! The Ottomans tried different methods to balance the budget, including printing paper money and borrowing internally from their own citizens. Such efforts generated inflation, further eroding the value of the Ottoman currency and making international debt payments more expensive. Most of the loans originated from bankers based in London. Britain had successfully put a noose around the Ottoman Empire without declaring war on it. The noose tightened every year. It was this bankrupt empire that Abdul Hamid II, the last of the great Sultans in Islamic history, inherited when he became the Sultan/Caliph in 1878.

The Ottoman Empire of the 19th century faced most of the issues that confront the world of Islam today: centralization versus decentralization, nationalism versus pan-Islamism, tradition versus modernism, Sultanate versus democracy, pluralism, education, organization, technological development, foreign domination and international debt. The Ottoman Empire made a valiant attempt to transform itself and meet these challenges. While honoring the autonomy of its Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Armenian subjects within the millet system, it sought to modernize its armed forces, administration, education, economy and legislative processes.

The reforms failed to prevent a collapse of the empire for five principal reasons. First, the need to defend themselves against military aggression forced the Ottomans into international debt from which they never recovered. Second, the reforms were imported from Europe and were forced from the top. Third, the ulema failed to provide intellectual leadership, reform education and evolve institutions that would lead the Muslims from the medieval to the modern age. Fourth, Russian aggression from the north and British and French political machinations from the south, worked like a hammer and anvil to crush the empire. And fifth, themillet system, however benevolent it was from a Muslim perspective, was unacceptable to the large Christian minorities in the Balkans and Armenia. They resorted to increasing terrorism against Muslims and aided and abetted by the principal European powers, used every opportunity to destroy the empire.

History Of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Critical moments in history are like earthquakes. They manifest themselves as convulsions releasing the pent up stresses of generations. When the tremors are over, they leave behind a legacy, which becomes a prelude to the next major event. The Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-1858 was one such event. With it medieval India died and in its wake grew social and political movements that paved the way for the emergence of the modern nations of India and Pakistan.

India was the first country where Muslims were faced with a challenge to define their interface with two global civilizations from a position of political weakness. European arms and diplomacy had smashed their power. The Sepoy Uprising confirmed this loss of power. The initial response of the Muslims to this debacle was to stay aloof from the British, to shun their language, institutions, culture and methods. Withdrawal only increased their isolation and set them behind in the race for political and social re-awakening. At the same time, the Hindus whom the Muslims had dominated for 500 years appeared poised to dominate them. The changing relationships were most acutely felt in the Gangetic plain, in the populous region extending from Delhi to Calcutta. And it was this region that set the tone for the interaction between the Muslims, the Europeans and the Hindus in the years to come.

What was the appropriate relationship between Islam and Christian Europe? The legacy of the Crusades in the Mediterranean region was not an encouraging one. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the Muslims conquered vast areas of the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and southwestern Europe and displaced Christianity with their own faith. In a counter thrust, during the 12th and 13th centuries, the Christians wrested Spain and Portugal from the Muslims and in the succeeding centuries, completed extirpated Islam from the Andalusian peninsula. The English thrust at India in the 18th century was primarily mercantile and motivated by economic domination. Nonetheless, the history of interactions between Islam and Christianity did not provide a framework for a mutually satisfactory accommodation.

With the large Hindu population of India, the situation was somewhat different. In the 8th century, Muslim armies, after their swift advance through Persia, had paused at the Indus River. For 500 years thereafter, the Indus River roughly defined the geographical boundary between Muslim dominions and northern India, which was dominated by the Rajputs. The situation changed when Muhammed Ghori captured Delhi in 1192, and from that date onward until the arrival of the British, the Indo-Gangetic plain was ruled by successive Muslim dynasties. Some of the Muslim monarchs, such as Alauddin Khilji, Muhammed bin Tughlaq and Jalaluddin Akbar, treated their Indian subjects fairly. Most were content to collect taxes from Hindus and Muslims alike and made no attempt either to facilitate the spread of Islam or to deter it. Except in the northwest and the northeast, Islam remained a super-layer on a fossilized Hindu society. The two great communities continued to coexist but did not co-mingle. The powerful Islamic message of equality of man ensured that the Muslims were not submerged in the Hindu caste matrix, yet the rigidity of Hindu society was too tenacious for Islam to displace Hinduism.

Sufic Islam tried to bridge the gap between the various communities of India. The Sufis arrived in the Indo-Gangetic plain at about the same time they emerged in Central Asia and North Africa. The spiritual and physical space of the Sufi qanqahs was secular in which men and women of all faiths were welcome. With their emphasis on love, brotherhood, service and openness to local culture, they convinced a large number of Indians to accept Islam so that by the turn of the 19th century, Muslims constituted roughly a quarter of the total population of the subcontinent.

The numerical inferiority of the Muslims was compensated by their political and cultural dominance. Only in the field of economics did the Hindus fare better. The far-sighted among the Muslim monarchs found it wise to accept the services of Hindu ministers to rationalize their tax collection systems. With the advent of British rule, the advantages that the Muslims had enjoyed were chipped away. Political and military ascendancy was the first casualty. Bengal (1757), Oudh (1765) and Mysore (1799) fell one by one. Some of the potentates, such as the Nizam of Hyderabad, found it more expedient to accept the protection of the British than to fight them.

The second front was economic. The thriving manufacturing industry and the trade guilds of Bengal were ruined by the deliberate policies of the Company who saw Hindustan as a vast market for its goods. Where industry faltered, usury crept in. Since interest was forbidden in Islam, the Muslims stayed away from usury. Hindu moneylenders had no such taboo and they moved in as credit suppliers for the impoverished masses.

Language was the third front. In 1835, the East India Company introduced English medium schools and replaced Persian with English in the higher courts. Persian, the lingua franca of Muslim Asia, was the court language of Delhi for 500 years. The displacement of Persian as the court language not only severed intellectual contacts between Muslim India and Persia, it also stripped the advantage that Muslims had enjoyed in education. The Hindus had nothing to lose by this change and embraced English education with open arms and moved to fill in whatever government positions were offered by the British to Indians. The educational gap between the Hindu and Muslim communities increased. This in turn augmented mutual suspicions, jealousy and social tensions.

The Sepoy Uprising of 1857-1858 released the pent up tensions between India and the British and proved to be a calamity for the Muslims. Defeat prompted withdrawal. It was the contribution of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan that he brought the Muslims of northern India from their cocoon and made them face the historical currents so they could participate in the molding of their own destiny. His response to the British and to the Hindus was markedly different. He foresaw, that British rule, no matter how entrenched it seemed at the time, was ultimately bound to disappear. But the Hindus were neighbors, living with the Muslims. Two global faiths, Islam and Hinduism, had arrived in India at different historical epochs and each claimed the same land as its homeland. In the dialogue to coexist and co-prosper, the adherents of the two faiths were largely unsuccessful and in their failure they left behind the legacy of partition and the accompanying holocaust of 1947.

In the aftermath of the Sepoy Uprising, the Muslim intelligentsia in northern India was decimated. Under the incessant hammer of British persecution, Muslims in the Indo-Gangetic belt recoiled from active participation in national life. Too proud to accept defeat at the hands of the “infidels”, mired in the glory of a bygone era, imprisoned in a paradigm of Persian-Arabic education, suspicious of an emerging Hindu educated class, exploited by money lenders and talukdars, they sank deeper into a despondency with each passing year. The British carried their vendetta into the succeeding decades. Open discrimination was practiced against the Muslims in government jobs. The result was a general decay in the economic and political status of the Muslims and an increasing gap between the Muslims and Hindus in education and social awareness. This chasm was to have a profound effect on the events that unfolded in the last quarter of the century when Sir Syed Ahmed Khan launched his educational reform movement (1875) and the Indian National Congress was founded (1885). Indeed, the increasing gap in the economic and educational well being of Hindus and Muslims had a decisive impact on the shape of the struggle for the independent nations of India and Pakistan.

The thrust of European arms and ideas evoked a wide spectrum of responses in the Muslim world. The Ottomans resisted this thrust until the resistance was destroyed during the First World War. In Egypt and Turkey the impact of European ideas influenced the reform movements of Muhammed Ali Pasha, Sultan Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. In India it produced the reform movement of Syed Ahmed Khan.

In the dialectic between Europe and the Muslim world, Syed Ahmed Khan of India occupies a unique position. He was perhaps the first Muslim leader to contemplate the possibility of coexistence between the two global civilizations. Muslim reformers before him had either totally disregarded the European challenge (Shah Waliullah of Delhi, Shaykh Abdul Wahhab of Arabia and Shehu Dan Fuduye of Nigeria fall into this category) or were hostile to any accommodation with Europe. The initiatives taken by Sir Syed had far reaching consequences for the Muslims. He demonstrated the possibility of coexistence and cooperation between the European and Islamic civilizations, although in his own lifetime, with the British firmly entrenched in India, he could achieve no more than a supportive role for Indian Muslims.

Syed Ahmed Khan was born in 1817 near Delhi, into a distinguished family. He received his early education in the traditional disciplines ofQur’an and Hadith and was then exposed to an English education. When the Sepoy Uprising of 1857 broke out, he was employed with the Company as a civil servant in the “Northwestern Provinces”, as the area west of Oudh was then called. The carnage of the Uprising and the subsequent decimation of the Muslim intelligentsia left a major void in the Islamic community of northern India. The initial response of the community was to conserve and withdraw into its social cocoon. While the British viewed the Muslims with deep suspicion, the Muslims shunned the British as infidels and foreigners who had usurped what had been rightfully theirs. Hostility and resentment fed upon each other and it looked like the Muslims would miss the opportunity to be a part of the new order imposed by newcomers from the British Isles.

While the Muslims remained aloof from British administration, the Hindus, Parsis and other communities forged ahead in education and social development. The replacement of Persian by English as the language of the higher courts (1835) was resented by the Muslims but was welcomed by the other communities. They embraced English education much more eagerly than did the Muslims. In 1878 there were 3155 college educated Hindus as against 57 college educated Muslims. In a country, growing poorer by the year due to Company practices, government service was a major career path for poor people and the Muslims missed these opportunities. The situation was particularly acute in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Since the fall of Bengal in 1757, all of the higher positions in civilian, military and judiciary service were reserved for the British. The more educated Hindus filled the lower positions that were open to Indians. The Muslims were practically shut out.

Syed Ahmed Khan saw the dangers in this isolationist posture. As long as mutual suspicion and hostility persisted between the Muslims and the British, the former would be excluded from participation in the political and social life of the country. Sir Syed visited England in 1870 and came back with a conviction that English education was a key to the advancement of the Muslims. In 1877 he established the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College” at Aligarh. The name of the college was self-descriptive and its orientation was decidedly western. It faced immediate hostility from the Muslim religious establishment. Mullahs denounced him as a “turncoat” and a “kafir”. Undaunted, Sir Syed persisted. He invited a noted Englishman, Theodore Beck to serve as the first principal of the College. As hostility towards his efforts intensified in the areas around Delhi, he traveled throughout the Punjab in search of support and funds. Punjabi Muslims, who felt the British had recently liberated them from the Sikhs, welcomed Sir Syed with open arms and generously provided him moral and material support.

Aligarh College grew by the year and soon became a center for Muslim educational and political activities in northern India, although its doors were open to all communities and many distinguished British as well as Hindu professors served on its faculty. The college served as a magnet for young men and women from families of zamindars and peasants alike from all over India. It provided a boost to the Muslims in their competition with the other communities for government jobs. But it was in the political arena that its impact was most profoundly felt. Graduates of AligarhUniversity were in the forefront of the political struggle in India and their efforts were decisive in the struggle for Pakistan.

Economics was yet another area where the Muslims fell behind the larger community. Following the Battle of Plassey (1757), the manufacturing base of Bengal was destroyed by the discriminatory policies of the Company. The artisans and merchants, who were primarily Muslim, were economically ruined. The Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 imposed Hindu landlords on the Muslim population of Bengal. In 1858, following the Sepoy Uprising, when the zamindari system was reinstated by the British in Uttar Pradesh, the Hindus were the primary beneficiaries. Thus in the crucial area between Delhi and Calcutta, the Muslim economic condition went from bad to worse. Only in parts of the Punjab, Sindh and the Frontier areas, where the Pathans and some Punjabis had cooperated with the British, was there a remnant of Muslim landed aristocracy.

Given the educational, political and social backwardness of the Indian Muslim community, Sir Syed felt that its best option was to cooperate with the British. As long as mutual suspicion and hostility between the British and the Muslims of northern India persisted, the latter could not take advantage of any opportunities that a more cooperative environment might present. Accordingly, Sir Syed recommended to the Muslims that their interest, for the time being at any rate, lay in seeking a working relationship with the British. This position was at odds with that of the Hindu nationalists. Since the Hindus were far more advanced educationally and they were also the numerical majority, they could package the demands of their community in a “nationalist” terminology. For the Hindus there was co-linearity of a national and communal vision. This was not so for the Muslims. Except in the northwest and the northeast, they were a small minority in the great landmass of the subcontinent. The aftermath of the 1857-1858 uprising, the decimation of their leadership, their educational backwardness and their numerical inferiority ensured that they could not compete with the Hindus on equal terms.

The years following the Great Uprising saw the first stirrings of a nationalist movement in India. Most of the nationalists were English-speaking Hindus and Parsis. An English education gave the Hindus not only access to government jobs but enabled them to articulate their social and political aspirations. The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 by an Englishman Allan Hume to encourage Indians to provide input and feedback to the government on how the administration of the Raj could be improved. In later years, the Congress grew to be the most powerful political organization in British India and political demands grew to give political representation to the Indians. Sir Syed was concerned that the Muslims would be submerged in a vastly Hindu India should political initiative pass on to the Hindus. He articulated the fears of the Muslim community in these words:

“India, a continent in itself is inhabited by vast populations of different races and different creeds. The rigor of religious institutions has kept even neighbors apart. The system of caste is still dominant and powerful . . . In a country like India where caste distinctions still flourish, where there is no fusion of the various races, where religious distinctions are still violent, where education in its modern sense has not made an equal or proportionate progress among all the sections of the population, I am convinced that the introduction of the principle of election, pure and simple, for representation of various interests on the local boards and district councils would be attended with evils of greater significance than purely economic considerations . . . .The larger community would totally override the interests of the smaller community and the ignorant public would hold Government responsible for introducing measures which might make differences of race and creed more violent than ever.”

Sir Syed opposed the participation of Muslims in the Indian National Congress as he was concerned that representative government based on a one man-one vote concept would leave the Muslims at the mercy of the more numerous Hindus. His fears were reinforced by the movement in 1867 to replace Urdu, a language that had evolved through a Hindu-Muslim linguistic synthesis, with Sanskritized Hindi. Sir Syed saw that education, at least western education, far from bringing the two great communities of the subcontinent closer together, was separating them further apart. As the movement to replace Urdu with Hindi gathered momentum, he wrote: “I am convinced that the two communities will not sincerely cooperate in any work. Opposition and hatred between them which is felt so little today, will in the future be seen to increase on account of the so-called educated classes.”

Sir Syed’s opposition to Muslim participation in the Indian National Congress was based on his conviction that the Muslims of his day were not ready to compete with the other communities in education and politics. The destruction of the manufacturing base in Bengal and Uttar Pradesh had eliminated the artisans and merchants who had formed the economic backbone for the Moghul Empire. The moneylenders and the talukdars, most of whom were Hindu, now took their place. The differences between the two communities were exacerbated in the aftermath of the Sepoy Uprising of 1857-1858. The British had singled out Muslim leaders for punishment. In Delhi alone, over 27,000 Muslims were hanged, with many thousands more in Meerat, Lucknow and Allahabad. With the introduction of English as the medium of instruction, Muslims had fallen further behind. Meanwhile, the Hindus had taken advantage of the new opportunities, had acquired education and were able to fill any positions offered the Indians. Sir Syed felt that the introduction of representative government at that stage in history would solidify the advantage of the Hindu community over the Muslims and would relegate the latter to a permanent handicap.

Sir Syed did not live to see the full impact of the reforms introduced by him. It was left to later generations to realize the benefits of his initiatives in education and politics. He passed away in 1898. Twenty-three years after his death, in 1921 Aligarh College blossomed into Aligarh Muslim University and became a magnet for Muslim intellectual activity in the subcontinent. The generations that came after him derived their inspiration from the legacy of Sir Syed and went on to carve out their own destiny. He stood tall among the reformers of the 19th century who gave a new lease and a new direction to Islamic civilization.

Some among the later generations would call him a revolutionary, some would label him an apologist, but there is no doubt that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan opened the door to communication between the Muslims and the Europeans. Until he came along, this door had been locked shut with a steel bar of mutual suspicion and hostility.

The Sepoy Uprising of India

The Sepoy Uprising of India

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

By the middle of the 19th century, European arms had subjugated a large portion of Asia and Africa. Pax Britannica ruled the oceans and the Indian Ocean had become a British lake. The Dutch and the French tagged along and made inroads into some of the littoral states like Indonesia and Vietnam. Japan held on, but the subversion of China through opium and hard drugs was in full swing. The West African slave trade had ended, leaving Africa exhausted and depleted of its manpower. Asia was in deep slumber and international trade was firmly in the hands of European companies.

India was the first great Asian civilization to fall to the European onslaught. The British made their first attempt to get a foothold in the subcontinent in 1686 during the reign of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb. Directed by Sir Josiah Child, the governor of the East India Company, a British fleet made an attempt to capture the harbor of Chittagong. The response of the Emperor was swift. The British were driven out and had to give up all their fortifications in Bengal. Similarly, on the west coast, they incurred the wrath of the Emperor when they engaged in piracy directed against the pilgrims to Mecca. They were expelled from Surat but were later allowed to return after paying a substantial fine.

However, the fortunes of India turned as the Moghul Empire disintegrated in the 18th century. Bengal fell at the Battle of Plassey (1757). Tippu Sultan waged a valiant struggle to contain and expel the British from India but he fell at the Battle of Srirangapatam (1799). The Marathas in Poona sued for peace in 1803. In 1806 British armies were camped near Red Fort in Delhi. The Sikhs in the Punjab held out a little longer, but by 1850, they too succumbed to the force of British arms and the subcontinent, save for the tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier, was in British hands.

It would seem astonishing that a great and prosperous landmass like India would fall with such ease to a handful of merchants from the British Isles. We have covered in some detail the march of global events that contributed to the rise of England. India imploded due to its own weight. The tensions introduced by power struggles between the princes, the absence of a national consciousness, lack of accurate information and intelligence about the global forces at work, neglect of naval technology and a general decay in the ethical standards of the ruling classes were all contributing factors. The British took advantage of these implosive forces and with an astonishingly small investment in men and material, made themselves masters of a great empire.

The rapacity of the British East India Company did not go unnoticed. During the hundred years since the fall of Bengal (1757), Company rule had reduced much of India into abject poverty. During the Moghul period, Bengal was the richest province of India and one of the richest in Asia. Blessed with the fertile delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, it produced a surplus of food. Its manufactured goods included fine muslin cloth, brass work and sugar. Its cotton goods were in high demand the world over. Within eight years of its conquest by Robert Clive, Bengal was on its knees and what was once one of the richest provinces in Asia became one of the poorest. The accumulated capital in the possession of the Nawab of Bengal was looted and more than three million pounds were taken out of Calcutta. The manufacturing base was debilitated through heavy taxation and the market was flooded with cheap goods from England. The successors of Robert Clive were even more ruthless in their exploitation. Warren Hastings, the Governor General who succeeded Robert Clive, starved the begums (queens) of Oudh to extract from them their collection of jewels (1765). When Srirangapatam fell, the state treasury of Tippu was looted and a sum of over two million rupees fell into British hands. The golden throne of Tippu was broken up, melted down and distributed among the conquering British troops. Similar episodes were repeated in the kingdoms where the Company managers, exploiting internal rivalries for succession, extracted large sums from the rajas and the nawabs. Surplus capital disappeared from India. The taxation imposed by the Company ensured that additional capital growth in native hands would be impossible. The Company’s objective was profit and its relentless pursuit made the Company managers oblivious of the welfare of the general population.

The rise of Company rule had two concurrent effects. The martial races in India, the Pathans, Rajputs, Afghans and the Marathas lost their power. Indeed, in many cases the Company troops went after the Indian warriors with a vengeance, as they did against the Afghan Rohillas in the Gangetic Plains (1765). As the warriors lost their power and faced impoverishment, the moneylenders spread their tentacles. In Bengal, for instance, the double blows British taxation and exploitative usury by Indian moneylenders devastated the peasant and merchant alike. Resentment against the British grew.

A second element in this growing resentment was the takeover of some of the native states by the Company in total disregard of treaty obligations. During its relentless military advance on Indian soil, the Company had entered into a series of treaties with a host of native princes as its “allies”. By 1850, the British stranglehold on India was so secure that they no longer needed these “allies” and the takeover of the native kingdoms began in utter disregard of legalities or treaty obligations. The motivation was greed and increased revenues for the Company. A variety of excuses were invented for such takeovers. One was the doctrine of “lapse” under which a kingdom could be taken over if a prince had no male heir. Another was the doctrine of “paramountcy” which was a catchall for supposed mismanagement by a local prince. During the tenure of Dalhousie as Governor General (1848-1856), the takeover of Indian territories was pursued with relentless vigor. First to fall was the kingdom of Satara (1848), once ruled by the mighty Peshwas. This was followed by the Rajput principalities of Jaipur, Udaipur and Jhansi, the Maratha stronghold of Nagpur, the kingdom of Sambalpur in Bengal and Baghat in the Punjab. Each takeover netted the British considerable cash from the native treasuries and ensured recurrent revenues from the land.

The annexation that tipped the scale in favor of an uprising was that of the large and prosperous kingdom of Oudh, which occupied the central plains of the Ganges River. In total disregard of a treaty made more than a half a century earlier, Company troops marched from Kanpur and forced the Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah to give up his kingdom. Wajid Ali did not resist. Believing in his legal rights and in the rule of law, he appealed first to the British Commissioner James Outram and then to the Governor General Dalhousie. Both turned a deaf ear to his protestations. Wajid Ali then took his case to London where his presentation received an equally cold shoulder. Wajid Ali, a prince schooled in the old paradigm of honor and contractual obligations, did not understand the paradigm of a merchant. To the East India Company, a treaty was only a piece of paper, to fall back on when it suited their self interest but to be torn up if it was to their advantage. Wajid Ali returned to India a bitter man and resolved to take up arms against the wily “Firangis” (from the word Frank, meaning a European).

A third element in the Uprising was the heavy-handed Company approach to taxation and revenue increase. Brushing aside treaty obligations, Dalhousie reduced or eliminated the hefty pensions of the Indian potentates who had served British interests in the past. Chief among them was the Nawab of Arcot and the Peshwa of Poona (1853). The adopted son of the Peshwa, Nana Sahib, became a leader of the incipient Sepoy Uprising. The process of land confiscation was not confined to the displacement of princes of blood but extended to secondary and tertiary levels as well. During the Moghul Raj (rule) and in the interregnum following its dismemberment, large jagirs had been conferred upon faithful courtiers. In turn, the local potentates had appointed talukdars to collect taxes and pass on the revenue to the higher authorities. The jagirs and taluks were held in perpetuity, from father to son and served as fiefdoms, which served as pillars of stability for the pleasure-loving rajas and nawabs. The Company abolished some of these jagirs and removed the talukdars so that the revenue from their properties accrued directly to the coffers of the Company. This bred resentment and when the spark of the Uprising was lit, some of the jagirdars and talukdars served as local focuses of revolt. In 1858, the British, realizing the importance of retaining the loyalty of the jagirdars and talukdars, reinstated many of the jagirs and hereditary taluks in northern India, thus creating a multi-layered hierarchy of local princes, jagirdars and talukdars whose loyalty to the British crown could be counted upon in times of trouble.

Perhaps the most important factor in the Great Indian Uprising was the injured religious sensibility of the Sepoys. Medieval India was a land of religion. The East India Company had entered the subcontinent as a venture for profit. Unlike the Portuguese and the Spaniards who considered their military adventures a part of religious crusades, the British did not even allow evangelists to board their merchant ships. However, as British rule was consolidated, this picture gradually changed. The conquest of vast territories in Asia and Africa produced a sociology of dominance by Europeans. A feeling of superiority took root. A belief started to take hold that European religion and institutions were somehow superior to those of the “natives”. The Indians were not unaware of these attitudes. The growing resentment against the foreigners only needed a spark to explode.

The spark was lit in 1856, when the Company introduced the new Enfield rifle. The Enfield represented a considerable advance in design from prior models and offered the advantage of rapid firing. But the design was not “user friendly”. It was not sensitive to the religious feelings of its user, namely the Indian Sepoy. The paper wrapper of its cartridge was coated with lard and cow fat and a user was required to bite off the paper before he inserted the cartridge into the rifle. To a Muslim, the pig is an unclean animal, which he is forbidden to eat. To a Hindu, the cow is a sacred animal, which he is required to protect. The Indians felt that the new rifles were deliberately designed to defile the religion of Muslims and Hindus alike. It was seen as an attempt by the unbelieving foreigners to convert them to Christianity, which has no injunctions against the meat of the pig or the fat of the cow.

On May 7, 1857, on a hot, dusty parade ground in Meerat, a regiment of Indian Sepoys refused to accept the Enfield rifle as British artillery ringed them from all sides. The Sepoys were chained and led to the dungeons for “disobeying” orders. The following day Meerat exploded. The Sepoys rose up, quickly overpowered the British garrison and marched towards Delhi. The Delhi garrison joined the uprising and within three days, Delhi was back in Indian hands. The Moghul flag flew over the Red Fort and Bahadur Shah was reinstalled as the Emperor of Hindustan. Encouraged by this success, the Sepoys in Lucknow, Kanpur, Gwalior and Jhansi joined the Uprising. By the end of July, the British had lost control of the Gangetic Plains, extending from Meerat to Benares and of the central highlands. A Royal Proclamation from Delhi went forth to the cities of northern India and Pathans, Rajputs and Marathas alike joined the struggle.

The uprising did not succeed. To the Sikhs in the Punjab, who had fought the Great Moghuls in the previous century, a reinstatement of Moghul rule was unacceptable. The British Major Nicholson marched back to Delhi at the head of a Sikh regiment in September 1857. The Nizam of Hyderabad and some of the Rajput princes remained loyal to the British and sent contingents to help them. Coordination between the principal seats of the Great Uprising was minimal. The Emperor, an old man of seventy, was more interested in Urdu poetry than in the arts of war. He made no attempt to weld the various garrisons into a national force. The British, on the other hand, were determined and well led by experienced officers. The newly installed telegraph lines proved to be a boon to the besieged British garrisons between Lahore and Calcutta. The British, in addition, had the advantage of artillery and rapid firing guns and could call upon additional reinforcements by sea from as far away as South Africa and the Straits of Malacca. Nonetheless, it is a tribute to the tenacity of the Indians, that leaders like the Rani (queen) of Jhansi, Tantia Topi of the Marathas, General Bakht Khan of Delhi, Maulana Ahmadullah and Maulvi Ahmadullah of Faizabad continued their struggle well into the summer of 1858. The last mentioned was perhaps the most determined of the resistance fighters. Paying tribute to Maulvi Ahmadullah, Holmes, in his “History of the Indian Mutiny” wrote, “The Maulvi . . . was a man fitted both by his spirit and his capacity to support a great cause and to command a great army . . . He was a true patriot . . . He had fought manfully, honorably and stubbornly in the field against the strangers who had seized his country and his memory is entitled to the respect of the brave and the true-hearted of all nations”. The Rani of Jhansi died on the battlefield and Tantia Topi was caught by the British and hung like the other leaders of the Uprising.

The aftermath of the Uprising was gruesome for India and a disaster for the Muslims in northern India. Seeking vengeance, the victorious British showed no mercy to the vanquished. The entire population of Delhi was banished from that ancient city. The magnificent Moghul palaces in the Red Fort were demolished and in its place barracks were erected for the British cavalry. The vast area between the Red Fort and Jamia Masjid, wherein stood many a nobleman’s home and an ancient mosque, was razed to the ground. Every house in the old city was broken into and looted. Thirty-three of the Moghul princes were butchered and the Moghul lineage came to an end. Week after week, the streets and bazaars of Old Delhi were witness to mass hangings. Historians disagree on the number of people killed in the uprising. In a recent book, In the War of Civilizations: India AD 1857, Amresh Misra estimates the number killed at over one million. Emperor Bahadur Shah himself was tried, like a common criminal and was finally banished to Rangoon in Burma, to die a forlorn man.

Uthman Dan Fuduye

Uthman Dan Fuduye

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Uthman Dan Fuduye, statesman, reformer, scholar and religious teacher, emerged out of the great reform waves rolling across the Muslim world in the latter part of the 18th century. Shehu (meaning Shaykh) Uthman was the son of Fuduye Muhammad whose forefathers were members of the Torobe clan of the Fulani people. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Fulani inhabited the vast grasslands between the Sahara and the dense tropical jungles of Africa. They tended their sheep and cattle and depended on the natural bounty of the land for their food. Among them were many scholars who provided the backbone of the religious tradition in the great and Songhay empires. Rainfall was sparse, about fifteen inches a year and the search for pastures produced periodic migrations. The Fulani migrated gradually from western Africa to their modern day stronghold in northern Nigeria. Linguistically the Fulani language has its basis in Bantu with a strong overlay of Arabic. Trade links across the Sahara tied the Sudan to the Maghrib, and there was considerable mixing between the Bantu, Berber, Arab and other Islamic peoples in West Africa. In a process similar to that in the Sahel of East Africa and the Malabar Coast of India, it produced a rich amalgam of culture, language, lineage and heritage.

The Fulani traced their lineage from Uqba bin Nafi, the renowned conqueror of North Africa (d. 683). Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye was therefore a descendent of Uqba bin Nafi from his father’s side. On his mother’s side, he was a Sayyid, a descendant of the Prophet. His mother, Sayyadatu Hawwa was in the lineage of al Hassan, son of Fatima binte Prophet Muhammed (p).

The western Sudan was closer to the intellectual centers of North Africa than the hinterland, and it was here that the reform waves that rolled across West Africa were born. In the 11th century this area produced the Murabitun movement, which spread throughout the western Sudan, North Africa and Spain. The movement of the Sinhaja and other tribes across the Sahara provided the medium for transmission of ideas. The Qadariya Sufi order, originating in Baghdad, soon spread to all parts of the Islamic world. Traders who plied the Sahara introduced it into West Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries. Soon, it planted itself on African soil and provided the most effective means for the spread of Islam. Since the Fulani were so widespread, they were among the first people in West Africa to come into contact with new ideas from the north. The Sufis established zawiyas, provided a structure for the propagation of faith, taught the Qur’an and Sunnah, trained teachers and dedicated workers, provided social services and acted as a defensive umbrella in times of war. Sufic Islam, which had spread in Persia, India and Indonesia in the 14th and 15th centuries, now found a home in Africa. The Fulani were among the first people to embrace this new vision of Islam. From West Africa, the Sufi tareeqas were carried by the Fulani into the interior and beyond the bend in the Niger River into what is today northern Nigeria. Scholarship and their knowledge of Islam made the Fulani welcome into various kingdoms then existing in West Africa. By 1775, Fulani mallams formed the backbone of the religious establishment in the entire West African belt. The strict interpretations of the Maliki School of fiqh sometimes brought them into conflict with the local emirs who ruled using a mixture of Islamic law and animist customs to suit the local conditions.

In the latter part of the 18th century, another Sufi order, the Tijaniya was founded in Morocco. From there it spread southward into areas inhabited by the Sinhaja who carried it to the Sene-Gambia regions. The Tijaniya were more assertive than the Qadariya in spreading the faith and their approach found many adherents among the youth who were impatient with the slow and deliberate approach of the Qadariya order. These two orders, the Qadariya and the Tijaniya, were the spiritual force behind the revival of Islam in the Sudan.

The political convulsions of the 16th and 17th centuries had a direct impact on the migrations of people and the evolution of culture and religion in West Africa. In 1592, Maulay Ahmed of the Sa’adid dynasty in Morocco sent his army south towards the Empire of Songhay. What had started as a border clash to control the salt mines at Taghaza and Taodeni mushroomed into a full-scale invasion. Armed with muskets and cannon, the invading forces wreaked havoc on the river cities of West Africa. The great trading centers of Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne were occupied and considerable damage was inflicted on the cities. The Songhay Emperor, Askia Ishaq, retreated eastward to his ancestral homeland. With the retreating armies went many of the scholars from Timbuktu, Gao and Jenne. These scholars provided added momentum to the spread of Islam in the southern reaches of the Niger River, which are located today in Niger and northern Nigeria.

The social dislocations caused by the war destroyed the power of the cities and increased the importance of the villages. Along with the migration of scholars from Songhay to Hausa and Fulani areas, there was a movement of marabouts, the wandering minstrels, who proved to be the active element in the transport of Islamic ideas to the hinterland. The marabouts, equally learned in Shariah and tareeqa, established local religious centers. Conversion to Islam picked up momentum. To the southeast, beyond the bend in the Niger River, Fulani merchants were equally successful in propagating the faith. Hitherto, Islam had been primarily the religion of the rulers and of the ruling aristocracy in West Africa. Now, it became a religion of the masses. The new entrants to the faith brought with them their traditions and culture much as the people of India and Indonesia had brought theirs into the Islamic fold 300 years earlier. The confluence of ancestral African religious customs and orthodox Islamic doctrines was the matrix from which emerged the reform movements of the 18th and 19thcenturies.

The disintegration of the Songhay Empire was a political bonanza for the Fulani and Hausa people who lived beyond the bend of the Niger River. The Hausa-Fulani were skillful merchants and accomplished artisans and they lived in areas where agriculture thrived. They were under constant military pressure from Songhay but had never united or organized themselves to resist the Songhays. With the threat of armed invasion receding, and Songhay under Moroccan military control, they were able to set an independent course for themselves. In 1629 one of the Fulani chiefs Ardo broke away from Moroccan dominated Songhay. Similar moves for independence by other Fulani tribes followed in the succeeding decades. In 1690 several Fulani states emerged in the Messina plains in northwest Nigeria and southern Niger. Around 1790, one of the marabouts, Shaykh Alfa Muhammed Diobo, founded the city of Say. This city which is located today at the border between Nigeria and Niger, became the nucleus for political movement and religious revival in the Hausa-Fulani areas.

Meanwhile, the political landscape of North Africa and the Mediterranean had also been transformed. The Ottoman armies, claiming to represent the full might of Islam, had moved out of Egypt and had occupied all of North Africa except Morocco. Muslim-Christian military rivalry was intense throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The Portuguese Christians had been stopped at the Battle of al Kasr al Kabir (1578), and Turkish land armies had frustrated the ambition of Catholic Spain and the Vatican in eastern Europe and North Africa. Although Turkish power in southeastern Europe was receding after the second siege of Vienna (1683), North Africa remained a part of the Ottoman Empire throughout the 18th century and strong cultural and religious interactions developed between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Turkish Empire as well as the independent Moroccan kingdom.

The powerful currents that produced the revolution of Uthman Dan Fuduye grew out of a confluence of animist culture and orthodox religion, in an environment of political uncertainty. By the year 1800, the social landscape of West Africa was being transformed. Islam was no longer the religion only of the ruling elite. It now had roots in the soil. Thousands entered the new faith through the work of the mallams. As demonstrated in the earlier experience of India and Indonesia, the acceptance of a new faith does not necessarily result in the repudiation of old cultures. The African newcomers brought with them their former culture and their old animist practices. Political conditions in Nigeria were far from settled. There was political instability due to the intense rivalry among the Emirates of Kano, Air, Zamfara, Kebbi and Katsina.

Uthman Dan Fuduye grew up in these turbulent times. In his childhood he received training in Qur’an, Hadith and the sciences of Fiqh. He mastered classical Arabic and he was fluent in the Hausa-Fulani languages. As a young man, Shaykh Uthman was influenced by the ideas of al Moghili, the well-known Islamic thinker from North Africa. Al Moghili, following some of the Hadith of the Prophet, believed that during each century a reformer would arise from among the believers to bring back the purity of faith to the masses. In the latter part of the 18th century, conditions were ripe for reform in West Africa. Many of the newly converted people used the Qur’an as a talisman around their neck to ward of evil rather than as a divine book of guidance. Divination by trees and stones remained commonplace. Al Moghili held that a jihad must be waged to stamp out such practices. Contrary to the Shariah, some of the local rulers imposed extortionist taxes on farmers and merchants alike. Al Moghili had stated that a ruler who is unjust must be overthrown. Some of the mallams, ill trained as they were in the classical disciplines of the Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh, could not provide correct interpretations of the Qur’an. Al Moghili maintained that a person, who claimed to be a teacher, must know Arabic in order that he may correctly understand the Qur’an, Sunnah and Fiqh.

Shehu Uthman also studied tasawwuf and became an ardent Sufi. Tasawwuf is the inner dimension of Islam and has been an integral part of the Islamic spectrum from its inception. Sufi practices aim towards cleansing the soul so that it becomes conscious of the Divine presence. The Prophet placed great importance on self-purification and taught that struggle against the self was greater than struggle against external enemies. Shehu Uthman read the works of Al Ghazzali (d.1111) and became a follower of Shaykh Abdul Qader Jeelani of Baghdad (d.1166), founder of the Qadariya order, who is accepted in Sufi circles as Shaykh ul Mashaiq (teacher of the teachers). Shaykh Uthman believed that Abdul Qader Jeelani had spoken to him in a vision, urging him to wage a struggle against the unbelief of the age.

By the year 1800, Shehu Uthman Dan Fuduye had gathered around himself a large number of scholars, students and followers. He established a zawiya (circle) of the Qadariya order in the city of Degel. This center served a religious function similar to the city of Qum in modern Persia. The ulema of Degel became increasingly vocal in their criticism of the corrupt emirs and deviant practices of the general population. But the power of new ideas seldom goes unchallenged by the establishment. The ruler of the local province, Yunfa, first attempted to assassinate Shehu Uthman and then banished him from Degel. In 1804, following the example of the Hijra of the Prophet, the Shehu migrated from Degel to Gudu, some thirty miles away. The ulema and many among the masses, joined the learned man in this march and declared him their imam, shaykh and emir ul momineen. Alarmed at the growing strength of the Shaykh, Yunfa sent an expedition against Gudu. Skirmishes followed. In the summer of 1804 Dan Fuduye’s forces won a decisive victory against Yunfa. The Shaykh promptly declared that this victory followed the Prophet’s victory at the Battle of Badr. His vision now embraced all of western Africa and he declared a jihad against the Hausa kingdoms. However, in the winter of the same year, Dan Fuduye’s followers suffered a defeat. Notwithstanding these reverses, Dan Fuduye captured Birnin Kebbi, capital of Kebbi in 1805. Fulani cattle herders, Hausa farmers, merchants and scholars all followed his lead to establish a just social and political order. During the next three years, Shehu Uthman’s forces successively captured Alkalwa, capital of Gobir, Katsina, Daura and Bauchi. In 1808 successful campaigns were waged in the state of Borno.

Dan Fuduye was a prolific writer and a consummate orator. The central theme in his writings is the Qur’anic injunction, “You are the most noble of ummah created for mankind, enjoining what is right forbidding what is wrong and believing only in God.” Some of his well known works includeFath ul Bassa (The Unlocking of Spiritual Vision), Tariq al Jannah (The Road Towards Paradise), Umdat ul Ulama (Support of the Scholars), Bayan Bida as Shaitaniya (Description of Religious Innovations of Shaitan), Umda ul Bayaan Fil Ulum Allati Wajib Alal Ayan (Supportive Exposition of Knowledge Obligatory on Every Person), Udmat ul Mutabideen Wal Muhtarifeen (Supportive Exposition of the Committed and Sincere Followers) and Umdat ul Bayan (Supportive Expose).

Shaykh Uthman viewed religion as composed of Islam, Iman and Ihsan. Islam, according to the Shaykh, was the implementation of the Shariah (Divine Law). Iman (faith) was the essence of religious life. And Ihsan was the realization of the spiritual potential of the human soul. The Shaykh considered it an obligation on the part of all believers to obtain knowledge of these three disciplines and to implement them in their lives.

Shehu Uthman divided the science of tasawwuf into two parts: (1) Takhallaq or reformation of the inner self, and (2) Tahaqquq or knowledge of certainty. Reformation of the inner self precedes knowledge of certainty. It includes practice of the Shariah, remembrance of the Divine names and renunciation of those attributes that corrupt the soul, such as hatred, jealousy, undue anger and acquisitiveness. The Shaykh taught that Shariah and tasawwuf were both integral to the completion and fulfillment of an Islamic life. He considered iman, Islam and ihsan to be pre-requisites to any aspiration to Tahaqquq or knowledge of certainty.

Shehu Uthman was a consummate scholar of jurisprudence. He took his rulings from Al Suyuti, the Maliki scholar of the Mamluke courts (circa 1500) whose influence radiated throughout North Africa and the Middle East in the succeeding centuries. Although the Shehu followed the Fiqh of Imam Malik bin Anas, he gave equal weight to the Fiqh of Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Shafi’i and Imam Hanbal.

Struggle for a just social and political order was his motto. He strove for the establishment of an Islamic state wherein the Shariah was followed, taxes were fair and men and women were treated with justice and equity. In his book, Kitab al Farq, Shehu Uthman outlines the differences between an Islamic government and an un-Islamic government. In the latter, the officials are corrupt, take bribes; the rulers are oppressive and impose extortionist taxes on a hapless population. By contrast, an Islamic government is just and fair wherein the dignity of man is honored and the honor of women is preserved. Uthman Dan Fuduye made Sokoto in northern Nigeria his capital and established the Caliphate of Sokoto. This Caliphate included most of what is today the Hausa-Fulani belt in Nigeria and extended into the neighboring state of Cameroon. Its area was approximately three times the area of the state of New York. Shehu Uthman was an able administrator. He divided up the territories into four regions. His brother Abdullahi ruled the western region. His son and successor, Muhammed Bello, ruled the eastern region. His army commander, Ali Jedo, ran the northern region. The south was administered by one of his early followers. Shehu Uthman himself governed from Sokoto as the religious leader and Shaykh.

The influence of Shaykh Uthman Dan Fuduye was not confined to immediate areas under his control. His ideas radiated out and had a profound impact on the religious struggles in all of West Africa. One of his disciples, Shaykh Ahmed Lobo waged a jihad and established a kingdom in Macina (1827) on the upper reaches of the Niger River. Alhajj Omar, inspired by the example of Shehu Uthman, waged a jihad in the Sene-Gambia region (1854-1864) that contained the advance of the French from the coast. Almami Samori established an Emirate in the Ivory Coast. To the east, the Caliphate of Kanem-Bornu was fashioned after the Caliphate in Sokoto. In northern Cameroon, the local Fulani people established the Emirate of Adamawa. The goal in all these struggles was to establish rule by Shariah, to ensure fair taxation and justice for all and to improve the moral and material well being of the population. These revolutions increased trade, facilitated improved agricultural production and provided a great stimulus for scholarship and learning.

Great ideas as often compromised when they are implemented. The Shehu himself was less interested in politics and administration and was more focused on teaching and writing. Politics and administration were delegated to his son Muhammed Bello and his brother Abdullahi. Muhammed Bello and Abdullahi were scholars in their own right and were superb administrators. Bello took the title of Emirul Momineen and established a Caliphate in Sokoto, which lasted until the British conquests in 1903. Shehu Uthman and Muhammed Bello were only partially successful in realizing their vision of establishing a just rule “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.” The reason was the jealousies and rivalries among his followers who felt that they deserved to be rewarded for their efforts by high government appointments. The spiritual father of Uthman Dan Fuduye’s movement, Al Moghili, was against the idea of scholars seeking official posts. Apparently the faith of Uthman Dan Fuduye’ was not shared by his immediate followers who were more interested in their personal well being than in following the teachings of the great Al Moghili. Uprisings broke out in several parts of the far-flung Caliphate. Muhammed Bello had to wage successive campaigns to suppress these uprisings. Often, he had to compromise and reward some of the disgruntled chieftains by appointing them as chiefs and emirs. The Caliphate of Sokoto did not have a large, standing army to force its political will on the empire. Disputes had therefore to be settled by compromise. This lack of a standing fighting force took its toll when the British finally arrived on the scene with their cannons in the early part of the 20th century.

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab of Najd

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab of Najd

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was one of those rare scholars whose ideas have continued to influence the Muslims for more than 200 years. Representing the puritanical stream in Islam, in the tradition of Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal (d. 855) and Shaykh Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328), his followers continue to infuse a certain tension among Muslims, pulling them in the direction of a spartan faith, shorn of embellishments. Like the ideas of al Ashari (d. 935) in the 10th century, Wahhabi ideas have been amalgamated into modern Islamic thinking so much so that most living Muslims have consciously or unconsciously absorbed them as part of their heritage. Even those who do not agree with the positions taken by the Shaykh are forced into a continuing dialogue with his ideas. Modern Islam would not be the same without this scholar.

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was a contemporary of Shah Waliullah (d. 1763) of Delhi and Shehu Uthman dan Fuduye (d. 1817) of West Africa. He was born in the year1703 into the Banu Sinan tribe of Najd in Uiynah, located approximately 50 miles from Riyadh, capital of modern Saudi Arabia. He received his early education from his father Shaykh Abdul Wahhab bin Sulaiman, which included memorization of the Qur’an and a study of Sunnah and Fiqh. As a teenager, he performed the Hajj and stayed on in Mecca and Madina to study under reputed scholars of the age, Shaykh Abdulla bin Ibrahim of Najd and Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab Hayat of India. He studied the works of classical scholars and was influenced in particular by the writings of Ibn Taimiyah. After completing his studies, he traveled through Persia and Iraq, visiting Basra and Kufa. Returning home he started teaching his austere vision of Islam. The hinterland of Arabia, inhabited mostly by Bedouins, had very little contact with the outside world. The Bedouins who roamed the vast desert practiced a folk Islam embellished with the talisman, tomb visitation and astrology. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab found the atmosphere hostile to his teachings and had to flee his hometown.

Wandering from town to town in Najd, Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab found refuge in Uyainah whose Emir, Uthman bin Hamd, was receptive to his ideas. The Shaykh made many followers in Uyainah, but his growing popularity attracted the suspicion of neighboring emirs. Pressure was brought upon Emir Uthman to assassinate the Shaykh whose spartan vision of Islam was rapidly gaining converts in all areas of Najd. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab escaped with his life and found refuge in Dariyah where his teachings found a responsive chord in Emir Muhammed bin Saud. There developed a remarkable friendship between Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab and Emir Muhammed bin Saud that was to have a profound impact on history. The Emir became a student and patron of the shaykh and the friendship was cemented with the marriage of a daughter of the Emir to the young shaykh.

The shaykh considered all practices which were not in strict conformance with a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah to be bida’a (innovation), and he considered it his duty to eradicate such practices with force, if necessary. The religious charisma of the learned shaykh and the military-political acumen of the Emir were a powerful combination. A jihad was declared against the neighboring emirs who would not subscribe to the strict interpretations of religion offered by the Shaykh. Thus started the Wahhabi movement, which in time was to propel itself to Mecca and Madina, and spread from there over the Islamic world. In the process it thrust Saudi Arabia into modern history.

Consolidation of Wahhabi influence in the Najd continued throughout the 18th century. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab wrote to renowned scholars of the day outlining his vision of Islam cleansed of the accretions that had crept in over the centuries. It was after the Shaykh passed away in 1787, however, that major opportunities for expansion beyond the borders of Najd presented themselves. In 1799, Napoleon landed his troops in Ottoman Egypt, quickly overran the Nile Delta and advanced into Syria. The British defeated the French armies but the incursion of a European power into the heartland of the Ottoman Empire required a partial withdrawal of garrisons in the outlying provinces for the defense of Anatolia proper. Specifically, Ottoman garrisons in Jeddah and Mecca in Arabia as well as in Kufa and Basra in Iraq were depleted. Sensing a military opportunity, Emir Abdul Aziz of Najd who had succeeded his father Emir Muhammed ibn Saud captured Karbala in Iraq in 1802. He followed up this victory with the capture of Mecca in 1803,bringing a major portion of Arabia, extending from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, under Saudi control.

It was not long before the Ottomans responded. Not only was a loss of territory unacceptable to the Porte in Istanbul but also the puritanical Wahhabi vision ran counter to the Sufic Islam, which had taken root in the Empire. An expedition to Arabia was organized as soon as the threat from Napoleonic France receded. Muhammed Ali Pasha (d. 1849), an able Albanian soldier who had risen through the ranks in the Ottoman armies during the Napoleonic wars, now governed Egypt. During 1812-1813, Muhammed Ali recaptured Mecca from the Saudis. Resistance to further Ottoman advances to the interior, however, was fierce. It was not until 1818 that an Egyptian-Turkish force under Ibrahim Pasha, son of Khedive Muhammed Ali Pasha, succeeded in laying siege to Dariyah, the Saudi capital. The town was bombarded with cannon transported across the desert. Dariyah fell after a bitter fight.

The principal towns in Arabia were back in Ottoman hands, but the power of ideas cannot be stopped on the battlefield. The Wahhabi movement withdrew into the interior of Hejaz. The Saudis soon regrouped and founded a new capital in Riyadh. With increasing military pressure from the European powers, the Ottomans were content to maintain the status quo, with the towns under their military control while the Saudis controlled the hinterland. However, not everyone in the House of Saud subscribed to Wahhabi ideas. In 1891, Riyadh itself was wrested by a faction, which was opposed to the teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab. The uprising was brief, and in 1901, Emir Abdul Aziz al Saud recaptured Riyadh and established the modern Saudi dynasty.

Global changes soon appeared on the horizon. The First World War saw Britain, France and the United States arrayed against Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. The Arabs under Sharif Hussain of Mecca rebelled against Ottoman authority. By 1918 both Hejaz and Iraq were in British hands. After the War, internal warfare continued between the Arab factions headed by Sharif Hussain of Mecca and Emir Abdul Aziz of Najd for the control of Hejaz. In 1923, with British support, Emir Abdul Aziz succeeded in driving out the Sharif and consolidated the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Control of Mecca and Madina gave the Wahhabi movement a global platform. No longer was it a movement confined to the desert of Arabia. The Hajj provided a mechanism for the spread of Wahhabi ideas to the far corners of the Islamic world much as it had enabled the Maliki School of jurisprudence to spread across North Africa, Spain and the Sudan a thousand years earlier. The Muslims, reeling under European colonialism and the dissolution of the Caliphate (1923), were only too eager to look to their pristine past for salvation and the puritanical Wahhabi ideas seem to provide the answers. The Wahhabi movement took root in India, Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East, often at the expense of the folk Islam that had grown out of Sufi movements.

The restless Bedouins, impelled by puritanical faith, were not content with the establishment of the Saudi Kingdom. They felt it was their duty to continue a jihad on neighboring territories to spread their ideas. But the world had changed since the halcyon days when Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab had taught in Dariyah. The British were now firmly in control of Iraq and would not tolerate raids into their territories. Emir Abdul Aziz tried to settle the restless Bedouins on agricultural land, but when that failed, he felt compelled to engage them in an armed struggle. In 1929, in a pitched battle at Sibilla, the Bedouins were defeated and the Wahhabi movement came under political control.

Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was a prolific writer. Although he is best known for his views on Tawhid as expounded in his book Kitab at Tawhid, he also wrote on the seerat, hadith, Iman, salat and Islam. Some of his other works include Mukhtasar Seerat ar Rasool, Majmu al Ahadith, Usool al Iman and Fadayal al Islam.

To understand the power of Wahhabi ideas, and their appeal, it is helpful to understand their historical roots. The essence of Islam is the doctrine ofTawhid, which found its fullest expression in the person of the Prophet. Since the death of the Prophet, Tawhid is the central pole around which Islamic history revolves. Every generation of Muslims has struggled to understand its full importance and to give it a concrete expression in their own lives. History, however, is a process. In the process of implementing a transcendental idea like Tawhid in a multitude of cultures and historical epochs, compromises emerge. To counter these compromises, reform movements arise which are themselves a product of their geography and their times.

Two of the historical figures from whom Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab drew his inspiration were Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal of Baghdad and Ibn Taimiyah of Damascus. Imam ibn Hanbal (d. 855), after whom the Hanbali School ofFiqh is named, lived in Baghdad at a time when Mu’tazilite doctrines were the official dogma of the Abbasids. After gaining power in the court of Caliph al Mamun, the Mu’tazilites established a mehna (inquisition) to punish anyone who disagreed with them (833). They were philosophers, who over-extended their rational techniques to matters of faith, and came up with the position that the Qur’an was “created” in time. Many of the ulema of the age buckled under the physical pressure brought by the Mu’tazilites. Not so Imam ibn Hanbal. He led the resistance to the Mu’tazilites, steadfastly maintaining that the Qur’an, as the Word of God, was uncreated, transcendent and beyond time and space. For this position, he was jailed for thirty years and flogged repeatedly. But his determination carried the day. The Mu’tazilites were repudiated in the reign of Caliph al Mutawakkil (847). Although Imam ibn Hanbal had studied under Imam Shafi’i, the Hanbali Fiqh takes a much stricter position with regards to acceptable sources of jurisprudence. It insists on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith, subjects Hadith to the strictest scrutiny and accepts qiyas and ijtihad as sources of jurisprudence only as a last resort when primal sources are silent.

The Hanbali School sought to preserve the pristine nature of Islam, as it was understood in the harsh environment of the Arabian Desert. It was from this School that 400 years later there arose the well-known reformer Ibn Taimiyah (d. 1328). He lived in an age when the Muslim world was rocked by political, military, social and literary upheavals. The Mongols had ravaged much of the Islamic world (1219-1261). The Crusades (1096-1261) had left their devastation in Palestine, Syria, Egypt and North Africa. The Christians overran Spain (1212-1248). Orthodox Islam had won its internal contest with the Fatimids with the dialectic of Al Ghazzali (d. 1111), but this victory was tenuous. Al Ghazzali’s positions continued to be challenged by the philosophers who waged a valiant struggle through the great Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), and by the Al Muhaddith in the Maghrib who sought to introduce a variant of Mu’tazilite ideas into their dominions. Battered by foreign invasions, Muslims had turned inwards. Sufic Islam had taken hold and Muslims turned to the spiritual dimension of their faith for survival. Sufi Schools established by Shaykh Abdel Qader Jeelani (d. 1161) of Baghdad, Shaykh Shadhuli (d. 1258) of Cairo, Shaykh Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273) of Turkey were the focus of religious instruction. The ideas of Shaykh ibn al Arabi (d. 1240) of Damascus fired the imagination of people.

Ibn Taymiyah ascribed the military misfortunes of the Muslims to what he considered was their departure from the pristine Islam of the Prophet and his Companions. He interpreted the Qur’an literally and took issue with anyone who interpreted it symbolically. Specifically, he considered the mystical teachings of Shaykh al Arabi to be bida’a. He questioned the kalam of al Ghazzali, specifically his position regarding the supremacy of tasawwuf over other forms of knowledge. He considered the zawiyas and qanqahs, which were mushrooming all over the Islamic world. to be a deviation from true religion. He also took issue with the philosophers and their rational approach to matters of faith. His strong views on religion won the admiration of many and the jealousy and enmity of some. Through his students, he influenced the course of events as far away as Delhi. The court martial of the Chishti Sufis at the court of Gayasuddin Tughlaq in 1325 was covered in the chapter on the Sufis of India and Pakistan. At the trial, a disciple of Ibn Taimiyah testified against the Sufi position on sama’a. The edict from the Emperor was in favor of the Chishtiya Sufis. Ibn Taimiyah’s teachings exerted a strong influence on Muslim thinkers of subsequent centuries, and he may be considered a spiritual forefather of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab.

The teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab, and those of Ibn Taimiyah and Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal, have their foundation in a specific interpretation of Tawhid. The term Tawhid is comprehensive and has been understood by Muslims in a variety of ways. In its most elementary formulation it is understood to mean the Oneness of God. The Wahhabi position is that the Oneness of God is beyond analogy, similarity or quality manifest in the created world. Carried to the extreme, this position makes the world devoid of spirituality, a position similar to that taken by secular scientists. The Wahhabis consider any practice or position that seemingly compromises the transcendence of God to be bida’a. Such a position would make religion an uncompromising series of imperatives, a strict set of do’s and don’ts. Historically, the position of Ibn Taimiyah and ibn Abdul Wahhab represents one end of the spectrum in Islamic thought.

The other end of the spectrum is occupied by the Sufis who seek the spiritual dimension of Islam. They consider creation to be a means to draw the human soul closer to God. Through constant remembrance of the Divine Name, prayer, charity, service and a conscious exercise to purge the self of all that hinders the soul from proximity to the Divine, they seek a reflection of Divine Reality in the pristine soul. In the Sufi position, observance of the Shariah is the first essential step on the road to Irfan (True Knowledge). They require additional work, through dhikr, cleansing of the soul and service to humanity, before a person attains certainty of knowledge.

Ibn al Arabi, considered by many to be a Master of tasawwuf, articulated the position of the Sufis in his treatise Risalat al Ahadiya. In common terminology it came to be known as Wahdat al Wajud (Unity of Being). Summarily, this position holds that through observation of the Shariah, constant remembrance of God, self-cleansing, strenuous spiritual exercises and selfless service, the individual soul is lost (fana) and becomes a vehicle for the Will of God. Ibn al Arabi spoke of “Union with God”. One can easily see how this position can be misunderstood. And misunderstood it was through the centuries. Many a Sufi went to the gallows at the hands of the less informed and the less initiated. The best-known example is Shaykh Hallaj ibn Mansoor who was tortured and hanged in Baghdad in 922 for saying “An al Haq” (I am the Truth). To guard against error, and to clarify the Sufi position on Tawhid, Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (d. 1625), the great mujaddid from India, presented the idea of Wahdat ash Shahada (Unity of Witness). In this position, the human soul does not seek “union” with God but only becomes a witness to Divine Unity.

Between these two poles, representing the positions taken by the Wahhabis and the Sufis, lies the vast spectrum of Islamic thought. Whether or not they are aware of it, most Muslims alive today have absorbed elements of Wahhabi and Sufi thinking, along with the assumptions made by al Ashari and the positions elucidated by Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi. The debate between the Wahhabi and Sufi schools of thought continues, however, often with great intensity and occasional animosity. Both sides quote from the Qur’an and the Hadith of the Prophet to support their positions.

The contribution of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab was that he reasserted the pristine and uncompromising Islam, characteristic of the desert dweller. He provided a counterbalance to the excesses of esoteric doctrines and reasserted the central importance of Tawhid. History and geography were on the side of the Shaykh. Several factors helped the Wahhabi movement in its initial growth. The location of the Najd in the harsh and empty womb of the Arabian Desert protected it from changes sweeping across the world. The good fortune of the Shaykh in forming an alliance with the Saud family and the political consolidation of Saudi Arabia in the 20th century to include the cities of Mecca and Madina were also important factors. Muslims have always looked to Mecca and Madina as a source for the purity of faith. The Wahhabi movement, centered in these two pre-eminent cities, enjoyed an acceptance among Muslims that would have been impossible if it was based elsewhere.

The failure of the Wahhabi movement, however, was its extreme rigidity and its compulsive character. Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab waged a jihadagainst fellow Muslims in Najd who did not agree with his views. His example, and the logic of compulsion, made the Arab Bedouins carry the Wahhabi jihad into British Iraq after the First World War, and it had to be put down by Emir Abdul Aziz. The Shaykh overlooked the important contributions made by the Sufis in India, Pakistan, southeastern Europe, Central Asia, Indonesia and Africa. It was the Sufis who won the contest for the soul of Asia from the Mongols and the Crusaders. They were also the decisive element in some of the most important battles of the world, such as the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578).

As the 20th century wore on, the Wahhabi movement itself had to be compromised, and its strictures modified, to suit the inexorable onslaught of an increasingly global civilization. Some teachings of Shaykh ibn Abdul Wahhab proved to be unworkable as technology pulled the desert of Arabia into its universal fold. For instance, in his book Kitab at Tawhid, the Shaykh condemned the making of pictures. With the advent of television, however, pictures became an indispensable tool for communication, and the Shaykh’s position was abandoned in Arabia as well as in other parts of the Islamic world. Similarly, the Shaykh considered it bida’a to build tombs. As a result of this stricture, all the graves in Jannat ul Baqi in Madina, where lay buried many of the Companions of the Prophet, were leveled. The tomb of the Prophet was spared only after intense lobbying by Muslims around the world. For these and other similar acts, the Wahhabi movement has opened itself to the charge that it has deliberately destroyed Islamic history and has obliterated traditional culture. Must religion necessarily destroy history and culture to express itself in human affairs? Conversely, is not religion itself compromised when it is stripped of history and culture? More importantly, isn’t a religion stripped of its spiritual content, a husk without a kernel? The Wahhabi movement offers no guidance in these matters.

The stark simplicity of the Shaykh’s message, and its lasting impact on Muslims, guarantees him a place in Islamic history. Thanks to the legacy of the Shaykh, the term “Wahhabi” became a part of languages spoken by Muslims and it came to personify excessive doctrinal rigidity and puritanical leanings. The excesses of the Wahhabi movement are conspicuous precisely because of its global reach. They would not be noticeable if it was only a local or regional movement. Some of the rigid positions espoused by this movement are evident in the teachings of the Shaykh. Some were evolved by his followers, as often happens when ideas find their expression in the matrix of human affairs.

The vision of the Shaykh, like the vision of his contemporaries Shah Waliullah and Shehu Uthman dan Fuduye, was turned inwards, towards a reform of Muslim practices. In the context of their times, perhaps it could not be otherwise. None of them, however, offered comprehensive guidance on how Muslims can relate to an overbearing and expansive European (and now global) civilization. This work was left to thinkers of the 20th century.