Throughout Islamic history, one of the uniting aspects of the Muslim world was the caliphate. After the death of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, his close companion, Abu Bakr, was elected as the first khalifah, or caliph, of the Muslim community. His job as leader combined political power over the Muslim state as well as spiritual guidance for Muslims. It became a hereditary position, occupied at first by the Umayyad family, and later by the Abbasids. In 1517, the caliphate was transferred to the Ottoman family, who ruled the largest and most powerful empire in the world in the 1500s.
For centuries, the Ottoman sultans did not place much emphasis on their role as caliphs. It was an official title that was called in to use when needed, but was mostly neglected. During the decline of the empire in the 1800s, however, a sultan came to power that would decide to revive the importance and power of the caliphate. Abdülhamid II was determined to reverse the retreat of the Ottoman state, and decided that the best way to do it was through the revival of Islam throughout the Muslim world and pan-Islamic unity, centered on the idea of a strong caliphate. While Abdülhamid’s 33-year reign did not stop the inevitable fall of the empire, he managed to give the Ottomans a final period of relative strength in the face of European encroachment and colonialism, with Islam being the central focus of his empire.
Throughout the 1800s, the Ottoman government had been trying desperately to slow the decline of the empire. Beginning with Mahmud II and throughout the reigns of Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz, attempts at reforming the empire were at the forefront of the government agenda. These Tanzimat (reorganization) reforms attempted to rebuild the Ottoman state along liberal, European lines. Islam (and religion in general) was given a back seat in public life, as secular ideas began to influence laws and government practices.
These reforms proved to do nothing to reverse the decline of the empire. If anything, the increased emphasis on non-Islamic identities of Ottoman subjects just further promoted the nationalistic aims of the Ottoman Empire’s numerous subjects, which created further disunity in the empire. During the Tanzimat Era, the Ottoman provinces of Serbia, Greece, Wallachia, Modova, Abkhazia, Bulgaria, and Algeria were all lost to European encroachment or nationalism.
Abdülhamid decided to take a radically different approach. Because of the loss of European territory that had occurred just before and in the first few years of his reign, the empire was now overwhelmingly Muslim. Throughout Ottoman history, Christians had been a major part of the population, at some times being about 80% of the population. Throughout the 1800s, however, the Ottoman Empire was losing Christian-majority lands in Europe, and was getting a net influx of Muslim immigrants coming into the empire. With about 3/4th of his empire Muslim, Abdülhamid decided to emphasize Islam as the dominant uniting factor among his subjects.
The rest of Europe was experiencing powerful nationalistic movements in the 1800s. Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism were examples of uniting factors for people who spoke the same languages and had similar cultures. The Ottoman empire had always been multi-cultural. Turks, Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians, Kurds, Armenians, and many others made up the empire. Abdülhamid attempted to make Pan-Islamism a uniting factor for Muslims, both inside and outside of the empire’s borders.
To show his role as supreme leader of Muslims worldwide, Abdülhamid placed much emphasis on the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah. In the 1800s, a building program commenced in the holy cities, with hospitals, barracks, and infrastructure being built in the Hejaz to aid in the yearly gathering of Muslims in Makkah – the Hajj. The Ka’aba itself and the Masjid al-Haram that surrounded it were also renovated with a modern water system that helped reduce the severity of floods.
In 1900, Abdülhamid commenced the beginning of the Hejaz Railway. It began in Istanbul and traveled through Syria, Palestine, and the Arabian desert, ending in Madinah. The goal of the railway was to better connect the holy sites with the political authority of Istanbul, as well as make the pilgrimage easier. To show his emphasis on the protection of Makkah and Madinah, Abdülhamid decided that the gauge (width of the rails) of the Hejaz Railway should be slightly smaller than standard European ones. His reasoning for this was that if Istanbul were to ever fall to European imperialists, he wanted to make sure they could not use the Hejaz Railway with European trains to easily invade Makkah and Madinah.
Throughout Ottoman history, there have been examples of the sultans helping Muslim communities outside their borders whenever the opportunity arose and the Ottoman state was capable. For example, in the 1500s, the Ottoman navy was a key force in the Indian Ocean, aiding local Muslims fighting Portuguese colonialism as far away as India and Indonesia. Abdülhamid considered it his duty to do the same in the 1800s, especially since large populations of Muslims in Africa and Asia were under European imperial control.
Delegations were sent to African Muslim kingdoms such as Zanzibar, giving gifts from Abdülhamid and asking them to acknowledge the caliph as their protector against European imperialism. Similar delegations were sent to Muslims living within Russian and Chinese borders.
In 1901, Abdülhamid sent one of his advisors, Enver Pasha, along with numerous Islamic scholars, to China. When they arrived in Shanghai, they were warmly greeted by the Chinese authorities, and especially so by the local Chinese Muslims, who had lived in China for centuries. Abdülhamid later helped establish a Muslim university in Beijing, called the Peking (Beijing) Hamidiye University. Even as far away as China, Abdülhamid wanted to create a sense of belonging and unity among Muslims, centered on the caliphate.
Abdülhamid’s efforts resulted in the caliph of the Muslim world being acknowledged in Friday prayers from small towns throughout Africa to the major Muslim communities of India and China.
The Issue of Palestine
In the late 1800s, a potent nationalist movement was forming among European Jews: Zionism. Zionist ideology called for a Jewish state to be established in their ancient homeland, Palestine. Although European Jews were dispersed throughout Europe, the unique financial and political power of numerous Jewish families was able to make Zionism a major force in the late 1800s.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, personally requested from Abdülhamid II special permission to settle in Palestine, in exchange for 150 million pounds of gold, which could have helped the Ottomans repay their enormous debts. Herzl’s aims were not to settle there and live under Ottoman authority, he clearly wanted to establish a Jewish state carved out of Muslim lands (as of course happened in 1948). Abdülhamid realized that his role as caliph required him to protect the sanctity and sovereignty of Muslim land, so he responded to Herzl with the following:
Even if you gave me as much gold as the entire world, let alone the 150 million English pounds in gold, I would not accept this at all. I have served the Islamic milla [nation] and the Ummah of Muhammad for more than thirty years, and never did I blacken the pages of the Muslims- my fathers and ancestors, the Ottoman sultans and caliphs. And so I will never accept what you ask of me.
He further prevented the purchase of tracts of land within Palestine by Zionist organizations, ensuring that their attempts at establishing a foothold there were futile. Ultimately, the Zionists were allowed to purchase land and settle in Palestine after the reign of Abdülhamid II, when the Young Turk movement was in charge of the Ottoman Empire.
Abdülhamid II was the last of the Ottoman sultans who had any real power. He was overthrown in 1909 by a group known as the Young Turks. They were Western-educated liberal secularists who vehemently disagreed with the Islamic direction that Abdülhamid took the empire in from 1876 to 1909. After his overthrow, his brother Mehmed Reshad was chosen as sultan by the Young Turks, but he effectively had no power, and the empire was run by an oligarchy of three ministers in the Young Turk government.
Three more people held the office of caliph after Abdülhamid II: Mehmed V, Mehmed VI, and Abdülmecid II, none of which had any power. In 1924, the caliphate was abolished by the new Turkish parliament and Abdülmecid and the rest of the Ottoman family were forced into exile. As such, Abdülhamid II was the last of the caliphs to have had any power over the Muslim world. The tradition of a strong, in charge caliph that commenced with Abu Bakr in 632 was upheld by Abdülhamid in the late 1800s before finally being overthrown by liberal elements within the empire.
Abdülhamid II died in Istanbul in 1918, and was buried in a mausoleum along with Sultans Mahmud II and Abdülaziz near Sultanahmet Square.
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