Ottoman Caliphate

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The Ottoman Caliphate, under the Ottoman dynasty of the Ottoman Empire, was the last Sunni Islamic caliphate of the late medieval and the early modern era. During the period of Ottoman growth, Ottoman rulers claimed caliphal authority since Murad I's conquest of Edirne in 1362.[1] Later Selim I, through conquering and unification of Muslim lands, became the defender of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina which further strengthened the Ottoman claim to caliphate in the Muslim world.

The demise of the Ottoman Caliphate took place because of a slow erosion of power in relation to Western Europe, and because of the end of the Ottoman state in consequence of the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by the League of Nations mandate. Abdülmecid II, the last Ottoman caliph, held his caliphal position for a couple of years after the partitioning, but with Mustafa Kemal's secular reforms and the subsequent exile of the royal Osmanoğlu family from the Republic of Turkey in 1924, the caliphal position was abolished.



Local stamps issued for the Liannos City Post of Constantinople in 1865.

Since the 14th century, the caliphate was claimed by the Turkish sultans of the Ottoman Empire starting with Murad I,[1] and they gradually came to be viewed as the de facto leaders and representative of the Islamic world. From Edirne and later from Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), the Ottoman caliphs ruled over an empire that, at its peak, covered Anatolia, most of the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, and extended deep into Eastern Europe.

Strengthened by the Peace of Westphalia and the Industrial Revolution, European powers regrouped and challenged Ottoman dominance. Owing largely to poor leadership, archaic political norms, and an inability to keep pace with technological progress in Europe, the Ottoman Empire could not respond effectively to Europe's resurgence and gradually lost its position as a pre-eminent great power.

By the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire's problems had evolved into crises. The Empire underwent a period of secularisation to catch up with European advances, including the adoption of Western penal codes[2] and the replacement of traditional laws with European laws. Territorial losses in conflicts such as the Russo-Turkish Wars substantially reduced Ottoman strength and influence, and years of financial mismanagement came to a head when the Empire defaulted on its loans in 1875.

The British supported and propagated the view that the Ottomans were Caliphs of Islam among Muslims in British India and the Ottoman Sultans helped the British by issuing pronouncements to the Muslims of India telling them to support British rule from Sultan Selim III and Sultan Abdülmecid I.[3]

Abdul-Hamid II, 1876–1909[edit]

Sultan Abdul-Hamid II, who ruled 1876–1909, felt that the Empire's desperate situation could only be remedied through strong and determined leadership. He distrusted his ministers and other officials that had served his predecessors and gradually reduced their role in his regime, concentrating absolute power over the Empire's governance in his own hands. Taking a hard-line against Western involvement in Ottoman affairs, he emphasized the Empire's "Islamic" character, reasserted his status as the Caliph, and called for Muslim unity behind the Caliphate. Abdul-Hamid strengthened the Empire's position somewhat, and succeeded briefly in reasserting Islamic power, by building numerous schools, reducing the national debt, and embarking on projects aimed at revitalizing the Empire's decaying infrastructure.

Sultan Abdul Hamid II, after being approached by American minister to Turkey, Oscar Straus (politician), sent a letter to the Moros of the Sulu Sultanate telling them not to resist American takeover and cooperate with the Americans at the start of the Moro Rebellion. The Sulu Moros complied with the order.

John Hay, the American Secretary of State, asked the Jewish American ambassador to Ottoman Turkey, Oscar Straus (politician) in 1889 to approach Sultan Abdul Hamid II to request that the Sultan write a letter to the Moro Sulu Muslims of the Sulu Sultanate in the Philippines telling them to submit to American suzerainty and American military rule, the Sultan obliged them and wrote the letter which was sent to Sulu via Mecca where 2 Sulu chiefs brought it home to Sulu and it was successful, since the Sulu Mohammedans . . . refused to join the insurrectionists and had placed themselves under the control of our army, thereby recognizing American sovereignty.[4][4] The Ottoman Sultan used his position as caliph to order the Sulu Sultan not to resist and not fight the Americans when they came subjected to American control.[5] President McKinley did not mention Turkey's role in the pacification of the Sulu Moros in his address to the first session of the Fifty-sixth Congress in December 1899 since the agreement with the Sultan of Sulu was not submitted to the Senate until December 18.[6] Despite Sultan Abdulhamid's "pan-Islamic" ideology, he readily acceded to Oscar S. Straus' request for help in telling the Sulu Muslims to not resist America since he felt no need to cause hostilities between the West and Muslims.[7] Collaboration between the American military and Sulu sultanate was due to the Sulu Sultan being persuaded by the Ottoman Sultan.[8] John P. Finley wrote that: After due consideration of these facts, the Sultan, as Caliph caused a message to be sent to the Mohammedans of the Philippine Islands forbidding them to enter into any hostilities against the Americans, inasmuch as no interference with their religion would be allowed under American rule. As the Moros have never asked more than that, it is not surprising, that they refused all overtures made, by Aguinaldo's agents, at the time of the Filipino insurrection. President McKinley sent a personal letter of thanks to Mr. Straus for the excellent work he had done, and said, its accomplishment had saved the United States at least twenty thousand troops in the field. If the reader will pause to consider what this means in men and also the millions in money, he will appreciate this wonderful piece of diplomacy, in averting a holy war.[9][10] Abdulhamid in his position as Caliph was approached by the Americans to help them deal with Muslims during their war in the Philippines[11] and the Muslim people of the area obeyed the order to help the Americans which was sent by Abdulhamid.[12]

The Moro Rebellion then broke out in 1904 with war raging between the Americans and Moro Muslims and atrocities committed against Moro Muslim women and children such as the Moro Crater Massacre.

The coup by the three Pashas in 1909 marked the end of his reign. Western-inclined Turkish military officers opposed to Abdul-Hamid's rule had steadily organized in the form of secret societies within and outside Turkey. By 1906, the movement enjoyed the support of a significant portion of the army, and its leaders formed the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), informally known as the Young Turk Party. The Young Turks sought to remodel administration of the Empire along Western lines. Their ideology was nationalist in character, and was a precursor of the movement that would seize control of Turkey following World War I. CUP leaders presented their ideas to the public as a revival of true Islamic principles. Under the leadership of Enver Pasha, a Turkish military officer, the CUP launched a military coup against the Sultan in 1908, proclaiming a new regime on 6 July. Though they left Abdul-Hamid on his throne, the Young Turks compelled him to restore the parliament and constitution he had suspended thirty years earlier, thereby creating a constitutional monarchy and stripping the Caliphate of its authority.

Counter-coup and 31 March Incident[edit]

A counter-coup launched by soldiers loyal to the Sultan threatened the new government but ultimately failed. After nine months into the new parliamentary term, discontent and reaction found expression in a fundamentalist movement, the counter-revolutionary 31 March Incident, which actually occurred on 13 April 1909. Many aspects of this revolt, which started within certain sections of the mutinying army in Constantinople, are still yet to be analyzed. Its generally admitted perception of a "reactionary" movement has sometimes been challenged, given the results and effects on the young political system.

Abdul-Hamid was deposed on 13 April 1909. He was replaced by his brother Rashid Effendi, who was proclaimed Sultan Mehmed V on 27 April.

Mehmed V, 1909–18[edit]

With Libya[edit]

In 1911 Italy warred with the Ottomans over Libya, and Turkey's failure to defend these regions demonstrated the weakness of the Ottoman military. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece formed the Balkan League, an anti-Turkish alliance that subsequently launched a joint attack on the Ottoman Empire. The ensuing Balkan Wars eliminated what little presence the Ottomans had left in Europe, and only infighting between the Balkan League allies prevented them from advancing into Anatolia.

Internally, the Ottomans continued to be troubled by political instability. Nationalist uprisings that had plagued the Empire sporadically for the past fifty years intensified. The masses were growing frustrated with chronic misgovernance and Turkey's poor showing in military conflicts. In response, the CUP led a second coup d'état in 1913 and seized absolute control of the government. For the next five years, the Empire was a one-party state ruled by the CUP under the leadership of Enver Pasha (who returned to Constantinople after having served Turkey abroad in various military and diplomatic capacities since the initial coup), Minister of the Interior Talat Pasha, and Minister of the Navy Cemal Pasha. Though the Sultan was retained, he made no effort to exercise power independent of the Young Turks and was effectively their puppet. The Caliphate was thus held nominally by Mehmed V, but the authority attached to the office rested with the Young Turks.

World War I[edit]

As World War I broke out in Europe, the Young Turks struck an alliance with Germany, a move that would have disastrous consequences. The Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in November 1914, and Britain, France, and Russia immediately declared war on Ottoman Empire.[citation needed] During the development of the war, the empire's position continued to deteriorate, and even in the Middle East – the very heartland of the Islamic world – would soon be lost.

Call for Jihad[edit]

Though the Young Turks had compelled the Sultan in his capacity as the Caliph to declare a jihad urging all Muslims to resist Allied encroachment on their lands, the effort was largely unsuccessful. The Young Turk government resigned en masse and Enver, Talat, and Cemal fled Turkey aboard a German warship. Sultan Mehmed VI, who was proclaimed Sultan after his brother Mehmed V died of a heart attack in July, agreed to an armistice. The Armistice of Mudros formalizing Ottoman surrender was signed aboard a British warship on October 30, 1918. Allied troops arrived in Constantinople and occupied the Sultan's palace shortly thereafter.[1]

Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire[edit]

By the end of the war, the Ottomans had lost virtually their entire Empire. Hoping to keep his throne and preserve the Ottoman dynasty in some form or another, the Sultan agreed to cooperate with the Allies. He dissolved parliament and allowed an Allied military administration to replace the government vacated by the Young Turks.

Khilafat Movement[edit]

The Khilafat movement (1919–24) was a political campaign launched mainly by Muslims in British controlled India to influence the British government to protect the Caliphate during the aftermath of World War I.

The defeat of the Ottomans and the Allied occupation of Constantinople left the Ottoman state and the Caliphate with no solid basis. The Khilafat movement sought to remedy this. The movement gained force after the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920, which codified the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.[13] In some regions,[where?] the Khilafat movement was perceived as Islamic fundamentalism based on a pan-Islamic agenda.[citation needed]


The last Caliph Abdülmecid II

The Turkish national movement, as the details explained in Turkish War of Independence, formed a Turkish Grand National Assembly, and secured formal recognition of the nation's independence and new borders on July 24, 1923 through the Treaty of Lausanne. The National Assembly declared Turkey a republic on October 29, 1923, and proclaimed Ankara its new capital. After nearly 700 years, the Ottoman Empire had officially ceased to exist. However, under Allied direction, the Sultan pledged[when?] to suppress such movements and secured an official fatwa from the Sheikh ul-Islam declaring them to be un-Islamic. But the nationalists steadily gained momentum and began to enjoy widespread support. Many sensed that the nation was ripe for revolution. In an effort to neutralize this threat, the Sultan agreed to hold elections, with the hope of placating and co-opting the nationalists. To his dismay, nationalist groups swept the polls, prompting him to again dissolve parliament in April 1920.

Initially, the National Assembly seemed willing to allow a place for the Caliphate in the new regime, agreeing to the appointment of Mehmed's cousin Abdülmecid II as Caliph upon Mehmed's departure (November 1922). But the position had been stripped of any authority, and Abdülmecid's purely ceremonial reign would be short lived. Mustafa Kemal had been a vocal critic of the Ottoman House and its Islamic orientation. When Abdülmecid was declared Caliph, Kemal refused to allow the traditional Ottoman ceremony to take place, bluntly declaring,

The Khalifa has no power or position except as a nominal figurehead.

In response to Abdülmecid's petition for an increase in his allowance, Kemal wrote,

Your office, the Khalifate, is no more than an historic relic. It has no justification for existence. It is a piece of impertinence that you should dare write to any of my secretaries!

Still, for all the power he had already wielded in Turkey, Kemal did not dare to abolish the Caliphate outright, as it still commanded a considerable degree of support from the common people.

Then an event happened which was to deal a fatal blow to the Caliphate. Two Indian brothers, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, leaders of the Indian-based Khilafat Movement, distributed pamphlets[clarification needed] calling upon the Turkish people to preserve the Ottoman Caliphate for the sake of Islam. Under Turkey's new nationalist government, however, this was construed as foreign intervention, and any form of foreign intervention was labelled an insult to Turkish sovereignty, and worse, a threat to State security. Kemal promptly seized his chance. On his initiative, the National Assembly abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Abdülmecid was sent into exile along with the remaining members of the Ottoman House, marking the official end of the Ottoman Caliphate.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Lambton, Ann; Lewis, Bernard (1995). The Cambridge History of Islam: The Indian sub-continent, South-East Asia, Africa and the Muslim west 2. Cambridge University Press. p. 320. ISBN 9780521223102. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ M. Naeem Qureshi (1999). Pan-Islam in British Indian Politics: A Study of the Khilafat Movement, 1918-1924. BRILL. pp. 18–19. ISBN 90-04-11371-1. 
  4. ^ a b Kemal H. Karpat (2001). The Politicization of Islam: Reconstructing Identity, State, Faith, and Community in the Late Ottoman State. Oxford University Press. pp. 235–. ISBN 978-0-19-513618-0.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Karpat2001" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  5. ^ Moshe Yegar (1 January 2002). Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar. Lexington Books. pp. 397–. ISBN 978-0-7391-0356-2. 
  6. ^ Political Science Quarterly. Academy of Political Science. 1904. pp. 22–. 
  7. ^ Mustafa Akyol (18 July 2011). Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. W. W. Norton. pp. 159–. ISBN 978-0-393-07086-6. 
  8. ^ J. Robert Moskin (19 November 2013). American Statecraft: The Story of the U.S. Foreign Service. St. Martin's Press. pp. 204–. ISBN 978-1-250-03745-9. 
  9. ^ George Hubbard Blakeslee; Granville Stanley Hall; Harry Elmer Barnes (1915). The Journal of International Relations. Clark University. pp. 358–. 
  10. ^ The Journal of Race Development. Clark University. 1915. pp. 358–. 
  11. ^ Idris Bal (2004). Turkish Foreign Policy in Post Cold War Era. Universal-Publishers. pp. 405–. ISBN 978-1-58112-423-1. 
  12. ^ Idris Bal (2004). Turkish Foreign Policy in Post Cold War Era. Universal-Publishers. pp. 406–. ISBN 978-1-58112-423-1. 
  13. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica


  • Deringil, Selim. "Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State: The Reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909), International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 23, No. 3 (August, 1991).
  • Haddad, Mahmoud. "Arab Religious Nationalism in the Colonial Era: Rereading Rashid Rida's Ideas on the Caliphate", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 117, No. 2 (April, 1997).
  • Kedourie, Elie. "The End of the Ottoman Empire", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 3, No. 4 (October, 1968).
  • Lewis, Bernard. "The Ottoman Empire and Its Aftermath", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 15, No. 1 (January, 1980).
  • Hussain, Ishtiaq. "The Tanzimat: Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire", Faith Matters (October 2011)

External links[edit]