Abolishment of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal and Its Effect on Indian Muslims

Abolishment of the Caliphate by Mustafa Kemal and Its Effect on Indian Muslims

Inevitably, when Mustafa Kemal and his cohorts announced the abolishment of the institution of the Khilafah, it caused great consternation among Indian Muslims. So many of them had sacrificed so much for the cause of maintaining the Khilafat because it was a symbol of the power of Islam.

The announcement of the abolishment of the office of the Khalifah would have been made at least two years earlier, if not for the discouragement from Mustafa Kemal’s friends. The immediate cause was the disgraceful role of the then Ottoman Khalifa, Sultan Vahideddin Mehmed VI. He was totally discredited in the eyes of the Turks because of his succumbing to Allied pressure after Turkey lost the First World War. He came under severe criticism for have having agreed to the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Sevres. He also went after the nationalists who had regrouped in Ankara. He used the non-Muslim population of Turkey to fight the Nationalists, and even had religious decrees issued against them. When the nationalists scored impressive victories in the battlefield over Greece in 1922, Britain called for a revision of the Treaty of Sevres.

To negotiate the terms of the new treaty, Britain invited both Istanbul and Ankara. The Caliph in Istanbul had lost all credibility due to his imbecility and grovelling nature. Sultan-Caliph Vahideddin accepted the invitation. At this Mustafa Kemal decided to abolish the institution of the Caliphate altogether. However, even his closest friends, Kazim Karebekar, Rauf Bey and Rifat Pasha, were horrified and refused to go along. Kemal rethought his plans to muffle the blow[1]. On 1 November 1922, he manoeuvred the Grand National Assembly (GNA) to take over the ultimate powers of the government of the country. The Caliphate remained in the House of the Osman, but it was stripped of all real authority. All authority rested with the assembly. To make the change more acceptable to the public and to Turkey’s pan-Islamist supporters, the government was made to appear as the main protector of the caliphate.[2]

When news broke out in India of this sudden change, it was first received with much disbelief. When it finally sunk in, there was simmering anger among the conservatives in particular. Yet, to maintain status quo, the CKC chose not to make it an issue publicly. Even the Jamiyat ul Ulema approved of the changes without passing any legal verdict on the validity of the change in the status of the Khalifa. They acknowledged the great work of Mustafa Kemal in the battlefields which won back a lot of respect for the Turks. They even proposed conferring on him the title of mujaddid I khilafat.[3] The CKC followed suit.

To satisfy the conscientious qualms of the devout Muslims they took the line that the Sultanate had not been abolished because the temporal power was still vested in the Caliph, as the Assembly had announced that the Turkish Government would be the chief bulwark of the Khilafat[4]. In other words the change was not at all inconsistent with the aims of the Khilafat movement and they should tamely accept the decision.[5]

Outwardly they kept a still upper lip, but, secretly, behind the scenes, the CKC approached the nationalists, associates of Kemal in particular, to try to convince them to reverse their decision . Abdur Rahman Siddiqui (1887-1953) and Qazi Abdul Ghaffar were sent to Lausanne (Switzerland) with a message for Ismet Pasha (1884-1973), then attending the Lausanne Conference for transmission to Ankara. Ismet Pasha did pass on the message home but it had no effect.  Earlier, on 16-17 November he had been seen in Paris by Malik Abdul Qayyum with the same object in mind, who also followed him to London later that month when Ismet Pasha was there. But, the Pasha had only a standard diplomatic answer to give: the caliphal office had been institutionalized and its authority transferred to the Turkish nation and the Muslims had better deal with the matter with equanimity and patience.[6]

Disappointed, but being pragmatic, the CKC asked its followers to believe that everything was well, and the decision of the Turkish GNA was not inconsistent with the aims of the Khilafat movement.[7]

Meanwhile, a fortnight after Refat Pasha took over the administration of Istanbul on 4 November, Sultan Vehediddin slipped out of the palace and took asylum on board a British battleship, HMS Malaya. He was escorted to Malta from where he proceeded to Makkah as the guest of King Hussain.[8] On the contention that the fugitive monarch had forfeited his position by taking refuge with a non-Muslim power, the GNA, on a fatwa from the commissar for religious affairs, proclaimed on 18 November the deposition of Mehmet VI as caliph and elected his cousin Abdulmecid (1868-1944), son of the late Sultan Abdulaziz, as his successor with ‘spiritual’ powers only.[9]

The action of the Khilafitists was obviously aimed at achieving a semblance of solidarity with Turkey as a bulwark of Islam. Moreover, the Indian Khilafatists had committed themselves firmly with the policies of Ankara, ever since the rise of Mustafa Kemal. Withdrawing their support now would be disastrous to their cause.

Consequently, Chotani on behalf of the Indian Muslims, sent telegrams of support and devotion to the new caliph and Mustafa Kemal.[10]

On instructions from Turkey, the CKC and the Jamiyat directed all subordinate Khilafat committees to arrange the substitution of Abdul-Mecid’s name in the khutba along with the customary titles.[11]The Turkish nationalists were pleased.

The Ankara decision was accepted in India and many other parts of the Muslim world as a fait accompli and on 8 December 1922 the ascension of the new caliph was formally celebrated with enthusiasm.[12]

One thing led to another.

On 24 March 1924, the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the institution of the Caliphate. What was made out to be a unanimous decision was far from it. But the nationalists and the secularists were determined. It is beyond the scope of this research to investigate the reasons for this momentous decision. However, since this section deals with the impact of the decision of the Turkish parliament on Indian Muslims, I present my findings on the subject below.

In none of the books dealing with the Khilafat movement in India, other that Naeem Qureshi’s Pan-Islam in British India, could I find a more vivid description of the events that unfolded the passing of the decree abolishing the Caliphate. Each statement is well referenced.  I reproduce some excerpts below from pages 374-384; sub-headings I have added:

The Ultimate Humiliation

“Within hours of the decision the caliph was asked to leave the country. In the small hours of 4 March, Abdulmecid II, tears in his eyes and accompanied by two wives, a son and a daughter, was first bundled off in a motorcar to the Chataldja and then placed on the fabled Orient Express which took him to Territet in Switzerland. …The nationalists did everything in their power to humiliate and belittle the popular Caliph. They also took special measures to ensure the omission of his name from the Friday khutba and substituted it with a prayer for the republic. The nationalists then secured the expulsion of the rest of the imperial dynasty with the utmost harshness and efficiency. Thus vanished suddenly from Turkey the great House of Osman which, lamented a Turkish Journal, ‘for many centuries had reigned in Turkey and had lifted the country to the height of those glories it once possessed’. the abolition was accompanied by a series of other measures that put an end to the office of the Shaikhu’l-Islam and the commissariat of religious affairs, closed the traditional religious schools and colleges, and, a month later, abolished the special shari’at courts. These orders were duly confirmed in April 1924 in the new constitution which the GNA adopted.  it was the beginning of the decade of inkilap which the nationalists had precipitated under Kemal against the religious establishment from outlawing the mystic orders (1925) to abrogating the provision which mentioned Islam as state religion (1928) but it was the abolition that had deprived pan-Islam of its political and institutional support….”

“Whereas in Italy the Pope had been able to retain the individuality of his position even after losing temporal power, in Turkey the Caliph was not only deprived of his office but was also sent on a one-way ticket to oblivion.

Indian Reactions to the Abolishment of the Sacred Office of the Khilafah

“The Indian reaction to changes in Turkey was strong and vociferous. Indians were particularly stung by the Turkish affront in taking a decision without referring it to the collective will of the Daru’l-Islam, thereby challenging the very ideal of the universal polity as an instrument of political solidarity. But shock and grief were preceded by disbelief. Hardly anyone was willing to accept that the caliphate had been done away with by the very people who had provided it its strength in the past.”

Reactions of the Indian Press

“There were angry comments in the Indian press. The Muslim Outlook thought that it was just another ruse by the Reuters agency to malign the Turks. The Siyasat blamed the Turks for unwittingly dividing the Muslim world. The Zamindar maintained that the caliphate was an institution which could not be abolished. The Humdum of Lucknow thought that the Turks were entitled to choose their own government, but they had no right to do away with the Caliphate. Madinah of Bijnor lamented that the Turks had destroyed their house with their own hands.”

Reactions of the Leaders and the Ordinary Public

“Syed Amir Ali… questioned the nationalist’s power to abolish an office ‘an integral part of the Sunni community’, especially when the sacramental oath of fealty had been offered to the incumbent. And from Berlin, Abdul Jabbar Khairi, the Indian president of the pro-caliphate ‘Islamische gemeinde’, condemned what he called ‘anti-Islamic’ and ‘mischievous’ action of the Kemalists. Some like Sait Moosa and Abbas Ali Khan were angry that the Indian Muslims who had made so many sacrifices for Turkey and had helped extract favourable terms at Lausanne, had been so ungratefully ignored. Others asserted that the Indian Muslims had sympathised with Turkey because of their attachment to the Caliph: the caliphate gone, they had now no interest left in Turkey. The indignation was by no means limited to the politically-minded. Even the illiterate appeared to have been moved for it was the Caliph in his temporal role that had appealed to them and they could not bear his disappearance. People were actually seen weeping… The anger against the Kemalists was so intense that the Turkish Red Crescent that had arrived in India to collect funds and to take charge of the Chotani sawmills, thought it prudent to cut short its activities and come home.” 

“…Abul Kalam Azad called the abolition a great blunder and declared that the Turks alone were not competent to decide an issue that concerned the entire Muslim world. Mohammed Ali refused to have any sympathy ‘with such irreligious people as may want to break the ties of islam…and hanker after Europe’s recognition of their progressiveness’. For him this incident could not have come at a worse moment because his daughter Amina was dying with tuberculosis and his brother Shaukat was bedridden with Typhoid and high temperature. Among others, Abdul Majid Daryabadi (1892-1977) came out to condemn Ankara for taking the decision unilaterally… On 7th March, Shaukat Ali defying his poor health, sent a cable to Mustafa Kemal begging him ‘to do your utmost to uphold the Khilafat and Islam’…”

Last Ditch Efforts to Retrieve the Caliphate

“Though Mustafa Kamal had made it sufficiently clear that the caliphal office had ceased to exist, the Khilafatists would not yield. On 9 March 1924, a special joint meeting of the working committee of the CKC and the Jam’iyyat was convened at Aligarh. It was decided that the presidents of the two organisations should jointly make another attempt to obtain the retention of the Caliphate. As a result, Shaukat Ali and Kifayatullah sent a telegram to Mustafa Kamal saying that the abolition ‘would open the door to the mischievous ambitions of hosts of undeserving claimants’ and begged the Turkish assembly to reconsider its decision and give an opportunity to an Indian delegation who desired to make a fuller representation on the subject. The telegram had implied that the Khilfatists would greatly welcome if Mustafa Kamal decided to assume the Caliphate himself. But the latter had no such intention. To him the caliphal office had become useless and obsolete.” 

“On 12 March 1924, the CKC and the Jami’yyat issued a joint statement which urged the Muslims to pursue the agitation with greater energy and determination rather than be upset by the abolishment…Their future course of action depended on the communications with Turkey and in the event of unsatisfactory result their first step would be to convene a general conference of the Muslim world at some suitable center to discuss and find a solution.”

Establishing Connections with the Deposed Caliph

“An exchange of telegrams between the deposed caliph and the Ali Brothers had already taken place—the brothers conveying personal devotion and allegiance and an assurance on behalf of Indian Muslims that they were determined to maintain  the sacred caliphate, and the ex-caliph conveying his ‘fatherly appreciation’ of the cooperation of Indian Muslims in defence of the caliphate. Now, Shaukat Ali, in spite of his serious illness …issued a circular that: pending a settlement with Ankara, Abdulmecid’s name should continue to be mentioned in the Friday khutba. Abdulmecid was also banking on the Indian support…But, the ex-caliph’s appeal to the Muslim world that the Ankara decision was ‘incompatible with the spirit of Islam’ and therefor , an ingter-Islamic conference should decide the issue appears to have fallen flat, except in Egypt and India. The dejected ex-caliph had to spend the rest of his life on a small monthly allowance from the Nizam of Hyderabad, donations from Indian princes, and magnates and funds from Ameer Ali’s Red Crescent Society in London”.

Change in Thinking among Muslim Intellectuals on the Khilafat

“A perceptible change came about in the thinking of influential leaders, particularly Abdul Kalam Azad. In a series of articles in the Zamindar he argued that the caliphate was just another name for government or state and whosoever was the head of the government was ipso facto the caliph of Islam. In his view, the Turks had abolished only that office which they had mistakenly separated from the sultanate in November 1922. Since the caliphate and the presidency were merely two names of the same institution the president of the republic might as well be called the caliph….Even Mohammed Ali, after some shuffling, declared that he would not oppose Mustafa Kemal becoming caliph should he so desire…..

“The changing pattern of Indian perception found an even more unfettered articulation in the writings of the Muslim intellectuals like Mohammed Iqbal and Khuda Bakhsh. They both defended the action of the Turkish assembly and justified the abolition….Iqbal pined his hopes on a revitalised Turkey which had, in his opinion, not only ‘shaken off its dogmatic slumber’ but had also ‘passed from the ideal to the real—a transition which entails keen intellectual and moral struggle’. Turkey alone among all the Muslim countries, he maintained, had embarked ‘on the way to creating new values’….It was much later that he began to feel uneasy with the hurried sweep of the Turkish reform and hoped that it was just a ‘passing phase’ and would soon be reversed.

A Plank Rotted Away

“From the point of view of the Indian Khilafatists it was certain that one great plank in their programme had rotted away. The contemptuous indifference shown by the Turks had dampened their enthusiasm for Turkey.

[1] Kasim Karabekir, Pasalarin Kavgasi: Ataturk Karabekir (ed.). Y.H.I. Bozdag, (Istanbul 1991) 98-100. Kazim and Rauf suspected Kemal wanting to obtain the sultanate for himself.

[2] Pan-Islam in British Politics, Qureshi, M.N, Brill, 1999, p. 333

[3] Pan-Islam in British Politics, Qureshi, M.N, Brill, 1999, p. 340

[4] See the views of Maulavi Abdul Wahed Khan? Vice-President of the Khilafat Committee, Calcutta, in V to s/S7  Tel. P. &  En Clair, No. 907, Nov 15, 1922, RP., cited in Naeem Qureshi’s PhD thesis titled “The Khilafat Movement in India”, p. 247

[5] Statesman, Nov. 14, 1922. cited in Naeem Qureshi’s PhD thesis titled “The Khilafat Movement in India”, p. 247

[6] B.N. Simsir, Dis. Bsinda Ataturk ve Turk Derimi,  I (Ankara, 1981), 156-62, in Oke, Tahrik-i-Khilafat, 17. Cited in Pan-Islam in British Politics, Qureshi, M.N, Brill, 1999, p. 337

[7] Statesman, 14 Nov. 1922

[8] Turkey, Annual Report, 1922, PRO, FO 371/9176, and Khilafat, 23 Nov. 1922

[9] Ibid. The investiture took place on 24 Nov. 1922.

[10] Times of India, 23 Nov. 1922

[11] See Khilafat, 16 and 25 Nov. 1922 and IOL&R, L/P&S/10/895, file 3822/1923. Cited in Pan-Islam in British Politics, Qureshi, M.N, Brill, 1999, p. 339

[12] Pan-Islam in British Politics, Qureshi, M.N, Brill, 1999, p. 340

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