This day in history: Turkey abolishes the Caliphate

On this day 100 years ago, President Kemal Ataturk abolished the Muslim Caliphate in Turkey 14 months after doing away with the title of sultan

The last Caliph Abdelmejid II in Nice, France, during his exile.
The last Caliph Abdelmejid II in Nice, France, during his exile.

This day in history: Turkey abolishes the Caliphate

On this day 100 years ago, President Kemal Ataturk abolished the Muslim Caliphate in Turkey 14 months after doing away with the title of sultan.

Most of the caliph’s duties and what remained of his funds were transferred to the Turkish Parliament while the last caliph, Abdulmejid II, was exiled — first to Switzerland, then to Nice on the French Riviera and finally to Paris, where he died an old and lonely man on 23 August 1944.

The French press paid little attention to his death, which coincided with the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation.

As for the last sultan, Mehmed VI, he died at his San Remo exile in 1926 and was buried at the Tekiyeh Suleimaniyya mosque complex in Damascus, on the high bank of the Barada river, next to the sons of Sultan Abdulhamid II.

Ataturk thought that he was doing away with both the caliphate and the sultanate for good, never imagining that a caliphate would return less than a century later, albeit in a highly twisted form — not in Istanbul but in the Syrian city of Raqqa.

That is where Ibrahim Awwad al-Bakri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, proclaimed himself caliph in 2014, also assuming the title “prince of believers.”

The caliphate that Ataturk abolished was a symbol of Muslim unity and power before it was dwarfed into a ceremonial position after World War I, both by the Allies and by Turkish republicans. They would strip it of all functions and weight before doing away with the title completely on 3 March 1924.

Some of Ataturk’s aides advised against such a move, claiming that, now freed from the sultanate, the caliphate ought to be maintained because it would serve the interests of the new Turkish republic, uniting the world’s 15 million Muslims behind its authority.

It would be similar to the Vatican’s hold over Catholicism, they said, but the staunchly secular Ataturk refused, claiming that the caliphate contradicted republicanism. According to the new constitution, the Turkish people were the source of legislation and not Islam or the Caliph.

Muslims around the world, former subjects of the caliph, were unhappy with Ataturk’s decision. Many tried to save the caliphate from collapse, including the Khilafat Movement of India and the Caliphate Association of Syria.

Read more: Gandhi: A supporter of Palestine and fierce critic of Zionism

Attempts at filling the vacuum

President of the Syrian Caliphate Association, Emir Said El Djezairi, called for filling the post, arguing that if left vacant, this would pave the way for a usurper to claim the title someday. He almost seemed to prophesize the emergence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi 90 years later.

Sami Moubayed Archive
Emir Said El Djezairi at his Damascus mansion next to a portrait of his grandfather, Emir Abdel Kader El Djezairi.

Supporting Emir Said’s fears were Sharif Hussein Ibn Ali, commander of the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, and the king of Egypt, Fouad I. Each saw himself as perfectly suited for the vacant post of the caliph, nominating themselves to succeed Abdulmejid II.

Sharif Hussein claimed that he fulfilled all the qualifications for the ba’ya, the Muslim oath of allegiance to their caliph, given his direct lineage to the prophet Mohammad.

He based his argument on a Muslim hadith (compilation of the Prophet’s sayings), saying that the caliphate would remain in the hands of the Quraysh tribe “even if only of its members prevailed.”

Sharif Hussein announced his candidacy on 11 March 1924, two weeks after the caliphate’s abolishment in Turkey.

When he dissolved the caliphate, Ataturk never imagined one would return 90 years later in Raqqa — albeit in a highly twisted form.

Within 24 hours, King Fouad called for a Muslim conference in Cairo to discuss the future of the caliphate.  He, too, did not hide his own ambition for becoming a caliphate, with the full backing of the al-Azhar Mosque, but his aspirations and those of Sharif Hussein were thwarted by King Abdulaziz, the king of Saudi Arabia.

King Fouad opposed the restoration of the caliphate, claiming that the four original successors of the prophet (known as the Righteous Caliphs) were learned men with exceptional talent whom Mohammad had promised a permanent place in Heaven.

No one in the 20th century had half their merits; thus, no one was entitled to walk in their footsteps or assume their title.

The topic was temporarily put on hold before being revived in 1928 by Imam Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

He called for the restoration of the caliphate, and many years later, so did Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who, as early as 1982, had claimed that two caliphates were emerging, one in Afghanistan and another in Chechnya.

The Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Qaeda's support for the caliphate sounded the alarm in the US, giving the George W. Bush administration enough ammunition to use in its numerous wars throughout the region.

In September 2006, President Bush mentioned the word "caliph" four times in a single speech, while Vice-President Dick Cheney warned that al-Qaeda wanted to "re-create the old caliphate" while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added that al-Qaeda wanted "to establish a caliphate to replace mainstream Muslim regimes."

In August 2011, US Representative Allen West added, "This so-called Arab Spring is less about a democratic movement than it is about the early phase of the restoration of an Islamic Caliphate."

The last Caliph Abdelmejid II

That came in response to the words of Hamadi al-Jabali, secretary-general of Tunisia's Islamic Ennahda Party, who, speaking live before his supporters in the city of Sousse, said: "We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing."

By sixth, he was referring to the four original caliphs (Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, Ali), adding a fifth, Omar Ibn Abdulaziz of the Umayyad Dynasty, implying that the sixth would be in Tunisia after sweeping elections in light of the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ennahda leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi added that a caliphate was the hope and desire of all Muslims, which was echoed by Mohammad Badi, leader of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

None of them opposed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he proclaimed his caliphate in 2014, mainly because the concept was highly appealing to them but also because al-Baghdadi was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

They also didn't deny what ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said when he described the caliphate as "a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim believer."

Their only reservations were regarding al-Baghdadi's Islamic credentials, claiming that he was intellectually unfit to assume the job and lacking lineage credentials.

Potential contenders for the caliphate need to hail strictly from Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet). This explains why al-Baghdadi insisted on using two important additional last names whenever making a public statement or appearance.

One was al-Qurashi (hailing from Quraysh), and the other was al-Hassani (descendant of the Prophet's grandson, al-Hasan Ibn Ali).

Al-Qaeda's support for the caliphate sounded the alarm in the US, giving the George W. Bush administration enough ammunition to use in its numerous wars throughout the region.

However, Muslims around the world disagreed.

In France, thousands marched at a mosque rally chanting: "Not in our name." In Egypt, Dar al-Ifta, the religious authority in charge of issuing religious dictums, ruled to stop calling the group "Islamic State."

In October 2014, the Islamic Society of Britain, the Association of British Muslims and the Association of Muslim Lawyers proposed coining the term "Un-Islamic State."

Despite that, Western journalists developed a habit, whether intentionally or out of sheer ignorance, linking Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to Islam's first caliph, Abu Bakr al-Saddiq, while failing to highlight the gross differences between them.

The real Abu Bakr was a neighbour and early companion of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). He was a political and religious leader, a skilled jurist, and a defender of the poor and needy.

The man who stole his name – and his title – was nothing but a petty criminal who hijacked Islam and tarnished its reputation, along with that of the four real caliphs.

If anything, the emergence of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proved that King Abdulaziz was right, and that the prophecy of Emir Sai'd El Djezairi, about a charlatan assuming the job, was actually correct.

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