Ironies of in Khilafat Movement

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    Ironies of History: Contradictions of The Khilafat Movement

    by Hamza Alavi

    The Khilafat Movement of 1919 -24, is probably quite unique inasmuch as it hasbeen glorified with one voice by Islamic ideologists, Indian nationalists andcommunists alike and along with them by Western scholars, as an anti-colonialmovement of Muslims of India, premised on the hostility of the British to theTurkish Sultan, their venerated Caliph.1 Little attempt has been made to examinethe premises on which the movement was founded, the rhetoric of its leadersbeing taken at face value. On closer examination we find extra-ordinaryparadoxes and contradictions behind that rhetoric.

    As for the achievements of that Movement, its last ing legacy is the legitimisedplace that it gave the Muslim clergy at the centre of the modern political arena,armed with a political organisation in the form of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind (andits successors after the Partition) which the clergy have used to intervene activelyin both the political as well as the ideological sphere. Never before in IndianMuslim history was the clergy ever accorded such a place in political life.

    The Khilafat Movement also introduced the religious idiom in the politics of Indian

    Muslims. Contrary to some misconceptions (and misrepresentations) it was notthe Muslim League, the bearer of Muslim Nationalism in India, that introducedreligious ideology in the politics of Indian Muslims. Muslim Nationalism was amovement of Muslims and not a movement of Islam. It was an ethnic movementof disaffected Muslim professionals and the government-job-seeking educatedIndian Muslim middle class, mainly those of UP and Bihar and urban Punjab. Theirobjectives were modest, for they demanded not much more than fair quotas in jobs for Muslims and certain safeguards for their interests. Muslim Nationalism inIndia was a secular rather than a religious movement. Nor was it, in its origins, aHindu hating movement as is sometimes made out. To the contrary, by virtue ofthe Lucknow Pact of 1916 it had already moved decisively towards a commonplatform with the broader Indian National Movement and unity with the CongressParty. The Khilafat Movement intervened in that context in a way that decisivelykilled the politics of the Lucknow Pact. The intervention of the Khilafat Movement

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    in Indian Muslim politics has had a considerable retrogressive ideologicalinfluence on the modern Indian Muslim mind that reverberates still in Muslimthinking and their politics in present day India and Pakistan. For that alone, itdeserves to be reviewed and re-evaluated.

    The Khilafatist Claims

    The arguments of the Indian Khilafatists were based on the claims that:

    1) The Otto man Caliph was the Universal Caliph to whom all Muslims,everywhere in the world, owed allegiance;

    2) That there was an ongoing war between the World of Christianity and theWorld of Islam, which, inter alia, caused loss of territories of the Ottoman Empirein Europe, a loss that Indian Muslims felt obliged to mourn;

    3) That Britain in particular, was an enemy of the Ottoman Caliph; that afterWorld War I Britain held the Caliph captive in Istanbul. They demanded that theperson and the office of the Caliph be protected and preserved and hissovereignty, including that over Ottoman Arab colonies and the Muslim Holy

    places, be respected and preserved.

    A dispassionate examination of the relevant facts show that these claims were allquite dubious. In this short paper we can review these matters only quite briefly.

    Origins of the Ottoman Caliphate

    The acquisition of the status of Caliph by Ottoman Sultans is a disputed matter.When, in the modern era, they decided to describe themselves as Caliphs, theyclaimed that the Caliphate had been transferred three and a half centuries earlierto the Ottoman Sultan Selim I by al-Mutawakkil, a descendent of the Abbasids ofBaghdad, who was living in exile in Egypt as a pensioner of the Mamluk rulerBaybars, who was defeated in 1517 by Selim. Baybars, the most distinguished ofthe Mamluk rulers was originally a Turkoman slave. He had picked up al-Mutawakkils father, an uncle of last Abbasid Caliph, and installed him in Cairo

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    with great po mp as, what scholars have labelled, a pseudo -Caliph 2 who carriedthe name but none of the authority of that office. Baybars object in installing himin Cairo was thereby to confer honour and legitimacy on his crown and give hiscourt an air of primacy in Muslim eyes. 3 Al-Mutawakkil succeeded his father inthat role. He claimed to be the legitimate bearer of the (late) Abbasid Caliphate,although he was a man without a country and without any authority. He had, atbest, only a symbolic value for Baybars, in view of his connections with theAbbasid dynasty. On his return to Istanbul Selim carried the hapless al-Mutawakkilwith him, to deny a potential future Mamluk any shred of legitimacy.

    The claim that the Caliphate was transferred by al-Mutawakkil to Selim isconsidered by historians to be quite dubious. 4 It has been argued that al-

    Mutawakkil was in no position to pass on the Caliphate to anyone, for he did nothave it himself, having neither a country nor any power or authority. Whatappears to the present writer to be a more telling argument against the veracityof that story is that neither Selim nor any of his descendants for nearly three andhalf centuries, called themselves Caliphs ! There was no Ottoman Caliphate for allthose centuries. The title that the Ottoman Sultanstook pride in using was that ofGhazi.

    It had, however, become a common practice among medieval Muslims rulers tobe addressed as Caliph, but only informally so, along with other honorific titles,on ceremonial occasions. In Turkey such a practice also grew, imperceptibly andgradually. The title of Caliph came to be added to the many honorific titlesattached to the Ottoman Sultan. But, formally and officially, the title of Caliph wasnot used by the Ottomans until 1774, or over 2 50 years after Selims famousvictory over the Mamluks. In that year formal use of the title of Caliph for anOttoman Sultan came about purely by coincidence. During negotiations with the

    victorious Russians of the Treaty of Kk Kaynarca, the Russian negotiatorsdescribed their Empress, Catherine the Great, as the Head of the entire ChristianOrthodox Church, thus laying a theoretical claim to the loyalties of Christiansubjects of the Ottomans. Not to be out done, a quick-witted negotiator of theSultannamed his master as the Caliph of all Muslims, thus laying a counter claim,

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    to the loyalties of Muslim subjects of the Russian Empress. There was no more toit than that.

    After that episode, despite the informal use of the title of Caliph, the Ottomans

    still did not yet claim that they were legitimate Caliphs andreligious heads of allMuslims. That was to come much later. That was encouraged not least by theBritish who were staunch allies and patrons of the Ottomans, with an eye to theMuslims of India whom they hoped to be able to influence through the Caliph.Lewis writes: Under Abdul Aziz (1861 -76) the doctrine was advanced for the firsttime that the OttomanSultan was not only the head of the Ottoman Empire butalso the Caliph of all Muslims and the heir, in a sense not previously accepted, ofthe Caliphs of early times.

    Legitimacy of Ottoman Caliphs

    It was only by the late 19th century, that the Ottoman Sultans decided to layclaim to the Universal Caliphate. For that to be credible, they needed to establishan acceptable source of legitimacy in the eyes of the world. For that purpose,Turkish propaganda, (which was greatly to influence Urdu journalism and Indian

    Muslim thought) dredged up the mythical story of transfer of the Caliphate toSelim, by al-Mutawakkil in 1517. It was necessary to take resort to that mythicalorigin of the Ottoman Caliphate which, it was hoped, would reinforce their claimfor legitimacy of their Caliphate. If they could show that it had been formallytransferred to them by a member of the House of Abbas who was supposed to bethe custodian-in-exile of the Abbasid Caliphate and held that legacy until he couldtransfer it to a Muslim Sultan who possessed secular power that could do justiceto that awesome office, their claim, they hoped, would thereby be

    unchallengeable. The Ottomans resurrected al-Mutawakkil from the grave toprove their Caliphal credentials.

    Indian Muslims were divided into at least two groups on the issue of recognitionof the legitimacy of the Ottoman Caliphate, though its is remarkable that neitherside questioned the validity of the story that it had been passed on to Selim by al-Mutawakkil. Those who subscribed to the Barelvi tradition refused to accept the

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    legitimacy of the Ottoman claim on an issue of principle and not by questioningthe truth of the story of the supposed transfer of the Caliphate by al-Mutawakkil.Barelvis did not disbelieve the story itself. Given years of Turkish propagandaabout it in the Urdu press, they took it for granted, like other Indian Muslims. TheBarelvi objection was that the Caliphate could be held only by someonedescended from the Quraysh clan. The Ottomans were not of Quraysh descent.They did not, therefore, satisfy an indispensable condition for Caliphate. In takingthat view they were in accord with an authoritative and established tradition inclassical Islam. Eminent scholars such as