New Caliphate, Old Caliphate

As the jihadists of ISIS continue their brutal campaign to restore the Islamic caliphate, Conor Meleady draws parallels with the ultimately futile efforts of another would-be caliph a century ago.

When the organisation known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced at the end of June 2014 that it was seeking to restore the Islamic caliphate, with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as caliph, it set off a wave of debate both among jihadists and western analysts. The debate concerned the legitimacy of al-Baghdadi’s claim and the likelihood of ISIS securing the support of the Islamic world for its project. Some analysts declared it to be the first time since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s abolition of the Ottoman Empire in March 1924 that any group or individual had been bold enough to make such a claim. In fact, just days after Atatürk’s action, the Hashimite Sharif Husayn of Mecca, King of the Hijaz, proclaimed himself caliph, inititating a controversy similar to that which al-Baghdadi’s declaration provoked. It was a controversy in which the officials charged with formulating Britain’s postwar policy in the Near East were deeply implicated.

Husayn’s claim was a decade in the making. Since the late 19th century, Arab intellectuals in Syria and Egypt had sought to reform the Ottoman Empire through a top-down process of Arabisation, with the Sharif of Mecca touted as a possible caliph. In the context of deteriorating Ottoman-British relations, these ideas were encouraged by orientalists such as Wilfrid Blunt, author of the anti-Ottoman tract, The Future of Islam, in which he argued that the revival of the Arabs was a historical inevitability in which Britain must play its part. 

Encouraging revolt

It was the Consul General in Cairo, Lord Kitchener, who first broached the subject with the Sharif in the aftermath of the Ottoman entrance into the First World War, encouraging Husayn to revolt by speculating that: ‘[It] may be that an Arab of true race will assume Caliphate at Mecca or Medina and so good may come by the help of God out of all evil that is now occurring.’ The scheme was formalised in 1915 in the early exchanges of correspondence between Husayn and Sir Henry McMahon, Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt, in which the Sharif’s territorial demands, amounting to the entirety of the Arab lands of West Asia with the exception of British-occupied Aden, were supplemented by a demand that Britain ‘approve the proclamation of an Arab Khalifate of Islam’. While McMahon’s initial response welcomed the prospect of ‘the resumption of the Khalifate by an Arab of true race’, his second letter omitted any mention of the matter, a tacit acknowledgement that Cairo’s enthusiasm for a Hashimite caliphate had waned.

British scepticism towards Husayn’s ambitions reflected the growing understanding that the Sharif’s vision of the Arab caliphate involved independent Arab rule over the entire Arab Middle East, something that ran contrary to British plans for the region. McMahon had indicated that Britain was prepared to grant the Sharif his demands only after taking into account French interests and Britain’s existing treaties with the other chiefs in the Arabian Peninsula, including Husayn’s rival Ibn Sa’ud. The British plan for Husayn, then, resembled something close to an Islamic papacy – the other Arab chiefs in the region would acknowledge Husayn’s spiritual authority as caliph, while retaining sovereignty in their own realms. As Husayn knew and as the British were learning, such an arrangement was alien to Islamic tradition. It was not long before British authorities in India, concerned that its pro-Ottoman Muslim population would view any encouragement of a Sharifian caliphate as a betrayal of wartime promises of non-interference in Islam’s holy lands, were scolding Cairo’s Arab Bureau for encouraging Husayn in the belief that he was owed an Arab kingdom. As a result, the caliphate issue was dropped from British-Hashimite negotiations.

Custodian of the holy cities

Having lost British support, Husayn sought that of the wider Islamic world, in particular Muslim India, believing that, with the umma on his side, Britain would be forced to recognise his claim. As the custodian of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Husayn’s administration of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, facilitated contact with Muslims from around the world. In addition, with his Qurayshi lineage and the prestige of his title, his credentials were impeccable. On declaring his revolt against the Ottomans in the summer of 1916, Husayn appealed to Islamic sensibilities concerning just and legitimate governance.

Yet support from abroad was minimal. Husayn was seen as a British lackey, who was undermining the unity of the umma at a time when the future of the caliphate itself was cast into doubt by the performance of the Ottomans in the war. Opposition was strongest among the class of educated, reformist Indian Muslims, which would go on to form the nucleus of the Khilafat movement, agitating in favour of Ottoman demands during postwar negotiations. Even before the Sharif’s revolt, Indian activists had used the Hijaz as a base from which to organise an anti-British plot involving the Emir of Afghanistan, a conspiracy uncovered when British authorities in India intercepted a batch of silk scarves into which were woven the details of the plan. Husayn attempted to win the Indians over by inviting Muslim soldiers returning home from the European front to the Hijaz as his guests, with a view to having them propagandise on his behalf on their arrival in India. The task proved beyond him. 

With European troops occupying Istanbul, the British tried to find out if the Ottoman sultan-caliph still commanded the recognition of the Muslim world. They sought to ascertain if the khutba, the Friday prayer, was still being recited in the name of Sultan Mehmed VI. British consulates from Morocco to Indonesia reported back that, with few exceptions, the umma still attended prayers in the caliph’s name. The process was repeated in 1922 when Atatürk’s nationalist government abolished the sultanate and appointed a new caliph, Abdülmecid II, to a position shorn of any temporal significance. Still, Muslims remained steadfast in support of the Ottoman caliphate. 

Abdülmecid II

In March 1924 Atatürk abolished the caliphate, sending Abdülmecid II into exile and leaving the umma without any recognised head. Husayn, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah now governed the newly formed mandate states of Iraq and Transjordan respectively, seized the opportunity to claim the title of caliph, with farcical results. Through his sons, Husayn succeeded in having the khutba said in his name in a few mosques across Iraq and Transjordan, yet beyond there, opposition to the sharifian caliphate was strong. Husayn resorted to desperate measures. In mid-April he announced that a delegation of prominent Malaysians had arrived in the Hijaz in order officially to bestow the recognition of five million Malaysian Muslims upon him, a claim which was ridiculed as ‘absurd’ at the British Agency in Jeddah when it became apparent that the ‘delegation’ consisted of 30 students of Arabic, who had arrived in the Hijaz with the aim of receiving religious instruction and improving their language skills. A British report on an incident which occurred as Husayn made his way from Jeddah to Mecca serves to highlight the increasing disdain with which the Sharīf was regarded in the Islamic world:

Some distance from the town the King transferred from his car to a carriage, whereupon … the horse at once fell dead, and the King, looking pale and anxious, had to have a riding horse brought on which to make his entry. This incident has given satisfaction to the Javanese Ulama, who had prophesied that for his impiety in seizing the Caliphate the King would drop dead on his return to Mecca; they, however, cannot help wishing that the thunderbolt had been better aimed.

By the summer of 1924, Husayn’s bid for the recognition of the Islamic world had failed. That August, Ibn Sa’ud launched a final offensive against the Hijaz and, following the fall of Mecca in October, Husayn was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ali, who, after renouncing all Hashimite claims to the caliphate, held on in Jeddah until December 1925, after which he joined his father in exile. 

Like Husayn, al-Baghdadi’s claim to the caliphate has been met with contempt by the Islamic world, with one Palestinian TV channel parodying fighters manning an Islamic State checkpoint and a number of online memes mocking the new caliph’s announcement. In contrast to the Sharif, however, al-Baghdadi is untainted by foreign involvement, while he enjoys the support of a fanatical online fan base ready to propagandise on his behalf. Unlike Husayn he has succeeded in capturing vast, resource-rich territories in the heart of the Arab Middle East. More problematic for the Islamic State is al-Baghdadi’s obscurity, lack of proven religious credentials and, most importantly, his organisation’s reputation for brutality, intolerance and sectarianism. These qualities ensure that the new caliphate’s constituency is limited to that element of the jihadi community already inclined to accept Islamic State’s agenda. It is this aspect of al-Baghdadi’s reign as caliph which guarantees that he will be no more successful in winning the support of the Muslim world than his predecessor, Sharif Husayn of Mecca.

Conor Meleady is a historian of the modern Middle East.