The Ottoman rulers held the title of both Sultan and Caliph. Their rule and Sultanate lasted 624 years. The House of ‘Uthmān (Osman I) was a hereditary dynasty, and the Sultan was an absolute ruler over the ‘Uthmāni (Ottoman) State. The Sultan was also the Supreme Military Commander. The House of Usman ruled from 1299 to 1922, when the Office of Sultanate was abolished in a vote by the Turkish General National Assembly (TGNA). The position of Sultan existed before the title and functions of Caliphate were adopted by the Ottomans.
As early Ottoman rule expanded into wider territories, it assumed the functions and roles of those it conquered. Some Ottoman Sultans had already started to claim the authority of Caliphate from the Caliphs of the Mamluke Sultanate of Cairo. However, after the Ottoman Sultan Selim l defeated the Mamluk Al-Mutawakkil III in 1517, the office/title of Caliphate was also transferred to the Ottoman Sultans (others in the Muslim world argue it was taken by force). The Sultans therefore also became Caliphs, as had been the case among other dynastic rulers.
The Ottoman position of Caliphate was formally abolished on 3rd March 1924 after a long debate and vote at the TGNA.
However, any serious reading of history would conclude that the last Caliph who had political authority was Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The three that came after him—Mehmed V Rashad, Mehmed VI Wahid ad-Din, and Abdul Majid II—had nominal political roles and were in fact constitutional monarchs or figureheads stripped of their authority. They cannot be described as rulers, let alone Caliphs.
The real story of the end of Caliphate is the story of the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and his valiant attempts to save both the Ottoman State and the Caliphate over 33 years, which ultimately ended in failure. It is also the story of a Europeanised military, administrative, and upper ruling class who turned against their ruler and traditions, for what they believed to be modernism and progressive European ideals.
The Broken Caliphate
Historians say that fate dealt Sultan Abdul Hamid II an unkind inheritance. By the time he came to power on 31st August 1876, Ottoman rule, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate were already showing signs of disintegration and collapse. The Sultan had more than his fair share of challenges to deal with, and the odds were stacked against him. A few are mentioned below.
As a result of the Crimean War against the Russian Empire in 1853-1856 (in which Britain and France allied with the Ottomans to defeat the Russians), the Ottoman State ended up in debt, and had to take out loans with foreign-controlled banks. By 1875, the public debt had reached £200 million, and the state was having to repay around £12 million a year (including interest). The Ottomans’ limited ability to raise funds through taxes meant the debt situation got worse. The loan repayment eventually led to a situation in which the Ottoman State defaulted on its loans in 1875 and declared bankruptcy. When Abdul Hamid came to power, he was forced to deal with foreign bankers and governments with their conditions and restructure the debt. The economic situation remained a problem throughout his reign and effectively gave foreign powers control over Ottoman affairs and revenues.
European political values and ideals had been embraced by Ottoman elites and society, especially the ideals of the French Revolution and constitutionalism. These were taken up and embraced by the Young Ottomans and the Young Turks. The “modernists” of the Young Turks were emulating the French Revolution. The Sultanate and the Caliphate were viewed as obstacles to modernisation, and just as the French had got rid of their monarch, the Young Turks were trying to disempower theirs. Much of these modernist political reforms had already taken place with several edicts before 1876.
Sultan Abdul Hamid was not the preferred choice of the reformers in the administration. His brother, the liberal French-speaking Murad V, had been their choice. However, after a rule of only 93 days, Murad had to be replaced due to mental illness.
Sultan Abdul Hamid came to power in 1876. It was the result of an agreement with Midhat Pasha and the reformers to introduce a European-style constitution, parliament, and elections, whilst retaining the role of the Sultan as a constitutional monarch. He had no choice but to agree. Had he not agreed to it, he would likely have ended up meeting the same fate as his uncle Abdul Aziz (who had been assassinated). This shows that the locus of power had already shifted away from the Sultanate, whilst the Caliphate had not really been used as a rallying force for some time. It was a shift that Abdul Hamid would try and reverse during his reign. In the end, he was only able to delay what seemed inevitable by 33 years.
His own views were neither nationalist nor based on Western notions of polity. He was committed to Islamic (Sharī’a) rule, the Caliphate, and the Ummah. This becomes evident in his policies and politics. Most historians recognise his politics were very much Islamically orientated and refer to this as a pan-Islamic agenda. It was known by Muslims and Ulema at the time as Ittihad-i Islami (Muslim unity or unification).
This is not to say that Abdul Hamid was not committed to reforms in other areas where Ottoman society had fallen behind the West, such as military training, skills and techniques, infrastructure development, the sciences, and education standards. Much progress was made in these areas under his rule, including the construction of the Hijaz railway line.
The First Ottoman Constitution and Parliament
On taking office, the Sultan’s first challenge was introducing the Constitution and Parliament of the Ottoman Empire, which he had agreed to, whilst retaining power. As well as internal pressure for the reforms, there were external pressures from European countries for the Ottomans to reform, primarily to the benefit of Christian communities in the Ottoman Empire.
The period of 1876-1878 is commonly known as the First Constitutional Era. The European-style constitution introduced on 23rd December 1876 was the first of its type in any Islamic country. The Sultan, however, retained some executive powers, but his role of Caliph was reduced to “defender of the Muslim religion” in the same way as European monarchs were defenders of the Christian faith.
All Ottomans irrespective of religion were now legally equal citizens of a state and had personal liberty, as long as they did not impinge on the liberty of others. The Sultan’s powers were akin to a form of constitutional monarch. There was to be a bicameral parliament (an elected lower house and an upper house appointed by the Sultan). There were no political parties as such, but deputies were elected to the parliament. The constitution was drafted by the Young Ottomans and Grand Vizier Midhat Pasha. Between February-March 1877, parliamentary elections took place. On 19th March, the first ever parliament was inaugurated with 115 deputies, 67 Muslims, 48 non-Muslims (44 Christians and four Jews), comprising 14 different nationalities.
The constitution and parliament were generally celebrated as a victory equal to that achieved in the French Revolution. On the other hand, some Ulema and Muslims viewed the constitution and parliament as a violation of Islam and Sharī’a law.
Sultan Abdul Hamid himself had no real commitment to a Western-style constitution. He saw it as a violation of his authority and Islam, so he eventually dissolved the parliament, reinstating Islamic rule as Sultan and Caliph in 1878. Midhat Pasha was sacked and went into exile.
War with Russia
A year into office, Sultan Abdul Hamid was faced with war. Russia declared war on the Ottomans in April 1877.
Russia mobilised huge support forces from Christians in Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Caucasus, and Armenia, against an Ottoman army of 100,000 men. Heavily outnumbered, the Ottomans were not able to stop the Russian advance.
Facing defeat, the Ottomans offered a truce on 31st January 1878. Britain, more concerned about a Russian takeover of Ottoman lands in Europe, intervened to support the Ottomans and put pressure on the Russians to accept the truce. However, the Russians continued towards Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire was now on the brink of a Russian occupation. The British then sent a fleet of its warships to threaten the Russians and stop their march to Constantinople (within 10 miles), which did indeed stop their advance at San Stefano. Had it not been for British intervention, the Russians would have taken the capital and ended Ottoman rule. Eventually, the San Stefano Treaty was signed on 3rd March 1878, followed by the Treaty of Berlin. The net effect was that the Ottomans had lost much of their European territories and Christian communities. Romania, Serbia, and Montenegro became independent. Bulgaria became autonomous, and the Armenian desire for independence was placed in the hands of the European powers. The Ottomans agreed to reforms in Armenia under the supervision of European powers. The Armenian population were now to become a permanent rebellious problem for the Sultan and the Ottomans, culminating eventually in accusations of genocide against the Ottoman state in 1915.
This war left the Ottomans economically broken and dependent on bankers and European powers for survival. The latter now had a great deal of influence in the affairs of the Ottoman government. British help came at a price – administration of Cyprus was handed over to Britain in 1878, and Britain sent troops to Egypt in 1881 to help put down the ‘Urabi revolt. Britain was effectively now in control of both these Ottoman territories, which they eventually annexed in 1914 when the Ottomans joined the Germans in the First World War. Meanwhile, the French had already invaded Algeria in 1830 and occupied Tunisia in 1881. The East India Company had handed control of India to Britain in 1858. The Ottomans had been powerless to stop the colonisation of the Muslim world that had occurred during their rule.
However, the Ottomans had devoted a great deal of political energy, resources, and military manpower to keeping Christian communities under their rule by force. The consequence of those efforts and wars in Europe was that it broke the back of the Ottoman state and led to a neglect of its Muslim territories.
Ottoman experiences of war in Europe probably shaped Sultan Abdul Hamid’s subsequent approach and policies. He recognised that diplomacy—not war with Europeans—was the best option, and that the Ottoman army needed modernisation. He realised that the Muslim territories were genuinely committed to the Caliphate and that he needed to reorient his policies towards them. He also realised that adopting reforms to keep Christian communities and the Europeans happy was not the way forward, and that he should refocus the Empire’s reforms towards Islam and the Muslim world.
The Last Stand of Sultan Abdul Hamid
The demand for restoration of the constitution and parliament continued among the liberals and reformists among the Ottoman ruling class. The Committee for Union and Progress (CUP), which started as a secretive political party, was now at the forefront of instigating demands for change.
The unionists in the Ottoman Third Army based in Salonika rebelled against the Sultan in July 1908. A military coup was in progress to bring about the reforms demanded by the coup leaders, and it was the start of what is widely known as the Young Turk revolution. Realising he would be overthrown, Sultan Abdul Hamid capitulated to the demands of the coup leaders on the 24th July – this was the start of the second constitutional era. Whilst the Sultan retained his position and some authority, real power had now been transferred to the committee of the CUP and the Ottoman Parliament. It also started a period in which political parties were formed.
Towards the end of 1908, elections took place for the new parliament, and the CUP (the main force behind the coup and revolution) had 60 seats. The 288-seat parliament contained a variety of representatives of ethnicities from across the Empire, which only led to the rise of ethnic nationalist sentiments. The parliament first met in January 1909, but gradually descended into chaos and factionalism, and could not effectively govern.
Sultan Abdul Hamid and those loyal to his Islamic politics in the army and among the religious class then attempted a counter-revolution, demanding the restoration of Islamic rule and restoration of power to the Caliphate. Forces led by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, together with religious students, started a counter-revolution on 13th April 1909 (known as the 31st March incident). By April 24th, the counter-revolution had been defeated. Sultan Abdul Hamid had been overthrown, and his brother placed as Sultan (constitutional monarch) whilst retaining the title of Caliph symbolically. There were now two Caliphs: the real one imprisoned in Salonika, and the other a mere figurehead. This symbolic Caliphate gave legitimacy to the CUP and parliament, and eventually to the military dictatorship of the Three Pashas who led the Ottomans to the disaster of the First Word War in an alliance with Germany. It was Mehmed Talat Pasha, Ismail Enver Pasha, and Ahmed Djemal Pasha (the triumvirate), who entered an alliance with Germany which led to World War I. The alliance with Germany did not contain the signature of Sultan Mehmed V, who was technically still the commander of the Ottoman armed forces. After defeat in the War, the Young Turks no longer needed the fig leaf of either a symbolic Sultan or Caliph. Had the Ottomans remained neutral in the War or allied with Britain, the Ottoman State may well have survived.
In conclusion, the Ottoman Caliphate ended in April 1909 with the final defeat of the last Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid II, not the 3rd of March 1924. Abdul Hamid was a prisoner for the rest of his life. He died in custody at Beylerbeyi Palace on 10th February 1918. His crimes were for attempting to preserve the Caliphate and Islamic ruling. He was a prisoner and victim of his own people and rising nationalist liberal Western politics among them. It is perhaps time to recognise him as a shahīd and correct our understanding of this period of history.
It is also time to stop blaming Britain, the Arabs, or Zionist Jews for the end of the Ottoman state. Ultimately, the Ottomans themselves put an end to their own Sultanate and Caliphate.
The Ottoman Caliphate is also often blamed for the Armenian genocide of 1915. This genocide occurred under the rule of the Three Pashas, all of whom were involved with the nationalist Young Turk movement, not Islamic movements.
Perhaps the sad story of the end of the Ottoman Khilafah is best summed up by writer and historian Ahmet Rasim. He had been a well-known critic of Abdul Hamid during his life, but after the Sultan died wrote the following words:
“If not you, but your dead body becomes our Sultan, it is acceptable, even if your coffin ascends on the Ottoman throne, it will be better than now.”
This is an extract from a much longer, fully referenced paper titled “Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the End of Ottoman Caliphate” written by Jahangir Mohammed in February 2018, and due to be published later this year.