This Is What Happened to the Last Person Who Claimed the Caliphate. It Didn't End Well for Him. There’s a Lesson in that.

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tags: ISIS, Caliphate



Conor Meleady holds an MA in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, where his thesis examined the struggle for the caliphate from 1914-1924. He lives in Dublin, Ireland, and occasionally tweets at @Conormel. An extended version of this article appears in the January 2015 edition of History Today.

Hashimite Sharif Husayn

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent unilateral assumption of the role of caliph has provoked widespread debate in jihadist circles as to the legitimacy of the ISIS leader’s claim, in doing so sparking memories of the similar controversy surrounding the Hashimite Sharif Husayn of Mecca’s March 1924 bid to be recognized as the legitimate successor to the deposed Ottoman caliph. It was a controversy in which the officials charged with formulating Britain’s post-war Near Eastern policy were deeply implicated.

Husayn’s claim to the caliphate was at least a decade in the making. Since the late nineteenth century, anti-Ottoman sentiment among the Arab intellectuals of Syria and Egypt had often been expressed through a proclaimed desire to reform the empire through a top-down process of Arabisation, in which the Sharif of Mecca was regularly touted for the position of caliph. In the context of deteriorating Ottoman-British relations, such ideas were encouraged by orientalists such as Wilfrid Blunt, author of an anti-Ottoman tract titled The Future of Islam in which he argued that the revival of Islam through an Arab renaissance was a historical inevitability.

It was the Consul General in Cairo, Lord Kitchener, who first explicitly broached the subject with the Sharif in the aftermath of the Ottoman entrance into the First World War in October 1914, 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 somewhat formalized in the early exchanges of the famous Husayn-McMahon correspondence the following year, in which the Sharif’s territorial demands, which amounted to the entirety of the Arab lands of West Asia with the exception of British-occupied Aden, were supplemented by a request 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 whatsoever, a tacit acknowledgement that Cairo’s early enthusiasm for the Hashimite caliphate scheme had waned.

British skepticism relating to 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 and to the limitations outlined by McMahon in his second letter to Husayn. McMahon had indicated that Britain was prepared to grant the Sharif his demands only after taking into account French interests and Britain’s already existing treaties with the other Arab chiefs in the Arabian Peninsula, including Husayn’s great rival Ibn Sa‘ud. Instead, the British plan for Husayn resembled something close to an Islamic papacy – the other Arab chiefs in the region would acknowledge Husayn’s spiritual authority as caliph, while retaining temporal sovereignty in their own realms. As Husayn well knew, and as British authorities were learning, such an arrangement was alien to Islamic tradition as widely understood at the time. It wasn’t long before authorities in India, concerned that India’s pro-Ottoman Muslim population would view any British 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 apparently encouraging Husayn in the belief that he was owed a vast independent Arab kingdom. As a consequence, the caliphate issue was dropped from British-Hashimite negotiations.

Having lost British support for his caliphate bid, Husayn turned to winning the support of the wider Islamic world, and in particular Muslim India, figuring that with the umma on his side British authorities would be forced to recognize his claim to the kingdom he desired. He had several advantages. As the custodian of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Husayn’s administration of the annual hajj facilitated contact with Muslims from around the world, affording him ample opportunity to impress upon the visiting pilgrims his suitability for such a role. In addition, with his Qurayshi lineage and the prestige associated with his administrative title, his personal credentials were impeccable. On declaring his revolt against Ottoman authority in the summer of 1916, Husayn appealed to traditional Islamic sensibilities concerning just and legitimate governance, accusing the Young Turks of abuses against the shari’a and the position of caliph.

Yet despite his pleas, support from abroad was minimal. Husayn was regarded as a British lackey, widely blamed for undermining the unity of the umma at a time when the future of the caliphate itself was put in firm doubt by the performance of the Ottomans in the war. Opposition was strongest from among the class of educated, reform-minded Indian Muslims who would go on to form the nucleus of the Khilafat Movement, which agitated in favor of Ottoman demands during the post-war negotiations. Husayn attempted to win the Indians over to his cause by inviting Muslim soldiers returning home from the European front to the Hijaz as his honored guests, with a view to having them propagandize on his behalf on their arrival in India. Yet the task proved beyond him, and the war ended with disappointment for Hashimite hopes of a vast, Arab kingdom, and with prospects of winning the hearts of the umma distant.

Despite the Ottoman surrender of 1918, British diplomatic cables reported widespread continued support for the Ottoman caliphate from North Africa to Java. In March 1924, Atatürk formally abolished the institution of the caliphate altogether, sending Abdülmecid II into exile and leaving the umma without any recognized head. Husayn, whose sons Faisal and Abdullah now governed the newly formed mandate states of Iraq and Transjordan respectively, seized the opportunity to step forward and publically claim the title of caliph for the first time. Results were farcical. Iraq and Transjordan aside, opposition to the Sharifian caliphate was definitive, leaving Husayn to resort to desperate measures, which included the labeling of groups of pilgrims and students arriving in the Hijaz from places such as Malaysia as pro-Sharifian delegations.

By the summer of 1924, it was apparent that Husayn’s bid for the recognition of the Islamic world had utterly 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 favor 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.

Unlike Husayn, al-Baghdadi, untainted by non-Muslim support, has succeeded in capturing vast, resource-rich territory in the heart of the Middle East. Yet his lack of proven religious credentials, and most importantly the extreme brutality, intolerance, and sectarianism which has characterized the Islamic State’s march across the region, has drawn a measure of indifference and even mockery and contempt similar to his Hashimite predecessor, ensuring that he will be no more successful in winning the support of the Muslim world than Husayn of Mecca.



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