Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Aga Khan and the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate.

The Aga Khans, it was believed, trace their descent to Buzurgumid, the successor of Hassan al Sabah- the Old Man of the Mountain- who founded the sect of the Assassins
 According to this entry in the Ismaili Encylopaedia, it seems that their lineage was finally able to deal a death blow to the Caliphate of the Sunnis but without the use of violence.

'In 1923, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah ( the Aga Khan) also took a leading part in the Khilafat Movement with the Indian Muslims, and raised his voice through articles in newspapers and letters to British authorities. This was indeed a critical time that his loyalty to the West and his unbounded love for Islam directly clashed, but the Imam decidedly championed the cause of Islam. He wrote a historic letter in association with Right Hon’ble Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928), a member of the Privy Council of England, addressed to Ismet Pasha, the Prime Minister of Turkey on November 24, 1923, insisting not to liquidate the symbol of Islamic unity, and pleading that the matter of Turkey be given considerable hearing at the conference table. This letter was published in London Times on December 14, 1923. Aziz Ahmed writes in Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan (London, 1967, p. 138) that, "The letter influenced and possibly precipitated the decision of the Turkish National Assembly taken on March 3, 1924 to abolish the caliphate and to exile Abd al-Majid. This marked the end of a centuries-old institution and of an era in the history of Islam."


 The traditional sub-continental view of the Khilafat movement is quite different. We are taught that the better educated of the Ali brothers took a Muslim delegation to England in 1919 'in order to convince the British government to influence the Turkish nationalist Mustafa Kemal not to depose the Sultan of Turkey, who was the Caliph of Islam. British rejection of their demands resulted in the formation of the Khilafat committee which directed Muslims all over India to protest and boycott the government.  ' (Wikipedia entry on the Khilafat movement)
But this notion makes no sense.
In 1919, the British wanted to keep the Caliph because he had surrendered to them and was giving them everything they wanted. What prevented them handing Smyrna, in Turkey, to the Greeks was Attaturk.  The Caliph had sentenced Attaturk to death by June 1919 itself.  The British had no influence on him because he was their enemy- one they feared.
Thus, Elite Indian support for Khilafat was an ambiguous thing. It promoted a British foreign policy aim while appearing, back home, to be a protest against their rule. 
The Aga Khan- though an Ismaili Shia or Persian extraction with little reason to concede the title of Caliph to a Sunni Turk- found a way to please both the British and the Sunni majority back home by adding his voice to a meaningless demand. Yet, the Ismaili encyclopedia explicityly credits with him having rung the death knell of the Caliphate by his letter to the Times supporting that Institution- thus sending a clear signal to the initiated as to the true lesson they are to learn from this episode.


According to Wikipedia, the Indian Khilafat movement did play a role- a negative one- in deciding the fate of the Caliphate.

'Initially, the National Assembly seemed willing to allow a place for the Caliphate in the new regime, agreeing to the appointment of Mehmed's cousin Abdul Mejid II as Caliph upon Mehmed's departure. But the position had been stripped of any authority, and Abdul Mejid's purely ceremonial reign would be short lived. Mustafa Kemal had been a vocal critic of the Ottoman House and its Islamic orientation. When Abdul Mejid was declared Caliph, Kemal refused to allow the traditional Ottoman ceremony to take place, bluntly declaring,
The Khalifa has no power or position except as a nominal figurehead.
In response to Abdul Mejid's petition for an increase in his allowance, Kemal wrote,
Your office, the Khalifate, is no more than an historic relic. It has no justification for existence. It is a piece of impertinence that you should dare write to any of my secretaries!
Still, for all the power he had already wielded in Turkey, Kemal did not dare to abolish the Caliphate outright, as it still commanded a considerable degree of support from the common people.
Then an event happened which was to deal a fatal blow to the Caliphate. Two Indian brothers, Maulana Mohammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali, leaders of the Indian-based Khilafat Movement, distributed pamphlets calling upon the Turkish people to preserve the Ottoman Caliphate for the sake of Islam. Under Turkey's new nationalist government, however, this was construed as foreign intervention, and any form of foreign intervention was labeled an insult to Turkish sovereignty, and worse, a threat to State security. Kemal promptly seized his chance. On his initiative, the National Assembly abolished the Caliphate on March 3, 1924. Abdul Mejid was sent into exile along with the remaining members of the Ottoman House, marking the official end of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Khilafat didn't die with the abolition of the Caliphate. Some money and other help was sent to Ibn Saud. But, behind Ibn Saud was St. John Philby (not then known to be a double agent) who promptly signed a treaty with the Brits who had their own reasons to cut the Hashemites down to size.
In other words, for Indian elite politicians, Khilafat was a way of serving the Brits while appearing to be against them. It was a win-win situation for all concerned. Gandhi's greatness is revealed by his insistence that Hindu-Muslim unity could not be achieved on the basis of shared interests. This was important because the second part of his  argument was that India could not be self-governing unless there was Hindu-Muslim unity- an impossibility because, according to his  interpretation of the Khilafat doctrine, no Muslim could lawfully co-operate or serve with any Govt. save an Islamic one.
By these means, Gandhi was able to persuade middle class Indians to forego the sort of deal that the Egyptians or the Irish- or some years previously, the Boers in South Africa- had got. Unfortunately this was no use to Liberal politicians- men of vision- like Reading and. later, Cripps and Atlee- nor did it particularly help Conservative politicians either, because it conveyed the impression that the British ruling class had lost the competence to do anything more than just cling on, protecting their own life-style, while all about them the productive classes sank into poverty and starvation while the middle classes, abandoned to their own devices, fell victim to faddish blind alley behavior.
Both Gandhianism and Khliafat were a form of non-cooperation which advanced cynical British objectives- thus creating an argument to let the fellows continue to make mischief rather than deal with them in a draconian fashion. The appeal of both movements was that they appeared to make it easier for those under the British yoke  to co-operate with each other rather than with the Imperial power. Khilafat looks like it is a way for Indian Muslims to help Turkish Muslims fight back and recover territory from the Brits and their allies. However, as we have seen Khilafat, in practice, had the opposite effect. It dealt a death blow to Pan Islamism. Khailafat and Gandhianism appeared to have created Hindu Muslim unity- that too in a manner which might also bring the grievances of the poor under their rostrum, or nostrum- but, in fact, Khilafat was a wedge issue not just between Muslims and non Muslims but Muslims themselves. Non-cooperation served the Imperialists and reduced the power of the enemies of Imperialism to co-operate. Yet, this non-cooperation also became an anti-Imperialist credential which meant that Imperialism had an incentive to co-opt or do a deal with precisely these, the most useful, of their professed enemies.
Of course, it is possible that, if the Khilafat demand had never been raised, Gandhi might have been able to seize on some other wedge issue that might have served the same purpose. 
After all, he was a great man. The Aga Khan, on the other hand, was a shepherd whose flock prospered in every possible way under his guidance. So, he was just a guy who was good at his job- not a great man at all.

2 comments:

  1. This is quite a misleading piece. The Aga Khan was a visionary. He had good relations with the British, but also with the Indian Nationalists. He was a powerful support for the Muslim League and the creation of Pakistan. It is noteworthy that in Gujarat it is the rival sect of the Bohras which is dominant. Many Ismailis followed the leadership of the Aga Khan to settle in Pakistan after Partition. They have not tried to assert their separate identity and there is not the same resentment on the part of the Sunni majority against them as is the case with Qadianis and even (since the Ayatollahs took power in Iran) 12-er Shias.
    The far sided aspect of the Aga Khan's thinking is shown by his demand that the German colony of Tanganika be given as a mandate to the Ismailis. The British laughed it off but they had to respect that the Aga Khan was staking a claim to a share in power in East Africa where a large percentage of Ismailis had migrated from Western India.
    Present Aga Khan in fact spent a lot of time in Nairobi growing up and has strong relations with leaders in that part of the world.
    The mistake you are making is to think of the Aga Khan in Indian context only, whereas it is a world-wide movement with a dynamic world-view. There are some Ismailis in countries like Syria, currently badly affected. In a quiet manner, the Aga Khan's office is taking measures to ensure their safety.
    If you look at things from just the Indian point of view no doubt you will condemn great men. Gandhi was also not just thinking for India. He was a Citizen of the World. Some of his closest followers were from different countries like Poland and Britain.
    Looking through a narrow focus of Indian politics causes distortion in thinking.

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  2. @ anon- I'm not sure I understand the point you are making. In 1919 a whole bunch of people- including Jinnah- turned up to lobby for Khilafat, by which they meant that the Brits shouldn't humiliate the Turkish Sultan too much. Even so, there was a lot of mutual suspicion and animosity along Shia Sunni lines. For example, Kidwai accused Jinnah of not signing the Muslim League memorandum though he did in fact do so. Back in India, Gandhi was trying to get the Ali brothers to tone down their demands on behalf of the Sultan. Still, at this point Khilafat was the Muslim League's vehicle to mass contact.
    Local officials in India no doubt were worried by Khilafat but the fact that there was less disruption to the War effort in India then Ireland told its own story. Lloyd George was pro-Greek and in no mood to listen to Montague or the Indian officials. However, Lloyd George was on his way out. The British had no stomach for a war against Attaturk on behalf of the Greeks. So, in that context, it looks to me that the nonsensical demands and worthless diplomacy of Jinnah, the Aga Khan, Kidwai, Ispahani and so on was helpful only to anti Lloyd George faction at Whitehall. In any case, Muslims proving their stupidity for all to see was a great way to damp down a 'Greenmantle' type fear of a Pan Islamic uprising on the part of Backbenchers and Constituency workers.
    Essentially the great British Imperial Nanny looks good, looks like she's doing her job, if the kids abruptly go crazy and start demanding something quite foolish. It's a reminder of why we hired the Nanny in the first place.
    The other piece of good news about Khilafat was that because a lot of money was raised for it, it was inevitable that a class of swindlers would gain the upper hand and squabble amongst themselves. The Aga Khan and also Jinnah, in sponsoring this stupidity, deserved to be eclipsed politically as a result. On the other hand, their revenues didn't diminish, so that was all right.
    To my mind the greatness of the Aga Khan is shown by his emigrating and encouraging his flock to emigrate. Jinnah also emigrated but he came back- quite sensible because India was safer than Britain in the Forties.

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