Literary Contributions of UK Muslims to the Cause of the Ottoman Caliphate(1877-1924)

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Literary Contributions of UK Muslims to the Cause of the Ottoman Caliphate(1877-1924)

The Right Honourable Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928)

If the Muslims living in what was then British India can justifiably claim to have contributed men and material to support the Ottoman Caliphate during later part of the nineteenth and earlier part of the twentieth century, many Indians who had migrated to other countries, too, have acquitted themselves admirably in this regard.

Muslims living in the UK, be they retired civil services personnel or students pursuing higher education in the foremost British universities then, or British converts to Islam, these were, perhaps, the foremost among those living outside British India that reached out, in so many different forms, to help the Ottoman caliphate during their most trying days. From hosting the Khilafat delegation to Europe headed by Mohammed Ali Jauhar (who was accompanied by other stalwarts including the illustrious Syed Sulaiman Nadwi) to sending well-equipped medical missions to aid the Ottoman troops in the Tripolitian and Balkan fronts, to raising funds and submitting memoranda to the British rulers of India demanding a fair treatment of the vanquished Turkish forces (subsequent to their defeat in the Great War), the annals of history testify to the untiring efforts of this class of people of Indian origin.

Add to this their efforts at mobilizing British public opinion, through letters published in leading British newspapers, in favour of a better treatment of the vanquished Turks, and by publishing articles highlighting the atrocities carried out by their European Christian compatriots against a hapless and impoverished Muslim population in Tripoli, Greece, Macedonia and other Balkan states.

Though not of Indian origin, a person whose mention cannot be omitted in any such essay is that of Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall. He rejected Christianity because he felt the Church was excessively anti-Islamic and he was appalled at the British animosity towards Turkey, a country he had visited many times and liked. A BBC documentary[1] on his life states that Pickthall rejected Christianity because he was shocked by the way the Christian clergy and the British government spewed hatred against Islam and Turkey to justify their war against Turkey. After his conversion in 1914, the same documentary also records, that Pickthall tried to persuade the British government to change its policy against Turkey. Hde wrote articles for New Age in defense of Turkey during the first World War[2].  But, says the BBC documentary, this had devastating personal consequences on him. He began to be perceived as an enemy of the state. This forced him to migrate to India where he lived for two decades. It is here that he completed his classic English translation of the Quran, The  Meaning of the Glorious Quran.

Incidentally, another prominent British convert to Islam who spoke up against the British policies towards Ottoman Turkey was Abdullah Quilliam. His political views and allegiance to the Ottoman Caliph led some to denounce him as a traitor.[3]

Among the literary contributions of Indians in the UK, of special interest are the letters written by the late Right Honourable Syed Ameer Ali to the editor of “The Times”. His activism, particularly in the crucial period of the early nineteenth century, when Muslim spokespersons were few and far between, played a crucial role in countering misinformed or prejudiced Western criticism of Islamic history and society.

The following extracts of Syed Ameer Ali’s letters to The Times establishes for eternity the valuable role played by Indian Muslims in supporting Ottoman Turkey during their most vexed days:

TURKEY AND THE POWERS[4]

Sir—No Muslim views with indifference the political outlook at this moment in Eastern Europe, nor hesitates to believe that the policy which the Christian Powers have chosen to adopt against Turkey is bringing us slowly face to face with a religious war of a bitter and protracted character. The facts which have brought about the present situation are simple enough. A province of the Turkish Empire has been kept in a state of chronic disorder by foreign agitators and revolutionary bands, organized in neighbouring states. These bands have slaughtered inoffensive people regardless of age, sex or creed, without protest and without reprobation from the rest of the Christian world—merely with the object of bringing Turkish rule into discredit….Under one pretext and another the Powers obtained the assent of the the Ottoman Sovereign to the employment of foreign police officers in the service of foreign states, but paid by the Turkish Government. Not satisfied with this concession, they now seek to obtain jointly the financial control of the province for the disturbed condition of which, if truth were told, they are mainly responsible. If this demand is acceded to the result is obvious; the reception of revenue in a Muslim State is the outward symbol of sovereignty. Once the Sultan ceases to have any voice in a financial administration of Macedonia, it will have but one meaning for the Muslims of Turkey as well as elsewhere—that he has been deprived of a part of his dominion by a combination of the Christian Powers.

….In the stand that the Sultan is said to be making against the demands of the Powers, he will have the unqualified sympathy of the entire Muslim world.

I know that nothing that any Muslim can say will alter for a moment the decision of the Powers, but the occasion must not be allowed to pass without a protest in the name of humanity and common justice against a policy which is likely to engulf Eastern Europe and Western Asia in the horrors of a racial and religious war, the effects of which will be felt far beyond the limits of the Turkish Empire.

Yours etc. AMEER ALI
The Times, Tuesday, November 28, 1905, p. 12, Col. 3

In another letter[5] titled “A PROTEST”, he submitted

Sir, —As one deeply interested in the growth and maintenance of amity and friendly feeling between Christianity and Islam, and in seeing the two great creeds working harmoniously, and if possible hand in hand, in the cause of progress in their respective spheres, I venture to trespass on the hospitality of your columns to call attention to the unthinkable consequences of the projected Italian invasion of the Turkish possession of Tripoli. To England tha matter is one of serious moment; a hundred millions of Muslims acknowledge her sway and they all take the keenest interest in everything that concerns their fellow-religionists abroad. The fury and hatred to which such a wanton and unwarrantable act of aggression is sure to give rise will react in every part of the Muslim world; Egypt and the whole of Northern Africa will be immediately affected by it, and the work of conciliation and the progress of goodwill will be thrown back by centuries.

Whatever excuse may be urged in palliation of the appropriation of Morrocco by France, there is not the slightest for the attempt by Italy to provoke a war of creeds and races by the poliation of Turkey. ‘Her grievances’ to which you refer in today’s issue of The The Times are too flimsy to justify the action she progress to take.

I appeal to every lover of peace and goodwill on earth to protest with all his power, before it is too late, against this flagrant breach of all canons of International morality on the part of a nominally Christian country.

I am, Sir, Yours faithfully,

AMEER ALI,
Published in the The Times,
Thursday, September 28, 1911

In a further missive to The Times, on 23 February 1920, responding to allegations of massacre of the Armenians, and the big hue and cry in European capitals, this is some of what Syed Ameer Ali wrote in a spirited defence of the Turks thus[6]:

The Turks have been called ‘cruel rulers’; these ‘cruel rulers’ gave a generous asylum to the Jews from the gibbet and the stake in Spain. They granted absolute toleration to their non-Muslim subjects when tolerance was a word unknown to Europe; they guaranteed to them the full enjoyment of their communal and religious rights. The Greeks, the Armenians and the Jews have flourished under their ‘cruel’ rule. Theym, have no doubt, repressed ruthlessly risings and rebellions, fomented almost entirely from abroad. But is there any nation that has not been ruthless in the treatment of rebellion? When the ‘terrible crimes’ is made up before our impartial jury and the balance is struck, it will not be found to be entirely against the Turks.

In the same letter, he bemoaned the overt moves of prominent British personalities to seek to wrest Constantinople from the Ottomans. He also pointed out that the Khilafat movement that had taken roots in India was not be dismissed lightly. He wrote:

Will you permit me in this critical moment in the history both of Turkey and the British Empire to draw public attention to the certain result of the agitation that has been started against the decision of the Supreme Council, not to disturb the status quo in Constantinople and Thrace? Many of its supporters have held high office in the State and some of them are destined again to have charge of its affairs, and I am grieved to see that in their zeal they have employed towards their Muslim fellow subjects language c alculated to aggravate the present unrest and ferment in India. Lord Bryce, the protagonist of the present attempt to stampede the Government, has in one of his many fulminations, chosen to deride Muslim sentiment as ‘shadowy terrors’ to recoil before which would do harm to British prestige. I venture to say that British administrators who have been in direc t touch with the Indian people would tell him differently. To call the wave of intense and united feeling that is surging over India at this moment a ‘factitious agitation’ is to deliberately shut ones eyes to the gravest situation that, in the opinion of the wisest observers, has arisen within the last half century.

Appealing to the fair-minded British public, he  points to the trust Muslim rulers have reposed in the British from their early days in India, when it was not even their colony, and goes on to show the sacrifices Indian Muslim soldiers made for the Crown during the Great War. Ameer Ali fearlessly states that, the soldiers who gave their lives and those who bore injuries had no inkling that they were drafted to fight, inter alia, the forces of their Caliph, in what some of the British politicians called the ‘last crusade’, aimed at destroying the last traces of the Islamic caliphate.

In 1765 a Muslim Sovereign constituted the East India Company the chief revenue official in Easter India; in 1802 he delegated to the Company the Imperial authority. Since then the Muslims have formed one of the staunchest elements in the Indian population. In the late war tens of thousands laid down their lives in the cause of England; Muslim princes and magnates responded lavishly to the call for financial and material help, and the people at large gave their best unstintedly. The Army would probably be the first to acknowledge its debt to Muslim soldiers in getting across the Jordan. Neither the soldiers who fought and died, for the princes and people who regarded England’s chief enemy as the common foe were told that they were helping in the last crusade and were to work for the eventual destruction of an institution and an Empire in which they are vitally interested. Had they had any inkling of the psychology at the back of the present agitation, there would have been a great searching of hearts on all sides. They are now being told that although British subjects, possessed of the same constitutional rights  as their Christian fellow-subjects, entitled to the same consideration in respect of their religious sentiments and political feelings, their feelings and sentiments are of no account, and could and should be trampled upon with impunity and regardless of consequences….

Continuing his forthright approach, and not for a moment apologizing for the Indian Muslims love of the Ottoman caliph, he hits out at the promise made by the then Prime Minister, George Lloyd, and how the entire nation was complicit in breach of faith because of the way Turkey was eventually dismembered and disgraced after the success of the Allied forces.

On January 5, 1918, the Prime Minister speaking in the name of England and the British nation, nay, of the British Empire, which includes over 100 millions of Muslims, said as follows:

“Nor are we fighting…to deprive Turkey of its capital or of rich and renowned lands of Asia Minor and Thrace, which are predominantly Turkish in race”.

This memorable declaration attained its object; it removed the doubts and apprehensions that were gaining ground and assured the steadfastness of the Muslim soldiers; Muslims universally accepted it as a soemn pledge and maintained their trust in England’s honour and England’s good faith. Are England’s honour and good faith of no value in her world-wide empire? The present outcry (referring to the calls for wresting Constantinople from the Turks) should have been raised when the pledge was given to a trustful world in the name of the British nation. It is un-British to take all the advantage out of it and then to turn round and raise a furious hue and cry against its fulfilment. The Muslims would be justified in regarding it as a grave breach of faith which at any other moment would have evoked strong disapproval, and committed by any other nation, would have received just condemnation.

Coming soon: PART-II-Writings of Mohammed Ali Jauhar, Allama Shibli, Maulana Azad and others, in support of the Ottoman Caliphate


[1] Britain’s First Muslim Converts – Documentary, BBC, May 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kADTQgHLqV8

[2] A Great Book that Died: The Story of a British Muslim, Julia Simpson-Urrutia, https://grassrootswritersguild.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/a-great-book-that-died-the-story-of-a-british-muslim/

[3] Geaves, R. (2010). Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam. Markfield, Kube Publishing., pp. 102–03

[4] Memoirs and Other Writings of Syed Ameer Ali, Renaissance Publishing House, Delhi. Pp.334-335

[5] Memoirs and Other Writings of Syed Ameer Ali, Renaissance Publishing House, Delhi. pp 340-341

[6] Memoirs and Other Writings of Syed Ameer Ali, Renaissance Publishing House, Delhi. pp.346-349

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