The “Caliphate Question”: British Views and Policy toward Pan-Islamic Politics and the End of the Ottoman Caliphate

This paper examines British approaches to the caliphate from the beginning of the First World War to the aftermath of its dissolution in 1924. Background will be given as to how the Islamic conception of the caliphate shifted over time. British use of the caliphate as a political tool in the nineteenth century is also examined, especially with regards to how strong British-Ottoman ties prior to the First World War affected India’s Muslims.

The primary focus, however, will be on British ties with King Hussein of the Hejaz. British suggestions of an Arab caliphate encouraged the idea that Hussein should assume the title of caliph, which would later be a cause of agitation and concern for British policy in the British Empire. This is especially true with regards to India, as fear of Indo-Muslim opinion would deeply influence British policy when it came to the Ottoman Empire’s position in the post-bellum period. With the creation of the Turkish Republic and the subsequent disestablishment of the Ottoman caliphate, Hussein, sharif of the Hejaz, would officially announce his claim to the title. This dismayed the British foreign policy establishment, which strove to avoid suggestions of complicity lest further anti-British activity be encouraged in India.

Eventually, the end of Hussein would come from Ibn Saud, his principle rival in the Arab world. Despite Hussein’s status as a British ally, the widespread anger against him in the Islamic world over the caliphate would persuade the British to distance themselves from him and his religious pretensions.


The official end of the Ottoman caliphate on 3 March 1924 was a blow to the prestige of Muslims throughout the world. The abdication of the Ottoman sultan, leader of the Islamic world’s last major empire, ended any sense of pan-Islamic political unity transcending the borders of the Islamic ummah (nation). The sultan’s stylization as caliph accorded him a certain status as de facto leader of the world’s Muslims, a status enhanced by the Ottoman Empire’s power and independence. The Turkish Republic, in a sense, brought Islamic religious politics in line with an increasing secular and nationalistic world. The caliphate issue did not quite end in Istanbul, however. Almost immediately after the decision to dismantle it, “king” Hussein ibn Ali of the Hejaz, a former Ottoman province, proclaimed a new caliphate. A British ally and one of the instigators of the Arab revolt, he would inevitably fail to sustain this new Arab caliphate, leaving the issue of Islamic leadership unresolved to this day.

The idea of the Islamic world without a caliphate seemed irrelevant to the West, as it was a matter peculiar to Muslim concerns. This was certainly the view of British foreign policy circles. When pressed for an opinion, then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald made it clear that “His Majesty’s Government are not entitled, either on political or religious grounds, to comment on or interfere in any way in a matter in which their policy has consistently been and will remain one of complete disinterestedness.” 1 The word disinterestedness was frequently used to describe the official attitude toward the issue. There is a sense that Britain, being a foreign non-Muslim power with no interest in the Islamic world’s esoteric religious politics, was pleased to remain blissfully ignorant of the subject.

Yet one has to ask if this sense of political apathy was genuinely true. Having a substantial Muslim population living in its empire, the British government would certainly be concerned about the situation. Hussein’s strong relationship with Britain during the First World War would also point to some official interest. Looking at the evidence, one sees that the British policy of disinterest is simply untrue: rather than avoiding involvement, the British supported the idea of an Arab caliphate headed by Hussein during the First World War as a counterpoise to the Ottoman sultan, only to turn away from Hussein’s appropriation of the title khalifah (successor [caliph]) in 1924 due to its fear of negative reactions on the part of its Muslim subjects.

It is possible to see the “caliphate question,” as it concerned the British, as a mere historical artifact. This would, however, ignore this particular episode’s poignant contemporary relevance in western-Islamic relations. The precariousness of this situation seems to mirror the often confrontational relationship between western and Islamic civilizations in our own time. This period is also notable for the emergence of significant political mobilization on the part of Muslims worldwide. The parallels toward contemporary political Islam are striking, especially with regards to how the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity brought about such strong religious fervency. As such, this era prefigured many of the themes found in the modern zeitgeist, such as western inference in Islamic politics, the rise of powerful transnational Islamic movements, and the emergence of religious authority as a topic of acute concern for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Idea of the Caliphate in Islamic History

The caliphate, as an institution, emerged after Prophet Muhammad died in 632. The Prophet nominated no successor and, according to Arab tradition, left it up to the Muslim community to designate its own leader. The first to hold the title was Abu Bakr. Upon his death, the title passed to Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was succeeded by Uthman ibn Affan, and then to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the “four rightly guided caliphs.” Its emphasis was that of a single ruler leading the affairs of the new empire in much the same way as the Prophet had led his community. With the succession of Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan in 661 and the transfer of the seat of Islamic leadership from Madinah to Damascus, the caliphate assumed a more temporal and less religious significance. His rule also inaugurated the title’s hereditary transmission, thus making the caliphate resemble a traditional autocratic monarchy. The Umayyads were deposed by the Abbasids in 750. While the Abbasids held the title until the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258, rival claimants to the caliphate (e.g., the Fatimids in Egypt) emerged and thus undermined the initial sense of its universality.

As the Islamic world fractured into different empires and dynasties, the caliphate’s religious sense dissolved into a more worldly character. In at least its early manifestations, the caliph held both spiritual and temporal powers. As vicegerent of the Islamic world, he was responsible for maintaining God’s law in the world. This did not mean that he had to be a scholar  (`alim) who could give and interpret religious injunctions, for the idea of a “Muslim papacy” was irrelevant. However, the caliphate did have a strong religious character. The title khalifah implied a direct link with the Prophet as leader of the Muslim community. At the same time, the title amir almu’minin (commander of the faithful) was also a common styling for the caliph, although one more staunchly worldly and pragmatic in its connotations of both civil and military rulership.2

As the centuries passed and the Islamic world’s unity was undermined as the ummah itself spread, the kings and their respective dynasties bestowed upon themselves the title of caliph as a sign of divine providence. At what point in early Islamic history this transition away from the caliphate’s original nature occurred is debatable. Hawting notes that Sunni tradition tends to locate the transition in Islamic rulership from that of religious successor (khilafah) to despotic king (mulk) during the Umayyad Dynasty.3

Crone and Hinds similarly contend that “the happy union of religion and politics” ended with the Umayyads, as the religious investiture inherent in the early caliphate dissipated with the rise of the new class of religious scholars (the ulema).4 The ideal of the caliph as successor to the Prophet, with all of its intrinsic spiritual trappings, died out within a few centuries of the Prophet’s death. As a result, any Muslim ruler could use the appellation in a secular context with the obvious proviso that he rule according to Islamic law. This was certainly true of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman sultans were styled as caliphs from as far back as Murad I (1359-89). The Ottoman conception of the caliphate had little overt religious significance until the eighteenth century, when the sultan declared his right to oversee the religious affairs of the Crimea’s Muslims when negotiating with the Russian Empire.5

By the nineteenth century, with the rise of the nation-state and European expansion into Muslim lands, the Ottomans revived the idea of the caliphate as a more universal form of authority. The concept of the caliph as some pan-Islamic Muslim “pope” holding both temporal power and spiritual authority over all Muslims spread with the rise of pan-Islamic propaganda disseminated by Sultan Abdul-Hamid II (reigned 1876-1909). The sultan actively proselytized his role as the singular head of all Muslims. T. W. Arnold speculated that this newfound interest in encouraging recognition of the sultan’s role as the supreme caliph (especially in the East, such as the East Indies and India) was due mostly, in part, to an insecurity resulting from nineteenth-century Ottoman losses in the Balkans.6

Whatever the real motivations behind this undertaking, it was not always well-received. The catholicity of the Ottoman caliphate was a modern innovation. One Orientalist scholar writing to the Foreign Office went so far as to say that Germany (alongside the Ottomans) had a hand in encouraging absurd pan-Islamic notions among British Muslims as a means of creating anti-British agitation.7 Within the Islamic world, the sultan’s pretensions toward religious legitimacy were not always widely accepted either. The Islamic modernist scholar Rashid Rida based his mild sympathy for the idea of an Arab caliphate (while still nominally in favor of the Ottoman Empire’s territorial integrity) on his perception that the Ottomans were somewhat inferior to Arabs in the spiritual realm.8 This being said, Ottoman efforts had some success. If by the nineteenth century the concept of the caliph as the supreme religious authority had been effectively eliminated from the collective Muslim psyche, by the turn of the twentieth century it had been renewed with considerable vigor.

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