OPINION | Khilafat: Scriptural Sanction and Historical Antecedents

Dr Shreerang Godbole
·11-min read

Islamic doctrine flows from a triad of Islamic scriptures that includes Quran, Hadith (narrative record of the sayings or customs of Prophet Muhammad) and the Sira (biography of the Prophet Muhammad) or the Sunnah (tradition or way of the Prophet Muhammad). Whether at a personal or community level, it is scriptural sanction alone that validates any thought or action as moral or legal.

Notions of righteousness, justice, goodness, wisdom and piety are determined by scripture in its punctilious detail. They may not match and in fact may sometimes run afoul of universal standards. Though the global Ummah (community of the Islamic Faithful) is by its very nature supra-national, fact is that it is divided by territorial borders that are abhorrent to Islam. It is not hard to imagine how a supra-national idea may translate into an extra-territorial pan-Islamic political movement.

If the Khilafat Movement had caught the imagination of Indian Muslims for at least six years, one may safely assume that it had scriptural sanction. As scriptural sanction has timeless validity, one may also assume that the Khilafat Movement had historical antecedents and will also repeat itself in future.

Before we proceed, a word or two about the term ‘pan-Islamism’. The first use of the term thus far discovered is that by Franz von Werner (aka Murad Effendi) in Turkischo Skizzen (German for Turkish Sketches, 1877) and later by French journalist Gabriel Charmes in 1881. The closest Islamic equivalent term, Ittihad-i-Islam or the terms Ittihad-i-Din and Uhuv vet-i-Din, had long been used in the correspondence between the Ottomans and the Muslim rulers of India, Central Asia and Indonesia (The Khilafat Movement in India, 1919-1924, Muhammad Naeem Qureshi, dissertation submitted to University of London, 1973, p. 6). Though the term pan-Islamism is a relatively late construct, the idea has its roots in the following Quranic passage: "And verily this Ummah of yours is one Ummah and I am your Lord and Cherisher, therefore fear Me and no other." (23:52)

Khilafat in early Islamic history

The Quran mentions word khalifa (lit.successor, pl. Khulafa) in the sense of vice-regent or successor in Verses 2.30. 4.59. 6.165, 35.39 and 38.26. The first Muslim ruler was none other than Prophet Muhammad (570-632). Though he started his Prophetic mission in 610 CE, he started ruling Medina in 622 CE. Thus, for ten years, he was Prophet, Ruler, Military Commander, Jurist and Judge. Neither did the Quran nor Prophet Muhammad assign his Khalifa.

In Islam, Prophet Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets (Quran 33:40) and no one can take the place of the Prophet in his position as Messenger of God. However, his position as a ruler can be represented by other Muslims for the Quran states; “O you who believe! Obey God and obey the Messenger, and those from among you who are invested with authority” (4:59). The Hadith has numerous commandments regarding allegiance to a ruler, for example, “Whoever dishonours a ruler of Allah on earth, Allah will dishonour him” (Tirmizi, Al-Hadith, Tr. of Mishkat-ul-Masabih, Vol.2, Islamic Book Service, Delhi, p.560).

The title of the first Khalifa Abu Bakr was Khalifatu Rasul al-Allah (Successor of Messenger of Allah). The first four Khulafa, Abu Bakr (632–634), Umar (634–644), Uthman (Osman, Ottoman 644–656) and Ali (656–661) have been called as Khulafa Rashidun (the rightly guided Khulafa) by Sunni Muslims. All four belonged to the Quraysh, the tribe that included Prophet Muhammad‘s Hashemite clan. During their period, Islamic armies defeated the Sassanid Empire, halved and almost destroyed the Byzantine Empire and expanded into South and Central Asia and through North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula.

The period of the first four Khulafa (632-661 CE) is considered the Golden Age of Islam. Ironically, the Golden Age was marked by the murder of three of the four Khulafa. After Ali, the Khilafat passed into the hands of the Umayyads, the tribesmen of Uthman’s clan where it stayed for 90 years. In 750 CE, the Abbassid dynasty overthrew the Ummayyads and established its Khilafat in Baghdad, Iraq. Though they were forced to cede authority to various other dynasties in the Muslim world, they continued to claim authority until the Turkish Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. The Ottoman claim to the Khilafat lasted from 1517 to 1924. The Ottoman Empire was not just another Muslim empire or state. It carried aloft the banner of Islam against Christian Europeans for some five centuries, the conquest of Constantinople having being accomplished by Sultan Mehmed in 1453.

Fiction of Khilafat in Islamic history

Though devout Muslims are in the thrall of the scripturally ordained concept of Ummah, the harsh reality is that throughout history, Muslims have been at each other’s throats, each accusing the other of being a renegade. They seem to behave as an Ummah only when confronted with infidels. Barely two decades after the death of the Prophet, the notion of Khilafat was questioned by Shias who refused to recognize any Khalifa before Ali as well as by the Khawarij who questioned the need for a Khilafat altogether. Even among the Sunnis, debate continues to rage whether or not the Khalifa should be from the blood-line of the Quraysh.

By 750 CE there was no longer any one universally recognised Khilafat. Independent rulers in the ‘core’ and on the ‘fringe’ of the Islamic Empire appropriated to themselves the titles of Amir-ul-Mominin (lit. Commander of the Faithful) and Khalifa. At one time there were as many as three Khulafa in the Muslim world, each claiming the allegiance of the Faithful. Yet, in spite of the impotence of the 'central' Khilafat, the fiction of its authority, under an hieratic cloak and exalted by jurists like Al-Mawardi (974-1058) and Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), still survived and lingered even after the disappearance of the Baghdad Khilafat at the hands of the Mongols in 1258 CE. Large portions of the Sunni Muslim world continued to submit to the Abbasid Khulafa at Cairo and later to the Ottomans at Constantinople (Qureshi, ibid, p. 7).

Khalifa-Sultan nexus in India

India had been somewhat accustomed to the fiction of the central Khilafat since the very early days of the Arab conquest of Sind in 711 CE. Practically throughout the pre-Mughal period, the Abbasid Khulafa of Baghdad, and later their fainéant (idle) successors in Cairo, were regarded as the source and sanction of the Sultans' legal authority. Some of the Sultans - Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030), Shams-ud-din Iltutmish (1211-1236), Muhammad bin Tughluq (1325-1351) had especially sought and obtained the Khalifal investiture.

Even the few Sunni provincial dynasties which assumed Independence from Delhi did so in the name of the Abbasid Khulafa, whose names appeared on the coins. This practice continued until the advent of the Mughals in 1526 whose rule coincided with the 'transfer' of the Khilafat from Cairo to Constantinople. Though the diplomatic exchanges between the two Empires continued up to the late 18th century, the Mughals, like other independent rulers (e.g. Shia Persia), never conceded the Ottoman claim to the 'universal' Khilafat.

The position, however, changed gradually when the Mughal rule began to totter. There is evidence, though scant, to suggest that by the second half of the 18th century, the Muslims in India were developing some kind of attachment to the Ottomans. Shah Wali Ullah (1703-1762), the famous Sufi of Delhi, twice referred to the Turkish Sultan as Amir-ul-Mominin in his Tafhimat-i-Ilahiyah. Later, in 1789, the gesture was reflected in Tipu Sultan's endeavour to obtain an investiture from the Ottoman Khalifa Abdul-Hamid I (Qureshi, ibid, pp.8, 9).

Indian ulama’s age-old Turkish fixation

The position of the Indo-Muslim orthodoxy with regard to the Ottoman Khilafat began to crystallise in the 1840s. Shah Muhammad Ishaq (1778-I846), the grandson of Wali Ullah, was probably the first Indian alim (lit. knowledgeable person; pl. ulama) to support the Ottoman political policies when he migrated to Mecca in 1841. From then on, the inclination of the ulama, at least of the Wali Ullah School, was to recognise and actively to proclaim the Ottoman title to the ‘universal’ Khilafat.

By the early 1850s, the Ottomans were themselves reported to be pushing the Sultan's claim as Khalifa in India through their emissaries. It is not surprising, therefore, that in 1854 Lord Dalhousie (1812-1860), the Governor-General of India, found among Muslims considerable interest and sympathy for the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ as he was considered to be. In fact, one consular report hints at such activity as early as 1835 or 1836.

When the Crimean War broke out in 1854, “great interest and excitement was reported to be felt by all the Mussulman population in India, especially on the western frontier.” Links with Constantinople became more intimate with the disappearance in 1858 of the last vestiges of Muslim rule in India. In their search for a ‘centre’ and to escape British reprisals, not only did the Indian ulama turn to the Ottoman Khalifa, but also, in a number of cases, notably those of Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818-91), Haji Imdadullah (1817-99), Abdul Ghani (d. 1878), Muhammad Yaqub (b. 1832) and Khairuddin (1831-1908), they migrated to Mecca and some even visited Constantinople.

Even those ulama like Karamat Ali Jounpuri (1800-73) who pleaded for loyalty to the British did so, on the basis of the ‘friendship that exists between the British Nation and the acknowledged Head of our Religion, the Sultan of Turkey’ (Qureshi, ibid, pp. 8, 9).

Khilafat in Indian Muslim consciousness

The fixation with the Turkish Sultan was not unique to the ulama. It was reflected in the Muslim press and in the consciousness of common Muslims at least from the 1850’s, if not earlier. A study of the nascent Muslim press during the closing decades of the nineteenth century indicates a growing pan-Islamic tendency among Muslims since the Russo-Turkish War of 1875, crystallizing itself into one of the basic strands in their orientation towards the British in India over the next four decades which saw the Turko-Greek War (1896), the Italian raid on Tripoli (1911) and the Balkan War (1912-14); (Review: The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India by Gail Minault; Review by Sharif al-Mujahid; Pakistan Horizon, Vol. 39, No.2, 1986, p.87).

The Indian Muslims had been praying for the long life, prosperity and victory of the Khilafat al-Islam at the khutba (a prescribed Islamic Friday noon-prayer from the mosque pulpit acknowledging sovereignty of the ruler) and pleading this cause in the press and from the public platform since 1870s (al-Mujahid, ibid p. 81). The middle-class Muslim intelligentsia represented by the likes of Sir Sayyid Ahmed (1817-98) popularized this fiction of a central Turkish Khilafat.

Nature of Turkish fixation

Three features need to be underlined to understand the Turkish fixation of Indian Muslims from the 1830s. First, the pan-Islamic fixation was not limited to Indian Muslims. The Turkish fixation was evident in pan-Islamic movements in Central Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia from early as late seventeenth century. Second, the fiction of the Turkish Khilafat was reinforced by the Turkish Sultans such as Sultan Abdul-Aziz (1861-1876) and his successor Abdul-Hamid II (1876-1909) to strengthen their position against internal turmoil and external European encroachments and to disabuse the Arabs from harbouring nationalistic aspirations.

In this, they were assisted by European Powers who acknowledged the Sultan's claim in treaties by Austria-Hungary (1908), Italy (1912) and Greece and Bulgaria (1913). Third, as elsewhere in the Muslim world, Shias joined Sunnis in demonstrating their support for the Ottomans, regarding the Khilafat as capable of unifying the Muslim community. The lead given in this direction by the Anjuman-i-Islam (Bombay) of the Bohra leaders Badruddin Tyabji (1844-1906) and Mohammed Ali Rogay, was later sustained by Cheragh Ali (1844-1895) of Hyderabad (Deccan), and still later by Ameer Ali (1849-1928), the Aga Khan (1877-1957), M.H. Ispahani, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) and others (Qureshi, ibid, p. 15).

Thus, the Khilafat Movement that seems to erupt in India in 1919 had scriptural basis and historical antecedents that date from the earliest days of Islamic rule in India. The notion of a central Khilafat, fantastic as it is, was held and sustained by the Sultans and Badshahs, ulama and the intelligentsia as well by common Indian Muslims.

It was not a uniquely Indian phenomenon but part of a pan-Islamic sentiment through much of the Muslim world. On 3 March 1924, the Grand Assembly of the Republic of Turkey abolished the ‘the laughing-stock in the eyes of the really civilized and cultured people of the world’ as the Khilafat was described by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The Khilafat Movement in India was but a momentary pause in the long battle for its restoration. Mustafa Sabri Efendi ,1869-1954, last Ottoman Shaykh al-Islam, 1924; Abu al-Ala Mawdudi ,1903–1979, Jamait-e-Islami, 1967; Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, 1909–1979, Hizbul-Tahrir or Party of Liberation, Jordan, 1925; Seyyid Qutb,1906–66, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, 1964; Mullah Muhammad Umar, 1960-2013,Taliban, 1996; Abu Bakr al-Baghdad, 1971-2019, ISIS, 2014 are few of the numerous notables who have championed the Khilafat post-1924. The battle for the Khilafat continues.

The author has written books on Islam, Christianity, contemporary Buddhist-Muslim relations, Shuddhi movement and religious demography. Views expressed are personal.