Was the Ottoman Empire a Caliphate?

From 1517 to 1924 the Ottoman Empire was a Caliphate. Some orientalists and modernists have disputed this because they want to diminish the importance of the Caliphate in the minds of Muslims and show it cannot work in the modern age.

Ishtiaq Hussain in the report “The Tanzimat Secular Reforms in the Ottoman Empire” states: “The political model that modern day Islamists are seeking to introduce bears little resemblance to the past, despite using language such as ‘Caliph’ (for political expediency) to invoke nostalgic imagery of Muslim Empires of the past.”

Firstly, this claim that the Ottoman Sultans were not Caliphs is not new. On 23 December 1876 Abdul-Hamid II adopted a written constitution for the Ottoman Empire which contained an article that explicitly referred to the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph.

Article. 4. His Majesty the Sultan, under the title of “Supreme Caliph,” is the protector of the Muslim religion. He is the sovereign and padişah (emperor) of all the Ottomans.

This article proved highly controversial in Britain due to its colonial hold on the Muslim lands, in particular India. It did not want the Muslims of India to be reminded that they were part of a wider Muslim ummah headed by the Caliph Abdul-Hamid II.

Ş. Tufan Buzpinar’s essay ‘Opposition to the Ottoman Caliphate in the Early Years of Abdülhamid II: 1877-1882’ summarises the British response to the Ottoman Empire’s claim of being a Caliphate.

The first intimation of a hostile British interest in the caliphate came in 1877 when an unofficial debate in England on the question took place involving publicists, scholars, and MPs. The debate was neither inspired nor encouraged by the British government, and the Ottoman government did not intervene in the debate, although it can scarcely have been unaware of it since Abdulhamid was a keen student of the European press. Opinions were divided between whether the Ottoman Sultans had any right to assume the caliphate and whether it was time to transfer it to the Arabs. The opponents of the Ottoman caliphate were almost exclusively retired civil servants of the British government in India. They publicly asserted that the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid, was no longer the head of the Muslims and could not claim the caliphate.

This view was aired first by Sir George Campbell, Liberal MP for Kirkcaldy, who had served as Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal from 1871 to 1874. To Campbell, the Ottoman Sultan was “no more the head of the Muslims than the Tsar of Muscovy was the head of the Roman Catholics and the Protestants of England'”.

George Birdwood, another retired civil servant, went further and suggested that the caliphate be transferred to the Amir of Mecca. In an article in the Times of 12 June 1877, he stated that “it is a great pity that we do not get the Muhammedans of India to look up to the Shareef of Mecca as the Caliph of Islam for he lives by the side of our road to India and would be as completely in our power as the Suez Canal”.

There were also legal arguments put forward to prove that the Sultan was not and could not be the Caliph. A pamphlet, published early in June 1877, rejected the Sultan’s claim to the caliphate on two grounds: first, that the Abbasid caliphate in Egypt was spurious, or at least not proven; and second, that the Ottoman Sultans, not being descendants of the Quraysh tribe, were barred from acquiring the title.

These attacks on the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph were answered by J. Redhouse, a distinguished Turcologist, who published a pamphlet in mid-June 1877, entitled, ‘A Vindication of the Ottoman Sultan’s Title of Caliph’. In the pamphlet, he dismissed the criticisms of the Ottoman claim as “erroneous, futile, and impolitic”. They were erroneous because firstly, the Sultan’s title was not new and had been “accepted and adopted by the whole orthodox world of Islam”, and secondly, the view that the caliph must by lineage be of the Quraysh tribe had been disputed by the early Islamic jurists, and a study of the relevant traditions would lead to the conclusion that “there never was a prophetic injunction to the effect that the caliph must be from the Quraysh”.

The textual argument that Caliphs must be from Qureysh will be dealt with in a separate article. Suffice to say that the strongest Islamic opinion is that that the Caliph being from Quresyh is recommended and NOT a contractual condition.

Secondly, the fact that the Ottomans didn’t frequently use the title Caliph and preferred Sultan does not mean they were not Caliphs. In the book Nizam ul-Hukm fil-Islam it states:

“With regards to his title, it could be the Khaleefah [Caliph], or the Imam or the Ameer of the believers. It is not obligatory to adhere to these three titles, rather it is allowed to give whoever takes charge of the Muslims’ affairs other titles.”

The book also states that “Ruling (al-hukm), reign (al-mulk) and authority (al-sultan) have the same meaning.”

Historically the title Sultan was a semi-independent waali (governor) who appeared during the later period of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Sultans were generally Turks who governed sultanates. In English Sultan is translated as Emperor and Sultanate as Empire. An Empire simply means an extensive group of states.

The Ottomans were one of these sultanates of the Caliphate that went on to take over the Caliphate formally from the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt in 1517. The last Abbasid Caliph in Cairo Al-Mutawakkil III was captured by the Ottomans and sent to Constantinople. He abdicated the Caliphate to Salim who became the first Ottoman Caliph. Salim however, continued to call himself Sultan so there can be some confusion as to whether the Ottomans were really a Caliphate or not.

Thomas Arnold in his book, ‘The Caliphate’, p.142 states:

“The popular Account at the present day of the relations between Sultan Salim and the Khalifah Mutawakkil is that the Caliph made a formal transfer of his office to the conqueror, and as a symbol of this transference handed over to him the sacred relics, which were believed to have come down from the days of the Prophet the robe, of which mention has already been made as being worn by the Abbasids of Baghdad on solemn state occasions some hairs from his beard, and the sword of the Caliph ‘Umar. There is no doubt that Salim carried off these reputed relics to Constantinople (where they are still preserved in the mosque of Ayyub), as part of the loot which he acquired by the conquest of Egypt; but of the alleged transfer of the dignity of the Khilafat there is no contemporary evidence at all.”

Contrary to Arnold’s false claim, there is evidence that he himself presented which proves Salim took on the Caliphate. The Caliph’s official robe and Umar’s sword were items solely for the Caliph similar to the crown jewels in Britain. Salim also took the official title: ‘Custodian of the two holy mosques’ (Khaadim al-Haramayn ash-shareefayn) which is a title used only by the Caliphs. He was the ruler of the entire Muslim world which is the definition of a Caliphate.

Thirdly, you don’t need to be explicitly called a Caliph to be a Caliph. Umar bin al-Khattab was called Amir ul-Mu’mineen but was also a Caliph. We said already Al-Mulk is a synonym of Al-Hukm.

Ibn Taymiyyah said: “Scholars have agreed that Muawiya is the best of this ummah’s kings, for the four who were before him were Caliphs of Nubuwa, and he was the first of kings. His rule was that of mercy.”

Muawiya was called Malik because he did some mazlama such as appointing Yazid but he was a still legally a Caliph. The companions of the Prophet ﷺ understood the word Malik in the sense of a ruler committing injustice.

He narrated that Sufyan ibn Abi’l-‘Arja’ said: ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said, ‘By Allah, I do not know whether I am a Caliph or a king, for if I am a king then this is a tremendous matter.’ Someone said, ‘Amir al-Mu’minin, there is a distinction between the two of them.’ He said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘A Caliph does not take except what is due and he does not use it except in the right way, and you, praise be to Allah, are like that. The king treats people unjustly, and takes from this one and gives to that one.’ ‘Umar was silent. [Suyuti, History of the Caliphs]

In the Ottoman Constitution (23 December 1876) adopted by Abdul-Hamid II it states:

Art. 3. The Ottoman sovereignty, which includes in the person of the Sovereign the Supreme Caliphate of Islam, belongs to the eldest Prince of the House of Osman, in accordance with the rules established ab antiquo.

Art. 4. His Majesty the Sultan, under the title of “Supreme Caliph,” is the protector of the Muslim religion. He is the sovereign and padişah (emperor) of all the Ottomans.

Therefore the Ottomans held multiple titles: Sultan, Caliph and Padisah.

To conclude, the titles and symbolism of the Caliphate are not important. What is important is the law the state rules by. Actions speak louder than words, so a future Caliphate through its ruling and political actions will be known immediately upon its establishment.

Today we have a group (daesh) which has usurped the honourable title of Caliphate and even taken the Islamic flag, yet it is far from resembling a true Islamic State. The ummah should therefore not be fooled by any leader or group who gives lip service to Islam. Rather they should look to the actions of such states and what is implemented, and if they conform to the sharia or not.


This entry was posted in: History