What would the real caliph do?
The notorious ISIL, or “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” which has made a name for itself by chopping off heads and crucifying opponents, has recently made global news by declaring a “caliphate.”
However, and naturally, hardly anybody among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims recognizes this self-declared “leadership of all Muslims” by a group that is too fanatic even for al-Qaeda.
Yet still, it is worth looking at what the actual caliphate, which was disestablished by Republican Turkey some 90 years ago, looked like. It is especially worth looking at the life and times of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), the Ottoman Sultan who is widely revered in the Muslim world as the last caliph who really bore the responsibilities of his majestic title.
Abdülhamid II was certainly not a democrat, for he disestablished the Ottoman Parliament that had convened right before his rule in 1876. Yet, as historian Bernard Lewis wrote, he was also “far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend; on the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer.” He founded the first archaeology museum, public library, faculty of medicine, academy of fine arts, and schools of finance and agriculture in the collapsing Ottoman Empire.
He also endowed the empire with the telegraph, railroads, and factories, and during his reign, Istanbul flourished as a world capital.
Abdülhamid II was an observant, pious Muslim, but he also had Western tastes. He loved playing the piano, and arranged piano lessons for his daughter. He enjoyed opera, too, and had the famous Belgian soprano Blanche Arral perform for him.
As Kemal Karpat, distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin explains in detail in his majestic book, “The Politicization of Islam,” Abdülhamid was also a peacemaker. One example was the reconciliation he made possible between the American troops that occupied the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, and the local Muslims in Sulu who waged a “jihad” against this military presence.
In 1899, the American ambassador to Turkey, Oscar S. Straus, visited the sultan-caliph, explained to him that the United States, “has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Muslims,” asking him to help to reach out to Sulu Muslims. Pleased with the idea of religious freedom, Abdülhamid stated that the “Mohammedans [Muslims] in question recognized him as Caliph of the Muslims and he felt sure they would follow his advice.” Two Sulu chiefs who were in Mecca at the time were informed that the caliph and the American ambassador had reached a definite understanding that the Muslims “would not be disturbed in the practice of their religion” if the U.S. ruled the Philippines. The Sulu chiefs followed the advice, and a military conflict, which would be disastrous for both sides, was averted.
Such acts of statesmanship suggest that if there are any religious figures in the Muslim world today that walk in the footsteps of the great caliph Abdülhamid II, they are not those who wage violent campaigns on “infidels” and even fellow Muslims. They are, rather, the Muslims who are trying to establish dialogue, understanding and peace both within Islam, and also between Islam and other civilizations.
NOTE: For more on Abdülhamid II, the Ottoman tradition, and historical caliphate, see my book: “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”