The Revolt in Arabia/Shereef and Caliph

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The Revolt in Arabia by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje
Shereef and Caliph


SHEREEF AND CALIPH

Assuming that the "robber raiders" of the Turkish-German despatch and the Shereef of Mecca, referred to in the Reuter telegram are one and the same person, and that, accordingly, Shereef Husein, Emir of Mecca, has raised his standard against the Turkish domination, then the question arises, "What does the Shereef mean by his opposition?"

Various writers on Islam have commented on the impropriety, according to Mohammedan law itself, of the assumption of the title of "Caliph" by the Sultan of Turkey. It was, indeed, for more than nine centuries, regarded by the Moslem world as obligatory for the Caliphs to be able to trace their descent from the Arabic line of Koreish, the line from which Mohammed sprang. The pretensions advanced by the Sultans since the sixteenth century have never been generally approved. That they did not excite any vehement open opposition was partly owing to the imposing puissance of the Turkish Empire at the moment when the Sultans decorated themselves with the name, and partly to the circumstance that the usurped dignity had no practical sequence. The Caliph added no patch of ground to the territory that the Sultan had conquered with the sword, and spiritual authority has never been ascribed to the Caliph by the Moslem congregations. With the assumption of the highest appellation that could be worn by a Moslem regent after Mohammed, these Sultans simply announced to all Moslem princes that none of them would be allowed to consider themselves his equal.

Such Moslems as were under Turkish authority were not affected by the Caliphate of their Sultan. The relation of subjects to their rulers in Mohammedan realms not subordinated to Turkey were even less affected; and least of all did the matter signify to those followers of Islam ruled by non-Mohammedans. These are numerous and have steadily increased during the last centuries. An effective Caliphate, however explained, presupposes the political unity of all the faithful.

The Caliph is the very personification of such unity and is, primarily, the leader of Islam's armies against the foes of the Faith, or he bears a name bereft of all significance. In international life there is no room for mediæval structures, and Turkey can live in peace with other states, especially with those possessing Mohammedan subjects, only if Caliphate pretensions be honestly put aside, even though the title be maintained as a formal one. This was well understood by Turkish statesmen of later times, and they either banished the Caliphate idea in all their international discussions, or they permitted their European colleagues, who mistakenly regarded the Caliph as a sort of pope a prince of the Church to continue to entertain this false conception as it was harmless.

Unlettered Mohammedans, who, ignorant of the modern point of view, went on assigning an important place to the Caliphate legend in their framework of the political system, were, however, often presented with panislamic visions in order to retain, fictitiously, at least, what had long vanished from real life. And these visions were often big with ambition.

How completely at odds the Caliphate idea is with modern international relations appeared when the Turkish Government, seduced by its alliance with Germany, brought it to the fore, anew. The first outward and visible sign of the renaissance of the Caliphate was the declaration of the "Holy War," accompanied by an appeal to all the Mohammedans in the world to participate therein, irrespective of the political authority they were bound to obey. Next came a series of official and officious publications, all based on the hypothesis that the Turkish Sultan-Caliph is the man who, under all circumstances, controls the political policy of the Mohammedans.

Taking all these points into consideration, it becomes hardly needful to reply to the question as to how the Shereef of Mecca might, perhaps, try to become a rival of the Sultan Mehmed Reshad as a pretender to the Caliphate.

A Caliphate, no matter who holds the dignity, is wholly incompatible with modern political conditions. And this will be as true after the present war as it was before. Only as an empty title can it be tolerated at all.

For the rest, it can be seen, from what we have already written about the history and the current condition of the Shereefate, that any lofty aspirations would be especially ill adapted for local principalities. The idea of a Caliphate of the Shereefs of Mecca has been ventilated, more than once, by this or that European writer on Islam, but, in the Moslem world, it has never been broached, and no one of the Shereefs from the House of Katada-rulers in Mecca and in varying portions of West Arabia ever since the year 1200 A.D. ever thought of such a thing. It is improbable that even foreign influence could prevail on a Shereef of Mecca to attempt to gamble for the Caliphate. They all know too well how little chance of success there would be in such an attempt, and they feel themselves limited by tradition and by their resources to the Hijaz.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to controvert another error into which many fall, the opinion, namely, that the wresting of the Hijaz from Turkish domination would, automatically, end the Turkish Caliphate, since the Caliph bases his claim to the title partly on his protection of the Holy Cities. This opinion is supported by neither Mohammedan law nor by Mohammedan history. Mecca and Medina have known periods when, for instance, they were in the hands of the unbelieving Karmathians, when again they submitted to the heretical Fatimide-Caliphs, when all relations with the seat of the Caliphate were Suspended, when the Wahhabis drove the Turks from the Holy Land; on none of these occasions did it occur to a single Moslem to question the right of the Caliph to his dignity. The Caliphate and the Holy Land have, more than once, existed independently of each other.

Quite apart from high political aspirations, there are reasons enough which might have excited Husein to renounce obedience to the Turk. It is well known that the relations between Sultan-Caliph and the Shereef have been perfunctory and never cordial. The Shereef's have invariably felt the protectorate as an oppressive bond, and the Turks have never been able to appeal to the population in the name of the blessings that they, the conquerors, have bestowed on the land. They have given nothing and have never been in a position even to assure the safety of the roads leading to the Holy Cities during the few weeks of the pilgrimage. In Arabia as little as elsewhere have the Turks tried to affiliate with the people. They are unpopular in the highest degree.

The Committee of Union and Progress, in whose hands Turkey has been since 1908, has by no means made itself idolised by the Meccanese and their hereditary princes. Visitors to Stamboul from Mecca, since 1908, came away scandalized at the methods and ideals of Young Turkey. All Mecca subsists on the pilgrimages, and the interest of all is centred on the gains accruing to them from the hajji (pilgrim), just as that of an agricultural people is intent upon the prospects of the harvest. The Committee that inscribed Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity on their standards and then proceeded to adopt despotic methods in administration, equivalent to those of Abdul Hamid, is regarded at Mecca as the cause of Turkey's participation in the war of which the palpable result for the Holy Cities was the absence of pilgrims and the restriction of the importation of foodstuffs. Even the people of West Arabia, who had heartily accepted Turkish sovereignty as such, now curse the present Turkish régime. No wonder that they were ready to appeal to a power that was foe to Turkey's ally, Germany! The latest Reuter telegram, according to which trade at Jidda, is again on a normal basis, indicates in its information one of the main causes of the Anti-Turkish movement.

In the Great War, the Shereefate of Mecca cannot possibly take part. The forces at its disposal are nothing more than a bodyguard, a few mercenaries, and the contribution made by some Bedouin tribes, difficult to hold together, undisciplined, untrained. The population of the holy cities furnishes no elements for the formation of a military force, and in that population, Shereef Ali, whom the Turks now wish to use, will assuredly find some adherents. Arabia is still, as it was of yore, hopelessly divided by conflicting interests and by century-long feuds. It is not ready for great undertakings. But, for the moment, a revolt in West Arabia against Turkey, under the lead of the Great Shereef and aided by England, can cause serious trouble to the Turkish Government, and all the more, because it is at Mecca, familiar to, and cherished by, the entire Mohammedan world. Such a campaign, well prepared and ably conducted, would be a master-stroke in opposition to the attempt, made by Young Turkey under German protection, to excite the mediæval fanaticism of Islam against other religious sects and to use it as an incentive to strife.

However that may be, those who abominate playing with the fire of religious hate, a measure to which the Young Turks, in the main non-religious, have allowed themselves, to be persuaded, have no reason to regret the Arabian uprising. All that can tend to making an end of the unworthy noisy talk of "Caliphate" and "Holy War" may be regarded as commanding respect.