The Magazine

A Sultan with Swat

Remembering Abdul Hamid II, a pro-American caliph.

Dec 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 15 • By MUSTAFA AKYOL
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AL QAEDA'S STATED GOAL--to reestablish the caliphate, the political leadership of worldwide Islam embodied first in the successors of the Prophet Muhammad and most recently in the four-century rule of the Ottoman dynasty--is pure, ahistorical fantasy. One way to appreciate this is to revisit the 33-year reign of the most remarkable modern caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909). An ally neither of bigoted Islamists nor of the radical secularists who ultimately deposed him, Abdul Hamid was an Islamic modernizer--and, interestingly, a friend of the United States.

Abdul Hamid emphasized the role of Islam inside the Ottoman Empire, and he emerged as the protector of Muslims around the world, from India to sub-Saharan Africa. He pressed for a new railway to the holy places of Mecca and Medina and sent emissaries to distant countries preaching Islam. Because of these policies, once called "pan-Islamism," he is still revered by conservative Muslims.

His principal political opponents were the Young Turks, inspired by the fashionable European and especially French ideas of the time. They portrayed the caliph as a despot, and the description stuck. While it is true that Abdul Hamid suspended the constitution of 1876 for decades, he did so not out of any contempt for democracy, but out of justified fear of the Young Turks' autocratic ambitions. Although they espoused the rhetoric of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, they had strong authoritarian tendencies. As Princeton historian Sukru Hanioglu explains, their worldview was based on "biological materialism, positivism, Social Darwinism and Gustave Le Bon's elitism," all of which led them to regard egalitarianism as "unscientific."

Another Princeton scholar, the dean of Middle Eastern history, Bernard Lewis, writes that "Abdul Hamid was far from being the blind, uncompromising, complete reactionary of the historical legend; on the contrary, he was a willing and active modernizer." In areas such as education, commerce, finance, diplomacy, central government administration, journalism, translation, and even theater, he accomplished significant reforms. He founded the first archaeology museum, public library, faculty of medicine, academy of fine arts, and schools of finance and agriculture. He endowed the empire with the telegraph, railroads, and factories, and during his reign, Constantinople flourished as a world capital.

Unlike subsequent modernizers, however, Abdul Hamid developed an Islamicly legitimate way forward. Personally observant, he practiced Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Yet 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.

With some notable exceptions--such as the harsh repression of Armenian insurgents by irregular forces authorized by the sultan in 1895-6--Abdul Hamid was on good terms with his non-Muslim subjects, of whom a record number entered government service. Ahmet Midhat, who has been called a sort of Turkish Edmund Burke, was Abdul Hamid's favorite intellectual. Midhat argued that Islam respects Christianity and Judaism, emphasizing how the empire welcomed the Jews expelled from Catholic Spain in 1492. And he defended the emancipation and education of women.

Abdul Hamid's attempt to marry Islam and modernity was cut short by the Young Turks in 1909. Although secular in outlook, they proved willing to exploit Islamic concepts for political ends. Abdul Hamid never waged a jihad; the Young Turks, on the advice of their new allies, the Germans, launched a global jihad in 1915 against Britain and its allies. Alas, the dethroned and interned caliph had warned them that they should align the empire with Britain, which controlled the seas and so would inevitably triumph. Britain did triumph, and this brought the Ottoman Empire to an end.

Abdul Hamid's relationship with the United States further defies the Islamists' notions about the caliphate.

In contrast with the aggressively secularist Westernizers who believed that the only hope for progress was to get rid of religion entirely, Abdul Hamid saw that the West was not monolithic. In particular, as Kemal Karpat, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, explains, he studied the American separation of church and state, which he regarded as consistent with Islamic principles. (The Ottoman Empire was not a theocracy in the sense of being governed by clerics; indeed, it developed a de facto separation between the religious and temporal authorities.)