Monday, 18 July 2016



The First World War should have seen the conflagration of a mighty jihad, an armed struggle in the name of God. A worldwide uprising of all Muslims against the main Entente Powers, Britain, France and Russia. Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V in his role of Caliph of all Sunni Muslims had ordered his Sheikh al-Islam, Essad Effendi, to issue a fatwa. It declared that participation in the jihad to defend the Turkish Empire was a duty for all Muslims. Indeed, it threatened believers with the wrath of God if they did not hasten to fight the infidel enemy.

Some accused the Sultan-Khalifa of hypocrisy or double standards. His own war partners were two Christian Empires, Germany and Austria-Hungary. How could he justify that? Mehmet countered that his allies, unlike the Entente, did not rule over Muslims. Not strictly true, because there were Muslims in Bosnia and Cameroon, where the Central Powers held sway, but the point was overstepped. Besides, the Turks had colluded with Christian nations many times before, whenever it suited them. Power politics trumps theological dogmas – what’s new?

In a brilliant lecture at the BM last Saturday, Oxford Professor Eugene Rogan delved into this. The fatwa had worried the Entente. Memories of fierce Muslim resistance to European encroachments were recent. Muhammad Ahmad of Dongola, the Mahdi of Sudan, has successfully led his Dervishes in jihad against Anglo-Egyptian forces, culminating in the capture of Khartoum and the killing of Victorian hero General Gordon. Algerian Sheikh Mokrani also had bravely fought the French invaders until defeated and slain in 1871. Nonetheless, the 1914 Ottoman call to holy war was a flop.

Well, not totally. As Rogan pointed out, a Sepoy mutiny broke out in
Singapore. The Sultan’s propaganda, as well as wider Indian nationalist factors, stirred up a Muslim infantry regiment into rebellion. However, the casualties were few, the mutiny lasted only a week and was quickly put down by the British. A bit of a damp squib jihad, perhaps.

Also, the Ottoman fatwa proved spectacularly ineffective in scotching the 1916 Arab revolt. Mythologised for the English mind by the ambiguous role played by Colonel T.E. Lawrence – he of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ fame. (Peter O’Toole impersonated him in an over-camp manner in David Lean’s movie.)  Turks and Arabs share the same faith but not the same ethnicity and language. The European war proved how little Arabs cared for their Ottoman rulers. Arab national consciousness was fired up by the brutal repressions conducted by the Ottoman governor of Damascus, Djemal Pasha. A ferocious character stigmatised in Arab history as ‘al Jazzar’, the butcher. Jamal gorily executed 26 Arab political and cultural leaders, including one poet, in Damascus and Beirut. A central Martyrs Square in the Lebanese capital is named after them.

The British and the French took full advantage of their enemies’ discord, pace the fatwa, and schemed accordingly. Sharif Hussein, the Amir of Mecca, allied himself with the Entente and proclaimed the Arab revolt. He conceived himself as the leader of a resurrected Arab Caliphate, stretching from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and beyond. (He did not however assumed the title of Khalifa until after the war, in 1924.) Before that the Ottomans had wanted him to officially join the jihad but he had astutely held back. ‘My religious duty is to keep open the route to the Holy City of Mecca for pilgrims from India and other lands under Entente rule’, he niftily argued.

At the BM conference Turkish Professor Turuncu contended that the Arab revolt was misnamed. Most Arabs stayed loyal to the Sultan. The uprising was fought largely by Bedouin mercenaries. It was the mischievous work of Mecca’s Amir Hussein, in collusion with the Entente Powers. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? And, come to think of it, funny he didn’t mention either the Armenians or the Kurds, even once. Huh!

So, if the Sultan’s fatwa was a fiasco, what lesson does it teach? A harbinger of the ultimate defeat of jihad-calling extremists like ISIS, perhaps? The gist of a question I asked Professor Rogan in the Q&A. He basically agreed. The call to religious fanaticism, today like yesterday, has limited appeal. Ordinary believers care above all for their families, their jobs, the future of their children and similar practical matters. A few violent terrorists may cause havoc, murder and mayhem but they clearly have no mass following. Until the awaited, true Mahdi manifests himself, universal jihad is on the back burner, I think. Martyrdom seems to be a low priority…

A melancholy conclusion? Meaning that the creed that once conquered half the world is now enfeebled? That faith can no longer move mountains? Not if you believe that violence in the name of the Almighty is sacrilegious, an abomination. Religious zeal is a great virtue but it should never be directed at the killing of the innocent. That can only bring religion into disrepute and make atheists rejoice. There are more honourable and fitting struggles for religionists to fight.

Amazingly, however, an Arabian guy I spoke to over coffee disagreed. He was smartly dressed, sporting several gaudy rings and a black goatee beard. ‘Jihad is coming!’ he assured me. Was he pulling my leg? He looked deadly serious, though.

Beware the House of Saud!

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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