Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Khilafat Movement: Islamization of Politics by Dr Mubarak Ali

There is an assumption that the Muslims can only be mobilized politically if religion, and religious symbols are used. If it is true, it means that politics requires religion to survive and to play an active role in the Muslim society. In the word of poet Iqbal if religion is separated from politics, it becomes a tyranny. However, there are two aspects of the use of religion. In the case of despotic and authoritarian systems, where power is concentrated in the hands of an individual, such as a monarchy or dictatorship, the religious scholars (ulama) are used by them to support their political ends. There are plenty examples in history as to how the kings and rulers asked the ulama to issue fatwas (religious injunctions) in their favour or in support of their policies. The recent example in this regard is of Anwar Saadat of Egypt who got the religious sanction from the scholars of al-Azhar (a religious university of Egypt) to visit Israel, which they announced was in the interest of Islam. In such cases, ulama play the role of subordinates to the rulers and dictators and religion is used for their political motives. In the other case, where there are some democratic traditions or institutions, ulama take advantage to organise themselves on the model of political parties and assert their religious views in an attempt to subordinate politics. In this regard they face tremendous problems in dealing with the new ideologies and political concepts such as nationalism, socialism, secularism and democracy. In order to resolve these issues in the light of Islam, some ulama totally rejected these modern political ideas and systems as un Islamic, while others Islamised them, with some modifications, in order to accommodate them in the Islamic structure. Believing that the Muslim community of India could be guided only by religious zeal, Abul Kalam Azad was the first to strive to organize the ulama to participate in active politics. He founded Hizbullah (party of God) for the ulama to assert in political matters and take the leadership in their hands. The Khilafat movement could be analysed and judged under the circumstances when the colonial government allowed political parties to play their role in the framework that was granted by the government. The ulama, who were confined to their religious seminaries, got an opportunity to come out from their isolation and took full part in politics. That was the first time that they became active in any mass movement. Exploiting the situation they plunged in it with full religious fervour and vigour. An attempt is made in this paper to analyse the role of the symbol of the khilafat in the Muslim community of India and how the ulama became an integral part of the political activities that subsequently subordinated politics to religion.

During the Sultanate period in India (1206-1526), some of the sultans sought the recognition of the Abbasid Caliph to legitimise their rule; otherwise, the recitation of the name of the caliph in the khutba (sermon which is delivered on the occasion of Friday and Ids prayers) was just symbolic. The Mughal Emperors did not recognize the Ottoman Caliphs and asserted their own sovereignty in India. In the 18th century, when the East India Company established its political authority and the Mughal Emperor had lost his political power, Tipu Sultan (1782-1799), sent an embassy to the Ottoman caliph requesting him to recognize him as a legitimate ruler of Mysor. By getting this recognition he wanted acceptance from his Muslim subjects and also from his rival Muslim rulers like Nizam of Deccan who regarded him as an upstart. He got the recognition, but at the same time the British government also persuaded the Caliph to issue a fatwa telling Tipu Sultan not to fight against the British. (1)The Caliph gave recognition to Tipu Sultan as a legitimate ruler and simultaneously pursued him on the behest of the British to remain loyal to the East India Company. This shows the weakness and political imbecility of the Ottoman Caliph. Another example that shows that the Ottoman Caliph was not regarded as a symbol of unity and as a protector of the Indian Muslim was when Sayyid Ahmad (d.1831), leader of the Jihad movement, launched his holy war against the Sikhs and made an attempt to establish an Islamic state in the NWFP. He proclaimed himself as the caliph and Amir al-Muminin (leader of the Muslims) in 1826, ignoring the Ottoman Caliph and his claim over the whole Muslim Ummah. His own caliphate was short lived and was not even recognized by the majority of the Indian Muslim. Interestingly, the British promoted the image of the Ottoman Caliph in India for their own political motives. In 1857, during the Great Rebellion, they got a fatwa from the caliph exhorting the Muslim not to fight against the British. Sylvia G. Haim in the article “The Abolition of the Caliphate and its Aftermath”, which is a part of the Thomas Arnold’s book on the Caliphate, writes:

 The decline of Muslim rule in India especially after British occupation and the final victory of England over the Muslim Raj in the middle of the nineteenth century placed the Indian Muslim in a position of inferiority which made them search for a symbol of strength and power. This, together with the growth of communication, brought them into greater contact with the Ottoman Caliph who was then conducting a clever form of propaganda which Britain came to encourage. Because of their enmity to Russia at the time, Britain took up a pro-Ottoman line and promoted among the Indian Muslims loyalty to the Ottoman Caliph who, in his turn took advantage of the position by spreading his propaganda and exploiting the false notion of the Caliphate put out by the Europeans.

This is how the Indian Muslims slowly started to regard the Ottoman Caliph as the head of Muslim world. In the wake of Pan-Islamic movement of Jamaluddin Afghani, the Ottoman Caliph Sultan Abdul Hamid I (1876-1909) tried to use it to establish his political position in the Muslim world. Sir Sayyid, realizing the danger of this extra territorial loyalty warned the Indian Muslim not to look to the Caliph as their protector or defender and remain loyal to the British Government in Inida. He had the experience of 1857 when the Muslim community suffered heavily and was looked upon by the British with suspicions. Therefore, his concern was to inculcate the loyalty for the British government among the Muslims to restore their credibility. He argued that where the caliph had no political authority he should not be recognized there as the defender and protector. As the Indian Muslims were not living under the Ottomans, they were not obliged to be loyal to the caliph and regard him as their sovereign. (3) The 1857 was a great catastrophe to the Indian Muslims. It took them a decade to recuperate from the shock. In 1867, for the first time, the ulama responded to counter the problems faced under the colonial rule. The foundation of the Deoband provided a centre for the Indian Muslim for guidance in religious matters. Its dar al-I-fta (Department for issuance fatwa) issued religious instructions on all political, social, cultural, and economic matters. The madrassah became famous for traditional religious education and attracting students not only from all parts of India but also from the Muslim neighbouring countries. It gave an opportunity to the ulama to create a position for themselves as religious guides and instructors to the community. They resisted modernity and conserved the traditions which they regarded essential for the religious identity of their community. On the other hand, Sir Sayyid, believing in modernity and progressive ideas, founded Aligarh College to educate the Muslims on modern lines and prepared them to cooperate with the British government. Both Deoband and Aligarah remained aloof from politics in their first phase. Their major concern was to rehabilitate the Muslim aftermath of 1857. However, the change of political situation also brought change in the outlook of the Muslims. In 1906 when the Muslim league was founded, a sizeable European educated Muslim middle class emerged with ambition to acquire social status and political rights in the colonial structure. They controlled the new party in order to use it for their political gains. In the first phase, the Muslim League expressed loyalty to the British government and averted any resistance or opposition. However, the political development changed their outlook: the annulment of the partition of Bengal at home and the war between Turkey and Italy in 1911 caused to change their political strategy from loyalty to resistance towards the British government. This change is pointed out by Mr. Patrie, the assistant Director of Intelligence Bureaus, who in his Report (1912) writes:

Showed that the belief held up to that time by Muhammadans in India, that the British government was a safe custodian of Islamic interests, was rapidly evaporating; and further that a rumour was gaining credence to the effect that the Christian Powers had set themselves of deliberate purpose of to encompass the ruin of Islam, with which object Great Britain had entered into a secret alliance with Italy with respect to the latter’s attack on Turkey. He pointed out that the belief in this rumour had been strengthened by the re Partition of Bengal at the end of 1911,which was viewed with dismay by Bengali Mohammedans…(4)

During this period of political chaos and crisis, the Indian Muslims sympathized with Turkey. Azad’s al-Hilal, al-Bilagh, MuhammadAli‘s, Hamdard and Comrade, and Zafar Ali Khan’s Zamindar played important roles to promote these feelings. In 1912, a medical mission under Dr. Ansari went to Turkey to help the Turkish army. In 1913, an organization ‘Anjuman Khuddam-I-Kaaba’ was organized for the protection of the Muslim holy places against the danger of European attack. On the eve of the First World War, the Indian Muslims did not want Turkey to join the war against the Allies. However, the Ottoman government declared jihad (holy war) against the Allied powers and issued a fatwa to fight against the Allied powers. The real shock actually came when Turkey was defeated, and it appeared, that the Allied Powers were going to dismember it. This made the Ottoman Empire as a religious symbol to the Indian Muslims. The reason was that the European powers had conquered and occupied nearly the whole Muslim world except for Turkey that retained its independence in spite of its weakness and misadministration. The Indian Muslims had no need to symbolize the glories of the Ottomans as long as the Mughals were in power. The loss of power and complete elimination of the Mughal dynasty turned them to look to the Ottoman Empire and find solace in its pomp and glory. Even Sir Sayyid, who opposed any Pan Islamist views, remarked that: “Once there were many Muslim kingdoms and we did not feel much grief when one of them was destroyed; now that so few are left, we feel the loss of even a small one. If Turkey is conquered that will be a great grief, for she is the last of the great powers left to Islam.”(5) On the eve of the Balkan wars, the Muslims of India became more conscious about the existence of Turkey. They started to relate Islam with Turkey and that any danger to Turkey became the danger to Islam.

During the First World War, both the Congress and the Muslim League tried to co-operate with each other and sort out those problems that were a great hurdle for both communities. The Lukhnow Pact of 1916 was the result in which Jinnah played a very active role. So far, the Muslim politics was not religious but liberal and assertive to get political concession for the Muslims. The Khilafat issue was not the major one to dominate the political scene. However, the end of the war, the defeat of Turkey, and the revolt of the Arab against the Ottoman imperialism with the help of European powers, created uneasiness among the Muslim middle classes. The turning point of the whole scene occurred at the Delhi session of the Muslim League (1918) where Dr. Ansari who was the chairman of the reception committee invited the ulama to participate in order to get their support. The leading ulama accepted the invitation and as a matter of fact were delighted to come at par with the modern educated Muslim leadership. Maulvi Kifayatullah says: I have always been of the opinion that the religion and politics of Musalmans were one and the same thing. In fact their religion was their politics and their politics was their relgion. So far they had thought that the Musalmans had committed their religion to the custody of the Ulema and their politics to the custody of the All India Muslim league and kindred organizations; but when went out to them (the Ulema) they came out with open arms and pleasure to join the political body. (6) Chaudhary Khaliquzzaman, a Muslim leader from Oudh, realized the danger of Islamisation of politics and warned that: “ they would either be wept off their legs or would carry the whole of Muslim India with them.” (7) This is exactly what happened. The khilafat issue became the core issue of the Muslim politics and all other problems were completely forgotten. Once Khilafat became the symbol and religion was involved in it, the modern and liberal leadership was marginalized and the ulama as the custodians of religion came forward to lead the Muslim Community of India. Ali brothers, who started their political career as moderates, were converted with the process and became maulana having beards and wearing the dress particular for the religious leaders. The important aspect of this period is that whole political process was taken over by the All India khilafat Committee that was set up in 1919 and made Muslim league a non-entity. With the entry of the ulama, the whole character of the movement changed. The element of emotionalism was fully inculcated to mobilize the Muslim masses in the name of religion. Fiery speeches with charged sentiments became daily occurances. The study of the newspapers of this period clearly shows the emotionalism. For example, Maulana Abdul Bari from Faringi Mahal was in the habit to warn his rivals and threatened to eliminate them. In one of the Muslim League sessions at Delhi he said that he could shake the world with one word of his mouth and one stroke of his pen. (8) In the Amritsar session of the Muslim League that was attended by the Ali brothers, emotional speeches were delivered. Shaukat Ali declared that he would sacrifice his property and life to protect Kaaba. He finished by asking the audience whether they wished to remain British subjects or Muslims, and if it was the former, he would sever his connection with them and seek martyrdom. (9) The question is why Gandhi supported the Khilafat movement, which was dealing with an Islamic issue and had nothing to do with the Indian problems? As Gail Minault points out Muhammad Ali was much impressed by Gandhi’s approach to politics when addressing to students at Calcutta he said that “politics cannot be divorced from religion”. (10) Gandhi was approached by Maulana Bari to support the Khilafat movement. That was the time when Gandhi was planning to launch a campaign against the Rowlatt Bill and against the Punjab atrocities. It appears that it was easy for Gandhi to deal with the Ali brothers and Ulama rather than Jinnah who was not in favour of the Khilafat issue. His cool approach to politics was a contrast to the emotionally charged movement led by the ulama. The Congress and the Khilafat movement supported the non-cooperation, and as result a unanimous fatwa was issued by the ulama in 1920 that appealed the Muslims to boycott the government on religious grounds. The opening paragraph says:

 “Mavalat” is forbidden (haram) with enemies of Islam in both senses of word. God has forbidden “mavalat” totally with enemies of Islam whether it is openly or secretly, paid or honorary.God says(Arabic verse) “God prevents you from friendship and cooperation with those infidels who fought with you in matter of religion and ejected you from your countries and helped in your ejectment and expulsion. Those who maintain co-operation with such infidels are tyrants.” (11) During the whole movement Gandhi became the supreme leader and highly praised by the Ali brothers and the ulama. However, the non-cooperation movement collapsed after Chaura Cahuri’s incident in 1922 and the Khilafat issue became redundant when Mustafa Kamal abolished the institution in 1924.

The khilafat movement islamised the politics for the Indian Muslims. Instead of creating political understanding and analysing political issue purely on political grounds, they supported or rejected all these issues on the basis of religion. Once religion became supreme authority to understand and act politically, the ulama gained ground and assumed leadership. This is evident during the khilafat movement when attempts were made to establish separate shriat court and collect zakat. As a result of the movement religious and non- political consciousness was created among the Muslims. While on the other hand, the Congress followed the political agenda that promoted the political awakening among its followers (majority of them were the Hindus). The Muslim community under the spell of religious leadership also failed to understand the effects of the Ottoman imperialism on the Arab countries. The news of the Arab revolt when received in India was not believed. This lack of political knowledge failed to create anti imperialist feelings among the Muslims. It is evident that even educated Muslims were not well aware of the Ottoman history and its decadent institutions, which were not based on Islamic teachings. It was just an emotional attachment that blinded them to probe and investigate the weaknesses of the Ottoman Empire. According to one interpretation that the involvement in the khilafat movement was nothing but a waste of the Indian Muslims’ energies. They forgot their internal problems and devoted their attention to the problem which was not related to them. That is why there was disappointment after the abolition of the khilafat. It left them in wilderness. In another interpretation it is said that actually the khilafat movement was not only for the protection of the institution of the Caliphate but was also anti British to activate the Muslims to participate in the Indian politics. Mushirul Haq, defending Azad, argues that “Azad had definite political programme in mind; he wanted to drag the ulama into the political struggle; he also wanted to incite Muslims to action against the British in the name of religion.”(12) Gail Miault in her study on the Khilafat concludes that the movement made all sections of the society active: labourers, women, students, and common people all involved in all sort of political activities such as agitation, demonstration and boycott etc. The Khilafat and the non-cooperation both brought the Hindus and Muslim together. (13) The Hindu-Muslim unity was short lived because it was based on emotionalism and not on political pragmatism. After the collapse of non-cooperation, Gandhi was criticised and condemned by the same ulama who adored him. It is said that he used the Muslim leadership to propagate his non-violence philosophy and left them in doldrums when he achieved his motives. Both symbols of the khilafat and non-cooperation were quite different in nature and could not be reconciled. The nationalist historians, who admire the role of Gandhi as a champion of Hindu Muslim unity during this period, forget the disastrous effects of the involvement of religion to politics. Two incidents show it: Maulana Abdul Bari and Azad both issued a fatwa declaring Hindustan as a darul harab (home of war) and therefore exhorted the Muslims that it was their religious duty to migrate from India. The common people especially from the Punjab and Sindh, after selling their belongings, left India for Afghanistan where, the Amir also promised to give them land and shelter. Once they reached there they found nothing and came back disappointed. During the whole campaign hundreds died and thousands suffered in a process of rehabilitation. Those who issued the fatwa did not follow it; both the rich and well off did not leave India. The sacrifice of the common people did not create any concern among the leadership. In the second incident, the Mopla peasantry revolted against their landlords. Economic exploitation forced them to rebel repeatedly in the past. Now inspired by the symbol of the khilafat, they took arms and made attempts to improve their condition. The revolt was crushed and the Moplas suffered immensely. In this case nothing was done to ameliorate their grievances One of the features of the khilafat movement was its appeal for donation t for a religious cause. The major donors were the Muslim Seths of Bombay who actively took part in the movement. The masses gave donation whenever they were appealed in the public meetings. The leadership toured throughout the country to mobilise people for the cause and asked them to donate liberally. Musarrat Husain Zuberi writes about such visit in his hometown Marehra: “The vivid recollection is still there of the wonderful oratory of Maulana Hamid and his brother Majid Badauni that night. The electrified atmosphere was good for the Khilafat chest. The ladies from behind the curtain took off whatever jewellery they were putting on and we the young boys collecting them and presented them to theMaulvis.” (14)

However, at the end when the account was audited it was found that there was misuse of fund and also embezzlement. It discredited the leadership, and lead to a sad end of the movement. The Khilafat movement, as a matter of fact, was the result of the emerging Muslim middle class who, in search of their identity, relied on Islam. The Khilafat issue provided them an opportunity to assert their separate identity. The common Muslims had no interest in this issue and was involved marginally. However, the result of the whole process was that religion became an integral part of the Muslim politics in India. Even when the ulama eclipsed after the collapse of the movement, the modern and liberal Muslim leadership was forced to use religion to mobilise masses for political purpose. One question remains whether the British government in India secretly supported the Khilafat movement. One explanation could be that after the Treaty of Severe 1920, the weak caliph suited the British and the Allied Powers more than Mustafa Kamal who was adamant not to accept the peace terms. The delegation of Justice Amir Ali and the Agha Khan to go to Turkey to advocate the cause of the Caliphate created some doubts. In the words of C.Smith: “The Turkish Ghazi was irate to see men like Amir Ali and His Highness Agha Khan approaching him on the subject of the Turkish and the Islamic constitutions: he pointed out with some scorn their intimate and friendly relations with British imperialism.” (15) However, not having any evidence it is difficult to prove anything. Once the institution of Khilafat was abolished, different Muslim rulers made attempts to assume it, but it could not be revived in spite of many efforts. However, the romantic image of the khilafat survives even today. It is believed that it was the best system to solve all political and economic problems of the Muslim society. We can also see the continuity of the impact of the khilafat movement on the present politics of the Indian sub continent where fundamentalism is gaining ground and liberal forces are receding to the background.


1. Qureshi, I.H.: Tipu Sultan’s Embassy to Constantinople, 1787. In: Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan. Irfan Habib, Tulika Delhi, 1999,pp. 69-78. 

2. Haim,S.G.: The Abolition of the Caliphate and its aftermath, In: The caliphate by T.W.Arnold,OUP Karachi, 1966, pp. 137-8. 

3. Sir Saiyyid: Maqalat,vol. I,Majlis Tarraqi Adab Lahore, 1966, p.157. 

4. Bamford,P.C.: Histories of Khilafat and Non-cooperation Movements. K.K.Books Delhi, Reprinted 1985, p.110. 

5. Nanda, B.R.: Gandhi: Pan-Islamism, Imperialism,and Nationalism in India. Oup Delhi, 1989,p. 108.

6. Ibid., p.207. 

7. Ibid., p. 207. 

8. Bamford, pp.133-4. 

9. Ibid., p.140. 

10. Minault,G.: The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization I in India. OUP Delhi,1982,p.56. 

11. Bamford, p. 252. 

12. Haq,M.U.: Muslim Politics in Modern India.Book Traders Lahore 9n.d.).p.100. 

13. Minault, pp.210-11 

14. Zuberi,M.H.:Voyage through History,vol.i,Hamdard Foundation Karachi,1987,p60. 

15. Smith, W.C.: Modern Islam in India. Reprinted, Lahore, 1947,p. 348.

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