ON March 3, 1923, after a heated debate, the Turkish National Assembly abolished the office of the caliphate that had remained with the Ottomans for centuries. Four months earlier, on Nov 1, 1922, Kemal Ataturk had abolished the monarchy and dispatched into exile the last of the sultans, Vehidettin, who had reigned as Mehmet VI since 1918.

The head of the Ottoman Empire had traditionally donned two robes: Sultan of the Turkish empire and caliph of the world’s Muslims. Not sure how the world would react, Ataturk proceeded cautiously, first abolishing the sultanate and making Mehmet VI’s cousin, Abdel Majid II, the caliph. Finding no adverse reaction to the monarchy’s demise, the ‘Grey Wolf’ did away with the caliphate, too, and exiled Majid, a man more interested in the arts than in power or religion.

No one in the Muslim world made much noise, except those good at making noise — the Muslims of South Asia. Since then, the office of caliph has been vacant — a good 91 years — unless you take Afghanistan’s Mullah Omar and Iraq’s Abubakr al-Baghdadi seriously.

Mullah Omar, who has a $10m bounty on his head, is senior, for he proclaimed himself amirul momineen (commander of the faithful) in 1996 and donned a cloak that purportedly belonged to the Holy Prophet (PBUH).

The Muslim world is facing a ‘leadership’ dilemma.
Other versions say he didn’t wear it and merely showed it to the assembly of elders who had gathered to witness his proclamation as caliph. Now, with a mass murderer like al-Baghdadi proclaiming himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ of the so-called Islamic caliphate, the Muslim world is face to face with two ‘caliphs’, an anomalous situation, though not for the first time in Islamic history.

The Abbasid revolution (749) could have led to two caliphs, but for Abdur Rahman, who had survived the massacre of the Umayyad clan. Fleeing to what today is Morocco, the Umayyad prince crossed the Strait of Gibraltar with the help of his mother’s Berber tribe, disarmed the Umayyad governor of Spain and proclaimed himself not caliph but emir (governor).

Even though he thought he was justified in rebelling against what he presumed to be Abbasid usurpers, Abdur Rahman didn’t assume the title of caliph.

This one-caliph situation was to last till the early 10th century when Saeed bin Ahmad, tracing descent from Hazrat Fatima, conquered parts of north Africa, called himself caliph (909) and began what came to be called the (Ismaili-Shia) Fatimid caliphate (whose cultural achievements include Al Azhar University). It was then that the emirs of Spain, too, began calling themselves caliphs (929). (This trichotomy in the Muslim world made the Crusaders’ job easy, with Jerusalem falling in 1099.)

All three caliphates were to disappear one by one. The Umayyad dynasty of Spain returned to power after an interregnum but finally came to an end in 1031; Salahuddin ended the Fatimid caliphate (1171), and the Mongols destroyed the Abbasid caliphate, with Changez Khan’s grandson, Halagu, sacking Baghdad (1258). How did then the Ottoman sultans become caliphs?

The catalyst in this case was the first Mongol defeat, inflicted on the hordes by the army led by Egypt’s Turkic Sultan Kutuz in the battle of Ainal Jaloot (1260). A triumphant Kutuz rode into Baghdad and was welcomed by such Baghdadis as had survived the Mongol massacre.

However, the commander of Kutuz’s army, Baybers, a Kipchak Turk from Ukraine, thought the credit for the victory should go to him. As they headed back to Cairo, with the populace waiting to give Kutuz a hero’s welcome, Baybers Bandu*qdari had Sultan Kutuz murdered, and to give legitimacy to his rule picked up one of the surviving Abbasid princes, carried him to Cairo and proclaimed him caliph, thus starting the new dynasty of the Abba*sid caliphs of Egypt, the sultan himself remaining a temporal head. All along, the caliphs remained the Mamluk sultans’ virtual prisoners.

A few centuries later, real caliphs were to emerge as the Ottomans began altering the map of Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Ottoman Sultan Salim in one big sweep defeated the Mamluks, conquered Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt (1516-17), and brought Abbasid caliph Mutawakkil III to Constantinople as a prisoner.

Since the Egyptian Abbasids were supposed to be the Guardians of the Two Holy Places, Sultan Salim toyed with the idea of proclaiming himself the caliph. The exact date when the Ottoman sultans began calling themselves caliphs is not clear; it was a gradual process, until the head of the Ottoman state came to be recognised as the sole sultan-caliph. At the peak of his power, the Turkish sultan-caliph ruled a state that spread from Aden to Budapest and from Baghdad to Algiers; today’s claimants are a joke.

Tailpiece: When a delegation of Indian Muslims met Ataturk and pleaded against the abolition of caliphate, Ataturk told them to first liberate their country from the British, and then come to him.

The writer is a staff member.