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Were the Ottoman rulers Caliphs and the Ottoman state a Caliphate?

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Masters in Education from Nottingham University in the UK. Also studied Masters in Islamic Studies and Islamic Banking & Finance. Political activist with interests in Geopolitics, History and Phil ...
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In a Nutshell:
The Ottoman rulers themselves and scholars across their lands saw them as Caliphs and their state as the Caliphate. Even rulers of autonomous regions gained legitimacy from the Ottomans. Their enemies like the British, whilst often avoiding the term caliph and caliphate during their existence, gleefully employed it once their rule was terminated in 1924.

By the reign of Sulayman (1520-56), it was accepted the Ottomans were caliphs as well as sultans. The title of caliph was only really used in relations with other Muslim powers, like the rulers of Morocco or India, who were not under the direct authority of the Ottomans.

Letters written to the Emperor especially during the reign of Humayun to Suleiman the Magnificent illustrates this fact:

"Gifts of sincere wishes to your exalted majesty the possessor of the dignity of Khilafat, the pole of the sky of greatness and fortune, the consolidator of the foundations of Islam. Your name is engraved on the seal of greatness and in your time the Khilafat has been carried to perfection. May your Khilafat be perpetuated. God be praised that the gates of victory are opened by the eyes of His inspiration and His dispensation the seat of the Sultanate and the throne of the Khilafat of the realms of Hind and Sind is once again graced by a monarch (Humayun) whose magnificence is equal to that of Sultan Suleiman the magnificent." (Naimur Rahman Farooqi, A Study of Political and Diplomatic Relations between Mughal India and the Ottoman Empire,1556-1748, Volume 1)

The Ottoman grand vizier Lufti al-Pasha (d. 1562 AD) observed:

"And in the commentary to al-Ma§ririq: "The Imam is he who takes the place of the Prophet in maintaining the Faith and administering the kingdom of aI-Islam by command, prohibition, and execution of the laws and penalties and retaliation." As for the Supreme Imam, who is the highest Sultan, under whose government are most of the important al-mutadd bi-hri lands of the Muslims, such as the lands of Rum and the Arabs, the licaz and the Yaman, to the extremities of Oman, and Iraq al-Arab, Bagdad, Diyar Bakr, and the Magrib and the lands of al-Ankariis to the furthest limits of Alaman, and to whose shade are brought the affairs of the age in the period of the present conflicts, like the Sultan Sulaiman b. Selim Xan b. Bayezid Xan, he is the Imam of the Age in fulfilment of the relevant stipulations relating to the maintenance of the Faith and guardianship of the home-lands of aI-Islam.

So if it is asked: "What is the position of Sultan Sulaiman-is he the Imam of the Age or not?", the answer is: "He is the Imam of the Age without dubiety, and he is truly the defender of the Sharia and so also are his deputies and his amirs; the ulama of the age serve him, and also the sultans of the Arabs, the Turks, the Kurds and the Persians, and under his hand are many lands, as we have stated; and there is rightly applicable to him the definition of the Imam inasmuch as he is the lieutenant of the Apostle in maintaining the Faith in the requisite manner over all the peoples subject to him." (Xalri al-umma fi marifat al-aimma)

Ebu Su'ud, the leading Ottoman jurisconsult (1545-74) was categoric on this matter, redesignating the title of Sultan to Caliph, according the Caliph powers to interpret the divine sources and shari'ah (Colin Imber, Ebu's-Su'ud: The Islamic Legal Tradition)

Around 1553 in response to scholars claiming only a member of the Quraysh can be a caliph, the Ottoman grand vizier Lutfi Pasha wrote a pamphlet addressing this issue. His argument was a caliph is absolutely necessary, based on the widely known hadith stating

"Whoever dies without having known the imam [caliph] of their time, their death is the death of the jahiliyya..."

He then cites numerous authorities, including the historian Tabari, to the effect that the title of sultan belongs to a ruler who holds the power, while the imam is 'the one who maintains the Faith and governs the kingdoms of Islam with equity'. The caliph is 'he who commands the good and prohibits the evil [that is, maintains the shari'a]'. If the conditions mentioned above, that is conquest, power of compulsion, maintenance of the faith with justice, commanding the good and forbidding the evil, are combined in one person, then he is a sultan who can justly claim the titles of imam, caliph, wali and emir without contradiction. He points out:

'Our ullama have said that a man becomes sultan by two things: the first by the swearing of allegiance to him and the second is that he can effectively execute his decisions'

and then adds that not one of the legal authorities he has consulted has ruled or asserted that the caliph

'should be of Quraysh, nor of Hashimi descent, nor appointed by the Abbasid or any other person.'

For him, the requirement the imam should be Qurayshi was relevant to the beginnings of the caliphate, when the Quraysh asserted their rights over the ansar of Medina and Arabia privileged Quraysh over others, and was no longer relevant.

Lutfi's argument claimed the caliphate belonged to the one who leads and protects the Muslim people. The qualifications for the office are power and competence. Inheritance or kinship have no part in this. This argument also found in discussions of Juwayni and Ghazali in the eleventh century, for whom power was the main qualification for the office of caliph.

In the eighteenth century, another example of this title appears in the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca of 1774, where sultan Abd al-Hamid I (1774–89) ceding sovereignty of the Muslim Crimea to Catherine the Great of Russia. The sultan was described as 'the imam of the believers and the caliph of all those who profess the unity of God [that is, Muslims]'. (Hugh Kennedy, Caliphate, History of an Idea, pp. 215-257)

Abdul-Majid (d. 1861) on his rise ordered hundreds of wine bottles from the cellar of his father, the late Mahmud II, to be poured into the Bosphorus (Abu-Manneh, 1994). On appointment as Caliph, he proclaimed:

"God has appointed me Amir al-Muminin and a Caliph" exhorting Muslims to perform the five daily prayers and calling on state officials that "if they see men in the streets who did not go to the mosque, they should ask them about the reason..."

Moreover, he went on to write:

"The Caliphate has passed on to us by inheritance and by right… Because of that and because God had entrusted to our care the lands and the people, we have to depend upon divine support and upon the spiritual aid of the Prophet. Consequently it is our wish to see that the exalted Shari'a is applied in all matters and that all the inhabitants should enjoy tranquillity and peace." (Abu-Manneh, 1994:189)

Given the distance, the Caliphate has played a subordinated role in Indo-Muslim history. It would appear more often when a new political power began to establish itself and was craving legitimacy. This would suggest all were aware of the significance and importance of the caliph, with all legitimate authority flowing from him, whether they took notice or not. A number of rulers, mainly Turkic and Afghan, of the so-called Delhi sultanate between 1206 and 1526 sought investiture from the Abbasid caliph, even after he faded into the shadows of Mamluk-ruled Cairo. (Otto Spies, 'Ein Investiturschreiben des abbasidischen Kalifen in Kairo an einen indischen Koenig', Professor Muhammad Shaf Presentation Volume, Lahore: Punjab University Press, 1955, pp.241-53)

In 1785 Tipu Sultan of India had an embassy dispatched to the Sublime Porte. He requested Sultan Abd al-Hamid I (d. 1789) to permit him to set up a number of factories in the Ottoman lands, addressing the sultan clearly with caliphal appellations, thus showing an awareness of the continuation of the historical caliphate by the Ottomans (Hikmet Bayur, 'Maysor Sultanı Tipu ile Osmanlı Padişahlarından I. Abdülhamid veIII. Selim Arasındaki Mektuplaşma', Belleten-Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınları, 12, 47, 1948, pp.617-54).

Correspondence sent to the Ottomans from around the world often included the appellations of Caliph - an example appears here whilst European writers often wrote about them in glowing terms. Voltaire wrote in his 'Treatise on Tolerance' about the Islamic Ottoman Caliphate:

"Let us reach out from our narrow little sphere for a moment, and examine what goes on in the rest of the globe. The Turkish prince, for example, rules peacefully over twenty races of different religious conviction; two hundred thousand Greeks live in Constantinople in perfect safety, and the Mufti himself nominates and presents the Greek patriarch to his emperor; there is even a Roman Catholic patriarch living there. The Sultan nominates Catholic bishops to some of the Greek islands, with the following words: "I commend him to go and reside as bishop on the isle of Chios in accordance with its ancient customs and vain ceremonies". This empire is stuffed with Jacobites, Nestorians, Monothelites, Coptics, Christians of St John, Jews, Gebers, and Banians. The annals of Turkey bear no record of a revolt raised by any of these religious communities." (Voltaire, Treatise on Tolerance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 20-21)


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