Abd Al Hameed II, The Sultan (1842-1918 CE) عبد الحميد الثاني , سلطان
He was the 34th of the `Uthmani (Ottoman) Sultans ascending the throne in 1876 CE. He lost his mother at the age of ten. His stepmother, issueless, looked after him. She was religious and kindhearted, which reflected upon his personality. He received his education from the best teachers of his time who came to the palace to teach him. `Abdul Hameed practiced sports and was good in using gunfire. He was known for his simplicity and religiosity even in the eyes of Westerners who noticed this aspect of his character when he accompanied a royal entourage to Europe during the reign of Sultan `Abdul Azeez.
Journey to Europe
The state visits of the Sultan, nine years before he took office, to Egypt and Europe opened his eyes to many realities. In Egypt, the Sultan was not impressed by the extravagance of Khedive Ismail Pasha, the governor of Egypt. The visit to Europe took him to France, England, Belgium and Austria. He reflected on what he saw there and recognized the cultural weirdness, ethical disagreement and their ostentatious lifestyles. `Abdul Hameed resolved to take from Europe only that which would benefit the state like industrial and military technology. The visit made him adopt an unconventional approach where relations with Europe were concerned to the effect that no European leader could ever influence him, no matter how friendly their nations were with each other.
High-handedness of the Ministers
But the empire was bankrupt and the administration uncooperative. The Young Turks, the Unionists (Tanzimaat), the educated elite which included ministers, toiled in the direction of establishing a constitution for the country consistent with the European pattern; and was least concerned about the debt which stood at 13.4 billion Qurush. Members of this group infiltrated the state apparatus and got themselves into influential positions in the government and used their clout to tyrannize and dominate the decision-making process of the state. The brazenness of the ministers was clear from the first year of `Abdul Hameed’s reign when Midhat Pasha, the Prime Minister and the one believed to be the head of the Young Turks group, (he was a member of the Masonic Lodge in Istanbul) wrote to the Caliph, ‘We aim, by declaring constitutional governance, to root out despotism, determine your Majesty’s privileges and duties, assign responsibilities to the ministers and to ensure the freedom and rights of citizens to help the state achieve progress. I would obey your commands as long as they are advantageous to the nation.’
The general support the group enjoyed in the educated circles and the acceptance of the idea by the general public influenced the Sultan’s approach and methodology, in as much as he made the remark: ‘I found that Midhat Pasha imposed himself as a custodian over me, and he was closer in his demeanour to tyranny than to democracy.’
In fact, earlier, when Sultan `Abdul Azeez (the uncle of `Abdul Hameed) had disagreed with the Young Turks’ Midhat Pasha, they dethroned him and later made it known that he had committed suicide. The medical commission constituted by `Abdul Hameed, however, proved that he was murdered.
But, although `Abdul Hameed got rid of Midhat Pasha later, he was faced with Awni Pasha, the head of the Council of Ministers (al Sadr al-Azam) and one of the leaders of the army. He discovered that Awni Pasha took money and presents from the English. Awni Pasha pushed the `Uthmani state into the Bosnian wars quite against the will of `Abdul Hameed. Awni misinformed `Abdul Hameed about the size of the `Uthmani army in Bosnia. He claimed to have 200,000 soldiers ready. However, `Abdul Hameed checked with other generals of the army and discovered that he had only 30,000 soldiers, who were confronted by more than 300,000 enemy troops. Thus, the Bosnian war was lost and this encouraged Europe and Russia to engage in further military ventures against the Ottomans. Thus, the Sultan, two years after mismanagement by his ministers, decreed the suspension of the parliament indefinitely to run the country himself for 30 years.
The number of missionaries swelled in spite of the government’s clampdown against them, particularly in those provinces over which the Western countries had already set their covetous eyes. French missionaries distributed the Bible even in villages. In Libya, the missionaries disguised as Muslim scholars feigned similar names to work in Tripoli and Ben Ghazi areas. A person by the name Sheikh Hashim was arrested and his real name was revealed as Senior Bonito Selvadora.
`Abdul Hameed limited the role of women to the confines of their households, seeing for them no role in politics. He gave due attention to their education and established an institute to train women teachers. He also resolved to work against the intermingling of the two sexes in public places. He defended himself when criticized on this issue saying, ‘How could I be against knowledge and education after I established a university? How could I be against women’s literacy when I have set up a home exclusively for the training of women teachers?’
Attempts on his Life
Two attempts were made on the Sultan’s life, one by Ali Sa`awi and the other by Klanti, but both failed. The former belonged to the Young Turks, while the latter to a Masonic organization. Britain was behind both the attempts. A third attempt was made by the Armenians and the weapon used was a time bomb that was supposed to explode while he was leaving the mosque after a Friday Prayer However, it went off prematurely.
Crises were closing in on the state from various corners, the coffers were empty, the army was inadequately armed, and Western-oriented reformers, democracy and proponents of nationalism were demanding a parliamentary system of governance. This was in addition to international political conspiracies that were aiming at dividing the state and distributing its territories among themselves. The Sultan tried to contain the crisis by approving a modern constitution, rather than the traditional Islamic system of governance, for the state and ratified a parliamentary system of governance. However, the royal palace was over-staffed with Jews and Christians who, disguising themselves using Muslim names, worked from the inside against the continuation of the state.
Both, the Sultan and the Russian Tsar, were non-violent men who abhorred war, but their entourages consisted of those looking for confrontation. This was particularly so in the case of the `Uthmani Prime Minister, Midhat Pasha. While the European mediators agreed on the compensation that was to be demanded from the `Uthmani state for the previous war, the Ottoman Prime Minister refused to shift his position and, instead, persisted on his call for war with Russia. His stubborn attitude brought about the 1877-78 war, which culminated in the Russian troops advancing upon the suburbs of the capital, Istanbul. This defeat cost the state dearly. As the Russians advanced, they massacred the peasants in their thousands. The Russians distributed the guns and ammunitions captured from the defeated `Uthmani army to the local Christians who turned on their Muslim neighbors. Village after village witnessed horrific scenes of mass killing.. Some 250,000 refugees entered into Istanbul and Anatolia within three months followed by another 250,000 who did so a little later. (In fact, the massacre of Balkan Muslims has continued since then – intermittently – right up to 1992).
The war with Russia further added to the socio-economic burdens of the Ottoman state, with thousands of Muslims killed and other thousands displaced from the Balkan region. Furthermore, insurgency in the Island of Crete by its Romanian populace on racial and religious grounds incited by the Russians continued till Greece annexed it after the unseating of the Sultan in 1912. The Armenians too revolted against the state in the east of the plateau with their insurgents soon creating problems in the capital, Istanbul, itself. This revolt was however quelled by the Sultan who later became the target of an assassination attempt which they made in 1905. The weakness of the state during this period allowed France to occupy Tunisia in 1881. The situation was not better in Egypt where the extravagance of Khedive Ismail got the country into debts with Britain, and it was the popular anger and attacks against British subjects in Alexandria which gave Britain the pretext to occupy Egypt. On other fronts, the Western nations encouraged the Bey of Tunisia to revolt against the `Uthmani state in 1877. In 1881, France occupied Tunisia. In 1882, Britain occupied Egypt. Later, the Netherlands invaded Indonesia, Russia invaded Central Asia, Britain expanded deeper into India and Sudan.
The governmental authorities surrounding the Sultan, who acquired their education in the West, were influenced by Western nationalism and called for the establishment of democracy. Though the Sultan was impelled to suspend the parliament and the constitution and administer the state by himself away from their influence, their movement had by then pervaded the state bodies including the army. This showed first in the mutiny of Lieutenant Niyazi who, leading an infantry unit, declared the return of the Constitution and the restoration of the Parliament. This forced the Sultan to agree to their demands in 1908. The Unionists – as the members of the Young Turks were called – implemented an arbitrary and dictatorial regime as seen by their conducting elections to the parliament under the barrel of the gun and their extending of a comprehensive amnesty for thousands of Bulgarian and Armenian insurgents. The 13th April 1909 incident was a political ruse by the Young Turks in their pursuit of Sultan `Abdul Hameed’s deposition. In this incident, some soldiers assassinated their superiors accusing them of straying away from Islamic Shari’ah and demanded the exclusion of the Young Turks lieutenants from the government. The Unionists accused the Sultan of being behind the incident and sent their army – called the Movement Army – that comprised army regulars as well as ordinary people along with armed Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek militias. One Shawkat Pasha assisted by Azeez al-Masri and Mustafa Kamal Attaturk led the army. Shawkat spread fallacious reports that the army was heading to rescue the Caliph from the insurgents. The loyal army guarding the capital sought permission to resist Shawkat’s advance but the Caliph declined (in the style of `Uthman, the third Caliph), preferring, instead, that blood be not spilt.
The parliament then assembled and decreed the unseating of the Sultan. The Young Turks succeeded in forcibly extracting a religious decree to approve the unseating of the Sultan who was evicted from his palace, and made to reside in a palace in Slanik city. He was later shifted to Istanbul during the Balkan war where he died on the 10th of February 1918.
Sultan Abdul Hameed believed that opposing science and its progress is a mistake. He encouraged scientific development; with the only reservation that it should not have negative political, social or moral influence. He personally financed the construction of the second most modern medical college in the world. When Cholera flared up in Istanbul, which was not diagnosed correctly by `Uthmani doctors and chemists, the Sultan contacted his friend, the French scientist, Pasteur, whom the Sultan had given financial assistance for research requirements earlier. Pasteur sent his assistant to Istanbul who diagnosed the epidemic.
He established a modern medical college, science and political science colleges, an academy for fine arts and high schools for trade, agriculture, veterinary medicine, forestry, metallurgy and marine trade. In addition, a school was set up for the rehabilitation of the deaf, dumb and blind. Scholarship programmes were also initiated in which the students could pursue their studies in France and Germany. The next area of the Sultan’s focus was the state’s armed forces. He attempted to modernize the navy, which was dominated by British captains, whom he tried to replace. But, in this, he was stopped by the objections put forward by the British ambassador. Focusing on the army, instead, the Sultan provided it with modern weapons and appropriate training at the hands of senior German officers.
Meanwhile, through the mediation of the Jewish Rothschild family in Britain, Theodore Herzl approached Sultan `Abdul Hameed for the founding of a Jewish nation for the Jews. The request – made through two separate delegations – was for the establishment of Jewish settlements in any part of Palestine and, if the government wished, the building of houses for Muslims in the very same settlements. In turn, the Jews would facilitate the payments of the `Uthmani state’s loans, pay up to build the `Uthmani Navy, and, in addition, pay 35 million Liras for the prosperity of the `Uthmani State. The Sultan turned down the offer saying, “My forefathers won the land of Palestine. I will not sell it for money.” He has ever been hated for saying further: “Let the Jews keep their millions.”
The Armenian Revolution
The Catholic missionaries from Europe and Protestant missionaries from America who worked diligently among the Armenians further fueled their religious and ethnic aspirations. Eventually, this led to the Armenians’ demand for a Christian governor in the eastern states of the country and for special rights to be conferred upon their lot. They later formed revolutionary political parties and subversive militant groups which launched armed attacks in certain areas of the Ottoman state. In particular, these attacks occurred at places where the Muslim subjects refrained from joining the revolution against the `Uthmani state. It was among these that wholesale massacres took place. The Sultan then ordered a contingent of the Royal Knights Brigade (Knights of the Hameedia Brigade) to curb the Armenians and bring to trial those involved in stirring up the clashes. Europe then, save Germany, objected, more so, the British Premier, Gladstone, who criticized the Sultan’s policy and said that the `Uthmani state should be annihilated from existence.
Precariousness of the `Uthmani Economy
The incessant upheavals by the population of the island of Crete, who were aided by the Greeks, led to a draining of Ottoman resources in terms of soldiers and logistic support every time the Romanians revolted. The Ottoman-Greek war of 1897 and the earlier war with Russia had also contributed to the draining of the state’s economy. The conditions were quite appalling when the Sultan ascended the throne, but became better mainly after the financial reforms he initiated, most important of which was the Public Debts Management Board which included representatives of creditor countries and which was tasked with the paying off of debts out of the state revenues. Earlier, the Sultan had ordered the banning of all manifestations of extravagance in the state, beginning in the palace.
Britain had long viewed Cyprus as a strategic location in its ability to secure its routes to India. The `Uthmani state’s war with Russia gave her an opportunity to negotiate the handing over of Cyprus in exchange for British support for the `Uthmanis in the international diplomatic arena. The `Uthmanis needed a major power to support them at the Berlin conference, for the Russian army was, by then, at the very doors of Istanbul. But while the Sultan refused to give away the Island, he agreed to sign an agreement with the British to the effect that legally Cyprus would still remain an `Uthmani territory, but would be rented to Britain.
Egypt too occupied considerable significance for the British in their drive to secure the route to India. Thus, this requirement of real-politic would see them assist the `Uthmanis in expelling Napoleon’s French army from Egypt. They also opposed Muhammad Ali’s policy of securing Egypt’s independence from the Ottomans. In addition, they also opposed, at the time, his ambition to go ahead with the Suez Canal project with French assistance, only to participate along with them later in drowning Egypt in loans just to build it. Khedive Ismail Pasha later sold his shares in the Canal Company to pay off debts, but the country still went into economic depression that led to severe inflation. Creditor countries imposed financial reforms and appointed their own men for the task, and this led to loss of jobs for 2500 Egyptian lieutenants from the army. Angry demonstrations saw the Khedive being replaced by his son, Tawfiq, who was also helpless as the economy was mortgaged to the West. Later, the British, by then in occupation of Egypt, objected and dispatched a warship to scare away the `Uthmanis. In response, the Sultan sent two battalions under Rushdi Pasha which forced Britain to withdraw from the port city. Demonstrations by Muslims in India against the British also expedited the British withdrawal.
In Yemen, Britain fomented troubles for the `Uthmani state during the al-Aqaba crisis but the 8000-strong `Uthmani force and the appointment of the Imam there as a governor thwarted the British maneuver. As for the Arabian Gulf region, the Sultan had to face the grim reality that it was all but lost to the British. Britain also worked towards creating fissures between the Kurds and the `Uthmani state: this intensified after the British-India companies were born. The aiding and abetting of the Armenians by the British against the `Uthmani state was at its peak in 1890 when they stirred up that bloody uprising against the Muslim population in eastern Anatolia.
The Sultan was well-aware of British spies working among the heads of clans and princes in the Arabian Peninsula. This, he countered by establishing direct contacts with these tribal heads and by keeping the Ottoman intelligence vigilant to their correspondences with the British. He questioned the Shareef of Makkah on his contacts with the British, and not stopping with a mere warning of the consequences of these contacts, he appointed him as an advisor at Istanbul. The Shareef was thus effectively prevented from returning to Makkah and resuming those suspicious contacts. The Arab revolution was thus delayed till the CUP dethroned the Sultan and allowed the Shareef to return to Makkah and start his campaign under the supervision of the British.
In general, while the weakening of the Uthmani state and its annihilation was, doubtless, a prime European objective, in addition, they harboured ambitions of seizing its constituent parts for themselves. This, they achieved by creating hostilities among its Muslim subjects and by fanning nationalistic feelings among them, the Arabs included. Foreign schools and Christian missionaries were the means used to do this. The French were ahead of the British in missionary work, but the British outshone them when it came to the extensive establishment of schools. The Masonic lodges too played a vital role in igniting nationalistic passions, with Christian Arabs working actively in enlisting their fellow Arab-Muslims into such lodges.
To counter it, the Sultan encouraged exchange visits by Muslim scholars from different countries and brought important Arab personalities closer to him. In a report by the British ambassador in Istanbul to his government, it is mentioned that the Sultan took steps to revive economic prosperity and construction activity in Arab territories. He also banned Zionist activities in Palestine. With such wide-ranging measures, the Sultan strangulated the ideology of Arab Nationalism while it was still in its infancy. Thus, throughout his reign, the Arabs were, in general, honest and sincere in their affiliation with him.
Austria teamed up with Russia in kindling insurgency against the `Uthmani state in Bosnia-Herzegovina and, in 1876, Austria was granted temporary possession of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The seizing of power by the Young Turks weakened the state and a day after the Bulgarians declared their independence from the `Uthmani state in 1908, Austria declared its official annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Soon, the Italians occupied Libya and a truce was signed in 1912 stipulating the withdrawal of the 1700 soldiers of the `Uthmani state.
Russia’s several wars against the `Uthmani state allowed it to take away territories and help set up independent states in the areas it could not occupy, like Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. To secure access to the Mediterranean Sea, Russia launched the 1877 war that consisted of two fronts. The Danube front from where 25,000 Russians backed by 50,000 Romanians confronted the 200,000 strong army of Othman Pasha. In spite of the initial dominance of the `Uthmani army, they were surrounded and supply lines were cut off. This compelled Othman Pasha to try and penetrate their lines. He did that successfully but was later shot in the knee, thus forcing him to surrender and avert the annihilation of his army.
On the Caucasian front, the `Uthmani forces were mediocre in terms of their troop numbers and quality of armaments, as compared to the massive Russian army. Though Ahmad Mukhtar Pasha’s force prevailed in two encounters, it was eventually shattered and the cities where occupied. This occupation was halted only by the truce of 1878. The Russians turned away from active military encounters after they signed an agreement with the Uthmanis at the Berlin conference. However, this did not prevent them from focusing on cold war tactics whereby they instigated minority ethnic communities within the `Uthmani state (for instance, the restive population of Crete and the Bulgarians).
France’s ambition of forming an empire out of the `Uthmani territories were clear from the days of Napoleon when he failed and retreated from Egypt. It occupied Algeria in 1830 and used the opportunity during the Berlin conference in 1878 to appraise the major powers of its intentions of occupying Tunisia. A force of 20,000 advanced against the Tunisian borders on the pretext of disciplining a Tunisian tribe that attacked Algeria, but finally occupied the whole of Tunisia and forced its `Uthmani governor there to sign a truce acknowledging it as a French protectorate. Although the `Uthmani government objected vigorously, it was in no position to send an army to liberate Tunisia, as the state was fully preoccupied in defending its territories against other, more threatening, European ambitions.
Germany was looked at by the Sultan as a friend, but not fully trustworthy. Kaiser Wilhelm II was twice hosted by Abdül Hamid in Istanbul; first in 1889, and later, in 1898. German officers (like Baron von der Goltz and von Ditfurth) were employed to oversee the reorganization of the `Uthmani army. German government officials were brought in to reorganize the `Uthmani government’s finances. However, Germany’s friendship came at a price, and had to be fostered with railway contracts and loan concessions. In 1899, the Baghdad Railway contract – a significant German desire – was given to them.
Greece sought to revive the obsolete Byzantium Empire. The Christian Romanians staunchly believwed in the 400-year-old prophecy that Constantinople would revert to the Orthodox again. The Orthodox Patriarchate’s interests were thus in tune with the Russian ambition to demolish the `Uthmani state. Katrina II, the Russian Empress signed a pact with Austria in 1787 which alluded to the restitution of the Empire of Byzantium under Russian protection. A subversive society was formed for this cause that thrived more in Romanian dominated areas, but which also had supporters in Russia. The society decided to launch an uprising against the `Uthmani state in 1821 during which a coded message from the Patriarch Gregarious to the Russian Tsar was intercepted by the `Uthmani intelligence. The message, when decoded, proved the Patriarch’s involvement in the society. The Patriarch was executed at the door of the Patriarchate. The door remains shut in mourning till date.
The Greeks considered the island of Crete as the starting point in their mission of establishing a Byzantine state and they started a revolt there. In 1898, they succeeded in inciting communal riots between the `Uthmani Muslims and the Christian Greeks by slaughtering a pig one night and leaving it bleeding inside a mosque. Although, the big powers tried to prevent the situation from worsening, Greece ignored their efforts and attacked the `Uthmani borders. The Sultan appointed Adham Pasha as the leader of the army under his direct supervision. The war was over in three weeks and the Greek forces stood devastated on all fronts. The `Uthmani army headed for Athens, and Greece sought help from the Russian Tsar and the Europeans. The Russian Tsar wrote to the Sultan congratulating him on the victory and requesting him to progress no further within Greek territories. While this war did not achieve much in terms of material gains for the `Uthmani state, there were, nevertheless, the numerous letters of congratulations and the supplications made in all the mosques of the world praying for the victory of the Caliph. The victory, though simple, made the whole of the vast Islamic world beat as one heart. In the Eid prayers following the battle, the Sultan prayed next to representatives from India, Arab Sheikhs and others who came to congratulate him on the victory.
The Vision of the Islamic League
After the victory of the `Uthmani forces, the Syrians established centers to collect contributions for the army and their Red Crescent centers treated the wounded soldiers. North African Muslims celebrated the victory in spite of the French occupation’s objections that considered the celebrations to be blind religious bigotry. Indian Muslims sent their contributions and medical aid to the caliphate and the Islamic Society in Hyderabad wrote in an Egyptian newspaper that they are Muslims and His Majesty, Sultan `Abdul Hameed, is the Caliph and that they are his subjects. They, therefore, find it a duty upon themselves to support the army that defends the caliphate.
One of the most prominent among the many scholars whom `Abdul Hameed employed to meet with Muslims everywhere, to understand their grievances and to convey to them the outlook and vision of the Sultan himself was Jamaluddin al-Afghani who lived between 1838 and 1897 CE. Al-Afghani had a strong leadership-oriented character. The only way to reform the Islamic world, in al-Afghani’s vision, was in reviving an Islamic state, alerting it to its characteristics, and to bring it to the rank of the super-powers. At that time, the `Uthmani state was the only candidate for such a project in the Muslim world. Al-Afghani saw that it was necessary for the `Uthmani state to adopt a policy of decentralization whereby it could allow its states to stand as autonomous entities that needed to look to Istanbul only in matters of great importance. However, Al-Afghani seems to have backtracked from his project of creating an Islamic federal state after he met the Sultan who explained to him the hypothetical nature of his proposal. In fact, al-Afghani seems to have been hasty, and did not adopt a more comprehensive program, of stages and clear objectives, for his mission of a pan-Islamic revival.
Thus, while al-Afghani supported the Sultan’s call for the formation of the Islamic League and presented him with even more ambitious projects, the Sultan never hoped for anything more than unity – of objectives and between movements – within Muslim nations. However, one objective on which al-Afghani and the Sultan were united was Sunni-Shia unity. Indeed, al-Afghani’s recommendation to the Sultan that they ought to work for a rapproachment between Shias and Sunnis was quite in keeping with – or rather, complementary to – the Sultan’s own vision which was focused more on unifying and strengthening political work among the two groups. This the Sultan saw to be critical in confronting the international wave of European colonialism that was then sweeping the Muslim world. Thus, in spite of a marked difference in the approach of the two men, Sultan `Abdul Hameed made good use of al-Afghani’s talent in publicity for bringing out the issue of the Islamic league.
Mustafa Kamil Pasha was another scholar who was of significance, at least in Egypt. The Sultan had heard of a young Law Graduate from Toulouse University who, after returning to Egypt, had taken up the battle against British occupation with his speeches and articles. The Sultan was also informed that this young revolutionary had a certain inclination towards the Islamic League. It was not long before `Abdul Hameed invited him to Istanbul. Mustafa Kamil Pasha was then barely 22 years of age, having graduated just two years earlier. This would be the first of a series of visits to Istanbul during which several titles were conferred on him by the Sultan. Not only did `Abdul Hameed admire Mustafa Kamil’s enthusiasm for the Islamic League, but the Sultan was also appreciative of his work as the leader of the national party in Egypt. To Mustafa Kamil, Sultan `Abdul Hameed was an astute and competent politician who worked incessantly to restore to the Muslims their erstwhile unity, glory and dignity. Mustafa used his pen and his skills in oratory for actively publicizing the Islamic League and confronting the ambitions of the West which posed a grave danger to the Islamic world.
Sheikh Abu Alhuda al-Sa`idi was one of those who were close to the Sultan. He was one of the most famous religious scholars of his time and had commanded respect in Aleppo, his hometown, when still a youth of 25. He was appointed as an advisor to the Sultan and had spent 30 years of his life working in the service of the caliphate.
Another Muslim scholar, author, fiction-writer and traveler was `Abdul Rasheed Ibrahim who was born in Siberia in 1853 and died in Japan in 1944. He visited Istanbul, soon becoming one of the key advocates of the idea of the Islamic League. He worked for it all his life whether in Turkmenistan, Mongolia, China, Japan, Siberia, Korea, India or Singapore. Appreciating the similarity between Japanese culture and Islamic traditions, manners and family structure, `Abdul Rasheed conveyed Islam’s message to the Japanese with great enthusiasm. The corruption ushered in by Christian missionaries into the moral fabric of Japanese society was not lost on him, and so he exhorted Muslims to expedite the work of preaching Islam in Japan with greater vigour. In turn, the Japanese government – in 1939 – formally recognized Islam as a religion practiced by a section of its subjects. Even earlier to this recognition, in 1937, the government had allowed for the construction of Tokyo’s main mosque primarily due to the efforts put in by `Abdul Rasheed. It was while he was thus engaged in the mission of establishing Islam in Japan that `Abdul Rasheed died in Tokyo in 1944. With his clear and cogent critique of British policies in India and by his highlighting of the gross injustices heaped on colonized countries, `Abdul Rasheed motivated the Indian community against colonialist occupation. Among those influenced by him was the poet of Islam, Mohammad Aakef. `Abdul Rasheed’s role in alerting the Muslims of Turkmenistan to the danger posed by Russian ambitions in the region cannot be ignored.
Mystic Orders were also used by the Sultan to promote his plan for the Islamic League. The `Uthmani state depended on Sufi orders since its establishment, particularly during conquests when Sufis were sent ahead of the armed forces to familiarize or remind the people about Islam and its teachings. In fact, the central board of the Islamic League in Istanbul had leaders of mystic orders among its members. The League also had sub-committees in different areas of the `Uthmani state to prepare the people for the same idea. For instance, there was a sub-committee in Makkah to promote the idea among the pilgrims, another one in Baghdad and one in North Africa. So influential were these Sufi orders that the French intelligence wrote that `Abdul Hameed, as the head of the Islamic League – and through his contacts with religious societies in North Africa – could form an organized local army if the need arose. The French intelligence was not misplaced, for the Sultan, in one instance, sent a column of Sufis not only to India, but also to the Arabian Peninsula, in order to counter the British propaganda in these regions which called for a transfer of the caliphate to the Arabs.
Education had suffered negligence before the reign of `Abdul Hameed. He gave it good attention inasmuch as he reformed and modernized the system. He revamped the Royal School of Political Science and increased its intake of students to twelve times the earlier number. He also established an academy for commercial and economic sciences that were not taught earlier. The military school too was upgraded to include the Infantry College, the Navy College, and the College of Engineering. The number of such higher education institutions went up to eighteen. Schools for the Customs Department, the Police Force and Financial Sciences were set up; Teachers’ Training Institutes as well as many new primary, intermediate and secondary schools were established. Educational syllabi too were revised and all publications related to science, technology and arts were allowed to gain access to the state. However, the feedback from state intelligence units alerted him to the growing tide of Turkish nationalism among students of elite institutions. To check this negative trend, the Sultan put into place several corrective measures. He ordered the axing of literature and general history from educational syllabi, the introduction of Islamic jurisprudence, Qur’anic interpretation and Islamic ethics, the confinement of history taught in the various institutions to Islamic history that included the `Uthmani one, the relegation of all state schools to his personal supervision so that the idea of the Islamic League was properly promoted. The Military Schools gave military training and fitness exercises to the students apart from the various subjects taught there. These subjects included the Qur’an, religious sciences, mathematics, geography, history, fundamentals of engineering, elementary management and Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and French languages.
Arabic Language appeared to the Sultan as suited to be the official language of the state. He believed Arabic to be an exquisite language and that its introduction as the official language would bring them closer to the Arabs. This was despite objections by one Palace official named Saeed Pasha that this would marginalize the Turkish language to the point of irrelevancy. The objection to making Arabic the official language did not stop at the bureaucratic level: it reached the level of even some religious scholars too.
The Grand Mosque at Makkah was given a face-lift. The Sultan ordered the construction of new wells and the repairing of dilapidated walls and domes. He also renovated the Holy House itself, ordered marble flooring for it and sent a pair of new silver keys from Istanbul. Many construction and renovation projects were carried out by `Abdul Hameed including the construction of eighteen water tanks in Makkah, the provision of tap water for the pilgrims, laying of roads to and from other pilgrimage-related sites around the Holy Mosque, purification and deepening of water tanks in Arafat, water supply and a 40-bed hospital with a pharmacy in Mina, post and telegram office and many others. During a drought that hit the Hijaz region, the Sultan ordered the payment of financial assistance, apart from the yearly gratuity he sanctioned for the inhabitants of the twin cities of the Holy Shrines.
The Hijaz Railway was a grand project started by the Sultan. Though his reign is commonly referred to as that of the Islamic League, some historians prefer to call it the Railway Tracks Era of the `Uthmani state, for it was in his reign that the region saw many trains introduced into the region. Though the Hijaz railway was accomplished by the government itself, other railway projects were assigned to foreign investors. The Sultan avoided carrying out such projects near the borders of the state lest the state’s enemies used them during military escalations. Moreover, Germany was the only foreign country awarded railway contracts, given the Sultan’s awareness of the Anglo-Russian alliance against the state and Britain’s proximity to the Arabian Peninsula after its occupation of Egypt. For the same reason, the Sultan approved the Anatolia-Baghdad railway tract to see that the Germans look forward to benefit from constructing and running it and in the same time protect against the threats posed by the alliance between Britain and Russia.
The Hijaz railway track was an important project for the Sultan. He described it as his old dream materializing. It was started in 1901 and finished in 1908 covering a distance of 1320 km, connecting Damascus to Madinah. It touched on the Mediterranean in Haifa which served Egyptian pilgrims coming by sea route from Alexandria port. Besides its morale-boosting effect, the project served to cover the impact of the loss of the Suez Canal to the British. Objections were initially raised against the project from many quarters including that of the Prime Minister, Saeed Pasha, who feared that the Arabs of the Hijaz region would not cooperate with the project because of their hidden agendas. However, the Ulemarose up with one voice to defend the project, assuring the government that it would work for the benefit of the Arabs in terms of economic prosperity and security. The work commenced in 1901 and contributions were called for, the Sultan himself being the first to contribute. He was followed by most of his ministers and other leaders from the Islamic world like the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Shah of Iran. It seems that the project committee considered the call of the Al-Manar magazine when it called upon the `Uthmani state to look if the railway project could be extended to reach Yemen particularly after the crowding of the Red Sea with various foreign powers that threatened the region’s stability. The Shareef of Makkah stood against the extension of the railway tract to Makkah fearing it would compromise his control over the Holy city. T.E. Lawrence, the British agent played the leading role in the destruction of the railway line in several places with the help of Arab guerrilla forces.
Another railway project stretching from Istanbul to Basra in Iraq commenced in 1902 and a part of it was inaugurated in 1904. However the project ran into troubles and was not completed.
He loved learning and was fluent in all the languages that were spoken around him in the palace like Albanian and Caucasian. He also learnt Arabic and Persian and wrote poetry in Turkish too. Though he inherited great wealth from his stepmother, he was not profligate in expenditure but invested his money, sometimes in livestock and even in trade when he was still a prince and free from responsibilities. Being a prince, he still repaired his old shoes and reused them. Though he knew that comments were being passed, he took no notice of it, because he knew he was doing the right thing. Princes in the palace used to stay out till late at night but he always stayed with his family back at home. He didn’t have extra marital relations: rumors about him in this regard were, therefore non-existent. He was successful in maintaining an average of fourteen hours work per day throughout the 33 years he reigned. He was intelligent, had a sharp memory as also ability to influence his audience. He had a respectful manner in dealing with people, and always stood up while receiving anyone.
Opinions about him vary from friend to foe: `Abdul Hameed took charge of the state when there was a huge fiscal deficit of 5 million Turkish Liras. The country had also incurred loans amounting to 300 million Liras with interest of 14 million Liras. Immediately upon taking charge, he implemented stringent austerity measures to reduce the burden on the state including expenditure at the palace level itself and also introduced what was called the Ramadan Shares. The measures succeeded in reducing the debt burden to 30 million Liras.
He married several wives and left many children. He combined several qualities in himself. He was a skilled carpenter and personally crafted most of his own furniture, which can be seen today at the Yildiz Palace and Beylerbeyi Palace in Istanbul. He was also interested in opera and wrote the first-ever Turkish translations of many opera classics. He was fond of Sherlock Holmes. He was a good wrestler and a patron of wrestlers. He was a poet too. The following lines written in difficult times, are often quoted as example,
Western media in general and the French in particular were critical of the Sultan; they were unrivaled in their fault-finding mission when it involved his handling of disturbances in the state. Gladstone, the British premier, called him the Satan, enemy of the Christians. Of his fellow citizens, the Young Turks wrote in their papers describing him as ‘bilious and bad-tempered’ and in another article ‘the rabid dog.’ Hertzel, the father of Zionism, described him as ‘a cunning and wicked Sultan who does not trust anyone’ and said that he had no hopes of achieving the Jewish dream on the land of Palestine as long as Sultan `Abdul Hameed reigned.
The friends of the Sultan expressed a different opinion of him. The Turkish population participated in his funeral: it was outstanding. His policies made the state a paradise if living standards are concerned. The poet, Ahmad Rasem, reminisced about his reign and said in his poem ‘O My Sultan, we miss the old tyranny’ insinuating at the Young Turks. Sir Henry Woods wrote in his book ‘40 years in the `Uthmani navy’ that ‘He was a great Sultan, quiet, and devoid of affectations... he worked seriously to bring together his strewn state.’ Turkish writer, Nahid Sirri, said in one of his books: ‘He was not the gloomy person who feared his own shadow, the oppressor and the bloodthirsty tyrant which they misled us into believing. Contrary to that, he was a kindhearted human being, who protected people’s wealth and repute.’
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