A Response to Tanzimat: Sultan Abdul Hamid II and Pan-Islamism

By Alyson M. Chouinard
2010, Vol. 2 No. 05 | pg. 1/1

Sultan Abdul Hamid II and Pan-Islamism

Under the rule of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the late nineteenth century the concept of Pan-Islamism, the concept that all Islamic peoples should unite under the Caliphate, was used as a means of supporting the declining power of the Ottoman ruler. This was done for three distinct reasons that will be argued in this article. The first reason was to counteract the growing power of European powers in the area; the second to undo the secularization that occurred during the Tanzimat period; and the last reason was to give the Sultan political power both in the international arena and domestically.


Immediately prior to the rise of Pan-Islamic thought and the reign of Abdul Hamid II, there was a period of reform in the Ottoman Empire called Tanzimat, which led to secularization of the leadership as well as the formation of a constitution and a legislature.1 The purpose of many of the reforms of the Tanzimat period was to secularize the governing powers of the Ottoman Empire so that the Christian population would feel more a part of the Empire, through the promotion of a sentiment of equality for all citizens, and would be less likely to agitate for the right to self-rule.2 To check the power of the sultan the constitution “provided for a responsible ministry, an appointed Senate, an elected Chamber of Deputies, and a hierarchy of local councils.”3 This step towards secularism and greater controls on the Sultan’s power only lasted a short time before Abdul Hamid II adjourned the parliament and put the constitution on hold, allowing him to regain the full autocratic power that previous Sultans had held.4

Countering European Influence

The concept of European colonialism was not something new to the peoples of the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, but the conquering of nearby countries with large Muslim populations, such as India and Tunisia, brought more attention to the politics of Islam.5 As Hourani states: “For a Muslim, however, whether he was Turkish or Arab, the seizure of power by Europe meant that his community was in danger.”6 Several noted Islamic scholars of the time started pushing the concept of Pan-Islamism, which can be explained as: “an ideological basis for cooperation between, or beyond, individual political units in a political struggle under the banner of Islam.”7 This meant that the concept of being a Muslim was something that was not exclusive to any one nation, making it a common ground for anti-colonialists to rally around.

One of the European powers that were seen as a threat to the political influence of the Ottoman Empire, which saw itself as the leader of the Islamic world, was Russia. Russia was a foreign power, which used its status as head of the Orthodox Church as a way to gain entrance into the Ottoman Empire. It used its influence to encourage that the Balkan states, which had high numbers of Christians who felt little loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan, to revolt and “liberate themselves from the Empire.”8 This led to more emphasis being put on the role of Caliph, as a means of countering the liberal ideals that made the Balkan revolt successful. “[T]he role of caliph gained new importance as, after the 1877-78 Russo-Ottoman war, the Ottoman Empire lost vast territories…in the Balkans, allowing the sultan to stress the Islamic religion as a new bid for unity against what he saw as an increasingly hostile Christian world.”9 The loss of the Balkans through the Russian influence on the Christian population there made it possible for the Sultan to add the title of Caliph to the Ottoman leadership, giving him the right to claim to be the protector of the Muslim population that was spread throughout the world.10

France also added to the push for a Pan-Islamic sentiment as it added parts of North Africa to its colonial empire. “[T]he Arabs in their conflicts with both France and Great Britain have sought support through arousing the sympathies of fellow Moslems.”11 The rise of a colonial power in an area that had already been converted to Islam led to the Muslims in the colonized population to identify more strongly with the Sultan-Caliph of the Ottoman Empire. In this way the presence of the French in Tunisia and Algeria assisted the rise of the concept of Pan-Islamism that then fed into the power of the Sultan-Caliph.12 As the colonial power in the region rose, so did the counter-colonialist emphasis on Islam. Because the center of the Pan-Islamic world was outside of European colonialist rule it was used “to cause difficulties to the European colonial regimes by dividing the loyalties of their Muslim subject populations outside of the empire.”13

The third European colonial power that Pan-Islam was used as a weapon against was Great Britain. The British had near-colonial control over one of the lands very close to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and was the colonial super-power in India, which had a large Muslim population as well. As such, their presence raised even stronger dissent than Russia or even France. “As time went on, Indian Muslims came more and more to perceive the British rulers as the main enemies of Islam in the world at large.”14 This was not only because India was physically and politically under the rule of Britain at the time, but also because the British had allowed the territories of Tunisia and the Balkans to be put under Christian rule, and because they were themselves occupying Egypt.15 “In India the idea that the British were undermining Indian Muslim society and civilization and disrupting the economic life of Indian Muslims was, however, widespread and realistic.”16 The Indian Muslims approached their dissent from different directions. “A few actually left India in order to join other Muslims in their fight against the British.”17 While others expressed themselves through pamphlets and newspapers written in Arabic, that could be read throughout the Islamic world.18 One of the anti-British, Pan-Islamic voices that emerged in this time period was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who spent time in India before heading east through much of the Islamic world and then into France. While in France he gathered around him people who were interested in his views, and he encouraged them to write their Pan-Islamic sentiments and publish them newspapers as a method of further spreading their opinions on the reform of Islam.19 In these ways the Pan-Islamic ideals that were spread because of the European influence in these regions boosted the power of the Sultan-Caliph against those very same European powers.

Reversing reforms of Tanzimat

The reforms that punctuated the Tanzimat period were especially detrimental to the supreme authority of the Sultan in the way that they secularized the Ottoman Empire, dispersed the central authority into several governmental bodies, and emphasized the Ottoman-ness of the Empire. Within a few years of taking control of the Empire, Abdul Hamid II did his best to upend each of these reforms, so as to consolidate the power of the Islamic world in his position as Sultan-Caliph.20

In an effort to counteract the secularization that arose during Tanzimat, Sultan Abdul Hamid II re-asserted his power as Caliph, which was seen as “the shadow of God on earth, the executant of his decrees; all Muslims should obey him, being thankful if he does right, patient if he does wrong.”21 This was a position that was stated strongly by the Sufi Sheikh Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi, who played an important role in Abdul Hamid II’s court as he gave religious legitimacy to the Sultan’s claim to the title of Caliph.22 This claim was not legitimate according to the early definition of Caliph:

The notion that the Ottoman sultan was analogous to the classical caliph was not a traditional one, despite the sultans\' attempts to make it appear so, and the sultan would have been automatically excluded from the classical definitions of a caliph by his not being an Arab, much less a member of Muhammad's tribe, the Quraish.23

This evidences the power that the Sultan was trying to acquire and validate in an effort to bolster his position as leader of the Ottoman Empire, which had been weakened through the reforms of Tanzimat.

A second manner in which Abdul Hamid II repealed the reforms of Tanzimat was through his re-centralization of the power of the Ottoman Empire. At the beginning of his reign, Abdul Hamid II passed a constitution, which allowed for the creation of several legislative bodies.24 “Within two years of coming to power, he suspended the constitution he had pledged to uphold and shifted control out of the machinery of the government from the bureaucrats back to the royal palace in order to enforce his autocracy.”25 The fact that he did not abolish the constitution, but rather suspended it meant that he could still claim to be working with the constitution allowed him to claim legitimacy under that document, while not upholding the principles contained therein.26 “Although no parliament met in Constantinople during the three decades, 1878-1908, the [Sultan] annually published the Constitution of 1876 as the basic law of the Empire.”27 This dissolution of the means of checking the power of the Sultan, while still publicizing the existence of the Ottoman Constitution allowed Abdul Hamid II to be an autocratic ruler behind the screen of the constitution and the legitimacy that it gave.

Another way that Abdul Hamid II rescinded the reforms under Tanzimat was in the way that he transferred emphasis on being Islamic through the Arabic language and history instead of on being Ottoman and the secular Turkic background that it suggested. During Tanzimat, in order to appeal to the Christians and Jews along with the Muslims, one of the reforms was to emphasize the concept of a shared Ottoman identity, which de-emphasized the Arab culture of Islam in the role of the Sultan.28 “From a domestic standpoint, Abdul Hamid’s stress on Islamic ties was intended to secure the continued loyalty of the Arab inhabitants of the empire.”29 The importance that was put on the Arab community in the Ottoman Empire stemmed from the fact that the root of Pan-Islam, the Quran, is written in Arabic, so educated people across the Islamic world would be able to read the ideas that were communicated through the Arabic language. “The pan-Islamic propaganda was thus carried on mainly through the medium of the Arabic language and with the help of men of Arab origin.”30 And this was not contained to the Middle East, Moroccan Pan-Islamist read papers that were published in Egypt in the Arabic language, and as such Arabic was proved as a medium for carrying the Pan-Islamic ideals of the Caliphate.31

Pan-Islam as a Source for Political power

A third, and final, manner in which Sultan Abdul Hamid II was able to use Pan-Islamism to support his rule was as a base of political power. He utilized this power internationally when dealing with the European colonial powers, and domestically to quell dissent and to call for a return to a glorious past of Islam.

The ideals of Pan-Islamic thought and the consideration of the Sultan as Caliph of Islam were used as a tool in bargaining with the European powers that had colonial stakes in areas with large Muslim populations. “It was a policy aimed partly at the European Powers: they had Muslim subjects, the Russians in the Caucasus and Turkestan, the French in North Africa, the British in India, and might fear trouble among them if their policy pressed to heavily on the sultan.”32 In the Dutch East Indies the belief that the Caliph would step in and take them out from under foreign, non-Muslim rule worked to counteract the Dutch efforts to suppress the local Muslim uprisings.33 “The tightening bonds between Muslims in Southeast Asia and the Middle East were important in creating a sense of common purpose as against the colonial masters.”34 Similar sentiment was expressed by the Indian Muslims towards their British colonial rule: “As time went on, Indian Muslims came more and more to perceive the British rulers as the main enemies of Islam in the world at large.”35 One of the Islamic scholars that the Sultan brought to Istanbul in an effort to bolster his Pan-Islamic propaganda, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, felt strongly opposed to the colonial rule of Muslim people and “recognized the appeal of religion for most Muslims, and pioneered in wedding religion to reformist and anti-imperialist politics.”36 All of the unity that coalesced under Pan-Islam was turned into a tool that the Sultan could use when negotiating with the European colonial powers.

Another of the ways that the Sultan used his powers, especially when pertaining to his Pan-Islamic basis for political power was to control dissent. Ironically the scholar al-Afghani, whose writings were often used to support the Sultan-Caliph’s claim for power, was invited to Istanbul because of his Pan-Islamic message, but was essentially imprisoned because he was thought to have caused the sentiment in Iran that led to the death of Nasir al-Din.37 The Sultan did not only imprison those who thought differently, he also employed the use of press censorship. “The first steps toward a systematic, strict censorship regime in the Empire came after the accession of ‘Abdul Hamid…the Press Law was suspended…by an order authorizing the immediate suspension or suppression of any newspaper without stating the cause.”38 All of this allowed the Sultan to push his own version of the Pan-Islamic principles that were authored by the scholars of the time.

A third way that the Sultan used Pan-Islamism to further his political power was in calling for a return to the glory days of Islam under the Caliph. One of the ways that the Sultan supported his claim to the title of Caliph was through Sheikh Abu’l-Huda al-Sayyadi, who put forth “the defence of the sultan’s claim to be caliph, and the call to all Muslims to rally round his throne.”39 This return to the power of Caliph was a way for Abdul Hamid II to claim a power that had previously been held only by Arab Muslims, allowing him to utilize the Arab support for Islam to support his own rule. “From a domestic standpoint, Abdul Hamid’s stress on Islamic ties was intended to secure the continued loyalty of the Arab inhabitants of the empire.”40 For Abdul Hamid II to claim the title of Caliph some history needed to be fabricated, because the Caliphate was not ascribed to the Ottoman Sultan.41 “The primary task, therefore, of Abdulhamid’s propagandists was to assert that the way things stood was the way they had always been, the natural order of things.”42 This emphasis on “a glorious age in the past”43 was a strong rallying point domestically, because the Muslim population was able to find the common identity in the history of Islam, even when they were not of Arab descent, which gave support to the Sultan-Caliph as the leader of Islam on earth.


There were several ways that Sultan Abdul Hamid II used the ideal of Pan-Islamism to reinforce his base of power. By counteracting the growing power of European powers in the area he gained support from beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire; by reversing the secularization that occurred during the Tanzimat period he was able to rule autocratically; and by using it as a political power both in the international arena and domestically he was able to stabilize his rule at home and abroad.

1 William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East: Fourth Edition (Westview Press, 2009), 82.

2 Ibid., 83-85.

3 Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 104.

4 Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 119-120.

5 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 103.

6 Ibid.

7 Anthony Reid, “Nineteenth Century Pan-Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia,” The Journal of Asian Studies 26.2 (February 1967): 267.

8 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 104.

9 Selim Deringil, “Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State: The Reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 23.3 (August 1991): 346.

10 Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 120.

11 Dwight E. Lee, “The Origins of Pan-Islamism,” The American Historical Review 47.2 (January 1942): 286.

12 Ibid.

13 Edmund Burke, “Pan-Islam and Moroccan Resistance to French Colonial Penetration,” The Journal of African History 13.1 (1972): 98.

14 K. H. Ansari, “Pan-Islam and the Making of the Early Indian Muslim Socialists,” Modern Asian Studies 20.3 (1986): 510.

15 Ibid.

16 Nikki R. Keddie, “Culture Traits, Fantasy, and Reality in the Life of Sayyid Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani,” Iranian Studies 9.2/3 (Spring-Summer 1976):98.

17 Ansari, “Pan-Islam and the Making of the Early Indian Muslim Socialists,” 509.

18 Ibid., 510.

19 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 108-109.

20 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 104-105.

21 Ibid., 107.

22 Deringil, “Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State: The Reign of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909),” 347.

23 Nikki R. Keddie, “Pan-Islam as Proto-Nationalism,” The Journal of Modern History 41.1 (March 1969): 19.

24 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 104.

25 Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 119-120.

26 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 105.

27 Edward Mead Earle, “The New Constitution of Turkey,” Political Science Quarterly 40.1 (March 1925): 77. The author later makes a point about the Ottoman Constitution: Article 115 stated that none of the provisions in the Constitution could be suspended, even though they were. [Earle, “The New Constitution of Turkey,” 78.]

28 Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 83.

29 Ibid., 120.

30 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 106-107.

31 Burke, “Pan-Islam and Moroccan Resistance to French Colonial Penetration,” 103-104.

32 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 106.

33 Reid, “Nineteenth Century Pan-Islam in Indonesia and Malaysia,” 278.

34 Ibid., 283.

35 Ansari, “Pan-Islam and the Making of the Early Indian Muslim Socialists,” 510.

36 Keddie, “Culture Traits, Fantasy, and Reality in the Life of Sayyid Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani,” 117.

37 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 112.

38 Donald J. Cioeta, “Ottoman Censorship in Lebanon and Syria, 1876-1908,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 10.2 (May 1979): 170.

39 Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 107.

40 Cleveland and Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East, 120.

41 Keddie, “Pan-Islam as Proto-Nationalism,” 19.

42 Deringil, “Legitimacy Structures in the Ottoman State,” 354

43 Keddie, “Pan-Islam as Proto-Nationalism,” 26.

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