The Last Knight of the Last Caliphs

By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI

Without going into the question of the legitimacy of their title to the caliphate the last Ottoman sovereigns to combine the office of sultan and caliph were Muhammad Rashad and Muhammad Wahid ud-Din. The latter succeeded the former on 3 July 1918 at a dark moment in Ottoman history, only four months before the Ottoman Empire finally lost the war with Britain and sued for peace terms.

Meanwhile one of the Empire’s most colourful generals, ‘Umar Fakhr ud-Din Pasha, had been besieged in Medina since the outbreak of the Arab revolt in June 1916. The story of his tenacious defence of the city for seventy days after the signing of the armistice at the end of October 1918 merits a shining page in the annals of Ottoman, and indeed Islamic, history. The demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of a secular Turkish republic in Anatolia overshadowed-even for professional historians-the Fakhri Pasha episode. This short article is a record of the main facts, a contribution to history as well as a tribute to him who deserves to be called the last knight-defender of the caliphate, worthy of the meaning of his name-‘the glory of religion’.

This is not the place to give even a summary of the antecedents of the Arab revolt which was proclaimed by Husain ibn ‘Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, in June 1916 against the Ottoman Empire which was then allied to Germany and at war with Britain and her allies. The Sultan asserted his claim to be the caliph of all Muslims and declared a holy war (jihd) against Britain and her allies. Husayn was reluctant to publish the proclamation in Mecca on the not implausible plea that it would provoke a blockade, which would starve the people of Hejaz, dependent as they were on pilgrims and donations and provisions from Egypt. He had, in addition, the secret intention of revolt in return for a British promise of recognizing Arab independence.

The Turkish high command were not entirely ignorant of the Sharif’s designs. Partly to thwart them and partly to send reinforcement to Yemen, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Arab revolt, the garrison of Hejaz was reinforced with the Twelfth Army Corps under Fakhri Pasha, and a company of German machine gunners was dispatched to Medina, the terminal of the Hejaz Railway from Damascus, on the way to Yemen. Generalissimo Enver Pasha himself, together with Jamal Pasha, com-mander of the Fourth Army in Syria with jurisdiction over Sinai and Hejaz, visited Medina soon after the arrival of these reinforcements. They were accompanied by Faisal, the third son of the Sharif, who was more or less a hostage.

Faisal’s dramatic escape, followed by the proclamation of the revolt in Mecca by his father, is briefly described by T. E. Lawrence.“1” It was Faisal’s lot with his elder brother ‘Alt to face these formidable forces of regular troops in Medina. The Arab assault with no more than muzzle-loading guns was easily beaten off by Fakhri Pasha who terrified Beduin irregulars with salvos from his artillery. It was immediately plain that tribesmen, with no military training and poor weapons, could not capture a fortified city from a modern army under an able general.

After six months of skirmishing Fakhri Pasha held an entrenched line well outside the city, and made sure that the railway to the north was garrisoned and patrolled. Despite stories to the contrary, the line was never permanently cut off till the final phase of the war in Palestine. The dynamiting of sections of it by Lawrence and his men simply led to its being repaired.

Having lost Mecca to the Arabs in 1916 and Jerusalem to their British allies in 1917, even ‘godless’ men like Enver and Jamal were loath to abandon Medina as was repeatedly urged on them by their German allies. Jamal did actually censure the Sharif, and held his revolt respon-sible for the fall of Jerusalem. Perhaps the sentiment was more political than religious, for the loss of Medina would have deprived the Sultan-Caliph of the prestige of being the guardian of the three holy mosques in Islam.

The Turks remained hopeful of a reconciliation with the Arabs as brother Muslims. Overtures with favourable terms continued to be made until within two months of the armistice.“2” In September 1918 the British War Office sent a report to the Foreign Office that the Sharif (by then King Husain) was ready to settle with Turkey on the basis of recognizing his ‘temporal’ authority while he recognized the Sultan’s ‘spiritual’ authority, and asked what Britain’s attitude would be. The Foreign Office rejected the idea of a separate peace between the Sharif and Turkey but suggested another approach be made to Fakhri Pasha to induce him to surrender. “3”

A Turkish author asserts that Fakhri Pasha did actually refuse to obey an order from his superior, Jamal Pasha, to evacuate Medina and withdraw to Trans-Jordan. We are told that Jamal then turned to a younger general, Mustafa Kamal Pasha (later Ataturk), who also refused to undertake the task on the ground that he did not wish to go down in history as the soldier who gave up Medina.

There is little doubt that Fakhri Pasha had such a sentiment i n mind when he clung to his position even when the Turks were driven out from southern Palestine east and west of the River Jordan, thus completely cutting off the railway link with Medina. He managed to get supplies from Najd and elsewhere, for to the east of Medina he was virtually free.

Some of his officers saw the futility, from a military point of view, of continued resistance. But his steadfastness remained unshaken. The available evidence shows very conclusively that he was animated by religious motives with little or no regard to military strategy or political expediency. According to the same Turkish author, who quotes an eye-witness account, one Friday in the spring of 1918, after prayers in the Prophet’s Mosque, Fakhri Pasha ascended the steps of the pulpit, stopped halfway and turned his face to the Prophet’s tomb and said loud and clear:

‘Prophet of God! I will never abandon you!’ He then addressed the men: ‘Soldiers! I appeal to you in the name of the Prophet, my witness. I command you to defend him and his city to the last cartridge and the last breath, irrespective of the strength of the enemy. May Allah help us, and may the spirit of Muhammad be with us.

‘Officers of the heroic Turkish army! O little Mubammads“4” Come forward and promise me, before our Lord the Prophet, to honour your faith with the supreme sacrifice of your lives’.“5”

Such was Fakhri’s resolve when in August 1918 he received another call to surrender. The call ought to have been made by the Amir Abdul-lah, the second son of the Sharif, who then commanded the Arab forces round the city, but it seems to have come from his father. King Husain. Only Fakhri Pasha’s reply survives in a poor English translation. It is apparently addressed to Husain himself from ‘Fakhr-ud-Din, General, Defender of the Most Sacred City of Medina. Servant of the Prophet’. The text as preserved in the British Public Record Office “6” it given below, slightly amended:

‘In the name of Allah, the Omnipotent. To him who broke the power of Islam, caused bloodshed among Muslims, jeopardized the caliphate of the Commander of the Faithful, and exposed it to the domination of the British.

‘On Thursday night the fourteenth of Dhu’l-Hijja, I was walking, Tired and worn out, thinking of the protection and defence of Medina, when I found myself among unknown men working in a small square. Then I saw standing before me a man with a sublime countenance. He was the Prophet, may Allah’s blessing be upon him! His left arm rested on his hip under his robe, and he said to me in a protective manner, ‘Follow me ” I followed him two or three paces and woke up. I imme-diately proceeded to his sacred mosque and prostrated myself in prayer and thanks [near his tomb].

‘I am now under the protection of the Prophet, my Supreme Com-mander. I am busying myself with strengthening the defences, building roads and squares in Medina. Trouble me not with useless offers.’

It is difficult to imagine Husain, himself a descendant of the Prophet, not to have been moved by Fakhri Pasha’s vision. To the Pasha the legitimate caliph was the Sultan of Turkey, and Husain (even after his assumption of kingship) was no more than a rebel. His rebellion was the more reprehensible because it disrupted Islamic unity and aided the enemies of the Sultan-Caliph.

Fakhri Pasha’s vision must have been the culmination of prolonged meditation. After this experience his actions conformed to no military or political rules. They were clearly inspired by his religious conscience.
The crisis was soon upon him. In accordance with the terms of the armistice of October 1918, a British High Commissioner was installed in Istanbul and all Turkish forces were required to surrender to the nearest British or allied commanders. Fakhri Pasha received his government’s order to surrender, ‘wirelessed en clair’. He refused to obey. The seventy days’ drama until his final surrender is worthy of more detailed study.

At one time King Husain and his British allies suspected that Fakhri might surrender the city with his arms and supplies to Ibn Sa’ud. At another, it was rumoured that he intended to blow himself up in the Prophet’s Mosque, which would have resulted in incalculable harm to British interests in the Muslim world. After a month of futile exchanges between Istanbul and Cairo the British High Commissioner became impatient even with a subservient Turkish government. He threatened to demolish the forts at the Dardanelles if Medina were not surrendered. He demanded the issue of clear and peremptory orders to ensure Fakhri’s surrender by 15 December, six weeks after the signing of the armistice. The orders were sent with a senior Turkish officer from the Ministry of War who was carried on a British destroyer to Port Said and from there by aeroplane to Yanbu’, the port of Medina.

Meanwhile FakhrI Pasha had, according to a British intelligence report, sent three cipher messages, two to the Minister of War and one to the Grand Vizier. To the former he said he doubted the authenticity of orders conveyed to him through enemy agencies in Cairo and Hejaz. The Minister of War must report to the Sultan that Fakhri would continue to hold Medina under the Sultan’s flag until he received an order from him as Caliph to surrender it. To the Grand Vizier the message was simply confirmation of those to the Minister of War.

The emissary could not leave Yanbu’ before the morning of 15 December, the date of the expiry of the ultimatum. However, Fakhri Pasha found a new excuse. He pointed out to the emissary that the order was addressed to ‘the officer commanding the Hejaz force’ and that did not relieve him of the duty as ‘the officer responsible for the Prophet’s tomb to the Sultan’.

The British High Commissioner had already extended the period of the ultimatum by seventy-two hours. Since Fakhri’s reply was still negative the Turkish government was informed that a state of war again existed. On 29 December 1918, two months after the signing of the armistice, the High Commissioner demanded that a more senior army officer be sent to Medina who might supersede Fakhri if he refused to obey the new orders. These were to be ‘final’ orders from the Minister of War signed by the minister himself and a letter from the Sultan’s chief secretary confirming that the minister’s orders were in accordance with the Sultan’s wish. The emissary was also to carry, in reserve, an imperial irade from the Sultan dismissing Fakhri if he failed to obey.

The last precaution proved unnecessary. The comprehensive orders satisfied all of Fakhri’s scruples. Before the fateful day he prayed near the tomb of the Prophet and laid his sword by it“7”. On 10 January 1919 the lion came out of his den and at Bir Darwish surrendered to the enemy with 456 officers and 9,364 men.
According to The Times correspondent in Cairo, Arab troops took over the city on 11 January and the Amir ‘Abdullah made his formal entry two days later.

1 Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1955 ed.), pp. 52ff. 1969), pp. 259-62; 264-5.
2 On Jamal Pasha’s overtures to the Arabs see A.L. Tibawi, A Modern History of Syria (London, (Turkey), under date.
3 Publlic Record Office, London. F. O./371
4The Turkish diminutive ‘Mehmetcik’ is name of the Turkish private soldier, like ‘tommy’ for the British private soldier 
5 Emel Esin, Mecca The Blessed, Medinah The Radiant (London, 1963), p. 190
6 From which the details given below are culled. F.O./ 371 (Turkey)
7On the other hand it is reported by a Turkish eyewitness still living in Medina that a sword was handed over to the representative of the Sharif but there is now no trace of it in Medina or elsewhere.

The Islamic Quarterly, London 
October- December 1971