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The Abolition of the Caliphate

The year 1924 saw the abolition of the Caliphate. On the 2nd March the GNA passed a law deposing the Caliph and abolishing his office, "the function of the Caliph being essentially included in the meaning and connotation of the Government of the Republic". All princes and princesses would have to leavve Turkey within ten days. Other secularising laws were also passed abolishing the office of Şeyh-ül İslam, and the Ministry of Şeriat and Evkaf, and replacing it by a new Department of Prime Ministers' Office - the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Religious courts were abolished on 8th April, and on 20th April a new constitution was accepted. At the end of February, R.C.Lindsay reported confidentially to the new British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, Ramsay MacDonald, about the possibility of getting rid of the Caliph and his family, upon which D.G.Osborne made the following comments:

"...The Caliphate of the House of Osman is abolished and all the members of the house are to follow the Caliph and the late Sultan into exile. It is an historical event of the first importance. Their property is to revert to the state. Justice and education are to be entirely purged of their religious associations. The policy of disestablishment or laicization is carried to its logical limit...Kemal has always been determined to make a clean sweep of all contributory causes of of the decay of the Turkish Empire and to give the Turkish state a fair and fresh start. Hence the dissappearance of capitulations, the expulsion of the Greeks and Armenians, the repudiation of Constantinople as the capital, the overthrow of the Sultanate and now the abolition of the Caliphate and -which is almost as important- of Islamic law. A tremendous revolution has been effected by entirely pacific means, and it is impossible not to admire the courage, determination and statesmanship of Kemal. The effects on Islam are incalculable...it is not easy to estimate the precise significance of the Turkish action. Turkey has repudiated the religious and political leadership of Islam technically inherent in the holding of the Caliphate by the head of the Turkish state...It seems to leave the way open to Kemal, as President, to assume the functions of Caliph if this be the ambition."

William Tyrell added on 4th March : "I should hesitate in my tribute to Kemal's statesmanship until we are in a better position to judge the effects of secularization in Turkey and the rest of the Mohammedan world, though I believe the effect upon the latter will be more considerable."

Meanwhile the Caliph was removed from his palace at dawn on 4th March and taken by motor to Çatalca. There he was put on the express train and sent to Berne. The New York Tribune observed on this occasion that Kemal's decision to abolish the Caliphate might have had a practical political motive, as the "powerful religious caste" might have attempted to plot counter-revolution through that institution. Kemal preferred secular education and civilisation to ancient Moslem theocracy. Under the Republic, "Turkish religious fanaticism" had withered, and the dominating fact was that the old and the new Turkey were separated by an "impassable gulf", concluded the paper.

The New York Times observed that, when the Turkish national regime was fighting for its life, the Caliphate was one of its strongest assets; if Kemal was now prepared to discard so valuable a trump, it must be that he felt that his country's position was secure. The Christian Science Monitor said that the Kemalists had turned the course of Turkish destiny definitely towards the West, and by abolishing the Caliphate had challenged all Islam to make a similar choice.

Meanwhile, the president of the association of Ulema , Al Azhar, published to the Muslim World on 15th March 1924 a press statement by the Grand Sheikh, repudiating Mustafa Keal's action in its entirety. Other telegrams of criticism were sent to Kemal by Abdul Hamid, a member of the Hizb el Watani in Egypt, and by Shaukat Ali of India; but Kemal replied that this was an internal issue for the Turks. British consul C.A. Creig reported from Sarajevo on 11th March that the expulsion of the Caliph apparently awakened among the local "Ulema" and educated Muslim classes a feeling of despondent bewilderment mingled within dignition towards Mustafa Kemal and the Ankara Assembly, whose drastic action, they feared, would weaken and isolate the one state on whose revival hopes were set. Similar protests and telegrams of support came from all over the Muslim world; e.g. British Cosul J.H. Monahan (Tripoli) reported on 22nd April that, although the Ulema of Tripoli protested to Mustafa Kemal against the abolition of the Caliphate; the educated Muslims there had much symphaty for him as one ready to defy European ascendancy. On the other hand, British Consul Crosy reported on 2nd June from Batavia that the abolition of the Caliphate had created little excitement among the natives of the country, or among the Arab community some of whom professed to see in this a wise move on Kemal's part, having for its object definite separation of religion and state. They even applauded Kemal's policy on the ground that the princess of the House of Osman had been corrupted by British gold, and that they had for that reason merited the decree of expulsion passed against them.


Source : "Atatürk-The Founder of Modern Turkey" by Salahi R.Sonyel,

Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, Ankara, 1989



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