The Mughals were successful in establishing themselves as the source of political legitimacy within India until the establishment of the East India Company depriving them from their original authority. Various Indian Muslim princes still continued to recognize the last Mughal Emperor even though they became independent of him. The Mughal Emperor’s name was read in the khutba in the mosques on Fridays and coinage was minted in his name. Other Indian Muslim princes seeking to establish hegemony in their own regions turned towards the Ottoman Sultan Caliph as a source of legitimacy.
The Khilafat as a symbol of Muslim Unity and the supremacy of the Sharia had a special significance in the history of Muslim rule in India. The Caliph was important especially in times of political confusion and stood as a source of legitimacy based on the Sharia. When the British finally extinguished Mughal rule after 1857 they eliminated a whole structure of religious-political authority. The Ottoman Sultan was one remaining authority as a Sunni potentate and hence the only possible candidate for Caliph. He was the symbol not only of the survival of the rule of Islamic law but also of past Islamic glory. In the late nineteenth century for a variety of reasons a new and widespread acknowledgment of the Ottoman Sultan as Caliph developed in India.
Imams began to read the Sultan’s name in the khutba on Friday in some Indian mosques. Each time the Ottomans were involved in a war – the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, or the Greco-Turkish war of 1897 Muslims in India channeled fund drives for Turkish relief. Such actions did not imply political allegiance to the Turkish ruler but they were testimony to a sympathy for Turkey which could be exploited in the interests of Muslim solidarity whether within in India or without. The plight of the Khilafat seemed to reflect the fate of Islamic rule in India. And by the extension, the threatened position of the Muslim elite in the rapidly changing political conditions of the times. The precarious state of the institution of the Khilafat was concerning and created anxiety as this was the symbol of the supremacy of Islamic law. This also caused serious concern among the local Indian Muslim elite. The Khilafat Movement emerged from such groups. A quarter century later a group with the same ideology would demand a separate Muslim state from Hindu majority India.
This eventually came into being in 1947 when India was partitioned forming the state of Pakistan that literally meant ‘land of the pure’. However in spite of the partition owing to ideological differences and cultural and geographical impediments nearly 45 percent of the Muslims remained back in India. This is another powerful chapter in the history of the sub-continent and needs to be dealt separately at greater length. What is fascinating is that this historical relationship between the Ottoman Turks and the Muslims of the sub-continent still exists till today, this time as Turkey-Pakistan friendship owing to the birth of Pakistan 65 years ago created by an elite group of Indian Muslims who feared ‘Hindu’ nationalist hegemony. The Ottoman Empire did not phase out completely. It survived until it gave way to the secular Turkish Republic in 1923. At the lowest ebb of their history, the Ottoman Turks lost an empire but never their freedom. How different it is from the legacy of the Mughals!
(Razi Ashraf, ‘Ottoman-Mughal Political Relations circa 1500-
1923’, in The Eurasia Studies Study Journal, Vol. 2, No. 1 )
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