Islam’s Appeal for Mobilization during the Interwar Period

Tessa MARTIN (2015), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations.


            After World War I, new forms of Islamic consciousness began to emerge in what would become one of the most impressive manifestations of Muslim unity to date. In a large range of Muslim countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, activists began mobilize in response to external political threats, simultaneously functionalizing and politicizing Islam to lend support for the cause. Most notably, this mass-mobilization was in response to non-Muslim encroachment and imperialism on Muslim lands: colonial powers were increasingly imposing Western values onto the Islamic world and simultaneously threatening the social, political, and religious interests of non-dominant populations.

            Highly exemplary of the pan-Islamic movement during the interwar period was the short-lived Khilafat movement in India, which began in 1919 and sought to preserve the position of the Ottoman caliph and simultaneously protect Muslim holy places after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The movement was founded around the principal that in every age the Islamic world must have one caliph or independent Muslim King who had the power to protect Muslims as well as enforce Shari’a, but also was rooted in the anti-colonial movement against British imperialism .

            Though non-Muslim colonial encroachment and aggression were certainly primary determinants in mobilizing Muslims towards a unified pan-Islamic movement during the interwar period, most historical narratives undermine other internal factors that played significant roles in this phenomenon. Using India’s Khilafat movement as a case study [1], this discussion will argue that although non-Muslim aggression was the largest factor that led to mobilization in the name of Islam, other forces, including external Muslim influences as well as internal changes played larger roles than most scholars have acknowledged. In challenging the predominant dialogue of British incitement of the Khilafat movement, this discussion will arrive at a more nuanced understanding of mobilization in the name of Islam that takes other socio-political factors into consideration, while still acknowledging that colonialism played a substantial role in the movement’s inception.

          I/ Historical Context: Origins of the Khilafat Movement

            Before looking at the causes that sparked the mobilization for the Khilafat movement, it will first be useful to briefly explain the connotations of the term Khilafa, as well as the historical setting in which the movement took place. As mentioned, the movement was founded on the premise that the Muslim world required a universal caliph to both guide and protect the Umma in the absence of the Prophet Muhammad. Although the term “Khalifa” or “caliph” originally implied a successor to the Prophet in a general and sequential sense, Hamza Alavi notes that its meaning was transformed by the Umayyads during the initial stages of their rule as a pragmatic way in which they could claim legitimacy as monarchs.[2] Thus, after the Umayyads came to power in 661 following the death of the Prophet and the subsequent rule of the four Rashidun, or Rightly Guided Caliphs, the meaning evolved to instead refer to a ruler or monarch of the Muslim community.

           Ottomans would much later employ a similar opportunistic approach when claiming inheritance to the caliphate under the rule of Abdul Aziz in the late 1800s.[3] This claim was based on the dubious account that the Khilafat was transferred to them three and a half centuries prior by al-Mutawakkil (d. 1543), a descendent of the Abbasids, to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I. Alavi notes that at the time of the purported transfer, al-Mutawakkil had no power himself as he was living in exile under the Mamluk Sultanate. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the title was passed on to Selim as none of his descendents claimed the Khilafat until centuries later.[4] Therefore, the assertion that the Ottomans rightfully held the caliphate was founded on shaky grounds.

            Nevertheless, the caliphate was still widely accepted, and even those who did not accept Ottoman legitimacy did not think to question the initial transfer of power from al-Mutawakkil to Selim.[5] When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, however, not much remained of the caliphate’s legitimacy and soon the caliphate would dissolve entirely. This left the Muslim world in a dire predicament, as the position of the Prophet’s successor was undermined. Gail Minault elaborates on the dilemma that this engendered:

The caliph, successor to the Prophet Muhammad, commander of the faithful, the shadow of God on earth – these exalted titles convey the symbolic importance of the caliphate to the community of Islam. In theory, the caliph was both the spiritual and temporal leader of the Sunni Muslims, ensuring the defense and expansion of the rule of divine justice on earth, and in thus furthering God’s purpose, helping to assure eternal salvation for all Muslims. By the end of World War I, however, those titles were about all that remained of the glory of the Islamic caliphate.[6]

            Meanwhile, pan-Islamic sentiments were growing, made popular by figures such al Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), a political activist of Iranian origin (though he claimed to be from Afghanistan). Al-Afghani’s approach to teaching and encouraging mobilization were highly symptomatic of the trends that other political figures would come to use during the interwar period. Though many thought al-Afghani was deeply religious, others argued that he was rather secular, and it was in these different levels of teaching and, in some cases, his marriage of religion and politics that he was able to appeal to such a wide audience.[7] Al-Afghani tried to focus on uniting India’s Muslims as the focus of his pan-Islamic projects, according to his friend ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi.[8] One of al-Afghani’s most famous works, “The Refutation of the Materialists,” was a foundational work that instilled momentum in the anti-colonial movement.

       II/ Khilafat Movement as a Response to British Colonialism

            British, and more generally, Western encroachment was increasingly threatening Muslim interests at the turn of the turn of the nineteenth century. These imperial threats played a crucial role in the formation of pan-Islamic movements. Let us now examine how British imperialism played a crucial role in the formation of the Khilafat movement in 1919.

            Although Muslims in India initially seemed to accept British rule in a modus vivendi, despite early attempts by figures such as Shah Abdul Aziz (d. 1823) to discourage cooperation with their imperial landlords. The ulama’s Deoband school’s attitude was highly representative of this modus vivendi; before 1911 it avoided all forms of political activity and instead focused on reforming Islamic culture from within the community.[9] However, a series of long-term and short-term changes in India and in the Ottoman Empire led to growing resentment among India’s Muslims towards the British.

            Long-term factors included internal cultural changes related to literacy and class formation, as well as external changes in the Ottoman Empire. Regarding cultural changes, literature and newspapers became more widely consumed due to two major changes. First, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, a growing number of Muslims gained reading fluency in English and other foreign languages. This led to an increasing awareness of European Orientalism and simultaneously increased Indians’ contacts with other Muslims in India, and fostered a growing interest in the activity of Muslims abroad.[10] Urdu newspapers, too, became more widely consumed with the development of lithographic technologies that allowed the popular Nasta‘liq script to be printed as of 1850.[11] With the increased consumption of literature and news, the Ottoman decline became sensationalized and anti-British sentiments grew.

            Simultaneously, a new Indian middle class emerged. Alavi refers to them as the salariat, and describes them as the “products of the new Anglo-Vernacular system of education that was instituted by the colonial government,” and noted that they were discontent after having “lost ground in state employment, especially in the more prestigious upper ranks of jobs in which they had been, so far, preponderant.”[12] Alavi argues that this new class needed avenues through which it could channel its disgruntlement, and that the news of the Ottoman defeat in the Balkans provided them with a cause to rally behind. Thus, the “Tragedy of the Turks” became a symbol for the weakening of Islamic lands to a growing Christian threat. Although this was not initially directly related to the British, who were at the time allied with Turkish rule and in fact quite happy that the Indians were raising funds for the Turkish cause, the sentiments would come to engender general resentment against Western imperialism.

            If the Muslims were to unite against the British in a cohesive manner, short-term catalysts and notably support of the ulama would also need to play a role in mobilization. Though the ulama had not previously been involved in political action, by 1911-13, several events occurred that pushed them towards anti-colonial political action. In 1911, for example, the British re-unified Bengal, which had previously been partitioned on religious grounds, thus undermining Muslim political influence coming from the province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. Another major incident included the Kanpur Mosque incident in 1913, wherein the washing place of a mosque in Kanpur was demolished and replaced by a new road. By World War I, then, there were already strong anti-British sentiments both from the ulama and from the general Muslim population.

            The ultimate catalyst, however, was obviously the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I. Khilafatists, under the guidance of figures including Maulana Abdul Bari (d. 1926) and brothers Shawkat (d. 1938) and Muhammad (d. 1931) Ali, mourned the end of the caliphate and rallied against the British by spreading the narrative of India as dar al-harb, as opposed to dar al-islam. In dar al-harb, it became a Muslim responsibility to return to dar al-islam either through jihad, which implied fighting British imperialism immediately, or hijrat, which implied leaving India for another land wherein Islam was accepted.[13]

       III/ Beyond Anti-Colonialism: The Khilafat Movement and Alternative Causes

      The culmination of these long and short-term changes led to anti-colonial mobilization manifested through the Khilafat movement. In this sense, the movement can be interpreted as a purely anti-colonial movement. However, regardless of its anti-British roots, we must also acknowledge the distinctly pan-Islamic notions implicit in the movement, and understand some of the nuances that have provided the Khilafat movement with its distinctive nature.

              If we claim that the movement was a purely anti-British movement, it would follow that cooperation with other non-Muslim anti-imperial movements would come naturally to Khilafat proponents. And yet we must remember that the movement, although initially associated with M.K. Gandhi’s Non-cooperation campaign, was not entirely compatible with the Hindu nationalist cause, as evident after 1922 when unity devolved into a period of communalism. Although the movement was undoubtedly part of the greater Indian nationalist movement when viewed through certain lenses, it has also typically been associated with the Muslim separatist movement, thus distancing it somewhat from the purely anti-British understanding of mobilization.[14]

               To reconcile the tensions of subsuming the Khilafat movement as either part of the anti-British, Indian nationalist movement or as part of the Muslim separatist movement, we must look at Islam’s appeal as a unifying factor. Minault describes how Islam was able to provide a mobilizing force as it offered the following common unifiers:

[…] The community of believers, the ummah, its symbolic head, the caliph; its central place of pilgrimage, Mecca; its scripture, the Quran; its sacred law, the shari‘a; and its local reference point, the mosque. This common faith and common set of symbols offered a way to articulate a common identity based on religion, and the means for an astute set of political leaders to mobilize Indian Muslims as a political constituency.[15]

         In other words, the common unifiers provided something that cannot simply be understood as part of the anti-British Indian nationalist movement as it must be placed in the context of the larger pan-Islamic movement at the time. This is not to say that pan-Islamism was not overwhelmingly driven by anti-colonial sentiments. Instead, it shows that Muslims were driven towards an Islamic form of resistance in a time during which secular mobilization would not have provided the same unifiers for Muslim Indians.

           In Alavi’s assessment of the movement, we see that the nationalist and anti-colonials intentions of the Khilafat movement were undermined by the Khilafat movement’s stance vis-à-vis Arab nationalism; he notes that they “not only betrayed Arab nationalism, but also sought the resurrection of an outdated system.”[16] Though Alavi’s criticism is harsh and not totally relevant to his argument of discrediting the Khilafat movement, it is useful to note the fact that the movement distanced itself from other causes that sought to achieve similar anti-colonial goals. Alavi also argues that while the premise of the Khilafat movement rested on the charge that the British were undermining the caliphate, the Turkish Nationalist movement was the actual root of the problem. He notes: “The real threat to the Khalifa came from the Republican Nationalists. On the other hand, the British were the Khalifa’s patrons and protectors – and they were quite as hostile to the nationalists as the Khalifa was himself.” [17]

              The Hijrat of 1920, too, a foundational event in the Khilafat movement, wherein thousands of Indian Muslims emigrated to neighboring Afghanistan, shows that Muslims weren’t necessarily uniting against a purely anti-imperial cause. Although the Hijrat is closely tied to anti-colonial encroachment in the sense that it was one of two options available to Muslims under the conditions of India as dar al-Harb, it was also sparked by economic interests and was founded on religious principles. For example, Qureshi describes the economic rewards that were promised to Indian Muslim muhajirin to Afghanistan:

The mawlawis preached from the pulpit that the Muslims who did not migrate would become infidels [] The people were told stories of red carpet receptions which awaited the muhajirin: that the Amir had promised them a tract of fertile land in Jabal al-Siraj; that they would be helped and fed by their Afghan co-religionists; and that for three months they would have to do no work at all.[18]

              In a “carrot and stick” approach, these economic and religious incentives to mobilize against the British were coupled with coercion and threats. For instance, the Sufi pir Mahbub Shah announced that jihad was to be declared on all Hindus and Muslims alike who did not observe the Sind-wide strike in March 1920. [19] Thus, while anti-British sentiments were certainly a primary driver behind the movement, incentives, threats and propaganda largely unrelated to British colonialism also played a role.


Although the aforementioned complexities of the Khilafat movement did not necessarily undermine its overwhelming root cause – anti-British sentiments – they imply that there was more depth to the movement than traditional narratives have suggested. Simply labeling the Khilafat movement as an anti-British cause is therefore a simplification we must avoid. At this point in time, Muslims in India needed to unite around a certain cause in order to mobilize against their colonial oppressors, and this cause was rooted in Islam. Simultaneously, we cannot say that the Islamic nature of the movement implied that it was more religious than political – this approach also confers reductionism on history. Instead, we must understand Islam as a unifying factor that offered motives that secular nationalism simply could not have offered Indian Muslims at this point in time.

Placing the Khilafat movement in the context of the larger pan-Islamic movement during the interwar period, we can compare it with the other (predominantly short-lived) new Islamic movements. In all cases, anti-Muslim encroachment was the largest driver behind pan-Islamism. However, by understanding the nuances of how “anti-Muslim” encroachment was not necessarily a one-dimensional force, we see that the Khilafat movement and other movements cannot be placed in the same category as broader anti-colonial movements, such as the secular nationalist movements that would soon follow. While common language and common histories would unify the secular nationalist movements in later years, aforementioned Islamic-driven unifiers proved necessary for rallying against colonialism during the interwar period.

Rather than projecting fully formed opinions on the past based on post-colonial theories and trends, the responsible historian should therefore approach this case and others with tender caution. By refusing to neglect the virtues of popular narratives and simultaneously carefully selecting a panoply of alternative counter-narratives, the historian can inch closer towards objective truths.


Alavi, Hamza. “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East XVII.1 (1997): 1-16.

Keddie, N.R. “Afgani, Jamal-al-din.” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/5, 481-486. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afgani-jamal-al-din . Accessed on 7 March 2014.

Minault, Gail. “Islam and Mass Politics: The Indian Ulama and the Khilafat Movement.” In Religion and Political Modernization, edited by D.E. Smith, 168-182. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Minault, Gail. The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Landau, Jacob M. “Turkey Opts Out while India’s Muslims Get Involved.” In Pan-Islam: History and Politics, 176-215. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Bernard Lewis. The Emergence of Modern Turkey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Qureshi, Naeem M. “The ‘Ulama of British India and the Hijrat of 1920,” Modern Asian Studies 13.1 (1979): 41-59.

Tejani, Shabnum. “Re-considering Chronologies of Nationalism and Communalism: The Khilafat Movement in Sind and its Aftermath, 1919-1927.” South Asia Research 27.3 (2007): 249-269.

[1] In response to the 2015 exam question #2: “‘The primary determinant of Islam’s appeal as a rubric for mobilization in international relations is non-Muslim encroachment and aggression.’ Discuss.”

[2] Hamza Alavi, “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East XVII.1 (1997): 3-4.

[3] Lewis notes that although the term “Caliph” was used to refer to the Ottoman Sultan as early as 1774, it was not until Abdul Aziz that the doctrine of an Ottoman caliphate emerged: “Under Abdul Aziz (1861-1876) the doctrine was advanced for the first time that the Ottoman Sultan was not only the head of the Ottoman Empire but also the Khalifa of all Muslims and the heir, in a sense not previously accepted, of the Caliphs of early times.” Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 121.

[4] Alavi, “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement,” 2.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Gail Minault, The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1.

[7] N. R. Keddie, “Afgani, Jamal-al-din,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/5, 481-486; http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/afgani-jamal-al-din (accessed on 7 March 2014).

[8] Jacob M. Landau, “Turkey Opts Out while India’s Muslims Get Involved,” in Pan-Islam: History and Politics (New York: Routledge, 1990), 185.

[9] Gail Minault, “Islam and Mass Politics: The Indian Ulama and the Khilafat Movement,” Religion and Political Modernization, ed. D.E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 169.

[10] Landau, “Turkey Opts Out while India’s Muslims Get Involved,” 183.

[11] Alavi, “Ironies of History: Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement,” 9.

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] M. Naeem Qureshi, “The ‘Ulama of British India and the Hijrat of 1920,” Modern Asian Studies 13.1 (1979): 42.

[14] Shabnum Tejani, “Re-considering Chronologies of Nationalism and Communalism: The Khilafat Movement in Sind and its Aftermath, 1919-1927,” South Asia Research 27.3 (2007): 249.

[15] Minault, The Khilafat Movement: Religious Symbolism and Political Mobilization in India, 3.

[16] Alavi, “Contradictions of the Khilafat Movement,” 13.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Qureshi, “The ‘Ulama of British India and the Hijrat of 1920,” 51.

[19] Tejani, “Re-considering Chronologies of Nationalism and Communalism: The Khilafat Movement in Sind and its Aftermath, 1919-1927,” 256-257.

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