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TURKEY and ISLAM, 1876-1930 (1 of 4)


Turkey and Islam, 1876-1930

Modernizers against the Ottoman Sultanate | Turkey from 1911 to the End of World War One | Turkey's Struggle for National Independence | Secularization

Modernizers against the Ottoman Sultanate

From 1876 and into the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire was ruled by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who lived in a palace in Constantinople (Istanbul). Hamid was caliph to Sunni Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa – the caliph being the person who followed Muhammad the Prophet as Islam's leader and the servant of Islam's three holy cities: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Sultan spoke of Allah as having entrusted him with the guardianship of the people.

Beginning in 1876, the Ottoman constitution provided a legislative body, but legislation remained subject to the approval of the Sultan, and the Sultan appointed members to the upper of the legislatures' two chambers. The Ottomans at this time associated a loss of military power vis-a-vis Europe with internal disorder, and they believed that their empire could strengthen itself by adopting some Western institutions. In place of the sharia, Ottoman authorities had constructed a legal system known as the Tanzimat. The Islamic scholars who had been a part of the sharia had quietly accepted their loss in position.

Sultan Hamid II

Sultan Abdul Hamid II

Sultan Hamid II ruled as an absolute monarch, and his subjects responded to him as if he were their true and pious sovereign. His subjects appeared eager to demonstrate their submission to him by kissing his hands. Children at the end of their school day stood at attention in ranks and three times shouted, "Long Live the Sultan."

Under Hamid's rule, hostility to the West and pan-Islamism increased. Some among Hamid's devoted subjects boasted of the superiority of Arab civilization over European civilization. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire had been growing more involved with European bankers. Trade with the West had been increasing, and more Western technology was being acquired. Since 1883, the Orient Express railway had been in operation between Constantinople and Paris, and there was also a new rail line between Constantinople and Baghdad.

Hamid was interested in buying luxury items from the West, but he wished to prevent the importation of ideas hostile to him and his manner of rule. His regime confiscated Western newspapers and magazines. In late 1876 he discarded the constitution and began ruling with an increasingly centralized government. He had spies everywhere within his empire, and he also had spied on his subjects who were abroad. He carried a gun and was always on edge about being assassinated. Anyone opposing his regime in the slightest detail also had to fear assassination by one of Hamid's agents. Some of Hamid's disgruntled subjects referred to him as "the hangman."

Some ethnic minorities opposed Hamid's rule. Among them were the Armenians and the Kurds, and Hamid had sent the Kurds (who were Muslims) against the Armenians (who were Christian), producing in 1894 the slaughter of more than 300,000 Armenians.


The West was advancing in education, technology and military might while the Ottoman Empire was foundering. Threats against Hamid's regime were growing. Turkish intellectuals opposed to Hamid II were drawing inspiration from the West. In institutions of higher learning, people formed secret societies. In places such as Geneva, Cairo and Paris, exiled Turks formed anti-Hamid organizations devoted to Western political ideas. Military officers were among those influenced by Western intellectuality, and they too formed a clique hostile to Hamid's rule. In addition to weakness and backwardness in Turkey, they saw corruption around the Sultan – people buying positions, power and favors rather than earning these through their competence.

One of the dissidents was Ahmed Riza. He was concerned with the plight of the peasantry and wanted to see modern agricultural methods in Turkey. After serving as Minister of Education, Riza went into exile to Paris. There with other Turks who adopted the scientific outlook of the French sociologist, Auguste Comte. Ahmed Riza and his colleagues were impressed by the lack of chauvinism toward the Turks among the science-minded French who called themselves positivists. The Turkish exiles studied revolution in detail, and they invited others from within the Ottoman Empire to join their movement, including the Armenians. They were growing hostile to colonialism, as were Europe's progressives, and they were opposed to class privilege.

Riza and his colleagues put their calls for transformation of Ottoman society in terms that would appeal to the Muslim majority. They promoted themselves as good Muslims and found common elements between Islam and the positivists on the subjects of property, family and government. But in private, Riza felt contempt for Islam's holy men, the Imams. To his sister, Fahire, he wrote that if he were a woman, he would embrace atheism and never become a Muslim, and he denounced men being allowed four wives and as many concubines as they wished. Privately, Riza described the imams as ignorant and as misconstruing the Prophet's words regarding science. Privately he and his colleagues held that science was for the elite and religion was for the masses. Riza and his colleagues wanted a strong government in which they, the intellectual elite, played a dominant role and religious leaders played no role in government or in education. Publicly they spoke of an ideal Islamic government in which authority is collective and every citizen free.

The Coup

In 1906, army officers joined together in a rebel group called the Vatan (Fatherland). Student groups, Masonic lodges and Dervish orders had joined in the dissident, and in 1907 they merged with the Vatan into what was called the Committee for Unity and Progress (CUP), which was linked also with the rebel movement of Turks in Paris.

The rebellious army officers had a significant portion of the army with them, and in 1908 they led a military coup against the Sultan. Ottoman troops sent against the coup refused to fight. The Sultan gave up resistance. And Muslims, Christians and Jews rejoiced in the streets. A new regime was proclaimed on July 6. The leader of the coup, Enver Pasha, still in his mid-twenties, identified the coup as under the leadership of the Committee for Unity and Progress (CUP). He proclaimed freedom and equality for all under a uniform set of laws, and he proclaimed safety for foreign investments in the empire.

The new regime spoke of justice and brotherhood for all of the empire's people, whatever their religion or mother tongue. They foresaw the end of backward Asian habits of nepotism, corruption and the proliferation of sinecures. Investments would be made to strengthen the armed forces and the civil administration, and appropriate educational qualifications would be required of all military officers and civil servants. Despite the rebels' dislike for Hamid, they left him on his throne as caliph. What the rebels wanted was a reproclamation of the Ottoman Empire's constitution and the reopening of parliament (closed by Abdul Hamid in 1877).

Counter Revolution

In October, 1908, Bulgarians decided to opt out of the Ottoman Empire and declared their independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina had been nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire, and a move by Constantinople to have Bosnia and Herzegovina represented in the new parliament incited Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary to annex these provinces. And the assembly in Ottoman-ruled Crete voted for unity in Greece, much to the chagrin of the Muslim minority there, and they rioted.

The new Turkish Parliament assembled December 17. Ahmed Riza was called from Paris to preside. And in parliament, much wrangling took place. Supporters of the new regime favored centralization of power while some who were less supportive of the new regime favored autonomy for ethnic minorities – Greek, Armenian, Bulgarian, Arab and Albanian.

The coup leaders believed in expertise and in schooling, and opposition to the new regime remained among military officers who, unlike the coup leaders, had not been trained in a military college. Opposition also existed among some who had strong attachments to religious tradition, which included respect for the person of the Sultan as caliph. Muslim clerics felt threatened by the lack of religious devotion among supporters of the new regime. A campaign began in support of Islam. Much of the press joined those opposed to the new regime, apparently little concerned about the tyranny of censorship they had experienced with the old regime – with censorship not an issue where there is agreement.

Sultan Mehmed V

Sultan Mehmed V

In April, 1909, mutiny broke out among conservative soldiers in the capital. Teachers and students from religious schools joined in and marched against parliament. Leaders and supporters of the new government were forced to go into hiding, and Sultan Hamid proclaimed his supremacy and the supremacy of Islamic law – the Sharia. Troops loyal to the Committee for Unity and Progress and hostile toward the Sultan were called in from Macedonia, and on April 24 these troops retook the capital city. The new regime resumed power and deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid, replacing him with his brother, Mehmed V.

Government under the leadership of the Committee for Unity and Progress began to pursue a strategy of equality among the empire's various ethnicities, regardless of religion. The government wanted unity among these peoples, and to this end it launched a program to make Turkish the common language. This program engendered resentment, especially among Arab Muslims, whose language was the holy language of Muhammad the Prophet.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.