Ebrahim Moosa – Radio Islam | 22 Jumad al Ukhra 1438/21 March 2017
With turmoil across the Middle East and a general state of political uncertainty globally, the present moment in time hearkens back to the era of one century ago, when the world was enveloped in a massive European war, with its effects being felt in all the lands the big powers dominated.
The repercussions of many of the epochal events, decisions and betrayals of that time continue to shape our world today.
A particularly significant anniversary to be marked later in 2017, is the 100th year since the issuing of the Balfour declaration, an infamous letter written in 1917 by Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement. In it, the British government promises the Zionists Palestine as a homeland:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” the document reads.
The pledge was deeply problematic and had no legal basis. British author and journalist Arthur Koestler summed up its absurdity as, one nation solemnly promising to a second nation the country of a third.
The Declaration culminated in Israel’s creation in 1948, the wholesale dispossession of the Palestinian people and, ultimately, the ongoing human catastrophe we witness today.
The Balfour Declaration is but one example of a historical event from the period 1916/7 whose aftershocks still shape our world today.
Here are a few others:
The Arab Revolt – 10 June 1916: On this day, Sharif Hussain, the guardian of Makkah ordered his troops to attack the Ottoman Khilafah’s garrison in the Holy City. Hussain’s troops, drawn from his tribe significantly outnumber the Khilafah’s soldiers, but they were considerably less well equipped. Consequently, despite strong initial gains, Hussain’s troops were unable to win the battle until Egyptian soldiers sent by the British arrived to provide artillery support. The full ambit of British support included soldiers, weapons, money, advisors and a flag. Through correspondence with Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt at the time, Hussain had become convinced that the revolt would be rewarded with an independent Arabian Empire that would stretch throughout the Middle East. The British supported the revolt as it distracted tens of thousands of Ottoman troops from joining other fronts in the First World War or from ‘threatening’ the Suez Canal. British commander TE Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab forces in the revolt in October 1916, and his role was immortalised by British Empire propaganda machinery.
As a result of the revolt, Makkah and Jeddah left Ottoman hands. As the British advanced into Palestine and Iraq, capturing cities such as Jerusalem and Baghdad, the Arabs aided them by capturing Amman and Aqaba.
The pioneering Haramain railway built by the Ottomans from Istanbul to Arabia was also blown up by the rebels during this period.
The revolt against the Ottoman Khilafah succeeded, but despite the critical role the Arabs played in ensuring success for the Europeans in the region, even at the expense of fellow Muslims, the British were swift in betraying the Arab rebels under Sharif Hussein.
The Fall of Makkah: 4 July 1916: As captured above, on June 10, 1916 the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, began the British aided revolt against the Ottoman Khilafah. The betrayal began in the heartland of Islam, Makkah.
At this stage most of the Ottoman army guarding Makkah had gone to Taif, accompanying Ghalib Pasha, the governor of Hijaz. Only 1000 men were left to defend Makkah. Many of them were asleep in barracks in the valley on June 10 when the Sharif of Makkah, Hussein bin Ali fired a shot into the air from the window of the Hashemite palace signaling the beginning of the Arab Revolt. Hearing this, his 5000 supporters started firing on Turkish troops in three fortresses overlooking the holy city, and at the Jirwall barracks on Jeddah road. The attack upon the Turkish forces was sudden and their acting commanding officer was unaware that a revolt had started. As Sharif’s and the Ottoman banners were of same colour, the Turkish commander could not see the difference, and telephoned Sharif Hussain about the situation and was told the reason and was told to surrender. He refused. The battle started and continued. The next day Binu Hashim’s forces advanced and captured Bash-Karakol at Safa corner adjacent to the Masjid al-Haram. On the third day, Hamidia, the Ottoman Government Office, was captured, as well as the Deputy Governor. Now the captive Deputy Governor ordered his remaining Turkish troops to surrender. They refused.
A situation of stalemate developed. Sir Reginald Wingate sent two artillery pieces from Sudan via Jeddah with trained Egyptian gunners. They breached the walls of the Turkish fort. The Sharifain army attacked and the fate of these defenders was sealed. On July 4, 1916 the last Turkish resistance in Makkah, Jirwal barracks, capitulated, after three weeks of steadfast resistance.
Sharif Hussein became the ruler of Makkah, but it was hardly a few years before he was ousted by the Saud dynasty.
Sykes-Picot Agreement: 19 May 1916: On this day, representatives of Great Britain and France secretly reached an accord, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement, by which most of the Arab lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire are divided into British and French spheres of influence with the conclusion of World War I.
The secret agreement is named after its authors Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot. Picot represented a small group determined to secure control of Syria for France; for his part, Sykes raised British demands to balance out influence in the region. The agreement largely neglected to allow for the future growth of Arab aspirations, which at that same moment the British government and military were working to use to their advantage against the Turks.
In the Sykes-Picot agreement, concluded on May 19, 1916, France and Britain divided up the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. In its designated sphere, it was agreed, each country shall be allowed to establish such direct or indirect administration or control as they desire and as they may think fit to arrange with the Arab State or Confederation of Arab States.
According to the Agreement, the British were to take control of what is now Iraq, Kuwait, and Jordan. The French were given modern Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey. The status of Palestine was to be determined later, with Zionist ambitions to be taken into account. The zones of control that the British and French were given allowed for some amount of Arab self-rule in some areas, albeit with European control over such Arab kingdoms. In other areas, the British and French were promised total control.
Although it was meant to be a secret agreement for a post-WWI Middle East, the agreement became known publicly in 1917 when the Russian Bolshevik government exposed it. The Sykes-Picot Agreement directly contradicted the promises the British made to Sherif Hussein and caused a considerable amount of tension between the British and Arabs.
The Siege of Madinah: Started 10 June 1916: As part of the British incited Arab revolt which had Sharif Hussein as a figurehead, Ottoman Madinah also came under a crippling siege from the Arab rebels. Omar Fakreddin Pasha was the then Ottoman governor of Madinah.
Such a tight siege was imposed and the spectre of starvation was so grave, that some residents were forced to sell their homes for a sack of grain. Accounts mention some having no choice but to eat cats and dogs to survive. Hundreds of residents left Madinah to Lebanon, Syria and Turkey in order to stay alive. It is said that the Ottoman soldiers themselves ended up eating grasshoppers to survive.
Fakhri Pasha remained resolute in defending the city, even with the odds stacked so heavily against him. He refused and did not surrender even after the end of the World War despite pleas from the Ottoman Sultan. He took refuge in Masjid Nabawi and was eventually captured and handed over to the rebels. For his courageous stance, Fakri was dubbed the defender of Medina and the “the Lion of the Desert”
Whilst in their custody, Pasha reportedly said: “O Prophet of Allah, I came here to protect you, now it’s in your hands to protect me”.
Madinah left Ottoman hands on 5th Rabi ul Awwal 1337H, 10 January 1919. The siege lasted two years and seven months.
After the Ottoman defeat, the Arab troops looted the city for 12 days. Overall 4850 houses which were locked and put under seal by Pasha were opened forcefully and looted.
The Fall of Al Quds(Jerusalem): 11 December 1917: On this day, British forces conquered Jerusalem from the Ottomans. The commander of the occupying army was General Edmund “The Bull” Allenby who was at the helm of British campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine. Allenby was the first Christian commander to capture Jerusalem in battle since the leaders of the First Crusade managed the feat in 1099.
The fall of Al Quds ended 730 years of Muslim rule over the Holy City. With its fall, the Ottoman Khilafah lost control of 2 of the 3 holiest cities in Islam – Makkah and Al Quds. Madinah was to hold out, but would also eventually fall too.
The events of 1916/7 left the Muslim Ummah orphaned and were pivotal in the eventual demise of the Ottoman Khilafah.
Hajj was suspended during the war, and immediately after that went through more difficult times. The Holy cities had lost their Waqfs which had been instituted by the Ottomans and many corrupt officials arose who extorted undue funds from the hujaaj.
In the almost hundred years that have followed these critical events, Muslims have seen their fortunes nosedive through a system of nation states, corrupt leaders, oppression, mass killing and disunity.
The heartland of what was the Ottoman Khilafah prior to 1916 is today a cauldron of bloodshed and turmoil.
Much of the problems Muslims in the region face today can be traced back to the betrayals and schemings of the turn of the 20th century, and this is a foundation all seeking a harmonious future need to acknowledge.
“People forget that the Arabs fought against the Turks, they allied with the British,” says Sheikh Hamza Yusuf.
“They promised them all these things. And much of what we are suffering now is from the betrayal of Muslims of that time. So, these are the effects and nobody wants to deal with what really happened. They just want to blame everybody else. It’s all somebody else’s fault. But unfortunately, we inherit the problems of the past. We inherit them”.
It is not sensible for us to languish on past failures and mistakes. But what we have to do is educate people, Muslim and non, to understand the mistakes of the past to help understand and rectify our present and prevent the same occurring in the future.