Heroes and Villains of World War One
Amidst the centenary commemorations of World War One some Muslims in Britain have sought to “draw on the little-known role played by almost half a million Muslims in Britain’s First World War effort to help improve community relations during the conflict’s centenary”.
It is sad that some people feel the need to put a ‘spin’ on history to manufacture a ‘shared experience’ – omitting the wider context that these Muslim soldiers were in Britain’s armed forces due to imperial conquest of India and elsewhere.
The only credible shared experience is that both Muslim and non-Muslim soldiers were sent off by the industrial, political and military establishment to die in vast numbers for imperial objectives, the fruits of which would never have been enjoyed by the ordinary soldier or their family and nor the society at large.
In a sense the ordinary foot soldiers were victims in this war.
The real villains were the likes of Lloyd George, Kitchener, Curzon and Balfour who sent millions to die in a war that was to secure Britain’s imperial position.
Muslim soldiers who fought with Britain
Some Muslim soldiers refused to fight other Muslims. Others fought on condition they did not have to fight the Ottoman army directly.
Even amongst those who did fight in the British Army, it is likely that many of the soldiers who fought with Britain were ignorant of wider imperial plans.
But even with this ‘excuse’, it is hard for a Muslim to see those Muslim soldiers as heroes.
For to have been a pawn in the war that gave birth to the modern Middle East – with the chaos, bloodshed and injustice that we see on going in Gaza, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. How many of those Muslim soldiers who fought for Britain, knew they were fighting for a Middle East where Palestine would be stolen and given away to Zionists to establish a racist hegemony in the region – the purpose of which was to divide and conquer the Middle East?
In the end, the Muslim soldier fighting for Britain in that war was a tool in Lloyd-George’s plans, summarized in 1919, when he said:
‘We are undertaking a great civilizing duty…a mission, which Providence has assigned our race, which we are discharging to people living under the shadow of great tyranny for centuries, trembling with fear, appealing with uplifted hands for protection. Turkish misgovernment… shall now come to an end that Britain and the Allies have triumphed’.
None of this makes for a positive commemoration for any Muslim.
A conflict of loyalties
Conflicted loyalties existed a century ago as they did today. At that time some brave lone voices did try to stand for Islam – or stand with the Ummah.
Sheikh Abdullah Quilliam was an Englishman who had embraced Islam and been appointed the Sheikh al Islam of the British Isles by the Ottoman Caliph, Sultan Abdul Hamid II. He used his mosque in Liverpool as a base to help poor and unfortunate mothers who had been abandoned by Victorian society. He mused about how Islam could tackle some of the bitter problems facing Britain at that time. His sincere concern for the ordinary citizen in Britain was beyond question. Yet when it came to British policies hostile to the Muslim world he was uncompromising. When Britain was engaged in a war in the Sudan in 1896, he issued a fatwa clarifying this conflict for a Muslim soldier:
For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet. I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan, even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour [Turkish word for non-Muslims] against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful.
Facing hostility and having a community of only a few hundred, he stood firm to the Islamic Shari’ah perspective that to fight against Muslims was haram, and to fight against the legitimate Caliphate of the Muslims was unacceptable.
This bravery was in stark contrast to those today who seek to celebrate the efforts of those soldiers whom Quilliam had said more than a century ago would be ‘unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful’ .
Quilliam was not wholly alone. The famous translator of the Quran – Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall and others vocally spoke out for the interests of the Ummah at that time. Pickthall and others sometimes articulated their criticism of anti-Ottoman British policy in terms of what they felt was harming Britain itself – trying to draw upon ideas articulated on either side of the policy debates in Britain, in order to influence it. Nonetheless, what is clear is that they were vocal in their support for the Ummah – loyal to principles and expedient.
They knew they were defending an unpopular cause.
Pickthall wrote ‘[We] have had to fear, and encountered, public ridicule and private abuse.’
Pickthall had already written in the Times in 1912, at the time of the Balkan War criticizing the British government for their silence after the ‘butchery’ of Muslims in Macedonia by Christians. In 1913, together with Quilliam and others he helped establish an Ottoman Committee to defend Turkish interests and working to maintain the integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
These early Muslims in Britain were not simply more uncompromising than their successors today. They were more politically insightful.
Writing just before the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Pickthall recognized the political and spiritual disaster of the suggestions of a Jewish State in Palestine under the supervision of a ‘Christian’ power. He wrote in the Central Islamic Society booklet that he ‘should regard it as a world-disaster if that country should be taken from the Muslim government. Must even that sacred ground be exploited by the profiteer? If you want to have a new and terrible storm-centre for the world, hand over Palestine to any Christian power.’
Pickthall and others vocally opposed British policy, whilst arguing they were not against Britain. They refuted the fallacies that were used to underpin these policies and was seen to be exposing the cozy relationship between the ‘King of the Hejaz’ (Sharif Hussein) and the British government that the establishment became irritated by him. They reminded the British government of previous pledges made to Palestine.
Yet they were ignored by the Foreign Office, who branded them ‘seditionists’ and ‘agents’, and who even considered prosecuting him under the Defence of the Realm Act. (They only refrained because it was feared a prosecution would further expose that relationship.)
In the aftermath of World War One, when Pickthall argued that Britain had no place to decide the fate of the Ottoman Khilafat – he was again accused of having ‘Pan-Islamic and anti-British’ aims and condemned for his ‘vehement denunciations of Lord Curzon and of British policy, and constant glorification of the Turk’.
A Hero in the East
Yet when reflecting on bravery, courage of convictions and character, there is one figure that stands out as a striking figure in World War One.
Fakhri Pasha or Umar Fakhr ud-Din Pasha was the commander of Ottoman army and governor of Medina from 1916 to 1919. A testimony to his character is that he was nicknamed “the Lion of the Desert” and “Tiger of the Desert” by no less than his opponents, the British.
He had been besieged in Al Madinah Al Munawwarah since the outbreak of the Sharif Hussain’s treacherous Arab revolt, led by T.E. Lawrence in June 1916. He continued to lead a defence of the city for seventy days beyond the end of the war in October 1918, refusing to surrender the Holy City.
Professor Abdul Latif Tibawi describes some of the details of that period.
‘The Turks remained hopeful of reconciliation with the Arabs as brother Muslims. Overtures with favourable terms continued to be made until within two months of the armistice.In September 1918 the British War Office sent a report to the Foreign Office that the Sharif (by then King Husain) was ready to settle with Turkey on the basis of recognizing his ‘temporal’ authority while he recognized the Sultan’s ‘spiritual’ authority, and asked what Britain’s attitude would be. The Foreign Office rejected the idea of a separate peace between the Sharif and Turkey but suggested another approach be made to Fakhri Pasha to induce him to surrender.”
Then citing Turkish sources Professor Tibawi recounts the response of Fakhri Pasha:
“Some of his officers saw the futility, from a military point of view, of continued resistance. But his steadfastness remained unshaken. The available evidence shows very conclusively that he was animated by religious motives with little or no regard to military strategy or political expediency. According to the same Turkish author, who quotes an eye-witness account, one Friday in the spring of 1918, after prayers in the Prophet’s Mosque, Fakhri Pasha ascended the steps of the pulpit, stopped halfway and turned his face to the Prophet’s tomb and said loud and clear:
‘Prophet of God! I will never abandon you!’ He then addressed the men: ‘Soldiers! I appeal to you in the name of the Prophet, my witness. I command you to defend him and his city to the last cartridge and the last breath, irrespective of the strength of the enemy. May Allah help us, and may the spirit of Muhammad be with us.’”
Fakhri Pasha showed some of his political insight and steadfastness in his response to a letter from Sharif Hussein. Professor Tibawi cites that letter from a poor English translation in the Public Record Office, London. (FO/371) apparently addressed to Hussein himself from ‘Fakhr-ud-Din, General, Defender of the Most Sacred City of Medina, Servant of the Prophet’.
‘In the name of Allah, the Omnipotent. To him who broke the power of Islam, caused bloodshed among Muslims, jeopardized the Caliphate of the Commander of the Faithful, and exposed it to the domination of the British. On Thursday night the fourteenth of Dhu’l-Hijja, I was walking, tired and worn out, thinking of the protection and defence of Medina, when I found myself among unknown men working in a small square. Then I saw standing before me a man with a sublime countenance. He was the Prophet, may Allah’s blessing be upon him! His left arm rested on his hip under his robe, and he said to me in a protective manner, ‘Follow me” I followed him two or three paces and woke up. I immediately proceeded to his sacred mosque and prostrated myself in prayer and thanks [near his tomb].
‘I am now under the protection of the Prophet, my Supreme Commander. I am busying myself with strengthening the defences, building roads and squares in Medina. Trouble me not with useless offers.’
King Hussein viewed himself a descendant of Banu Hashim, the tribe of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Yet to Pasha, he was no more than a rebellious traitor who disrupted Islamic unity and aided the enemies of the Sultan-Caliph.
These are but a few ‘heroic’ figures for Muslims from World War One. Not all fought militarily. Some used words and arguments yet facing hostility, abuse and were almost criminalized by the state.
What united them was a sincere commitment to Islam and a far greater understanding of certain Islamic political principles than many Muslims have today – in particular those who see it as fitting to endorse fighting in a horrific war that caused decades of misery in the Muslim world.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Gilham, J – Loyal Enemies: British Converts to Islam, 1850-1950
Geaves, R – Islam in Victorian Britain: The Life and Times of Abdullah Quilliam
Ansari, H – The Infidel Within – Muslims in Britain since 1800
Tibawi, Abdul Latif – Essay: The Last Knight of the Last Caliphs from The Islamic Quartely 1971