There can be little doubt that most of the ordinary foot soldiers on all sides were victims. Whereas the villains in that war were the likes of Lloyd George, Kitchener, Curzon and Balfour – who sent millions to die in a war that was aimed at securing Britain’s imperial position – part of a geopolitical game rather than to defend the security of any state.
Yet when I reflect on bravery, courage of convictions and character there is one figure that stands out for me in World War One.
Known as the ‘Defender of Madinah’ and the ‘Last Knight of the Last Caliph’, 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.
It is believed that the British were planning to invade Palestine, and hoped the Arab rebels would keep the 12,000 Ottoman troops in Medina tied down.
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.’
Sharif 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.
Fakhri Pasha’s example is that of a man whose faith was central to his struggle. He was uncompromising in the face of defeat; and his political insight was such that he understood the Arab revolt was a British inspired uprising to dismember the Ottoman Caliphate.
When the Ottomans conceded the war, Fakhri Pasha refused to concede Medina for weeks. It is said when Sharif Hussein’s rebels entered the Holy City they looted thousands of homes.
See Also :
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Tibawi, Abdul Latif (1971) – Essay: The Last Knight of the Last Caliphs from The Islamic Quartely
Beyoğlu, Süleyman (2010) – The end broken point of Turkish – Arabian relations: The evacuation of Medine, Atatürk Atatürk Research Centre Journal (Number 78, Edition: XXVI, November 2010) (Turkish)
‘The Arab Revolt, 1916-18’, URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/ottoman-empire/arab-revolt, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 30-Jul-2014 http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/war/ottoman-empire/arab-revolt accessed 25.10.16