By the late Professor Abdul Latif TIBAWI
Without going into the question of the legitimacy of their title
to the caliphate the last Ottoman sovereigns to combine the office
of sultan and caliph were Muhammad Rashad and Muhammad Wahid ud-Din.
The latter succeeded the former on 3 July 1918 at a dark moment
in Ottoman history, only four months before the Ottoman Empire finally
lost the war with Britain and sued for peace terms.
Meanwhile one of the Empire's most colourful generals, 'Umar Fakhr
ud-Din Pasha, had been besieged in Medina since the outbreak of
the Arab revolt in June 1916. The story of his tenacious defence
of the city for seventy days after the signing of the armistice
at the end of October 1918 merits a shining page in the annals of
Ottoman, and indeed Islamic, history. The demise of the Ottoman
Empire and the rise of a secular Turkish republic in Anatolia overshadowed-even
for professional historians-the Fakhri Pasha episode. This short
article is a record of the main facts, a contribution to history
as well as a tribute to him who deserves to be called the last knight-defender
of the caliphate, worthy of the meaning of his name-'the glory of
This is not the place to give even a summary of the antecedents
of the Arab revolt which was proclaimed by Husain ibn 'Ali, the
Sharif of Mecca, in June 1916 against the Ottoman Empire which was
then allied to Germany and at war with Britain and her allies. The
Sultan asserted his claim to be the caliph of all Muslims and declared
a holy war (jihd) against Britain and her allies. Husayn was reluctant
to publish the proclamation in Mecca on the not implausible plea
that it would provoke a blockade, which would starve the people
of Hejaz, dependent as they were on pilgrims and donations and provisions
from Egypt. He had, in addition, the secret intention of revolt
in return for a British promise of recognizing Arab independence.
The Turkish high command were not entirely ignorant of the Sharif's
designs. Partly to thwart them and partly to send reinforcement
to Yemen, a few weeks before the outbreak of the Arab revolt, the
garrison of Hejaz was reinforced with the Twelfth Army Corps under
Fakhri Pasha, and a company of German machine gunners was dispatched
to Medina, the terminal of the Hejaz Railway from Damascus, on the
way to Yemen. Generalissimo Enver Pasha himself, together with Jamal
Pasha, com-mander of the Fourth Army in Syria with jurisdiction
over Sinai and Hejaz, visited Medina soon after the arrival of these
reinforcements. They were accompanied by Faisal, the third son of
the Sharif, who was more or less a hostage.
Faisal's dramatic escape, followed by the proclamation of the revolt
in Mecca by his father, is briefly described by T. E. Lawrence."1"
It was Faisal's lot with his elder brother 'Alt to face these formidable
forces of regular troops in Medina. The Arab assault with no more
than muzzle-loading guns was easily beaten off by Fakhri Pasha who
terrified Beduin irregulars with salvos from his artillery. It was
immediately plain that tribesmen, with no military training and
poor weapons, could not capture a fortified city from a modern army
under an able general.
After six months of skirmishing Fakhri Pasha held an entrenched
line well outside the city, and made sure that the railway to the
north was garrisoned and patrolled. Despite stories to the contrary,
the line was never permanently cut off till the final phase of the
war in Palestine. The dynamiting of sections of it by Lawrence and
his men simply led to its being repaired.
Having lost Mecca to the Arabs in 1916 and Jerusalem to their British
allies in 1917, even 'godless' men like Enver and Jamal were loath
to abandon Medina as was repeatedly urged on them by their German
allies. Jamal did actually censure the Sharif, and held his revolt
respon-sible for the fall of Jerusalem. Perhaps the sentiment was
more political than religious, for the loss of Medina would have
deprived the Sultan-Caliph of the prestige of being the guardian
of the three holy mosques in Islam.
The Turks remained hopeful of a reconciliation with the Arabs as
brother Muslims. Overtures with favourable terms continued to be
made until within two months of the armistice."2"
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.
A Turkish author asserts that Fakhri Pasha did actually refuse
to obey an order from his superior, Jamal Pasha, to evacuate Medina
and withdraw to Trans-Jordan. We are told that Jamal then turned
to a younger general, Mustafa Kamal Pasha (later Ataturk), who also
refused to undertake the task on the ground that he did not wish
to go down in history as the soldier who gave up Medina.
There is little doubt that Fakhri Pasha had such a sentiment i
n mind when he clung to his position even when the Turks were driven
out from southern Palestine east and west of the River Jordan, thus
completely cutting off the railway link with Medina. He managed
to get supplies from Najd and elsewhere, for to the east of Medina
he was virtually free.
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.
'Officers of the heroic Turkish army! O little Mubammads"4"
Come forward and promise me, before our Lord the Prophet, to honour
your faith with the supreme sacrifice of your lives'."5"
Such was Fakhri's resolve when in August 1918 he received another
call to surrender. The call ought to have been made by the Amir
Abdul-lah, the second son of the Sharif, who then commanded the
Arab forces round the city, but it seems to have come from his father.
King Husain. Only Fakhri Pasha's reply survives in a poor English
translation. It is apparently addressed to Husain himself from 'Fakhr-ud-Din,
General, Defender of the Most Sacred City of Medina. Servant of
the Prophet'. The text as preserved in the British Public Record
Office "6" it given below, slightly amended:
'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 imme-diately 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 Com-mander.
I am busying myself with strengthening the defences, building roads
and squares in Medina. Trouble me not with useless offers.'
It is difficult to imagine Husain, himself a descendant of the
Prophet, not to have been moved by Fakhri Pasha's vision. To the
Pasha the legitimate caliph was the Sultan of Turkey, and Husain
(even after his assumption of kingship) was no more than a rebel.
His rebellion was the more reprehensible because it disrupted Islamic
unity and aided the enemies of the Sultan-Caliph.
Fakhri Pasha's vision must have been the culmination of prolonged
meditation. After this experience his actions conformed to no military
or political rules. They were clearly inspired by his religious
The crisis was soon upon him. In accordance with the terms of the
armistice of October 1918, a British High Commissioner was installed
in Istanbul and all Turkish forces were required to surrender to
the nearest British or allied commanders. Fakhri Pasha received
his government's order to surrender, 'wirelessed en clair'. He refused
to obey. The seventy days' drama until his final surrender is worthy
of more detailed study.
At one time King Husain and his British allies suspected that Fakhri
might surrender the city with his arms and supplies to Ibn Sa'ud.
At another, it was rumoured that he intended to blow himself up
in the Prophet's Mosque, which would have resulted in incalculable
harm to British interests in the Muslim world. After a month of
futile exchanges between Istanbul and Cairo the British High Commissioner
became impatient even with a subservient Turkish government. He
threatened to demolish the forts at the Dardanelles if Medina were
not surrendered. He demanded the issue of clear and peremptory orders
to ensure Fakhri's surrender by 15 December, six weeks after the
signing of the armistice. The orders were sent with a senior Turkish
officer from the Ministry of War who was carried on a British destroyer
to Port Said and from there by aeroplane to Yanbu', the port of
Meanwhile FakhrI Pasha had, according to a British intelligence
report, sent three cipher messages, two to the Minister of War and
one to the Grand Vizier. To the former he said he doubted the authenticity
of orders conveyed to him through enemy agencies in Cairo and Hejaz.
The Minister of War must report to the Sultan that Fakhri would
continue to hold Medina under the Sultan's flag until he received
an order from him as Caliph to surrender it. To the Grand Vizier
the message was simply confirmation of those to the Minister of
The emissary could not leave Yanbu' before the morning of 15 December,
the date of the expiry of the ultimatum. However, Fakhri Pasha found
a new excuse. He pointed out to the emissary that the order was
addressed to 'the officer commanding the Hejaz force' and that did
not relieve him of the duty as 'the officer responsible for the
Prophet's tomb to the Sultan'.
The British High Commissioner had already extended the period of
the ultimatum by seventy-two hours. Since Fakhri's reply was still
negative the Turkish government was informed that a state of war
again existed. On 29 December 1918, two months after the signing
of the armistice, the High Commissioner demanded that a more senior
army officer be sent to Medina who might supersede Fakhri if he
refused to obey the new orders. These were to be 'final' orders
from the Minister of War signed by the minister himself and a letter
from the Sultan's chief secretary confirming that the minister's
orders were in accordance with the Sultan's wish. The emissary was
also to carry, in reserve, an imperial irade from the Sultan dismissing
Fakhri if he failed to obey.
The last precaution proved unnecessary. The comprehensive orders
satisfied all of Fakhri's scruples. Before the fateful day he prayed
near the tomb of the Prophet and laid his sword by it"7".
On 10 January 1919 the lion came out of his den and at Bir Darwish
surrendered to the enemy with 456 officers and 9,364 men.
According to The Times correspondent in Cairo, Arab troops took
over the city on 11 January and the Amir 'Abdullah made his formal
entry two days later.
1 Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1955 ed.), pp. 52ff. 1969), pp. 259-62;
2 On Jamal Pasha's overtures to the Arabs see A.L. Tibawi, A Modern
History of Syria (London, (Turkey), under date.
3 Publlic Record Office, London. F. O./371
4The Turkish diminutive 'Mehmetcik' is name of the Turkish private
soldier, like 'tommy' for the British private soldier
5 Emel Esin, Mecca The Blessed, Medinah The Radiant (London, 1963),
6 From which the details given below are culled. F.O./ 371 (Turkey)
7On the other hand it is reported by a Turkish eyewitness still
living in Medina that a sword was handed over to the representative
of the Sharif but there is now no trace of it in Medina or elsewhere.
The Islamic Quarterly, London
October- December 1971