Just over a hundred years ago, in November 1914, a turbaned and bespectacled cleric stood on the exterior balcony of the great al-Fatih mosque in Istanbul. He read a fatwa that, among other things, enjoined all Muslims to fight against the British and French in a war taking place further north, in which a million men had already fallen. France, Russia, and Britain were allies. Their enemies were Germany and Austria-Hungary; and these, the Central Powers, were now being joined by the mightiest Muslim ruler in the world, the caliph Mehmet Reshad.
The al-Fatih (“Conqueror”) mosque had been built to celebrate the capture of Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1453 by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II and his Muslim Turkish army. After taking Istanbul the Turks had moved on westward, filling Europe—as Wordsworth put it—with “miserable fear.” That, however, was distant history by 1914. By then the Turkish Empire was in decline, having lost almost all its European and North African provinces, and had been derided as the “sick man of Europe” for sixty years. It still included what is now Turkey and the Levant—the coastlands running from Turkey to Egypt—and it claimed territory in North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. It had also one asset of potentially huge but incalculable value: Mehmet Reshad, descendant and successor of Mehmet II, was recognized by some Muslims as far east as India as their caliph, or ruler.
The cleric removed a scroll from the satin bag in which it had been placed by the Ottoman Empire’s most senior cleric, the Sheikh ul-Islam, and read the fatwa aloud to the people gathered below. It had been ratified by no fewer than twenty-nine Islamic scholars and declared binding on all Muslims around the world. Muslims must hasten, it said, with all their bodies and possessions, to fight jihad on behalf of the caliph Mehmet Reshad; if they were subjects of Russia, France, or Britain, they must wage war against those governments; if they failed to do so, they would be exposed to the wrath of God.
The fatwa sounds like the stereotype of Islam: medieval and militant. The background is more complex. The Ottoman Empire for which Muslims were summoned to fight was indeed thoroughly medieval in many ways. It contained five hundred automobiles at the end of 1913 (compared with one million in the United States); they had been legal only since 1908. The Ottoman front in World War I would involve sacred banners, cavalry charges across enemy lines, camel-back fighting, antique rifles, and bags of gold.
Yet it had its modern aspects. The Ottoman Empire’s real rulers were not the sultan but a group of military officers called the “Young Turks.” These had reformed the Ottoman army, parts of which proved…
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