Review: ‘Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires’

This book presents an account of the first Muslim-majority country to gain independence, codify its own laws, and ratify a constitution after the fall of the  Ottoman Empire.  Tracing the country’s long standing but oft-ignored scholarly and educational ties to Istanbul, Damascus and Baghdad, as well as Greater Delhi and Lahore, this book explain how the court of Kabul became both a laboratory and Launchpad for diverse visions of modern Muslim reform.

Source material was thin on the ground, As late as the 1970s, even foundational documents like the country’s first constitution (1923) were practically impossible to find, with a rare surviving copy being fortuitously discovered un a Kabul booksellers’ bazaar. Amanullah’s legal reforms emerged from a confluence of Ottoman Turkish jurists, Afghan clerics and Indian bureaucrats who converged in Kabul to market their expertise to one of the early twentieth century’s only fully sovereign Muslim states.

The role of the Qaderi Naqibs of Baghdad as particularly well placed intermediaries between the Sublime Porte and Indian and Afghan Muslims was amply displayed in the lead-up to the same war. In December 1876, representatives of the Naqibs in Baghdad transmitted a fatwa in Arabic, with accompanying Urdu and Persian translations, to India and Afghanistan in support of the looming Ottoman conflict with Russia.

An Ottoman intelligence report noted later that year, the Naqib‘s fatwa was received enthusiastically by local religious figures, in the indo-Afghan frontier, including the Akhund of Swat. The latter preached to a large gathering after Friday prayers in December 1876 that the last great Muslim power was in danger and it was incumbent upon the believers of India, Arabia and Afghanistan to join in the Ottoman jihad against Russia by means of arms or financial subscription.

Special lodging was endowed for Central Asian pilgrims in Istanbul with the Caliph’s approval, such as the Uzbek  and Afghan Dervish lodges of Uskudar.

After a spate of losses to Russian and then Britain in the form of their Egyptian takeover of 1881, the Porte sought to bolster “international clout with Russia and Britain in particular”. It is also for these reason that following the outbreak of war with tsarist Russia in the spring of 1877, Sultan Abdul Hamid II dispatched a special envoy to Kabul with a tangible goal in mind: to convince the Afghan Amir, Shir Ali Khan, to join forces with the Ottomans against

St Petersburg. Together so the plan went, the Ottomans and Afghans would open a devastating third front against the Russian Empire in the latter’s Achillies’ heel: the Turkic, Muslim-majority regions of Central Asia.

“(The) choice of Ahmed Hulusi Effendi as the first official Ottoman envoy to Afghanistan is significant for other reasons…son of…a  local judge with a venerated ancestry hailing to the Prophet, Hulusi Effendi’s notable background is also evident in him being a brother of the one-time grand vizier Sirvanizade Mehmed Rusdu Pasha (1828-74). Hulusi is described as “an erudite, devout, and well-regarded alim, or religious scholar. Hulusi was one of fifteen jurists selected to participate in the compilation of the landmark Mecelle-i-Ahkam-I Adilye, the Ottoman Civil Code. The Mecelle is the most famous codification of Islamic law in modern history with sixteen volumes. Hulusi served on the drafting committee from the launch of the project to its completion in 1876, he participated in the preparation of fourteen volumes of the code and played a dominant role in compiling volume 13.  Hulusi also served in the upper echelons of the Ottoman judiciary as a chief judge. Hulusi had a positive reception from Sher Ali after he reached Kabul on 8 September 1877. Hulusi had carte blanche to meet with Afghan scholars, courtiers and other elites.

That the earliest recorded projects for the codification of Hanafi fiqh in Afghanistan began almost immediately after the Ottoman mission to Kabul, and within a decade of the Mecelle’s completion, lends some support to this theory. Given that Sher Ali was not willing to engage in a Pan-Islamic jihad uniting Kabul and Istanbul in an alliance against Russia, following a final cordial exchange, Hulusi and his entourage departed for Istanbul.

In 1878 the British again invaded Afghanistan citing Russian infiltration of the Kabul Court and the failure to agree to the Ottoman alliance to challenge Russian advances in Central Asia.

It was during Abd Al-Rahman’s reign that the first countrywide codifications of law were promulgated albeit designed for rudimentary network of state courts established only in the major cities.

In 1808 Elphinstone was appointed as the first British envoy to the Durrani court in Kabul and provided the following description about laws: “”(The general law of the kingdom is that of Mahomet (PBUH), which is adopted in civil actions in the Ooloosses (Afghans interior and nomadic tribes) also: but their peculiar code, and the only applied in their internal administration of criminal justice, is the Pooshtunwulle, or usage of the Afghauns; a rude system of customary law; founded on principles such as one would suppose to have prevailed before the institution of civil government.”

Elphinstone’s commentary provides a rare account of Islamic jurisprudential principles intermingling with local customary norms. This decentralized state of affairs was significantly challenged by what could be described as a nineteenth century Islamicization campaign by Abd Al-Rahman. No systematic study has been carried out on law and administration during the amirates preceding the Iron Amir. A major reason for this historiographical gap is the relative paucity of written sources in local languages before 1880.

The centralization of Hanafi fiqh into a bounded user friendly manuals for Afghan judges provides a perspective on internal governance policies at this time. Abd Al-Rahman incorporated the latest advances in Ottoman administrative, judicial and military reforms into existing patterns of Afghan domestic governance. The Asas al-Quzat (Fundamental Rules for Judges) a legal manual compiled between 1885-86 by the Hanafi jurist of Kandahar, Mawlawi Ahmad Jan Khan Alakozai. The manual is strikingly similar to the books comprising the Mecelle with a vertical alignment of numbered articles, followed by a concise statement of the rule and only brief mention of its preponderantly Hanafi jurisprudential source. The manual served to streamline the everyday administration of the state courts in a manner legible to a centralizing government. Other texts produced by the Kabul Government at the time indicated that Ottoman models of law had been relied upon for the Asas.

For governors of provinces Abd Al-Rahman commissioned a translation of ‘The Islamic Administration of the Ottoman Empire’. This text provided guidance to governors on how to consolidate authority over a heterogenous population in order to establish domestic law and order and ward off external attacks. The work makes specific parallels between the multiethnic character of the Ottoman Empire and Afghanistan, as well as a shared sense of being encircled by hostile forces. In particular the work justifies Abd Al-Rahman’s reliance on the  Turkish model for three reasons held to be common between both states : threat of external aggression by non-Muslim powers on an “Islamic” polity; the ethnic diversity of both states and the need for unity between the “people of Islam”.

The rhetorical purchase of espousing an Ottoman model of reform in Afghanistan as opposed to British, Russian or Iranian examples should not be underestimated. By associating with the House of Osman, Abd Al-Rahman received the added lustre of connecting with a 500 year old Sunni lineage of the Caliph, the greatest power in the Muslim world. Abd Al-Rahman knew that he could not rely on violence alone to establish legitimacy and that he needed to rely on capable and trustworthy bureaucrats to administer the territories he conquered. Abd Al-Rahman also realized that the Afghan ulema had to be bought into his vision. To this end hoisting the Ottomans centralization reforms was seen as being deferential to sharia and so legitimate.

In 1896 the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II granted Abd Al-Rahman the title of Gazi Ziyauddin (Frontier Warrior and Light of the Faith) who “held great rejoicing and received nassars (gifts) in memory of his honour”.  Later that year Abd Al-Rahman used the title in correspondence with British offiicals “ From his Highness the Amir, Zia-ul-millat-wad-din, Independent King of the dominions of Afghanistan”.

While Hulusi failed in his attempt to obtain an alliance with the Amir, nonetheless the British officials denigrated him as being the cause of the failure because he was a “Mullah” as opposed to a diplomat. However the Ottomans had succeeded in sending an emissary who was warmly received, hosted by courtiers, greeted by commoners and bid a gracious farewell. However the success of Hulusi legal endeavours bore fruit under Abd Al-Rahman.

Ottoman stance towards Afghans in Ottoman domains was that they were the responsibility of the Ottoman Caliph  and not the responsibility of British diplomats who conceived of Afghans as their vassals. The British and the Ottomans were in competition over the loyalties and bodies of human beings  who did not fall into either Ottoman or British imperial frameworks of subjecthood and sovereignty.

The 1911 invasion of Ottoman Libya by Italy concerned the Brits for all the wrong reasons. In June 1912 a British Indian intelligence memorandum reported that a contingent of Afghan warriors had travelled to the Ottoman domains in order to help repel Italy’s invasion of Libya. Even in cases where the volunteers militancy was not directed against Britain, but a rival colonial power in Africa, the rapid and covert movement of armed Afghans shuttling between the British and Ottoman Caliphat was a source of concern for British Imperialists.

On 19 October 1912 a British diplomat at Jaffa complained about 73 Afghans “largely of British Indian nationality” who had embarked for Libyan Jihad. Fears of Afghans and Indians constituting an external pool of Ottoman support in Britain’s most valuable colony would only intensify.

On October 27 1914 the Ottomans declared Jihad against Britain and this would test the loyalty of Habibullah to the Ottomans. At the outbreak of the first world war many recalled the Amir’s words of 1907 spoken to a Turkish delegation “Afghanistan is the Ottoman Empire’s younger brother and right arm in the struggles of the East! The Turks responded in kind stating “All Ottomans are  nourished by sincere concern and warm feelings for Afghanistan!” stated Ali Fehmi Bey the spokesperson of the group. Bey added “It is this sincere feeling and love which propelled us to work in union with our Afghan brothers, and to make this land a second home for us helpless servants.

Among the Ottomans to journey to Afghanistan following invitations by Mahmud Tarzi, Mahmud Safi, and Ali Fehmi was a Turkish journalist and portraitist, Mahmud Fazli Effendi. Shortly after the Young Turk Revolution restored the Ottoman constitution and ushered in a reappearance of parliamentary politics in the empire. Mehmed Fazli returned to Istanbul and published Resimli Afgan Seyaheti (An illustrated Afghan Travelogue). Although Fazli’s stay in Kabul was short lived, his illustrated travel memoir offers one of the richest first hand descriptions of the Ottoman community in Kabul, including what the foreign visitors found of interest during their sojourn in Afghanistan.

The most dramatic expression of pan Islamic convergence in Afghanistan during World War One took place with the arrival of the Niedermayer mission in 1915 combined with the Indian Muslim Silk Letters revolutionary plot sought to join forces and persuade Habibullah to assist in ousting the British from India.  A more fitting designation would be the Kazim-Niedermayer exopedition – highlighting the Turkish role in the mission by remembering both the primary  Ottoman and German commanders, Kazim Bey and Oskar Von Niedermayer who led it.

Opening a new battle front in South or Central Asia would achieve a series of strategic objectives for the Ottomans, bogging down Allied forces far from the main theatre of war in the eastern Mediterranean, adding tens of thousands of Afghans and Indian auxiliaries to the armies of the Central Powers and relieving besieged Ottoman forces in Eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

The British feared the independent Muslim Princely states the largest of which were Bhopal and Hyderabad. At the outbreak of war the British obliged the Nawab of Hyderabad and the Begum of Bhopal to publicly proclaim their loyalty to the British imperialists. In fact the proclamations of both these states were drafted by British officials and distributed widely.

Ottoman officers involved in training and building up the Afghan National Army were a source of concern to British officials as well as the refusal of the Amir to issue a proclamation of loyalty along the lines of those issued by the Princely states.

The Germans reached Kabul in September 1915 and the Ottomans on 7 October 1915. According to most accounts both delegations were warmly received by Habib Allah in the Afghan capital. Hayri Bey an Ottoman captain and military instructor in Kabul training the Afghan troops, gathered the Turks living in Kabul to give the arriving delegation a rousing military salute and parade. With the aim of persuading Habib Allah to enter the war on their side, the Turks brought gifts of gold, an ornamental sword , a strikingly calligraphed copy of the Quran and a ceremonial banner; the German contingent presented weapons and gold. An Ottoman general security directorate dossier from February 1915 contains a letter drafted in Arabic by the prominent Qaderi Shaykh of Baghdad Sayyid Abd al-Rahman Effendi –a relative of the Kabul Harbiye – and addressed to the Amir of Afghanistan. After cordial fraternal salutations to the Amir, the letter introduced the Ottoman officers and their purpose in travelling to Kabul at this perilous time. With the hand delivery of this letter to Habib Allah in his Kabul darbar, the expedition had met the first and fundamental aim of the mission.

The origins of the Silk letter conspiracy – as the mission was later described – originated with a group of primarily Muslim scholars and activists operating out of India’s northern UP Province but with robust links to local agents in the Punjab, the tribal belt of the northwest frontier and Afghanistan itself. At the movement’s helm was the preeminent Indian Muslim scholar of the Dar al-Ulum seminary at Deoband, Shaykh al-Hind Mahmud al Hassan. Also notable amongst the movements ranks was Raja Mahendra Pratap (1886-1979) a Marxist revolutionary and Hindu graduate of Aligarh Muslim University, whose presence in the movement signaled broader support among a burgeoning independence movement that crossed communal lines.

Indians soon began to cross the Durand line in the hope of supporting any Afghan war against the British. One of the earliest Indians amongst these was a fourth year student of Lahore Government College named Hasan Zafar “Muhajir” and Zafar Hasan Aybek in Indian and Turkish accounts respectively. Hasan made several trips to Afghanistan and later migrated to Anatolia where he adopted the name “Aybek” in the early 1920s becoming a Turkish citizen.

Zafar Hasan Aybek (1895-1989) was one of the earliest Hindustani revolutionaries to emigrate to Afghanistan at the height of the Great War, reaching the capital in February 1915 in the company of his teacher Ubayd Allah Sindhi. During his first sojourn in Kabul he served as secretary to the radical government in exile, the Provisional Government of India, led by Raja Pratap and Mohammed Baraktullah. Complementing his work in support of Indian independence and the Ottoman war effort from Afghanistan. Hasan left a remarkable record of his activities in Kabul during the war, Published in Urdu, Hasan’s Ap Biti (Autobiography) includes a personal narrative of his sojourn in Afghanistan during World War 1, and is one of the richest first hand accounts of the Silk Letters conspiracy by an actual participant as it unfolded. The work provides a sociological window into early twentieth century Afghanistan including the author’s observations on the pace of governmental reforms and infrastructure projects in the capital, as well as more conventional notes on the geographic and ethnic make up of the country form the perspective of an Indian Muslim in Kabul. Hasan’s memoir therefore remains an invaluable source of information not only about the Indian revolutionary movement and experience during World War 1 but also about Afghanistan during Habib Allah’s reign.

On arriving in Kabul, Hasan estimated the city population to be seventy-eight thousand which he increased to a hundred and fifty thousand when including all of the surrounding small settlements and villages on the outskirts of the city. The travel narrative includes a thick description of the city’s layout and its most important and frequented sites, and several vivid descriptions of public street and market scenes, alley ways and housing arrangements. Embedded in Hasan’s narrative are his won reactions as a Punjabi Muslim migrant living in Kabul during the Great war. These include observations which seem to have surprised Hasan, but also a problematic tendency to resort to British-Orientalist stereotypes of the Pashtuns as “noble savages” par excellence. In describing one of the city squares for example, Aybek was astonished at seeing so many prospering Hindu merchants. That the relative mildness of relations between Hindus and Muslims in a Muslim-majority country like Afghanistan appears to have surprised Aybek is likely owing to his preconceived notions and experiences of rising communalism in the Punjab.

Hasan took supreme interest in the state of Afghanistan’s military forces and he cited discontent about conscription policies being applied in a discriminatory and unfair manner. He noted protests by those who alleged the Kings’ policies privileged the wealthy, as tribes and clans closely related to the amir’s family – the Muhammadzais, the Sadozais, the Mangals, and the Jidrans – were exempt from conscription.

Hasan appears to have been most disappointed by the state of education in the country “(E)ducation  and learning was not widespread”, he lamented noting that “there was not a single school of the modern kind” save a handful of academies for the children of elites. As for the common masses “People were taught according to the old methods of reading the Quran in the mosques”. Sufficient for a basic level education and  literacy Hasan noted that this left the role of training government bureaucrats to an ad hoc system of tutors whereby only the fortunate few entered the King’s service after extraordinary effort or relations to the palace. As a sign of positive developments Hasan initially spoke highly of the Habibia, which the author emphasized was built with the assistance of Indian teachers and administrators, Dr Abdul Ghani, his brother Chiragh Al-Din and Mawlawi Husayn Khan Alighari. in the same breath, However, Hasan lamented how these very talented individuals and their Young Afghan compatriots had been accused of conspiring to overthrow Habib Allah and summarily imprisoned.

Hasan remained certain about Afghanistan’s role in India’s freedom: “In order for India to achieve freedom, it was necessary that Afghanistan join the war against the British’, he wrote. By convincing Habib Allah to attack India, the Afghans could open a third front and cause the British forces to be divided yet again , Indian troops destined for the Middle East or European theatres of war would have to remain in India. This would allow Ottomans and Germans to direct their attention at the weak Tsarist forces.

After settling in Kabul, Hasan and his compatriots met with the Tarzi family, as well as the Crown Princes Inayatullah and Amanullah. However Hasan noted “Amir Habib Allah Khan was a friend of the British and he took a salary from them… to convince a person like this to enter the war against the British was virtually impossible…Even just his listening to our ideas was a concession.”

Yet the Hindustani revolutionaries refused to give up on their mission. Sindhi, Baraktullah and Pratap continued to lobby the Afghan Court to their side, scoring success with Sardar Nasr Allah, the King’s brother, was especially enthusiastic about the prospects of defeating the British on their own turf,  bolstered by an alliance between Afghan warriors renowned for bravery and Ottoman and German armies supporting them. As Sindhi himself proposed to the Amir:

“If Afghan soldiers attack the British and liberate India from their sovereignty , an Afghan Prince could be constitutional monarch sitting on the throne of Delhi. With the Amir’s approval this Prince would be Aman Allah Khan. Moreover with the formation of a constitutional monarchy in Afghanistan , a framework for unity between India and Afghanistan could be established. “

The early twentieth century was a period where old orders were ending and new ones being established, transnationals such as Sindhi, Baraktullah and Hasan were proposing and pursuing goals similar to those being proposed by the British and French with their Sykes-Picot Agreement for the Middle East.

When the Amir learned of anti-British activities breaking out among the frontier tribes, he issued an order reminding his people that even war and combat were strictly controlled by Islamic law and stated “Jihad requires, the approval of the King and people of authority”. Habib Allah also stressed that should an appropriate occasion arise for religiously sanctioned war, he would be the first to declare such a jehad and personally direct it. In the meantime he warned that an improper jehad would have both worldly and eternal consequences, Without the Amir entering the war against the British would be a war for worldly purposes and would not be considered a jihad, and those who fight and die in such a war cannot attain the lofty station of martyrdom. The consequence was that for the duration of the war there were no significant clashes between the British and the frontier tribes.

The Amir’s declining prestige was unbridled, reflecting anger and frustration on the part of many Afghans who witnessed their own Muslim ruler curry favour with the British while failing to aid the Ottoman brethren, the standard bearers of the Caliphate. In the end the Amir’s unpopular politics brought an end to his life through assassination and allow a group of Turcophile Afghans to steer Afghanistan towards a new destiny as a free and independent country.

In conclusion, this book provides a significant insight as detailed above into the role of Muslims from other nations in Afghanistan. It is an antidote to the many books we have that tell us what Westerner workers have done for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Rising

Author:           Faiz Ahmed

Publisher:       Harvard University Press (2017)

Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain
Farrukh Husain is a history researcher and author of ‘Afghanistan in the Age of Empires’ (2018)

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