Did Republican Turkey Really Abolish the Ottoman Caliphate? The Curious Case of Law No. 431

Summary and context: In 1924, Turkey abolished the Ottoman Caliphate through a statute numbered 431, or Law No. 431. The construction of the statute was somewhat ambiguous in that it stated that the Caliphate was abolished because that institution was inherent to the State and the Republic, thus almost justifying its abolishment as a separate institution on the grounds that to keep it would be superfluous. Today, a very marginal political faction in Turkey is using this construction to argue that, despite the repeated references to secularism in the Turkish Constitution, it would be perfectly constitutional to reintroduce the caliphate. The legal consensus, however, is that the caliphate is abolished and cannot be reintroduced.


The historical and oft-repeated assertion among scholars is that the secular Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, abolished the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 in a move to further entrench secularism. Indeed, the developments following Parliament’s passage of the law No. 431, titled “Law on the Abolishment of the Caliphate and the Expulsion of the Ottoman Royal Family from Turkish Territory,” seem to corroborate this claim: the abolishment of sharī‘a courts and amendments to the Constitution to erase all references to Islam were all part of a broader legal and political project committed to secularizing Turkey.

Nevertheless, many studies focusing on these events overlook one very important textual indication found in the Law that could suggest that the narrative of simple abolishment needs to be nuanced. Article 1 of the Law reads as follows: “The caliph is deposed. The caliphate is abolished, as it [i.e. the caliphate] is in fact inherent in the meaning and notions of state and republic.”[1] Today, under the rule of a political party that emphasizes conservative and  Islamic values, some commentators (mostly non-lawyers) invoke this part of the law in an attempt to make an unsuccessful legal argument that it is possible to reconcile Turkish constitutionalism with the institution of an Islamic caliphate.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that these studies were erroneous in their assessment; for after the enactment of this law, the caliph, who was a member of the Ottoman dynasty was exiled from Turkey along with the rest of his family, and there has been no caliph in Turkey since. Yet, looking at the text of the Law that reads “as it [i.e. the caliphate] is in fact inherent in the meaning and notions of State and Republic,”[2] two overlooked phenomena emerge: first, that like most, if not all laws, this Law was a product of parliamentary compromise, and second, that there is value to the fact that this Law deems the institution of the caliphate inherent in the Republic.

As for the first point—that the Law abolishing the caliphate was a legislative compromise, parliamentary records of the debates around the question of whether the caliphate should be abolished are revealing. Most members of Parliament at the time were in favor of an assertive form of secularism and hence were pro-abolishment. But most of them nevertheless felt it necessary to justify such a radical move in terms that would reconcile the abolishment from an Islamic legal perspective. It is therefore no coincidence that, the legislator proposing the bill to abolish the caliphate, in his official statement to the Grand National Assembly , wrote: “Since the caliphate … already exists in Islam’s understanding of government, there is no need for a separate caliphate apart from the current Islamic government [of Turkey], which is tasked with the performance of a range of both worldly and otherworldly duties.”[3]

In a similar vein, and further evidencing the cautious approach espoused by the political elite of the time trying to frame the abolishment debate in Islamic law terms, the Minister of Justice, in his speech during the debates stated:

Let me clarify the meaning of the caliphate in sharī‘a. First of all, allow me to say that the caliphate means governance. It is directly a matter pertaining to the nation. It is governed by the change in times. Thus, the Dear Messenger [i.e. Prophet Muhammad], upon his death, had not defined the caliphate to his successors …  Esteemed sirs, if you look at the Qurʾān, the true law of religion, you will find no mention of the way in which the caliphate is set up, that is, no mention of the Islamic Caliphate in the verses. The Qur’ān guides us through two principles in matters pertaining to governance: first is the rule to consult with others, which is applicable among all civilizations today …. The second principle mentioned in the Qur’ān is to obey the ruler….”[4]

The Minister made extensive use of Islamic terminology to point out how the Ottoman caliphate was far from being an Islamic dictate, especially in light of the minimalist manner in which the Qur’ān could be read in matters pertaining to governance. For him, the Qurʾān merely dictated consulting with others and obeying the ruler, none of which specified and necessitated the institution of the caliphate.

As for the second point—that the part of the Law’s text declaring the caliphate inherent in the concept of state and republic gives fodder for its use today as a rhetorical tool to suggest that the compatibility of a reintroduction of the caliphate with secularism in Turkey’s legal order—prominent journalists and politicians have made statements that are illuminating. One Islamist journalist, for example, recently commented that Law No. 431 actually preserved the institution by stipulating that it was inherent in the state, and therefore could at any time be separated from the state and reorganized.[5] He made this suggestion amid an intensely polarized political environment that preceded the 2016 Turkish constitutional referendum that served, in some ways, as a vote of confidence for current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Another journalist recently wrote that Mustafa Kemal had to abolish the caliphate “but did not abrogate it completely” so that the people, could make political and strategic use of it one day, should they desire.[6]  While these suggestions are marginal opinions and certainly do not reflect the consensus among legal scholars in the country, they nevertheless point to a socio-legal trend that warrants attention: that for a minority of Turks, the caliphate is a normatively desirable institution and that there exist, albeit quite unconventional and as of now heterodox, interpretive ways to argue that the abolishment actually has only integrated or perhaps submerged the caliphate into the modern Turkish state. This, by implication, gives hope to this marginal number of Turks that the separate institution itself might be revived one day.

 


[1] Law on the Abolishment of the Caliphate and the Expulsion of the Ottoman Royal Family from Turkish Territory, Law No. 431 (1924), published in the Official Gazette on as art. 1 (04/07/1924), available at: https://www.tbmm.gov.tr/tutanaklar/KANUNLAR_KARARLAR/kanuntbmmc002/kanuntbmmc002/kanuntbmmc00200431.pdf (emphasis added).

[2] Law No. 431, art 1.

[3] Written Submission by Saffet Efendi (MP from Urfa), Parliamentary Record of the Grand National Assembly, II, Vol 7, Meeting Year 1, 2nd meeting (03/03/1924), 27–28.

[4] Speech Delivered by Seyit Bey (MP from Izmir and Minister of Justice), Parliamentary Record of the Grand National Assembly, II, Vol 7, Meeting Year 1, 2nd meeting (03/03/1924), 41.

[5] SoLHaber available at (Turkish): http://haber.sol.org.tr/toplum/dilipak-erdogan-halife-olacak-sarayda-hilafet-temsilcilikleri-acilacak-182456 (“Dilipak: Erdogan halife olacak, sarayda hilafet temsilclikleri acilacak!” [Dilipak said: Erdogan to become Caliph and open up caliphate missions at the Presidential Palace]).

[6] Mehmet Ali Bulut, in Haber 7 (“Kimin halife olacagina TBMM karar verir!” [The Turkish Grand National Assembly should decide who is to become caliph!]), available at (Turkish): http://www.haber7.com/yazarlar/mehmet-ali-bulut/1201843-kimin-halife-olacagina-tbmm-karar-verir.

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