Turkish propaganda ignores Ottoman violations of Two Holy Mosques

Turkish propaganda ignores Ottoman violations of Two Holy Mosques

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Pilgrims gather at the Kaaba in the Great Mosque of Makkah, July, 1889. (Getty Images)

The most important issue that Turkish historian Zakaria Qurshon falsely believed to be important to his historical discourse in his recent series of articles was the issue of the Two Holy Mosques and the Ottomans’ service of them. As usual for the Turks and the historians who follow their path, it revolves around a positive view of the rule of the Ottomans over the Two Holy Mosques, despite the Ottomans’ shameful historical issues in the Hijaz in general. Some historians have struggled to conceal such issues and they have not been able to obliterate the historical sources that discussed them.

I think that the biggest problem of the Turkish historians lies in what was mentioned in the sources, more than their problem with the Arabs themselves, because these sources cannot hide the frank topics that condemn the Ottomans and their rule of the Hijaz.

Qurshon’s suggestion regarding the Two Holy Mosques is based on the fact that the Ottoman sultans had the title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” However, they were not the first to have that title; rather, Saladin (Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi) preceded them by claiming the title for himself.

The discussion of this issue comes in the context of the attempt to undermine the Saudi service to the Two Holy Mosques and its successive accomplishments, which have become a source of confusion for the Turks. This presupposes a comparison between the two authorities in their service and, naturally, the comparison is decisive because the Saudis carry out their mission from three noble premises, the first of which is the pure Islamic law that prompts service to the holy places in the Two Holy Mosques. The second noble premise is to serve the Islamic world and all Muslims all over the world. The third is to consider the Two Holy Mosques as important national parts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

On the contrary, the Ottoman Empire served the two sanctuaries with the sole aim of using them for political propaganda, based on which it imposed its authority over a large part of the Islamic world and sought to give its authority a sacred character. However, those who want historical proof should envision how most of the Arab world — including the Arabian Peninsula — was suffering from political and economic neglect. The Arabian Gulf was left to European colonial ambitions, while Andalusia cried out to the Ottomans without serious moves from the Ottoman state to protect it. While these events were taking place during different historical periods, the Ottoman Empire sought to achieve its policies in Europe and formulate its diplomacy in France and elsewhere, without seriously dealing with the advancement of the places it claimed to control and protect.

Therefore, the Arab peoples, including the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, were well aware of the reality of the Ottoman Turks and their crimes in the depletion of their homelands. Therefore, the people of the Arabian Peninsula stood against the Ottoman project and rejected solutions that imposed Ottoman domination by supporting the national legitimacy represented by the imams of the Saudi state — including at the end of the era of the first Saudi state, in the period between the first and second states, and later during the era of the second Saudi state and the era of King Abdulaziz. Even when the Ottomans tried to achieve their project through letting a member of the ruling family of the second Saudi state rule the country in their name, they failed because the population did not comply with them or their representatives, and their colonial projects failed one by one.

To further stress the fact that the Ottomans did not serve the Two Holy Mosques in a manner that implied a strong desire to serve the Islamic religion, it is notable that none of their sultans visited the mosques or performed Hajj. The service of the Two Holy Mosques requires the care of the ruler, who should visit them to find out the quality of services offered, as he is directly responsible for them.

To realize that a political view dominated the Ottomans’ outlook toward their control of the Two Holy Mosques, we should recognize that they did not deal with the first Saudi state, which they sought to undermine, except when it included the Two Holy Mosques. Qurshon himself demonstrated that the Ottomans only moved against the first Saudi state after its annexation of Makkah. He says: “The Ottoman Empire was outraged by their (the first Saudi state) seizure of Makkah, and they (the Ottomans) immediately took the initiative to inform the governors neighboring the region of what had happened and sent them strict orders to move and take the necessary measures.”

It is worth noting that the Ottomans sought to collaborate with foreign powers, including Britain, to topple the first Saudi state. This is evidenced by the visit of the British Capt. George Foster Sadleir to the camp of Ibrahim Pasha in 1819 to congratulate him on the ouster of the Saudi state and discuss with him the mobilization of local and regional powers to carry out a joint Ottoman-British attack on the last loyalists of the first Saudi state in Ras Al-Khaimah and Sharjah. Sadleir wanted to take advantage of the Ottomans’ services and coordinate with them.

The Ottomans’ hatred for the Saudis had reached its peak, as Harford Jones-Brydges explained: “This is how the government established by the people who turned from weakness to strength and caused panic for the Turkish pashas in Asia and their authority in Constantinople ended. The Wahhabis also were deceived by the extent of their true strength and imagined that they could challenge the British government.” This proves that Britain stood with the Ottomans to topple the first Saudi state.

As for the title of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, which Selim I claimed, it is amusing to say with pride that he was the first to hold it, while at the same time adding: “After Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi.” How could he say that Selim I was the “first one” to hold the title? Anyone can boast of being the first after the one before him. Most importantly, serving the Two Holy Mosques is not about titles and precedence, but actions and historical evidence.

The Ottomans provided some services to the Two Holy Mosques, but this was not done perfectly, as Qurshon described. Selim I declared himself a servant of the Two Holy Mosques in 1516, before he defeated the Mamluks and announced that his goal was to capture the Two Holy Mosques.

What Qurshon overlooks on the subject of the Ottoman seizing of the Hijaz is that Selim I intended to launch a military campaign to achieve this, contrary to Qurshon’s claim that the Sharif of Makkah voluntarily sent his son. Al-Sanjari reported in “Manayih Alkaram” that Selim I would have sent his army had it not been for a group of people from the Hijaz, who were in Egypt after the overthrow of the Mamluks. They advised him to write to the Sharif and ask him to send his son to Selim and declare loyalty.

When the Ottomans seized the Hijaz, they only established a directorate in Jeddah to monitor Makkah, which remained under the self-rule of the Ashraf (descendants of Hasan ibn Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson). The interests of the Ottomans in the Two Holy Mosques were within the framework of propaganda, through some material aid, and establishing the sultanate’s official sect by reconstructing the shrine of the Hanafi school in the Grand Mosque of Makkah.

Nine years after their seizure of the Hijaz, in the year 1525, the Ottomans violated the Grand Mosque. Ibn Fahd described the incident by saying: “They committed outrageous acts in Makkah. They attacked people’s homes and kicked them out with their women, seized and destroyed their belongings. People called for help but did (not) find anyone to help them except God Almighty. They (the Ottomans) did a lot of harm, sexually harassed women openly and took food from the market cheaply, and some of them paid nothing.”

What sort of service starts with repression? After that, many events took place in which the Ottomans violated the sanctities, as detailed in historical sources. Moreover, what the Ottomans and their historians claim regarding the development of the Two Holy Mosques was carried out with the desire and insistence of the Ashraf. Restoration and construction were carried out within the strictest limits and — especially in the 10th century AH — with great caution, since the Ottomans’ Sufi extremists looked at the construction works from an unrealistic viewpoint, insisting that the honorable structure be preserved and that there was no need to tamper with the sites by way of construction or maintenance. Therefore, any construction work, maintenance or urban development was carried out within minimal limits and after many deliberations, meetings and conflicts between different currents.

Accordingly, the Turkish rant about serving the Two Holy Mosques and the Ottomans’ provision of assistance are full of disadvantages and calamities, and cannot be compared to the level of service of the Two Holy Mosques in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is not to mention the violations of the sanctity of the two mosques during many historical events, such as by Fakhri Pasha in Madinah during Seferberlik (Ottoman mobilization), when he expelled its inhabitants and imprisoned about 170 of its scholars and leaders. He expelled them to the Levant and Anatolia and they became like prisoners during the First World War, suffering forced alienation, displacement and distress. He did not care about the tragic fate of the inhabitants of Madinah, who were arrested by his soldiers in the streets without taking into account whether they were a woman, child, incapacitated, or the head of a family. The tragedies described by the people of Madinah are numerous and cannot be forgotten in the history of Fakhri Pasha and the Ottomans.

Every time Fakhri Pasha preached in the Prophet’s Mosque, he cursed and insulted the Arabs, accusing them of treason. He packed the Prophet’s chamber, the Prophet’s tomb and the grounds of the Prophet’s Mosque with explosives when he was surrounded during the Siege of Madinah and threatened to blow up the area. Before that, he stole the contents of the Prophet’s chamber and, because of his tyranny, Madinah reached the extent of famine and people were forced to eat cats and dead bodies.

The final days of the Ottomans witnessed the most aggressive attack on the Grand Mosque in Makkah in the modern era. When the revolution of Sharif Hussein bin Ali was announced in 1916, the Ottoman garrison trained its artillery on the Grand Mosque from Ajyad Fortress. Their artillery shells hit the Kaaba above the Black Stone, set fire to the Kiswah (the cloth that covers the Kaaba), and hit the corridors of the mosque.

Indeed, if we review the Ottoman control of the Two Holy Mosques, we will find a lot that contradicts what is reported in many books, researches and studies that maximize the Ottoman services. In fact, they did not respect the sanctity of the mosques and they did not hesitate to carry out forbidden acts and violate the holy places. In what we have covered above, there are enough examples to contradict the claims of the Ottomans and their supporters, while a historical review would reveal even more Ottoman calamities concerning the Two Holy Mosques.

In Makkah alone — not to mention Madinah — the Ottomans did more than Abraha Al-Habashi before Islam, when he and his army attacked the Kaaba. They did more than Al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf did when he bombarded the Kaaba using catapults. And they behaved like the Qarmatians when they took pieces of the Black Stone during the era of Suleiman the Magnificent.

The Ottoman Empire served the two sanctuaries with the sole aim of using them for political propaganda.

Talal Al-Torifi

Therefore, I hope that Qurshon reads history well. He should not content himself with what is written in the official Ottoman papers, since boasting about them does not reflect historical reality. Their documents and writings represent the official viewpoint, not historical reality, and they describe the history they want to show, not the history they want to hide.

What Qurshon and others are doing is attempting to spread a history that has been contaminated by calling on old heritage, producing a political force according to an ideology that dispels part of the natural system. They want to live according to an aristocracy that distinguishes the Turks from other peoples, including the Arabs, and to return to living without work, as the Ottomans did by relying on the wealth of others.

  • Prof. Talal Al-Torifi is a Saudi academic and media specialist.

Read parts 1. and 2. in the five-part series: 

1. Turks’ pre-Ottoman history based on myth and imagination  

2. Turkey repeating Ottoman Empire’s crimes against Arabs

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