• Omer Haq

The Khilafat Movement

The Khilafat Movement - a campaign that rose out of the provocation of Indian Muslims to pressure the Raj into protecting the authority of the Caliphate in its true form. We delve into the making of this movement, the pioneers behind it, and the events that unfolded and shaped the history of politics for Muslims in the subcontinent and how it led to the beginning of the formation of the All-Muslim state of Pakistan.

The word Khilafat, meaning ‘successorship’, comes from the Arabic word Khalifa which means ‘successor’.

The death of the Prophet Muhammed left a vacuum, both spiritually and politically among the Muslim nation also known as the Ummah. His closest friend and father-in-law, Abu Bakr Siddiq was selected to succeed him and was called the Khalifa, or the Successor to the Prophet. As the successor to the Prophet, the position of Khalifa naturally held colossal sentiment to the Muslims. It has been of both religious and political importance as the Khalifa is the leader to Muslims all around the world.


The Khilafat, or the Office of the Khalifa, remained within the extended family of the Prophet for nearly 300 years after his death and was later taken on and used by Muslim rulers across the world to derive legitimacy to their rule on religious grounds.


Many Muslim rulers, who were not members of the Prophet’s tribe or his race, i.e. the Arabs, also claimed to be the spiritual successors of the Prophet. However, there is no stipulation that the Khilafat should remain among the Arabs. Eventually, through a series of events the Ottomans rose as a formidable power in the Muslim world and allowed themselves to seek glory in this term as they began to claim themselves to be a Khilafat - the spiritual, religious and political ruler of all Muslims around the world. This is not surprising, as many, including the Mughals too at the time claimed to be Caliphs themselves including Akbar the Great. They became especially revered as they even held control of the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medinah.


The Kilafath or Caliphate, in this context, is the Ottoman Sultanate or Ottoman caliphate that claimed to be the spiritual and political leadership of all Muslims across the globe.

The reign of the Ottoman Empire in 1914


Muslims in British India constituted the largest Muslim community anywhere across the globe. As Indian Muslims were the most prominent part of the Muslim world, they revered the Ottomans heavily, even more so after the collapse of the Mughul Empire.


The Ottoman Empire for them was the only remaining standing powerful Muslim leader of the world that could raise their voice and stand up for Muslims, especially those in British ruled India.

The Khilafat Movement rose when Indian Muslims learnt that their loyalties had been purchased during the first World War with assurances of generous treatment of the Ottoman Empire after the war. It was a promise that the English never had any intention to keep. It naturally upset them when they learnt that the territories of the Ottoman empire were being stripped and that especially their control over the land of the holy sites was being taken away when it was the duty of the Khalifa to protect them.


The Movement was started by an Oxford-educated Muslim journalist, Mohammed Ali, along with his brother, Maulana Shaukat Ali. The brothers, also known as the Ali brothers, along with some prominent Muslim leaders of South Asia like Dr Mukhtar Ansari, Barrister Jan Muhammed, Maulana Azad and Dr Hakim Ajamal founded the ‘All India Khilafat Committee’ based in Lucknow.

Muhammad Ali and Maulana Shaukat Ali - the pioneers of the Khilafat Movement

The aim of the committee was to influence Muslims across the subcontinent to protect the Caliphate.

In 1920, they published the Khilafat Manifesto, which called upon the British to protect the caliphate and for Indian Muslims to unite and hold the British accountable for this purpose.


Major support to the committee came in the form of Mr Gandhi’s proposal of non-violent agitation in the Non-cooperation movement against the British. The All India Congress committee followed Gandhi and supported the Khilafat Movement, however, some of the senior members and other members too were reluctant of this move.


The non-cooperation movement was formally announced by Gandhi in August 1920 and in the next month, Congress accepted the movement as its own. The reasons for Gandhi’s support for the Khilafat and the impact of the outcomes of this support remain a matter of intense debate. However, to sum it up in a general sense, Gandhi sought to seek Muslim participation in the fight for self-governance and to instil among Hindus and Muslim a sense of unity as they both fought for each other’s cause.

Mahatma Gandhi and the Ali Brothers


The Movement saw its twists and turns. Starting as a Muslim only cause, the moment had now gained huge support from the Hindus as well, as Gandhi and Congress stood behind the struggle’s cause. In 1920, the Muslim Ulema (clergy) brought about a mass movement and strengthened Muslim participation for the cause of the Khilfath.


The reiteration of events from Islamic history and assertion on the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medinah and the insight of oppression instigated many Muslims to abandon their homes, jobs and lives in India and migrate to a Land of Islam - Afghanistan. Around 18,000 Muslims mostly from the United Province migrated to Afghanistan in 1920, to live in Dar Al Islam, the ‘Land of Islam.’ The absence of foresight of such action led to many of these Muslims returning back to India as they did not find any livelihood in these new homelands. The ones that remained in Afghanistan, later on, became a target of violence in the region.


Another travesty that shadowed the progress of the movement was the incident of rebellion in Malabar. After a visit of Gandhi and the Ali brothers to the Malabar region during a tour of India to gather masses for the cause of non-cooperation movement, Muslim fanatics in the region rose in rebellion against the landlords and it did not take long before it turned communal and incidents of immense barbarity and brutality were flowing out. The narration of incidents of Hindus raped, tortured and murdered in front of their family members distraught the Hindus across India.



The Hijrat of 1920 - from Peshawar to Kabul


The Movement was not able to make any tangible success at all, as the British did not care to budge for the demands of the Indians, or other Muslim risings across the world in the cause of the Caliphate.

After the Treaty of Severs, the English had made it clear to the Indian Khilafat leaders that there was nothing that could be done in the case of the dismemberment of the Turkish Empire and that nothing should be expected of them. The Movement was divided among Muslims who were supporting the Khilafat Committee, the Muslim Leauge and the Congress. The most major of the blows which knocked the movement to the ground into dust was the victory of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the Turkish popular leader who was able to dethrone the Caliph and establish a responsible secular government of Turkey with whatever was left of the Ottoman empire.



The Khilafat Movement shaped the Muslim politics of the subcontinent. Muslims of India had now come together and the fight for the cause of the Khilafat had given them a sense of identity through religious nationalism.

The rise of Muslim nationalism in India eventually gave rise to the cause of an independent Muslim India, the creation of the state of Pakistan.

The agitation was pan-Islamic in its basic ideology, where the Muslims believed in the nationhood of all Muslims. The Ummah, as is constantly asserted by Muslim scholars, is the unity of Muslims across the world, void of space and time. Many regarded this as indifferent to the fight for Indian independence, while many argued that the Muslim leadership too sought independence from the British in India, but the vision of the state to come might have been drastically different than the one envisioned by the Congress.

The Malabar rebellion

This is what might have lead to the carving of separate Muslim India, independent from the British, but also from the majoritarian politic of the Indian Hindus. Proponents of the Khilafat see it as the spark that led to the non-cooperation movement in India and a major milestone in improving Hindu-Muslim relations, while advocates of Pakistan and Muslim separatism see it as a major step towards establishing a separate Muslim state.


While the Ali brothers are celebrated in Pakistan that they joined the Muslim League after the failure of the Khilafat Movement, blaming Gandhi for having abruptly stopped the non-cooperation movement after the incident of Chauri Chaurah Bagh, Maulana Azad and Dr Hakim Ajmal remained to be loyal to the cause of a united India and under the banner of the Congress.


However indifferent we wish to be to this milestone in the history of Indian Nationalism, we can clearly say that the movement gave rise to Muslim nationalism in India, which remained dormant since the fall of the Mughal Empire.

It has in many ways influenced the narrative of Indian Muslim identity and the way we approached the notion of Hindu Muslim unity in India. The Movement initiated a mass movement amongst the Muslims in India, and the maintenance of communal unity despite the incidents of Malabar is no mean achievement. Even during the non-cooperation movement, two-third of the protesters arrested were Muslims.


It remains unfortunate that such communal unity among Hindu and Muslims remains to be unseen several decades after these incidents.


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