Upon the destruction of the Caliphate in 1924, a wave of oppression was meted out by the new secular Turkish order on famous ‘ulema from the Ottoman Caliphate. Several were executed for resisting the new order, and several were exiled ignominiously. One of the most saddening instances of this was the exile and treatment meted out to the last officially designated Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate, Shaykh Mustafa Sabri. This article briefly looks at this important personality, his learning, contribution, and refusal to accept the secular order that had dawned upon the new Turkey.
Shaykh Mustafa Sabri was born in Tokat in 1869 (1286 H). He memorised the entire Quran at a young age, after which he traveled throughout modern day Turkey in search of more knowledge. His study took him to the cities of Kayseri & Istanbul, where he gained the respect of his peers with his quick mind and sharp insight.
The Shaykh went on to become one of the great figures of 20th century Muslim philosophical theology, mastering logic and philosophy in addition to attaining an expertise that encompassed the traditional Islamic sciences.
His aptitude did not go unnoticed. It was not long before the Shaykh was delivering lessons to Sultan Abdul Hamid II himself, a practice that was customary in the Ottoman Caliphate as many of the Caliphs and high officials sought ongoing religious education and advice from prominent ‘ulema.
Shaykh Sabri quickly elevated through the ranks of the ‘ulema until reaching the prestigious position of “Shaykh Al-Islam” – the highest religious authority in the state.
Tokat Province in Turkey
The Shaykh attained his position at a time when the Khilafah was under fierce ideological, and indeed physical, attack both from without and within. He had the foresight to publicly voice his opposition to the secularist administration which sought to end the Khilafah, a goal which they ultimately succeeded in, which painted the target firmly on his back.
The new government was aware of the ideological threat that Mustafa Sabri posed, and feared that his zeal, activism and mental capacity could result in a rising tide of sentiment against the nascent political order. His persistent criticism and rebellion against this regime endangered him to a point where relocation was crucial.
He first escaped to Romania but it was not long before his location was discovered. News of his whereabouts reached the new secularist government in (the newly declared republic of) Turkey and they ordered his capture and incarceration.
The Shaykh was caught and extradited to Istanbul. His trial at the Military Tribunal saw a 5 hour deliberation by the jurors. The Shaykh was convinced that he was about to face his end, and prayed what he thought would be his final prayers with the most sombre of dispositions, in a state that quite literally reflected the hadith of Rasulullah ﷺ:
“When you stand for your prayer, then pray as if you are saying farewell…”
Sunan Ibn Majah 4169, Sahih according to As-Suyuti
Much to his surprise, the Jury decided to exile the Shaykh, with the judge quoted as having said “I cannot bare to sentence this man to death, because his struggles are in the cause of his beliefs and ideologies.”
It was a blessing from Allah that the Shaykh escaped with his life as the administration of Atatürk had murdered countless ‘ulema in their undertaking to make Turkey lose much of its Islamic heritage and pedigree.
Nonetheless, he was the target of a few failed assassination attempts. He was forced to settle in a non-Muslim land, Greece, as his safety was threatened in any Muslim land by both the Turkish government’s minions and other anti-Islamic forces and agencies in other countries.
He could have quite conceivably have lived out his days in Greece, content with the security, but he could not bear the thought of dying and being buried in non-Muslim land. He penned a letter which he distributed to several surrounding Muslim countries which read:
“I am Mustafa Sabri, the recent Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottoman Caliphate. I do not have a passport. Whether as a guest or as a refugee, I want to enter your country, in any way you accept.”
He was, unfortunately, rejected by these fledgling governments, which were by now largely proxies of foreign powers. In a last-ditch effort he approached the Egyptian Consulate in Athens and was met with a better response. The consul-general was incredulous at the Shaykh’s situation, granting him and his family a visa to Egypt and stating:
Were this situation to afflict the Pope, what would the relevance of the Christian world be like? I am taking all the responsibilities. If they like, they can sack me from my job, imprison me or sentence me to death for committing a political crime… In risking everything I am granting you a visa!
Settling in Egypt
Finally settling in Egypt, the Shaykh was now in a position where he could apply his knowledge in a way which he could not since the fall of the Caliphate. He led a life of poverty and hunger, but did not let this compromise his faith or zeal. He said of his poverty:
That is much better for me than being a supporter of the oppressors
In Egypt he authored his monumental 3-volume Mawqif al-‘Aql which was an intellectual response to the huge attack on Islam at the time from modernists, atheists and others. In the book, the Shaykh critiques the foundation of Western thought in a comprehensive manner, shaming Kant’s (d. 1804) “naive and presumptuous attack on the validity of metaphysics”, demonstrating inconsistencies and absurdities in the theory of evolution, amongst numerous other studies.
Shaykh Mustafa Sabri also arrived at a time when the modernist, liberal reformist teachings of Muhammed Abduh (d. 1905) were gaining support among people. He penned numerous intellectual responses to undo the damage that Abduh had wrought, and confidently asserted
My success is solely due to my perseverance of advocating the Truth.
This era was also witness to the renowned hunger strikes of Mahatma Ghandi. The fasts received global attention, with even Muslim news-agencies regurgitating the news. The Shaykh was startled at the enormity of the recognition Ghandi had received, lamenting the Muslims’ concern for Gandhi while ignoring the state of their own mufti and Shaykh al-Islam. He said:
Gandhi decides to start a hunger-strike, and the whole world has shaken from its place. While the Ottoman Shaykh al-Islam, with his family, has been starving for years and the Islamic world remains unaware. The Ottoman dynasty is in such a miserable state, its Shaykh al-Islam would eat dry beans for months and nobody would be aware of this.
The Shaykh also wrote a solemn poem of his reflections:
Except that between the two fasts is an astonishing difference, which I shall clarify without hesitation;
He has fasted while having food to eat, while I fasted because I have nothing to eat, which has been my state since arriving as a visitor to Egypt;
And his fast became the talk of everyone, while my fast is something only known to me;
It is for the sake of Islam, that which I am facing.
Most of what the Shaykh faced throughout his life was because he refused to be silent in the face of the greatest tragedy of the past 1400 years – the downfall of Muslim political unity manifested in the form of the Caliphate.
He refused to compromise the truth out of taqwa and refused to become a government mouthpiece. He suffered exile, assassination attempts, constant upheaval of his and his family’s lives and extreme poverty but bore it all with fierce, uncompromising conviction in the promise of Allah. He died in Egypt in 1954 and was buried there, leaving behind numerous works which continue to benefit the ummah.
He left behind many students, of them Shaykh Muhammad Emin Er who continued teaching up until his death in 2012. The Shaykh was quoted as having said:
This cause is in need of such a sacrifice, that one must be prepared to sacrifice this life for the life hereafter.
May Allāh grant the last appointed Shaykh al-Islam Mustafa Sabri mercy, forgiveness and peace, and bless him with the highest of ranks in Paradise. Ameen!