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HISTORY

Were any concerns ever raised about Muslims fighting their co-religionists from the Ottoman Empire?

Yes, and there were some mutinies among and desertions of Muslim soldiers, as there were of other classes, but on the whole the concerns were largely unfounded. 

Turkey did not immediately enter World War I on the side of Germany in August 1914, but the prospect of her doing so did cause considerable concern in India, particularly since Turkey was seen by Muslims as the last true Muslim empire.

 

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V (reigned 1909-1918), although politically powerless, was nonetheless Caliph of Islam and the religious figurehead for Sunni Muslims and British authorities were concerned for any signs of Pan-Islamic agitation. 

In November 1914 the Ottoman government, led by Enver Pasha, declared its support for Germany and on 14 November 1914 Mehmet V declared jihad against the Allied Powers. Given the predominance of Muslims in the Indian Army, British leaders felt that “The dilemma left about a third of the army potentially liable to disaffection.”    The Germans planned to make use of this to sow the seeds of insurrection in the subject peoples of the Allies’ empires.     This led the British to persuade Mir Usman Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad,    to issue a Farman extolling the virtues of the Allied cause and calling on Muslims to “remain firm and whole-hearted in their loyalty and obedience…”   The British also engaged the cooperation of the Indian Shi’a Muslim leader, the Aga Khan, to address soldiers then serving in Egypt about German exploitation of the Sultan’s call to jihad, declaring that “their loyalty should remain to the British.”    In Basra, German and Turkish agents persuaded the leader of the southern Iraqi Shi’a Muslims, who did not recognise the Sunni Sultan of Turkey as a spiritual authority, to join with the jihad.

The concerns about the loyalty of the Indian Army Muslims were largely unfounded. In December 1917 the Commander in Chief India was noted as having said, “There is no valid reason why they should not fight in Palestine as they have in Mesopotamia where they have shown no reluctance to fight against the Turks,”    22 and as the C in C said directly to the Secretary, War Office, when discussing an apparent reluctance on the part of some Pathans to fight against the Turks, “…we have to be on our guard against religious sentiment being
made a pretext to return to India.”

9 - FM Sir Claude Auchinleck at soldiers' 'Bara Khana'..jpg

FM Sir Claude Auchinleck at a ‘Bara Khana’ with troops. The soldier sitting at the front of the photograph is from the Princely State of Hyderabad and wears the shoulder title JNM of the Jamiat Nizam Mahboob (Maisram Regiment).’    

Nevertheless, in the early months of the war several Muslim soldiers, mainly Pathans, deserted from their regiments based in Egypt.  1915 witnessed some 2,000 Muslim troops either mutiny or desert in British India, Singapore, Aden and France.  The Mutiny of the 5th Light Infantry in Singapore in February 1915 led to 47 being publicly executed by firing squad while 64 others were sentenced to be transported for life.  Around 200 men of the 130th Baluchis were court martialled in Rangoon for their refusal to fight their co-religionists.  One Indian officer and one non-commissioned officer were executed, the remainder sentenced to various terms of hard labour.  429 men of the 15th Lancers mutinied on arrival in Basra from France in February 1916.    It should be noted that there were also mutinies and desertions from among other class groups, so this was not something peculiar to the Muslim troops.  Although some Muslim units were withdrawn from Gallipoli, they subsequently proved themselves entirely reliable when deployed to other theatres.  One such regiment turned away from Gallipoli, 89th Punjabis, was sent to France but by the time it returned to India in 1920 it had seen service in more theatres of war than perhaps any other single battalion in the Empire.

Sources

   NAI/WW1/287/H: Telegram, 2 December 1914, Bingley to Duff in Peter Stanley. Die in Battle, Do Not Despair – The Indians on Gallipoli, 1915. Solihull. Helion & Company Limited (2015), p.56

1

   George Morton-Jack.  The Indian Empire at War – from Jihad to Victory.  The untold story of the Indian Army in World War I.  London: Little Brown (2018), Chapter 9 – ‘An Anti-British Crusade’.

2

   He was regarded by the British as not only the Premier Chief in India but also as the leading Muslim of the country.  After the war, and in recognition of this Farman, he was given the unique hereditary titles of His Exalted Highness (F&P 7-I.C. dated 1 January 1918) and Faithful Ally of the British Government (letter from King George V dated 24 January 1918 – BL/IOLR/R/1/4/321 – F&P Proceedings).

3

   BL/IOLR/L/P&S20/133/2: Hyderabad Affairs 1914-1919, Enclosure 5 to S.N. 18.- in Tony McClenaghan. For the Honour of My House. The Contribution of the Indian Princely States to World War I.  Warwick: Helion & Company (2019), p.67

4

   Morton-Jack.  The Indian Empire at War p.196

5

   Ibid., p.198

6

   BL/IOLR/L/MIL/17/5/3919, War Diary AHQ India, Indian Expeditionary Force ‘E’/’E’ and ‘G’/Egypt, Vol. 31 (27/1) December 1917, (Appx 108) Adjutant General India to GOC Egypt dated 20 December 1917

7

   BL/IOLR/L/MIL/17/5/3920, War Diary AHQ India, Indian Expeditionary Force ‘E’/’E’ and ‘G’/Egypt, Vol. 32 (27/2) January 1918 (Appx 124), C in C to Secretary War Office dated 29 January 1918.

8

9

   Rana Chhina.  India and the Great War – An Overview.  (Part of an eight-volume set on India and the Great War).  New Delhi: United Service Institution of India/XPD Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India (2014), p.31

sources
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