By Samirul Ariff Othman
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The year 1916 is a unique combination of two numbers 19 & 16 –i.e. both are with the digit 1 followed by the numerals 9 & 6 –which appears as if they (9&6) were rotated mirror images of each other. Now the year 1916 was also during the midst of the First World War and was probably the year in which the Modern Middle East as we know it today began to take shape.
1916 –The Great Arab Revolt
On the 10th of June, 1916, the first symbolic shots signaling the beginning of the “Great Arab Revolt” –were fired at the Turkish Garrisons in Mecca by the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali. Two years earlier in 1914, the Ottoman Empire had sided with the Central Powers (Austro-Hungarian & German Empires) against the Allies (mainly Britain, France & Russia).
Seeing an opportunity to liberate Arab lands from what he saw as Turkish oppression, and trusting the honour of British officials who promised their support for a unified kingdom for the Arab lands, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca (and great grandfather of King Hussein of Jordan), launched the Great Arab Revolt.
Earlier, following the Young Turk coup of 1908, the Ottomans reversed directions and began pursuing a policy of secular Turkish nationalism, amongst others including making Arabic no longer an official language of the Empire
After the conclusion of the war, however, the victors reneged on their promises to the Arabs, carving from the dismembered Ottoman lands a patchwork system of mandates and protectorates.
Sharif Hussein’s objective in undertaking the Great Arab Revolt was to establish a single independent and unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo (Syria) to Aden (Yemen), based on the ancient traditions and culture of the Arab people, the upholding of Islamic ideals and of course seeing him being elevated from King of Hejaz to King of the Arabs and Caliph of all Muslims.
British multiplicity in this turmoil was on a grand scale. First, the Arabs were led to believe that they would be subjects of an Arab Caliphate. Meanwhile the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed by Britain, France and Russia in 1916, divided the area into zones of permanent colonial influence.
The agreement recognized French interests in Greater Syria and northern Iraq, while acknowledging British designs on a belt of influence from the Mediterranean to the Gulf to protect its trade and communications links with the Indian subcontinent. The Sykes-Picot Agreement specified that most of Palestine was to be entrusted to an international administration.
This agreement clearly contradicted the promises made to Sharif Hussein of Mecca! To further complicate matters, in a totally deceitful move the then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour in 1917 issued a letter to a prominent British Jew, Lord Rothschild, promising Britain’s commitment and support for a Jewish home in Palestine. Known as the Balfour Declaration, the letter calls for the "establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people...”.
Finally, though the British had supported Hussein from the start of the Arab Revolt, they elected not to help Hussein repel an attack by the Saudis, that eventually took Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. One view is that, in the first place the attack probably happened due to British agitation.
In 1925, King Ali bin al-Hussein (Sharif Hussein of Mecca’s son), lost the throne of the Kingdom of the Hejaz to Abdel Aziz bin Saud of Najd. The loss, which was brought about by a partnership between Ibn Saud and followers of the Salafi/Wahhabi movement, led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and brought to an end over one thousand years of Hashemite (Bani Hashim) rule in Mecca.
Hussein was then forced to flee to Cyprus. Eventually, he went to live in Amman, Transjordan, where his son Abdullah was king. Hussein died in Amman in 1931 and is buried in Jerusalem.
During this period of internal strife in Arab Lands, many apolitical ulama sought refuge in the relatively peaceful and tranquil Malay Archipelago, becoming religious advisors/muftis/scholars in the court of the various Islamic Sultanates then existent in the Malay Archipelago.
It is interesting to note that the famed Syeikh Abdullah Fahim (who taught in the Hejaz) arrived in the Malay Peninsular in 1916. It is not clear whether his departure from the Arabian Peninsular was due to the Great Arab Revolt.
Sheikh Abdullah Fahim was a Malayan nationalist and a religious scholar, he became Penang’s first mufti after Independence. He is the paternal grandfather of Tun Abdullah Badawi (5th Prime Minister of Malaysia).
*Samirul Ariff Othman is a senior consultant with Global Asia Consulting (GAC). He was previously attached to a leading economic think tank.*