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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence, report, 12 August, 1917

[Arab Bulletin, 12 August 1917]

On July 28, 1917, the Sherif of Mecca explained at some length to Colonel Wilson before me his dogmatic position. He began by sketching the original tenets of the Wahabi sect - its puritanism, its literalism and its asceticism. After the Egyptian conquest of Nejd the sect fell away very quickly in numbers and enthusiasm, till of late years it was practically confined to Aridh. The Nomads, Wushm and Qasim had all weakened so much as to be practically Sunni.

About four years ago there was a sudden revival. The Sherif is doubtful as to whether this can be ascribed to Ibn Saud or not. At any rate, funds were obtained from somewhere, and Wahabite missionaries went up to Qasim, amongst the Ateiba, Meteir and Sbei, and into Mecca and Taif. The first tenet of the new preachers was that the orthodox Sunnis and Shias (especially the Shias), were infidels. The Emir of Mecca was as convicted a Kafir as the Turks. The constructive side of the new creed was curious; they preached an exaggerated fatalism: 'God does everything'; they forbade medicine to the sick, discouraged trade, building and forethought. A favourite saying was, 'If a man fall into a well, leave it to God to pull him out.'

The missionaries were at first successful in great part, and the Sherif took alarm at the prospect. He sent Sidi Abdullah rapidly into Nejd, and by a show of force recovered the Ateiba, and most of the Meteir, and bound them again to the Emirate of Mecca. He also seems to have taken steps to counter-preach the new dogmas in Qasim itself, and in a short time the second Wahabite movement appeared to have spent itself. It was, however, only dormant, and in the last year or so missionaries have again been issuing from Aridh, and agitating the neighbourhood.

Ibn Saud has increased the unrest by his military policy. He has called out his levies two and three times in the year, discriminating between town and town; from one he will demand a contribution of men; and from another a composition in money. This has particularly annoyed Aneyza, Boreyda and Russ, rich and comfortable towns, fond of silk and tobacco, and not too fond of prayer. Their disaffection is wide, and the Sherif regards it as an embarrassment, since his ambitions extend to the limits of the Ateiba and Meteir only, and he has no desire to be involved in any question of the suzerainty of the Qasim towns. At present there is a sharp cleavage between Aridh and Qasim, which any external encouragement, or unwise internal act, might inflame into an open breach.

We then asked the Sherif about the position of the Shias. Towards the Wahabis, he said, they were extremely hostile. Other than that, he could not see in them any particular policy. They loved his family, since Shias have a greater respect for the person of the Prophet than have the Sunnis. Some such as the Zeidis and Jaafaris were, in his opinion, more reasonable in their attitude than the Shafeis who oppose them. The Hanefite objection to the Shias was political and not doctrinal.

He, in common with all orthodox Islam, was not prepared to deny the Khalifate of Abu Bekr, and regarded the Shias who condemned Abu Bekr, Omar and Othman, as mistaken. The Shias in India are largely heretical in their views, as are many of the Persian sects.

(The Sherif is ostensibly a Shafei. In this conversation he took up a middle position between moderate Shia and Sunni; it is generally believed that his real beliefs are Zeidi. Sidi Abdullah is nearly openly a Shia of the Jaaferi wing; Sidi Ali is a Sunni, and a fairly definite one; Sidi Feisal is not a formalist, and tends to an undefined undogmatic position, more Shia perhaps than Sunni, but vague. They are all nervous of betraying their real attitude, even to their friends, and maintain a non-commital Shafei profession in public.)

I then mentioned to the Sherif that the Northern Arabs commonly called him Emir el-Muminin, and asked him if this title was correct and if it met with his approval. After a short reflection he said 'No' and made his refusal more definite later. He said that people ascribed to him ambitions which he did not possess; he had even heard talk of his reviving the Khalifate. He explained his position with regard to the Khalifate. It was the simple Shia one (already impressed on me by Feisal and Abdullah), namely, that the Khalifate expired with Abu Bekr, and that any resurrection of the idea to-day was not only grammatically absurd but blasphemous. He will have absolutely no truck with such a notion. (Sidi Abdullah is weaker than his father in this respect. If he saw profit from the Sunni side in the assumption, he might do it, and cut the loss of the Shia element; yet, as matters stand, if the decision lies with him it is improbable that it will ever be adopted.) The idea of a Moslem Khalifate was, said the Sherif, suggested to Abdul Hamid by the British, and exploited by him as a stick to beat us with. Its exponents to-day were Obeidullah, Abd el-Aziz Shawish, Shekib Arslan, and Assad Shucair, four blackguards without an ounce of Islam or honesty between them, and its nominal holder, the Sultan of the Turks, was a pitiable laughing-stock; the invention had been fatal to Islam; it tried to twist a religion into a political theory and was responsible for unrest in Turkey, Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Java, India and China. It had plunged Turkey into the present war, and caused the Arab revolt, and with this example before his eyes, and in view of his own policy of friendship with Great Britain, he could neither acknowledge another's Khalifate, assume one himself, or admit the existence of the theory.

The title Emir el-Muminin was one that a sincere Moslem might adopt. It made no pretence to any succession to the prophet, but was objectionable politically, on account of the word 'Emir'. It was no use being Emir, without the power or pretence of giving orders, not to a sect, or a country or, two, but to the Moslem world. The main divisions of Shia and Sunni would unite under this title, but the smaller sects, and especially the alien congregations in India and Africa, would resent the implication of authority, as, no doubt, would the Great Powers.

His policy for Islam was to provide in Mecca and Medina for the honourable upkeep of the Holy Places, to facilitate the pilgrimage, and to issue Fetwas and Sheria decisions as required. The Moslem world must have a head, but it would be a less tempestuous body of thought if the head was the Sherif and Emir of Mecca, basing his right on the concrete possession of the Holy Places, and on an authentic descent, not on a supposed implicit apostolic authority, inherited from an unbroken succession of Khalifas. His motives in rebelling against the Turks were two. The first is a political object; the liberation of the Arab world from Turkish domination; this he will effect without question of creed; Christian, Druse, Shia and Sunni meet on a common base of nationality; and must cooperate with him on level terms if the aim is to be achieved. His second motive was a religious one, purely Islamic in character; it is to provide for the Mohammedan world an independent sovereign, ruling in the Holy Places, of the Sherifian family, whose claims to the spiritual leadership of Islam will be so transcendent as to be generally admitted, but whose weakness in material resources (money, ships, and guns) will at once make him acceptable to the Christian Powers, and purge Islam of the lunatic idea that it is a polity, bound temporally to a single infallible head. His ideal is a spiritual city, not a theocracy. To attain this aim he must have temporalities enough, free of foreign control, to establish his claim to political competence, and must be delivered from the hierarchical theories which have plunged Turkey, the Senussi and Ali Dinar into suicidal jehads. His temporalities he will hold as King of the Arab countries, and his spiritualities as Emir of Mecca.

My personal opinion is that the title of Emir el-Muminin would not be repugnant to him, if it came not as his assumption but as the homage of his followers. It is generally used by the tribes to-day from Kaf to Kunfida, and will apparently be acceptable to the Sheikhs of urban Syria. His present objection, that it involves the power of command in Islam, does not hold good, since it is as fair to interpret it only in a doctrinal sense.

As for the Khalifate, the sincere disgust he expressed of Abdul Hamid's bogus claims, and his only half-veiled acknowledgment of Shia tenets himself, made me certain that this opposition to the idea is a matter of principle. Further, I do not think that all the temptations of the world would persuade Sherif Hussein to run counter to his principles. His transparent honesty and strength of conviction (while they may prevent him distinguishing between his prejudices and his principles) will at all costs ensure his shaping his conduct exactly in accordance with his promised word. It would be easy to influence him in coming to a decision, but once his mind is made up it would be a thankless task to try and make him change it.

He appears to hope that, by ignoring the political disintegration of Islam, he may be able to concentrate attention on its dogmatic differences and do something to reduce the friction between sects. His appeal would be to moderate Sunni and moderate Shia to meet together under his presidency, and try to restrain the extremists in their camps.


Source: SD 115-119
Checked: mv/
Last revised: 9 July 2006

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