The Pope and the Caliph

SINCE Turkey has become a republic and the Caliph has been deprived in it of all political power, the Mohammedan world, with its two hundred million believers spread all over our globe, is passing through a crisis not unlike the one which arose in Roman Catholic countries and consciences when the sovereign Pope of Rome was suddenly reduced to the status of ‘the prisoner of the Vatican,’ Rome having been taken and occupied by the troops of the King of Italy.

From a diplomatic and international point of view, both series of events are highly interesting and are of present importance, and as the precedent of the Pope has been recently mentioned in connection with the question of the Caliph, it may be seasonable to examine briefly in what the two cases are similar and in what they differ.



As the Turkish Nationalists of today so did the Nationalist Italian Government of fifty years ago strive for the national unity of Italy and for her final independence of foreign supremacy and intervention. With admirable military perseverance and with extraordinary diplomatic ability, Italian revolutionaries and statesmen, led by Garibaldi and Cavour, fought and negotiated till at last Italy ceased to be a mere ‘geographical expression’ and became, in 1871, an ethnographically and nationally unified kingdom, with Rome for its capital.

But in Rome the royal Government had to confront a Power higher and older and mightier than even that of the united Italian nation — the power and authority of the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic world.

The Italian Government, being itself Roman Catholic, had neither the intention nor the wish to suppress that Power, nor to question its religious authority, and was, besides, bound to abstain from doing so in view of those other numerous and influential lands and peoples for whom the Pope remained the supreme unifying principle of their religion and arbiter of their conscience. Consequently, having extended the territorial sovereignty of Italy to all the former Pontifical ‘ States of the Church ‘ and to the city of Rome, the royal Government proceeded without delay to plan a compromise, reconciling the political requirements of the Italian State with the essential needs of the Church. That difficult attempt took the form of the wellknown Italian ‘Law of guaranties’ of 1871. This law decrees that ‘ the person of the Supreme Pontiff is sacred and inviolable’; it recognizes his rights and privileges as a sovereign; allots for his maintenance and that of the cardinals and others, yearly, 3,250,000 lire; and declares that the jurisdiction of the State does not extend to the Vatican or certain other palaces and domains reserved for his use. Thus the territorial unity of the Italian Kingdom was achieved and the temporal power of the Pope taken from him except in a few restricted localities excluded from the jurisdiction of the Italian state; but at the same time the Pope was allowed to retain personally his sovereign rights and privileges, such as having an armed guard and receiving and sending diplomatic representatives. A satisfactory civil list at the expense of the Italian State was even allotted to his Court. In this way the Government, which was considered by the Church as irreligious and revolutionary, tried to put in practice its new doctrine of ‘a free Church in a free State.’

If, however, the royal Government thought that the Holy See would accept at once and on principle this unilateral Act regulating the status of the Pope it was greatly mistaken. Pius IX opposed to it his categorical non possumus, excommunicated the King, and shut himself up in the Vatican as a prisoner, with his own sentinels stationed inside its gates and royal sentinels outside. If the Pope were to drive out of the gates, the royal sentinel would present arms to him as to a sovereign, and it is precisely to avoid these damaging honors that the Pope has as yet never left the Vatican; for by accepting them he would have recognized the legality of the royal army’s presence in a city which he still considers as his own.

Pope Leo XIII, who had been nuncio in Brussels, and a very active archbishop in Perugia, suffered greatly — as I saw — from this seclusion, especially in the hot summer months, but he left the Vatican only when he was carried to his burial place.

This seclusion of the Pope in the Vatican became thus a matter of principle. And as I have personally observed, the Holy See never makes and never can make concessions in a matter of doctrine or of principle. In negotiating with the Pontifical Government, the method needed is exactly the opposite of that employed in a mathematical demonstration: in the latter you state a principle and arrive at the desired conclusion by a series of logical propositions; in a diplomatic negotiation with Rome you must treat only of the practical point in question, but never appeal to or mention a principle. In matters of expediency the Holy See is most amenable and conciliatory, but no point of principle can even be discussed. Rather than make a concession of this kind the Holy See prefers to suffer and wait, knowing that the Church can afford to be patient, being eternal — patiens quia ceterna.

This is the psychological reason why fifty and more years have not sufficed to bring the Pope to accept the Law of Guaranties and the loss of his temporal States. The political reason is the following one, as enunciated by Leo XIII himself in a pastoral letter of 1860, before his elevation to the Pontifical throne: Temporal power is necessary to the Pope because it assures his spiritual independence and makes all the faithful of the world trust that his decisions ‘proceed freely from his lips and are neither dictated by anybody’s influence nor forced by anybody’s violence.’

Time, practice, and the loyal statesmanship of the royal Government have done much to dispel the fears, which were theoretically well founded. All the Pontifical elections held in Rome since its occupation have been perfectly free, as have been all oral and printed utterances of the Popes, even on temporal and political questions such as Labor, Christian Socialism, and even the Great War. Nor has any hindrance been placed on the diplomatic relations of the Holy See with all the nations of the world.

In one respect only has the Italian Government been intractable. I duly delivered to the Pope the Tsar’s invitation to the First Hague Peace Conference of 1899. But when the Italian Cabinet declared that if the Pope was represented at that Conference it would refuse to take part in it, — and consequently wreck that admirable worldundertaking, — the Pope had to abstain. The same happened with the Second Hague Conference of 1907. For the Law of Guaranties remained still unaccepted by the Pope; the Emperor of Russia still addressed him officially as Pape souverain, — Sovereign Pope, — and politically the Pope would have had at the Conference the same status as the King of Italy — which the latter would not admit.

Nevertheless, the Pontifical non possumus — we cannot — changed gradually to non opportet, — it is inexpedient, — and now Italian Roman Catholics are allowed by their spiritual leaders to take part in parliamentary elections, and have formed an important party in the Parliament of United Italy. If this party comes to an agreement with Signor Mussolini’s Fascisti, a new era of productive legislation and economic progress may begin in Italy, thanks to the method of conciliation followed both by the Holy See and by the Royal Italian Government.


While the Italian Law of Guaranties dates from 1871, the Turkish law separating Church and State, suppressing the Sultanate and depriving the Caliph of all political powers, dates only from November 1, 1922. And the Republic was proclaimed in Turkey even a year later. Thus we are witnessing in the Mohammedan world the beginning of a crisis, the counterpart of which among Roman Catholics has already matured and seems about to reach a peaceful and satisfactory end.

The diplomatic side of both events is much the same: foreign Powers abstain from meddling with them, although in Turkey the crisis took place during the Allied occupation of Constantinople, and the Republic was proclaimed immediately after the evacuation. No one had hindered the Young Turks in 1908 from experimenting with a constitutional monarchy, nor has any foreign Power objected now to Nationalist Turkey becoming a republic. Besides, no foreign Government has been appealed to by any Islamic faction; and after the last Sultan-Caliph, Mehmed VI, had fled abroad, his heir apparent, Abdul Medjid, was freely elected to the Caliphate under the new law, which he officially accepted.

The present difficulty for Turkey arises not from any foreign official opposition nor from the Caliph himself, but from Islamic opinion, which is as yet divided upon the fundamental question whether the present Caliph’s deprivation of all political rights and power can be countenanced by the Mohammedan religion.

The situation is complicated by a generous admixture of habitual Turkish personal rivalries and intrigues, of old national rivalries as between Turks and Arabs, and by the suspicion that — in the question of the Caliphate — obscure British influences are at work in connection with the attitude toward that question of various groups of the Moslems of India. There, as in Turkey, the Conservative Mohammedans disapprove of the separation of Church and State, and the Progressive groups enthusiastically welcome it, as has done lately the Indian Caliphate Committee. Others think that ‘if Islam is to maintain its place in the world as a great moral force, the Caliph’s position and dignity should not, in any event, be less than that of the Pontiff of the Church of Rome.’1 And others again, also hailing from India, think that the ‘ Vaticanization ‘ of the Commander of the Faithful would be repugnant to Moslem sentiment. These even suggest that Mustapha Kemal Pasha should ‘assume the Caliphate as President of the Turkish Republic.’

For a non-Moslem it is not easy to account for these differences and for the insistence with which Mustapha Kemal Pasha and his adherents pursue the policy of separation. There is, however, one imperative reason for this policy, as far as I can understand after long years of diplomatic, social, and administrative acquaintance with Mohammedan life.

As long as Turkey remained a theocracy, the Sultan-Caliph was unable to enact or sanction any law which could be suspected of Islamic unorthodoxy. And here lies the fundamental reason for the unsuccess of the reforms introduced by several sultans in their Empire in the nineteenth century. For the Coranic law or ‘Shariyyet’ is a labyrinthic mediaeval fabric, hardly at all adaptable to the requirements of a twentieth-century State.

But since Turkey has become a republic and the totality of the sovereign rights in it are vested in the nation and its representatives, the Turkish Grand National Assembly, this source of legislative and administrative power is freed from all those obligations which are incumbent on a Caliph. It can, consequently, leave the latter to care for all that regards religion, and occupy itself in entire liberty with the political, civil, and economic interests of the country, if necessary, following Western examples without fear, and searching only for what is the most practical and useful.

When one remembers how impossible it has been found to reform the Shariyyet, one can but rejoice at this way out of a seemingly insuperable difficulty.

This is a new departure in the inner life of Islam, and a courageous attempt to enable Islamic peoples to join in full and on equal terms in the political, civil, and economic progress of modern mankind.

  1. See the letter of Aga Khan and Ameer Ali to Ismet Pasha, Prime Minister of Turkey, printed in the Loudon Times December 14, 1923.