Jihad and Islam in World War I

Studies on the Ottoman Jihad on the Centenary of Snouck Hurgronje's "Holy War Made in Germany"

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Erik-Jan Zürcher
Debates on Islam and Society
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    Leiden University Press
    , May
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jihad and Islam in World War I is a collection of essays from the Leiden University Center for the Study of Islam and Society’s 2014 annual conference. These essays are loosely centered on the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of jihad against the Allied Forces in November of 1914. The declaration had been strongly encouraged by the Germans, who had signed an alliance with the Ottoman Empire two months before. However, the response from the Empire’s provinces proved to be tepid, and the jihad was widely ignored by the Sunni Arab community. The declaration seems to have raised more furor amongst the small European Orientalist community compared to the communities of Ottoman subjects. In January of 1915, Dutch scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje published a manifesto, “Holy War Made in Germany,” in which he blasted the German academics who had fostered the proclamation of jihad. According to Hurgronje, their nationalism had overridden their academic integrity, and they were fostering a medieval form of religious fanaticism. The assertion raised by Hurgronje was controversial at the time, and remains so a century later. To what extent was Germany responsible for the Ottoman declaration of jihad?

This collection helps answer the question.  Despite Hurgronje’s polemic, these essays show that the Ottoman’s jihad was not “made in Germany”—although it was certainly encouraged by the Germans. German expectations regarding the declaration of jihad were not shared by the Ottomans, and this mismatch between German and Ottoman strategy is one of the highlights of essays by Mustafa Aksakal and Tilman Lüdke. As Aksakal observes, “Enver [the Ottoman Minister of War] was exploiting Wilhelm II’s one-dimensional understanding of Jihad. ‘Jihad’ was not the magic wand of the German emperor’s imagination” (63). Declarations of jihad by the Ottomans seem to have been more for the purposes of placating an ally than for actual military results. M. Şükrü Hanioğlu also adds to the conversation by discussing the declarations of jihad made by the Ottoman Empire, for there were various messages. Ottoman jihad declarations were worded differently to appeal to various groups within the Empire. Hanioğlu’s perspective complicates the question of whether these jihads succeeded. As he shows, the answer depends on which jihad is under discussion.  In his view, the jihad messages targeting the Shia living in southern Iraq could be considered the most successful.

Jihad and Islam in World War I provides good background for those wishing to understand the cultural context of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The essays are particularly strong in their discussions of the audiences for the messages of jihad and the means of their transmission. However, as a collection, these essays could have used a tighter focus, which is perhaps to be expected from a collection of papers originally presented at a conference. In terms of discussing the results of the jihads, the collection falls short by not situating the Ottoman Empire within the larger currents of the war. For instance, Erik-Jan Zürcher claims that the Ottoman Empire put up a superb defense, in no small part due to how the declaration of jihad motivated the individual soldier (23-24). Yet he fails to account for how poorly resourced Allied efforts were in the Middle East, a secondary theater. After Churchill’s disaster at Gallipoli, which was due more to the fault of the British than to the military genius of Mustafa Kemal, there was no political will for another large push against the Ottoman Empire.

Further, the authors do not develop some of the intriguing “what-ifs” that surrounded the Ottoman-German alliance that might have discouraged the declaration of jihad or the alliance itself. In July of 1914 it was not certain that the Ottomans would sign an alliance with Germany. The Ottoman Army had clear preferences for a treaty with the Germans, but until Winston Churchill’s decision to seize two Dreadnought-class vessels that were built by the British and purchased by the Ottomans, the Ottoman Navy had favored an alliance with the British. Even after the alliance, the Ottomans dragged their feet before finally launching any military action. Research into Minister of War Enver Pasha’s cabinet intrigues prior to World War I would supplement this collection by providing background that might also explain the rationale behind the declaration of jihad.

Future research in the Ottoman declaration of jihad could also benefit from a theoretical basis provided by studies of alliances in international relations theory. Stephen Walt’s The Origins of Alliances (Cornell University Press, 1987) and Glenn Snyder’s Alliance Politics (Cornell University Press, 1997) are foundational works that could be profitably applied to some of the remaining puzzles surrounding the Ottoman jihad. The Ottomans seemed to have had realistically low expectations for the jihad, so why declare it at all? It is hard to see what benefits the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph gained compared to the loss of face he suffered by launching a jihad to which (almost) nobody came. How the material benefits of the Ottoman-German alliance outweighed this immaterial loss of prestige within the Sultan’s own decision-making apparatus is an intriguing question raised by Jihad and Islam in World War I.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Captain Brandon Colas is an International Affairs instructor at the United States Military Academy (West Point).

Date of Review: 
August 2, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erik-Jan Zürcher is professor of Turkish studies at Leiden University.



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