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Abdülhamid II

Engin Deniz Akarli
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Abdülhamid II

(1842–1918), thirty‐fourth Ottoman sultan (r. 1876–1909).

A profound political and economic crisis brought Abdülhamid II to the throne. Since 1839 the open‐door policy of the government, the commercial and legal privileges granted to European powers, and the westernizing reform attempts—the Tanzimat—had ruptured the Ottoman social fabric. Trade and budget deficits soared. Heavy government borrowing abroad and at home delayed the inevitable financial crisis, but in 1875 the Treasury declared insolvency. European creditors protested. Unrest mounted everywhere, fanning nationalist revolts among Christians in the Balkans and anti‐Tanzimat movements among Muslims. [See Tanzimat.]

The government in Istanbul lost control of events. Since the death of the last powerful Tanzimat minister Mehmed Emin Âli Pasha in 1871, senior statesmen had been engaged in a struggle to control the government. In 1876 a group of ministers led by Midhat Pasha provoked the armed forces to effect a coup d'état and deposed the reigning sultan Abdülaziz. His successor Murad V suffered a mental collapse and was deposed within three months. On 31 August 1876, Abdülhamid II succeeded him on the throne.

Meanwhile, nationalist uprisings in the Balkans turned into bloody ethnic and religious confrontations. The European powers put pressure on the Ottoman government to grant autonomy to the Christian population. Midhat responded by promulgating a constitution (23 December 1876) that assured basic civil liberties, including the equality of all subjects before law, and provided for a parliament.

Forestalling foreign intervention was only one objective of the constitution, and in this it failed. A disastrous war with Russia nearly brought the end of the Ottoman state in 1877. In a series of difficult negotiations that lasted until 1882, the Ottomans surrendered large tracts of territory not only to the Balkan states and Russia but also to other major powers.

The constitution was also intended as a solution to the crisis of authority afflicting the Ottoman state. As such, it reflected a consensus among the Ottoman political elite. The constitution set certain limits on executive authority but left the sultan with great powers vis‐à‐vis both the cabinet and the parliament. Indeed, Abdülhamid dismissed and exiled Midhat in February 1877 and suspended the parliament in February 1878 on the basis of his constitutional prerogatives. He did not meet any opposition, for the most influential Ottoman elite viewed him as a sensible sovereign capable of providing the leadership necessary to deal with the grave problems facing the government. In 1878 he began to establish an authoritarian regime that eventually breached the spirit of the constitution and brought his downfall.

In the meantime, however, his reign saw respectable accomplishments in the construction of highways, waterways, railroads, the telegraph, and other infrastructural public works. Judicial and public security services improved and expanded significantly. Institutions were formed to supply credit and technical advice to agricultural producers. General public education and literacy improved. Many specialized schools were established and the old ones expanded with the specific purpose of training a corps of technical government personnel and better public administrators and jurists.

Abdülhamid made an effort to concentrate government investments and reforms in the predominantly Muslim parts of the empire. He emphasized Islam as a basis of internal social and political solidarity. Pan‐Islamists such as Jamāl al‐Dīn al‐Afghānī viewed him as the symbol or focus of Islamic solidarity [see Pan‐Islam and the biography of Afghānī]. Recent territorial losses and the immigration of large numbers of Muslims from the Balkans and Russia had rendered the Ottoman population overwhelmingly Muslim and had raised religious sentiments. Abdülhamid responded to this situation. He did not breach the principle of legal equality, because he believed in it, and he did not want to create pretexts for foreign intervention. He staunchly resisted, however, any attempt or pressure to obtain additional concessions and autonomy for the Christian population. He maintained that European protection had already put the Christians in an unduly advantageous position over the Muslims, who were in his mind the truly loyal subjects of the Ottoman state.

Abdülhamid's resistance to intervention in favor of Christians, particularly in eastern Anatolia and Macedonia, remained a sensitive issue in the government's relations with European powers. In this and other international problems, Abdülhamid tried to hold his ground by taking advantage of the rivalries among the powers and by resorting to delaying tactics. He hoped to gain time until the Ottoman government attained a stronger position to defend its interests, relying on a better‐educated and unified population and a more prosperous economy.

His hopes were in vain. The state of Ottoman finances was a major problem: around thirty percent of the government revenue went directly into the coffers of the foreign‐controlled Public Debt Administration, and an additional forty percent was devoured by military expenditures. Given the consequent dearth of funds, the government awarded many of the planned projects and important mines to European concerns as monopolistic concessions. To a certain extent, Abdülhamid was able to use European vested interests to perpetuate his own policies; but the commercial and legal capitulations enjoyed by the European powers, backed by threats of force, left him with little room to maneuver.

The Ottoman regime looked increasingly helpless in defending local interests at a time when limited but real achievements aroused expectations, and nationalistic sentiments therefore gained momentum even among Muslims, undermining Abdülhamid's appeal to Islamic solidarity. There also developed a Muslim religious opposition to the sultan, not least because of his emphasis on modern secular schools at the expense of traditional religious ones. It was, however, among the graduates of the modern schools that the most formidable opposition to Abdülhamid's regime took form. Demanding a more institutionalized and participatory regime, a large group of Ottoman officials, officers, and intellectuals organized the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the indigenous organization of the Young Turks [see Young Turks].

In 1908 sporadic mutinies broke out among the army corps in Rumelia and Macedonia and rapidly evolved into a popular movement that forced Abdülhamid to call for elections and to agree to serve as a parliamentary‐constitutionalist monarch. Supporters of the CUP won the majority in the parliament. But as the parliament and the cabinet became bogged down in a struggle over their respective rights, and as the separatist movements in the Balkans intensified, the political situation remained tense. On 13 April 1909, a popular revolt broke out in Istanbul, led by certain religious groups and army units alienated by the CUP. An army of loyal units and volunteers rushed to Istanbul to crush the rebellion. Abdülhamid was falsely accused of having instigated the rebellion and was dethroned on 27 April. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, until his death on 10 February 1918.

See also Ottoman Empire.


There are numerous books on Abdülhamid II and his reign; see the works listed in

  • A. H. Ongunsu, Abdülhamid II, in Islâm Ansiklopedisi, vol. 1, pp. 76–80 (Istanbul, 1940)
  • , and
  • J. Deny, ῾Abd al‐Ḥamīd, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 1, pp. 63–65 (Leiden, 1960–). Most of these works are based on Western sources and nationalistic accounts. Research on the vast collection of contemporary Ottoman documents has just begun, but it is already evident that this new source of information will significantly revise our perceptions of Sultan Abdülhamid II.
  • For examples of recent works that make use of contemporary Ottoman documents, see
  • Stanford J. Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw, The History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, vol. 2, Reform, Revolution, and Republic: The Rise of Modern Turkey, 1808–1975, pp. 172–272 (Cambridge, London, and New York 1977);
  • William Ochsenwald, The Hijaz Railroad (Charlottesville, Va., 1980);
  • Donald Quataert, Social Disintegration and Popular Resistance in the Ottoman Empire, 1881–1909 (New York, 1983);
  • Kemal Karpat, Ottoman Population, 1830–1914 (Madison, Wis., 1985);
  • and articles by
  • Donald Quataert, Selim Deringil, Engin Deniz Akarli, and Butrus Abu‐Manneh, in the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and other journals.
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