After the Prophet (ﷺ) had passed away the Muslim world needed a leader, someone that could be a spiritual guide and a political leader, this is position is what is commonly referred to as the Caliph. Abū Bakr was the first Caliph, and then ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān and Imām ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib – they are commonly known as the Khulafā’ al-Rāshidūn (Rightly Guided Caliphs). The position of Caliph later became a hereditary position, first occupied by the Umayyads and then later the Abbasids. In 1517, the Ottoman family came into control and they ruled one of the largest and most powerful empires.
It is fair to say that some people that held the office of Caliph did not do it justice, unfortunately there are people in our history that lacked the moral vigour for such a position. For some the Caliphate was a ceremonial position, one that was often neglected and called upon when it suited them. During the Ottoman rule this continued, the Caliph was basically the Sulṭān, however, the ailing empire was single handedly revived by a man called Abdu’l-Ḥamīd. In 1876, Sulṭān Abdu’l-Ḥamīd took control and was determined to reverse the retreat of the Ottoman state, he felt the best way to do this was through the revival of Islam throughout the Muslim world. He was overthrown in 1909, and died in 1918 – but for many he is regarded as the last real Caliph to exert any power or control.
At a time when nationalism was rife in Europe, Abdu’l-Ḥamīd placed a great degree of significance on the Holy Sites – Makkah and Madīnah. This started with renovations of the sites themselves to prevent flooding, and then the routes for Ḥajj were looked at and hospitals and barracks were built along the routes for pilgrims. His flagship policy however was the Ḥijāz Railway. It would begin in Istanbul travelling through Syria, Palestine and much of the Arabian desert and end in Makkah. The aim was to better connect the Holy sites with Istanbul, and also make the pilgrimage easier. Experts state that a journey from Istanbul to Makkah would now take only 5 days. It was designed to strengthen the empire militarily and their control over the Arabian peninsula. Soldiers could reach the Holy Sanctuaries in no time if it were to come under attack. Such was his desire to protect these sites, that it was decided the railways themselves should be slightly narrower than the standard European ones. Why? If Istanbul were to ever fall to European imperialists, he wanted to make sure they could not use the Ḥijāz Railway with European trains to easily invade Makkah and Madīnah.
Sadly, the Ḥijāz rail network was never completed and it did not reach Makkah due to the outbreak of World War One. Nonetheless, it did reach Madīnah; a great deal of care was taken completing the final stages of the route to Madīnah, each hammer was covered with felt cloth to respect Prophet Muḥammad’s (ﷺ) soul. Similarly, to avoid excessive sound, the trains’ wheels were also covered with felt. When Madīnah finally fell to forces loyal to Ibn Sa’ūd many sacred relics such as the Prophet’s (ﷺ) rings were transported for safekeeping via the Ḥijāz Railway and currently reside in places like Topkapi Palace.
Parts of the route are still in use in Jordan, but many of the stations that had existed have been converted into libraries and museums. In Saudi, among the route you often may see parts of disintegrating carriages, and track – a sad metaphor as to what could have been. Rumours persist that the Saudi’s plan to revive it, but as of yet nothing has materialised.
And Allāh alone knows best.