The European Context

2. The European Context

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: 2. The European Context

Author: Uthman Ibrahim-Morrison

Publication date: 08/09/2012

Civilisation and Society I: Politics of Power

2. The European Context - Sat. 8th Sept. 2012

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation & Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the second of 12 sessions which make up the Politics of Power module. The entire session will last approximately 1 hour and comprise a lecture of around 40 minutes followed by a 5 minute interval and ending with a short question & answer period. You are encouraged to make a written note of any questions that may occur to you, in the interests of clarity and ease of delivery. 

The purpose of this session is to paint a broad picture, with additional detail where required, of the geographical, historical, philosophical and political context out of which the French Revolution emerged and into which it spilled over. However, before proceeding we should remind ourselves briefly at this point as to why this is relevant and why a proper understanding of these matters is necessary. Referring back to the mabadi (the 10 point introductory framework we looked at last week), the principal fruit or result of this study is, “the recovery of historical memory and knowledge of precedents which are the foundation for awareness and understanding of the current political, economic and philosophical climate, avoiding the repetition of errors and making well informed predictions.” It is in order to grasp firmly how the events surrounding the French Revolution have given shape to the world we inhabit - East and West alike - so that we can recover the ‘baby’ of Madinan civic order and social justice from the cloudy ‘bathwater’ of modern democracy and human rights - themselves the direct legacy of the atheistic cry for liberté, fraternité, égalité and the universal rights of man.

What do we mean by Europe?

Aside from any arguments over whether or not what amounts to a diminishing peninsula sitting at the western extreme of an unbroken Asian land mass has any genuine claim to be regarded as a continent in its own right, the idea of Europe as extending from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains, has been in vogue since the 1830’s. Given the lack of a common overarching federal or other political structure to delineate its constituent parts, greater emphasis has always been placed on the description of Europe in terms of culture and civilisation rather than geography. As we will see below, the Christian component of this definition has historically been paramount. Indeed, even to the present day with the priority on increasing the membership of a European Union that is edging closer and closer, many observers would say, towards some kind of federalism or, specifically towards greater fiscal, budgetary and monetary union driven by the imperatives of the current international banking crisis, the lack of a Christian ‘identity card’ has appeared to thwart Ankara’s longstanding and persistent efforts to be allowed to embark on the accession process with any real hope of acceptance. 

Coming back to the question of geography, there is general clarity about Europe being bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the west by the Atlantic, to the south by the Mediterranean, and by the Black Sea and connected waterways to the southeast. However, it has been the case for centuries that the main obstacle to a clear definition has been directly eastwards and whether or not, or how much of Russia, is to be included in Europe, or indeed, the extent to which Russia herself over the centuries has or has not wished to be included. Although less consequential with respect to physical geography than Russia, we are reminded that our own position here in the UK is not exactly without ambivalence:

“Some commentators have insisted that that Britain’s European credentials are no less ambiguous than Russia’s. From the Norman Conquest to the Hundred Years War, the Kingdom of England was deeply embroiled in Continental affairs. But for most of modern history the English sought their fortunes elsewhere. Having subdued and absorbed their neighbours in the British Isles, they sailed away to create an empire overseas. Like the Russians, they were definitely Europeans, but with prime extra-European interests. They were, in fact, semi-detached. Their habit of looking on ‘the Continent’ as if from a great distance did not start to wane until their empire disappeared.” [Europe ND p. 13]

Those of you who have managed to complete last week’s recommended reading will have gained a fair idea of the complexities involved in these questions. We can conclude for our current purposes by taking the so called ‘common definitions’ which places the eastern border along the Ural Mountains, Ural River and Caspian Sea. For an instant picture of both the physical and political area you may refer to maps number 4 and 29 printed in Davies, pages 48 and 1130 respectively (attached).

It is certainly the case in the ‘West’ (by which we principally mean Europe and N. America) that our perception of ‘Europe’ as a geographical and/or cultural entity, is inseparable from the underpinnings supplied by the history of what used to be known as ‘Christendom’. In fact, it would not be going too far to say, more or less, that the concept of Europe is the modern replacement for the  medieval concept of Christendom. The modernising element of the transition, which took place over an extended period of religious conflicts from the 1300’s to the 1700’s, was introduced by the intellectual developments of the Enlightenment, which having finally gained the ascendancy in the battle between religion and superstition on the one hand, and the ‘light of human reason’ on the other, felt the need to replace the name ‘Christendom’ with something reflecting the more humanistic values of neutrality and objectivity - hence Europe. 

However, the fact that ancient Greek mythology (the legend of the abduction of Princess Europa) was the preferred point of reference for the choice of name, after centuries of divisive and unseemly sectarian conflicts, suggests not so much a genuine objectivity or neutrality but rather the continuity of the influence of the Renaissance preoccupation with a transcendent golden age of pre-Christian civilisation as the proud and distant wellspring of a common ‘European’ identity, and the true standard against which all achievements of human culture should be measured. 

The last official public reference to the Respublica Christiana (Christian Commonwealth) as a formula for Europe was made in the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 which effectively brought to an end the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The signatories included Spain, France, Britain, Italy (Savoy), the  Low Countries and Portugal, and established the principle of the balance of power amongst European nations. Four decades later, Voltaire (1694-1778) describes Europe in the following way:

“… a kind of great republic divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed… but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if divided into several confessions. They all have the same principle of public law and politics, unknown in other parts of the world.” [Quoted in Europe ND p. 7]

Two decades after this Rousseau (1712-1778) wrote:

“There are no longer Frenchmen, Germans, and Spaniards, or even English, but only Europeans.” [ibid. p. 8]

Let us now turn to the long and drawn out period of religious wars and ideological ferment that led up to the Enlightenment and the birth of many of the intellectual attitudes and political philosophies that would set the tone for the revolutionary turbulence in Europe and the North American colonies. Much of the religious conflict in Europe was the result, directly or indirectly, of upheavals arising out of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (1517- mid 1600’s or 1667 if we include the contests in the East between Russia, Poland and Sweden). A detailed analysis of the bewildering, multi-layered range of dynastic, geo-political, doctrinal, commercial, ideological and ethnic ingredients which fuelled such a long and militarily destructive period of contention is certainly beyond the scope of today’s lecture. However, the following brief survey of the key major conflicts should suffice as a basis for further research:

1. German Peasants' War (1524-1526): Confined to Germanic central Europe; with complex underlying social and economic causes intensified by inflammatory Lutheran ideas.


2. Battle of Kappel (1531): Restricted to fighting between Protestant and Catholic cantons of Switzerland.

3. Schmalkaldic Wars (1531-1548): Within the Holy Roman Empire; triggered by Protestant fear of Catholic supremacy.

4. Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648): Confined to the Low Countries; Dutch discontent with (Catholic) Habsburg rule intensified by the spread of reformist Protestantism in a number of the provinces.

5. French Wars of Religion (1562-1598): A series of wars and rebellions confined to France; dynastic factionalism imposed over conflict between Catholics and Huguenots.

6. Swedish Civil War (1598-1604): Involving Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, Estonia, Finland; dynastic competition aggravated by Protestant fear of Catholic ascendancy.

7. Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648): Trans-European - spread over the Holy Roman Empire, Habsburg Austria and Bohemia, France, Denmark and Sweden; major Catholic-Protestant clash interwoven with highly complex political rivalries and strategic manoeuvrings.

8. Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651):  Civil wars involving England, Scotland and Ireland; various religious conflicts, constitutional tensions (Crown and Parliament), desire for conquest (unitary state). Although the situation in the British Isles reflects its own share of the travails which define this period of Europe’s historical development as a whole, it is clearly set apart somewhat from the geopolitical consequences of the hostilities playing out on the mainland. Davies puts it succinctly:

“In some ways the British Civil Wars were symptomatic of strains which surrounded the growth of a modern state in numerous European countries. But they did not inspire any Continental emulators, and must be judged a tragedy of essentially regional significance.” [Europe ND p. 553]

Writing in 1957, C.V. Wedgwood, one of the outstanding historians of the Thirty Years’ War, observes:

“Almost all [the combatants] were actuated by fear rather than by lust of conquest or passion of faith. They wanted peace and they fought for thirty years to be sure of it. They did not learn then, and have not learned since, that war only breeds war.” [Quoted in Europe ND p.563]

The aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War, which was ended by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, leaves little doubt as to the most salient reasons why many turned away from the notion of ‘Christendom’ and preferred to speak of ‘Europe’ instead. Davies draws a grim picture of the situation in the years following 1648:

“Germany lay desolate. The population had fallen from 21 million to perhaps 13 million. Between a third and a half of the people were dead. Whole cities, like Magdeburg, stood in ruins. Whole districts lay stripped of their inhabitants, their livestock, their supplies. Trade had virtually ceased. A whole generation of pillage, famine disease, and social disruption had wreaked such havoc that in the end the princes were forced to reinstate serfdom, to curtail municipal liberties, and to nullify the progress of a century. The manly exploits of Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Croat, Flemish, and French soldiers had changed the racial composition of the people…

… Germany was not alone in its misery. Spain was struggling with the revolts of Portugal and Catalonia, whilst still at war with France. England was in the after-shock of [the] Civil War. France was rocked by the Fronde. Poland-Lithuania was torn apart by the Cossack revolt, the Swedish ‘Deluge’, and the Russian wars. This concentration of catastrophes has led to the supposition of a general ‘seventeenth-century crisis’. Those who believe in the existence of an all-European feudal system tend to argue in favour of an all-European socio-political revolution caused by the growing pains of an all-European capitalism. Some argue in contrast in favour of ‘a crisis of the modern state’, where the peripheries reacted violently against the rising demands of the centre. Others suspect that it may all have been a coincidence.” [Europe ND pp.568-9]

It is perhaps also useful to consider here the observations made by the Muslim political writer and commentator, Dr Ian Dallas writing in 2010, which while it confirms the picture of chaos and destruction, brings to our attention by contrast, the relative political coherence of the English ‘model’, and the gathering momentum of the Dutch banking-commerce nexus:

By mid-seventeenth century the Reformation had established itself but not yet allied itself to state structures in the English Henrician [sic] style. It now functioned within the vast fragmented countries of the Hapsburg ruled ‘Holy Roman Empire’. It was none of these ready to break up amid conflicting energies, religious, dynastic and most importantly, mercantile. It was a continental upheaval that began pitting catholic states against protestant principalities but ended up with a French Cardinal fighting alongside the reformers against Hapsburg Austria while the financial force of the Netherlands broke free. By its end in 1648 it had claimed eight million lives.” [The Interim is Mine p.140]

The Age of Reason

I happened to be relaxing early this morning, only half-listening to BBC Radio 4 and quietly contemplating the prospect of this afternoon’s lecture, when my attention was suddenly caught by the words, “… not knowing your history is like being a leaf that doesn’t even know it’s on a tree.” I’m not sure who the speaker was, but I thought it worth sharing my impression of this comparison with you today, as I was immediately struck by the focus on the leaves as opposed to the roots, which is the ‘old chestnut’ - if you’ll excuse the pun - that we automatically expect from tree analogies relating to history. My point is, therefore, that rather than just letting it pass, I found myself reflecting not, as usual, on the great network of solid roots hidden underground which we take to correspond with the ‘storehouse’ of history, but rather, on the countless exposed, vulnerable and short-lived leaves, which in the special clarity of mind unique to the early morning, I pictured as the countless millions of human individuals carried on the conveyor belt of progress from future to present and on into their own isolated pasts, without even knowing they are leaves.


It would not be possible to do justice to the task of contextualising the French Revolution without examining the period of the Enlightenment (c.1650-1789) which essentially produced it and immediately preceded it. The following call to rationalism is as good a contemporary thrust into the foundations of the Enlightenment as any I have recently read:

“There cannot be a clearer mark of the progress of liberty of thought than the contrast between the world views of science and religion, nor of the hard-won nature of that progress than the struggle to liberate the former from the latter. Liberty of thought is the essence of enquiry, and free enquiry produces a conception of the universe totally different from any that thinks the world was created as a theatre for the moral and spiritual destiny of humankind by anthropocentric gods. The story of the rise of science is also the story of the struggle by religious orthodoxy to retain control over how the universe is to be seen, and where the limits of legitimate enquiry lie. To make science possible, religion’s claim to hegemony over the mind had to be broken.” [Towards the Light. A.C. Grayling, p. 59]

And further:

“Recognising the aspiration to that change of authority [from religion to science] is the key to understanding the Enlightenment, informed in its very essence by the idea that the spirit of science should be extended into all domains… That was what the Enlightenment was: an enlargement of the scientific approach - to put it at its most general: the empirically controlled, responsible, non-dogmatic exercise of reason - to wider domains of concern… major examples of its consequences, to speak again in general terms, are all the revolutions of the eighteenth century.” [ibid. pp. 103-4]

Proceeding out of the Renaissance, which roughly takes place between the 13th and 17th centuries, the early modern period from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th century marks the rolling out of the scientific revolution, and is the platform from which the Enlightenment takes its launch. There is little need to go into detail here as the familiar names and achievements of the thinkers and philosophers who define these overlapping phases have become iconic. Beginning with Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who represents the bridge from the Renaissance, there follows the likes of: Galileo Galilei (1564-1642); Johannes Kepler (1571-1630);  René Descartes (1596-1650); Isaac Newton (1642-1727); Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716; Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

The equally familiar roll-call of the leading Enlightenment thinkers or philosophes, as they were known, includes:  Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677); Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679); John Locke (1632-1704); Voltaire (1694-1778); Denis Diderot (1713-1784); Jean-Jaques Rousseau (1712-1778); and Charles-Louis de Montesquieu (1689-1755). As is clear from many of these names, the salons of France were a pivotal creative centre of the phenomenon. The Enlightenment is usually cast in political and ideological opposition to the absolutist monarchism of the times, particularly in its manifestation in the form of the Divine Right of Kings. No figure of the period embodied this reality more decisively or more flamboyantly, than the so called ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the response of the philosophes is particularly energetic.

By way of comparison the situation in the British Isles is set in the context of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms referred to earlier (which include the English Civil War 1642-1651). It is interesting to note the novel way in which the limitations on the power of the monarchy was eventually achieved. In Ireland the solution was a bloody conquest at the hands of the Dutch Prince ‘King Billy’ (William of Orange r. 1650-1702) and his ‘Orangemen’ at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). In Scotland the matter was settled at Glencoe (1692) with the traitorous massacre of the Clan Macdonald by the Campbells. In England meanwhile, the so called ‘Glorious Revolution’ with the Declaration of the Bill of Rights 1688-89 set the seal on an easy and convenient introduction to the era of constitutional monarchy:

“The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9, therefore, was not specially glorious nor revolutionary. It set out to save the political and religious Establishment from James’s radical proposals; and it was brought to fruition through the only successful invasion of England since 1066. Yet in subsequent generations it would spawn a powerful myth. It lay at the root of a constitutional doctrine which came to be known as ‘the English ideology’, and which postulates the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. This doctrine holds that [absolute despotic power]… had been transferred from the monarch to the elected Parliament. In theory at least, it gives Parliament the power to rule with all the lofty authoritarianism that was previously enjoyed by England’s kings.” [Europe ND p. 631]

Events in England from the 1630’s to the 1690’s, combined with the writings of the political theorists Thomas Hobbes and John Locke make a key contribution to political developments in Europe and the Western world in general, since although the practical outcomes in England differ essentially from the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, as it was to develop in most of Europe and North America, the political writings that these processes generated can be said to have been instrumental, for better or for worse, in opening the way to the American, French and (at least initially) the Russian revolutions - as well as the development of representative liberal democracy as we now know it across the world.

Industrialisation and Modernisation

The final matter that is worth looking at with respect to the European context concerns the questions of industrialisation and modernisation. However, as our approach at this stage of the programme is essentially descriptive rather than analytical, I will include it as part of this week’s recommended reading and look forward to returning to these questions later on in the course.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. For further reading I would recommend Europe - A History by Norman Davies pp. 764-68. The subject of our next lecture is The French Revolution I. For preparatory reading I would recommend Davies pp. 693-715. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.

Bibliographical References

Dallas, Ian (Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi). The Interim is Mine. Cape Town: Budgate Press, 2010

Davies, Norman. Europe - A History. London: Pimlico, 1996

Grayling, A.C. Towards The Light of Liberty. Walker & Company, 2007

Wedgwood, C.V. The Thirty Years War. NYRB Classics, 2005

Interesting Viewing

La Reine Margot ( Adult film: Jury Prize, Cannes 1994)

Based on the 1845 historical novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas, (father). A vivid depiction of late 16th century conflict between Catholics and Protestant Huguenots over political control of France, including the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572.