Two great anniversaries of the European world, particularly the English speaking world, occurred in June. It witnessed the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo when Ali Bonaparte was defeated for the last time, and the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, after King John had failed in his mission to the Emir of Morocco. Events in the Muslim world were associated with each of these events.
Engaged in a struggle with his barons, demanding increased feudal obligations to pay for his war with France, King John in 1213, actually “granted and freely surrendered to God and his Apostles Peter and Paul, to the Holy Mother Church of Rome, and to Pope Innocent and his successors, the whole realm of England.” This surrender of England to the Pope earned the wrath of the barons and brought no material assistance to King John.
Determined to get free from this vassalage to the Pope and to get help for his struggle, King John decided to seek the support of the powerful Emir of Morocco. He sent a delegation of three envoys to Morocco, one of whom informed Mathew of Paris, a mediaeval historian, of his experience. Mathew was a courtier and a friend of King John’s son, Henry III. The delegation met with Mohammed al-Nassir, Emir of Morocco to when they pledged on behalf of their king that the realm of England would be held as tributary to Morocco. King John promised he would “abandon the Christian faith, which he considered false, and would faithfully adhere to the law of Mohammed.”
King John’s Offer Rejected
After discussions in depth with the delegation, the Emir rejected the king’s proposal and dismissed the envoys, telling them to never let him set eyes on them again. “for the infamy of that foolish apostate, your master, breathes forth a most foul stench to my nostrils.” The barons heard about this treachery of the king and it strengthened them in their determination to bring him to heel. Having lost all hope of outside help, King John had to at least appear to submit.
Meeting at Runnymede 15 June 1215, the barons forced the king to append his seal to Magna Carta, which established a council of barons to supervise its implementation. “The thirty-ninth by sequence …declares that “[no] free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way… except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land”; the fortieth, “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.””[Inside Story. 5 June 2015]
This was the beginning of constitutional monarchy, for it constrained the power of the executive. No-one was above the law, not even the sovereign.
Although he had solemnly agreed not to seek to have the charter overturned by any outside authority, he appealed against it to the Pope, who immediately declared it null and void. By this time the Barons’ War was underway. Despite this betrayal, the Magna Carta went through several versions, the one we now rely upon being that of 1225. It has never been forgotten, unlike King John and his Moroccan delegation.
Occupation of Egypt 1798-99
The self-declared Emperor Napoleon, who betrayed the egalitarian French Revolution with his Bonapartist monarchy, was finally defeated at Waterloo on 18 June 1815. He descended in force upon the Muslim world with the invasion and occupation of Egypt in1798, when egalitarian republicanism was still strong in French thought. He overthrew the Mamluk Beys in Egypt, claiming to establish an Islamic regime that paid homage to the “Empire of the Sultan” and the egalitarian laws of “the Prophet and his holy Quran.” His July proclamation to the Egyptians granted toleration to all religions, accepted Islamic beliefs and practices and dubbed republican Frenchmen “the friends of the true mussulmen.”
This created certainty in conservative Britain, engaged in war with revolutionary France, that “Jacobin” (left-wing) republicanism was founded on Islamic principles.” The fact that the French had marched on Rome and overthrew the Throne of the Pope, who had stirred up the Christians against the Muslims, and that they had rid Malta of its Christian defenders, demonstrated that they were true friends of the Ottoman sultans, the enemy of Christendom. In fact, Bonaparte claimed to the Egyptians that his Italian campaign and attack on Malta had been waged on behalf of the Sultan and the Muslim faith against the corrupt forces of the Pope and Christian “unbelievers.” This fell through when Sultan Selim declared war on France. Then Bonaparte adopted the guise of the Mahdi, come to bring back Islamic justice.
“Casting himself as a Muslim convert, Bonaparte adopted the name of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, to appease the elite Egyptian clerics and quell any revolts among Cairo residents who resented foreign occupation under Christian infidels. Supposedly the French came as deist liberators rather than colonizing crusaders.” (Garcia 138) He even tried converting the French army to Islam legally without undergoing the Muslim practice of circumcision and imposing the wine drinking prohibition. This was of course rejected by Al Azhar.
The Ottoman and British military forces eventually forced out the French in 1801, but Bonaparte had already fled to Paris, where he staged the 1799 coup which made him “First Consul for Life.” However he seems to have genuinely admired the Prophet and Islamic civilization. In his private memoir he wrote:
“Muhammad declared that there was only one God, who had neither father nor son and that the Trinity imported an idea from paganism…Muhammad was a prince; he rallied his compatriots around him. In a few years, his Muslims conquered half the world. He rescued more souls from false gods, overturned more idols, and pulled down more pagan temples in fifteen years than adherents of Moses and Jesus Christ had in fifteen centuries.” (Garcia 140)
What some of us find most appealing about this era is that the support given by the Jacobins for Islamic republicanism, drove the Tory conservatives to the point of hysteria. Bonaparte’s proclamation to the Egyptian people was translated into English and used by the British government to attack radical writers and deist freethinkers, trying to associate them with a French-Ottoman plot to destroy Christianity. The use of Islamophobia against political enemies is a long established Tory political ploy, still being used in Australia. The declaration of war by the Ottomans against France was said to be a cunning ploy to mislead European opinion. Egalitarian republicanism was treated “as a corrupt political theology imported from the Muslim world.” (Garcia 143)
Garcia, Humberto. Islam and the English Enlightenment 1670-1840. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore. 2012
Ronay, Gabriel. The Tarta Khan’s Englishman. Phoenix Press. London. 1978