Defining the West: Historical Development of the Concept of the West

The four cardinal directions, or cardinal points, are the directions north, east, south, and west. The basic definition of the West is that it is “where the sun sets.” However, the West, especially the western world as we know it today, is not limited to the geographical location but more to do with political, economic, and even religious adherence of a country to be called “West.” This is why defining an equation is easier than defining a city, state, country, or even a continent, but defining this otherwise seemingly simple cardinal direction is even harder. The world is essentially divided into half, creating an East and West dichotomy, but this line is not cut in the middle of the world map as we know it, which makes it very confus- ing and rather interesting too. This divide is also some- times referred to as Europe and Asia and also the Christian and Muslim world. To understand this, some historical background is needed.

There are many ideas behind the birth of the “West,” most often, it is suggested to be around the 5th century near the Aegean Sea. This is where the Persian imperialists of some 60,000 professional soldiers invaded Greece, who, by contrast, had only citizen-soldiers from 20 odd cities or states. Based on numbers alone, the Persian imperialists would be deemed victorious, but it was the Greek militia forces who won (1). This is when the Asia Minor born historian of Bodrum, (now modern Turkey) Herodotus, often referred to as the Greek historian, concluded that free men fight better than “slaves.” Herodotus divided the world into three parts; East was Asia, South was Libya, and the rest was Europe (2). This changed dramatically due to the rise of Islam in the 7th century, where the first battle had 313 Muslims fighting their oppressors of more than 1000 soldiers in 623 CE. After the death of the Holy Proph- et Muhammad (sa) in 632 CE within just 30 years, the Mus- lims defeated the Persian Empire, took hold of provinces of Rome in Byzantium, reached Central Asia and to India. In 661CE, the Umayyad dynasty went forth West into North Africa, and in 711, the dynasty sent across an army into Al-Andalus (Spain) by defeating the Romans. In 7 years, the Iberian Peninsula was under the Muslims and was not taken back by the Christians until the 15th century, nearly 800 years later.

The conquerors of Al-Andalus wanted to expand their rule further north but their attempts near Tours were unsuccessful, as in 732 CE, Charles Martel defeated them and put a halt to their attempts. This is when in a Latin Chronicle of 754 CE in Spain, the writer for the first time refers to the winners of Tours as “Europeanness” or Europeans, which was a term used to differentiate between the Christians and the Muslims.

Between the 11th and 17th centuries, the Crusaders, under the guidance of the Catholic Church, started a series of wars in Western Asia and Europe to spread Chris- tianity. In the 14th century, the Ottomans had spread their empire into many parts of Europe, which included Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, and Hungary. Hungary was repossessed by the Christian Holy League in the late 17th century, which lead the Ottomans to sign the treaty of Karlowitz. Greece became independent in the early 19th century and Bulgaria in the early 20th century.

In the 19th century, the Prussian Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, feared that neighboring nations, particularly France and Austria-Hungary, might destroy the growing state (3). Bismarck wanted to form an alliance, but France was not happy with the German state seizing one of its provinces. Britain, on the other hand, was not interested in forming any European alliances. Bismarck turned to Russia and Austria-Hungary to form a Three Emperors League. Russia withdrew from this alliance within five years, leading to a dual alliance of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The dual alliance became triple when Italy signed. Soon Bismarck was voted out of power, and the successor Wilhelm II’s aggressive policy of militarization led to an alarm in France, resulting in an agreement between Russia and France. Britain was also looking for alliances, which lead to the triple entente once it signed an alliance with Russia and France.

Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, which lead to a quadruple alliance with co-belligerents with some African and Eastern European nations.

France, Britain, Russia, Japan, Italy, and the United States formed their alliance with co-belligerents of Saudi, China, South America, and more; the tension was rising between the separate alliances leading to the First World War (4). The First World War was described as “the war to end all wars.” However, the 20th century marked an era of two World Wars (WWI and WWII): WWI was clearly not ‘the end’. WWII was the deadliest, involving 30 countries with more than 70 to 85 million fatalities. WWII started with Germany invading Poland. Britain and France declared war due to this and Russia later joined them due to Germany invading parts of their Soviet Union. Later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, an American naval base and also the Dutch and British military installations through- out Asia. “The main combatants were the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allies (France, Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and, to a lesser extent, China).” (5) WWII ended in 1945.

This led to a period called the Cold War between 1947 to 1991 with the Soviet Union and the United States and their respective allies of the Eastern and Western Bloc (6). The Eastern Bloc, also called the Communist, Socialist, or Soviet Bloc, was the group of Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Southeast Asia under the Soviet Union (USSR). The Western Bloc was formed of the capitalist countries that were under the United States and NATO, with Australia and New Zealand against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the world was divided into three again, this time as the first world of Western Bloc countries, the second world of Eastern bloc countries, and the third world of neutral or non-aligned countries (7). How- ever, many treaties were signed, which lead to an eventual formation of the European Union. This union saw the United States as one of its allies but excluded Russia due to its Soviet Union and adherence to Communism.

In the 21st century, the West is essentially the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Although Britain has pulled out of the European Union (EU), it is still part of the Western world. Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are often depicted as countries with western values but not counted as part of the West due to a lack of similarity in their cultural history. Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey are also countries that adhere to Western values to an extent but are not part of the explicit definition of the West.

The history here shows a pattern and division of the world. The definition of the West does appear to be stemming from the religious divide of Muslims versus Christians. Currently, although the West has moved largely away from its Christian religious values and disengaged with the Russian ally due to Communism, the West and the Communist world is united nonetheless with their mutual dislike of the growing number of Muslims in the world. This is quite apparent in the sense that Turkey, which has been trying to be part of the EU since the 1950s, is rejected, yet Greece that also applied to be part of the EU with a similar history as Turkey, was accepted. The world, whether West or East, South or North, is inclined to believe that Islam is the root of their problems, or the enemy. This is why the Rohingyas, Uyghurs, Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis, etc. are persecuted. This is why a new term is emerging, namely, Westernized Islam, which is essentially an Islam that has little to do with religion and individual progress but more to do with fulfilling the political agendas of the current Western powers.

One must question why was Islam not considered “backward” during its time of progress?

During the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (sa) the Muslims went to seek refuge under the Christian King Negus of Abyssinia, who spoke Amharic while the Mus- lims spoke Arabic, both Semitic languages. Why is it that the first university in the world is in a Muslim majority country of Morocco and was built by a woman called Fatima Al-Fihri? The progress that is the pride of the West- ern world is not unique. This has already been shown by the Muslims. The actions of Muslims have actually shown their drive for peace, intellect, and fair economy that lead to their greater growth and their fall was linked to their deviation from these Islam-based values. This is shown in the following Hadith:

Abu Hurairah (ra) reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,

“The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he is most deserving of it.” (8).

The world is witnessing a change in the definition again since it looks as if another World War is imminent. The West is making progress in economic, educational, and technical areas, but the area of mental health is unfortunately regressing. Perhaps this increase in anxiety and unrest is leading the people of the West towards needing peace of mind, which can only be achieved through the acceptance of Islam and breaking away from this false dogma of a “Christian” world that left their religion a long time ago. The West will be hard-pressed to find a perfect peace treaty similar to the treaty of Medina signed in 622 CE.


1. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

2. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

3. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

4. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

5. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

6. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

7. [Accessed Feb. 5, 2020].

8.         Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Hadith No: 2687

Last modified: June 2020

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