On “Orientalism”

On “Orientalism”

HENRY HOPWOOD-PHILLIPS revisits Edward Said’s famous post-colonial polemic and finds it seriously wanting

In 1963 Dr Abdel-Malik caused shock waves in the field of Oriental Studies when he claimed that it was

‘Europocentric’, paying insufficient attention to the scholars, scholarship, methods, and achievements of the Afro-Asian world; [Orientalists] are obsessed with the past and do not show sufficient interest in the recent history of the ‘Oriental’ peoples

Fifteen years later Edward Said developed the idea that “an accepted grid”, a historical stream of consciousness full of preconceptions and assumptions “filtered” experience of the “Orient into Western consciousness”.

He maintained that Nietzsche’s idea of the will to power applied to Western enquiry and that a narrative and praxis had evolved that affected the structures of knowledge. If Cuvier was correct in asserting that philosophy is “instructing the world in theory”, then Said was right in maintaining that the Orient was “less a place than a topos”; a topos that was essentialist, racialist, patronising, and ideologically motivated.

However, Said’s impressive thesis, so compelling and valid at many levels, seems to be a net spread too thin and wide to constitute a meaningful critique. M. H. Kerr commented

In charging the entire tradition of Oriental Studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, [Said] commits precisely the same error

a fact that has inspired a whole new literature about Orientalism’s partner in crime: Occidentalism, a subject that in turn is

at least as reductive; its bigotry simply turns the Orientalist view upside down. To diminish an entire society or a civilisation to a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites

The thesis, in its attempt to graft a static Western historiography on to the dynamic reality, also encourages the East to set itself up as static too. So, instead of static and backwards, radical Islam prefers to present a reverse of the coin. Islam is static in a good way, it argues: it has a single, perfect, unchanging essence that is morally and spiritually superior.

These are little more than academic quibbles, however. More significantly, Said’s argument just does not fit the history and geography that it claims to unlock. A more honest description of his thesis might be “France, England and Arabia – An Identity Question in the Age of Imperialism”. For geographically, Said excludes all of North Africa west of Egypt, most of Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan – a large part of the Orient. Europe fares little better – Germany, Spain and Italy are ignored for all intents and purposes simply because their historical behaviour does not fit.

Historically-speaking, describing everyone as an Orientalist between Herodotus (484-425 BC) and Postel (AD 1510-81) is at best anachronistic and at worst to fall into the trap of presentism. The Byzantine Empire and its constituent Balkan territories are not accounted for in this simplistic binary formulation. And institutionally, there was little or no homogeneity to Oriental Studies, instead

[it] is mostly a story of individual scholars, often lonely and eccentric men

Said alleges that the very ontological basis of the East and West dyad is arbitrary. He states that

The Orient is [then] corrected, even penalized, for lying outside… [and] is thus orientalized

The reality is less dramatic. The term “Orient” meant the direction from which the sun rose for most of the inhabitants of the Western Mediterranean. D. M. Varisco makes it clear that

The distinction between East and West is in its origins relational, not essential

The Orient’s first Western visitor whose works are still extant was Herodotus, a man from a people who had no name for themselves (only one for those they could not understand) and who adored the Phoenician alphabet, Lydian coinage and Egyptian sculpture.

He admired the Orientals but despised the Thracians and Scythians that lay on the Northern marches, earning the sobriquet “barbarophile”. According to Said, Herodotus conquered the Orient by visiting it and writing about it – in stark contrast to the Persians who espoused a model of international relations that resembled China’s Sinocentric system. Foreigners were dismissed as anarya, non-Aryan, and the spectacle of them conquered and in chains was immortalised in stone at Persepolis.

The Islamic invasions of the seventh century that broke up the Roman Mare Nostra “…move[d] the centre of European culture away from the Mediterranean… towards the North”, as Henri Pirenne had earlier observed. The Christians were attacked by the victorious new faith for believing that God could assume a temporal form; that God could die on a cross; for believing in three gods. The Christians on their part mocked the sensuality of polygamy, Islam’s violence and Mohammed’s failure to perform miracles.

From the reign of Abd al-Malik (r.685-705) when the oppression of Christians in the East commenced, to Erasmus in the early sixteenth century, the West toyed with ideas about itself and Islam but no stable themes emerged. Instead countless balls were juggled. Peter the Venerable’s prologue to Sect of the Saracens told the infidel

I approach you not with arms but with words; not with force but with reason; not in hatred but in love

Aquinas cited Averroes five hundred and three times in his Summa contra Gentiles. The crusades brought both religions into closer contact and resulted in books like William of Tripoli’s Tractatus de Statu Saracenorum (1273) which suggested Muslims weren’t really much further away from salvation than the average Christian, and Ricoldo de Monte Croce’s idea that virtuous Saracens could be used as examples to whip intransigent Christians into line. The most famous epic of Christendom, the Chanson de Roland, commemorates defeat, not victory; makes Charlemagne out to be semi-blasphemous (the war is ‘his’ cause not God’s); and includes the line “Were he [Saracen King Marsilion] but Christian, right knightly he’d appear” thus utterly trivialising his “otherness” to the point of being perceived as a potential paragon of the West had he not held the religious views he had.

Said attacks Dante for being a proto-Orientalist i.e. being complicit, conscious or otherwise, in constructing the prejudicial prism through which all Western scholarship has since been skewed. Yet Dante in spite of his reputation as a canonical “European” did not much care either way about Islam. He thought (erroneously) that Mohammed had been a Christian who had gone astray and certainly did not see him as some ghastly ‘other’. Again, he viewed Saladin, Avicenna and Averroes as virtuous pagans rather than irreconcilable enemies. Miguel Asín Palacios even claimed Dante to be sympathetic (and knowledgeable) enough about Islam to have modelled his celestial journeys on Isra and Miraj (the Islamic night journey texts) and Ibn Arabi’s plan of paradise.

As for the roots of essentialism and otherness, it was Islamic jurists in the early eighth century who formulated the great geopolitical divides of Dar al Harb (realm of war) and Dar al Islam (realm of Islam). It was Islamic governors that enforced gradations of “otherness” from ahl al kitab (people of the book) to the even less fortunate godless Sabaeans, within a framework of dhimmi-tude. If a sense of otherness did not manifest itself on an occidental scale (other than words such as ‘frangi’ – Franks) it was because Muslims were like most other peoples in history:

It was the Muslims who were being normal, the Europeans who were not being normal. Not being interested in other cultures or even despising them is the normal state of mankind.

Meanwhile in the West knowledge of Islam was in decline. R. W. Southern notes that Christendom in the fourteenth century knew less about Islam than it had in the twelfth.

Said makes a point of announcing Orientalism’s ‘formal existence’ with the decision of the Church Council of Vienne (1312); however, its decree was a dead letter. The teaching of Arabic was supposed to be funded by extra ecclesiastical funding but it never happened.

During the Renaissance, European interest in the Orient flagged. This was mainly due to (a) the fact many scholars were coming to realise that Arab-Latin translations of Greek works were of a very poor quality; (b) the disaster of the Fourth Crusade (1204), and (c) the fact pilgrim accounts were becoming anodyne and formulaic. Interest did not peak again until Islam resumed the offensive. In 1453 Constantinople fell, then Belgrade (1521), and Rhodes (1522). The Hungarians lost at Mohacs (1526), Vienna was besieged (1529), Cyprus fell in 1571, Crete in 1669, and Vienna was besieged again in 1683. The sixteenth century was the great age of Islamic Empire: Mughal, Safavid, Mamluk and Ottoman dynasties carved out their realms and Europe shuddered.

If the West as a self-conscious identity (and therefore the Orient a corollary ‘other’) has a father-figure, then Thomas More (and his continental equivalents) with his pleas for peace between Christian princes and solidarity against the Turk (at a time when the printing presses were turning out copies of Sir Thomas Malory’s ode to chivalry, Morte d’Arthur) did more than anybody else to make Europeans realise their distinctiveness and their geopolitical context. However, the Reformation for the most part restricted the West’s attention to itself.

But significantly geopolitical concerns trumped this nascent identity. Said fails to refer to Francis I’s alliance with the Sublime Porte or to Elizabeth I’s request for an alliance with Murad III or to German overtures to the Ottomans in the early twentieth century. These were attempts to deploy the Turks as if they were just another pawn in a great game, a strategy that led directly to the admission of the Ottomans into the Concert of Europe in 1856.

If there is a certain triumphalist strain to European history that presents its past as a seamless story of progress, it had to be invented post hoc. The story of Orientalism between 1500-1700 is an extraordinarily amateur one. It is full of characters such as Guillaume Postel, who believed that speaking Hebrew would return mankind to pre-Babel bliss; men like Edmund Castell, who died a half-blind pauper trying to increase knowledge of the Orient for knowledge’s sake; and orientalists such as André Du Ryer and Antoine Galland, who believed that an international canon of literature could be established and that it would be all the richer for containing The Thousand and One Nights. It was the age in which the Ottoman threat was contained and the New World was won.

Said’s myopic emphasis on British and French perceptions of the Orient blinded him to how the focus of both was actually on each other rather than on the Orient. If anybody was corrupt, despostic and licentious, then France was certainly that Other”.

To the Imperial powers, America, then India and then the Levant were venues of power-struggles rather than targets of conquest in their own right.

During the Enlightenment period, Comte de Boulainvilliers used Mohammed as a stick to bash the Church and Establishment with his Vie de Mahomet. Voltaire praised the prophet as a great, cunning and bold leader; he thought class lines were more conspicuous than civilisational labels. Despotism was removed from the Muslim’s innate baggage and designated as geographically determined according to Montesquieu and a classical category (and therefore universal) according to de Volney. When the leading thinkers of the Age encountered Muslims, Thomas Hope’s (1770-1831) reaction is quite typical:

The Turk, where bigotry interferes not with his better feelings is as charitable as he is confiding

This was the Age in which Napoleon as a sort of ‘textual agent’ is meant to have been led limply by the puppet strings of Western tradition. His project apparently “acquired reality in his mind” from “ideas and myths culled from texts, not empirical reality”, or, more mundanely, he was put under pressure by Marseilles lobbies to secure a market in an age of mercantilism and considered that militarily Cairo was an ideal regional lynchpin from which the French could pivot to Constantinople or Delhi.

Said likes to represent de Sacy as a sort of arch-villain who orchestrated the dark epistemological affair that was destined to end in colonisation but as R. Irwin notes,

For a long time there was no cohesion in the world of the Orientalist. Their first Congress took place in Paris only in 1873… largely the province of enthusiastic amateurs… not systematically refereed. The bulk… consisted of texts, their attempted decipherment or translation. There was little in the way of analysis or synthesis.

Said’s polemic also fails to address the tensions and contests between intellectual factions in the West. If some Westerners had Orientalist agendas (in the pejorative sense), others such as E. W Lane (1801-1876) were genuinely immersed in Oriental societies. If John Dowson’s The History of India as told by its own Historians (1867) received support from the Secretary of State for India, it was also deemed by its critics to have disseminated “not a few inexactitudes” as well as “some false and distorted history”.

What Said labels as Orientalist seems, more accurately, to have been the Western aspiration and attempt to make its knowledge acultural i.e. universal. Behind this universal claim to knowledge, he discerns a universal claim to power: “world history, a euphemism for European history”, he comments.

Yet as historian Sadik al-‘Azm has observed, if all cultures naturally distort others then the Occident “is behaving perfectly naturally and in accordance with the general rule”. D. M. Varisco agrees: “if objectivity is to be defined only as virginity” then knowledge suffers from a form of Midas touch.

Whilst everybody can agree that knowledge is socially constructed, the West seems to have lacked a consistent enough agenda for commentators (including E. Said) to be able to refer meaningfully to a schematisation.

And today, in a world in which radical Islam and Western modernity ostensibly clash, the reality is more opaque. Islamic civilisation as a living entity seems to have disappeared, and Western civilisation seems to have lost its specifically European character. If Orientalism ever had currency, which is doubtful, it has certainly been one of the first casualties of globalisation.

HENRY HOPWOD-PHILLIPS works in publishing


i) Orientalism, E. Said, 1978

ii) Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid, D. M. Varisco, 2007

iii) Contending Visions of the Middle East, Z. Lockman, 2004

iv) Islam in European Thought, A. Hourani, 1991

v) Islam Obscured, D. M. Varisco, 2005

vi) From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East, B. Lewis, 2004

vii) Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage, Ed. I. R. Netton, 2013

viii) Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, R. Irwin, 2006

ix) Occidentalism, I. Buruma & A. Margalit, 2004

x) The Song of Roland, Anon., (Trans. D. L. Sayers), 1957

xi) Islam and the Divine Comedy, M. A. Palacios, 2006

xii) http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/10/03/specials/said-orientalism.html (J. H. Plumb, 1979)

xiii)https://www.amherst.edu/media/view/307584/original/The+Question+of+Orientalism+by+Bernard+Lewis+%7C+The+New+York+Review+of+Books.pdf (B. Lewis, 1982)


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