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The Question of Orientalism

Mr. Said attempts to justify this procedure:

I believe that the sheer quality, consistency, and mass of British, French, and American writing on the Orient lifts it above the doubtless crucial work done in Germany, Italy, Russia, and elsewhere. But I think it is also true that the major steps in Oriental scholarship were first taken in either Britain and France [sic], then elaborated upon by Germans…. What German Oriental scholarship did was to refine and elaborate techniques whose application was to texts, myths, ideas, and languages almost literally gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France. [Pp. 17-18; p. 19]

It is difficult to see what the last sentence means. Texts, in the sense of manuscripts and other written materials, were certainly acquired in the Middle East by Western visitors. But the collections in Germany, Austria, and elsewhere are no less important than those of “imperial Britain and France.” How precisely does one “gather” a language, literally or otherwise? The implication would seem to be that by learning Arabic, Englishmen and Frenchmen were committing some kind of offense. The Germans—accessories after the fact—could not begin to do their work of “refinement and elaboration” on these languages until the British and the French had first seized them; the Arabs, from whom these languages were misappropriated, along with myths and ideas (whatever that may mean), were correspondingly deprived.

The whole passage is not merely false but absurd. It reveals a disquieting lack of knowledge of what scholars do and what scholarship is about. The reader’s anxiety is not allayed by the frequent occurrence of stronger synonyms such as “appropriate,” “accumulate,” “wrench,” “ransack,” and even “rape” to describe the growth of knowledge in the West about the East. For Mr. Said, it would seem, scholarship and science are commodities which exist in finite quantities; the West has grabbed an unfair share of these as well as other resources, leaving the East not only impoverished but also unscholarly and unscientific. Apart from embodying a hitherto unknown theory of knowledge, Mr. Said expresses a contempt for modern Arab scholarly achievement worse than anything that he attributes to his demonic Orientalists.

This theme of violent seizure and possession, with sexual overtones, recurs at several points in the book. “What was important in the latter [sic] nineteenth century was not whether the West had penetrated and possessed the Orient, but rather how the British and French felt that they had done it” (p. 211). Or again:

…the space of weaker or underdeveloped regions like the Orient was viewed as something inviting French interest, penetration, insemination—in short, colonization…. French scholars, administrators, geographers, and commercial agents poured out their exuberant activity onto the fairly supine, feminine Orient. [Pp.219-220]

The climax (so to speak) of these projected sexual fantasies occurs in Mr. Said’s bravura piece, where he reads an elaborate, hostile, and wholly absurd interpretation into a lexical definition of an Arabic root which I quoted from the classical Arab dictionaries.4

The limitations of time, space, and content which Mr. Said forcibly imposes on his subject, though they constitute a serious distortion, are no doubt convenient and indeed necessary to his purpose. They are not, however, sufficient to accomplish it. Among the British and French Arabists and Islamicists who are the ostensible subject of his study, many leading figures are either not mentioned at all (Claude Cahen, E. Levi-Provençal, Henri Corbin, Marius Canard, Charles Pellat, William and Georges Marçais, William Wright, all of whom made important contributions) or mentioned briefly in passing (R.A. Nicholson, Guy Le Strange, Sir Thomas Arnold, and E.G. Browne). Even for those whom he does cite, Mr. Said makes a remarkably arbitrary choice of works. His common practice indeed is to omit their major contributions to scholarship and instead fasten on minor or occasional writings.

An example of this is his treatment of the nineteenth-century English scholar Edward Lane, who is discussed—and incidentally maligned—for his book on the modern Egyptians. This work, a byproduct of his stay in Egypt in the 1830s, is interesting and in many ways useful. It pales into insignificance in comparison with Lane’s lifework, his multivolume Arabic-English lexicon, which was and remains a major achievement of European Orientalism and a landmark in Arabic studies. On this Mr. Said has nothing to say.

All of this—the arbitrary rearrangement of the historical background, and the capricious choice of countries, persons, and writings—still does not suffice for Mr. Said to prove his case, and he is obliged to resort to additional devices. One is the reinterpretation of the passages he cites to an extent out of all reasonable accord with their authors’ manifest intentions. Another is to bring into the category of “Orientalist” a whole series of writers—litterateurs like Chateaubriand and Nerval, imperial administrators like Lord Cromer, and others—whose works were no doubt relevant to the formation of Western cultural attitudes, but who had nothing to do with the academic tradition of Orientalism which is Mr. Said’s main target.

Even that is still not enough, and to make his point Mr. Said finds it necessary to launch a series of reckless accusations. Thus in speaking of the late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth-century French Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, Mr. Said remarks that “he ransacked the Oriental archives…. What texts he isolated, he then brought back; he doctored them…” (p. 127). If these words bear any meaning at all it is that Sacy was somehow at fault in his access to these documents, and then committed the crime of tampering with them. This outrageous libel on a great scholar is without a shred of truth.

Another, more general accusation against Orientalists is that their “economic ideas never extended beyond asserting the Oriental’s fundamental incapacity for trade, commerce, and economic rationality. In the Islamic field these clichés held good for literally hundreds of years—until Maxime Rodinson’s important study Islam and Capitalism appeared in 1966” (p. 259). M. Rodinson himself would be the first to recognize the absurdity of this statement, the writer of which had obviously not taken the trouble to acquaint himself with the work of such earlier Orientalists as Adam Mez, J.H. Kramers, W. Björkman, ‘V. Barthold, Thomas Arnold, and many others. All of them dealt with Muslim economic activities; Arnold was an Englishman. Rodinson, incidentally, makes the interesting observation that with some of Mr. Said’s analyses and formulations carried to the limit, “one falls into a doctrine altogether similar to the Zhdanovist theory of the two sciences.”5

A historian of science is not expected to be a scientist, but he is expected to have some basic knowledge of the scientific alphabet. Similarly, a historian of Orientalism—that is to say, the work of historians and philologists—should have at least some acquaintance with the history and philology with which they were concerned. Mr. Said shows astonishing blind spots. He asserts that “Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from about the end of the seventeenth century on [sic]” (p. 17)—that is, when the Ottoman Turks who ruled the eastern Mediterranean were just leaving Austria and Hungary. This rearrangement of history is necessary for Mr. Said’s thesis; others are apparently due to unpolemical ignorance—for example his belief that Muslim armies conquered Turkey before North Africa (p. 59)—that is to say, that the eleventh century came before, the seventh, and that Egypt was “annexed” by England (p. 35). Egypt was indeed occupied and dominated, but was never annexed or directly administered. In another remarkable passage, he chides the German philosopher Friedrich Schlegel because, even after he “had practically renounced his Orientalism, he still held that Sanskrit and Persian on the one hand and Greek and German on the other had more affinities with each other than with the Semitic, Chinese, American, or African languages” (p. 98). Mr. Said seems to object to this view—which would not be challenged by any serious philologist—and regards it as a pernicious residue of Schlegel’s former Orientalism.

Mr. Said’s knowledge of Arabic and Islam shows surprising gaps. The one Arabic phrase which he quotes is misspelled and mistranslated (p. 129) and several of the few other Arabic words which appear on Mr. Said’s pages are similarly misrepresented. He explains the Islamic theological term tawhid as meaning “God’s transcendental unity” (p. 269), when in fact it means monotheism, i.e., declaring or professing the unity of God, as the form of the Arabic word indicates.

The same kind of insouciance extends to other aspects of Mr. Said’s writing. On page 167 he quotes several verses from Goethe in the original German and then adds an English translation incorporating a grotesque elementary error. “Gottes ist der Orient! / Gottes ist der Okzident!” does not mean, as Mr. Said appears to believe, “God is the Orient! / God is the Occident!” but “God’s is the Orient, God’s is the Occident,” i.e., both East and West belong to God.

The Germans are not the only scholars omitted from Mr. Said’s survey. More remarkably, he has also omitted the Russians. Their contribution, though considerable, is less than that of the Germans or even of the British and the French. It could, however, have been very useful to him in another sense, in that Soviet scholarship, particularly in its treatment of the Islamic and other non-European regions of the Soviet Union, comes closest—far more so than any of the British or French scholars whom he condemns—to precisely the kind of tendentious, denigratory writing that Mr. Said so much dislikes in others. Curiously, however, the Russians, even in their most abusive and contemptuous statements about Islam, enjoy total exemption from Mr. Said’s strictures.

This omission can hardly be due to ignorance of Russian; such disabilities have not inhibited Mr. Said’s treatment of other topics, and in any case summaries of relevant Soviet scholarly works are available in English and French. The political purposes of Mr. Said’s book may provide the explanation. Said, it may be recalled, believes that South Yemen is “the only genuinely radical people’s democracy in the Middle East.”6 A writer who is capable of taking these words at face value is likely to be willing to let Academician S.P. Tolstov, who saw Muhammad as a shamanistic myth, and Professor E.A. Belayev, who described the Koran as the ideological expression of a slave-owning ruling class, full of slave-owning mentality, slip by without even a slap on the wrist.

One final point, perhaps the most astonishing. Mr. Said’s attitude to the Orient, Arab and other, as revealed in his book, is far more negative than that of the most arrogant European imperialist writers whom he condemns. Mr. Said speaks (p. 322) of “books and journals in Arabic (and doubtless in Japanese, various Indian dialects and other Oriental languages)….” This contemptuous listing, and especially the assumption that what Indians speak and write are not languages but dialects, would be worthy of an early-nineteenth-century district commissioner.

  1. 4

    In a discussion of some Islamic terms for “revolution,” I began the examination of each term—following a common Arab practice—with a brief look at the basic meanings of the Arabic root from which it was derived. One passage, introducing the term most widely used in modern Arabic, ran as follows: “The root th-w-r in classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel), to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh-century Spain after the breakup of the Caliphate of Cordova, are called thuwwar (singular tha’ir). The noun thawra at first means excitement, as in the phrase, cited in the Siháh, a standard medieval Arabic dictionary, intazir hatta taskun hadhihi ‘l-thawra, wait until this excitement dies down—a very apt recommendation. The verb is used by al-Iji, in the form thawaran or itharat fitna, stirring up sedition, as one of the dangers which should discourage a man from practising the duty of resistance to bad government. Thawra is the term used by Arabic writers in the nineteenth-century for the French Revolution, and by their successors for the approved revolutions, domestic and foreign, of our own time.” (“Islamic Concepts of Revolution,” in Revolution in the Middle East and Other Case Studies, edited by P.J. Vatikiotis [Rowman and Littlefield, 1972], pp. 38-39.)

    This definition, in both form and content, follows the standard classical Arabic dictionaries, and would have been immediately recognized by anyone familiar with Arabic lexicography. The use of camel imagery in politics was as natural for the ancient Arabs as horse imagery for the Turks and ship imagery among the maritime peoples of the West.

    Said understood the passage differently: “Lewis’s association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most part it is a ‘bad’ sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus. These, I think, are Lewis’s implications, no matter how innocent his air of learning, or parlorlike his language” (pp. 315-316). To which one can only reply in the words of the Duke of Wellington: “If you can believe that, you can believe anything.”

  2. 5

    Maxime Rodinson, La fascination de l’Islam (Paris, 1980), p. 14. The “two sciences” of Zhdanov and his successors and imitators have been variously defined, according to the ideological alignments, the political purposes, and the social or even ethnic origins of the scientists.

  3. 6

    New York Times Book Review, October 31, 1976.

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