The theme of this powerful and disturbing book is the way in which intellectual traditions are created and transmitted. They do not simply arise, Edward Said argues, in the solitude of a thinker’s or a scholar’s mind. The scholar may “attempt to reach a level of relative freedom from…brute, everyday reality,” but he can never quite escape or ignore his “involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.”

…the possibilities for work present in the culture to a great and original mind are never unlimited…. The work of predecessors, the institutional life of a scholarly field, the collective nature of any learned enterprise: these, to say nothing of economic and social circumstances, tend to diminish the effects of the individual scholar’s production. A field like Orientalism has a cumulative and corporative identity…the result has been a certain consensus: certain things, certain types of statement, certain types of work have seemed for the Orientalist correct.

“Orientalism” is the example Mr. Said uses to illustrate his theme, and by it he means something precise. The scholar who studies the Orient (and specifically the Muslim Orient), the imaginative writer who takes it as his subject, and the institutions which have been concerned with “teaching it, settling it, ruling it,” all have something in common: a certain representation or idea of “the Orient,” defined as being other than the “Occident,” mysterious, unchanging, and ultimately inferior.

This representation has been created by the Western mind in more or less complete freedom, for “the Orient as a genuinely felt and experienced force” has been almost totally absent from Western culture. It has been developed and maintained by a kind of implicit partnership between scholars, writers, and those who have won and governed empires. Scholars and writers have been conscious of the sheer fact of Western strength in a passive and powerless Orient waiting to be ruled or manipulated, and the men who ruled have drawn a moral justification, and therefore a kind of strength, from the Western idea of the Orient. The partnership has been mediated through institutions—certain formalized ways of teaching and writing—which have limited what can be thought and said about the Orient.

It is this cumulative way of thinking about the Orient and acting toward it that Edward Said calls “Orientalism.” Of course, any kind of thought involves making distinctions, and distinctions establish limits, but it is his contention that this kind of definition has been particularly harmful. It may have acted as a spur to the European imagination and helped to shape the Western sense of identity, but since it is a distinction based ultimately on religious and cultural difference it has led to a misunderstanding of historical processes. It has made it impossible to see “orientals” as individual human beings, since their identity has been absorbed into the idea of “the Muslim,” “the Arab,” or “the Oriental”; and, like all very simple binary oppositions of “us” and “them,” it has given rise to judgments of moral worth. The Orient is seen as strange and distant, malignant and dead unless we bring it to life, the haunt of “monsters, evils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires.”

The germ of this vision of the Orient Mr. Said finds in the first encounters of Western Europe with the world of Islam: the struggle for control of the Mediterranean basin caused a recurrent trauma in the Western mind, and it could only be controlled by trying to explain Islam in familiar terms, as a false revelation or a Christian heresy. Then, in the second half of the eighteenth century, structures of thought inherited from the past were “secularized, redisposed and reformed”: under the influence of a new kind of intellectual curiosity and the expansion of European power, the image of the Muslim enemy turned into the modern image of the “Oriental.” There appeared the first modern “Orientalists,” the Frenchman Anquetil-Duperron, who discovered and translated Avestan texts, and the Englishman Sir William Jones, who translated Sanskrit poetry and studied Hindu laws, and who “before he left England for India in 1783…was already a master of Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.” Jones was particularly important because his career was bound up with the first effective and permanent rule of Europeans over an Oriental society, that of the East India Company in Bengal; in his life and work, the link between political domination and the urge to understand becomes explicit.

A generation later there came a European incursion into the heart of the Muslim Orient. The French occupation of Egypt in 1798 was not only an incident in the revolutionary wars, it was a movement of the imagination. Bonaparte had read the Comte de Volney’s Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie and other writings about Egypt, and they helped to shape his actions there: he was conscious of forty centuries looking down on him and his soldiers: he thought of himself as coming to bring back life to a lifeless world, and the scholars and scientists who went with him carried out the first systematic appropriation of an Oriental society and culture.


The French expedition perhaps did more for the “imaginative geography” of the Orient than for the real Egypt. To represent the Orient intellectually and imaginatively, to dominate it and bring it back to life: these endeavors were to create the Orientalist “field” during the next seventy years or so. Scholars discovered, edited, extracted, translated, and interpreted texts: at first an individual effort, their work was later codified and embodied in institutions and traditions. Mr. Said is mainly concerned with two of the traditions, the French which begins with Silvestre de Sacy, author of works on grammar and an Arabic anthology, and the English which goes back to Edward William Lane, lexicographer, translator of the Arabian Nights, and author of a work still widely read, An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians.

These traditions were enriched by ideas drawn from the general culture of the age, and Edward Said is right to lay emphasis on the science of philology, and in particular on Ernest Renan, who applied its methods to the study of the Semitic languages. Philology was one of the seminal studies of the nineteenth century, almost a secularized religion. Renan called it “the exact science of mental objects,” and it seemed to offer a way of understanding not only languages but the nature and history of mankind. By reducing languages to their roots, it was able to group them into families, and it suggested that the families of languages could also be families of all those entities which expressed themselves through language: religions and mythologies, cultures and races.

Within a family, languages could be arranged in order of generations, and the classification of languages and cultures could therefore give rise to a history of them, and to a purely human history in which God had played no part. But Mr. Said contends that, in so far as it was used in the Orientalist field, philology itself was confined within the “Orientalist” frame and was used to give a “scientific” basis to the binary opposition which was already there. For Renan, the Semitic languages were essentially inferior to the Aryan, and incapable of developing beyond a certain point: “we refuse to allow that the Semitic languages have the capacity to regenerate themselves.” In a particularly brilliant passage, Mr. Said suggests that this idea comes from an application to philology of certain ideas current in the anatomical science of the age: Semitic for Renan is what an anatomical monster was for Etienne Saint-Hilaire, not an exception but an anomaly, a phenomenon of degraded or arrested development.

Parallel to the process of scholarly investigation went that of exploration. Some travelers to the Orient, like Lane, went as scholars to gather materials; some, like Chateaubriand, to discover or assert their identities; others, like Burton, from a mixture of motives. In a subtle analysis not only of what they said but of the ways in which they said it—arrangement, style, and “tone”—Mr. Said uncovers the “latent Orientalism” beneath their differences of approach. For all of them, the fact of empire, the assertion and domination of Europe, was a present reality; the Orient appeared as a fallen being, attractive but full of danger, in particular sexual danger.

The modern Orient that they found was not the real Orient but a dead shell into which only Europe could breathe life again; travel in the Orient was a kind of pilgrimage, which bore fruit only when the traveler had encountered dangers and overcome them, seen strange places and turned his back on them, and returned to his own self enriched. In spite of the similarities, Mr. Said is aware of differences between British and French attitudes, and perhaps he overstates them. For the British, securely established in India, he says, the Muslim Orient is a region of potential domination; for the French it is haunted by a “sense of acute loss.” But in this period the French had not irretrievably lost the Middle East, and they had won for themselves a new province of the imagination in Algeria.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century a new phase begins. The imperial governments take on new responsibilities, the British in Egypt and the French in Tunisia; then the division of the Ottoman Empire, foreshadowed before the First World War, is accomplished at its end, and the Arabic-speaking provinces fall under British and French control. The relationship between scholarly work and political action becomes closer and more complex. The institutions through which the Orientalist tradition is transmitted are larger, more formally organized, and more closely linked with governments. Within this tradition, new human types of the “Orientalist” emerge. In the generation before 1914, the age of light-hearted, combative, and self-assured expansion, there appears the “imperial agent,” the man who puts his knowledge and ideas, his feelings and impulses, at the service of empire.


As a student of Joseph Conrad, Mr. Said is at his ease with this kind of ambiguous personality, mysterious, in the end unknowable, seeking some personal redemption by way of some difficult and secret mission. The archetypal agent is T.E. Lawrence, and Said has new and penetrating things to say about the complex interweaving of motives in Lawrence’s active life, and of narrative and personal vision in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. For Lawrence as for Bonaparte, it was by way of an imaginative vision of an epic, to be first lived and then written, that he “drew these tides of men into my hands”; his actions were then remolded into the vision we find in his flawed masterpiece, but it is impossible to tell where narrative ends and where vision begins, whether Lawrence’s aim has been “to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence,” or to make and discover himself. He himself becomes the Orient; one man becomes an entire history.

In the years after 1918 the Orientalist vision changes. Europe is in control of the Orient; its ultimate power cannot be shaken, its right to rule is scarcely questioned, but the resurgence of the peoples of Asia is now seen as a challenge, and the typical Orientalist of the age is the adviser who, while accepting the ultimate reality of Western domination, tries to show the way to a peaceful resolution of differences, a kind of mutual acceptance. The English and French traditions culminate in two figures who seem to sum them up: the first is the Frenchman Louis Massignon, whose evocation of the mystical writer and martyr Mansur al-Hallaj has been formed not only by the European tradition of Islamic studies but by an aesthetic sensibility and a Catholic consciousness typically French and of that time; the second is the Scotsman Hamilton Gibb, whose lineage goes back through Thomas Arnold and Robertson Smith to the same origins, and whose vision of the continuity and development of the Muslim community through history would come most easily to a mind conscious of imperial responsibilities and holding a certain Protestant view of the Church.

Mr. Said writes of both of them with respect for their culture, the quality of their thought, and their courage, but regards them both as being caught within the “Orientalist” cast of mind: “Oriental studies” had not turned critically upon their own tradition, as other human sciences were doing at the time, and for both Massignon and Gibb the ultimate reality was something called “Islam,” eternally present, always different from the West, in which the individuality of human beings, the differences of times and places, were dissolved.

Massignon died in 1962, and Gibb in 1971; for those of us who knew them and can compare our memories with what Mr. Said writes of them, doubts and questions may arise. His writing is forceful and brilliant (sometimes too forceful for comfort, sometimes too brilliant to be clear); and he has the skill to penetrate human wills and to delineate the structure of human visions. But can it be that he himself has fallen into the trap which he has exposed, and has sunk human differences in an abstract concept called “Orientalism”? What is the status of this concept? What kind of validity can he claim for the general statements he makes—such statements as these: “Orientalists are neither interested in nor capable of discussing individuals”; the Orientalist is marked by “absence of sympathy covered by professional knowledge”?

In a sense, the answer is simple. What Mr. Said has done is to construct an ideal type of “the Orientalist,” made up of a number of elements logically connected with each other, and free from extraneous and accidental elements. But as every social scientist knows, such ideal types must be used with care and caution in order to explain particular events or human beings. No person fully exemplifies one type: each must be seen in the light of several types. One of them may explain him more than others, but in the end some irreducible individual flavor will remain. Having admired the elegance of Mr. Said’s construction, we must still ask how far it will serve as a principle of explanation of the human beings about whom he writes. The politicians and colonial servants? On the whole, yes. His quotations from Lord Cromer (the British administrator of Egypt after 1883) and others are apt, and he could have found many more to prove his point: the conscious opposition of “East and West,” ideas such as those of “oriental despotism” and “oriental stagnation,” and the view that “Orientals” only understand force, did give Englishmen and Frenchmen the assurance that their rule over Eastern peoples was natural and right. Imaginative writers can also be understood as working within such assumptions, especially writers of the romantic age, Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Flaubert, de Nerval; their Orient was a product of the imagination, and Mr. Said’s delicate and subtle methods of analysis are good tools for laying bare the structure of the literary imagination.

It may be, however, that he is not treading on such sure ground when he writes about scholars. Here too he has found some telling quotations: Theodor Noldeke saying that his life’s work had only confirmed his “low opinion” of the Eastern peoples, or Gibb claiming that “the Arab mind” is incapable of rational thought. Some element of “latent Orientalism” was indeed present in the minds of most of the Oriental scholars of the period he deals with; if it was not a certain contempt for those about whom they wrote, it was at least a conviction that they understood these people, knew their languages and beliefs, better than they did themselves. We must still ask, however, to what extent this conviction entered into their work and determined its direction and limits. To answer this, we must go beyond their obiter dicta to their serious professional work, and ask whether it was shaped and distorted by the crude opposition of “Orient” and “Occident,” rather than by concepts more suited to its subject matter, and how far its products served to confirm and strengthen that opposition.

It is not necessary to be intelligent to become a scholar, and there have been many scholars who, even in their most substantial work, have shown no skills except those of language, and made use of no ideas except those drawn from the commonplaces of the age. Even great Orientalists found themselves obliged by circumstances to speak and write far beyond the limits of their real competence, and when doing so made use of ideas picked from the surrounding air. When most of them wrote about politics, or sociology, or “national character,” or history, or literature, they wrote on the whole as amateurs.

There is, however, running through the work of the great Islamic scholars, one central strand of concern—for the origin and development of all those systems of thought which attempted to articulate what Muslims believed to be the revelation given to mankind through the Prophet Muhammad: tradition, law, theology, mystical thought. A hundred years of study of these matters have produced a body of work which cannot be regarded as badly done. There is in this work a cautious and careful use of original sources, an avoidance of unfounded generalization, a sense of the interrelations between intellectual movements and social and political events, and a feeling also for the quality of individual thinkers in so far as their works reveal them. The individual is not absorbed into a general concept in such detailed explorations of personal “thought-worlds” as Louis Massignon’s work on al-Hallaj, Laoust’s on Ibn Taimiya, and Ritter’s on Farid al-Din ucAttar. It is true that a general concept has shaped such work; it is that of “Islam” as a system of thought, seen in its relations to earlier systems, Greek, Christian, and Jewish. But this concept is not another form of the idea of the “Orient” as Mr. Said has described it; it is Islam not seen as the reverse side of something else but in its specific nature, and this surely is a concept appropriate to the subject matter. Within the limits of this work, those whom the world calls “Orientalists” were not guilty of what Mr. Said calls “Orientalism.”

In principle, Mr. Said knows about this, and he acknowledges “the work of innumerable devoted scholars.” But he has not in this book really come to terms with it. There may be two reasons for this. One of them is that he has omitted from his survey the scholars who wrote in German. He has done so because, in Germany, “at no time… could a close partnership have developed between Orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the Orient.” This is a valid reason, given his own terms of reference, but it has led him to neglect something important. Secondly, the work on religious and intellectual history, painstaking and solid as it is, has for the most part been rather dull, and has lacked that spark which would excite Mr. Said’s mind.

But there was one exciting man of genius among them, the Frenchman Louis Massignon, and he has called out all the powers of Mr. Said’s mind. His pages on Massignon are among the best in the book, but in a sense they show how little the ideal type of the “Orientalist” helps us to understand him. Mr. Said maintains that “in one direction his ideas about the Orient remained thoroughly traditional and Oriental,” but what he says of him may leave us with the contrary impression. He writes of “the overwhelming intelligence…the sheer genius and novelty of Massignon’s mind”; “the refinements, the personal style, the individual genius, may finally supersede the political restraints operating impersonally through tradition and through the national ambience.”

For Massignon, indeed, the Muslim world was not, in the deepest sense, a region where his country pursued political interests, it was a place filled with individual men and women, loved, understood, grasped in their individual nature; the relationship of Christianity and Islam was not one of being and non-being, but of exchange and substitution. As the French scholar Jacques Berque has said, for those who knew him there are places—a certain church in Cairo, a certain street—where he will always be present.

Questions like these are raised also by the last section of the book, “The Latest Phase.” Mr. Said’s thesis is that the tradition of European “Orientalism” has now been transplanted to the United States, expressed in the language of the social sciences, embodied in institutions closely linked with American interests and policies in the Middle East, and used as a weapon in the conflict of Israel and the Palestinians. Once more, he is probably right in so far as he is dealing with popular images: for the movies, the politicians, and much of the press, the Arab is the creeping, mysterious, fearsome Oriental shadow. But once more doubts arise when he writes about scholars.

These doubts are of two kinds. First, Mr. Said adopts a certain style or tone which may make the reader uneasy; his awareness of the style of other writers makes us the more conscious of his own. At the beginning of the book he has told us in a frank and moving way of the personal motive which partly led to the writing of it: as a Palestinian Arab living in the West, he finds his life “disheartening…the web of racism, cultural stereotypes, political imperialism, dehumanizing ideology holding in the Arab or the Muslim is very strong indeed.” In this last section, the tone is that of one struggling to break out of the web; his forceful criticisms go, in some places, as far as accusations of bad faith against other scholars. If these charges had been systematic and sustained, they would have been an obstacle to rational discourse; even coming as they do in two or three places, they may cause grave offence and lead to the book being taken less seriously than it should be.

Apart from this, someone working in the field of Middle Eastern studies may find this part of the book a little old-fashioned. Mr. Said is considering not so much the work being done today, and expressed in articles, monographs, and the words of teachers, but rather those works of synthesis which, by their nature, embody yesterday’s work. Both in Europe and America, the best of today’s work does seem to have broken out of the “Orientalist” frame, to have turned critically on itself, and to be fertilized by the ideas of the human sciences of the age. To some extent Mr. Said is aware of this: he mentions the work of Jacques Berque and Maxime Rodinson in France, Clifford Geertz in America, and Roger Owen in England. But he might have gone further, and written of the continued or revived tradition of religious history in Germany, and the new French historical work molded by Marxism and the Annales school; the greatest Middle Eastern historian of our day, Claude Cahen, is not once mentioned. This field of study, like almost all others, is now being rejuvenated by younger American scholars: historians, anthropologists, and now—despite what he says about the neglect of literature—students of poetry.

The last word however must be his. Today’s work still expresses, to a great extent, a European and American conception of the Muslim East: “the Arab and Islamic world remains a second-order power in terms of the production of culture, knowledge and scholarship.” There are some exceptions: no Ottoman historian would neglect the work of Halil Inalcik and other great Turkish historians, and no student of North Africa in future will be able to ignore the profound and original ideas of Abdullah Laroui. But in general it is true that the Western student of the Arabs and Persians still works within a structure of ideas created by other Western students. Arabs and Persians, “as a genuinely felt and experienced force,” are still not present in Western culture; but it would need another book to explain why this is so.

This Issue

March 8, 1979