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For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies

by Robert Irwin
304 pages,
ISBN: 0713994150


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by Hugh Graham

Orientalism, the study of the Middle East and South Asia by Westerners, has recently been portrayed as the West's appropriation of the image of the Muslim world. But it was not always so. The first true Orientalist was the 16th century French expert on the Ottomans, Guillaume Postel, who held the world's first chair of Arabic in Paris. Postel saw Arabic as the best way to penetrate the Hebrew foundations of Christianity. He visited Constantinople with the French Ambassador, saw the Ottoman civilisation to be far superior to the European, and later concluded that Islam was a satanic co-conspirator with Protestantism against Catholicism.
Only one of a motley parade of Orientalists in Robert Irwin's witty and absorbing For Lust of Knowing, Postel¨contradictory, fickle, eccentric and difficult to categorise¨is in many ways typical of those who followed him. Indeed, that is Irwin's whole point: the pursuit of Orientalism has entailed congeries of beliefs, not a single, unifying set of assumptions, and he has written this book as a response to the late Edward Said's Orientalism (1979), which treats Orientalism as a fifth column of Western colonialism. Said's controversial work is better known for its bold pioneering in anticolonial and multicultural politics than for its cogency or its accuracy. His angry sweep is so broad that he includes Aeschylus, Homer, and Dante as seminal proponents of Orientalist imperialism, and that's just where Irwin takes up his pen.
Irwin, who knew Said, is careful to "attack the book, not the man," but here and there he has trouble repressing what feels like a personal animus. Nevertheless, many points are well taken: for example, if Orientalism is part of the imperial project, how could people like Dante be guilty of it long before the age of imperialism? As for Herodotus, Irwin tells us he was not an Orientalist racist. On the contrary, he exalted the Persians and considered his Greek countrymen to be their descendants. Besides, there was no concept of 'the other' in the modern racial and geographical sense.
Irvin aims to show how scattered and different Orientalists have actually been throughout history. Their predecessors in Spain, like Avicenna, worked to reconcile Greek philosophy with Islamic theology, and in Europe they translated the Koran as a means to understanding Muslims in order to convert them. If, after the 14th century, the study of Arabic or of the Koran was at best a theological weapon, it tended also to attract suspicion of partisanship with the 'enemy' (a tradition reverently upheld by US Neonconservatives with regard to their own Arabists). Again, at that time, there was no sense of any geographical or racial 'other' because the concept of Europe or the West had not yet emerged.
The fall of Christian Constantinople to the Ottomans provoked fear of Islam among European humanists. This uneasy curiosity engendered a more serious academic approach to Orientalism, and the change in attitude influenced certain students, like Postel. However, the predominant tendency in academe of that time was to use Arabic to critique and discredit Islam or the Koran; or to discover the roots of Christianity in Eastern Orthodoxy and Hebrew; or to look for proof of it serving as a secret ally of Catholics or Protestants, since the competing Christian sects, and not Muslims, were the real, primal 'other' in European history.
By 1600, Orientalism was institutionalised and the chair of Arabic at Leiden would remain supreme until 1800. Thomas van Erpe (1584-1624), also known by his Latin name Erpenius, held the chair first. His Arabic grammar was published in 1613, and continues to be the progenitor of most Western Arabic grammars to the present day. Despite Erpenius's renown, scholarship continued to be either personalised or motivated by obscurantism and of little use to the state. In fact, ". . . there was hardly an Orientalist type or a common Orientalist discourse."
In the 18th century, the French, the British, the Russians, and the Dutch established imperial outposts on Muslim lands, but their brands of Orientalism were not what we¨or Said¨would have expected. For the British Raj in India, Orientalism entailed the study of local laws and culture to ensure equitable rule, and it was the hard, imperial hand of the missionaries that repressed Orientalism as something 'unchristian'. Bonaparte's adventure in Egypt quickly lost steam, leaving nothing in its wake but the new study of Egyptology. It was, rather, the French Arabist, Sylvestre De Sacy, who gave permanent institutional shape to a new Orientalism, and he is, generally speaking, the grandfather of modern Orientalists. Russia, with its Muslim neighbours, was the only one that combined Orientalism with its imperial policy.
In the 19th century, Orientalism was still an aristocratic hobby or a way of accessing the origins of the Bible. It had more to do with fascination on the part of linguists, administrators, and adventurers than with imperial policy. The explorer and Arabist, Richard Burton, lamented his country's ignorance of the Muslim world. But if the British were academically frivolous, the Germans, by contrast, were extremely diligent. They perfected the discipline of philology, the painstaking study of linguistic sources, and soon dominated Orientalism.
German Orientalism began to wither with the First World War. The Ottoman Empire fell, and Britain became the greatest imperial power. Then, during the Second World War, the Nazis dispersed Germany's brilliant philologists. Meanwhile, British agents and colonial administrators, like T. E. Lawrence, still viewed the Muslim world through the cultural and linguistic structures of classical Greek, Latin, and neglected Arabic. Only in Russia did Orientalism continue to support imperialism: now, it was the Soviet Communists who told Muslims that Moscow was their "new Mecca".
The United States received all of the best Orientalists: German and Jewish refugees, and even some Arabs. These days, however, Orientalism is a dying discipline; it has given way to the social sciences and the more pragmatic pursuits of government administration. The intellectual fashion of deconstructionism, so closely related to multiculturalism, supplied the final, ironic stroke: the liberal idea that Islam had been "culturally constructed" could only be conveyed with extreme tact.
Irwin is conversational, articulate, combative, and laugh-out-loud funny, and he only begins to fail when, in making his point about the sheer variety of Orientalists, he classifies them one after the other, all the way through history, giving his narrative a dense and linear feel which isn't always rescued by his lively prose.
But a few categories are important. Among the anti-Muslim Orientalists, those who only want to understand Muslims in order to convert them or refute their beliefs, there are the likes of Alvarus of 9th-century Spain, Raimundo Archbishop of Toledo, and the 17th-century Englishman, Pococke. Then there are those who think that Islam and the Arab world has passed its prime, and has no option but to adapt to the West: Von Ranke, Dozy, and the racists Renan and Gobineau. Today's Bernard Lewis, a self-described Zionist and adviser to the Bush administration, though not a racist, falls within the "backward Muslims" school, and Irwin shows his own colours by comparing Lewis favourably to Said.
Among those Orientalists who sympathised with Islam, there were admirers of Muslim society, like medieval Arabists Da Monte Croce and Lull, and later Erpenius, who provided the West with the first Muslim history written by Muslims. The anti-imperialists seem to be legion: Duperron, who disproved Montesquieu's clichT of "Muslim despotism"; Goldhizer, the most influential of all, who argued in the 19th century that Islam, with its fertile sectarianism could change from within and that Westerners should keep out; Hurgonje, a Dutch anticolonialist colonial administrator; Britain's Edward Browne; France's mystical Louis Massignon; the American Marshall Hodgson, who saw Islam as inseparable from European history; and Claude Cahen the French anticolonialist Marxist. There are others who are ambivalent, contradictory, or who, like William "Oriental" Jones, the West's discoverer of Sanskrit, defy enlistment in any polemic.
Toward the end, Irwin takes a closer look at Said, and we glimpse the child of well-to-do Palestinian parents, raised and educated in an upper-class Anglophone society in Egypt and the West. A talented, brilliant, alienated, rootless, and unhappy man, he was an Arab born and raised "nowhere", who only found his axe to grind with Israel's annexation of Palestinian lands in 1967. His book, Orientalism, Irwin leads us to believe, is more an impassioned polemic against Orientalists than a work of scholarship. It is riddled with errors. In the end, Irwin is convincing when he tells us that Orientalists have, if anything, been suspected of partiality to the Muslim world. For balance, he might have added that even Said defended American Arabists when they came under suspicion at the onset of the invasion of Iraq.
Irwin concludes with a look at native, Middle Eastern Arabists, some of them forbears of contemporary Islamists, possessed of a chauvinistic hatred of the West's Orientalist tradition and driven by a conviction that Westerners have 'stolen' and falsified the Muslim world simply by studying it.
This parting shot has the effect of steering us further away from a major oversight. Part of Said's objection to Orientalism was the way in which it helped to create some of the romantic caricatures which continue to prejudice the West's approach to the Muslim world. If the Orientalists didn't conjure or help to conjure those powerful and enduring images, Irwin should have spent some time telling us who actually committed the libels for which Orientalists have been receiving blame. ˛
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