There is no doubt that Orientalism has its significant impact on the Western world and the Islamic world alike, even if the reaction is different in each case. In the Western world no one who wants to write a book about the Orient or think of it or even practice an action connected to it is able to ignore the enormous scientific revolution that was shaped by the Orient over the past centuries.
In the contemporary Arab Islamic world no one can hardly find a magazine, a newspaper or a book except with a mention or a reference to something related to Orientalism or something related from near or far to it.
There is no wonder about all this because Orientalism had and will always have the biggest hand in shaping the Western perceptions of Islam as well as forming the Western attitudes towards Islam over many centuries.
Orientalism is an issue surrounded with controversial opinions in the Arab and Islamic world. Some support it eagerly and limitlessly whereas others reject it altogether.
Just to give you a quick example for the latter group, I was giving a lecture titled “Islam & Orientalism” a few years ago in one of the Arab countries. I was thanking the Orientalists for their efforts in saving the Arabic manuscripts which were brought to Europe and for making the process of benefiting from them so easy by indexing them. I mentioned this as one of the memorable things we should thank the Orientalists for.
In the very same hall another lecturer happened to be giving a lecture, just a few months later, about the Arab Islamic heritage. While he was speaking about the Arabic manuscripts that were brought to Europe he said that he wished these manuscripts were burnt to ashes instead of falling into the hands of the Orientalists who used them against the Arabs and the Muslims.
For fact, we have these two contradicting trends; one trend is passionately and limitlessly with the Orientalists whereas the other is so emphatically and unfairly against them. Both trends in fact represent an unscientific and gullible stream! On the one hand, Orientalism is not totally infallible and on the other it is not all bad for Islam and Muslims. The first trend is dazzled by the Western civilization, the scientific and technologic development of the West so they just assume that anything coming from this direction is (from their own standing) correct, scientific and objective.
As for the other trend, those who are totally contra, they refuse the whole Western civilization even though they do not deny striving towards scientific advancement. Yet their refusal for Orientalism is backed by various reasons, among these; 1- The circumstances that led to the immergence of Orientalism, 2- Linking its objectives at some stages with missionary activity, 3- Its hostility to Islam since the Medieval ages, 4- The military conflicts which took place between the West and the Islamic East for many centuries, 5- The modern age Western colonization for the Islamic countries, humiliating their peoples, degrading their faith and civilization and all the ensuing arrogance that characterized the relation of the Westerners with the helpless peoples they colonized.
Orientalism played some considerable roles that helped in realizing the colonization attacks and also helped in establishing the arrogance of the West towards Islam and the Muslims. They utilized their information about Islam and its history in combating Islam and the Muslims. This painful reality is even admitted by the honest Orientalists who are sincere to their mission.
All of this tells us the reason why we have a trend in the Arab and Islamic world that is so fiercely rejecting Orientalism. The undeniable fact will always remain that Orientalism had its powerful impacts on the modern Islamic thought; both positively and negatively whether we should like it or not. Hence we can neither suffice with just ignoring it or rejecting it thinking that by this we solved the problem. That way we will be like ostriches hiding our heads in the sand!
There is no better alternative than confronting the problem, placing it on the research tables, studying it, coming out with results and proposing solutions.
From here arises the need for a serious scientific confrontation for Orientalism. This confrontation must never be satisfied with just a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’! It rather needs to delve in a deep study and a diligent research into the roots of the Arab thought to identify the real causes behind the Western attitude from Islam. The prevailing image of Islam in the West today is not just a temporary or casual image! It is not an image that was just born today! It is an image that was formed by centuries of cultural conflict between Islam and the West.
If we never attempted to study the Western legacy, analyze it or criticize it the way the West did with our legacy then, then at least we must study what they wrote about us so we could realize the causes underlying their unjust campaigns against our religion and our sanctuaries. From here we can realize our dire need to study everything that was written about us and about our religion by the West. These writings are actually directed towards our holiest particularity; our creed which we value mostly, our Prophet (SAWS) whom we love greatly, our Qur’an, our Sunnah and generally speaking our whole history.
Both trends we’re talking about (the pro and the contra) are being totally unfair in their orientation and for this reason a third trend had to emerge in an attempt to form an objective vision about Orientalism, its goals, its works and its scientific publications. This third trend will attempt to criticize what it sees as ‘negative’ from the Islamic stand and at the same time it will not forget to mention the ‘positive’ side which is related to the scientific field of the Arab and Islamic studies.
This third trend, in fact, is the only trend that could be dubbed a true Islamic trend in doing one of the most basic Islamic commands mentioned in the Qur’an, “...Do not let your enmity for others turn you away from justice. Deal justly; that is nearer to being God-fearing..." (TMQ, 5:8). This is actually the only trend that can compel the Orientalists into respecting the Islamic point of view. Even if we can’t change the thoughts of the Orientalists in the near future at least they will see this real scientific trend on the Islamic level which they will not be able to deny or ignore. On the other hand this correct scientific path will provide us with the chance to venture into the closed doors of the Western thought.
Undoubtedly, the Orientalist attitudes must contain some positive sides that are so memorable for the Orientalists just the same way there are other negative sides that need to be recorded against them. In order for us to be objective we need to mention both the negatives and the positives so we could see all the dimensions of the problem. There is no harm at all in admitting that your enemy has in fact some advantages and maybe this will be a good motive for us Muslims to get up and ready for accepting the challenges that are forced on us by the circumstances of our age.
As for the positives which will be mentioned here partially I just want to point out that some of them are matters that are closely connected to the Orientalists, the style of their work and how interconnected they are. I just mention these things for the sake of taking them as an example. Other things are connected to their practical production that benefits the Arab students even if the Orientalists primarily mean to benefit themselves from them; but still they did not deny others from this benefit. I will try to give a glimpse the origin and development of Orientalism, and then I will have a look at their various positions (with the pros and the cons). Then I will discuss what the Muslims can do to address the Orientalist movement.
Orientalism; the origin and development
The first beginnings:
Orientalism is the science of the Middle East or the knowledge of the Eastern world. The word “Orientalist” in the general sense applies on every western scientist studying about the Orient or the East (far, middle or near), its languages, its civilization, its literature and its religions. Right now we are not speaking about this broad concept and we do not intend to delve into researching the geographic or cultural changes that occurred on the concept “East” throughout the various ages. All we care about here is the specific concept of Orientalism which means the western studies connected to the Islamic Orient with its languages, arts, culture, history, doctrines, legislations or to cut it short; its civilization.
This is actually the meaning that jumps to our minds in the Arab Islamic world when we use the term Orientalist or Orientalism. It is also the ongoing meaning in all the writings of the Orientalists and it is difficult to identify the exact date for the start of its usage. Some researchers point out that the Christian West have dated the start of Orientalism to be during the Church Council meeting held in Vienna in 1312, to endorse for the establishment of chairs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Syrian at the universities of Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon and Salamanca. Here they only mentioned the “official Orientalism” which means that there was an unofficial Orientalism before that date! There were also European researchers, as we will mention later, who did not rely much on this date as the start of Orientalism. Hence, all the new trends now do not attempt to set a specific date for the start of Orientalism, but rather a time span that could be considered as the start of Orientalism.
Undoubtedly, the rapid spread of Islam in the east and the west has strongly attracted the attention of the Christian men of theology to this religion and stirred their attention to study about Islam. Among the Christian scholars who demonstrated an early interest in Islam (not for the sake of embracing it but for the sake of protecting his fellow Christians) was St. John of Damascus (676-749 AH). Among the books he wrote for his fellow Christians about Islam; Debates with Muslims & Guidelines for the Christians in Debating with Muslims.
Still we can’t consider these attempts to be the start of Orientalism because John of Damascus was an Arab who lived in the East under the rule of the Umayyad Dynasty and served in the Umayyad palace. So we will just disregard the attempts of the Eastern Christians and confine ourselves to the Western scholars.
Here as well we couldn’t find an actual agreement on the starting date because some researchers claim that the start of Orientalism was the beginning of the 11th century, whereas Rudi Paret claims that the start of the Islamic and Arab studies in Europe was in the 12th century where the meanings of the Qur’an were first translated into Latin. During the same century the first Latin-Arabic dictionary made its advent. The Orientalist Gustave Dugat seems to agree with Paret on the same time span as he mentions in his book “Histoire des orientalistes de l'Europe du XIIe au XIXe siecle” which was issued in France at the late sixties of the past century.
Other researchers found that Orientalism started two centuries before that time and that’s why Naguib Al-Aqiqi made his book on the Orientalists (all three volumes) a large compendium recording about 1000 years starting with the French monk GerbertD’Aurillac (938 – 1003 AD) who went to Andalusia and studied at the hands of its scholars in Seville and Cordoba till he became the most knowledged scholar in Europe in Arab culture, math an astronomy. After which he became the first French Pope in Rome and took the name Sylvester II (999 – 1003).
In any case, what spurred these early beginnings of Orientalism was the conflict that took place between the Muslim and Christian worlds in Andalusia and Sicily. The Crusades particularly spurred the Europeans to get busy with studying the teachings and traditions of Islam. For this reason we can claim that the history of Orientalism (at the start of its formation) is a history of conflicts between the Christian world or the Medieval Ages and the Islamic Orient on the religious and ideological levels. Islam, as R. W. Southern says, posed a long-term problem for the Christian world in Europe on all levels.
Considering it as a practical problem commanded resorting to some procedures like the Crusades, the call to Christianity and trade exchange since it was a theological problem that insistently searched answers for many questions; and this in turn called for knowing my facts that were not easy to find at all. From here arose a historical problem that was not easy to solve or address without gaining some literal and linguistic knowledge that was difficult to acquire. This complicated the problem further due to the secrecy, the intolerance and the strong desire not to know it for fear of defilement.
Two opposing trends:
The Christian theologians became active at that early stage against Islam and they started spreading falsehoods and lies about Islam and the Prophet (SAWS) claiming that Islam is a malignant or evil power and that Muhammad (SAWS) is only an idol or a god of a tribe or a demon. The popular tales and myths raided the minds of the Latin writers and the purpose was naturally not to propose an objective image about Islam because this was the farthest thing from the minds of the writers at that time. In this regard tales describing Islam were fraught with fictions and delusions invented by the writers of this era such as the famous “Song of Roland” and many other works of literature describing the Muslims as idol-worshipers or worshipers of the unholy trinity (Termagant, Muhammad and Apollo). One of the writers responsible for circulating this kind of literature (Guibert de Nogent, died in 1224 AD) admitted that in his writings about Islam he never referred to any written resources and that he just depended on the general opinions circulated at that time and that there was no way by which he could tell the right from the wrong opinions. He justified his unscientific writings about Islam so bluntly as, “There is no harm in saying bad things about someone whose vileness exceeds all imaginable limits!”
In his book “Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages” R. W. Southern describes this phase as the era of ignorance because it was an era so far from any form of knowledge or objectivity. He says that these ages were void of any form of free academic spirits or any form of human researching that distinguished the researches done about Islam in the past one hundred years.
In exchange for these hateful images of Islam there were other efforts that aimed to reach an objective knowledge about the Arabic sciences such as philosophy, medicine and natural sciences.
Starting 1130 AD the Christian scholars in Europe were working diligently on translating the Arabic books in philosophy and science. The archbishop of Toledo and others take a great credit in producing early translations for some of the Arabic books in science after they got convinced that the Arabs do have the keys to a great deal of the world’s classical legacy. This translation movement that started in Europe to translate the Arabic sciences into Latin is much similar to the translation movement that started in the Islamic world at the time of the Caliph Al-Mamoun to translate the Greek sciences and others into Arabic and it served greatly the whole translation movement in the Islamic world with the purpose of spreading science and raising the cultural level of the people so as to better humanity and build a civilization. But still this scientific interaction with the Islamic civilization had no effect in changing the Western perception of the doctrinal, divine or historical image of Islam.
During the 13th century there were several attempts made to get to know Islam on some level of objectivity but with the clear and announced purpose of fighting these so-called atheistic Islamic teachings. For this reason Peter the Venerable (died in 1156 AD - also known as Peter of Montboissier) abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, formed a group of translators from Spain to work as one team with the purpose of acquiring some objective and proper scientific knowledge about the Islamic religion. Peter the Venerable was behind the advent of the first translation for the meanings of the Qur’an in Latin (1143 AD). This translation was done by the English scholar Robert of Ketton (1110 – 1160 AD). Generally speaking we can say that at this early stage of Orientalism there were two opposing trends regarding the attitudes and goals towards Islam; the first was an extremist theologian trend that resorted to futile arguing and saw Islam from behind a thick veil of superstitions and folk legends. The second trend, compared to the first, was closer to scientific objectivity in seeing Islam as the cradle of natural sciences, medicine and philosophy. Still the fictitious trend persisted till the 17th century or a little after. This trend is still alive in this present age in the writings of many Orientalists who write about Islam and the Prophet of Islam.
The Arab culture in the Emperor’s palace:
From time to time some enlightened European personalities emerged with some positive opinions about Islam. Of these very few people, who adopted somehow moderate attitudes about Islam, we have Fredrick II the governor of Sicily who became the Emperor of Germany in 1215. Fredrick spoke Arabic and he imitated the Arab’s style in dressing and in habits. He was also very passionate about the Arab philosophy and sciences. All of these sciences were taught passionately at his palace in Palermo and this was how the Latinos got to know them. This Emperor and his son (Manfred) gifted the universities of Bologna and Paris with translations for Arabic books in philosophy, and so he got rewarded for his actions by being dismissed from the Church at the hands of Pope Gregory IX in the year 1239 AD. One of the accusations he was charged with was; showing too much friendliness to Islam!
Orientalism and Christianization:
If Orientalism was founded on other foundation but knowing the eastern languages to be able to known about the creeds and civilization of the east, then Christianization also agrees with Orientalism on the very same thing; they wanted to know the languages of the peoples they wished to Christianize. The advocates of Christianity in the 13th century were so convinced with the need to learn the languages of the Muslims if they were going to make any successful attempts to convert them into Christianity. This conviction, which was later translated into a plan of action, was an important factor that helped in developing Orientalism so that it was very difficult at that time to separate Orientalism from Christianization or the religious motive in general. This was the first motive the helped in the origination of Orientalism. Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294 AD) was one of those who were so enthusiastic about learning the languages of the Muslims with the sole purpose of Christianization which he regarded as the only way to expand the Christian world on the map. To do so he needed three conditions:
1) Learning the necessary languages.
2) Studying about the different kinds of atheism.
3) Studying the counter-arguments so they could refute them.
Raymond Lull (1235 – 1316 AD) who was born in Majorca, Spain shared the very same passions of Bacon. He learned Arabic at the hands of an Arab slave and he had great efforts in establishing Arabic teaching chairs in various universities. The purpose underlying all these efforts at that time and the following times was Christianization; i.e. convincing the Arabs in their own language with the invalidity of Islam and attracting them to embrace Christianity.
The Church Council meeting that was held in Vienna in 1312 AD endorsed the thoughts of Bacon and Lull about learning Islamic languages and they approved teaching Arabic languages in five European universities; Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon and Salamanca. Raymond Lull was destined to live until he saw his dream realized and he thought that the time has come to make the second move by trying to subjugate the Muslims through Christianization and thus eliminating the biggest obstacle standing in the way of converting the whole humanity to the Catholic faith.
What helped the progress of Oriental studies at the end of the Middle Ages was those political and diplomatic ties with the Ottoman Empire which expanded its dominion at the time. The economic ties of each of Spain and Italy with Turkey, Syria and Egypt had a great effect in pushing the progress of Orientalist studies.
In the 16th century and afterwards the humanist trend that emerged during the European Renaissance led to even more objective studies. On the other hand the Roman papacy encouraged studying the Eastern languages for the benefit of Christianization.
In the 17th century the Orientalists started compiling Islamic manuscripts and establishing Arabic chairs in many universities. It is worthy of mention that the decision to establish an Arabic chair at the university of Cambridge in 1636 stated clearly that it was for serving two main purposes; one is commercial and the other is missionary. From here we realize that there was a mutual interaction between Orientalism and Christianization, even if there was no similarity in the intent of the academic Orientalist and the Evangelist missionary. We can also say that both of them are still persisting, one way or the other, till our present time.
Serious attempts towards understanding Islam:
Despite these missionary goals which were clearly hostile in nature to Islam, yet the end of the 17th century witnessed another different trend that continued in the 18th century. This trend took an objective and neutral look at Islam topped with some sympathy. This encouraged the emergence of a new mental propensity that started spreading all over Europe which was (at that time) mostly contrary to the church. From here there was a chance for some of the reasonable Europeans to stand in the face of the unjust and unfair treatment Islam got from the West in the middle ages. Some moderate and general writings started to emerge about Islam and the Islamic civilization replacing the opinions which were adopted by the theologians until that time who described Muhammad (SAWS) as a demon and the Qur’an as a mixture of nonsense and falsehoods. These opinions were replaced by other opinions that were less violent and more moderate in being fair to the Muslims.
The most important attempt made towards a proper understanding of Islam came at the hands of Hadrian Reland (died 1718 AD), professor of eastern languages at Utrecht University, Holland. His book about Islam was issued in Latin in 1705, in two volumes, and it was titled: The Muhammadan Religion. The first volume was a review for the Islamic creed depending on Arabic and Latin references. The second volume was dedicated to correcting the Western opinions circulated about Islam at that time. The book stirred much attention and it even led to accusing the writer of propagating for Islam whereas all he wanted was to try to realize a proper understanding of Islam in an attempt to pave the way for the Christians to fight it in a more effective way than before.
Still the Catholic Church included this book under the list of forbidden books but despite that it was translated into English, French, German, Dutch and Spanish. In the introduction of his book Reland points out to what continuously befalls the various faiths at the hands of the opponents; either by making no attempt to understand such faiths or by just accusing them of every evil claim they can think of in a way that exposes clearly their mean intentions. Islam was subjected to the same treatment by its opponents just like all other faiths. Reland says that everyone is entitled to seek the truth wherever it might be. That’s why he wanted to talk about Islam not the way it is seen through the thick cloud of the people’s ignorance and malice but the way it is taught in the mosques and schools of the Muslims. No other faith has ever been subjected, at any time or age, to what Islam was subjected to by its opponents of contempt, distortion and being accused of the most evil descriptions. Things have reached the point that if they wanted to describe any theory with some despicable or disgraceful description they would call it a “Muhammadan Theory”. As if there was nothing at all good about the teachings of Muhammad! At that time, if anyone expressed an honest wish to know Islam they would only present him with the most opposing books that are filled with nothing but vileness and falsehoods.
The attempt of Reland and others in getting people to know about the real Islam without any preconceptions was not able to establish a clear thinking trend in Europe and hence it was not able to fully obliterate the distorted image of Islam from the minds of the Europeans in general; this image that was instilled by the Medieval Ages and which still persists till our present days. The image maintained, more or less, the very same hues in the minds of the Europeans. From time to time, however, and due to some slight color retouches the image was modified but still it maintained the same old character and Islam, as we can see, is still badly distorted in the minds of the Europeans.
We can’t deny that Orientalism, in our present time, is abating itself from the heavy tint of theology and that the tone of the accusations against Islam is getting less tense than before. We can’t deny either that all the past accusations were reconsidered but all of this open-mindedness was still with an overall limited effect.
The 19th and 20th centuries were however the real flourishing age of the Orientalist movement and by the end of the 19th century studying Islam became a totally separate specialization within the general Orientalism movement. Many of the scholars specialized in Islamic and Arab studies at that time (like Theodor Nöldeke and Ignác Goldziher) were known for being Semitic language scholars in general and for being specialized in Hebrew and Holy Book studies.
Aspects of the Orientalist activities:
The Orientalists started in the first half of the 19th century, in the various countries of Europe and America, to create associations to pursue Orientalist studies. The first Asiatic Society was founded in Paris in 1822, then the Royal Asiatic Society was founded in Britain and Ireland in 1823, then the American Oriental Society in 1842, and then the East German Society in 1845.
Soon enough these societies started getting active in issuing various magazines and publications. Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall issued the first specialized Orientalist magazine in Europe and it was issued in Vienna. In 1895 a magazine made advent in Paris giving full attention to the Islamic world and it was called The Islam magazine. It was followed by a similar magazine in 1906 and this time it was issued by the French scientific mission in Morocco, then it became specialized in Islamic studies.
In 1901 Der Islam magazine made advent in Germany, then a similar magazine made advent in Petersburg in Russia in 1912 but it only lasted for a short time. In Britain a magazine about the Islamic world was first issued in 1911 by Samuel Marinus Zwemer who was the head of the missionaries in the Middle East.
Presently the Orientalists have a number of magazines and periodicals that exceed 300 various publications and are issued in various languages. The 19th century also witnessed the advent of various international Orientalist conferences which gave more opportunity to increased coordination and closer cooperation. It also gave more chance to get to know their works directly so redundancy and repetition could be avoided and the efforts could be more effective and unified.
The first international conference for Orientalism was held in Paris in 1873 and ever since then these conferences have been held regularly reaching now more than 30 conferences; not to count all the seminars and regional meetings that go back in date to the first conference ever held. The first conference for the German Orientalists was held in Dresden, Germany in 1849 and ever since then these conferences have been held regularly.
Such conferences usually encompass hundreds of scholars. For instance the Oxford Conference comprised nine hundred scientists from twenty-five countries, eighty-five universities, and sixty-nine scientific associations. The work groups in each conference can reach fourteen work groups each group is specialized in some particular Orientalist study. The researches produced by such conferences are published in volumes to be used are references, systems and sources by the various researchers.
Orientalism and colonization
The colonization expansions in the Islamic world played a tangible role in identifying the nature of the European perspective of the East, especially after the first half of the 19th century; colonization benefited a lot from the Orientalist heritage. On the other hand the Western grip over the East played an important role in boosting the Orientalist attitudes; so the Orientalist institutes prospered and enlarged in context and size along with the expansions of Europe in the East.
The 19th century witnessed the Western colonization for many parts of the Islamic world. In 1857 England occupied India politically and so India fell officially under the rule of the British crown after falling under the authority of the British East India Company since the start of the century. In 1857 France seized control over the whole of Algeria after they started raiding it in 1830. Holland also occupied the East Indies (Indonesia) through the Indian Dutch Company, and after 1881 Egypt and Tunisia were occupied and from hence colonization kept severing the Islamic countries bit by bit while keeping them under their dominion till at the end they were able to encircle the Islamic world from east to west. After the WWI the whole Islamic world was almost fully under the occupation of the Western colonization.
Colonization was able to gear a whole group of Orientalists for serving its goals, achieving its objectives and empowering its rule in the Muslim countries. From here emerged an official and strong bond between colonization and Orientalism. A number of Orientalists who did not find any problem in using their works to humiliate the Muslims and weaken Islam went with the stream whereas other honest Orientalists were shamed and embittered with such behaviors.
The relation between colonization and Orientalism was not just to give this colonial principle a twist of reasonable justification, it was (according to Edward Saeed) much deeper and farther. The Orientalist justification for the colonial dominion took place even before colonization could tighten its grip on the East and not after. The Orientalist legacy was like a guide that the colonization used for knowing every nook and cranny about their targets; for a better and more effective grip on the East and to be able to subdue it and humiliate its peoples.
Knowing about the Eastern peoples was the secret ingredient that made their rule easy and effective because knowledge is power; and more power requires more knowledge. There was an ongoing dialectic movement between information and the growing control. This was how colonization along with the cooperation of Orientalism headed towards weakening the spiritual and moral resistance in the hearts of Muslims and discrediting them in their beliefs and heritage, until they finally subdued the Muslims to the civilization and the culture of the West.
The Jews and Orientalism
And so it became clear, as explained above, that there were specific reasons over the centuries that pushed the Western Christian researchers to Orientalism and urged them to achieve scientific and unscientific goals. A burning question arises here: What were the real reasons that spurred the Jews to get interested in Orientalism and what was their role within the Orientalism movement?
The answer will not be any easy because all the resources that tackle Orientalism and its development have totally omitted this point altogether. The reason why this point was dropped, from our point of view, is that the Jewish Orientalists were able to adapt themselves into becoming a key element in the framework of the Christian European Orientalist movement. They entered the field as Europeans not as Jews! Ignác Goldziher (at his time) was able to become the leader of all the scholars of Islamic studies in Europe without a match. His books are, till this day, gaining great respect and appreciation by the entire score of Orientalist.
So the Jews were careful not to venture into the Orientalism movement as Jewish Orientalists for fear of finding themselves isolated and hence losing momentum. So they decided that it was ok for them to be included as European Orientalists thus hitting two birds with one stone; first they imposed themselves on the movement and second they achieved their purposes in degrading Islam which is the exact same purpose of the Christian Orientalists.
The future of Orientalism:
To conclude this historical entry we must highlight some of the pressing questions about the future of Orientalism: Is Orientalism still living its best days, or is its effect and activity dwindling specially with the waning of the colonial tide on the Islamic world? Where does Orientalism stand nowadays? What is the position of the European governments from sponsoring the Orientalism activities? Posing these questions is quite justifiable because there are many theories tackling the end of Orientalism.
Orientalism lived its best days in the second half of the past century and the first half of this century. This interval witnessed a giant generation of Orientalists and after them came a new generation treading the very same path.
The European governments are still interested in supporting the Orientalist movement in Europe and they do not spare any funds necessary for the continuation of such activity. There is therefore a close link between the interests of the West and its support for the Orientalist movement. This makes the continuation of Orientalism dependent on the continued financial support provided by the governments and various agencies. While the continued financial support depends on how keen the West is on holding on to its interests in the Arab and Muslim world and we all know that holding on to those interests is a reality confirmed by all the evidence. There is no glimmer of a hope suggesting that the West is willing to give up these interests. So as long as this is the case the need for Orientalism in the West will continue to exist and it will even become more persisting.
There are actually many upsides to Orientalism:
The Orientalists are actually serving their goals diligently, faithfully and in full dedication. When Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje set his intention on writing a book about Makkah his wish to study it closely and directly was not obstructed by the fact that he is Christian and not supposed to enter Makkah. So he impersonated the identity of a Muslim and named himself Abdel-Ghaffar to be able to visit Makkah in 1884. He lived there for five months and he perfected Arabic language like an Arab. After he got back he wrote two books (Pilgrimage to Mecca & Mecca in the latter part of the 19th century) describing Makkah so profoundly with various maps attached. Orientalists, in general, are so amazingly patient in researching and studying fully their targets. They are also familiar with many old and new languages. Sheikh Mustafa Abdul-Razek pointed once to their relentless patience, their diligence, their wide knowledge and their effective approaches.
After attending the 25th Orientalists’ conference, Sheikh Amin Al-Kholy said, “Ignaty Krachkovsky presented a research about the rare Qur’an manuscripts in the 16th century and I highly doubt the many of the Muslim scholars know anything about these manuscripts, and this is something that cannot be underestimated.”
There is a state of total coordination and integration between the Orientalists in the various countries; they are always coordinating, cooperating and unifying their efforts in the field of Islamic and Arab studies. The channels between them are opened to the full through the conferences, the periodicals and the various other publications. The international conferences held by the Orientalists reached about 30 conferences between the years 1873 and 1968; not to count the seminars and regional meetings. Oxford Conference comprised 900 scientists from 25 countries, 85 universities, and 69 scientific associations. The work groups in each conference can reach fourteen work groups each group is specialized in some particular Orientalist study.
Focus! Each one can focus on one particular branch of Islamic studies and spend his whole life researching and inquiring about its every minute detail. That’s why we find them fully aware about all the Islamic or Arab researches published in our countries. Their private and public libraries are teaming with the various Arabic and Islamic references; old and new. There is also another fact known to all those who have been closely connected to Orientalists; they are never too conceited or proud to admit a mistake once the matter is brought to their attention; they realize that they can never fully grasp the Arabic language so they are open to criticism.
The Islamic Encyclopedia is one of the fruits of the international and scientific cooperation between the Orientalists at large. Its first edition was released in English, French and German in the interval between 1913 and 1938. Then it was translated into Arabic till the letter (Ein). The Orientalists issued a new edition where they added all the articles that were written about the newest researches and all the new manuscripts that were discovered. This edition was released in the interval between 1954 and 1977. Naguib Al-Aqiqi pointed that the Arabic committee responsible for translating the Islamic Encyclopedia will start translating the new edition from the letter (Ein) so as not to start all over again after the part they finished from the old edition!
Carl Brockelmann’s book (Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur – History of the Arabic Literature) is in fact a preliminary source book that no researcher or pupil of Arabic or Islamic studies can do without. This book is not just dedicated to Arabic literature and philology; it also includes every Islamic record written in Arabic language. It is a workbook for the Arabic manuscripts (whether hand-written or printed). He also complemented his efforts by adding information about the biographies of the writers. It was first issued in two volumes in 1898 and 1902, and then it was followed by three large supplementary volumes between 1938 and 1942. The writer then re-issued the first two volumes in a new revised edition befitting the changes he introduced in the three following volumes. The author approved the request of the Arab League to translate the book into Arabic and unfortunately the whole project is still struggling till the present day. The Arab Muslim researcher, Fuat Sezgin (who studied under the German Orientalist Hellmut Ritter) continued the works of Brockelmann through his book “The Arabic Legacy” in German language. Some of it was translated into Arabic and he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize of Islamic Studies in 1978. We have to admit though that had it not been for the book of Brockelmann, Sezgin would have never written his.
Collecting the Arabic manuscripts from everywhere and by all means, preserving and maintaining them from any damage and taking care of them, indexing them and describing the manuscripts accurately kept them at the disposal of the interested researchers and in known places. Even the requests made to photocopy any of them were treated without any routine or complicated procedures. Ahlwardt even developed an index for the Arabic manuscripts in the Library of Berlin in ten volumes which reached the utmost state of art and accuracy. This index was issued at the end of the past century and it included indexes for about 10 manuscripts. Orientalists from all the European libraries and universities indexed the Islamic Arabic manuscripts found in the European libraries reaching tens or even hundreds of thousands in number. We also have to admit that moving all these manuscripts to Europe whether legally or illegally provided for them the utmost amount of care, attention and indexing. I say this while I feel so bitter and sorrowful because of the fate of the rare manuscripts that stayed in many of our Arab countries and because of terrible damage that afflicted them to the point of rendering them totally unusable.
Orientalists have a long experience in the field of lexicography, especially the indexed lexicon for the Hadith terminology which includes all the six famous authentic Hadith books, in addition to the books of: Al-Daremi, Mutta’ Malik and Musnad Ahmad. It was published in seven volumes and it is widely used by all the Islamic universities and institutes all over the world. This lexicon was compiled through the collaboration of a number of Orientalists and here we must never forget the efforts of August Fischer in issuing the old Arabic Lexicon sorted by the source words. Fischer spent 40 years compiling it and arranging it along with some other Orientalists.
They published many heritage books and we never came to know about such heritage (printed and verified) except through their efforts. This was not just limited to the Arabic texts; they even translated the various Arabic Islamic books into many European languages.
After this overview about the Orientalists’ upside we need to have a look at the downsides in their way of thinking and their researching particularly when related to Islam. Below are some of the examples:
Orientalism adopts a particular mindset based on a fundamental idea of discrimination between the East and West since the East and West can never meet at one point. Kipling the colonial poet seems to think that the Westerners are reasonable, peace-loving, liberals, logical and able to acquire real values, while the Easterners have none of the above. Still Orientalism ignores an important fact which is simply that this Western civilization they so fondly describe as being the civilization of Christianity was originally based on the teachings of an Eastern man; Jesus Christ as well as being based on what they copied from the sciences of the Arabs and what the Arabs copied and developed from the previous civilizations. These undeniable facts defy the whole idea of the Orientalism which is based on discrimination between the East and the West. Christianity is an Eastern faith and claiming that the West is advanced since its faith is Christianity while the East is backward since its faith is Islam is utterly baseless. The advancement of the West in science in technology has nothing to do with Christianity just as much as the backwardness of the East also has nothing to do with Islam and can never be blamed on it. This backwardness is a punishment mostly deserved by the Muslims who abandoned their faith rather than embraced it as they claim.
Apart from all other sciences Orientalism has never developed its methods, approaches or studies. In studying Islam it has never been able to get over this aseptic theological background from which it originated. When it comes to this nothing is new under the sun till this day except for some anomalies. Various means are affirming and enforcing this traditional status till our present days. They still look at Islam from the perspective of the Medieval Ages and this is actually one of the things that led the secretary-general of the European Muslim Council in 1979 to denounce the Western media for its stance on Islam describing it as “unjust attempts to slander and distort Islam”. All of this is happening although the Vatican (in 1965) praised the facts that were brought by Islam about God, His Ability, Jesus, Mary, the prophets and the messengers and although Rudi Paret (the German Orientalist) said that the Eastern studies – since the mid 19th century – have been tending towards seeking the utter truth and siding away from any insincere intentions. The contemporary French Orientalist, Maxime Rodinson, has another opinion and seems to think that a revolution has overtaken the European perceptions of Islam which made the assessment of the Christians for Muhammad a sensitive issue since they no longer can claim his falsity (as a demonic impostor) as was the case in Middle Ages. At the time when we find some Christian thinkers being so careful in issuing a judgment or considering the problem we find other Catholic specialists who consider Muhammad “religiously genius” and other wondering if he can be considered a real prophet since St. Thomas Acquinas was a proponent of natural theology which defies infallibility and perfection. In another sense this rejects the real prophethood of the Prophet who is chosen by God through a revelation! It is not strange that the Orientalists differ with us in their opinion about Islam because the strange thing would be to agree with us; the whole launching pad from which they approach Islam is totally different from ours and for this particular reason they will always have a different view point from ours. Hence, we must never expect them to adopt our view point and start seeing Islam as a divine faith which concluded all the previous divine faiths, that Muhammad is the final Prophet of God, or that the Qur’an is a revelation that can never go wrong… etc. If they do any of this they’ll become Muslims and this was actually what happened with some of them who embraced Islam finally. But by embracing Islam they veered from the track of Orientalism and so we can’t expect all the Orientalists to change their faith or see things the way we see them. Still there are obvious priorities required for a proper scientific method. When I refuse a certain point of view I must explain to the reader this point of view first through the eyes of those who adopt it then I can contradict it. Based on this I conclude that the whole Islamic entity is based on believing in Allah and in Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) who got the Qur’an in the form of a revelation from Allah. Hence, the honest scholar must first explain this to his reader when he talks about Islam so the reader can understand the power of this faith (this belief system) in the history of Islam. After explaining this he can start contradicting if he likes. But to being, for starters, by imposing his perceptions which are based on his imaginations and illusions, this can never be an acceptable scientifically or ethically. As Dr. Hussein Mo’enes says, “Muhammad who is portrayed by the Orientalists is not the same Muhammad we believe in. He is a figment of their imagination. Same thing goes for Islam; the Islam they visualize is not the Islam that we believe in, it is the Islam of their own invention.” Hence, we can say that Orientalism in studying Islam is not taking a scientific approach but rather an ideological approach that seeks to propagate its own perceptions about Islam regardless of whether or not these perceptions are based on realities or delusions. It reminds us of what the Sophists did in the old times more or less. So if we describe the Orientalists in studying Islam (except for a thin minority) as being the Sophists of the modern age we wouldn’t be exaggerating at all. Still, and to be fair, we have to say that whenever the Orientalist studies stayed away from the Islamic faith whenever they came nearer to objectivity and farther from biasness.
The Orientalists tend to apply the Christian standards on Islam and its Prophet. Jesus, from their view point, is the base of their faith and that’s why Christianity is attributed to Christ. They applied the same rule blindly and considered Muhammad for the Muslims to be the same as Jesus for the Christians. They even dubbed Islam as “Muhammedanism”! There are also other dimensions for using this description such as suggesting that Islam is a man-made faith and not from God; but the same does not apply on Christianity since they believe Jesus to be the son of God. They also tend to draw on another comparison between Jesus’ celibacy and Muhammad’s marrying more than one wife, or that Jesus was peaceful, enduring and tormented whereas Muhammad was a warrior and a politician.
Confusing Islam (the religion and the teachings) as adopted from the Qur’an and Sunnah on the one hand and between the situation of the Muslims and the Islamic world on the other. The Islam of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the way the contemporary Orientalist Kiesling sees it, is a dead Islam whereas the living Islam is the one that should be studied; it is the Islam found in the twisted habits of the various Islamic countries and infiltrating the lives of Muslims nowadays regardless of whether or not they are close or near to the original teachings of Islam.
They keep reiterating and emphasizing the importance of the different dissidents of Islam like the Bábism, the Baha'i, the Qadiani and the Bektashi and other sects whether old or new. They keep deepening the dispute between the Sunnis and Shiites, and they always consider the dissidents to have revolutionary thoughts and liberal minds. They always measure what they see in the Muslim world through their own rigid molds. Rodinson the Orientalists pointed this out once in saying that the Orientalists in the East did not see except the things they wanted to see, so they cared for much for the strange and little things. They did not want to advance the East so it would reach the status that Europe reached. Revival was the last thing they wanted for the East.
We miss a lot of objectivity in the writings of most of the Orientalists when they write about Islam. But when they write about other faiths like Buddhism or Hinduism, we find a lot of objectivity in how they present them. Islam, apart from all the other faiths that are found in the East or the West, is the target of their attack. Muslims, apart from all the followers of other faiths, are the ones they single out for their vile descriptions. All of this makes us wonder: why? Maybe the answer to this question can be found in the fact that Islam stands out as the only real shock that hit Europe, fear from Islam was the constant rule of the game. Up until the 17th century the Ottoman threat was looming over the European boarders and so they always felt threatened by it. So we could say that this whole complex turned into a state of chronic paranoia! Even at the time when the followers of Islam are the weakest they still feel threatened by it. But do Muslims realize this truth? The words of Muir make sense now when he said that the sword of Muhammad and the Qur’an are the most stubborn enemies yet known against civilization and freedom. What Gustave E. von Grunebaum claims that Islam is but a unique phenomenon that has not match yet in any other faith or civilization, because it is an inhuman faith that is incapable of evolving or acquiring objective knowledge, and because it is unethical, unscientific and authoritarian. Only then can we realize the secret underlying this constant deep hate against Islam and these baseless fabrications that have no share whatsoever in the field of science.
They give themselves the role of the accuser and the judge at the same time. At the time when the science of history just attempts to understand without accusing the society it’s studying, we find Orientalism giving itself the right to accuse and reject the Islamic tenets upon which the Islamic society is founded. This is mainly due to some pre-intentions that can never be described as purely scientific; just as Rudi Paret claims.
A group of Orientalists joined hands with the colonization that attempted to humiliate the Islamic world in an era that belongs to the modern age. Stefan Wild, the contemporary Orientalist, mentioned this fact about some of the Orientalists when he said that there’s a group calling themselves Orientalists who have dedicated their knowledge about Islam and its history for the sole purpose of fighting Islam and Muslims.
This is a painful reality to which all the honest Orientalists must admit. Among the various examples we have in this direction we must mention Carl Heinrich Becker (died in 1993) who founded the German magazine Der Islam for conducting a study that served the colonial interests of Germany in Africa. There is also Vasily Vladimirovich Bartold (died in 1930) who founded the Russian Magazine “Mir Islama – The World of Islam” who was assigned by the Russian government to conduct some researches serving the Russian interests in Central Asia. We also have the famous Dutch Islamist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (died in 1936) who played a focal role in forming the political and colonial interests of Holland in the East Indies. He took leadership roles under these colonial interests in the East Indies and Indonesia. As for the famous French Orientalist Louis Massignon he was an adviser to the Ministry of the French colonies for the North African affairs. There are many others like these who have dedicated themselves and their studies just to serve the colonization of Islam and the Muslims.
The call to reform Islam and the Muslims: The Orientalists claim that Islam is a rigid religion, that it no longer matches the spirit of the age and that it needs some radical reform for that purpose! One of them says explicitly that Islam must either adopt a radical reform or it must abandon the whole pace of life altogether. This call is directed upon the Muslims by outsiders who don’t even claim to know what they need to do about their religion. This so-called reformation is but an attempt to change the way Muslim see Islam and to get Islam as close as possible to look like Christianity. It is only proper to say that Islam owns some fundamentals that no one can ever change; the basic tenets of Islam. It also has some branches which can be adjusted according to the benefit of Islam. The way we Muslims understand reform is to reform the Islamic thought which is in need for constant revision to befit the requirements of the age and the nation and within the teachings of Islam. But the generic call to reform Islam or to renew it (as proposed sometimes) is something inconceivable! It sounds like emptying Islam from its content, or segregating it from mixing with the affairs of the society, or rendering it into just some wise teachings like Christianity. Some of the Muslims have even incriminated themselves in such calls of reforming Islam à la Orientalism. One of the strange books published by an Arab Muslim professor at the University of Frankfurt in Germany titled “The Crisis of Modern Islam” was issued more than ten years ago and in it the writer ardently calls for adopting the Western model in reformation by rendering their faith into just some duties that are not even mandatory. He sees this as the perfect solution for the crisis of Islam! That Islam will just be shunned from interfering in the lives of the Muslims just like the Western secular model. This is the story of how some Muslims have decided to spare the Orientalists from their relentless efforts to undermine Islam by deciding to take the axe and undermine it for them after the so many years they spent attempting to do it in vain.
Our position from Orientalism:
After this whole overview for the upsides and downsides of Orientalist, we must discuss our position as Muslims from all this which brings us back to what our forefathers used to do in such situations.
The old and foreign intellectual trends, which represented some challenge to Islam and the authentic Islamic thought in the flourishing days of Islam, motivated the Muslims at these times to confront them solidly. Their confrontational stand was not just up to the level of the challenge but it even exceeded it. The Islamic thought defeated all these trends accurately and absorbed them fully. It confronted these trends using the very same intellectual weapons since the confrontation was strictly intellectual. After all these year, it seems now that history is showing us another rerun of the old confrontation which is also a war of thought and intellect. Such wars have their special weapons and artillery because losing this type of war is much detrimental and debilitating than losing a military war no matter how big it is. Let us take a pioneering figure in the history of Islamic thought like our great scholar Al-Ghazali who fought in so many intellectual battles and emerged victorious from all of them. What did he do? Al-Ghazali says in his book “Al-Munqidh minal-Dalal – The Rescuer from Error”, “One can never tell that a science is corrupt before he can encompass it fully and becomes equally knowledged in it as the most knowledged of its people, then he must surpass this level by reading everything that the maker of this science read. This is the only way we can tell that his claim is correct.”
Now let us measure on this and we will find that the Orientalists must acquire, absorb and study Islam fully and deeply as a first step to critique it correctly and to be able to have a ground for their claim that what it brings is false or corrupt.
This fact gives cold feet to the Orientalists who think a thousand times before writing anything that could bring them scientific criticism, expose them or prove their falsity. Rodinson himself confirms this reality when he said that there is only one way to criticize an Orientalist and this way starts with studying their writings in details and the criticism must be combined with real and constant self-criticism. We must be able to face ourselves with our defects and shortcomings to be fully aware of the problems faced by our age.
The upside of Orientalism might as well be in their constant attack to our past glories and not in praising us! We all know that many Orientalists praised us in their works and they praised our past civilizations, our scholars and our legacy; last to these was the German Orientalists Sigrid Hunke in her book “The Sun of Allah Shines Over the West”. But the downside of praise is that it sedates us and keeps our heads stuck in the clouds dreaming happily of our past. We might like to live in our happy dreams thinking ourselves to be glorious just because our ancestors were glorious. Jamal El-Din Al-Afghani once said, “The Muslims live in the past of what their fathers did. Every time you tell them, ‘Be the sons of Adam!’ They say, ‘Our fathers were so and so!’ They can’t realize that the glory of their fathers can never be achieved through being lazy as they are right now. Whenever the Westerners want to apologize for being lazy they say, ‘Can’t you see how our fathers were?’ It is true your fathers were real men but it is also true that you are not like them. So it is not proper to keep bringing up the glories of your father unless you want to do exactly like them.”
Hence, we say that the offensive and provocative side of the Orientalists could be doing us much good than the conciliatory side. This provocation could be a motive to shake us out of this intellectual slumber so we could start moving again, so we could build our own thoughts anew, so we could rearrange our cultural edifice and get up from our fall. This could be what Arnold Toynbee meant when he said that civilization is a response to the challenge, or in other words a reaction of a people to a challenge they face.
The response we’re talking about here is not just a response that exhausts our energy in anticipation for more strikes; it is a response that moves us from a weak situation to a stronger one. We must never suffice with the position of the attacked because the attacked is often weak, we have to change our position and this can never be achieved unless we changed our thoughts. We are not backward because we have no resources, we are backward because we have no thoughts and because our efforts are defused. This situation will never be changed except if we changed ourselves as Allah says, “Allah does not change the condition of a people's lot, unless they change what is in their hearts…”
We must also admit that Orientalism will keep deriving its strength from our weakness and that its existence is conditioned by the ineptness of the Islamic world to know itself. Orientalism, in essence, is a form of intellectual tutelage and once the Islamic world knows itself and decides to get up from its fall by shaking the burdens of cultural and intellectual backwardness off its shoulders, only then will Orientalism finds itself facing a real crisis; particularly the part of Orientalism that is fixated on Islam. When that day comes they won’t find any audience for them; neither in Europe nor in the Islamic world. To be more specific about the things we need to do let me bring to your attention the below points:
We must take it seriously; we must take into account that it has immense effects on various and wide sectors of learned people in the Islamic and the Western worlds alike. So we must study Orientalism profoundly and accurately. It is not enough to say that what they write is gibberish because even if it were, this gibberish is written in many languages and it is widely spread. Facing it must be on the very same scientific level and in fully effective words as Dr. Hussein Mo’enes says.
Instead of feeding our thoughts on the Islamic Encyclopedia that was compiled by the Orientalists before the WWII, which they themselves have surpassed by issuing an updated one a few years ago, we need to issue our own Islamic Encyclopedia in Arabic language and in the main European languages. This Encyclopedia must at least match the one issued by the Orientalists in design, compilation and scientific content. It must convey the Islamic view point in all the branches of Arabic and Islamic studies to the Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Unless we fill all the intellectual voids with thought and intellect, they will be left under the mercy of contrary (or even hostile) thoughts; and we can’t blame but ourselves if that happens.
We must unite our efforts in the Islamic world to establish a global and scientific Islamic institution whose allegiance does not belong to a particular country or any particular political, intellectual or religious school. Its first and foremost allegiance must be to Allah and His Prophet. It must be capable of attracting the Islamic and scientific cadres from all over the world. It must stand on equal footing with the Orientalist movement and it must have its own high-ranking periodicals and scientific journals in various languages. It must work on restoring our intellectual authenticity and our independence of thought. The really sorrowful thing is that all over the vastness of the Islamic world with its countries and inhabitants (reaching now over one thousand million) and with all our amazing abilities and resources we still do not have one scientific institution that matches the scientific and financial abilities of the Orientalist institution! Isn’t this something pathetic?
We must have a global missionary institution and by this I mean an organization for Islamic Dawa to call others to Islam on the one side, on another side to care for the new Muslims and on a third side to protect the Muslims by birth. This institution must issue Arabic and Islamic books in all the languages, it must care to correct all the wrong misconceptions about Islam and must propose Islam in a scientific method that befits the modern mind and presents Islamic solutions for the present-day Muslims.
We must prepare and compile an accredited translation for the Qur’an in all the living languages to block the way on many erroneous translations that are spread all over the world and which were prepared by Orientalists and are filled with falsehoods about Islam. We must also choose an ample amount of authentic hadeeth and translate them along with the translation of the Qur’an to be used by the non-Arabic-speaking Muslims and the non-Muslims who are interested in knowing about Islam from its origin.
We must work on purifying the Islamic heritage so it would be a fit intellectual feast for the Muslims. Our heritage surely has in it the good and bad! Although Islam can’t take the blame for all the superstitions, the delusions and Israelites that are contained in some of the heritage books, yet the Orientalists are using it as one whole lot. I’ll just give you one example in the story of the “Satanic Verses” which is mentioned in some of our books. The Orientalists got focused on this story and if we tried to accuse them of spreading falsehoods about us they will simply say that the story is mentioned in our authentic books!
Attempting to venture on the fields of teaching Arabic and Islamic sciences outside the Islamic world through the cultural agreements that are held between the Islamic countries and the countries of Europe and America. This can be done by sending qualified professors from the Islamic countries to study at the fortresses of Orientalism. Gradually we can correct the European misconceptions about Islam through diligent scientific efforts and not just through slogans. I believe that many European universities will be ready to respond to such calls.
17th letter of the Arabic alphabet.