Posted by: Dawud Israel | November 4, 2010

Disoriented Orientalists

Disoriented Orientalists

Some summary and thoughts about Edward Said‘s “Orientalism” (more than half way through the book)…

There is something frightening about an intellectual like Edward Said. As I’ve been reading Orientalism I can sense a razor sharp intellect unlike any I have seen elsewhere, and a massive reservoir of anger that is channeled into piercing words. For the longest time I believed that Muslims were the angriest people, but Said’s indefatigable attacks make me think Muslims are light-weights in this field. Alhamdulillah a lot to learn about strategy in deconstructing opponents completely.

Orientalism is essentially a historical archaeology of the European mind and the creation of the Orient in the mindset of the West from early encounters with Islam to colonialism to Orientalist studies. Orientalism is above all, a power structure, a elitist mentality that seeks to intellectually stomp upon the rest of the world. “Orientalism making sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient” because the real Orient provokes a vision, but does not guide it. “Noldeke could declare in 1887 that the sum total of his work as an Orientalist was to confirm his “low opinion” of the Eastern people.” The condescension is almost fact-like, and it makes one understand where the true motivation for learning really lay: ego. Nerval said, “Inscriptions and bird droppings are the only two things in Egypt that give any indication of life.” (192) The West is the actor and the East is a passive reactor, there is this idea of the Muslim Golden Ages which is something we should stop gloating over because it characterizes “whole (historical) periods in the Orient as responses to the West.” Yes, this is the catch- get the “Muhammadans” to think of their greatest glory as subpar those of the West. The whole of Orientalism reads like a discovery in mental retardation, where European thought about the Orient developed not beyond two very easy logical steps, almost entirely devoid of critical thinking. After years worth of Orientalist scholarship, the West still knows nothing about us!

Orient as a Validator to European insecurities

Everybody knows some people who really are insignificant in their vision and knowledge yet they condescend others and seek out mistakes, but at the same time, we know that these same condescending individuals, if they were to stop attacking and condescending would have nothing else really in there lives. This is just the case with the Orientalists, it seems they must place themselves in this sort of grand scheme to ratify their existence: “anyone who mastered an Oriental language was a spiritual hero, a knight-errant, bringing back to Europe, a sense of its holy mission now lost” (94) and the idea of the Orient in the European mind prefigures a type of world stage, a football field where an epic battle takes place and its not hard to see where this mentality comes from the rise and fall of empires and religions. Napoleon came to Egypt, but that the “civilizing rays of Egypt spread to the whole Orient,” (95) just as America has come to Iraq and Afghanistan thinking that their project there will somehow cure the whole Middle East.

The reality is that this all is to cover a up a spiritual and intellectual poverty. The Orient is of existential importance to Europe, it is the reason they are. What if the Orient (everything apart from Europe) never existed? What reason would Europeans have to be? There would be no pilgrimage to the Orient- whether that meant religious pilgrimage, no conquest, no trade, nothing. The reality is Europe is and has been of very little importance- it is only recently that the West has started using this repository of Orientalist resentment that it has inherited to villify Islam. And the same line of argument applies today- they are too dumb and too inhuman to be worthy of conquest…it’s not a Crusade because they aren’t worth that much effort on our part, no- rather instead it is about giving them liberty. The whole Orientalist project serves to fortify and refortify the European ego. And building upon that, ‘The scope of Orientalism exactly matched the scope of empire.’ (112)

Orientalism Power Structure

Orientalists as Said exposes them are nothing more than men whose consensus is an ambivalent mixture of jealousy, hatred and admiration of the Middle East, which they justify through ‘scientific’ high-minded processes. Translating and dividing and subdividing the world’s languages seems to have made these Orientalists think they have license to judge an entire people since they understand their language. After all, who else has studied it like we have- no one (never mind it was never an issue for Oriental people). The West has produced 60,000 books between 1800-1950 (212) and so surely that must give them expertise of something? The words of the Orientalist are not so much a pen writing as a voice pronouncing (like a judge). Yet the key problem is everything must be translated into European context- Germans thought Hinduism to be an Oriental version of Christian panetheism, not to mention the misnomer of Islam as ‘Muhammadanism’, where by default Europeans assumed Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasalam) to be wrong, by his very existence, because he was not the Messiah. From one perspective the whole modern world today is an institution to indulge the retardation of Western thinkers.

There is also this dimension of the Orient representing the unconscious of Europe- a pristine, limitless, a tableau rasa that is at once below us, unworthy of our attention and yet, should be understanding of our attack while being quick to forgive us. As Quinet said about the Orient: “The Orient proposes and the West disposes.” The Oriental is first an Oriental, then a human and lastly again a Oriental again- the Oriental man is a strange peculiarity, but a human, and yet nonetheless a peculiarity (110). The Orient never changes–the new is the old betrayed by the new (111). One can see the love-hate relationship clearly in how Europe copes with the veil, its modesty and yet paradoxically its ‘seductiveness.’

Orientalism is built upon certain premises. Anwar Abdel-Malek puts it succinctly, ” for a traditional orientalist, an essence should exist- sometimes even clearly described in metaphysical terms- which constitutes the inalienable and common basis of all beings considered; this essence is both “historical,” since it goes back to the dawn of history, and fundamentally “a-historical,” since it transfixes the being, “the object” of study, within its inalienable and non-evolutive specificity, instead of defining it as all other beings, states, nations, peoples, and cultures- as a product, a resultant of the vector of the forces operating in the field of historical evolution.” (105) This idea of essence is what is at the heart and soul of Orientalism. Flaubert put it, “the more you concentrate on it, in detail, the less you grasp the whole” (197) as if they are chasing after a ghost or mythical creature that defies intellect and tramples imagination. It is not of consequence that there is no real essence of Europe, nor of any other part of the world- yet there must be an essence of Orientalism. And it is the belief in having found this “false essence” that is what Orientalism stands upon.

The structure of power with which Orientalism began was the continuous building upon previous works on the Orient, from the small to the big, recycled over and over again, constant quoting and referencing other works, but more akin to referencing old atlases and maps than reference to actual people who lived in these regions. From European standpoint it seems as if they are actually talking about the Orient but in reality Orientalists are talking at the Orient. It is strange but in a way, the constant referencing to other authors makes it seem as if there is a ‘sanad of Orientalism,’ where it is a community that has built up its ideas and notions about the Orient through recycled texts and thus heaped disproportionate praise on what little it has come to know, or think it knows, because indeed the savage was difficult to know and ‘understand,’ if there is something to understand after all. And this is how ‘Orientalism overrode the Orient’ (104) and all that has dominated ever since is a simulacra of the real Orient.

Next up… “Occidentalism- does it exist or how can it?”


  1. asSalaam alaykum – jazak Allah khier.

    You’ve probably come across them already, but here are two good examples in deconstructing these orientalist claims – the first about a so-called hadeeth and history and the second about the Qur’an.

    insha Allah they are interesting and add to what you have mentioned by given detailed examples.

    barak Allah fiikum

  2. An interesting read. Jazakum allahu khairun!

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