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Islam, Orientalism and the West

15 August 2011 Loonwatch.com 4 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

Edward Said

Edward Said

Islam, Orientalism and the West

I’m writing a much longer piece on Orientalism and its ramifications on our society today, but I found this article in TIME magazine from 1979 very interesting. It is essentially a long review of Edward Said’s historic work “Orientalism,” less than a year after its initial publication.

One piece of information that struck out was the fact that between 1800 and 1950 some 60,000 works on “Islam and the Orient” were published:

As writing about Islam and the Orient burgeoned—60,000 books between 1800 and 1950—European powers occupied large swatches of “Islamic” territory, arguing that since Orientals knew nothing about democracy and were essentially passive, it was the “civilizing mission” of the Occident, expressed in the strict programs of despotic modernization, to finally transform the Orient into a nice replica of the West.

Post 9/11, with the Iraq and Afghan invasions and the rise of Islamophobia to endemic levels I think its a safe bet that there have been thousands of publications about ‘Islam and Muslims in the Orient and the Occident.’

Special Report: Islam, Orientalism And the West

(TIME Magazine)

An attack on learned ignorance

In an angry, provocative new book called Orientalism (Pantheon; $15), Edward Said, 43, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that the West has tended to define Islam in terms of the alien categories imposed on it by Orientalist scholars. Professor Said is a member of the Palestine National Council, a broadly based, informal parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He summarized the thesis of Orientalism in this article for TIME.

One of the strangest, least examined and most persistent of human habits is the absolute division made between East and West, Orient and Occident. Almost entirely “Western” in origin, this imaginative geography that splits the world into two unequal, fundamentally opposite spheres has brought forth more myths, more detailed ignorance and more ambitions than any other perception of difference. For centuries Europeans and Americans have spellbound themselves with Oriental mysticism, Oriental passivity, Oriental mentalities. Translated into policy, displayed as knowledge, presented as entertainment in travelers’ reports, novels, paintings, music or films, this “Orientalism” has existed virtually unchanged as a kind of daydream that could often justify Western colonial adventures or military conquest. On the “Marvels of the East” (as the Orient was known in the Middle Ages) a fantastic edifice was constructed, invested heavily with Western fear, desire, dreams of power and, of course, a very partial knowledge. And placed in this structure has been “Islam,” a great religion and a culture certainly, but also an Occidental myth, part of what Disraeli once called “the great Asiatic mystery.”

As represented for Europe by Muhammad and his followers, Islam appeared out of Arabia in the 7th century and rapidly spread in all directions. For almost a millennium Christian Europe felt itself challenged (as indeed it was) by this last monotheistic religion, which claimed to complete its two predecessors. Perplexingly grand and “Oriental,” incorporating elements of Judeo-Christianity, Islam never fully submitted to the West’s power. Its various states and empires always provided the West with formidable political and cultural contestants—and with opportunities to affirm a “superior” Occidental identity. Thus, for the West, to understand Islam has meant trying to convert its variety into a monolithic undeveloping essence, its originality into a debased copy of Christian culture, its people into fearsome caricatures.

Early Christian polemicists against Islam used the Prophet’s human person as their butt, accusing him of whoring, sedition, charlatanry. As writing about Islam and the Orient burgeoned—60,000 books between 1800 and 1950—European powers occupied large swatches of “Islamic” territory, arguing that since Orientals knew nothing about democracy and were essentially passive, it was the “civilizing mission” of the Occident, expressed in the strict programs of despotic modernization, to finally transform the Orient into a nice replica of the West. Even Marx seems to have believed this. Read more

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4 Comments »

  1. DISCLAIMER: (next 7 verses) i’m a weak reader and so as i’ve begun reading the koran 7 verses at a time, it hepls me to cut and paste them after i’ve read them because i then re-read them on this post. they may have absolutely nothing to do with this article. i welcome any input as to historical context or to whom some of the pronouns are refering.
    http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/koran/browse.html

    wow finally done with the cow/calf.

    [3.1] Alif Lam Mim.
    [3.2] Allah, (there is) no god but He, the Everliving, the Self-subsisting by Whom all things subsist
    [3.3] He has revealed to you the Book with truth, verifying that which is before it, and He revealed the Tavrat and the Injeel aforetime, a guidance for the people, and He sent the Furqan.
    [3.4] Surely they who disbelieve in the communications of Allah they shall have a severe chastisement; and Allah is Mighty, the Lord of retribution.
    [3.5] Allah– surely nothing is hidden from Him in the earth or in the heaven.
    [3.6] He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He likes; there is no god but He, the Mighty, the Wise
    [3.7] He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord; and none do mind except those having understanding.

    does anyone know what the first verse means? Alif Lam Mim.

  2. Hi Mike:

    Those letters are actually quite common–and there are various random letters beginning 29 chapters of the Qur’an. Nobody really knows why they are there or what they mean. There have been various theories–but nothing definite. Ibn Kathir, who wrote a very well regarded tafsir (commentary, exegesis) of the Qur’an, said “the disjoined letters in the beginning of some chapters are among those things about which Allah has reserved knowledge to Himself.”

  3. umsami,

    thanks. yeah i don’t get the point of putting out something that you don’t wish the recipients to understand, but i guess that is just me. why make a revelation that you don’t want anyone to understand the “reveal”? doesn’t reveal mean to make known?

  4. Hi. I am writing an article on Edward Said and desperately need the full Time article above. Can you please send it to my email address? Many thanks in advance.

    Kind Regards,
    Hossein

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