Orientalism and Its Discontents
By Robert Irwin
Overlook. 409 pp. $35
Nearly 30 years ago, the late Edward Said brought out his most famous book, Orientalism (1978). Till then, Orientalism had been regarded as simply the branch of European scholarship focusing on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But Said argued that it was, in fact, a highly politicized concept, the umbrella term for a kind of intellectual -- fostering racism, justifying Western interference in largely Muslim nations, and generally controlling how the West perceived the Middle East. It was, to use the now familiar academic catchphrase, a hegemonic discourse, reducing rich and vital cultures, peoples and religions to a set of patronizing stereotypes. As a scholarly discipline, Orientalism was rotten with bad faith or its students were the naive tools of a colonialist ideology.
The book proved wildly successful and made the young Said a star of the academy and of what has come to be called cultural studies. Indeed, Orientalism supported the central theoretical premise of many intellectuals at the time -- that the prejudices of dead white European males had utterly distorted and warped their scholarship, art, politics and human sympathies.
Robert Irwin, himself an Oxford-trained Arabist, doesn't buy this. He asserts in his introduction and argues in his penultimate chapter that Said's book, thinking and evidence are shoddy, unreliable and mean-spirited. The Columbia literary critic's attack on Orientalism, Irwin argues, maligns the lifework of admirable and deeply learned people, mocks a long, honorable tradition of scholarship, and plays fast and loose with the facts. Dangerous Knowledge is in part, then, Robert Irwin's riposte to Edward Said.
I say in part, because the bulk of this exhaustive, and somewhat exhausting, book consists of a solid history of Middle East scholarship from antiquity to the present. In format, it recalls Sandys's History of Classical Scholarship , being made up of a series of short biographies augmented by interpretive summaries of important research. Happily, Irwin's clean, clear prose -- he is a novelist as well as the Middle East editor for the Times Literary Supplement -- keeps the pages enjoyable as well as brisk. He explains the relevance of major textual discoveries and translations, lingers affectionately over the eccentrics, madmen and giants of the field, points out everyone's ideological or religious affiliations, and deploys with ease and grace a vast amount of reading and research. Irwin has, to use his own highest accolade, tried to get things right.
Dangerous Knowledge is appropriately full of knowledge, carefully presented. In antiquity, for instance, the culture of the Middle East wasn't regarded by outsiders as a wholly alien "Other": Aeschylus' "The Persians" sympathetically portrays the empire that only seven years previous had tried to conquer Greece; the Roman emperor Philip was an Arab; Islam was often regarded as just a variant of the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Christ). During the Middle Ages, Arabic texts introduced Euclid's mathematics to the West. Avicenna and Averroes were major interpreters of Aristotle. Moorish Spain was a center of unrivalled learning. As for the Crusades, well, the sultan of Egypt sarcastically observed that he was surprised "that Christian Crusaders should seek to imitate the violent ways of Muhammad, rather than the peaceful preaching of Christ and his Apostles."
Irwin doesn't fudge harsh truths. In Europe during the Middle Ages, an interest in the Koran could get you branded as a crypto-Muslim and earn you a prison sentence. European travel tales really did portray the East as a land of marvels and romance and magic and sensuality. At first, Europeans studied Arabic just to better understand the cultural background of the Bible. Between the Renaissance and the 19th century, European classical scholarship and Biblical studies usually provided the structural model for Orientalist research. While westerners often respected Arabs for their culture and science, they frequently thought Turks to be "the barbarous descendants of the Scythians."
We learn that Guillaume Postel (1510-81) was the first true Orientalist, as well a "complete lunatic." (For one thing, he believed a woman he met in Venice was the mystical Shekhinah, or divine presence, of the Kabbalah, as well as the New Eve.) Barthélémy d'Herbelot (1625-95), compiler of the Bibliothèque orientale , and Antoine Galland (1646-1715), translator of The Thousand and One Nights , were "the first Orientalists to take a serious interest in the secular literature of the Middle East." Edward Gibbon wanted to study Arabic at Oxford, but no one there could teach it to him. Ibn Khaldun's 14th-century historico-philosophical masterwork, The Muqaddimah , speculated about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations in ways that anticipate or influenced Gibbon, Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.
Nearly every page of Dangerous Knowledge casually points out what seems to most of us, with our feeble French or Spanish, truly awesome linguistic erudition. In the 17th century, Thomas Hyde knew Turkish, Malaysian, Armenian and Chinese; worked on the Persian, Arabic and Syriac texts of a polyglot Bible; and at Oxford was the Librarian of the Bodleian, Laudian Professor of Arabic, and Regius Professor of Hebrew. William Jones, famous for his discovery of the Indo-Aryan roots of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, "mastered thirteen languages and dabbled in twenty-eight." Silvestre de Sacy learned Arabic, Syriac, Chaldaean, Ethiopian, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Mandaean "and the usual number of European languages that any self-respecting nineteenth-century academic would expect to be at home in." Sacy, says Irwin, was the first European to really understand the meter of Arabic poetry.
Edward Said portrays Ernest Renan and the Count de Gobineau as arch-villains, but Irwin takes pains to show that the former's romantic generalities -- about, say, the desert as the land of monotheism -- were dismissed by true scholars, while the latter's racism was far different from what Said describes. (Irwin suggests that Said never actually read Gobineau.) Moreover, the 19th century was legitimately exploring the whole issue of race, with some people arguing, like Renan, that mixing ethnicities avoided softness and decadence, while others, like Gobineau, maintained that such mongrelization led to degeneracy (colonization, was, therefore, an "appetizing dish, but one which poisons those who consume it"). Even England's greatest Orientalist, William Robertson Smith, the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , was a racist: He thought the Arabs were superior to the Europeans.
Dangerous Knowledge is, in fact, really too packed a book for any easy summary. It ranges from the Indiana Jones-like career of the doomed Edward Palmer ("polyglot, spy and poet") to Arminius Vambery, who one evening after dinner talked about Balkan superstitions with Bram Stoker and thus provoked the nightmare that inspired Dracula. Irwin tells us of the spiritually anguished French scholar Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry, whose translation of the Koran remains the truest and most poetical. He speaks admiringly of the brilliant American Marshall Hodgson who, before his early death at 47, shook up Middle East studies with his three-volume The Venture of Islam , which emphasized the importance of geography and the contributions of Persians, Turks and Indians to the rise of Islam. He reminds us, time and again, that Jews have consistently been the greatest Arabic scholars, from the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), "the uncontested master of Islamic studies," to our contemporary Bernard Lewis. Above all, Irwin emphasizes what the late Albert Hourani (author of the bestselling A History of the Arab Peoples ) learned from his teacher Richard Walzer: "the importance of scholarly traditions: the way in which scholarship was passed from one generation to another by a kind of apostolic succession, a chain of witnesses (a silsila to give it its Arabic name)."
Dangerous Knowledge is, obviously, a history of that apostolic succession. It ends, though, with Muslim critiques of Western Orientalism and a chapter about Edward Said titled "An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic." This is an allusion to John Carter and Graham Pollard's quietly devastating 1934 Enquiry into Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets , which exposed Thomas J. Wise, England's foremost book collector, as a forger, cheat and liar. Irwin forthrightly maintains that "Said libelled generations of scholars who were for the most part good and honourable men and he was not prepared to acknowledge that some of them at least might have written in good faith."
Is Irwin right about Said? He certainly makes a cogent case. And yet. Said too was admired, even revered, by many good and honorable men and women, many of them first-rate thinkers and theorists. Haven't we, after all, persistently tended to view the Middle East through prejudices and distorting lenses of one sort or another? There's no doubt, then, that Dangerous Knowledge will be hotly argued about in departments of literature and Middle Eastern studies for some time to come. Still, like Irwin, I strongly believe that most scholars work hard to discover and tell us the truth. Dangerous Knowledge is a paean to that noble purpose. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He conducts a weekly book discussion on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com.