Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Orientalism revisited

For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies, Robert Irwin, London: Allen Lane: 2006. pp409

Click to view caption
Page showing a waterclock in the shape of a boat from Al-Jazari, Kitab al-jami' bayna al-'ilm wa al-'amal al-nafi' fi sina'at al-hiyal, Syria 1315 (Kuwait: Al-Sabah Collection); From Ibn Bakhtishu, Kitab manafi' al-hayawan, Baghdad c. 1250 (London: British Library); Page from a 1344 copy of Al-Hariri, Maqamat, showing a doctor visiting a patient (Vienna: Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek)

British writer Robert Irwin's new survey of over a thousand years of European orientalism is an intervention in what have sometimes been rather fraught debates about the disinterestedness, or otherwise, of the European study of Islam and Arab and Muslim societies and the possible connections between forms of study and European colonisation or western hegemony. Irwin is the author of a series of books for a general audience on Arab and Muslim history and culture, including an invaluable Companion to the Arabian Nights and an anthology of classical Arabic literature in English translation, and in his latest book, strangely titled For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies, he presents the history of European orientalism from a broadly sympathetic point of view.

Irwin's aim throughout is to defend a particular tradition, or traditions, of thought and study, and readers of his book will want to make up their own minds on how successful this defense has been. This is particularly the case given Irwin's critical chapter on the work of the late Palestinian-American writer and academic Edward Said, whose own 1978 book, Orientalism, was critical of the tradition that it sought to describe. However, were Irwin's book simply another installment in the already voluminous discussion of Said's writings then it would be less valuable than in fact it is. For this is a book more about orientalists than orientalism, and the author's intention is to show not how monolithic the field has been by comparing it, as did Said, to a kind of blanket discourse that has falsely represented its own object of study, but rather to stress its internal variety by examining the many individual scholars who have, to echo the epigraph to Said's book, made the East a career.

Moreover, the book is not, as Irwin takes pains to explain, a history of European attitudes to the East, as found in the works of innumerable European writers, painters, travelers and others who have historically interested themselves in Asia or the Arab region. Irwin writes that attitudes of this sort do not necessarily have anything to do with orientalism considered as a form of study, and he reproaches those who have wanted to conflate the two: the existence of prejudiced attitudes in novels, diaries and travel narratives, not to mention the memoirs of colonial-era European administrators, need have no connection with the work of academics and scholars.

Indeed, Irwin warns that much of the scholarly work he surveys may even seem quite boring to those looking for some general thesis on the historical relations between east and west. Yet, he writes, studious, if unexciting, activities such as "cataloguing the coins of Fatimid Egypt, or establishing the basic chronology of Harun al-Rashid's military campaigns against Byzantium," are the price to be paid for "serious scholarship".

Irwin begins his survey by considering the origins of European orientalism, noting that dating the beginnings of the European study of the orient has in itself been a source of controversy. A contrast between Europe and Asia seems to have been built into Ancient Greek thinking, for example, though the full meaning of that contrast remains unclear. What really sharpened the perceived contrast between Europe and its neighbours, however, was the advent of Islam and the subsequent Arab conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries CE. The transformations that followed, placing the eastern and southern Mediterranean, Spain and various other territories within a different cultural orbit, heightened European interest in the new power and new religion that had appeared beyond Europe's borders. In his early chapters Irwin shows how Christian figures in the Levant, such as St. John of Damascus, greeted the Muslim conquests, considering, too, the coexistence in Muslim Spain of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities and the mediaeval translation movement of works of Arabic philosophy, such as those by Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), into Latin.

However, Irwin does not linger in the earlier periods, and his narrative becomes noticeably fuller following the appearance, in the early 16th century, of the Frenchman Guillaume Postel, "the first true orientalist." A diplomat and a scholar, Postel was the first holder of the first professorship of Arabic in Paris, at the Collège de France in 1539, and he wrote a Gramatica Arabica, an Arabic grammar drawing on classical Arabic grammatical works that was the first of its kind in Europe. Postel and others like him were chiefly interested in Arabic as a Semitic language that might provide important insights into biblical Hebrew, and for this reason many 16th and 17th century European orientalists were Christian clergymen undertaking biblical research or independent scholars.

Those who interested themselves in Arabic were often in need of patronage, and this appeared in the English case with the foundation of the Laudian Professorship of Arabic at Oxford in 1636, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, wanting to end Oxford's "international reputation as a centre for intellectual torpor" and make it instead into a centre of learning. The early generations of European orientalists, such as those who held the Oxford chair, had little interest in "real live Arabs," Irwin says, wanting instead "to know more about the manner of life of Abraham and Moses, to identify the flora and fauna of the Bible and map out the topography of ancient Palestine," and this explains their chiefly antiquarian and linguistic concerns.

While these kinds of interests were complemented by growing diplomatic and official concerns over Ottoman power in the eastern Mediterranean at the time, Irwin resists connecting these with the scholarly activities of the orientalists, who in any case did not develop any "substantive interest in the language or culture of the Turks." Indeed, the European study of the orient remained an affair of "sleepy dons and impoverished orientalists" until the appearance on the scene of the "founder of modern orientalism," the Frenchman Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, at the end of the 18th century. It was de Sacy, Irwin says, who "created Orientalism as a sustained discipline with a regular flow of teachers, students, rituals of intellectual initiation and academic standards."

"A sombre, severe and polemical figure," de Sacy was professor at the Ecole spéciale des langues orientales vivantes, founded in Paris in 1795, though he had, Irwin writes, "no time for living languages....and no interest in visiting foreign parts." A scholar and a linguist, de Sacy had "strong views on Arabic prose. He disapproved of the disordered imagination and sloppy colloquialisms of The Thousand and One Nights. He also had a poor opinion of [the mediaeval writer] al-Hariri's Maqamat... he had much in common with the mediaeval Arab grammarians and lexicographers whom he studied with so much enthusiasm." In addition to "his researches based on Arabic texts, de Sacy also published on the pre-Islamic antiquities of Persia, Persian grammar, the writings attributed to the Persian poet al-Attar, the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics and a history of the kings of Mauritania."

De Sacy, it turns out, was a prototype for many later orientalists, allying meticulous scholarship with a studious avoidance of contemporary affairs. While this meant that of all their academic colleagues they most resembled classicists, the orientalists that Irwin goes on to consider were not without research programmes or large-scale historical and cultural views of their own, and it was these, rather than the mediaeval character of the materials they studied, that has done most to arouse controversy.

Nineteenth-century German orientalists, such as Eichhorn and Wolf, for example, began to examine the Qur'an from the point of view of the textual criticism that had first been applied to the study of the Bible, with controversial results, and Ranke, though not himself primarily an orientalist, apparently adopted his larger historical views from the Hegelian atmosphere of the time, supposing that Islamic culture, having fulfilled its world-historical role in the Middle Ages, had now served its historical function. "World history for Ranke and for many who came after him," writes Irwin, was "the story of the triumph of the West."

It is this kind of attitude that Edward Said drew attention to, and Irwin does not deny that "two of Said's orientalist archvillains," the Frenchmen Ernest Renan and Count Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, did indeed propagate views of this sort. However, he argues that neither Renan nor de Gobineau can bear the weight sometimes put upon them, neither being much more than "stylish journalist[s] and general pundit[s]" with little knowledge either of Arabic or of Arab societies.

In any case, Irwin writes, these men's work should not be allowed to represent that of serious scholars or to stand in for serious scholarship. De Gobineau's "work on the decipherment of cuneiform was actually nonsense, the speculative work of a crank...His work in the field of ancient languages had the sort of importance for Oriental studies that attempts to patent perpetual motion machines has had for the history of science." Serious students of the orient, such as the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher, whom Irwin considers to have been the "greatest of the orientalists," cannot, he says, be lumped together with writers like Renan and de Gobineau, as if they were part of the same enterprise or held similar views.

From this point on Irwin's account goes off in several directions as he considers the work of prominent British, French, American, German, Soviet and other orientalists broadly from Goldziher's death in 1921 to the present day. He is particularly good at showing the human foibles, and occasional mild absurdities, of the orientalists he describes, and many readers will recognise the aptness of many of his formulations. Ernest Gellner, for example, author of Muslim Society ("too strongly influenced by Ibn Khaldun"), is described here as impressing "for the sense of intellectual power that seemed to radiate from the man," the late A.F.L. Beeston, formerly Laudian Professor at Oxford, is fondly remembered, and there are incisive sections on various well-known French orientalists, including Louis Massignon ("the holy madman"), Jacques Berque ("fanatically francophone...ponderous, allusive, even flatulently vacuous") and Maxime Rodinson, who died in 2004 ("reacting against Massignon's flamboyant spirituality, he decided to concentrate on an aspect of material culture, [publishing] a series of articles on mediaeval Arab cookery.")

Irwin provides assessments of the work of the grandees of British and Anglo-American orientalism, such as R.A. Nicholson, A.J. Arberry and Sir Hamilton Gibb, "British patricians", such as Elie Kedourie and P.J. Vatikiotis, the older generation of refugee German scholars in the United States, such as G.E. von Grunebaum, Richard Ettinghausen, Franz Rosenthal and S.D. Goitein, Oxford luminaries, such as Albert Hourani, and today's senior generation of orientalists and arabists, including Michael Cook, Patricia Crone and the late John Wansbrough. Reading these sections of Irwin's book one might well be astonished that anyone should know so much or write so well, and the book as a whole has very useful footnotes and references. It should be useful as a work of reference in its own right.

Finally, as Irwin admits in his introduction to this book, not everyone will agree with his analysis of "orientalism" or with his detailed judgments of various orientalists. Sometimes it is possible to feel uneasy at the urbanity and sheer "Britishness" of Irwin's prose, despite his international scope, perhaps explained by the author's endorsement of some forms of scholarly practice at the expense of others, notably those associated with Edward Said and various "post-colonial" critics.

That said, it would be a pity if anyone came away from this book under the impression that the "enemies" mentioned in the book's title only included Edward Said, which is nevertheless the impression given by recent reviews of this book in British newspapers, and even, to a certain extent, by Robert Irwin himself. For a further main enemy of the kind of study Irwin defends here, at least as far as Britain is concerned, is the British government. Successive governments have damaged higher education to such an extent in that country by starving it of funds and resources that it is becoming impossible to carry out the kind of work Irwin describes.

Irwin quotes the historian P.J. Vatikiotis, for example, to the effect that London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) now rests on "nothing more than past achievements" as a result of cuts in higher education. "Posts are left unfilled and one department [of Arabic] after another is closed down," funding going instead to rather easier fields of study that are therefore more popular with students. All of this is part of a wider debate about the funding, purposes and future of higher education. But it would be a mistake to suppose that this debate is not just as relevant to the future prospects of "orientalism" and Arabic studies as any damage allegedly inflicted on it by Edward Said.

Arabic Comes to Oxford

"James I was arguably the only learned king ever to sit on England's throne, apart from Alfred, and it was natural that learned clerics were preferred by him. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 until his beheading in 1645, was pre-eminent among these learned clerics. He had been a pupil of [Archbishop Lancelot] Andrewes and was strongly influenced by his style of Christian scholarship, as well as his commitment to Oriental learning. Laud collected Oriental manuscripts, which were eventually acquired by Oxford's Bodleian Library. In 1630 Laud, who at that time was still Bishop of London, had become Chancellor of Oxford University and, horrified by the somnolent complacency of the place (nothing changes, some would say), he decided to try to raise its scholarship to continental standards.

"When the seventeenth century opened, Oxford enjoyed an international reputation as a centre for intellectual torpor. Laud was determined to make the place a centre for international learning. The presence of a first-class library in Oxford was one of the necessary preconditions for this intellectual renewal and the formation of the Bodleian Library took place in this century under the patronage of Sir Thomas Bodley, John Selden and Laud himself. Laud also attached great importance to the teaching of Oriental languages. A Hebrew professorship had existed at Oxford since the 1530s. Laud believed that close study of the original Hebrew of the Old Testament would provide vital support for the Church of England in its doctrinal struggle with the Roman Catholics. It already served as a cornerstone for biblical criticism. Arabic was of some use in elucidating some points in Hebrew vocabulary and grammar (though it was really much less useful than partisans for the Arabic language claimed).

"There had already been some abortive attempts to establish the teaching of Arabic at Oxford on a regular basis. In 1610 Abudacnus had arrived at Oxford. 'Abudacnus' was a Latinate rendering of the latter part of the name of Yusuf ibn Abu Dhaqan. 'Joseph, Father of the Beard', therefore also known as Joseph Barbatus, was a Coptic Christian from Egypt who had traveled around Europe giving lessons in Arabic -- to [Thomas] Erpenius among others. Although Abudacnus stayed in Oxford until 1613, he does not seem to have been an inspiring teacher and his sojourn had little lasting impact. One problem was that he spoke the Egyptian colloquial form of the language and could not read classical Arabic properly, whereas those European scholars he has contact with were familiar only with classical Arabic. (Western scholars had little sense of the evolution of the Arabic language and its spawning of various colloquial forms.) In 1613 Abudacnus crossed back over to the Continent and resumed the life of a peripatetic scholar manqué.

"...The teachings of Abudacnus and [Matthias] Pasor had provided a fitful inspiration for those at Oxford who had considered studying Arabic. In the early seventeenth century, a real or pretended knowledge of Arabic became a blazon of erudition (as Mordechai Feingold has put it). There was a growing belief in the 1620s and 1630s that scientific information of value to astronomers, geographers and mathematicians lay buried in as yet unread Arabic manuscripts. The wealthy and flamboyant Warden of Merton College, Oxford, Sir Henry Savile took the lead in promoting this sort of research...

"In 1643 John Greaves became the Savilian Professor of Astronomy. Greaves, a fellow of Merton, was a mathematician and, like the man who endowed his chair, he was convinced that there was still a great deal of worthwhile scientific material to be found in classical and Oriental manuscripts. He was particularly interested in Arabic and Persian writers on astronomy and in 1638-9, encouraged by Laud, Greaves (who at that time was Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, London) traveled to Italy, Istanbul and Egypt on a hunt for scientific manuscripts. In Istanbul he suborned an Ottoman soldier to steal a beautiful copy of Ptolemy's Almagest from the Sultan's library and in Egypt he made careful measurements of the Great Pyramid. Back in England in 1646 Greaves published Pyramidagraphia or a Discourse on the Pyramids of Egypt. His main interest was in metrology -- the units of measurement used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans and others -- as well as the measurement of the size of the earth. In 1648 he was disgraced as a Royalist and lost his professorship. (It is curious how closely an interest in Arabic was associated in the seventeenth century with Royalist sympathies.) In enforced retirement he published a number of treatises, including the noteworthy Of the Manner of Hatching Eggs at Cairo (a remarkably early study of battery farming)..."

From For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies

by Robert Irwin.

By David Tresilian

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