Ishak, a character in J.E. Flecker’s 19th century play “Hassan or The Golden Road to Samarkand”, is given these lines:
“We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.”
The “lust of knowing” mentioned in these lines provides the core of the case that the British novelist and scholar Robert Irwin makes for the Orientalists, a tribe of many different peoples from various European nations who turned their attention to studying the East, more specifically the Muslim world.
But why did Irwin think there was a need to defend a branch of research and scholarship that, over the past 150 years or so, has helped shed light on key aspects of human history and the development of civilisation?
Irwin says he decided to write the book in response to the late Edward Said’s “Orientalism” in which some of the leading Western students of Islam were portrayed as “agents of colonialism and imperialism.”
Since Said was more of a political militant than a scholar one might have thought there was no need to reply to him with the kind of dense research undertaken by Irwin.
Said, whose outlook was determined by a real or feigned hatred of Western “Imperialism” in particular American “hegemony”, was making a political point not a scientific one. As an “intellectuel engage” who believed that scholarship should be in the service of a political cause, Said was incapable of imagining people who would study a subject for its own sake and without ulterior political motives.
It is hard to see why probing Said’s background and personal life should be of interest to anybody. Irwin suggests that Said was in fact Lebanese and that the Palestinian identity he claimed was a mythical device in the service of a political “cause.” But even if that were the case one is inclined to ask: so what? What matters is not the fact that Said was or was not a fake Palestinian. If he felt that he was a Palestinian, which he clearly did, then he was one. The issue of interest here is the fact that Said tried to discredit a whole tradition of scholarship on spurious grounds.
Irwin shows that, with some notable exceptions, most Orientalists were in that business for “lust of knowing”, not because they wished to serve any imperial scheme.
Irwin writes: “There are such things (sic) as pure scholars. I have even had tea with some of them.”
Irwin also asserts that the threat to pure scholarship comes not from diabolical imperial star chambers but from “Muslim susceptibilities.”
He writes: “Because of possible offence to Muslim susceptibilities, Western scholars have to be extremely careful what they say and some of them have developed subtle forms of double speak when discussing contentious matters.” As an example he cites John Esposito, an American professor whom Irwin regards as an apologist for Islamic regimes.
Does this mean that Said has succeeded in forcing some Western scholars into self-censorship? Irwin seems to think so.
The reader could skip the parts dealing with Said, his predecessors in anti-Westernism, and the polemics provoked by his wild claims and, instead, spend more time savouring the rest of Irwin’s enjoyable book.
As far as I know this is the most complete account of Orientalism from the emergence of its modern version in the 19th century to the present day. And Irwin introduces most of the leading Orientalists with sharp and witty pen portraits.
The gallery of Orientalist portraits includes quite a few colourful characters whose lives could provide material for novels.
There is, for example, Guillaume de Postel, the first to hold a Chair of Arabic at Paris University, who believed that the Druze were of Gallic origin and descendants of the Druids. Adopting the theory of transmigration of souls, he ended up imagining that his body was inhabited by the soul of one Johanna whom he identified as “Mother of the World.”
There is Alfred Beeston who liked to ride a bicycle naked in Oxford while pursued by the police.
Then there is Wansborough who apparently believed that much of Islam’s early history consisted of nothing but literary imagination.
While Irwin introduces the average reader to many little-known Orientalists he leaves out others that merited mention. These include Champollion, Rawlinson, Goddard, Rypka, Ghirshman, Herzfeld, Petroshevsky, Ivanov, Pope, Boyce, Roux, and Corbin to name but a few. Irwin seems to have concentrated on those Orientalists who dealt with Islam and the Arabs, leaving out the many who studied other parts of the so-called “Orient”, especially pre-Islamic Iran, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, not to mention ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, with their old civilisations, numerous languages, and flourishing cultures.
Irwin’s account of the work done by the Orientalists is often convincing.
At times, however, he moves on with a curt comment. For example he says that Massigon’s work on Hallaj was “weird” but does not say why. He presents Gobineau as anti-Imperialist but does not expose the real reason which was the Frenchman’s fear that the “superior’ European race could be diluted if mixed with inferior Asian blood in colonial encounters. Gobineau thought that this had already happened to Persians who had mixed with Arabs since the advent of Islam.
By contrast Renan, whom Irwin, like Said, regards as racist, could best be understood as a “cultural supremacist”. He believed that those who spoke Indo-European languages were superior to those who spoke Semitic ones. This could not be described as racism because a Semitic speaker could always learn an Indo-European language and vice versa. Renan supported the mixing of races while Gobineau opposed it.
Irwin seems to think that the wave of attacks on Orientalists started with a pamphlet written by the late Iranian novelist Jalal Al Ahmad under the title of Gharbzadegi “Occidentosis” in 1960. In fact, Al Ahmad was not anti-West in the sense that Said was. He was continuing the work of an earlier generation of Iranians, including Mohit Tabatabi, who were worried that while Westernisation was good and inevitable, Iran was becoming westernised at too fast a pace. In fact, Al Ahmad’s slim book opens with a quotation from the German Nazi writer Ernst Junger. All other quotes in the book are also from Western writers and journalists.
Incidentally, Al Ahmad was not a bon-viveur as Irwin suggests, although he did drink a lot. Nor was Al Ahmad a “polyglot”; he had no more than a smattering of French. Also, contrary to what Irwin says, Al Ahmad’s book was initially published under the Shah before being banned two years later.
Irwin’s book suffers from careless editing which lets in some repetitions and quite a few factual errors.
For example, Kalila wa Demnah was not an Arabic text but written in Sanskrit and translated into Pahlavi or middle Persian in the 7th century.
Huzwaresh is not “a mixture of Persian and Arabic” but the writing of a word in one language and reading it in another.
Irwin wonders why the Arabs were called Hagarenes and Saracens. But there is no mystery. Hagarene refers to the fact that Hagar, the second wife of Abraham and mother of Ismail, is supposed to be the ancestress of the Arabs. And Saracen is the name that the ancient Greeks gave to desert-dwellers in the Levant.
Qadessiyah was never the capital of the Persian Empire but the scene of a decisive battle between the Sassanids and Arab invaders.
The esoteric writer Hussein Nasr could hardly be described as a Muslim fundamentalist; for years he served as secretary to the Shah of Iran’s third wife Empress Farah.
Irwin writes: “It always rankled with Palmer that he did not succeed to Wright’s professorship when the latter died.” Well, Palmer could not have done that because he was murdered in 1882, seven years before Wright passed away.
Irwin suggests that the discovery of America was caused by the fact that Europe’s trade routes to the East were blocked by Islam. But didn’t the West do brisk trade with the East through the Silk Road?
The Nusairis are identical with the Alawites in Syria but not with the Alawites in Turkey. The claim that the Druze invented Freemasonry and other European secret societies like the Carbonari and the Jacobins was made by Silvestre de Sacy not Guillaume who saw the Druze as “the Chosen People.”
Fazlur Rahman was not an Arab but a Pakistani scholar from the Hazara region.
It is true that printing was not allowed in the Muslim world for decades. But the reason was not, as Irwin suggests, the fear that printing the Koran would distort the Divine Text. As Petroshevsky has suggested there was a more mundane reason: thousands of professional scribes saw their jobs threatened by the advent of printing and tried to stop it by inventing religious reasons.
Said did not hate Fouad Ajami and Kanan Makiyah because they had criticised the Arabs. Said himself had done much more Arab-bashing than either Ajami or Makiyah. Said denounced them because they were not anti-American as he wanted everyone to be or at least pretend to be. Said’s support for Saddam Hussein was motivated by similar considerations. Said hated Saddam but admired the dictator for defying the United States.
Writing about Averroes, Irwin repeats misrepresentations made against the Andalusian philosopher by his critics, notably Thomas Aquinas. Averroes did not think there were “two truths”, as Irwin suggests, but only one with two manifestations.
All in all, however, this is a timely introduction to Orientalism and a highly enjoyable read both for the specialist and the broadly interested reader.