Middle East studies in the News
Where Edward Said Was Wrong [review of Robert Irwin, "Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents"]
by Christopher de Bellaigue
"All academic knowledge about India", Edward Said wrote in the introduction to his Orientalism, is "tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact" of Western colonialism. Reading these words recently, I was reminded of R. S. McGregor, who taught me Hindi when I was a Cambridge undergraduate in the early 1990s. McGregor was a tidy, inexpressive man whose desk was piled with pages in progress from the Hindi–English dictionary he went on to publish in 1993. He had not visited India in decades, and his interest in the here and now of South Asia was so slight that he greeted me on the morning after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination by enquiring what I had understood of the Hindustani verses he had assigned me. If McGregor felt remorse that his long employment by the Faculty of Oriental Studies implicated him in a sinister enterprise that is aimed, in Said's words, at "dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient", he never let on.
In that faculty, I became aware of two great Cambridge Orientalists of the past, Edward G. Browne and Reynold A. Nicholson. Browne took a First in Indian Languages (Turkish, Arabic, Persian and Hindustani) and went on to become Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic, in 1902; but it is to Persian studies that he contributed most. His four-volume Literary History of Persia is unlikely to be bettered as an account of the development of classical poetry in Persian. Nicholson, Browne's student, also excelled at Arabic, succeeding his teacher to the Adams Professorship in 1926 and writing A Literary History of the Arabs. But he, too, preferred Persian. He devoted fifteen years of his life to editing and translating all 25,000 couplets of Jalalul'ddin Rumi's Sufi masterpiece, the Masnavi-e Manavi.
Browne and Nicholson were important figures in academic Orientalism at a time when the British Empire excelled in glitter and reach, but Said gave them no more than a single, shared reference in Orientalism – and that in a longer list of academics who built a "scholarly frame of reference" for such Imperial grunts as Gertrude Bell and T. E. Lawrence. It seems that Browne and Nicholson got in the way of Orientalism's central argument – namely, that Western (particularly British and French) scholars spent several centuries cooperating, more or less consciously, with novelists, poets and painters to construct an "Orient" in opposition to the "Occident" they inhabited, and to posit the latter's superiority over the former; they put this pernicious discourse at the service of Imperialists such as Bonaparte. But Browne and Nicholson, like many other Orientalists, resist this characterization.
Browne's affection for Eastern countries – Turkey and Persia in particular – sprang not from his desire to subjugate them, but from concern for their independence. In his introduction to A History of the Persian Revolution, his account of the country's struggle for constitutional democracy at the start of the nineteenth century, Browne rebuts those contemporaries who believe that "Persia is a backward country, which, in the hands of its own people cannot be ‘developed' . . . and that the best thing that can happen is that some European Power, whether England or Russia, should step in and ‘develop' it". (At other times, Browne also campaigned in favour of the Boers and for Irish Home Rule.) It is unclear how Nicholson's enthusiasm for Islamic mysticism helped build a "frame of reference" for colonizers. (Nicholson was a contemplative man who never learned to speak the languages he mastered on the page, and did not set foot in the Middle East.) Strikingly, in today's Iran, an Islamic Republic where anti-British feeling runs high, Browne is the only Briton who has a Tehran street named after him, and Nicholson's Masnavi is not only in print but widely consulted by Iranian students of Rumi.
To judge from Said's disdain for most criticisms of Orientalism, he would have summarily tossed such pebbles from his elegant shoe. In Said's view, the shared feature of all Orientalists is the "intellectual authority" – the italics are Said's; he is constantly wringing his hands as he writes – that they assume "over the Orient within western culture". What Said seems to be saying is, it doesn't matter if you don't subscribe to the Imperialist mindset, or oppose it, or if you couldn't care either way, because you are completely occupied by what you imagine is a narrow and uncontroversial academic pursuit. By virtue of the fact that you are Western and have some expertise in an aspect of the East – and, crucially, that you presume to pronounce on this expertise, before a mainly Western public – you are of necessity tainted.
The sweep of Said's prejudice, and the passion that infuses his precarious, piled-up sentences, go some way to explaining why Orientalism is one of the world's most popular academic books. Readers expecting similar things from For Lust of Knowing, Robert Irwin's new history of academic Orientalism, and an avowed response to Said, will be disappointed, and this is no bad thing. As Irwin writes in his introduction, "there is nothing so very exciting about pedants busily engaged in making philological comparisons between Arabic and Hebrew, or cataloguing the coins of Fatimid Egypt"; and this, he has us believe, is what most Orientalists get up to.
Irwin should know. Unlike Said, who somersaulted into Orientalism from a career in comparative literature, Irwin is an insider. He teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has written books on Arabic literature and Islamic art, and is a member of prestigious bodies, such as the Royal Asiatic Society, that Said considered part of the whole invidious Orientalist superstructure. (He also happens to be the Middle East editor of the TLS.) In contrast to Said, who moves magisterially from philology to Flaubert on Oriental women, and thence to Lord Balfour, Irwin is restrained by his duty to his calling and his predecessors. He rejects Said's belief that Western academics and artists looked at the East in an identical way. There may be an "overlap" – one that he plans to address in a forthcoming book on artistic depictions of the Orient – but he does not accept that, for instance, Flaubert and the Arabist and Islamicist Sir Hamilton Gibb were "contributing to essentially the same discourse". Irwin can be prickly, as when he describes Orientalism as "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations", but he generally finds that the best way to demolish Said is not to join him on the high wire, where his adversary could land a lucky hit, but to lob well-aimed pies from ground level. By sketching portraits of dozens of Orientalists from the past and present, and by showing their widely varying preoccupations and abilities, Irwin makes human, and occasionally banal, an academic field that Said has demonized in its entirety. The result is an erudite and generally convincing riposte to Orientalism, a book that Irwin finds to be "richly imagined, but essentially fictional"; the characters drawn by Irwin are more rounded than Said's cast of "villains".
Where, then, do Orientalism's origins lie? Not, Irwin convincingly argues, in ancient Athenian plays such as the Persae and the Bacchae, in which Said claims to detect early Orientalist twitches – claims that are based partly on his attribution of prophetic powers to Aeschylus and Euripides. Irwin traces Orientalism back to the half-millennium that followed the advent of Islam, when pious European churchmen acquainted themselves with Arabic in order to understand, and impugn more effectively, the rival faith, and scholars translated books by Arabs and Persians on medicine, philosophy and mathematics.
Through the Renaissance and beyond, Europeans' scholarly interest in the East was oscillating and inconsistent, tending to rise whenever the Ottoman Turks, who three times threatened to take Vienna, seemed most threatening. Some Orientalists, such as Guillaume Postel, who wrote Europe's first grammar of classical Arabic and procured Arabic manuscripts for the French Crown, admired many aspects of Islam and Islamic societies. Others were abusive, and still others indifferent.
To most Orientalists, this must sound absurd. The Orientalist "canon", and the question of what is important about the Orient, is under constant revision – increasingly, today, by scholars whose origins lie in the very countries and cultures that they scrutinize. Irwin detects no dark system behind de Sacy, and he takes particular issue with two assertions that Said makes about the Frenchman. De Sacy "doctored" texts, writes Said; Irwin demands evidence and a motive. Said, who is concerned to demonstrate the links between Orientalists and Imperialists, writes that de Sacy taught some of the "savants" who accompanied Bonaparte when he invaded Egypt in 1798. Irwin is sceptical; de Sacy only started teaching in 1796. All in all, he says, Said "libelled scholars who were for the most part good and honourable men".
While he discusses the racialist Ernest Renan, a nineteenth-century philologist who was taught by students of de Sacy, Irwin notes that Renan loathed de Sacy and regarded him as incapable of scholarly insight. Said does not make this point, even though he devotes a single chapter to the two men. According to Said, Renan's theories came out of the "same impulse" that inspired de Sacy to write his influential Chrestomathie Arabe; he leaves it to Irwin, who doubts that Renan even knew good Arabic, to note that many of Renan's theories were rubbished by his fellow Orientalists. Of a second racialist, Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau, whom Said places in the "official genealogy of Orientalism", Irwin writes that his linguistic skills were wanting and that "his venture into serious academic territory in the form of an attempted decipherment of the various cuneiform scripts was . . . a disastrous exercise in self-deception".
One can understand the irritation that today's Orientalists may feel at being included by Said, along with scholars who have been superseded or discredited, in a strain of intellectual inquiry that is depicted as improbably coherent and unified. Having goggled at the large number of omissions, distortions and factual inaccuracies that Irwin has found in Orientalism, readers may sympathize with his claim that Said popularized "the idea that it is more important to destroy Orientalism than to represent its history accurately".
They may be disappointed, however, that Irwin does not confront Said on perhaps the most influential of his big ideas: that Orientalist scholarship helped define the character of the European empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that it was itself influenced by Imperialism. There are, Irwin concedes, "grains of truth" in Said's suggestion of symbiosis, but Irwin doesn't examine this much beyond deploring Said's tendency to "jumble up" academic Orientalists "with proconsuls and explorers, as if they had very much in common". He weakens Said's argument by citing instances of exaggeration or distortion – Said's misrepresentation of E. G. Browne is one – but does not answer it.
Irwin's omission seems all the odder when one considers that For Lust of Knowing contains evidence for strong and complex ties between Orientalism and Imperialism. Russian Orientalism, Irwin notes, developed as Peter the Great added Muslim lands to his possessions. SOAS itself was set up at the urging of distinguished Orientalists on one hand, and two grand Imperialists, "the peers Curzon and Cromer", on the other. But Irwin does not discuss what effect this patronage and support had on the discipline. Other, more specific, gaps have the effect of diminishing our perception of Orientalists' association with Imperialism. Nowhere in Irwin's otherwise full account of de Sacy does he mention that the Frenchman was an adviser to the Foreign Minister, or that he translated the bulletins of the Grande Armée in Egypt and the Imperial proclamation that was issued after France's occupation of Algiers in 1830. (As you might expect, Said goes into all this.) Irwin praises the erudition of Sir William Jones, who made the genealogical link between Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, in 1786, and who presided over the Asiatick Society of Bengal. However, he does not explain the influence that Jones and other pro-Indian scholars had on Britain's Imperial approach to its Indian subjects – which was, until the 1830s, relatively inclusive and tolerant – or record the role of Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal, in starting the Society. Clearly, the work of Jones and his colleagues bore on the development of British Imperialism.
Irwin's reluctance to expose his discipline to Said's charges of collusion in Empire, post-colonial domination and, more specifically, brutalities committed in the name of Zionism, is the main flaw in an otherwise meticulous and impressive book. It mars Irwin's appraisal of Lewis, a brilliant scholar whose "knack of looking at awkward subjects" – one thinks of his exploration of Muslim responses to modernity as it is defined in the West – has been overshadowed by his role, "quasi-official", in Clifford Geertz's apt words, "as the go-to authority on all things Middle Eastern". There is a disparity between the best of Lewis's scholarly writing – Irwin singles out his Emergence of Modern Turkey for deserved praise – and his neo-conservative advocacy, which gained urgency after the attacks on America of September 11, 2001. Lewis's urging the United States to invade Iraq, in 2002, is said to have had an effect on policy makers; he also speculated (wrongly, in my view) that the people of Iran "look to us for help and liberation". In his luridly titled Crisis of Islam: Holy war and unholy terror, which he wrote after the attacks of 2001, Lewis observed that, "if the [Muslim fundamentalists] can persuade the world of Islam to accept their views and their leadership, then a long and bitter struggle lies ahead . . . . Al-Qa'ida and related groups will clash and the other groups will clash with the other enemies of Islam – Russia, China, India . . . . if the fundamentalists are correct in their calculations and succeed in their war, then a dark future awaits the world . . .".
The predictions and generalizations in this passage are so vast as to make it almost worthless; there is much that is mischievous and misleading in Lewis's positing the inevitability of conflict. In 1982, in the course of his response to criticisms that Said had levelled at him in Orientalism, Lewis observed that "the term Orientalist is now polluted beyond salvation". If it wasn't then, it is now, and Bernard Lewis is partly to blame. But Robert Irwin – loyal, respectful – does not show us this.
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