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Orientalism: Its Changing Face and Nature
Waseem Ahmad


The author is a Research Scholar, Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi 110 062, India. (Editor)

Orientalism, when defined in simple words, implies the Western attempt to ‘understand’ the East, particularly the Muslims and their faith, Islam. On a broader scale, however, it means the knowledge of Eastern languages, Islamic sciences and literature. For a limited period, especially in its early stages, it reflected missionary sentiments and zeal but soon it donned the mantle of objectivity and empiricism with which the West approached the East. After that it became a movement, an approach, a way of life. All sorts of topics and subjects came under discussion. Organized efforts were made in Egypt, North Africa and other regions to revive ancient languages and cultures so that they may pose a challenge to Islam. Arabic language was considered to be incapable of fulfilling the needs of modern times and demands were made accordingly to focus on local dialects and vernaculars. Arabic script was sought to be changed and replaced with local dialects and vernaculars. Arabic script was sought to be changed and replaced with the Roman one. The role of alien elements in the development of Islamic culture and civilization was highlighted and concerted efforts were made to prove that Islamic culture was an amalgam of absurdities.

For a proper understanding of orientalism, however, a brief account of the Crusades will be in order here. The Muslim interaction with Christianity goes back to the early days of the Prophet (sws). After the early Muslims conquests which brought many Christians or Christian-dominated territories under the Islamic fold, the two religions and their followers came in close contact with each other. In fact, Islam spread in its early stages at the cost of Christianity. The early Islamic sway on West Asia and North Africa gave a big jolt to the Christendom and defeated it not only on the battlefield but also on political and economic fronts. Moreover the Christian world suffered setbacks on the religious front as well. For a great number of Christians, attracted to and impressed by the simple and rational Islamic faith, embraced the religion of their conquerors. It is apparent that the Church was declining fast in the East. In Europe, however, it was spreading rapidily. Between 500 to 1100 AD. almost the whole of Western Europe was cajoled or forcibly brought under the Christian fold. The Christianized or religiously united Europe gave new life to the ailing Christendom, which manifested itself in the form of violent medieval Crusades. At that time, the Crusades were viewed as holy wars. But the scholars of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment have questioned the medieval Christian interpretation and criticized the Crusades as a mere outburst of medieval fanaticism and a demonstration of the bigotry of the medieval mind. Some political and economic historians of modern times have also suggested that the Crusades were in fact a migratory movement of needy Western nations to the relatively more prosperous East. The economic historians, on the other hand, condemn the Crusades as wars of conquest and expansion launched by the colonialist and imperialist medieval Europe against the Muslims.

But for the Crusaders who participated in those so-called holy wars, the Crusades were launched for a holy cause: deliverance of Jerusalem from the Muslim ‘occupation’. The Crusades, probably, had a missionary character as well. It is well known that the first Crusade was preached and launched by Pope Urban II which suggests its missionary nature and orientation. In his sermon at Clermont, the Pope had said that the Eastern Christians were in peril, their churches were being desecrated and pilgrims visiting Jerusalem were being harassed. After highlighting the plight of Eastern Christianity, the Pope urged people to rise up and fight for the deliverance of Jerusalem. He also admonished that no one should undertake the pilgrimage for any but the most exalted of motives. Furthermore, in his speech, there were indications about the conversion of Muslims. The Pope’s statements do show that he had some hope that a successful Crusade might create opportunities for converting Muslims to Christianity.1

The Crusades, as many writers have suggested, were a misadventure in the sense that they have left an indelible scar on the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Moreover, they created the thaw between the two branches of Christianity, Eastern and Western, which had kept them divided for a long time. The reality is that the Crusaders were an indiscreet and undisciplined lot who insulted both the Eastern Christians and the Muslims. They indulged in gruesome massacres and plundered the cities they conquered.

Now let us consider why the Crusading movement assumed so much significance in history. The reason is that it benefited Europe in many ways. The Europeans began to take a keen interest in Islam and the Muslim world. Moreover, the reverses they suffered in the battlefield made them realize the great strength of the Islamic faith and its people. Christians leaders started thinking about the faith, culture and civilization of their opponents, which broadened their intellectual horizons. Many missionary-minded authors have argued that through this movement Western Europe found its soul. There was a great upsurge of the spirit that awakened the masses and instilled a sense of purpose in them. The fact, however, is that the Crusaders were a reckless people who behaved arrogantly and inflicted hair-raising atrocities on the conquered people.

The Crusading movement, nevertheless, acquired a momentum of its own. Even when the ‘religious idealism’ evaporated, political leaders still thought that there were advantages in using the conception of the Crusades. So powerful was this conception that no one dared to challenge it and even today, as Professor William Montgomery Watt has said: ‘in western Europe, with a metaphorical interpretation, it still has some vestigial influences’.2

A negative aspect of the Crusading movement was that the Crusaders, unscrupulous and ignorant as many of them were, took with them false notions about Muslims and Islam and spread them all over Europe. Such distorted images of Islam and its people have dominated European thinking since the twelfth century and even today some of those wrong notions persist.

A positive outcome of the Crusades, however, was that they awakened Muslims from their deep slumber. As a result Muslims became united to a great extent, sidelined the hypocrites and launched a counter offensive, under the leadership of Salāh al-Dīn Ayyūbī. The Ottoman caliphs carried on Ayyūbī’s mission. In fact, the counter-offensive launched by the Ottomans kept over Eastern Christendom sent a shock wave of disillusionment right across the European continent. It is for this reason that many Christian writers have described the Crusades as a misadventure.

After the failure of the Crusading movement, Christendom, particularly some far-sighted leaders and intellectuals, began to deliberate on why the Crusades failed. The motive behind this soul-searching was not to merely find out the causes of the failure but also to devise a new strategy to counter and check the advance of the Ottomans and their faith, Islam, in Europe. They discovered that ignorance was the main cause of their decline. As a result they decided to acquire knowledge from all sources including the Muslims. So during the Renaissance ie., between 13th to 16th centuries European scholars and intellectuals concentrated on reviving their literature, art, culture, and other academic disciplines. This intellectual awakening also made them rethink about the Muslims and their faith, Islam. As a result, many people, scholars as well as lay men, embarked upon acquiring knowledge from Muslim institutions and individuals in Spain and the Fertile Crescent. Travelers wrote travelogues and scholars produced academic works and thus began the tradition of studying the East, which is known as Orientalism.

It will be in order here to elaborate the Western and Muslim conceptions of knowledge, for their respective approaches to it have left an indelible mark on their attitude, character and thinking. In Islam the purpose of knowledge is wisdom, the acquisition of intellectual capabilities to lead a life that ensures success, falāh, in this world and the next. The European conception of knowledge, which developed during and after the Renaissance, especially during the colonial era, is that it is the obverse side of power. Scientific knowledge gives man power over nature, but knowledge of a people, history, culture, civilization and literature, in so far as they deepen one’s understanding of human nature, enables one to dominate them. Thus the conception of knowledge as a source of power has an important influence on the European attitude, especially when they study a religion or the secular history of other peoples.

If the modern European has to engage in war against some Asian country, he would like to know a lot about its past, for he considers that such knowledge will enable him to better forecast the reaction of his enemy to various situations. Likewise, religion too, as professor W.M. Watt says: ‘is an element in knowledge. Sometimes the Christian missionary takes to strategic thinking of a military type, and considers that knowledge of other religions will assist him toward his goal of making converts’.3

As it has been stated earlier, the Crusades (starting towards the end of eleventh century and continuing to the fifteenth) provided a unique opportunity for elaborate interaction between Muslims and Christians. There took place a kind of cultural inter-penetration which paved the way for direct contact between the Arabs and the Europeans. Moreover, the Crusades created a broad spiritual awakening in Europe which gave Western Christendom a new awareness of its own identity.

W.M. Watt, in fact, underestimated the significance of the Crusades when he says that they were, for Muslims, merely a frontier incident or the continuation of the kind of fighting that had been going on in Syria or Palestine.4 Both Muslims and Christians understood Crusades to be more than mere warfare. Christian scholars specially drew a lesson from it when they saw that it was difficult to defeat Muslims in the battlefield, hence they should be outwitted intellectually. The contact that had been established between western Christians and Muslims was a new experience. Christian scholars took this opportunity to provide their fellows with more information about Islam, often concocted or distorted, to enable them to believe in their own superiority. There are still, admittedly, some vestigial traces of this medieval image of Islam in contemporary Western European thinking.5

Church leaders told the Crusaders that the Arabs were an inferior race who worshipped Muhammad (sws) and took delight in persecuting Christians, which made Christendom hostile towards Muslims.6 Their assumption that they belonged to a superior race gave rise to racism and created a false feeling of ‘us and them’, ‘we the civilized’ and ‘they the barbarians’. Oriental inferiority they took for granted both, socially and intellectually. During the colonial period, European racism was at its peak, which prompted them to wrongly embark upon a civilizing mission. Missionary activities were, thus started to remove their religious backwardness while the imperial rulers were supposed to remove their political backwardness. They thought, ‘by adopting Christianity and by accepting the Christian rule as a permanent phenomenon the Orientials would become civilised’.7

W.M. Watt has explained the same point though in a subdued language and in a different manner. He writes: ‘European civilization (and Christendom) has behaved as if it was the only section of mankind that mattered. In the nineteenth century, European culture was the civilization, and as Europe expanded technologically and politically, other parts of the world became ‘civilized’. World history was the history of expansion of ‘civilization’, and that is, in effect, of Europe; and the history of the great civilizations of the world before their contact with Europe was virtually neglected’.8

Now it would be proper to mainly focus on Orientalism. Here the world is perceived to be in two blocs; orient and occident. Orient stands for the East; the countries lying east of the Mediterranean are usually described as the Orient.9 Occident, on the other hand, means the West; the countries of Western Europe, or of Europe and America both. Orientialism, as is evident, is derived from the ‘Orient’ and it came to be used with all its connotations towards the end of the eighteenth century. Now Orientalism signifies eastern characteristics, life style, values, knowledge, literature, art and culture. It further denotes learning or knowledge of the languages, religions and cultures of the East. The person well versed in all these is regarded as ‘Orientalist’.10

There is a vast abundance of travel literature, which reflects the image of Oriental people as it was perceived by the Western travelers. Many times the travelers viewed the things or narrated the events in such a way as to support their pre-conceived notions. In the nineteenth century, in fact, deliberate and concerted efforts were made by the British travelers to justify Britain’s imperialist designs on the Orient as well as to popularize the idea that the British were capable of managing the affairs of alien nations including the Arabs.11

The travelers usually saw Arabs as inferior or portrayed them as a people who badly needed the caring attention of the West. ‘The Oriental’, according to Gertrude Bell, an English traveler, ‘is like a very old child. He is unacquainted with many branches of knowledge, which we have come to regard as of elementary necessity, frequently, but not always, his mind is a little preoccupied with the need of acquiring them, and he concerns himself scarcely with what we call practical utility. He is not practical, in our conception of the word, any more than a child is practical’.12

The nineteenth century European, particularly British, travelers were influenced especially by the twin ideologies of imperialism. They looked down upon the Oriental races, branded them as uncivilized who, in their opinion, deserved to be overpowered, subjugated and managed by the superior and civilized races of Europe. It is probably because of this that Benjamin Disraeli was prompted to say that ‘the East is a career’.13

From what has been stated above it is obvious that the Western intellectuals, writers, travelers and politicians have been in the habit of discoursing upon Oriental people, their religions, civilizations and history. By and large, their attitude has been ethnocentric or Eurocentric. Consequently ‘they regard’, writes Dr Ishtiyaque Danish, ‘their civilization as normative. They further believe that their Eurocentric standards – religious and cultural – are not only a fitting scale to judge other people but also universally applicable. Obsessed with their erroneous attitude they have always failed to fully understand ‘other people’ in an objective manner. With regard to Islam the question is not that they failed to grasp its real meaning and message but that they intentionally and impudently tried to disguise and distort its true image’.14

Europe, in fact, thinks that the Orient is one of its many inventions. On Europe’s imagination, the Orient is always a place of romance, strange things and remarkable experiences. ‘Orientalism’, says Edward W. Said, ‘can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it, is short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring and having over the Orient’.15 Europe seems to have arrogated to itself the right to articulate the Orient. ‘The West’, as E.W. Said puts it, ‘is the actor, the Orient a passive reactor. The West is the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior’.16

In his article, ‘Historical Perspective of the Orientalists Perception of Islam’, Khawaja Ahmad Farooqui recapitulates almost the same point in a slightly different way. He asserts that the Orient is the creation of Western imagination in which there is sheer romance, heightened sexuality, plenty of luxury, hunger and mercilessness. In its view the Qur’ān is not important but the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ is. Orient is made out to be a part of Western material culture. Strange people are living in it ie nomads, barbarians and nudes. The wealth of the Orient is immense. Without its raw products the ‘industries of the West cannot run. Europe has created it socially, politically and militarily. About it they have written books enough to make a library’.17

A reference to Benjamin Disraeli has already been made who regarded the east as a career. The description applies to a large number of Orientalists who start their ‘career’ as philologists. They hold that languages belong to families: of which the Indo-European and Semitic languages are two great instances. Thus from the very outset Orientalism has carried forward two traits: (1) a newly founded scientific self-consciousness based on the linguistic importance of the Orient to Europe, and (2) a proclivity to divide, subdivide, re-divide the subject matter without ever changing its mind about the Orient as being always the same, ‘unchanging, uniform, and radically peculiar object’.18

The attitude of the Orientalists is not confined to the works they have produced but it can also be seen in the press, which generally reflects the popular mind. They assume that the Western consumer, thought belonging to the numerical minority, is entitled either to own or to expand (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why, because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being, a white middle class Westerner believes it is his human prerogative not only to manage the non-white world also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ is not quite as ‘we’ are.19 This ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome can be seen or felt all across the Western world.

For a number of reasons, the Orient has always been in the position both of outsider and of incorporated weak partner for the West. To some extent, the Western scholars were aware of the contemporary Orientals or Oriental movements of thought and culture. But these were perceived either as silent shadows to be animated by the Orientalist, brought into reality by him, objects necessary for his performance as a learned man or a superior judge. Almost the same point can be seen running in the remarks of Lord Curzon: ‘East is a University in which the scholar never takes his degree’.20 What Curzon meant was that the East required one’s presence there forever.

Similarly, it is assumed that, by and large, no Oriental can know himself the way an Orientalist can. In fact there are four dogmas of Orientalism, which ought to be understood properly. The first is that there is an absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, undeveloped and inferior. Another dogma is that abstraction about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a ‘classical’ Oriental ‘civilization’, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities. A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of dealing itself; therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically ‘objective’. A fourth dogma is that the Orient is, at bottom, something either to be feared or to be controlled by pacification, research and development, and outright occupation whenever possible.21

In his Introduction to the ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ (Urdu translation), New Delhi, 1986, by Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), Syed Nazir Niazi writes that Orientalism is like an intellectual invasion. Through it Europe has sought to emaciate the heart and mind of the Muslim world, in particular, so that it becomes indifferent towards and averse to its brilliant past and hopeless about its future.22 Efforts were made to overawe the Muslims intellectually so that they are forced to took toward the West for inspiration and guidance. The aim was to subject them to skepticism and paralyze them mentally in order that they could neither go in the right direction nor would analyze things with a correct and independent outlook.

Having said that, we must also note the remarkable attitudinal change, which is now discernible under the altered circumstances especially since the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The discovery of petroleum changed the equation and made the Arab world the gravitational point. Early Islam is no more the thrust of their research. Instead, the religious movements, social trends and economic potentialities have become major attractions. Understanding of Islamic faith and its ideology are still essential but the focus has shifted from older themes to new ones such as analyzing the conditions of contemporary Muslims, both externally and internally. The elements of nationalism, which could rip apart the religious unity of Arabs, are particularly considered and explored. The attitudinal difference is further marked by their realization that in the modern age extremism and sheer bigotry would not work. That is why they have developed a semblance of rationality in their approach.’

The twentieth century dawned with a host of new trends. Great changes took place on all levels, political, economic and social. Awakening of colonized nations after a long slumber, movements of self-determination, scientific developments and coming together of a variety of cultures and civilizations radically transformed the nature of problems and issues. On the other hand Orientalism, having reached its zenith, saw the beginning of its anti-climax. Now, instead of part-time scholars there have emerged full timers. Departments of Arabic, Islamic studies, and other allied disciplines have been opened in a number of Western universities. It is, however, a testimony of their dedication and industrious efforts. Occasionally, some positive researches were also conducted in which a great deal of objectivity was observed.

Courtesy: The Hamdard Islamicus, Vol. XXIV, No. 4


1. The Muslim World League Journal, July 1993, p. 38


2. Watt, Montgomery, The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe, London, 1972, p. 52

3. Watt, Montgomery, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, London, 1972, p. 62

4. Watt, Montgomery, The Majesty that was Islam, London, 1974, p. 247

5. Ibid., p. 248

6. Danish, Ishtiyaque, English and the Arabs: The Making of an Image, Delhi, 1992, p.8

7. Ibid., p. 23

8. Watt, Montgomery, Islamic Revelation in the Modern World, London, 1972, p.2

9. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

10. Abdur Rahman, SS., Islam aur Mustashriqin (Urdu), Azamgarh, India, 1986, p.65

11. Danish, Ishtiyaque, English and the Arabs: The Making of an Image, Delhi, 1992, p. 38

12. Ibid., p. 38

13. Said, Edward W., Orientalism (Introduction)

14. Danish, Ishtiyaque, English and the Arabs: The Making of an Image, pp. 76-77

15. Said, Edward, W., Orientalism (Introduction), London, 1972

16. Ibid., p. 108

17. Abdur Rahman, S.S., Islam aur Mustashriqin, vol. II, Azamgarh, India, 1986, p.77.

18. Said, E.W. Orientalism, London, 1972, p.98.

19. Ibid

20. Ibid., p. 215

21. Ibid., pp. 300-301

22. Niazi, Nazir Syed, (Introduction of) RRTI, New Delhi, 1986, p. 33


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