Winding south-east from Ouarzazate through the Drâa Valley in Morocco, the road peters out after Zagora. Beyond, lie the swelling dunes of the Great Eastern Erg, the Algerian frontier, open Sahara. Camels are your best bet from here, as Zagora’s chief attraction colourfully advertises: a painted sign pointing the way to Timbuktu, 52 days away by camel caravan. Traditionally, this end of the road was a crossroads: the first stop out of the desert for caravans emerging from the West African interior, and the last stop before it for traders from the north. You can sense something of sub-Saharan Africa in the mud-brick ksars and kasbahs of the region; in the dark faces of the women who billow by in their djellabas, like gusts of black wind. The Arab world makes its mark, too. In the nearby village of Tamegroute, a 17th-century Koranic school called the Zaouïa Naciria houses a library that boasted tens of thousands of volumes in its heyday. Some of them are still displayed beneath cloudy glass: a 14th-century Koran written on gazelle skin in blocky Kufic script, Pythagoras translated into Arabic, medical treatises and geographies.
The Tamegroute zaouïa used to be an entrepot for scholarship from across the Islamic world. Now it seems like a library at the ends of the earth, especially in the unforgiving summer months, when one moves in a cocoon of incandescent heat. You could just about imagine a story in the manner of Paul Bowles unfolding here – where an intrepid European manuscript scholar, say, is snatched by Touaregs and spends the rest of a miserable life, sun-blistered and crazed, on the fringes of the desert, never to be seen by Westerners again.
But it takes a lot these days to get off the beaten track. Where there were caravans, now there are tour groups. They carry credit cards in place of salt, and buy souvenirs instead of slaves. Tamegroute’s slide from significance mirrors an equivalent transformation in the status of Morocco as a whole. For centuries it was one of the Muslim world’s major powers. Even after the Moors had ceased to rule Spain, Morocco was the one North African domain to resist Ottoman conquest, and it fended off European advances throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, succumbing formally to French rule only in 1912. Morocco’s proximity to Western Europe once struck fear into Christian hearts; today its closeness makes it a prime destination for Westerners seeking easy exotica.
This transition from Oriental power to Orientalist fantasy – and all the misrepresentations, stereotypes and appropriations it involves – undergirds the tremendously resonant concept of ‘Orientalism’ as laid out by Edward Said in his 1978 book of that title. As Said presents it, Orientalism is a Western discourse that essentialises the Arab world in derogatory terms (as effeminate, decadent, timeless and so on), and is intimately bound up with the imposition of imperial power. Few if any academic books published since have invited so much reaction across so many different fields. Most of these responses have developed or refined Said’s framework in some way. Not so Robert Irwin’s For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. Irwin’s central point is that before there was Orientalism, there was Orientalism: the scholarly study of languages and texts pertaining to the Orient. The book operates on two levels. In the main, For Lust of Knowing offers a sort of catalogue raisonné of Western Orientalist scholarship from the Middle Ages to the present. Its argumentative thrust, however, emanates from a second goal, which is to unmask Said’s Orientalism as a perverted muddle of ‘malignant charlatanry’.
Irwin’s learned account takes off with the capture of Toledo from the Moors in 1085. Translators set to work on a trove of manuscripts left in the city, producing the first Latin rendition of the Koran in 1143, and discovering Arab and ancient Greek mathematics, philosophy and medicine. Not surprisingly, when medieval Christians studied Arabic, polemics and missionary zeal were never far behind. Ramón Lull, a young rake living in Majorca, experienced an epiphany in 1263 and committed himself to the conversion of the Muslims and the Jews. He bought a Moorish slave to teach him Arabic, and churned out about 200 books – some of them in Arabic, others translations or reworkings of Arabic sources – before achieving martyrdom by getting stoned to death in North Africa for preaching. But the ‘first true Orientalist’ according to Irwin was Guillaume Postel, who travelled to Constantinople in 1535 on a French royal commission to collect Eastern manuscripts, and promptly learned Arabic, Turkish and Coptic (among other languages) to add to the Hebrew he had mastered as a schoolboy. Postel wasn’t a Christian evangelist: his beliefs were weirder. They included the opinion that world peace could be achieved if everybody spoke Hebrew; and a conviction that he had met the Shekinah (a manifestation of divinity) in the form of a Venetian woman whose X-ray vision allowed her to look into the Earth’s core and see Satan. For this he was officially declared insane (but not a heretic) by the Inquisition in Venice. He spent much of his tenure as the Collège de France’s first professor of Arabic comfortably incarcerated in a Paris asylum.
Two hundred years later, it was not much easier to learn Arabic in France. The leading Arabist in post-Revolutionary Paris, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, held colloquial Arabic in such disdain that he never learned to speak it – even though he occupied a chair at the Ecole Spéciale des Langues Orientales Vivantes, established specifically for language teaching. (In almost exact parallel, well into the 1930s, many academics at the School of Oriental Studies in London – the parent of SOAS – would resist teaching languages, even though this institution, too, had vocational goals.) By the early 19th century, German scholarship had come to dominate Orientalist studies from Arabic to Sanskrit, and would remain paramount until World War One. Though Germany, Britain and France loom largest in this book, Irwin dutifully chronicles Orientalist activities in every corner of Europe: the golden age of Dutch Oriental studies in the 17th century; 18th-century Danish royal patronage of Orientalism; the foundational work of the late 19th-century Hungarian Jew Ignaz Goldziher. Most intriguingly, he includes several sections on Russian Orientalism. Centred in Tatarstan’s University of Kazan, this, like the Russian Empire itself, bridged Europe and Asia. Unlike their Western counterparts, many Orientalist academics in Russia were Muslims from Persia, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In 1840 in an early instance of academic headhunting, the University of St Petersburg even recruited a leading scholar from Cairo’s Al-Azhar.
European Orientalists shared mentors and influences, but there were rifts and feuds too, and Irwin is especially good at exposing them. These acquired their nastiest edge in the 20th century, with the rise of Soviet and Nazi ideologies. The Nazi years marked the end of German supremacy in the field; and the exodus of scholars to Britain, France, Israel and particularly the United States helped feed the ‘all too brief heyday of Orientalism’ after World War Two, when there was a significant increase in institutional support for Arabic studies, as Middle East centres and professional societies burgeoned across international academe. ‘Just like subaltern studies,’ Irwin remarks, this moment was ‘a product of the post-colonial era’, though it emerged out of the strategic imperatives of the war, and growing American interest in oil-rich regions. For the selfsame reasons, the postwar decades marked the heyday of Orientalism à la Said as well. Here Irwin’s clash with Said reaches its peak, as he defends scholars singled out for attack in Orientalism (H.A.R. Gibb, Gustave von Grunebaum and Bernard Lewis among others), before moving on to a chapter-length critique of Orientalism itself.
So how effectively does Irwin challenge Said? Factual purists will be delighted by his pot-shots. He makes mincemeat of such sweeping assertions as ‘Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from about the end of the 17th century on.’ He corrects several inaccuracies concerning the medieval and Renaissance periods, and disputes Said’s representation of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. He effectively contests the portrayal of Orientalism ‘as a unified, self-confirmatory discourse’ by emphasising internecine disagreements. He provides an impressive list of Arab academics to challenge the suggestion that Orientalism has prevented Arabs from writing about themselves. Some readers will enjoy Irwin’s ad hominem digs, if only because Said attracted an extraordinary degree of personal reverence.
For Lust of Knowing is indisputably erudite. (Though it is not error free: far from never visiting India, Macaulay spent four years there, and drafted his notorious 1835 ‘Minute on Indian Education’ on the spot.) Irwin writes with such consistency of method that the book reads a little like an annotated bibliography. He excuses himself on the grounds that ‘the older way of acquiring learning was a bit boring. Serious scholarship often is. Most of what Orientalists do will seem quite dull to non-Orientalists.’ Their chronologies and catalogues may appear tedious, but that doesn’t mean that writing about them, too, has to be dry. Nor does it mean that they themselves were dull. Probably the most striking characteristic of Orientalists to emerge in these pages is how many of them were real oddballs, as Irwin remarks in passing. Postel set things off in style, ‘an ominous presage for the future history of an intellectual discipline’. The fabulously polymathic 17th-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher furthered the tradition of intellectual eclecticism, trying to crack Egyptian hieroglyphics and link them to Chinese, while designing pianos and ‘eavesdropping statues’ on the side. For the 20th century, Louis Massignon steals the show. Massignon went to Cairo in 1906 to pursue Arabic studies and fell under the spell of a gay Spanish aristocrat who had converted to Islam. He went on to develop a mystical passion for Catholicism, to explore Sufism with sympathetic admiration, and to inspire generations of students with ‘charismatic and anguished lectures’ on the wonders of Islam. Appropriately enough, he recognised a kindred spirit in Ramón Lull, that fervent 13th-century Arabist, and, like Postel, taught Arabic at the Collège de France.
Another disappointing aspect of Irwin’s encyclopedic approach is the relative dearth of overarching analysis. All this rich evidence begs questions. The most obvious ones concern inspirations and motives. How and why did these figures get interested in Oriental studies, and how were they able to pursue them? Given that Said’s work hinges on the argument that imperial power drives Orientalism (and vice versa), a book challenging him ought to address these issues head on. Often people who study cultures different from their own have an affinity with or attraction to ‘Otherness’. That so many of Irwin’s Orientalists were eccentrics, misfits or non-conformists invites us to look at the personal, psychological inclinations that may have inspired their scholarship. (Which is where the ‘lust’ might come in.) The disproportionately heavy Jewish involvement merits closer examination, beyond the obvious explanation of Hebrew’s kinship with Arabic, especially as a rejoinder to Said’s provocative association of Orientalism with Zionism.
Irwin’s main response to the Said view that Orientalism and imperial power are intertwined is to uphold a faith in the detachment of pure scholarship from real-world problems. Yet plenty of his characters, as he makes plain, were bound up in the political preoccupations of their time. This was patently the case for contemporaries of the Crusades, such as Lull, who ‘maintained that a knowledge of Arabic would be just as necessary for the Crusader as it was for the missionary’; even Postel’s admiration for Islam, three centuries later, was ‘essentially driven by fear’ of Islamic conquest. And it was still the case in 1889 for the Dutch Orientalist Christian Snouck Hurgronje, who went off to Java to serve the Ministry of the Colonies, applying his scholarly knowledge of Islam to colonial policy. Irwin insists that Hurgronje’s ‘practical involvement . . . with imperial projects was unusual’ – but Massignon helped to draft the Sykes-Picot agreement on the post-World War One partition of Arabia and the Near East, and worked in Morocco for his friend Marshal Lyautey. (Massignon became a late-life opponent of empire.) Irwin makes no secret of these Orientalists’ imperial activities, but he sees them as aberrations in what was generally a pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Perhaps most Orientalists see their activities in such terms. Nevertheless, their exposure to the subjects they studied, their ability to engage with them, and often their interpretations of evidence, are framed and enabled by larger political, cultural and economic systems. For example, the Enlightenment scholar William Jones made his famous discovery that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin shared a common parent (proto-Indo-European) thanks to dedicated philological study. But he was able to learn Sanskrit in the first place only by going to Calcutta as a judge in British-administered Bengal.
Of course, there is a perplexing ambiguity to Said’s presentation of the relationship between imperialism and scholarship. Does Orientalism act as a substitute for empire? Does it enable empire? Or is it the consequence of empire? (Phrasing the questions in parallel terms: does knowledge act as a substitute for power; does it enable power; or is it the consequence of power?) Irwin’s systematic attention to Oriental studies across Europe does much to counter Said’s contention that Orientalism was the product of the ‘three great empires – British, French, American’. For one thing, as Irwin quite rightly notes, ‘if one wants to give full and proper consideration to the relationship between Orientalism and imperialism, then one should turn to Russia with its vast empire of Muslim subjects.’ An equally gaping lacuna in Said’s work, Irwin stresses, concerns German Orientalism: German universities exercised scholarly hegemony at a time when German states possessed no Oriental colonies at all. As for Britain and France, it could be argued that scholarship followed empire belatedly at best. Britain in the 19th century was the world’s largest Muslim imperial power, yet a laggard in Oriental studies. The Cambridge Sanskritist Edward Byles Cowell lamented in 1850 that ‘German scholars come over to London and study the MSS . . . but hardly a solitary English scholar can be found to avail himself of the treasures which his countrymen have brought from the East almost to his very door.’ (One is reminded of the remarkable statistic, cited by the 9/11 Commission, that in 2002 a grand total of six undergraduate degrees were granted in Arabic studies in the United States.) All of these examples serve to show that Said’s loose assertion that Orientalist discourse ‘exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power’, compelling as it is in theory, demands to be fully explored in practice.
Irwin disagrees with those who acknowledge the errors in Said’s evidence but still believe that his book ‘deserves praise and attention because of the subsequent debate and research it has provoked’. In his view, ‘the value of a debate that is based on a fantasy version of past history and scholarship is not obvious.’ Certainly, humanistic arguments cannot and should not stand in the absence of real evidence any more than scientific ones should: consider Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, whose contentions about Greek origins, critics have shown, hinge on such error and misinterpretation that they are fundamentally insupportable. By contrast, Irwin’s factual corrections, however salutary, do not so much knock down the theoretical claims of Orientalism as chip away at single bricks.
They also do nothing to discount the fertility of Orientalism for other academics. The most thought-provoking works it has inspired have not blindly accepted Said’s propositions, but have expanded and modified them. (The title of a recent issue of Critical Inquiry devoted to Said, ‘Continuing the Conversation’, nicely captures the spirit of his ongoing influence.) Irwin has no truck with efforts to ‘“negotiate the Other”, “reinvent alterity” and suchlike enterprises’ pursued by post-colonialist literary critics; and it is easy to mock their sometimes convoluted prose. It is far less easy, however, to dismiss their impact in replacing Said’s now outdated binary conception of Otherness with richer analyses of hybridity and identities. Another group loosely influenced by Said, the ‘subaltern studies’ collective (associated with the Delhi-based journal of that title), has complicated Said’s portrayal of the power of colonisers by exploring ‘dominance without hegemony’, and by revealing the subaltern’s ability to speak between the lines of colonial discourse. And scholars of colonial South Asia, in particular, have used Said’s work to look in detail at such topics as the construction of colonial knowledge, the reification of religious and racial categories, and the administrative practices of the state. Some have even pursued research into traditional Orientalists (Jones and his ilk) of the sort Irwin undertakes here. In the end, the best testament to how influential Orientalism has been is how passé it now seems. It is hard to imagine that any serious scholar in the humanities or social sciences today would embrace it wholesale – in part for reasons Irwin suggests, but in part also because so many of its insights have been absorbed, developed and in some ways surpassed.
Surely Said’s most enduring legacy has been to embed in a rising generation of Western scholars, many of whom are now contemporaries of Orientalism itself, the awareness that their work has political substance and ramifications, whether or not it might appear to be political a priori. Said wanted to break down what he saw as a false ‘distinction between pure and political knowledge’. Does that mean facts do not exist, or that evidence does not matter? Certainly not. But it does mean that scholars ought to be aware of the circumstances governing the kind of knowledge they produce and circulate. An American tourist of average means can visit the library of Tamegroute, scrutinise the manuscripts and come home with stories and snapshots, while the custodians of such repositories can almost certainly not afford trips abroad, are even less likely to be able to obtain Western visas, and could not under any plausible circumstances participate in Western scholarly discourse. So thank goodness for Orientalists like those profiled by Irwin, who have sought to reach across cultural divides and understand languages, histories and faiths other than their own. But thank goodness too for Orientalism, which has helped make scholars more conscious of the sources of their own perspectives and privileges in the first place.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.