Steps towards the redemption of Western scholars' Eastern promises

For Lust of Knowing
March 10, 2006

Postcolonialism, unlike Marxism, did not begin with a key text.

It had multiple beginnings - Commonwealth studies and New World literatures among them - before coming into its own as an assured act of de-centering called postcolonial studies. Yet along the way it was given shape by a crucial publication. As the postcolonialist Leela Gandhi has said, this discipline without a manifesto can be seen as having had, belatedly, an "originary moment" in Edward Said's Orientalism .

First published in 1978, and reissued with a new afterword in 1995, Said's polemic claimed that the field from which it took its name was a hegemonic discourse of imperialism, and that imperialism therefore marked, indeed stained, everything that Western Orientalists had to say about the Orient. With one umbrella term - a highly politicised one, too - Said's thesis swept up the cultures of such varied regions as sub-Saharan Africa, India, China and, especially, the Middle East. In For Lust of Knowing , Robert Irwin problematises this all-embracing analysis by Said and portrays the field of Orientalism as having had wider, more complex dimensions derived from diverse scholarly impetuses as well as Said's imperial requirements. By doing this, even though Irwin is generally unsympathetic to Said, he fulfils the hope that Said expressed in Orientalism , that other scholars might want to extend his arguments.

Like Said, Irwin's focus is on Islam and the Arab world. He comes to his latest book, which is an extensive study, after writing five other works on Islam. The strength of his argument lies in the fact that he does not polarise the debate, but offers a more subtle, double-edged approach. He dwells as much on the scholarly, apolitical positions of many of the early Orientalists, who "in their minds walked and talked with dead men", as on the fact that the socio-political climate of their times decreed relatively meagre remuneration for Orientalism - a lack frequently made up for by patrons, often churchmen, whose aim it was to ensure salvation. Irwin, by not shying away from this necessity for patronage, provides the socio-cultural background necessary for a better understanding of Said's attack, thereby humanising these early Orientalists.

Irwin reveals the irony of Britain's late entry into Orientalism - given the extent of its empire - in which Oxford and Cambridge lagged far behind Leiden and Gottingen in the 16th and 17th centuries. If all Orientalist scholarship was embroiled in imperial conquest and administration, as suggested by Said, why this late British start? Instead Orientalism, as Irwin shows, being a stooge of neither church nor crown, followed its own course. As the explorer Sir Richard Burton put it in the introduction to his translation of The Arabian Nights : "England has forgotten that she is at present the greatest Mohammedan empire in the world, and in her Civil Service examinations she insists on a smattering of Greek and Latin, rather than a knowledge of Arabic." Edward Byles Cowell, a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian, was much more pointed in 1850: "England, in spite of her vast opportunities, has done least for Oriental literature of the learned nations of Europe; France and Germany have in every department left her far behind; and this reflection is truly humiliating when one visits the library of East India House and sees the stores of Oriental lore unread and almost unknown. German scholars come over to London and study the MSS., to correct their own editions, but hardly a solitary English scholar can be found to avail himself of the treasures which his countrymen have brought."

German Orientalists were famous for their productivity. The Kurdish Syrian intellectual "Ali", attending the 1928 Oxford Congress of Orientalists, noted how all the German attendees had stooped backs from poring over manuscripts. The deep German interest in India and Tibet, despite the fact that India was never a part of the German Empire, weakens Said's hypothesis about empire and scholarship. In fact, German scholars were driven by their interest in ancient Aryan connections between Europe and India. Irwin challenges Said's contention that the German Orient was merely a scholarly fiction composed on the Rhine.

Moreover many Orientalists worked without any official support, whether from government, university or church. The English scholar Edward William Lane - regarded as serious by both Said and Irwin - was originally a metal engraver. Lane spent 24 years working on his Arabic-English lexicon. He started in 1842, basing himself in the old part of Cairo, and became so engrossed that his only recreation was to spend half an hour walking on his roof at sunset. Eventually, ill health brought him back to England, where he continued with the work. At the time of his death in 1876, he had reached fa , the 20th letter of the 28-letter Arabic alphabet; to this day, the lexicon remains incomplete. So it is unclear what Said meant by his comment that for Lane, the Orient "was defined by material possession" (qualified by his later statement that "unlike Lane, Chateaubriand attempts to consume the Orient"). In this manner, some of Said's lists go on. As Irwin makes clear in his book, Said chose not to correct his mistakes in the revised edition of Orientalism .

In support of Said, though, it is clear that not all Orientalists were free of political affiliation. Irwin states repeatedly that Christian polemicists made only perfunctory attempts to understand their Muslim adversaries, but he provides evidence to contradict this. In the 12th century, Peter the Venerable commissioned a translation of the Koran so as to refute it, while in the 15th century John of Segovia had the Koran translated as an aid to disputations with Muslims. Another Western reason to study Islam was to use its rituals as a stick with which to beat either the papacy or those who preached reform of the Catholic Church. Then there was the desire to tar by association: Protestants attacked the Pope as a latterday Muhammad, while Catholics associated the "heresies" of Islam with Protestant deviations.

In their engagement with worldly motives governing scholarship, Said and Irwin are equally acute. But while Said uses broad comparisons, Irwin prefers detailed case studies. Indeed, both Orientalism and For Lust of Knowing in places become seemingly endless catalogues of names and works.

Undergirding Irwin's book, however, is a fair-mindedness that rescues it from becoming a polemic. If Irwin questions how much of the material dismissed by Said had actually been read by him, he also asks the same of the Italian poet and humanist Petrarch, who loathed Arab science and literature and is known to have said: "I will not be persuaded that any good can come of Arabia." And when referring us back to the 19th-century German scholar David Strauss's Das Leben Jesu , which suggested that the Gospels were part myth, Irwin asks what hope there was for Muhammad when the Son of God was treated so irreverently. Thus Irwin, unencumbered by an agenda, has the freedom both to champion some scholars and to criticise what he calls the "madness" and "nonsense" of others, such as the racist Joseph-Arthur Gobineau's attempted decipherment of the cuneiform scripts, and Ernest Renan's "mad and ignorant" generalisations about the absolute lack of the supernatural in the teachings of Muhammad.

Still one occasionally has an uneasy feeling that the evidence is being manipulated to suit the argument. For instance, we are told several times that translations of the Koran were produced by Christians with the aim of assisting Christian missionaries in Muslim lands or of fuelling anti-Muslim polemic. But then Irwin adds that the stated aim might have been a cover to enable the translations to avoid censorship and ecclesiastical disapproval.

Yet this is not wholly convincing, given the well-known extent of missionary activity and the fact that censorship was not easily avoidable nor ecclesiastical disapproval easily manipulable. In his account of Count Volney, Irwin begins by saying that this French Orientalist was opposed to Islam and believed that there was something in the practice of Islam that colluded with political tyranny - but ends by arguing that Volney was an Arab nationalist before most Arabs.

For Lust of Knowing is a result of years of study of the Arab world and is by no means a hurriedly assembled assault on Orientalism. Unlike most postcolonialists, Irwin writes to clarify, not to confuse. Anyone wishing to understand the wider context of the works discussed by Said in Orientalism must read Irwin. However, a final key question remains to be answered: might Irwin's book have had an altogether different agency had he chosen to publish it in Said's lifetime?

Dipli Saikia holds a PhD in literature from Bristol University, where she recently taught a course in postcolonial studies.

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies

Author - Robert Irwin
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 330
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9415 0

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