Bernard Lewis: Criticism of Said


A review of Bernard Lewis, Islam and The West, (Chapter 6)

This chapter contains an exploration of the meaning of orientalism. It is stated that the word orientalism was used mainly in two senses, to denote either a school of painting, which a group of artists who visited the Middle East and North Africa and depicted what they saw or imagined, or a branch of scholarship. The word and the academic discipline which it denotes, historical beginnings of oriental scholarship in Western Europe, are dated to the time of the Renaissance. Its history is basically from relatively narrow root, philology that concerns with recovery, study, publication and interpretation of texts. The so-called Orient, in turn develops from one region, that which is now called the Middle East, to its gradual expansion including other disciplines such as philosophy, theology, literature and history and a diversity of areas from the Ottoman Empire to India and China. With this progress of both exploration and scholarship, Lewis writes, the term “Orientalists” became increasingly unsatisfactory. Students of the Orient were no longer engaged in a single discipline but were branching out into several others. (p. 101-102).

According to Lewis, the term “Orientalist” is now also polluted beyond salvation, but this is less important in that the word had already lost its value and had been in fact abandoned by those who previously bore it. It was in effect formally abandoned at the 29th International Congress of Orientalists, which met in Paris in the summer of 1973. (p. 103). This term was thus abolished by the accredited Orientalists, and thrown on the garbage heap of history. But garbage heaps are not safe places because the words “Orientalist” and “Orientalism” have now been revived their usage and have changed to that of a term of polemic abuse. (p. 104).

Before concluding by identifying the main exponent of anti-Orientalism in the United States of America, Edward Said, an exploration of the rise of anti-orientalism follows critics from a diversity of sources ranging from Islamicists to Arab Nationalists to Marxist theorists are briefly considered by Lewis.

One critique toward Said’s work, Orientalism, is that Said makes a number of very arbitrary decisions by giving limitation on a particular closeness experienced between Britain and France and the Orient. His Orient, as Lewis writes, is reduced to the Middle East, and his Middle East to a part of the Arab world. By eliminating Turkish and Persian studies on the one hand and Semitic studies on the other, Said isolates Arabic from both their historical and philological contexts. (p. 107-108).

Besides that, the whole passage of his work is not merely false but absurd. Bernard Lewis argues that Said’s account contains many factual, methodological and conceptual errors. He ignores many genuine contributions to the study of Eastern cultures made by Westerners during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras. Said has been criticised for ignoring the massive contribution of German scholars, who were no involved in any colonial project. (p. 108).

The limitation of time, space, and content which Said imposes on his subject are no doubt convenient and indeed necessary to his purpose. They are not sufficient to accomplish it. Many leading figures are not mentioned at all. (p. 111-112).

Finally the chapter concludes with a brief review of the counter-critique from Arab writers such as the Egyptian philosopher Fu’ad Zakaria who divides the anti-Orientalists into two main categories.  The first is religious and apologetic, a defense of the integrity of Islam against what they see as an attack by hostile forces, seeking to undermine and discredit Islam in order to impose their own beliefs. The second is attack Orientalism from a political-culture point of view. (p. 116).


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