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Orientalism in the Scale of Islam

MIT
6/13/2017
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In the name of Allah the Most Merciful the Most Beneficent. Praise be to Allah, and peace and blessings be upon the seal of God's messengers, our Prophet Muhammad and his family, companions and followers. 

 

Any open-minded person embarking on a study of Islam, especially if using books written in European languages, should be aware of the seemingly inherent distortions that permeate almost all non-Muslim writings on Islam.  At least since the Middle Ages, Islam has been much maligned and severely misunderstood in the West.  In the last years of the Twentieth Century, it does not seem that much has changed even though most Muslims would agree that progress is being made.

 

The phenomenon which is generally known as Orientalism is but one aspect of Western misrepresentations of Islam.  Today, most Muslims in the West would probably agree that the majority of distortions about Islam come from the media, whether in newspapers, magazines or on television.  In terms of the number of people who are reached by such information, the mass media certainly has more of a widespread impact on the West's view of Islam than do the academic publications of "Orientalists", "Arabists" or "Islamicists".  In recent years, the academic field of what used to be called Orientalism has been renamed "Area Studies" or "Regional Studies".  These politically correct terms have taken the place of the word "Orientalism" in scholarly circles since the latter word is now tainted with a negative imperialist connotation, in a large measure due to the Orientalists themselves.  However, even though the works of scholars who pursue these fields do not reach the public at large, they do often fall into the hands of students and those who are personally interested in learning more about Islam.  As such, any student of Islam especially those in the West need to be aware of the historical phenomenon of Orientalism, both as an academic pursuit and as a means of cultural exploitation.  When used by Muslims, the word "Orientalist" generally refers to any Western scholar who studies Islam regardless of his or her motives and thus, inevitably, distorts it.  As we shall see, however, the phenomenon of Orientalism is much more than an academic pursuit.  Edward Said, a renowned Arab Christian scholar and author of several books exposing shortcomings of the Orientalist approach, defines "Orientalism" as follows:

 

. . . by Orientalism I mean several things, all of them, in my opinion, interdependent.  The most readily accepted designation for Orientalism is an academic one, and indeed the label still serves in a number of academic institutions.  Anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian, or philogist either in its specific or its general aspects, is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism. (From Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, page 2)

 

To speak of Orientalism therefore is to speak mainly, although not exclusively, of a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in such disparate realms as the imagination itself, the whole of India and the Levant, the Biblical texts and the Biblical lands, the spice trade, colonial armies and a long tradition of colonial administrators, a formidable scholarly corpus, innumerable Oriental "experts" and "hands", an Oriental professorate, a complex array of "Oriental" ideas (Oriental despotism, Oriental splendor, cruelty, sensuality), many Eastern sects, philosophies, and wisdoms domesticated for local European use the list can be extended more or less indefinitely. (From Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, page 4)

 

As is the case with many things, being aware of the problem is half the battle.  Once a sincere seeker of the Truth is aware of the long standing misunderstanding and hostility between Islam and the West and learns not to trust everything which they see in print authentic knowledge and information can be gained much more quickly.  Certainly, not all Western writings on Islam have the same degree of bias they run the range from willful distortion to simple ignorance and there are even a few that could be classified as sincere efforts by non-Muslims to portray Islam in a positive light.  However, even most of these works are plagued by seemingly unintentional errors, however minor, due to the author's lack of Islamic knowledge.  In the spirit of fairness, it should be said that even some contemporary books on Islam by Muslim authors suffer from these same shortcomings, usually due to a lack of knowledge, heretical ideas and or depending on non-Muslim sources.

 

This having been said, it should come as no surprise that learning about Islam in the West especially when relying on works in  European languages has never been an easy task.  Just a couple of decades ago, an English speaking person who was interested in Islam, and wishing to limit their reading to works by Muslim authors, might have been limited to reading a translation of the Qur'an, a few translated hadeeth books and a few dozen pamphlet-sized essays.  However, in the past several years the widespread availability of Islamic books written by believing and committed  Muslims and the advent of the Internet have made obtaining authentic information on almost any aspect of Islam much easier.  Today, hardly a week goes by that a new English translation of a classic Islamic work is not announced.  Keeping this in mind, I would encourage the reader to consult books written by Muslim authors when trying to learn about Islam.  There are a wide range of Islamic book distributors that can be contacted through the Internet.

 

Moving on to a more detailed look at the West's distorted view of Islam, in general, and Orientalism in particular . . . Edward Said, the Arab Christian author of the monumental work Orientalism,  accurately referred to Orientalism a "cultural enterprise".  This is certainly no distortion, since the academic study of the Oriental East by the Occidental West was often motivated and often co-operated hand-in-hand with the imperialistic aims of the European colonial powers.  Without a doubt, the foundations of Orientalism are in the maxim "Know thy enemy".  When the Christian Nations of Europe began their long campaign to colonize and conquer the rest of the world for their own benefit, they brought their academic and missionary resources to bear in order to help them with their task.  Orientalists and missionaries whose ranks often overlapped were more often than not the servants of an imperialist government who was using their services as a way to subdue or weaken an enemy, however subtly.

 

With regard to Islam and the Islamic territories, for example, Britain felt that it had legitimate interests, as a Christian power, to safeguard.  A complex apparatus for tending these interests developed. Such early organizations as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701) were succeeded and later abetted by the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (1808).  These missions "openly" joined the expansion of Europe.  (From Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, page 100)

 

Anyone who has studied the subject knows that Christian missionaries were willing participants in European imperialism, regardless of the pure motives or naïveté of some of the individual missionaries.  Actually, quite a few Orientalist scholars were Christian missionaries.  One example is that of Sir William Muir, who was an active missionary and author of several books on Islam.  Today, these books are viewed as very biased studies, even though they continue to be used as references for those wishing to attack Islam to this very day.  That Christians were the source of some of the worst lies and distortions about Islam should come as no surprise, since Islam was its main "competitor" on the stage of World Religions.  Far from honouring the commandment not to bear false witness against one's neighbor, Christians distortions and outright lies about Islam were widespread, as the following shows:

 

The history of Orientalism is hardly one of unbiased examination of the sources of Islam especially when under the influence of the bigotry of Christianity. From the fanatical distortions of John of Damascus to the apologetic of later writers against Islam, that told their audiences that the Muslims worshipped three idols! Peter the Venerable (1084-1156) "translated" the Qur'an which was used throughout the Middle Ages and included nine additional chapters. Sale's infamously distorted translation followed that trend, and his, along with the likes of Rodwell, Muir and a multitude of others attacked the character and personality of Muhammmed. Often they employed invented stories, or narration's which the Muslims themselves considered fabricated or weak, or else they distorted the facts by claiming Muslims held a position which they did not, or using the habits practised out of ignorance among the Muslims as the accurate portrayal of Islam. As Norman Daniel tell us in his work Islam and the West: "The use of false evidence to attack Islam was all but universal . . . " (p. 267).  (From An Authoritative Exposition - Part 1, by Abdur-Rahîm Green) .

 

It is really regrettable to find an orientalist devoting his attention to this sort of destructive work-taxing his energies to point out simply mistakes and failings, real or imaginary, in the Islamic history, culture and literature and presenting them in a dramatic manner In order to highlight only the dark features. The knowledge and intelligence of such scholars are pressed to offer a microscopic examination of their topics with a view to stretching the truth for painting a very dismal picture of Islam. Their endeavor is to create doubts about Islam and its law and culture in the minds of young men receiving education in ·the western universities so that the latter should return home completely disenchanted with Islam and its way of life, and with a sense of despondency in the present and future of the Islamic world. Consequently, when these young men educated in the West come to hold the reins of government in their countries they become the most ardent supporters of Islam's modernization and reform of its shari·ah.

 

In conclusion, I would like to say that it is necessary that the Muslim scholars should produce original works on different topics in keeping with the norms of modern scholarship so as to counteract the negative influences exerted by the orientalists  as well as to provide the Muslim world with correct, authentic and dependable facts and concepts relating to Islam. These works have to excel the creations of orientalists in literary presentation, scholarship, method of Investigation, persuasive reasoning, depth of knowledge and breadth of vision, and to expose the fallacies and mistakes so commonly found in the works of orientalists.

 






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