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Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontentsby Robert Irwin
"Though this book is an extraordinarily attractive short introduction to the different national schools of Orientalism, and to the various scholars who labored to make Eastern philology and philosophy more accessible, its chief interest to the lay reader lies in its consideration of Orientalism as a study of Islam. Irwin shows us the early Christian attempts to translate and understand the Koran, most of which were preoccupied with showing its heretical character. These make especially absorbing reading..." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
The publication of Edward Said's hugely influential Orientalism in 1981 called into question the entire history of the Western study of Islamic culture, condemning this scholarly tradition as one that presented inaccurate and deliberately demeaning representations of Islamic peoples and institutions — so much so that the words "Oriental" and "Orientalist" came to take on the most negative connotations.
But what is Orientalism, who were the Orientalists, and how did Western scholars of Islamic culture come to be vilified as insidious agents of European imperialism? In Robert Irwin's groundbreaking new history, he answers this question with a detailed and colorful story of the motley crew of intellectuals and eccentrics who brought an understanding of the Islamic world to the West. In a narrative that ranges from an analysis of Ancient Greek perceptions of the Persians to a portrait of the first Western European translators of Arabic to the contemporary Muslim world's perceptions of the Western study of Islam, Irwin affirms the value of the Orientalists' legacy: not only for the contemporary scholars who have disowned it, but also for anyone committed to fostering the cross-cultural under-standing which could bridge the real or imagined gulf between Islamic and Western civilization.
Dangerous Knowledge is an enthralling history, a bold argument, and an urgent redress of our conceptions about Western culture's relationship with its nearest neighbor.
"Almost 30 years ago, in his classic Orientalism, the late cultural critic Edward Said published a scathing denunciation of Oriental studies, blaming the field for the rise of Western imperialism and racist views about Arabs and other Eastern peoples. British historian Irwin (The Alhambra) fiercely condemns Said's misinterpretation, offering both a brilliant defense of Orientalism and a masterful intellectual history of the Orientalists and their work, which opened windows on the world of Asia in general and Islam in particular, providing the West with glimpses of the social and religious practices of these cultures. Irwin surveys the history of Orientalism from the Greeks through the Middle Ages to its height in the 18th and 19th centuries. He chronicles the lives and works of the men who introduced the ideas of Islamic and Asian culture to the West. Many of these men were biblical critics whose command of Hebrew allowed them to move easily to Arabic and to explore the Koran. In the 17th century, the dragomans, or translators, moved the study of Islam forward by providing translations of Turkish, Arabic and Persian texts. Irwin's wide-ranging study splendidly captures a time when intellectual polymaths traversed foreign territories in search of new and compelling ideas. (Oct.) " Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Nearly 30 years ago, the late Edward Said brought out his most famous book, 'Orientalism' (1978). Till then, Orientalism had been regarded as simply the branch of European scholarship focusing on the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. But Said argued that it was, in fact, a highly politicized concept, the umbrella term for a kind of intellectual — fostering racism, justifying Western interference... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in largely Muslim nations, and generally controlling how the West perceived the Middle East. It was, to use the now familiar academic catchphrase, a hegemonic discourse, reducing rich and vital cultures, peoples and religions to a set of patronizing stereotypes. As a scholarly discipline, Orientalism was either rotten with bad faith or its students were the naive tools of a colonialist ideology. The book proved wildly successful and made the young Said a star of the academy and of what has come to be called cultural studies. Indeed, 'Orientalism' supported the central theoretical premise of many intellectuals at the time — that the prejudices of dead white European males had utterly distorted and warped their scholarship, art, politics and human sympathies. Robert Irwin, himself an Oxford-trained Arabist, doesn't buy this. He asserts in his introduction and argues in his penultimate chapter that Said's book, thinking and evidence are shoddy, unreliable and mean-spirited. The Columbia literary critic's attack on Orientalism, Irwin argues, maligns the lifework of admirable and deeply learned people, mocks a long, honorable tradition of scholarship, and plays fast and loose with the facts. 'Dangerous Knowledge' is in part, then, Robert Irwin's riposte to Edward Said. I say in part, because the bulk of this exhaustive, and somewhat exhausting, book consists of a solid history of Middle East scholarship from antiquity to the present. In format, it recalls Sandys' 'History of Classical Scholarship,' being made up of a series of short biographies augmented by interpretive summaries of important research. Happily, Irwin's clean, clear prose — he is a novelist as well as the Middle East editor for the Times Literary Supplement — keeps the pages enjoyable as well as brisk. He explains the relevance of major textual discoveries and translations, lingers affectionately over the eccentrics, madmen and giants of the field, points out everyone's ideological or religious affiliations, and deploys with ease and grace a vast amount of reading and research. Irwin has, to use his own highest accolade, tried to get things right. 'Dangerous Knowledge' is appropriately full of knowledge, carefully presented. In antiquity, for instance, the culture of the Middle East wasn't regarded by outsiders as a wholly alien 'Other': Aeschylus' 'The Persians' sympathetically portrays the empire that only seven years previous had tried to conquer Greece; the Roman emperor Philip was an Arab; Islam was often regarded as just a variant of the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Christ). During the Middle Ages, Arabic texts introduced Euclid's mathematics to the West. Avicenna and Averroes were major interpreters of Aristotle. Moorish Spain was a center of unrivaled learning. As for the Crusades, well, the sultan of Egypt sarcastically observed that he was surprised 'that Christian Crusaders should seek to imitate the violent ways of Muhammad, rather than the peaceful preaching of Christ and his Apostles.' Irwin doesn't fudge harsh truths. In Europe during the Middle Ages, an interest in the Koran could get you branded as a crypto-Muslim and earn you a prison sentence. European travel tales really did portray the East as a land of marvels and romance and magic and sensuality. At first, Europeans studied Arabic just to better understand the cultural background of the Bible. Between the Renaissance and the 19th century, European classical scholarship and Biblical studies usually provided the structural model for Orientalist research. While westerners often respected Arabs for their culture and science, they frequently thought Turks to be 'the barbarous descendants of the Scythians.' We learn that Guillaume Postel (1510-81) was the first true Orientalist, as well a 'complete lunatic.' (For one thing, he believed a woman he met in Venice was the mystical Shekhinah, or divine presence, of the Kabbalah, as well as the New Eve.) Barthelemy d'Herbelot (1625-95), compiler of the 'Bibliotheque orientale,' and Antoine Galland (1646-1715), translator of 'The Thousand and One Nights,' were 'the first Orientalists to take a serious interest in the secular literature of the Middle East.' Edward Gibbon wanted to study Arabic at Oxford, but no one there could teach it to him. Ibn Khaldun's 14th-century historico-philosophical masterwork, 'The Muqaddimah,' speculated about the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations in ways that anticipate or influenced Gibbon, Giambattista Vico, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. Nearly every page of 'Dangerous Knowledge' casually points out what seems to most of us, with our feeble French or Spanish, truly awesome linguistic erudition. In the 17th century, Thomas Hyde knew Turkish, Malaysian, Armenian and Chinese; worked on the Persian, Arabic and Syriac texts of a polyglot Bible; and at Oxford was the Librarian of the Bodleian, Laudian Professor of Arabic, and Regius Professor of Hebrew. William Jones, famous for his discovery of the Indo-Aryan roots of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, 'mastered thirteen languages and dabbled in twenty-eight.' Silvestre de Sacy learned Arabic, Syriac, Chaldaean, Ethiopian, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Mandaean 'and the usual number of European languages that any self-respecting nineteenth-century academic would expect to be at home in.' Sacy, says Irwin, was the first European to really understand the meter of Arabic poetry. Edward Said portrays Ernest Renan and the Count de Gobineau as arch-villains, but Irwin takes pains to show that the former's romantic generalities — about, say, the desert as the land of monotheism — were dismissed by true scholars, while the latter's racism was far different from what Said describes. (Irwin suggests that Said never actually read Gobineau.) Moreover, the 19th century was legitimately exploring the whole issue of race, with some people arguing, like Renan, that mixing ethnicities avoided softness and decadence, while others, like Gobineau, maintained that such mongrelization led to degeneracy (colonization, was, therefore, an 'appetizing dish, but one which poisons those who consume it'). Even England's greatest Orientalist, William Robertson Smith, the editor of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' was a racist: He thought the Arabs were superior to the Europeans. 'Dangerous Knowledge' is, in fact, really too packed a book for any easy summary. It ranges from the Indiana Jones-like career of the doomed Edward Palmer ('polyglot, spy and poet') to Arminius Vambery, who one evening after dinner talked about Balkan superstitions with Bram Stoker and thus provoked the nightmare that inspired Dracula. Irwin tells us of the spiritually anguished French scholar Louis Massignon and A.J. Arberry, whose translation of the Koran remains the truest and most poetical. He speaks admiringly of the brilliant American Marshall Hodgson who, before his early death at 47, shook up Middle East studies with his three-volume 'The Venture of Islam,' which emphasized the importance of geography and the contributions of Persians, Turks and Indians to the rise of Islam. He reminds us, time and again, that Jews have consistently been the greatest Arabic scholars, from the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), 'the uncontested master of Islamic studies,' to our contemporary Bernard Lewis. Above all, Irwin emphasizes what the late Albert Hourani (author of the best-selling 'A History of the Arab Peoples') learned from his teacher Richard Walzer: 'the importance of scholarly traditions: the way in which scholarship was passed from one generation to another by a kind of apostolic succession, a chain of witnesses (a silsila to give it its Arabic name).' 'Dangerous Knowledge' is, obviously, a history of that apostolic succession. It ends, though, with Muslim critiques of Western Orientalism and a chapter about Edward Said titled 'An Enquiry into the Nature of a Certain Twentieth-Century Polemic.' This is an allusion to John Carter and Graham Pollard's quietly devastating 1934 'Enquiry into Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets,' which exposed Thomas J. Wise, England's foremost book collector, as a forger, cheat and liar. Irwin forthrightly maintains that 'Said libelled generations of scholars who were for the most part good and honourable men and he was not prepared to acknowledge that some of them at least might have written in good faith.' Is Irwin right about Said? He certainly makes a cogent case. And yet. Said too was admired, even revered, by many good and honorable men and women, many of them first-rate thinkers and theorists. Haven't we, after all persistently tended to view the Middle East through prejudices and distorting lenses of one sort or another? There's no doubt, then, that 'Dangerous Knowledge' will be hotly argued about in departments of literature and Middle Eastern studies for some time to come. Still, like Irwin, I strongly believe that most scholars work hard to discover and tell us the truth. 'Dangerous Knowledge' is a paean to that noble purpose. Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at)gmail.com. He conducts a weekly book discussion on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. at washingtonpost.com." Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Latter-day Orientalists and students of intellectual history will benefit greatly from this study." Kirkus Reviews
"[Irwin] takes a subject that could be deadly dull and makes it live....A serious work of scholarship that is a delight to read from start to finish..." Library Journal
"[Irwin] is...an expert in his field and a skilled writer....Mr. Irwin has provided the nuanced critique of Islamic studies that Edward Said, with his self-aggrandizing bluster, failed to deliver." Wall Street Journal
"Mr. Irwin writes for a general audience in a lively, readable style..." New York Times
About the Author
Robert Irwin was born in 1946. He read modern history at Oxford and taught medieval history at the University of St. Andrews. He has held teaching appointments in Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Oxford and Cambridge.
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