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In Defense of Edward Said

By mohammadfadel
Posted on Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 04:06:39 PM EST
Tags: Edward Said, Orientalism, Islamic Legal History (all tags)

Promoted to the frontpage by Ali Eteraz 

Gary Kamiya, in a review of Robert Irwin's "Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents," suggests that Edward Said's principle thesis in Orientalism -- that the study of the Islamic world in Europe was inextricably linked with the exercise of power over the Islamic world -- was so flawed as to border on the deceitful.  He goes on to say that "In the end, bad books are just bad books, and when they are canonized for instrumental reasons, the result is a coarsening of thought and an ever-widening and unhealthy divide between the academy and mainstream culture. Indeed, there is reason to believe that such sweeping indictments produce a public backlash and result in more bigotry, not less." 


Before engaging in such a revisionist assessment of Said's contributions, I would suggest that Kamiya compare the quality of the works produced on the Islamic world in the West in the time prior to the publication of Orientalism and the quality of the works published thereafter.  There is no doubt that Orientalism can be attacked in many of its details, and even its broad conclusion can be attacked as an oversimplification.  That does not detract from the contribution of the work, however, nor does it help us assess objectively whether its impact on knowledge was positive or negative. 

I have no doubt that the impact of Orientalism on Islamic Studies was profoundly positive.  In my field, Islamic legal history, a quick perusal of works written by the recognized "giants" of the field -- Noel Coulson and Joseph Schact -- shows that they routinely made sweeping generalizations based on a posited ahistorical "essence" of Islamic law that was, unsurprisingly, inferior to the "essence" of western legal systems.  Specifically, they regularly assumed that Islamic law was immutable -- solely because it was religious -- even though significant evidence to the contrary was available to them. 

Baber Johansen, a professor of Islamic Studies at the Harvard Divinity School and Acting Director of the Harvard Islamic Legal Studies Program, for example, criticized Schacht in his work Contingency in a Sacred Law: Legal and Ethical Norms in the Muslim Fiqh (1999) for failing to recognize the importance of dissent and pluralism in substantive Islamic law due to Schacht's being "too much part of an occidental tradition which understands the legitimacy of the dissent on principles as a specific western form of modern political and religious culture so that he cannot envisage its existence in a non-occidental sacred law or deontology."  Professor Johansen makes the larger point that many of the critical conceptual categories that infuse older Western studies of Islamic law (i.e. prior to Orientalism) were suffused with casual use of Weberian terms that led researchers like Schacht simply to ignore contrary evidence. 

Therein lies the revolutionary contribution Said made to a field -- Islamic Studies -- that was not even his own: he showed how ideological commitments -- in this case commitments to the superiority of Western civilization -- could not only lead to profound mischaracterizations of the subject of study, but also how such errors can become core doctrines of a discipline.  In other words, doctrines, parading in the language of objective scientific description, can become hegemonic in spite of their falsity precisely because they confirm ideological biases.  That in sum explains the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq and the Muslim world in general.  It is not an accident that the administration relies on someone like Bernard Lewis -- even though he is no longer on the cutting edge of scholarship in Islamic Studies -- and not scholars like Juan Cole who, arguably, have assimilated the lessons of Orientalism.

Said wrote at a time that profound methodological naivete prevailed in Islamic Studies.  His criticism of that naivete was devastating, even if his theory does not map out precisely onto all authorities, such as Ignaz Goldziher.  As a graduate student, Orientalism had a profound impact upon me in that it gave me the courage to re-think many of the assumptions that pre-Orientalist authors took for granted regarding Islamic law.  If Orientalism taught scholars of Islamic Studies only that method matters, that would be sufficient to make it part of our canon. 

So, before Makiya goes about trashing Said's contribution, I suggest he consider this counter-factual: what would Islamic Studies look like without Said's criticisms?  I know that the study of Islamic legal history would be dead, because authorities such as Coulson and Schacht essentially posited that the notion of Islamic legal history was oxymoronic -- there was no need to study the details of the 14 centuries of Islamic law because it was all, in essence, the same.  Said taught us that such a conclusion is ideology, not knowledge, and thank God, many of us learned his lesson, rolled up our sleeves, and began to take the notion that Muslims had a history seriously.  I know that my field of Islamic legal history has been considerably enriched as a result.  The same is true of the literature of Islamic societies.  I'm sure the same is true for the study of art in the Islamic world and no doubt also explains the increased attention to the study of the social history of the Islamic world.

Mohammed Fadel is professor of law at Univ. of Toronto School of Law and a VIP at Eteraz.Org

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Tags: Edward Said, Orientalism, Islamic Legal History (all tags)
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orientalism(none / 0) (#1)
by LawrenceofArabia on Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 07:12:11 PM EST
and to think that the western interpretations of the middle east in the 18th and 19th century were not ideologically loaded seems naive at best and ideological obfuscation at worst.  one is tempted to think that the author wants to discourage us from looking at the ideological underpinnings, not only of the early moderns, but also of contemporary portrayals.  said's thesis is admittedly broad and argued in a relatively short space (it is easily one of those theses that an academic could spend a life time arguing over the course of many volumes), and thus no doubt open to qualifications, clarifications and increased sophistications; but it seems inconceiveable in modern scholarship that one would try to separate anglo and franco portrayals of arabia from the imperialistic setting in which those portrayals were formulated.
Lawrence of Arabia

Interesting.(none / 0) (#2)
by Gracchi on Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 09:30:03 PM EST

Interesting and subtle defence of Said. I agree with you that one of the things that Said did was to historicise Islam- to argue against essentialism. But I'm not sure that his agenda overall led to that- Orientalism seems to me to be a profoundly a historical work because it doesn't posit change or fluidity- it just posits an Orientalist outlook. I'm not sure that that's right. I think those things need balancing- on the one hand the improvement in Islamic studies that you note- and I have to agree with you not being an expert in the area- and on the other the kind of idea of 'orientalism.

what does this mean?(none / 0) (#3)
by razib on Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 09:52:44 PM EST

" In other words, doctrines, parading in the language of objective scientific description, can become hegemonic in spite of their falsity precisely because they confirm ideological biases.  That in sum explains the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq and the Muslim world in general."

 ?  i mean, unfortunately the reality is that foreign policy is not conducted with a positivistic  methodology. when i read said it didn't imply to me that he was very cool with positivism in history and humanistic scholarship and analysis.  the bush administration, or bush himself, seems to be counter-orientalist insofar as he (though not all his underlings) worked with the assumption that the historical context of the arab world, and iraq, was irrelevant and that they could be quickly transformed into republicans (small r) because humans share a universal essence.  that is, bush's policy seems to have been predicated on universalism of an extreme degree which is the opposite of orientalism.

anyway, i agree that said was an OK corrective.  'm not a historian or a scholar of the middle east, but i recall whincing a fair amount at the errors of history he made in orientalism when i read it in 2001.  the only reason i finished was cuz the book is so influential. 

the problem i have with literary post-modernist thinkers is that their skepticism is a good thing, but they don't replace with anything but inscrutable gibberish that can mean anything. i reject the idea of cultures as "essences," in many ways i'm quantitative nominalist. cultures exist as statistical distributions in parameter space and our perception of an essence emerges from the 'center of gravity' (the median) of that distribution. that means translating into words, and also figuring out the topology of reality, pretty hard. but just because it's hard doesn't mean we have to give up.

Schacht Thesis(none / 0) (#4)
by Brian Ulrich on Wed Dec 06, 2006 at 11:23:16 PM EST

I haven't read all Schacht's work, but wasn't he primarily a historian of Islamic law, in that he himself provided one of the most influential models for its change, growth, and disputation during the first few centuries of Islam?

Also, I see a lot of what you're talking about as part of a general trend toward methodological improvement of which Said was a symptom rather than the cause.  In my mind, his assault on the "unchanging East" model was one of his biggest contributions.  Even there, however, there was also a move out of structuralism in anthropology, to name just one parallel development.

Brian's Study Breaks

Excellent(none / 0) (#5)
by G. Willow Wilson on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 02:05:14 AM EST
I truly enjoyed reading this. I thought it was a concise and well-reasoned defense.

Been on the other end of...(none / 0) (#6)
by Julaybib on Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 11:31:06 AM EST

I finished my Religious Studies degree in 1992, having competed two modules on Islam, one under a lecturer who derided Said. The mostly dated books which were on his course's reading list presented Islam as something dead, static and monolithic. Only one book on the list was worth reading- Fazlur Rahman's Islam.

Things were already changing back then (thanks to recently appointed young lecturers) and I know they have changed a great deal since. Anyone interested in books about Islam in the last 15 years cannot fail to have noticed. That is surely down largely to Said. His detractors are simply out of touch with reality.


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