In his widely touted 1978 book Orientalism, the literature professor Edward Said argued that the entire history of European (and by extension, American) scholarship about Arab and Muslim lands was inextricably tied up with the West’s effort to exercise political and economic power over these lands and their peoples. As a result, Said claimed, all academic study of the Middle East was inherently tainted—unless, that is, it supported his own radical political opinions. Alexander Bevilacqua’s recent book The Republic of Arabic Letters, on European writing about Islam in the 17th and 18th centuries—before Western colonization of Muslim lands—gives the lie to Said’s premises, as Benedikt Koehler writes in his review:
[I]f personal agendas framed Western engagement with Islam, these bore no resemblance to the attitudes Said imputed. The Republic of Arabic Letters backtracks to the emergence of modern Islamic scholarship in the 17th century and finds no guilty secrets lurking at the origin of modern academic engagement with Islam and the East. Bevilacqua offers many surprising discoveries. One of them is that robust modern scholarship on Islam was shaped in an ostensibly improbable source, namely, the Vatican.
The pioneers of modern Islamic study excelled as scholars, diplomats, and explorers, but, for all that, were often denied recognition. The Roman friar who translated the Quran, Lodovico Marracci, had the pope’s backing for his undertaking, but Marracci spent less time on translating the Quran than on getting his translation into print, because he needed the bureaucracy of the Vatican to grant him permission to publish and such permission was not forthcoming. But he persisted, and after the Latin version appeared in 1698, George Sale translated the Quran into English in 1734.
Meanwhile in Paris, Barthélemy d’Herbelot and Antoine Galland in 1697 exhibited the secular culture of Islam in the Bibliothèque Orientale, an encyclopedia that contained 8,000 entries drawn from original, often hitherto unpublished Islamic sources. The energy of Galland was boundless—he went on to showcase Arabic belles lettres by producing the first translation of One Thousand and One Nights, using a manuscript he had acquired on one of his tours abroad. . . .
Lodovico Marracci had raised the question as to the extent of Judaic elements in Islam; such a query had to wait until 1833 when the German rabbi Abraham Geiger made it the subject of a prize-winning essay; Henry Stubbe (1632-1676) pointed out that Islamic monotheism was in defiance of Catholic Trinitarianism; and Unitarians and Socinians [who denied the Trinity] reflected on the evocation of Sura 112 (“Say, God is one God . . .”) which proved, they felt, that opposition to Catholicism had deep roots.