The Origins of Western Scholarship of Islam Show What Edward Said Got Wrong

June 12 2018

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Islam in the Bibliothèque Orientale, an encyclopedia that contained 8,000 entries drawn from original, often hitherto unpublished Islamic sources.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.

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More about: Edward Said, Enlightenment, History & Ideas, Islam, Vatican

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East