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Islam in the Bibliothèque Orientale, an encyclopedia that contained 8,000 entries drawn from original, often hitherto unpublished Islamic sources.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

Israel’s Nation-State Law and the Hysteria of the Western Media

Aug. 17 2018

Nearly a month after it was passed by the Knesset, the new Basic Law defining Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is still causing outrage in the American and European press. The attacks, however, are almost uniformly incommensurate with this largely symbolic law, whose text, in the English translation found on the Knesset website, is barely over 400 words in length. Matthew Continetti comments:

Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti-Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the diaspora.

For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: the bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error. . . .

Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled [the five] news articles and four op-eds the New York Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as results favored by the New York Times editorial board, and Israel’s national self-understanding as in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government. . . .

The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. . . .  The New York Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said [that] “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish state.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israel's Basic Law, Israeli democracy, Media, New York Times