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Islam in the Bibliothèque Orientale, an encyclopedia that contained 8,000 entries drawn from original, often hitherto unpublished Islamic sources.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

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy