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Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History

Islam, Orientalism, and Intellectual History:

Modernity and the Politics of Exclusion since Ibn Khaldun

By Mohammad R. Salama


Reviewed by Ziad Hafez


London, I.B.Tauris, 2011, 274 pages

ISBN 978 1 84885 005 7 (US$99)


This is a major book to have in one’s library in general and especially those interested in the Arab and Islamic worlds.  Published by I.B. Tauris, its price is somewhat prohibitive but worth the expense.  The back cover jacket provides a whole list of praise for the book and its author and this reviewer believes that they are quite justified.

The first thing that jumps out in the face of the reader is breadth and depth of erudition this book displays.  The author is well versed in Western as well as in Arab and Islamic cultures and moves easily between the two universes.  He is also well versed and read in the critique of major intellectual movements that have shaped the world over the centuries.

The second thing that strikes the reader is the book’s ambition. Out of a personal bad experience when he was refused entry to the United States in 2006 (p. 1) he undertook on a journey to correct a perception prevailing in the United States that Islam was never seen as ‘good’.  He addresses a set of fundamental questions: “To what and to whom does the term ‘Islam’ refer, and what does this reference imply today?  How can the ‘West’ speak meaningfully about Islam when there are many references on the subject and no absolute concept that channels our knowledge, and how do Muslims in turn understand ‘the West’?  ….If Islam is the world’s third Abrahamic religion to appear, why has its appearance and geographical spread over the last one and half millennia posed a threat to existing religions or beliefs in the West?  Has Islam ever really coexisted with Judaism and/or Christianity, and if so, to what extent? Who were the Muslims and who are they know?  Is there one Islam or there are indeed multiple Islams?  If so, what are the core differences between those varieties of Islam and between Islam and other religions? What are the relationships between Islam and violence, Islam and women, or Islam and freedom?  What does this tell us about differences between Islam and religious beliefs in the West?” (p. 3).

The author acknowledges beforehand the difficulties of the task for each question ‘would certainly require a book-length reply’, and most of these questions have already been asked by others.  Re-asking these questions after Islam has been subjected once again to media coverage in the United States during the presidential election campaign is ‘to open a wound that was closed but never healed’ (p. 3).  This reviewer has doubts about the ‘closing of the wound’ and never mind the ‘healing’!

The book starts with a lengthy Prologue (38 pages) and six chapters.  The Prologue covers definitions of concepts: Arabs, Arabic language, Islam, Modernity, the West, History, the relationships between the last three concepts, and last but not least, the various theses about Orientalism.  These themes in themselves have been the subject of many books and the author believes they populate the universe of contemporary narratives about Islam.  Our problem with such narratives is that they are all defined within Western paradigms as a base and not from within the universe of the Arab Islamic culture.  This is a debate in itself beyond the scope of this review but this reviewer believes that most if not all narratives about Islam in the West, even by Arabs or Muslims living in the West or seeking publication feel the need to observe the Western paradigms of assessment of other cultures and religions.

Chapter one examines the intricate relationship between the writing of history and the writing of fiction.  The author’s argument is that Islam has been caught in what he calls the ‘fault lines between the fictional and the historical’ (p. 17).  In fact, the problem of misunderstanding Islam is a matter of epistemology and the author demonstrates how Europe’s contending ‘history’ of intellectual history is full of gaps in relation to itself and to Arab Muslim tradition.  The reader will be delighted in the broad survey of European ideas and intellectual history and how it addressed (unsuccessfully) Arabs and Islam.  The author has shown a mastery of the Western intellectual history as well as that of his own.

Chapter two is a delight to read for those interested in the great Ibn Khaldun.  The author reviews the literature in the West about the great sociologist (Arabs believe that Ibn Khaldun is the founding father of sociology).   He provides the reader with a critique of Western criticisms of Ibn Khaldun.  He does challenge the ‘proto-nationalist biases’ and one-dimensional thinking.  While reading him this reviewer was reminded of Alexander Abdennur’s critique of Western one-dimensional thinking (See our review essay: ‘The Arab Mind: An Ontology of Abstraction and Concreteness’, CAA, Vol.3. No. 3, July-September 2010).  In short, the chapter is about what the author calls: Post-colonial battles over Ibn Khaldun.  The critique he provides of Western criticisms of Ibn Khaldun which are an expression of a peculiar kind of war, in which the narratives are variations on the theme of colonial conquest. In short, the inclusion of the ‘other’ in Western scholarship has become the center of attention in historical thinking.  The conflicting opinions about Ibn Khaldun reveal “a fatal intellectual conflict between two opposing poles: Islamdom and Christendom, Islam and European modernity,…, and philosophically, especially since Hegel, Islam and Greece: the one perceived as chaotic, rigid, and self-contradictory, the other transcendental and capable of total self-understanding and self-criticism” (p. 91).  So in the end, “the very idea of ‘Europe’, much like the idea of ‘Islam’, is inevitably shaped by sharp contrasts to its others” (p.101).

In Chapter 3, the author focuses on the place of Islam in Hegel’s philosophy of world history, despite the latter’s scattered references to Islam in his work.  It seems that Hegel relied more on perceived impressions without bothering to look into the original texts.  He quotes Hegel saying: ‘While others are called upon to glorify the Lord, this is not a goal, as in Islam, which is pursued with fanaticism’.  The author comments: “this assertion is a perfect example of Hegel’s non-historical and unstudied assessment of both Islam and Judaism. First, there is a clear difference between obligation and encouragement, and when it comes to the latter, no one single religion can be ruled out as non-missionizing.  Secondly, it is stated non-equivocally in the Qur’an that ‘there is no obligation in religion’” (p. 112), indicating that Hegel has not gone to the original text, i.e. the Qur’an. We believe a better translation is: “no coercion in religion”.

Chapter 4 is a review of British thought about Islam.  Its title is quite interesting: ‘The emergence of Islam as a historical category in British colonial thought’.  It says it all.  It is like a discovered species that need to be examined, analyzed, in order to dominate it and use it for the purposes of the Empire.  The beginning of the chapter is a critique of the nationalist episteme in British colonial thought in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries while tracing the various aspects of coloniality in several literary, philological, and historiographical narratives.  The chapter is concluded by a deconstruction of Mary Shelley’s text Frankenstein, which is a critique of humanity versus monstrosity.  The author’s interesting deconstruction of the text that includes Muslim characters reflects the “imbibed cultural bias of her own society without much criticism” (p. 145).

Chapter 5 has a provocative title: ‘Disciplining Islam’.  It starts with a quote from Kipling: “You’ll never plumb the Oriental mind.  And if you did, it isn’t worth the toil” (p. 147).  In the case study of Egypt’s occupation by France and Great Britain the author shows the contradiction between the liberal ideas imported from Europe and the denial of fundamental rights in the colonies (p. 147-8).  He offers as an explanation of modern Arab nationalist narratives as caused by “the ravages of colonialism”.  Such discourse generates an “ideology that binds communities together and becomes almost a religion.  This ‘religion’ is predicated on remembering the brutal perpetrations of colonial Europe.  Every time those memories are invoked (in museums, TV series, or Friday sermons), a sense of resentment and indignation is rekindled.  To the Arab Muslim world, colonialism did not perish; it metamorphosed as cultural memory and like a dominant gene it still makes its imprints on every new generation despite post-nationalist attempts towards globalization” (p. 148).  Therefore, because of this lasting European colonial influence, an alternative narrative or historical discourse is provided by Arabs and Muslims and quite different from the Western one-sided historical narrative about Arabs and Muslims.

The last chapter or Epilogue is in this reviewer’s perspective the most important chapter in the book.  Its importance lies not only because of its substance as represented in its subtitle: ‘Historicizing the enemy, globalizing Islam, giving violence a new name’, but also as a revealing factor of Arab academics’ mind frame.

As far as the substance the author boldly states the purpose of his endeavor, namely, “an attempt to restore Islam to a code of knowledge” (p.189).  The conflict with Islam “will not be resolved simply by interdisciplinary contextualization of the various forces that both created and perpetuated it, just as an understanding of the sensibility of Arab-Muslim world requires more than political pacification and campaign promises, and definitely more than the passionate attempts at guarding the values of the so-called global world against the ‘fanaticism’ of Islam and its adherents” (p. 189).    He concludes that “Islamophobia is the lingering effect of a crooked history of oppression that not only legitimized colonial and imperial domination in the last century, but also managed to reproduce itself in the post-colonial and sustain its underlying xenophobic codes up to the present day” (p. 189-190).  This reviewer concurs with Salam’s assessment.

As to the author’s frame of mind, quite characteristic of Arab-Muslim academics living in the West, this reviewer notes the continuous efforts made by the author to provide caveats to statements that could be deemed bold.  In his analysis of the post 9/11 events and their impact on Western political decisions he feels obligated to vindicate his critique is not an argument that “European and American intervention in the Middle East justifies terrorism, or that the Western bias against the Arab world is responsible for the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism or the horrifying events of September 11.  Nothing justifies crude, unprovoked violence.  We should have no tolerance for disrespect of human life, and there is no excuse for cold-blooded killing of innocent civilians.  But we must not forget that the West had an important role to play in nourishing the soils where the belligerent ideologies of terrorist germinated and thrived” (p. 190-1).  One can return the Kipling quotation at the beginning of his Chapter 5: ‘Disciplining Islam’ and say: You’ll never plumb the Western mind, and if you did, it isn’t worth the toil!  No matter what the author may say to be on the ‘right side’ of morality, the very biases he aptly described in his book will frame the opinions of his Western readers.

This is an important book to read and keep.  We hope that more of such books are to come.


*Ziad Hafez is the General Secretary for the Arab National Conference


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