Objections against the Orientalists as raised by Edward Said in his Crisis (Orientalism)
How did the Western scholars build a negative image of the orient according to Edward Said?
One of the objections Edward Said raises against the Orientalists in his Crisis is that the oriental scholars built a negative image of the orient. According to Said Orientalism was a kind of western projection onto and will o govern over the Orient. He also says that the Orientalists plotted oriental history, character and destiny for hundred of years. During this long course of action, the orientalists also built a negative image of the Orient. The Oriental scholars built a negative image of the oriental language, peoples, religion and cultures. The image they built quickly spread to the Western people, who hold a textual attitude to the Orient.
The Western scholars built a negative image of the oriental language and literature. How they created a negative image about the oriental language and literature is seen through the works of Friedrih Schlehgel.
Friedrich Schlegel, one of the prominent Orientalists, and philologists learned his Sanskrit in Paris. He tried to understand and interpret the Orient on the basis of language. But like other Orientalists he also assumed an unchanging Orient. In 1800 Schlegel typified the orient as the highest source of Romanticism. But the Romanticism he talked about had existed 2000 years ago. As for the Semiles, he “said that heir language was unaesthetic and they were also inferior and backward.” Thus, he made some arbitrary comments on the life, language and religious faith of the Orientals. But he was not qualified to make such comments, as his attitude to the Orient was merely a textual attitude.
But the ideas of Schlegel were widely diffused in European culture. And to the Orientalists, to whom language and race seemed inextricably tied, the good Orient was invariably a classical period somewhere in a long-gone India, whereas the “bad” Orient lingered in present day Asia, parts of North Africa and Islam everywhere.
But not only the individual thinkers, but also several societies and organizations of the scholars joined in the interpretation of the Orient.
By the end of the 19th century all the achievements of the Orientalist thinkers were helped by the European occupation of the entire near Orient. The principal colonial powers once again were Britain and France, although Russia and Germany played some role as well. The colonizers always look for some interests, may it be political, commercial, religious, cultural or military interest. With regard to Islam and the Islamic territories, for example, Britain felt that it had legitimate interests, as a Christian power, to safeguard.
How the Western scholars have built a negative attitude about the Orient is also seen the ways they portrayed the individual Orientalists, their queerness and Islam. The Orientalists have categorized all Orientals. To them, a single Oriental is first an Oriental, second a human being and last again an Oriental.
To the Orientalists, an Oriental lives in the Orient, he lives a life of Oriental ease, in a state of Oriental despotism and sensuality, imbued with a feeling of Oriental fatalism. The whole Orient is depicted as an example of a particular form of eccentricity. The Orientalists are always on the look, as described by Flaubert in his writings, some queerness that can be a new example of what Description de l’ Egypte called “bizarre jouissance.” Thus, when the Orientalists describe something queer about the Orient, it becomes the part of text which is ultimately used to define the whole Orient and Orientals.
The individual Oriental cannot shake or disturb the general categories of Orient. His oddness can nevertheless be enjoyed for its own shake. For example, we may take Flaubert’s description of the spectacle of the Orient.
To amuse the crowd, Mohammad Ali’s jester took a woman in a Cairo bazaar one day, set her on the counter of a shop, and coupled with her publicly while the shopkeeper calmly smokes his pipe.
Flaubert frankly acknowledges that this grotesque is of a special kind. The Orient is watched and the European whose sensibility tours the Orient, is a watcher. They are never involved always detached and always ready for new examples. The Orient becomes a living tableau of queerness.
And this tableau quiet logically becomes a special topic for texts. The Orient get himself confined into the text and presented as a subject under the observation of the West masters. Islam for example was typically Oriental for Orientalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Carl Becker argued that although “Islam” inherited the Hellenic tradition, it could neither grasp nor employ the Greek, humanistic tradition. Moreover it is a sort of failed oriental attempt to employ Greek philosophy without the creative inspiration that we find in Renaissance Europe. For Louis Massignon (perhaps the most renowned ad influential of modern French Orientalists) Islam was a systematic rejection of the Christian spirit. Its greatest hero was not Mohammed or Averroes but Al- Hallaj, a Muslim saint who was crucified by the orthodox Muslims for having dared to personalize Islam. What Becker and Massignon left out was the eccentricity of the Orient. They threw out all what they found so hard to regularize in Wester terms such as Mohammed. Al- Hallaj was made prominent because he took himself to be a Christ figure.
The Orientalists from Renan to Goldziher to Macdonald to von Grunebaum, Gibb and Bernard Lewis- saw Islam as a “cultural synthesis” that could be studied.
Gibb delivered his lectures called Modern Trends in Islam in 1945 with a severe attack on Arabic civilization. He says that the Arabic students are brought up against the striking contrast between the imaginative, Arabic literature and the literalism, between imagination and reasoning. They are not rational like western students and lack the sense of law. They can not throw off their intense feeling for the separateness and individuality of the concrete events. For their aversion from the thought process of rationalism, Western students fail to understand them. Gibb asserts that the rejection of rationalist modes of thought and of the utilitarian ethic which is inseparable from them has its roots in the atomism and discreteness of the Arab imagination.
So, if anyone even wants to acknowledge or understand modern Islam ; Gibb’s those inaugural biases stand as an obstacle before him. These biases asked us to look at the Oriental Muslim as if he is yet within the seventh century, always different from the Western world. If Islam is flawed, they oppose any attempt to reform Islam, because they believe that Islam is unchanging and any reform is a betrayal of Islam. This is, in fact, the Oriental’s fate.
Eighteen years later in 1963 Gibb delivered another believe another believe on “Area Studies Reconsidered” where he agreed that “the Orient is much too important to be left to the Orientalists.” In his “Modern Trends” a new or second alternative approach to Orientalists was being announced. Gibb’s formula is very intentional here.
He said, “what we now need is the traditional Orientalist plus a good social orientalist working together: between them the two will do inter-disciplinary work.” But he felt that the traditional Orientalist will not bring outdated knowledge to bear on the Orient, he will just remind his colleagues that Orient can never be explained by Western thought and it is just a fancy.
These texts do not give the true history of Islamic countries, so the readers have to depend on the Orientalist’s meaningless language full of admiration for Orientalist wisdom. This is how, a more ad more dangerous rift separates Orient and Occident.
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