Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Of Orientalism and other Madmen

IT was Edward Said, the Palestinian exile and scholar, who cracked the nut on post-colonial prejudice in his seminal work of the 1970’s, Orientalism. In it he exposed what he regarded as institutionalised racism against Arabs and North Africans.

In essence, Said argued that western scholars had looked at the east with a jaundiced eye. Predicated by notions of superiority, western academia had misunderstood, misrepresented and misread what constituted the cultural and theological discourse of the Arab and Muslim world.

For western scholarship of the late 18th century (when Orientalism gained impetus after Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded Egypt) the term meant someone who studied the Levant. It was a Latin-derived word referring to the sun’s rising in the east – in this case the eastern Mediterranean region between Anatolia and Egypt.  

Whilst Said has had to withstand academic attack on his work, his central thesis has stood the test of time, despite its alleged errors; this due to the fact that many of those outside the Arab and Muslim tent have visited it with extreme prejudice and conjecture. What Said did was to successfully, and uncomfortably, expose their arrogance.

A butt of Said’s public invective was Bernard Lewis, a British-American historian. Lewis, a professor at Princeton University, was the first to promote the idea of an ‘inevitable’ east-west clash, the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. This was picked up by US neo-con, Samuel Huntington, in his sinister treatise on post Cold War politics.

Lewis’ methodology, argued Said, was a case of puffed-up agenda-driven intellectualism. It was based on a western-minded self affirmation that merely enhanced US and European imperialism – and Israeli hegemony.

Lewis (an advisor to Bush and Cheney) had replied that Orientalist study had done nothing to further western control. He asked how deciphering the past could contribute to this. The famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, shrewdly accused Lewis of having a short memory on the impact of western meddling and its political cock-ups in the Middle East.

I interviewed Bernard Lewis in the 1990’s and found him to be a courteous, if not formidable subject. Assured of his views, he was not easily put off his stride – though I did feel that Said and Chomsky had rattled him more than I ever could.

I was reminded of Orientalism the other day, for after writing about the roots of the extremist Wahhabi group, ISIS, I was accused of ignorance and depravity. That I did not fit the jihadi mould of an AK47-toting extremist had apparently upset my critic, who commented:

“[Muhammad]…vomit (pbuh)…what the hell do you know about what happened more than 800 years ago? Shafiq you are brainwashed…all you have is your faith and identity (which is obviously confused)…and that makes you oppose all who are different from you…you are vile…”

I saw this cyber tantrum (from someone with a name ending in ‘itz’) as Orientalism. I saw it as Orientalism, not because of its crassness, but rather because there appeared to be discomfort with the notion that ISIS – the godchild of Ibn Abd ul-Wahhab – didn’t represent mainstream Islam. Later exchanges seemed to indicate that my Muslim-ness precluded me from being qualified to comment on Islam anyway!

It led me to re-examining Orientalism, and discovering that its landscape has been dotted with madmen, eccentrics, theological claptrap and flashes of genuine scholarship for centuries.

One of the first recognised Orientalists was Ramon Lull, a Franciscan from Majorca, who saw his life work as the conversion of Jews and Muslims. A scholar of considerable note, he was influenced by Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, and called for the introduction of Arabic into European university syllabuses.

Obsessed with martyrdom, he visited North Africa three times to convert Muslims. On the last occasion he was stoned by angry townsfolk who’d finally got tired of his incessant provocation. Licking his wounds (he didn’t get martyred) he found his way back to Majorca where he passed away in about 1314.

John Wycliffe, the first to translate the bible into English circa 1324, wrote that Islam was like the Catholic Church – ‘violent, corrupt and greedy’. It was the Catholic Church, and not the Muslims, who dug up his bones 40 years after his death and threw them into a river.

In 1356 Sir John Mandeville, a travel writer of French identity – who claimed to be an English knight ­– wrote in Mark Twain fashion that the ‘coffin’ of the Prophet (SAW) floated in the air, and was suspended by magnets. The Ka’bah in Makkah was filled with idols that killed any bird that alighted on it.

The Frenchman, Guillame Postel, was regarded as a madman. He believed that Hebrew was the primary Semitic language. He was a linguist par excellence. In Istanbul he learnt Arabic so fast his teacher thought he was a demon, and when he departed for the Holy Land in 1549 with a grey beard, it’s said he miraculously returned with a black one.

Curiously, for his era, he believed in the supremacy of women and said that Muslims should be regarded as ‘half Christians’. He was impressed by the east and wrote that “all things we hold in the west as of extraordinary edifice are like mere shadows of oriental excellences.”

The author Robert Irwin says that Postel was driven by a fear of Islamic hegemony, a pathology that is noticeable in many western societies today that seem to think that the ‘Muslims are coming’.

Another French Orientalist, Silvestre de Sacy, could not speak Arabic. On the other hand, the Englishman David Margoliouth could talk for an hour without notes in classical Arabic on the splendours of ‘Abbasid Baghdad. Margoliouth also clumsily said that the Prophet (SAW) was an epileptic.

Yet another fascinating Orientalist is the Hungarian Jew, Ignaz Goldziher, who studied at Al-Azhar in Cairo and who later concluded that Islam was better than Judaism or Christianity. However, his view of Hadith – that they were later fabricated – did not endear him to the Muslim community. Goldziher is said to have influenced another Orientalist, Louis Massignon, and Bernard Lewis.

Space, and lack of material, precludes discussion on the Russian Orientalists and perhaps even the Chinese. But suffice it to say that our very own home-grown Cape Town Orientalist, ID du Plessis (who enjoyed a close relationship with apartheid's PW Botha and who 'studied' the local Malay community), fits the Edward Said model of Orientalism like the proverbial glove.