This article reviews Edward Said’s controversial work, ‘Orientalism,’ and its impact throughout the academic world. Complete the lesson, then test yourself with the quiz!

Definition of Orientalism

Close your eyes and think of Medieval Europe. You see knights jousting, great feasts, and even greater castles. Now think of the Middle East during the same time period. Remember, this was the time of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ Chances are you aren’t thinking of massive castles and feasts. Instead, for many people, overly-romantic images of trading posts with camels, pushy merchants, and monkeys. In fact, you may have even went as far as to think of belly dancers!

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According to Palestinian literary historian and theorist Edward Said, your whole approach to imagining the ancient Middle East is biased. After all, the Middle East built many castles and actually surpassed Europe in every intellectual field, yet most Westerners immediately go to tamed monkeys and belly dancers. This bias was called Orientalism. Orientalism was also the book of the same name, which studied and criticized the fields that had already been studying anything related to the Middle East, and, to a lesser degree, South Asia.

Why Does Orientalism Matter?

Edward Said was proud of the achievements of those from the lands of his ancestors, and felt that while it was bad enough for the everyday person in the West to think of belly dancers and squeaking monkeys when they thought of places like Baghdad or Cairo, it was a completely different thing for the so-called experts to have any of that in their minds. Said never denied that those things existed, but instead argued that too much of a big deal was made about them.

The thing that Said was able to point out was that the West was sneaky about how it poked at these institutions. Whereas a European king who spent too much time partying might be portrayed as having too many mistresses, an Ottoman or Arab ruler was accused of spending too much time in the harem. The word difference is very subtle, but Said posits that it carries very big connotations. One invokes the idea that the king is discreet, whereas we get the image of the Ottoman or Arab ruler being fed grapes by hand while being waved with giant ostrich feathers.

Yet the real danger wasn’t just that it was outsiders who were starting to think this way. The elites of Middle Eastern society tended to read English, German, and French texts to learn about their pasts, so now their perceptions were being affected by these biases. In short, the most powerful people in the Middle East were starting to think that their ancestors were something to be ashamed of, despite the overwhelming evidence around them! Said knew that for the rising power of Arab nationalism to be successful, people would have to be able to reach back and be proud of what they found.

Reaction to Orientalism

To no small extent, Said was right; here was a fair amount of these sort of perceptions going on. However, how much of it was pure Orientalism and how much was simply cultural bias was up for debate. In that respect, it definitely put scholars on notice with regards to how to approach the Middle East. Before the release of the book, terms like Mohammedan were commonplace. However, in more recent years, the much more accurate term of Muslim has been used to describe those who follow Islam.

Still, controversies continue. Some scholars pointed out that just as the West supposedly constructed stereotypes of the Middle East, so too did Said construct stereotypes of the West. Pointing to scholars who were particularly sensitive in their approach to the region, many Westerners considered Said’s criticisms to be largely unfounded.

By far the most famous historian to take issue with Said has been Bernard Lewis, a British-American historian also focusing on oriental studies. An intense scholarly rivalry developed between the two, with Lewis being the epitome of what Said pointed to as an Orientalist, while Lewis responded that Said simply hadn’t done his homework.

Lesson Summary

Edward Said, was a Palestinian literary historian and theorist who developed the idea of Orientalism. Said’s book of same name, Orientalism studied and criticized the fields that had already been studying anything related to the Middle East, and, to a lesser degree, South Asia. It also changed the way that many scholars approached the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole; instead of monkeys, belly dancers, and pushy merchants, recognition of scientific achievement and architecture was given.

Leveled with the charge that many scholars had preconceived notions that the Islamic world was a hedonistic playground (made emblematic of the Ottoman/Arab king openly cavorting in his harem as opposed to a Western king’s covert mistresses), Said says that real scholarship can’t take place on a region that for many years was the center of the world with those biases in place. Said’s book has remained controversial in the years since publication, with several scholars contesting that not every scholar was biased and even that Said himself was creating a straw man argument of Western scholarship. This culminated in a famous feud between Said and Bernard Lewis, a British-American historian also focusing on oriental studies who Said saw as the epitome of Orientalist.