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August 06, 2003

The Arabists

Steve Sailer has permlinks now, so I'm linking to this post noting how Edward Said's anti-Arabist project backfired as those philo-Arabs, for all their colonial mindset, did have a fondness for the desert bedouin, which the necons who have filled their vacuum do not. To be fair, the number #1 Arabist who Said targeted, Bernard Lewis, is generally pro-Israel in orientation (Lewis is actually more properly a Turkicist, but Orientalism was clearly aimed at him).

I have read several of Said's books related to the Arab issue, and find them a bit overblown, somewhat like Bernard Lewis in fact. Their theses or assertions are not the stuff of hundreds of pages, and they often flub details (at least Lewis is a historian, Said makes some obvious mistakes about Arabo-Islamic history in Orientalism while Lewis tends to make footnote related errors or throw out assertions that no lay reader would be able to look up easily and take a generalization a bit to far). The current print issue of The Atlantic Monthly has a very thorough and balanced article by Said's friends Chris Hitchens, check it out.

Posted by razib at 05:22 PM




I believe that Lewis is one of the very few historians who is expert in both classical Arabic and Osmanli, the dead language of the Turkish court.

Although I'm certainly no judge--this is what I've read.

Posted by: Diana at August 6, 2003 07:45 PM


he can speak turkish, arabic & persian, but his historical expertise is in the ottoman empire-strictly speaking, he is not an arabist. most of his books do have an a turco-centric perspective too....

Posted by: razib at August 6, 2003 07:51 PM


i was very disappointed in "The Muslim Discovery of Europe". I thought he wasted a good title. It was all Ottoman, and to me it seemed biassed.

Like a lot of big-picture international-studies stuff (I see it in China studies), it seemed to have come up with the moral of the story first (the Ottomans were incapable of responding to the European challenge), and then to have arranged the data around the moral.

Oddly enough, that's the moral of the Chinese story too. But for whatever reason, nobody seems to have gotten terribly excited about the unique exception, Japan.

Posted by: zizka at August 6, 2003 08:39 PM


Bernard Lewis's focus is exclusively on the Ottoman Empire to the exclusion of all else. Thus Lewis's work is rather myopic since Islam is taken to the Ottomania and the rest of the Crescent is treated as peripherial.

For instance the medieval Safavid Empire (Turkicized Kurdish dynasty of Persia) only serves as a contrast and treated as a marginal rival to the Ottomans in Lewis's texts. Virtually no mention is given to their immense cultural sway over the lands of Islam.

Persian culture, during the medieval times, was the defining heritage permeating the Islamic lands analogous to the European awe towards French high culture. Medieval Islam saw the dominating heights of Persian culture where the Mughal Emperors were educated in Persian literature (and encouraged in sponsoring the reproduction of it's major works), the Ottoman Empire was renowned for his command of the Persian language and reputed as a Persian poet whilst the Turkish speaking Persian monarch felt acutely of his own shortcomings.

The Safavid monarchs were patrons to pioneering forms of calligraphy and during their reign the artistic triumphs (such as the reform and exportation of the nastaliq script) managed to bring about a Persian cultural hegemony.

One cannot claim to be a definitive source on Islamic history (as Lewis seems to do) without shedding light on every corner of the Islamic Crescent. Lewis virtually airbrushes the Mughal Empire from pages of history and that imperium is the direct heritage of four hundred million Sub-continental Muslims.

Posted by: Zachary Latif at August 7, 2003 01:46 AM


Well, whatever his faults Lewis is (was?) an intellectual giant. Whenever his name comes up, he becomes the cynosure.

Back to Said. The only person of note to review Orientalism unfavorably was Malcolm Kerr, prez of AUB, and--an old line Arabist, 2nd generation.

Posted by: Diana at August 7, 2003 08:30 AM