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Islamic Studies Orientalism and Islam
Daniel Martin Varisco


The term “Orientalism,” later known as “Oriental Studies,” began in reference to the study of languages and cultures of the so-called Orient. Although initially focused on the ancient and modern Near East, the term “Orient” was indiscriminately used for all of the Asian civilizations encountered by Europeans in their eastward imperial and colonial expansion. The term is derived from the Latin oriens, in reference to the direction of the rising sun or the east. The study of Islam and Muslim cultures during the medieval period in Europe was primarily apologetic. By the 17th century, Arabic and other Oriental languages began to be taught in universities. The Thomas Adams Chair of Arabic, for example, was established at Cambridge University in 1632. Orientalist scholars translated religious, historical and literary texts from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and Chinese, but most of these translations are not considered critical editions. Modern Orientalism in an academic sense begins at the end of the 18th century. Napoleon's expeditionary force that invaded Egypt in 1797 included scholars who recorded ancient Egyptian texts and monuments as well as contemporary Islamic architecture. The British presence in India, most notably in the work of the philologist William James, led to a field of study formally called “Orientalism.” The first academic society devoted to the study of the Orient was the French Société Asiatique, founded in 1821. This was followed by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1823) and the American Oriental Society (1842). In 1873 the first International Congress of Orientalists was held in Paris. With a few notable exceptions, most Orientalist scholars held negative views of Islam until the middle of the 20th century. By 1973 the term “Orientalist” was abandoned by the International Congress of Orientalists, recognizing that specialty disciplines were more significant than the vague geographical notion of an “Orient.”

General Overviews

The Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said's powerful polemic, Orientalism (see Edward Said's Writings on Orientalism), appeared in 1978 and challenged the objectivity of previous academic discourse on an imagined Orient. As will be noted below, Said's criticism of Orientalism stimulated an ongoing debate on the ability of Western observers to properly analyze Islam and cultures formerly labeled “Oriental.” The breadth of Orientalism extends far beyond Islam, although the majority of scholarship on “Oriental” others has focused on Muslim cultures more than other groups. The focus in this bibliography is on Orientalist texts that are relevant to understanding how Islam has been represented by Western scholars, as well as the responses of Muslim scholars. For a brief overview of the intellectual history of Orientalism, the essays by Bulliet 1994 and Waardenburg 1993 are recommended. Irwin 2006 provides a comprehensive and readable survey of Orientalism through the present. Quinn 2008 focuses on the overall history Western view of Islam. The continuing resonance of Orientalist concepts in European critical theory is surveyed by Almond 2007.

Reference Works and Bibliographies

The broad field of Oriental Studies extends far beyond the study of Islam. The basic bibliographic source for references on Islam, including Orientalist views, is the annual Index Islamicus. The state of the field by the mid-20th century is surveyed by Sauvaget 1965. The seminal text for Orientalist views of Islam remains the Encyclopaedia of Islam, especially the first edition. An anthology suitable for classroom use is provided by Macfie 2000, although the focus is on Said's Orientalism (see Edward Said's Writings on Orientalism).

  • Bosworth, C. E. “Orientalism and Orientalists.” In Arab Islamic Bibliography: The Middle East Library Committee Guide. By C. E. Bosworth, edited by Diana Grimwood-Jones, et al., 148–156. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1977.

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    Dated bibliography, useful for older texts.

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  • Chauvin, Victor. Bibliographie des ouvrages arabes ou relatifs aux Arabes, publiés dans l'Europe chrétienne de 1810 à 1885. Liège, Belgium: H. Vaillant-Carmanne, 1892.

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    Major bibliography of European Orientalist texts and editions prior to 1885. Available online.

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  • Encyclopaedia of Islam. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1906–present.

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    First edition (1913–1938) published in English, German, and French. Second edition (1954–2005). Third edition in progress. This is the major organ of previous Orientalist scholarship on Islam.

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    • Index Islamicus. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1900–present.

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      This annual bibliography is the primary source for publications on all aspects of Islam, with references back to 1900.

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    • Macfie, A. L., ed. Orientalism: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

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      Anthology of thirty-seven excerpts on the history of Orientalism and the controversy over Said's Orientalism. Historical selections include excerpts from James Mill, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche. Critical theorists include Foucault, Gramsci, and Said. Arab critics include Anouar Abdel-Malek, A. L. Tibawi and Sadik al-ʿAzm. A major portion of the volume covers reviews and commentaries on Said's Orientalism.

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    • Sauvaget, Jean. Introduction to the History of the Muslim East: A Bibliographical Guide. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

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      Translation of French original from 1946. This was the basic guide to Orientalist research before 1965.

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    Journals concerned with Islam and Middle East history at times contain articles on Orientalist representation of Islam. The oldest journals reflecting an Orientalist perspective were mainly associated with national Oriental societies established in the 19th century. Owing to the influence of Edward Said's Orientalism (see Edward Said's Writings on Orientalism), recent literary journals are also a source for articles on the influence of Orientalism. Der Islam, Orientalische Literaturzeitung, and Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft are published in German; Journal asiatique and Revue de l'Islam in French; Rivista degli studi orientali in Italian; Journal of the American Oriental Society and Journal for the Social and Economic History of the Orient in English. Arabica publishes in the major European languages.

    Orientalism in Medieval Europe

    Western scholars and theologians have commented on Islam since the 8th century, usually in negative terms. The Qur'an was first translated from Arabic to Latin by Robert of Ketton in 1143 CE. Two important intellectual histories about Western views of Islam appeared in the early 1960s: Daniel 1960 and Southern 1962. Their analyses have been updated by Tolan 2002. Interest in Islam related to the fear of this new monotheism as a heresy and as an apocalyptic sign of the end of the world (Setton 1992). Despite brief periods of tolerance in medieval Spain and widespread trade on the Mediterranean, Muslims were treated as enemies during the period of the Crusades.

    Orientalism in Europe from the Renaissance through the 19th Century

    The Renaissance renewed interest in the Near East as well as in the Classical periods of Greece and Rome. After the Crusades, European visitors to the Holy Land published accounts of their travels, the most famous being the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, published in the mid-14th century. The French had a longstanding interest in Oriental languages and Islam (McCabe 2008), including the elaboration of the “Oriental tale” literary motif. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1797 stimulated research, especially on Egypt. British interest increased with more travelers' accounts of the region (Chew 1937). The Ottoman military threat to eastern Europe was of special concern to European writers (Çirakman 2002). Several of Europe's social theorists commented on the Orient (Curtis 2009).

    Orientalism in America

    The primary interaction between Americans and Muslims began with the large numbers of African Muslims traded to the colonies and states as slaves (Diouf 1998, Gomez 2005). Military action by the United States to protect its merchant ships along the Barbary coast influenced American literature, but the first American society devoted to the academic study of the Muslim world and Orient did not begin until 1842. Several overviews of American views on Islam are available (Marr 2006, Sha'ban 1991, Schueller 1998). The influence of recent American foreign policy on Islam greatly increased in the last quarter of the 20th century. There is a large literature on the relation of Orientalism to contemporary political policy; this is surveyed by Little 2002 and Lockman 2004.

    Major Orientalist Scholars

    Biographies are available for a number of prominent Orientalist scholars whose work influenced Western interpretation of Islam and the Arab world. Although dated, Arberry 1960, a description of seven British Orientalists, is still valuable. One of the earliest academic Orientalist scholars was William Bedwell (Hamilton 1985). Two of the most important British Orientalists of the Victorian age were Edward Lane (Ahmed 1978) and Sir Richard Burton (Kennedy 2007), both of whom translated the Arabian Nights. German-speaking Orientalists were the most important interpreters of Islam (Fück 1955, Paret 1968), especially the brilliant analyses of Goldziher (Simon 1986).

    Primary Orientalist Texts on Islam

    Before the 20th century, the majority of academic texts on Islam were written with the bias either that contemporary Europe was a superior culture or that Christianity was a superior religion. The sections below include texts that view Islam in a biased way, usually from a Christian apologetic perspective, through the lens of a Western traveler, or as a literary motif. The focus here is on early Orientalist texts, most of which are dated or should be used with caution.

    Apologetic and Biased Christian Views

    The earliest descriptions of Islam refer to the religion as “Mahometanism” or “Mohammedanism,” following the false medieval notion that Muslims worshipped Muhammad in the way that Christians revered Christ. One of the earliest accounts in English was Bedwell 1615, which styled Islam as an “imposture.” Older Orientalist accounts of Islam focus on the life of Muhammad (Boulainvilliers 1731, Muir 1858–1861, Prideaux 1698).

    Early Academic Texts

    The French edition of Description de l'Éypte 1809–1826 is one of the foundational texts of Orientalist depiction of Egypt and includes illustrations of Islamic architecture and people. The first major compendium on Islamic customs was d'Herbelot 1697. This was widely quoted in the 18th century, especially for literary texts. By the early 20th century, more objective general accounts of Islam began to appear, although the term “Mohammedanism” was still used (Margoliouth 1912). Attempts to evaluate the Qur'an as a historical text were influenced by the German scholar Nöldeke 1860. Interest in the origins of the Qur'an focused on foreign words in Qur'anic Arabic (Jeffery 1938). The most important early academic study of the tradition (Hadith) literature was Goldziher 1889–1890. An important study of the relation between the Muslim story of Muhammad's ascent into the heavens and Dante's Divine Comedy was given by Asín Palacios 1926.

    Orientalist Travel Accounts

    There were many Orientalist travelers to Islamic sites, including the surreptitious visits to Mecca by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Burckhardt 1829) and Richard Burton (Burton 1855–1856). Two of the most widely read travel accounts in English are Blunt and Blunt 1881 and Lane 1836. Blunt 1882 published a favorable view of Islam at a time when most travelers still held negative views. Many books by missionaries and on Bible customs in the Holy Land comment on Islam (Thomson 1859).

    Orientalist Literary Texts on Islam: Fiction and Drama

    European fascination with the Islamic Orient led to the genre of fictitious Oriental tales (Parker 1999), most notably Montesquieu 1721. Several playwrights drew on Islamic characters (Dimmock 2005), including Christopher Marlowe's (1587–1590) Tamburlaine and Voltaire's play on Muhammad (Voltaire 1741) as a foil for the fanaticism of dogma in the Catholic Church. The influence of the Arabian Nights was extensive on European authors (Irwin 2004). Novelists also invented Muslim characters, including the popular fictitious tale of Hajji Baba (Morier 1895).

    Orientalist Literary Texts on Islam: Poetry

    European poets often wrote on Oriental and Islamic themes (Sharafuddin 1996), especially the German poet Goethe (Fink 1982, Mommsen 1988). Among the English poems that used Islam as a metaphor were Byron's The Giaour (Byron 1813, Beatty 1999) and Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (Southey 1801). The most widely read Oriental poem in English was Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh (Moore 1817), which presented Islam as a sensuous religion.

    Critiques of Orientalist Views on Islam

    The bias inherent in most Orientalist texts before the 20th century was the focus of Edward Said's polemical Orientalism. The sections below provide examples of criticism of bias by Western and Muslim scholars before Said's work, the ongoing debate over Said's work, and more recent critiques by Arab and Muslim scholars. For comprehensive overviews of Western critical approaches to Islam, see Irwin 2006, Rodinson 1987, and Turner 1994. Watt 1991 focuses on the history of the encounter between European Christians and Muslims. Varisco 2005 critiques the representation of Islam by Orientalists and anthropologists.

    Critiques by Western Scholars before Said's Orientalism

    Before the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, only a few Western scholars provided critical assessments of the prejudice against Islam, although there was major disagreement between scholars over specific interpretations. An important critique of the concept of “Orient” was given by Goldammer 1962, but ignored by English-speaking scholars, including Edward Said. Hourani 1972, Rodinson 1974, Waardenburg 1963, and Waardenburg 1973 were among the major Orientalist scholars criticizing bias in the academic literature. Turner 1974 examines Max Weber's Orientalist views on Islam.

    Critiques by Muslim and Arab Scholars before Said's Orientalism

    The popularity of Said's Orientalism obscures a number of important earlier critiques of Orientalist views on Islam by Arab and Muslim authors (Abdel Malek 1963, Arkoun 1964, Haykel 1976, Tibawi 1963). Several other critiques appeared (Djait 1985, Laroui 1976) about the same time as Said's text. The 19th-century Muslim scholar al-Afghani refuted the Orientalist claims of Renan (Keddie 1968). Other earlier Muslim critiques are made available by Rahimieh 1990.

    Edward Said's Writings on Orientalism

    The seminal Orientalism (Said 1978) is the most influential critique of Orientalist scholarship with a focus on the Near East and Islam. Although it has undergone several editions in English, it remains unrevised. Said added an Afterword in 1984 and a Preface in 2003. Orientalism has been translated into three dozen languages. Previous to this book, Said 1976 is a major review outlining his problems with Orientalist dogma.

    Reviews of Edward Said's Orientalism, First Edition

    More than fifty reviews of Said's work were published in journals and other sources, the most important being al-ʿAzm 1984, Brombert 1979, Daniel 1982, Gran 1980, Lewis 1982, and Patai 1979.

    Debates over the Text of Edward Said's Orientalism

    A comprehensive analysis of Said's rhetoric and the ensuing debate over his Orientalism is provided by Varisco 2007. There are several negative attacks on Said's Orientalism (Ibn Warraq 2007, Kramer 2001). Said's Orientalism has also been the focus of numerous conference proceedings and anthologies (e.g., Niyogi 2006).

    Arab and Muslim Critiques of Orientalism after Said

    In the past three decades, a number of Muslim scholars have continued criticism of Western bias in the academic representation of Islam. One of the earliest anthologies after Said's text on Orientalism from a Muslim perspective was provided by Hussain et al. 1984. Sardar 1999 covers much of the same ground as Said in his critique of Orientalism. Buaben 1996 examines Orientalist bias on the Prophet Muhammad. Hanafi 1990 gives a Muslim perspective on the Western intellectual tradition as a counterpart to Orientalist discourse. There are numerous Muslim critiques available on internet sites (The Orientalist View of the Noble Prophet (PBUH)). Majid 2000 draws on postcolonial theory to build on Said's critique.

    Works on Specific Topics

    Orientalism covers a wide range of topics beyond the subject of Islam. Of particular relevance are works on Islamic architecture, the ways in which Muslims have been portrayed in Orientalist art and music, and the issue of gender and depiction of women.

    Orientalist Art, Architecture, and Music of Islam and the Middle East

    One of the most visible representations of Muslims as “Orientals” is the tradition of “Orientalist” art, which is surveyed by Benjamin 2003 and Edwards 2000. MacKenzie 1995 provides a historial overview of the treatment of the Orient by artists and architects. Art and architecture are covered together by Beaulieu and Roberts 2002 and Sweetman 1988. For a discussion of Oriental motifs in European music, see Bohlman 1986.


    The majority of Orientalist scholars before the late 20th century were male and often reflected a male bias. Keddie 1979 notes the problems in depictions of women in Orientalist texts. Ahmed 1992, Kahf 1999, and Bullock 2002 provide historical surveys of women in Islam with criticism of Orientalist views. The views of women travelers to the Middle East are analyzed by Melman 1992. The metaphor of the harem and Western views of Muslim and Oriental women are discussed by Lewis 1996, Yegenoglu 1998, and Yoshihara 2003. Abu-Lughod 2001 criticizes the persistence of Orientalist views in Middle Eastern studies.


    During the development of Oriental studies, the primary media outreach was in print, especially newspapers and periodicals. Elgamri 2008 surveys the treatment of Islam in British newspapers. Steet 2000 traces the bias in representations of the Middle East in the popular American magazine National Geographic. Said 1997 provides an important critique of the media treatment of the Middle East, including the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Orientalist bias continuing in film is documented by Shaheen 2001 and analyzed by McAlister 2001 and Bernstein and Studlar 1997.

    LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195390155-0058

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