In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orientalism and Islam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Orientalism in Medieval Europe
  • Orientalism in Europe from the Renaissance through the 19th Century
  • Orientalism in America
  • Major Orientalist Scholars

Islamic Studies Orientalism and Islam
Daniel Martin Varisco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0058


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 Société Asiatique, founded in France in 1821. This organization 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 (Said 1978, cited under 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 article 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, Kalmar 2012 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 of the Western view of Islam. The continuing resonance of Orientalist concepts in European critical theory is surveyed in Almond 2007. Essays in Hoeveler and Cass 2015 describe pedagogical approaches to studying the history of Orientalism.

  • Adnan-Adivar, Abdülhak. “A Turkish Account of Orientalism.” Muslim World 43 (1953): 261–282.

    Translation of an essay on the history of academic Orientalism published in the Turkish version of Encyclopedia of Islam.

  • Almond, Ian. The New Orientalists: Postmodern Representations of Islam from Foucault to Baudrillard. London: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

    Focuses on contemporary critical theory in Europe.

  • Hoeveler, Diane Long, and Jeffrey Cass. Interrogating Orientalism: Contextual Approaches and Pedagogical Practices. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 2015.

    A guide for teachers and students for approaching the history of scholarship on Orientalism.

  • Hughes, Aaron W. Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic discipline. London: Equinox, 2007.

    An overview of the impact of Edward Said, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Marshall Hodgson, and Fazlur Rahman within the field of religious studies.

  • Irwin, Robert. For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies. London: Allen Lane, 2006.

    Comprehensive survey of the history of Western Orientalism from its beginnings to the present, including a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism thesis.

  • Kalmar, Ivan. Early Orientalism: Imagined Islam and the Notion of Sublime Power. New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Analysis of Christian views of the Muslim Middle East, focusing on the period from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.

  • Kerr, Malcolm H., ed. Islamic Studies: A Tradition and Its Problems. Malibu, CA: Undena, 1980.

    Critical survey of the state of the field, with essays by Albert Hourani, Josef van Ess, Edward W. Said, Edmund Burke III, Ira M. Lapidus, Jaroslav Stetkevych, and Fazlur Rahman.

  • Nanji, Azim, ed. Mapping Islamic Studies: Genealogy, Continuity and Change. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.

    Eight survey essays on the history of Islamic studies in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and medieval Europe.

  • Quinn, Frederick. The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195325638.001.0001

    Broad survey of Western views of Islam from the medieval period to the present.

  • Waardenburg, Jacques. “Mustashrikun.” The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 7, MIF–NAZ. 2 ed. Edited By Clifford E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs, and Charles Pellat, 735–753. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1993.

    General intellectual history of Orientalism.

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