Orientalism


[Go to the website for an audio interview with Nabil Matar.]

Nabil Matar, Henry Stubbe and the Beginnings of Islam: The Originall & Progress of Mahometanism­
Columbia University Press, 2014

by Elliott Bazzano, New Books in Islamic Studies, September 18, 2014

In Henry Stubbe and the Beginnings of Islam: The Originall & Progress of Mahometanism­ (Columbia University Press, 2014), Nabil Matar masterfully edits an important piece of scholarship from seventeenth-century England by scholar and physician, Henry Stubbe (1632-76). Matar also gives a substantial introduction to his annotated edition of Stubbe’s text by situating the author in his historical context. Unlike other early modern writers on Islam, Stubbe’s ostensible goals were not to cast Islam in a negative light. On the contrary, he sought to challenge popular conceptions that understood Islam in negative terms, and although there is no evidence that Stubbe entertained conversion, he admits many admirable characteristics of Islam, ranging from Muhammad’s character to the unity of God. The English polymath was well versed in theological debates of his time and therefore equipped all the more to write the Originall, given the benefit of his comparative framework, which in part explains why the first portion of his text devotes itself to the history of early Christianity. Strikingly, however, it seems that Stubbe never learned Arabic, even though he studied religion with a leading Arabist of his time, Edward Pococke. Indeed, one novelty of Stubbe’s work was precisely his re-evaluation of Latin translations (of primary texts) that were already in circulation. Stubbe’s contributions to scholarship also speak to the history of Orientalism—a word that did not yet exist at Stubbe’s time—or how scholars in the “West” more broadly have approached Islam. Stubbe’s Originall offers insights into present-day Western discourses that still struggle—at times with egregious incompetence—to make sense of Islam and Muslims. In this regard, Matar’s detailed scholarly account of Henry Stubbe and his carefully edited version of the Originall remains as timely as ever. Undoubtedly, this meticulously researched book will interest an array of scholars, including those from disciplines of English literature, History, and Religious Studies.


The Prince of Wales and group at the Pyramids, Giza, Cairo, March 1862 Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014

Prints from first photographed royal tour go on show at Buckingham Palace. Click here to see ten images.


Turkey – “The sick man of Europe”, by John Leech, Punch, September 17, 1853

For a fascinating collection of cartoons, many from Punch, since 1853, check out the website “A Cartoon History of the Middle East,” compiled by Peter Casillas.

There is an extraordinary collection of 47 Magic Lantern slides from the 1930 Beloit College Logan Museum Expedition to Algeria by George L. Waite, the photographer and cinematographer. This is available in an online collection at the website of the Smithsonian Institution. Click here to access the collection.

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The first part of an interview with Wael Hallaq by Hasan Azad has just been published on al-Jadaliyya. Below is the introduction and the first part of a much longer exchange which can be followed here.

Throughout the last three decades, Wael Hallaq has emerged as one of the leading scholars of Islamic law in Western academia. He has made major contributions not only to the study of the theory and practice of Islamic law, but to the development of a methodology through which Islamic scholars have been able to confront challenges facing the Islamic legal tradition. Hallaq is thus uniquely placed to address broader questions concerning the moral and intellectual foundations of competing modern projects. With his most recent work, The Impossible State, Hallaq lays bare the power dynamics and political processes at the root of phenomena that are otherwise often examined purely through the lens of the legal. In this interview, the first of a two-part series with him, Hallaq expands upon some of the implications of those arguments and the challenges they pose for the future of intellectual engagements across various traditions. In particular, he addresses the failure of Western intellectuals to engage with scholars in Islamic societies as well as the intellectual and structural challenges facing Muslim scholars. Hallaq also critiques the underlying hegemonic project of Western liberalism and the uncritical adoption of it by some Muslim thinkers.

Hasan Azad (HA): One of the debates raging nowadays has been about the inattention that Muslim intellectuals receive in the West. One can say that, with relatively minor exceptions, the modern Muslim presence in, or contribution to, the intellectual world of the West is near nil. In the closing pages of your Impossible State, you have pointed out that a robust intellectual engagement between Muslim thinkers and their Western counterparts is essential, not only for the sake of better Western understanding of Islam, but also for the sake of enlarging the scope of intellectual possibilities in the midst of Euro-American thought. Your argument, I believe, meant to convey the idea that there is much that the Islamic worldview and heritage can contribute toward enriching our reflections on the modern project, in the West no less than in the East. What is that contribution, and why is it not happening? What are the obstacles standing in the way?

Wael Hallaq (WA): To speak of the potential contributions of Islam to a critique and restructuring of the modern project is a tall order, one that should come subsequent to a diagnosis of the present modern condition and its causes. The obstacles you alluded to are numerous and multilayered, and originate in both sides of the divide. If there are any failings—and there are many indeed—they cannot be located on one side only. The first, and most obvious of course, is the linguistic obstacle, the only means to communicating ideas. The West (by which I here mean Europe, its Enlightenment, distinctively modern institutions and culture and the spread of all these mainly to North America), has seen it sufficient to consider its two or three major languages so universal as not to care to learn other languages well, if at all. Even Orientalism, as an academic discipline, has not been successful in producing sustained command of Islamic languages, despite the fact that it did produce individuals whose linguistic competence even in more than one Islamic language was no less than masterful. It remains the case however that those who can navigate an Islamic language or text are a miniscule—in fact insignificant—minority in Western societies.

But there is a larger sense to Orientalism involved here. In many ways, the field of Orientalism is surrounded by an outer, immensely extensive layer; that is, countless numbers of influential voices who really never bothered to do any of the hard intellectual and philological work on Islam; yet, they feel quite justified and confident to pronounce on the “Orient,” both within the classrooms of academia or as so-called “experts” in mass media. This “peripheral” Orientalism usually escapes our common definitions of that discipline, but it forms the bulk of common and popular Western knowledge about the rest of the world, especially Islam. In any case, this is roughly the linguistic obstacle.

by Edward E. Curtis IV, Religion Bulletin, May 2, 2014

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflections on Islamic Studies series.

By any measure, Islamic studies is a vibrant field. In the last several decades, the number of tenure-track positions dedicated to the study of Islam as a religion and to Muslim politics and societies has expanded. New journals have appeared; book sales are good; and interest in Islamic studies has led to important public humanities projects such as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Muslim Journeys Bookshelf.

What makes Islamic studies so dynamic? For one, its ever-expanding body of participants, who come from a number of disciplinary perspectives. The field is populated by intellectual networks rather than one identifiable set of intellectual authorities. Islamic studies finds institutional homes not only in religious studies and Near Eastern languages departments, but also in history, anthropology, sociology, political science, ethnomusicology, and art and architecture, among other academic units.

Islamic studies attracts some of the very best scholars in the world. There are now so many scholars producing so much scholarship that it is impossible for one person to know all of the literature in this vast field. Questions about where to do a graduate degree must be followed by the question of what the applicant wishes to study.

The multi-disciplinary study of Islam nurtures ever-expanding circles of conversation about the significance of Islam to both specialized disciplinary concerns and interdisciplinary inquiry. The origins of Islamic studies may be found in orientalism, that is, the scholarly, philological study of Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. But today, Islamic studies is a field defined by shared and intersecting questions, themes, and data, not any one methodology or set of texts. Its practitioners are not tied together by any one canon—one needn’t be an expert on the Qur’an to be in Islamic studies. (more…)

Half a century ago the Egyptian film industry was in full swing. Here is a clip from a 1955 film called مدرسة البنات. This was only 13 years after the classic Road to Morocco with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Are these films Orientalist? Indeed, that is there appeal, but there is also an undertone of satire in both. Check out the moustaches on the harem beauties in the Egyptian film.

There was a time when “Oriental Tales” were the rage of the age. Montesquieu penned Lettres Persanes in 1721 and Oliver Goldsmith followed up several decades later with The Citizen of the World. But I recently came across a late 19th century text about a future visit of a Persian Prince and Admiral to the ruins of a land known as Mehrica. This is The Last American and purports to be the journal of Khan-Li, a rather bizarre name for a Persian but so thoroughly Orientalist in mode. The Introduction to the text was provided in a previous post.

It is quite apt that the epigraph for the book is a dedication to “the American who is more than satisfied with himself and his country.”
Given the recent “Occupy Wall Street” interest, here is a century old look at what it might have been in ruins…
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