Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

When Ibn Warraq met Edward Said

It is commonly supposed that pursuing knowledge in a systematic, scientific manner is good scholarship. There is an excellent reason for this - the frontiers of human understanding are advanced only by modifying or discarding theories that fail to explain reality in favour of those that do. In other words, it takes a theory to beat a theory. In intellectual circles, this has become the obvious standard against which the quality of scholarship is held.

And yet, in some cases, it isn't so obvious. In an important sense, such scholarship is regarded as more valuable in some cultures than in others. In a culture driven by a sense of justice that derives itself from positional authority, as opposed to a rational authority, extending scholarship to its logical conclusions can fraught with problems. Good scholarship does not allow itself to be subordinated to issues of shame and honour – it carries on regardless. But in cultures where the claims of the community against its members take unconditional priority over individuals against the community, the costs of renegade scholarship are considerably greater than the short-term benefits. In other words, works that cross the boundaries of defection exact a very high price.

In the U.S., as well as Britain, Middle Eastern Studies seems a culture unto itself. Since the publication of Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient by Edward Said, the study of the Middle East has been driven more by insidiously shaming scholars into harbouring particular viewpoints, rather than analysing the intellectual merits of the subjects under scrutiny. Never has an established academic field so widely degenerated into emulating what is meant to be the remote object of its study. And the recent, albeit timely, advent of Campus Watch reflects an overwhelming need to readdress such unwarranted bias in an era where silencing critics of Said and his followers has become more widely institutionalised ever since the days when Orientalism was first published.

Said's book was purportedly aimed at "deconstructing" the writings of past and present Orientalists, who served, according to Said, only to justify and advance the New Imperial Order, where Europe’s and America’s mighty armadas moved to subjugate the stupid and hapless Oriental. Orientalism ignited a whole field of “post-colonial studies” which reiterated the standard quasi-Marxist accusations towards Western nations, especially America, for having hijacked the Orient for its own evil ends, thus taking much of the blame for the present pathetic and humiliating state of the Arab world. And yet, in spite of claiming to “deconstruct” Orientalists whose fallacious writings, Said believed, were seen to be always infused with an air of contempt directed against the Oriental, nowhere did Said introduce a new way of thinking about the Arab world; nowhere did he provide an alternative, superior theory and framework that contained none of the alleged defects of Orientalist theories.

As Martin Kramer has pointed out, Said admitted in the afterword of the 1994 edition of Orientalism that "I have no interest in, much less capacity for, showing what the true Orient and Islam really are." In other words, Said was not interested in advancing scholarship, but only anti-Western polemical screeds, being mostly content with hurling vitriolic and malicious invective against past and present Orientalists, such as Silvestre de Sacy and Bernard Lewis.

Despite his Arab heritage, there is also a peculiar condescension towards Arabs and Muslims that runs throughout many Said’s works. This is disturbing, given that many Arabs and Muslims share much of Said’s conclusions of who is to blame for their mess. And yet for Said to place much of the blame on Western shoulders strongly implies that Arabs and Muslims are inherently incapable of beginning to sort out their societies; that such people are pathetic, downtrodden children, utterly bereft of any capacity for being instrumentally rational, aside from a talent simply for acting to gain attention the way a two-year-old child throws a tantrum to get Mommy's attention.

Surely this is condescension of the worst kind. Despite what the Arab world has been through, no reasonably sane person could believe that of Arabs and Muslims. And yet it is there hidden away, couched beneath Said’s heavy denunciations of the Western “rape” of the Orient. It is, in fact, not surprising that this is so. In implying such a contemptible viewpoint – whether consciously made or otherwise – Said is forced to necessarily raise the intensity of abuse hurled against his Western targets in order to increasingly obscure the obvious insinuation made within. This also acts as a useful relief mechanism for assuaging such pent-up guilt from such condescension by releasing it elsewhere, much of it at the usual suspect – the West. Incidentally, this is common practice among quasi-Marxist interpretations of history.

Said's writings have received rebuttals in the past, of which among the most notable are by Bernard Lewis and Keith Windschuttle. More recently, Ibn Warraq of the Institution of the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS), has also joined the fray. Ibn Warraq, an ex-Muslim who is no stranger to defecting from established conventional wisdom having written and edited some excellent books on the origins of Islam, has now turned his attention towards the Saidian polemicists and penned a rather exhaustive essay decrying the pretensions of Edward Said towards harbouring any conceptions of intellectual scholarship.

Ibn Warraq’s dissection of Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient is a masterfully written, albeit long, catalogue of Said’s errors and misconceptions. Indeed, one of the most absurd charges made by Said was one levelled against Bernard Lewis. In an essay, Lewis had discussed the etymological root of the classical Arabic term thawra [revolution] as follows:

“The root th-w-r in Classical Arabic meant to rise up (e.g. of a camel) , to be stirred or excited, and hence, especially in Maghribi usage, to rebel. It is often used in the context of establishing a petty, independent sovereignty; thus, for example, the so-called party kings who ruled in eleventh century Spain after the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordova are called thuwwar ( sing. tha’ir ).”

Said responded thus:

“Lewis’s association of thawra with a camel rising and generally with excitement (and not with a struggle on behalf of values) hints much more broadly than is usual for him that the Arab is scarcely more than a neurotic sexual being. Each of the words or phrases he uses to describe revolution is tinged with sexuality: stirred, excited, rising up. But for the most part it is a ‘bad’ sexuality he ascribes to the Arab. In the end, since Arabs are really not equipped for serious action, their sexual excitement is no more noble than a camel’s rising up. Instead of revolution there is sedition, setting up a petty sovereignty, and more excitement, which is as much as saying that instead of copulation the Arab can only achieve foreplay, masturbation, coitus interruptus. These , I think , are Lewis’s implications ....”

To which Ibn Warraq has this to say:

"Can any rational person have drawn any conclusion which even remotely resembled that of Edward Said’s from Lewis’s scholarly discussion of Classical Arabic etymology? Were I to indulge in some prurient psycho-biography, much in fashion, I would be tempted to ask, “What guilty sexual anguish is Said trying to cover up? Just what did they do to him at his Cairo English prep school?”. Lewis’s concise and elegant reply to Said’s conclusions is to quote the Duke of Wellington: “If you believe that, you can believe anything”."

And that is not all. Ibn Warraq’s essay is full of delightful rejoinders at Said’s expense. In reading this piece, one recalls the apt words of Stephen Schwartz on Said's book:

"Said's Orientalism, a ridiculous imposture from its first page to its last, is now a standard text in Anglo-American universities, but reads like the product of a rather dense college student who has just discovered Marxism; there can be no more telling condemnation of the present state of the American academy than the ascendancy of Said.”


Published in Wind of Change; 16-Jan-2003

Ibn Warraq is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim and the editor of The Origins of the Koran, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad, and What the Koran Really Says.


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