Reading Orientalism: Said and Djait

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Reading Orientalism from Edward Said and Hicham Djait’s stance endorses that both Orient and Islam are misrepresented through textuality. In fact, Said and Djait present pieces of evidence and arguments about the European representation of Islam. For Djait, the relationship between Europe, presented by Christianity, and the east, presented by Islam, is mainly a nexus of hostility. This hostility that Christianity has towards Islam stems from the fact that Islam causes a halt to the prosperity and progress of Christianity; therefore, the aim of the emergence of Orientalism is to wage war against Islam. On the other hand, Edward Said thinks of Orientalism as a discourse.


Having reading orientalism this way, Orient is created out of textuality that serves the interest of imperialism. With the imperialistic aims, said believes that the occident misrepresents the orient culturally to encourage the invasion of it through literary works of prominent writers such as Ernest Renan, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Since the Orient is characterized by Islam, the occident studies Islam to have control over the East; knowing the orient entails directly having control of it.


Edward Said’s stance


Edward said coins the term ‘Orientalism’ to mean all these academic, artistic, and literary works, which misrepresent the orient. Not only these literary works misrepresent the orient but also they contribute to colonize the oriental territories. As Said (1978) himself says,

Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient and most of the time the Occident.(p. 2)

The west moves to the center; whereas, the orient moves to the margin. In “Ballad of East and West”, for instance, Rudyard Kipling highlights this binary opposition east/west by saying, “East is East, West is West And never the twain shall meet”; Kipling in his poem, the white man’s burden, urges the state to invade the orient. In the same vein, Benjamin Disraeli instigates, in his novel Tancred, the United States to invade the orient as he says, “the east is a career”. 

The west misdepicts the orient through textuality which is, in fact, enmeshed in politics; therefore, there is no pure knowledge in the academy and as Foucault puts it, ‘it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together’ (Foucault 1978:100). Said leans mostly on the Foucauldian analysis throughout his book (Orientalism) to describe the consequences of knowledge; in the first chapter, for instance, Balfour justifies the British imperialistic interests in holding sway over Egyptian territories, as Said puts it, “ British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour”(p.32). As a consequence, knowing the orient entails having power over it.

Orientalism and Western misrepresentation

 Orientalism is one of the most important aspects of Western misrepresentation of Islam. In fact, reading orientalism this way affirms that the academic publications of Orientalists, Arabists, or Islamists have a great impact on structuring a distorted image of Islam; the task of Orientalism is in the maxim “know the enemy”. The dilemma lies in the fact that orientalist scholars wrote about the east. They made this depiction without even stepping inside the orient; said calls this dilemma ‘imaginative geography’. The latter splits the world into two extreme, different entities: Europe, which is more powerful politically; and Non-Europe, which is described silently and passively in the middle ages. Reading orientalism this way endorses the existence of such misrepresentations.

This imaginative geography results in bringing forth stereotypes, myths, and untrue images. All these images have been created and translated into a set of ideas shared amongst many writers of that time. Edward Said, in his book, points out that many wrongs and stereotypical ideas about the orient have been disseminated among writers, and as Foucault puts it, “no writer is an island”. It is intertextuality which explains why writers have the same knowledge about the orient. The notion of intertextuality implies that each text exists as a collection of others; in the same vein, Michael Foucault declared, “the frontiers of a book….it is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences…”(The archaeology of knowledge, p.23).

Misrepresentation and intertextuality

Through the notion of intertextuality, we can eventually spell out the reason behind the burgeoning of intolerant writings towards Islam during the colonial era. In the 7th century, Islam appeared in Arabia and spread all over the world; this last religion, as a result, threatens the existence of Christianity. As Edward said says, “Not for nothing did Islam come to symbolize terror, devastation, the demonic, hordes of hated barbarians.

For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the seventeenth century, the “ottman peril lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger” (p.59). With this patent reason, Christian scholars distort the image of the prophet Mohamed in their writings; the person of Mohamed was accused of whoring, imposture, sedition; Islam constitutes a real threat in the European collective consciousness. As a result, a large number of Christian writings contribute to occupy large swatches of Islamic lands. Finally, the occident misdepicts the orient through its cultural aspect, namely Islam

 Djait’s stance

Hichem Djait focuses on historical analysis while treating the notion of Orientalism. In Europe and Islam, the situation of Islam created suitable conditions for the emergence of Orientalism. At that time, as Djait (1985) says:

Islam was experiencing a crisis and lacked the intellectual and scholarly resources to analyze itself, though it had more than enough enthusiasm. So Orientalism filled the gap. (p.62)

. Similarly, said goes hand in hand with Djait in promoting the fact that orient cannot represent itself; therefore, the orient, in this particular period of time, must be represented. Hence, Orientalism emerges as a historical fact that fills the gap.   

Christianity and Orientalism

The problem of Orientalism lurks under the failure of discovering the inner essence of the oriental culture by reducing Islam to a mere item that imitates the tenets of Hellenism. For instance, Backer views Islam as an Asiaticized form of Hellenism. That is to say, Islam was accused of repeating the same theological discourse brought first by Christianity and distorting the image of Jesus. In the same vein, Henri Lammens, who believes in the superiority of western civilization, goes so far as to view the victory of Islam, in the seventh century, as a hindrance to the progress of eastern Christianity.

Christianity lost its hegemony in the east; therefore, it resorts to the west to be part of its imperialistic enterprise. In doing so, Christianity strives to occupy large swatches of Islamic territories through the west as a way to subdue Islam; also, Christianity joins all sorts of powers that oppose Islam. In medieval ages, Djait emphasizes that Muslims were locked upon as pagans and Muhammad was depicted as a magician. Moreover, he (1985) adds:

the Qur’an was nothing but a mere collection of fables borrowed from the Bible and warped by the author. (p.13)

The hatred Christianity had towards Islam resulted in such a distorted view. The latter propagated and governed the spirit of the west during the Middle Ages.

This hatred stems from the fact that Islam has its own philosophy that discerns it from Hellenism; owing to the fact that Islam has contributed to the history of thought and gained success in the world. Therefore, the only way to prevent its success is to ascribe the origin of its philosophy to Hellenism and its religious tenets to Christianity. The medieval vision of Islam still governs the collective consciousness of the west up to now.

Orientalism and Islam

The image of Islam, in German thought, constitutes a shift in history in the 19th century. This positive image appears thanks to two eminent philosophers of history. Hegel, who sees Islam as a revolutionary movement of the Orient repudiating all forms of barbarism; and Oswald Spengler, who considers Islam as ‘the central phenomenon of Oriental history’. Hegel, in Lectures on The Philosophy of History, hails the Mohammedan principle which constitutes the enlightenment of the Orient; Islam manages to transcend the negative mentality of the Oriental mind through connecting individuals with God.

Islam brings forth a set of virtues that appertain to improvements of the oriental mindset. As Hegel (1902) says, “the worship of the One is the only final aim of Mohametanism”(Hegel, p.370). Therefore, the main aim of this religion is to elevate humanity to a new evolutionary station. On the other hand, Spengler harshly repudiates any form of Eurocentrism. He declares the decline of the west. The creativity of the west vanishes as the west goes through the confines of industrialization and imperialism; the west becomes obsessed with the external world, whereas Islam gives much more importance to humans and results in mysticism. Arab culture becomes more focused on God_ the ultimate reality.

Modernity and Orientalism

Modernity is another form of Orientalism; it is an extension of Orientalism that imposes its control upon the west itself. As Hichem Djait says:

the inner suffering of the west comes from the fact that its culture has been devoured by modernity. (p.172)

This suffering manifests in the conflictual nexus between culture and modernity, which results in alienation. In other words, modernity has gathered and fused all nonwestern cultures into the ambit of its own humanity. In doing so, the west enunciates Orientalism anew.

The emergence of modernity has marked a break with the problem of Orientalism:

Muslims are no longer being asked to westernize their souls to find their place in the world…But to rationalize and modernize their lives. (p.168)

The birthday of modernity eradicates the old conflict that exists between Islam and west; the latter now views itself as ‘heterogeneous composite’. Djait states that the west becomes no longer able to save either its culture or its civilization; modernity has already set its own patterns; and also industrialization has already influenced the western fabric and then its civilization.

As a result, Muslims should be part of the stream of contemporary history. Djait advocates the idea of resisting Orientalism in a manner that preserves a sense of history and rationality; Muslims must confess their backwardness which renders modernity more tempting. As long as the gap is impossible, Muslims should preserve at least an identity, a culture, and a civilization.  Thus Islam should reintegrate with the new stream brought by modernity_ the new form of Orientalism.  

 References:

Said, Edward.  OrientalismNew York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Vintage Books1979.

Djait, Hichem. Europe and Islam.  Trans. Peter Heinegg. London: University of California. Press, 1985. Print.                                                                                        

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