Answering Oreintalist Claims:
Orientalism and the misrepresention of Islam

         Ehteshaam Gulam

What is Orientalism? Who are the Oreintalists?

Oreintalism is basically this. European (a.k.a. White People) academics study of the Middle East and the Far East. Basically it’s English and Western Academic studies of the Middle East and different religions of the Middle East or Eastern Cultures.

There are many Oreinatalists but since this essay is about Oreintalism and it’s misrepresentation of Islam, I’ll stick to the point. In 1978, Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American professor of English at Columbia University, published Orientalism, a study that condemns virtually all Western literature and scholarship on Islamic matters as an instrument of imperialism. The Orient, he maintains, is the Orientalists' invention. And I have to say after reading his work, he is right. There is too much misinformation about Islam not only on the internet, but in Western Academic circles, text books, universities, books, etc.

In this essay we will be looking at the history of disortion of Islam by Oreintalists, some 20th century Orientalists, their mishandeling of Muslim Scholarship and why they shouldn’t be used too much.

The History of Misrepresention of Islam to Oreintalism

Anti-Islamic polemic and Islamophobic statements and myths have existed since the 7th century. All kinds of Anti-Islamic allegations from Medevial Popes to Evangelicals  and present day Oreintalist  about Prophet Muhammad being a liar, copying off the Bible, criticism against Prophet Muhammad’s character, etc. The earliest form of criticism against Prophet Muhammad as from John of Damascus (676-749 CE) calling Prophet Muhammad a “liar” and a “false prophet”. During the crusades all sorts of Anti-Islamic myths were being invented by the Christian soilders showing their intolerance not only towards Muslims but with Jews as well. Even Pope Urban II called for a genocidal war against all Muslims. So much for Christianity being a “loving” religion. On July 15th, 1099 the Muslim Jerusalem fell into the hands of the Christian Crusaders. The Christians had robbed the Dome of the Rock, a holy site in Islam and stole many valuables from there. Clement V (1305-1314) showed his hatered for Muslims as he said “the presence of Muslims on Christian lands was an insult to the creator. Due to the Christian persecution in the 1500’s many Muslim communities were killed off and the Muslim conquests of Christian and Jewish settlements proved to be much successful and peaceful than the Christian ones. [1]

At least since the Middle Ages, Islam has been much maligned and severely misunderstood in the West.  In the last years of the Twentieth Century, it does not seem that much has changed even though most Muslims would agree that progress is being made.  I feel that an elegant summary of the West's ignorance of Islam and the motives of Orientalism are the following words by the Swiss journalist and author, Roger Du Pasquier:

“The West, whether Christian or dechristianised, has never really known Islam.  Ever since they watched it appear on the world stage, Christians never ceased to insult and slander it in order to find justification for waging war on it. It has been subjected to grotesque distortions the traces of which still endure in the European mind.  Even today there are many Westerners for whom Islam can be reduced to three ideas: fanaticism, fatalism and polygamy.  Of course, there does exist a more cultivated public whose ideas about Islam are less deformed; there are still precious few who know that the word Islam signifies nothing other than 'submission to God'.  One symptom of this ignorance is the fact that in the imagination of most Europeans, Allah refers to the divinity of the Muslims, not the God of the Christians and Jews; they are all surprised to hear, when one takes the trouble to explain things to them, that 'Allah' means 'God', and that even Arab Christians know him by no other name. Islam has of course been the object of studies by Western orientalists who, over the last two centuries, have published an extensive learned literature on the subject.  Nevertheless, however worthy their labours may have been , particularly in the historical and and philological fields, they have contributed little to a better understanding of the Muslim religion in the Christian or post-Christian milieu, simply because they have failed to arouse much interest outside their specialised academic circles.  One is forced also to concede that Oriental studies in the West have not always been inspired by the purest spirit of scholarly impartiality, and it is hard to deny that some Islamicists and Arabists have worked with the clear intention of belittling Islam and its adherents.  This tendency was particularly marked for obvious reasons in the heyday of the colonial empires, but it would be an exaggeration to claim that it has vanished without trace. These are some of the reasons why Islam remains even today so misjudged by the West, where curiously enough, Asiatic faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism have for more than a century generated far more visible sympathy and interest, even though Islam is so close to Judaism and Christianity, having flowed from the same Abrahamic source.  Despite this, however, for several years it has seemed that external conditions, particularly the growing importance of the Arab-Islamic countries in the world's great political and economic affairs, have served to arouse a growing interest of Islam in the West, resulting for some in the discovery of new and hitherto unsuspected horizons.” [2]

Moving on to a more detailed look at the West's distorted view of Islam, in general, and Orientalism in particular . . . Edward Said, the Arab Christian author of the monumental work Orientalism accurately referred to Orientalism a "cultural enterprise".  This is certainly no distortion, since the academic study of the Oriental East by the Occidental West was often motivated and often co-operated hand-in-hand with the imperialistic aims of the European colonial powers.  Without a doubt, the foundations of Orientalism are in the maxim "Know thy enemy".  When the Christian Nations of Europe began their long campaign to colonize and conquer the rest of the world for their own benefit, they brought their academic and missionary resources to bear in order to help them with their task.  Orientalists and missionaries whose ranks often overlapped were more often than not the servants of an imperialist government who was using their services as a way to subdue or weaken an enemy, however subtly. Mr.Said says:

“With regard to Islam and the Islamic territories, for example, Britain felt that it had legitimate interests, as a Christian power, to safeguard.  A complex apparatus for tending these interests developed. Such early organizations as the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (1701) were succeeded and later abetted by the Baptist Missionary Society (1792), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804), the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews (1808).  These missions "openly" joined the expansion of Europe.” [3]

Anyone who has studied the subject knows that Christian missionaries were willing participants in European imperialism, regardless of the pure motives or naïveté of some of the individual missionaries.  Actually, quite a few Orientalist scholars were Christian missionaries.  One example is that of Sir William Muir, who was an active missionary and author of several books on Islam.  Today, these books are viewed as very biased studies, even though they continue to be used as references for those wishing to attack Islam to this very day.  That Christians were the source of some of the worst lies and distortions about Islam should come as no surprise, since Islam was its main "competitor" on the stage of World Religions.  Far from honouring the commandment not to bear false witness against one's neighbour, Christians distortions and outright lies about Islam were widespread. 

The history of Orientalism is hardly one of unbiased examination of the sources of Islam especially when under the influence of the bigotry of Christianity. From the fanatical distortions of John of Damascus to the apologetic of later writers against Islam, that told their audiences that the Muslims worshipped three idols! Peter the Venerable (1084-1156) "translated" the Qur'an which was used throughout the Middle Ages and included nine additional chapters. Sale's infamously distorted translation followed that trend, and his, along with the likes of Rodwell, Muir and a multitude of others attacked the character and personality of Muhammmed. Often they employed invented stories, or narration's which the Muslims themselves considered fabricated or weak, or else they distorted the facts by claiming Muslims held a position which they did not, or using the habits practised out of ignorance among the Muslims as the accurate portrayal of Islam. As Norman Daniel tell us in his work Islam and the West : "The use of false evidence to attack Islam was all but universal . . . " [4]

There is a great deal of proof that one could use to demonstrate that when it came to attacking Islam, even the Roman Catholic Church would readily embrace almost any untruth.  Here's an example: 

At a certain period in history, hostility to Islam, in whatever shape or form, even coming from declared enemies of the church, was received with the most heartfelt approbation by high dignitaries of the Catholic Church.  Thus Pope Benedict XIV, who is reputed to have been the greatest Pontiff of the Eighteenth century, unhesitatingly sent his blessing to Voltarie .  This was in thanks for the dedication to him of the tragedy Mohammed or Fanaticism (Mahomet ou le Fanatisme) 1741, a coarse satire that any clever scribbler of bad faith could have written on any subject.  In spite of a bad start, the play gained sufficient prestige to be included in the repertoire of the Comédie-Française." [5]

What’s wrong with Oreintalist/Western Academics studies of Islam/Prophet Muhammad?

A lot of things. But basically it’s their lack of respect for Muslim Scholarship. As soon as these Orientalists start studying Islam, they immediately distort it. The Oreintalists have no regard for Muslim Scholarship when it comes to looking at certain areas of the Quran, Prophet Muhammad’s life, etc.

Anyone writing about Islam must initially decide whether or not he believes in Muhammad as a prophet. And most of these orientalists don’t believe Prophet Muhammad was a Prophet from God.

Some of their views do hold some light, and some of their views I respect. For example Orientalists such as Richard Bell states that there were no seats of Christianity in Mecca, Madinah or the Hijiza area.[6]  This is true, there was no churches or any sort of seats of Christianity in Arabia.

Today the works of William Muir, Richard Bell, Alfred Guillaume, Monmergy Watt, etc are viewed as baised studies for Islam. They generally disregard Muslim Scholarship and shoot off their own interpretations about Islam and Prophet Muhamamd.

Answering Orientalists Claims about Islam

In the past many Oreintalists have come up with different theories as to why Prophet Muhammad would allegedly try to invent a religion like Islam. Let’s examine each of these claims to see if they hold any weight.

#1  Prophet Muhammad Made up Islam so he could have many wives

It is a known fact that Prophet Muhammad had 1 wife for 25 years. After that in the last 10 years of his life, Prophet Muhammad married 12 different at different times. However when Prophet Muhammad died he had only nine wives. People were already polygamous before Islam.

Moreover the Meccans offered Prophet Muhammad the most noble and beautiful of their women in order to get Prophet Muhammad to stop preaching Islam. But he refused. Also there were many men in Arabia who had many wives, in fact in Pre-Islamic Arabia there was no limit to how many wives a man could have. Polygamy was widely practiced in Pre-Islamic Arabia, and the Bible lists about 40 polygamists (men who married more than one wife). I document this here.

#2  Prophet Muhammad made up Islam so he could get rich

Did Prophet Muhammad fabricate Islam for money and wealth? I have already answered this allegation here.

#3  Prophet Muhammad fabricated Islam for glory/prestige

Prophet Muhammad told his followers not to overpraise him or glorify him too much. Prophet Muhammad merely said he was a slave of Allah (God) We find this in the canonical Hadith collections:

Narrated 'Umar: I heard the Prophet saying, "Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Mary, for I am only a Slave. So, call me the Slave of Allah and His Apostle." (Bukhari Volume 4, Book 55, Number 653)

The Muslims used to stand up out of respect for Prophet Muhammad. However the Prophet forbid this type of honor and told his followers not to imitate the Persians (Modern day Iranians). Moreover the Quran corrects Prophet Muhammad on various mistakes he made (for Example Quran 80:1-5).

#4 Prophet Muhammad made up Islam for the unification of the Arabs

During Prophet Muhammad’s time many conflicts were happening between the Arab tribes. And after the spread of Islam the Arabs were united. The disbelivers of Mecca asked Prophet Muhammad to change the revelation of the Quran when they didn’t like it. However Allah (God) told Prophet Muhamamd to say:

But when Our Clear Signs are rehearsed unto them, those who rest not their hope on their meeting with Us, Say: "Bring us a reading other than this, or change this," Say: "It is not for me, of my own accord, to change it: I follow naught but what is revealed unto me: if I were to disobey my Lord, I should myself fear the penalty of a Great Day (to come)." Say: "If Allah had so willed, I should not have rehearsed it to you, nor would He have made it known to you. A whole life-time before this have I tarried amongst you: will ye not then understand?" (Quran 10:15-16). If Prophet Muhammad’s goal was to please the Arabs then he would have changed the Quran to make it say what the Arabs wanted it to say. Instead we noticed that Prophet Muhammad was honest and not looking to please the Arabs rather he was only interested in furfilling the commands of Allah (God).

Prophet Muhammad and Islam teaches that being an Arab doesn’t make you superior to any other human being. Rather Islam teaches that everyone is equal (Quran 49:13). Why did Prophet Muhammad allow non-Arabs to join Islam? Why did he wage war against Arab tribes?

#5  Prophet Muhammad learnt from Jews and Christians

There were people at the time of Prophet Muhammad who accused me of plagerizing stories from the Bible/Apocryphal sources in the Past. The Quran acknowledges this (Quran 61:25).

Islam Awareness already answers this accusation here. This site states that the stories either came after Islam or that the Quran doesn’t copy any of the stories.

#6  The Quran copied off the Bible, the Jewish Talmud and the Christian Apocryphal writings.

There were no Bibles in Pre-Islamic Arabia or during the time of Prophet Muhammad. Again I recommend that one goes to the website which has excellent responses to this polemic.

#7  The Arabs are not descendants from Ishamel (the Son of Prophet Abraham).

There is no bigger lie than this. Anyone who knows anything about the Middle East—know that the Jews and the Arabs are related. The Jews and Arabs share a genetic link which  goes back to a common ancestor. Moreover put a Jew and an Arab next to one another and you’ll see the similarities between the two. You can read more about it here.

#8  Ibn Ishaq is the earliest and most reliable biography of Prophet Muhammad.

Early, yes. Reliable, no. As Bassam Zawadi says “Just because something is early, doesn’t mean it’s reliable”. I document the problems with Ibn Ishaq, Al-Waqidi, Ibn Sa’d and Al-Tabari here. As Muslims we only follow the Quran and the Sunnah (the Canonical Hadith collections).

#9  The Quran says the Bible is Valid. The Quran tells its readers to go back to the Bible.

Nothing is further from the Truth. There are many Christian apologists who use this absurd argument. The Quran merely says that the revelations given to Moses, Daivd and Jesus (Peace be upon them) were inspired by Allah (God). The Quran says the entire Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) are corrupt. You can read more about it here.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] MacGregor Jerry and Prys Marie” 1001 Surprising Things You Should Know About Christianity, Baker Books, Michigan, (2002)

[2] DuPasquier, Roger: Unveiling Islam, Islamic Texts Society Publishers, 1992 pg 5-7.

[3] Said, Edward: Orientalism, Vintage Publishers (A division of Random House), New York, 1979 page 100

[4] Daniel, Norman: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Oneworld Publications, USA, 2000 page 267

[5] Bucaille, Maurice: The Bible, the Qur'an and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge Dar Al Ma'arif Publishers, 1977 page 187

[6] Richard Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, The Gunning Lectures Edinburgh University, 1925, London: Frank Cass and Company Limited, 1968 (Reprinted), p.42.