As Islamophobia pervades the world, invading minds and infecting intellect, Muslims have arisen as a target for collective crucifixion and condemnation. It’s a tradition of hate with a hoary past, the complexities of which can be navigated through a sustained investment in critical thinking. Amidst the tumult of the Lebanese Civil War and the Iranian Revolution, the Islamist uprising in Syria, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, emerged Edward Said’s groundbreaking work: Orientalism. The book unmasks how Western literature and scholarship have created a civilizational binary through the presentation of the Orient (the East) as the cultural antonym of the glorious West.
Said defines Orientalism as:
“The corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” 
By the 8th century, Islam’s military and religious hegemony had engulfed Persia, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, North Africa, Spain, Sicily, and parts of France. These conquests articulated the invincibility of the Muslim armies driving Europe into an undisguised dread of Islam. As incompetence breeds insecurity, false notions of the spiritual, cultural, and intellectual inferiority of Muslims were perpetuated to diminish the glow of Islamic victories. West Asia, therefore, became the recipient of the most invigorated and hard-lined form of Orientalism. The Orientalist scholars caricatured Islam as a chronology of reigns and conquests, battles and bloodshed. Islamic contributions to learning were skillfully obscured and erased. Orientalism conquered academic research, seeping into libraries, universities, media, and literature. Since then, Islam has invariably been discussed within a framework created by disdain, derision, and contempt.
Literature produced by Orientalists reeked of a cynical outlook towards Islam. In his work, The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet, Humphrey Prideaux describes Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as a deceitful person who fabricated tales of receiving divine revelation in order to mask his fits of epilepsy.
“Betaking himself to frame such a religion as he thought might best go down with them, he drew up a scheme of that imposture he afterwards deluded them with, which being a Medley made up of Judaism and the several heresies of the Christians then in the East.”
Orientalism painted Islam as a misleading imitation of Christianity, disseminated by a Prophet ﷺ upon whom a barrage of accusations was unleashed. From being an imposter to causing a schism in Christianity, Prophet Muhammad was defamed until he fit into the image of treachery created by Western scholars. In his canonical work, The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri describes travelling through the nine concentric circles of Hell. He finds Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the Eighth circle which is inhabited by malicious sinners and sowers of religious discord. Dante layered his hideous language with blasphemous imagery to evoke a near schizophrenic disgust for the Prophet in his readers. In The Hero as Prophet, the renowned historian, Thomas Carlyle describes the Quran in a way that reflects the corrosive impact of prejudice on his literary sensibilities:
“It is difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven.
I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite; — insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.”
The spiritual conceit of Orientalists like Carlyle blinded them to the remarkable stylistics of the Quran. A litany of similar criticisms was conjured up to erode the credibility of the Islamic faith and to justify the belittling and humiliation of its adherents. Through self-serving and distorted interpretations, orientalist scholars portrayed the Quran as a violent, political manifesto enshrining brutality and conquests.
American author Mark Twain’s celebrated work, The Innocents Abroad, was a mere assortment of lies propelled to fame by readers basking in the warmth of Biblical nostalgia. Twain’s national, racial, and religious identities intersected to dictate his depiction of the Arab world. He believed Damascus to be the “the most fanatical Mohammaden purgatory out of Arabia” comprised of “the ugliest, wickedest looking villains we have ever seen.” Drenched in vulgar humor and a palpable loathing for Muslims, the above lines demonstrate Twain’s failure to keep the pretense of impartiality afloat.
As Europe came to dominate most of the Muslim world during the era of colonial expansion, there arose a need to vilify the culture and religion of its colonies, and thus began the notoriety of Oriental study. Lessons derived from the French traveler, Comtey de Volney’s Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie, served as bricks for the erection of the French colonial empire. Ideas flowing from his travelogue percolated the ambitions of Napoleon who breathed expansion and conquest, forming the foundation for his invasion of Egypt in 1798. In Campagnes d’Egypte et de Syrie, Napoleon remarks that Volney considered England, the Ottoman Empire, and Muslims as the three major obstacles to French hegemony in the Orient. The rationalization of colonialism by Enlightenment scholars like Volney ran antithetical to their professed beliefs in liberty, equality, and freedom of expression. They molded Islam to serve as an illustration of inhumanity, inferior to the realm of Enlightened thought. These travelogues contributed to an ethnographic discourse that legitimized imperialism and hardened the prejudicial outlook of Europeans towards Muslims.
Fusing his colonialist leanings with Gothicism in his novel Vathek, novelist William Beckford gave birth to yet another literary work poisoned by Oriental tropes. It traced the rule of Vathek, a ninth-century Abbasid caliph whose destructive ambition for knowledge and power lured him into a dungeon of sins and eventually became his nemesis.
“Thus the caliph Vathek, who for the sake of empty pomp and forbidden power, had sullied himself with a thousand crimes, became a prey to grief without end, and remorse without mitigation.”
Such crude portrayals of Muslim rulers served to cement the belief that the East was a forsaken land, lying deep within the abyss of tyranny and oppression, waiting to be rescued by the benign West. Orientalism is, therefore, an archive of myths and prejudices, unified by a set of colonial and imperial ideas that rule over our imagination, intellect, and institutions.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, poets, novelists, essayists, and playwrights created a hideously large corpus of literature preserving the essence, fallacies, philosophy, and soul of Orientalism. Enslaved to racialized thought, they constructed an ideological prison within whose territory both Victorian and Romantic Orientalism were born. In his poem, Thalaba, Robert Southey makes the readers believe that Islam is fundamentally opposed to and irreconcilable with the cultural ethos of the West.
“Thou too are fallen, Baghdad City of Peace, Thou too hast had thy day; And loathsome Ignorance and brute Servitude, Pollute thy dwellings now. So one day may the Crescent from thy Mosque Be pluck’d by Wisdom, when the enlightened arm Of Europe conquers to redeem the East.”
Orientalists projected the Arab mind as a desolate place where logic was murdered and fanaticism reigned. The Arab aversion to rationality and progress was a myth created to sanitize the civilizational ruin caused by Western imperialism. Southey’s “Mosque” stands as a structural representation of Islam that traps its dwellers inside a black hole of ignorance. While envisaging the “crescent” being “pluck’d” from the “mosque,” the poet succumbed to his belief in the superiority of Western models of polity. In retrospect, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the neo-imperial savagery that followed across the Middle East seem like a fulfilment of Southey’s prophecy.
The growing Ottoman hegemony in the Middle East incurred resentment among Europeans who saw themselves as the authentic custodians of the Holy Land of Jerusalem. Capitalizing upon the wounded pride of the Christian West, writers fueled their literary careers by romanticizing the last remnants of a lost land. In his poem, The Fall of Jerusalem, Alfred Lord Tennyson laments the conquest of Jerusalem by Muslim invaders. Caged inside an evangelical delirium, he saw the invasion of the city as the death of its pristine sanctity:
“Wail! fallen Salem! Wail Mohammed’s votaries pollute thy fane; The dark division of thine Holy veil Is rent in twain!”
To Western readers, the Orient came across as a Satanic land permeated by lust and rooted in archaic traditions. Polygamy became a metaphor for Muslims’ susceptibility to sensuality.
In Don Juan, the poet, Lord Byron unscrupulously illustrates his belief in the moral decadence of Muslim society, writing: “Polygamy may well be held in dread, Not only as a sin but as a bore; And all (except Mahametans) forebears To make the nuptial couch a ‘Bed of Ware’.” These Orientalist works, buried deep within the moral rot of imperialism, provided the necessary justification for Europe’s interventionist policies in the Middle East. The maligning of Islam in European literature ran rigorously alongside the glorification of Western culture. The West came to be associated with everything the East was not. If the East symbolized ignorance, savagery, and debauchery, the West became a paragon of enlightenment, civilization, and morality.
The critical faculties of readers dissolved in the face of this subtle propaganda. In a willing suspension of skepticism, they entangled themselves in the labyrinth of assumptions, suppositions, and lies, swallowing the Oriental stories whole. In this cowardly yet sinister way, Orientalism laid itself upon us as Europe’s brand of anti-Islamic rhetoric.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire, which thrust the Middle East into a dark abyss of chaos and turbulence, coincided with the rise of American imperialism. Americans quenched their thirst for the region’s oil by masquerading as champions of democratic freedom. With the onslaught of American imperialism, Hollywood rose to prominence as the progenitor of cinematic Orientalism.
The depiction of Muslims as terrorists or diabolical fanatics in Hollywood movies reinforced the stereotypes that European scholarship had relentlessly fostered. With English emerging as a world language, Western media became the prime disseminator of global news. Anti-Muslim venom perpetuated by the media poisoned the globe, translating into worldwide vilification of Muslims. Thus, Americans employed media and popular culture to accomplish what Europeans did through literature and research. Today’s far-right and anti-immigrant rhetoric draws strength from the perpetual libeling of Muslims as anti-democratic, irrational fundamentalists whose existence imperils the progressive values of Western society. Orientalism can thus be understood as a form of intellectual aggression that shrouds its victims in a foggy miasma of misunderstandings while bolstering imperialistic ambitions of the West.
The spiritual bankruptcy of Western liberalism and modernity has caused a moral inversion. We are left with a wisp of a civilization that is selfish, ruthless, and opportunistic. Unravelling the tragic fragility of Western mores, Allama Iqbal’s poetry, decolonizes reality:
Tumhari tehzeeb apne khanjar se aap hi khudkhushi karegi; Jo shaakh-e-naazuk pe aashiyana banega na-payedaar hoga.
[Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger; Because a nest built on a slender bough cannot last.]
Over the centuries, Orientalism has appeared in varying forms. However, its aim has remained consistent. It is an ideological tradition whose resilience can be attributed to its ability to evolve alongside political contexts. The latter half of the 20th century liberated Orientalism from the shackles of scholars. Wandering in the haze of Eurocentric illusions, it refashioned and streamlined itself. Orientalist literature has been pulverized into a set of consumable myths that melt into a perennial flow of hatred.
The Orientalism of today is profusely divisive and overpoweringly real. It is Islamophobia dressed as liberalism, celebrating grotesque caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. It is headscarves igniting murderous rage, Uighurs imprisoned for manifesting their faith. It is Palestinians condemned to an endless wait; the uncertainty engulfing the Rohingya’s fate. It is families maimed by the War on Terror; the torture endured at Guantanamo Bay. It is Muslims butchered on Indian streets, slogans and funerals in the lanes of Kashmir. It is the lives of migrants drowning in the sea and the haunting silence of the world’s apathy.
- Edward Said, Orientalism. Pantheon Books (1978)
- Saree Makdisi, Romantic Imperialism: Universal Empire and the Culture of Modernity. Cambridge University Press (1998)
- J.C Young, White Mythologies. Routledge (2004)
- Adam Shatz, ‘Orientalism’, Then and Now. The New York Review (2019)
Photo by Natalia Y
About the Writer: Saniya Ahmad is an undergraduate student living in India. She studies Political Science and English Literature at the University of Delhi. Her interests include literature, history, and political philosophy.