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on 6 June 2016
This is a very detailed historical review of a subject of great contemporary importance but sadly one that is little understood in the west. Gerard Noonan gives a very fair and comprehensive review above, and this should be consulted first if you are interested in reading this work. For the most part, I found it very absorbing, although it must be stated it covers a very long period and a wide scholarly terrain, and I sometimes felt I was in the desert without a map. The author clearly thought this necessary to do his demolition work on Edward Said, which he does very effectively. I was interested to read that Said, though raised as a Presbyterian (a rare affiliation for an Arab), was an avowed secularist with a hatred for religion, especially Islam, and he was entirely blindsided by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism since the 1970s. All the same, this highly informative book covers a lot more than a refutation of Said's 'Orientalism', as it presents a kaleidoscope of brilliant and often eccentric scholars. The style is very readable and there a good few laugh out loud moments. Islam is of course the presenting issue, as the unifying factor in Arab, Turkish and Persian cultures, but it would have been interesting to read here something as well on the Christian and Jewish minorities who are just as much a part of 'the Orient' and who predate Islam by centuries.
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on 8 August 2009
Irwin seeks to refute the thesis, propounded most vehemently by Edward Said, that orientalism, the study of Islamic society from historical, sociological, cultural and other points of view, was/is the handmaiden of Western imperialism in the Middle East. Far from being imperialistically-minded, Irwin argues that orientalist scholars were/are motivated merely by a lust for knowing. Given the influence of religion in Europe (and indeed the world over) until quite recently, it is unsurprising to discover that curiosity regarding the Middle East was originally motivated by a desire to add background detail to the Bible stories: where exactly was Mount Sinai?; how did people live during biblical times? etc. With the rise of secularism, orientalist studies continued to justify themselves as straightforward scholarship. Irwin denies that there was a sinister relationship between orientalists and European imperialism. Academic pedants with little interest in contemporary matters, the majority of Orientalists had little connection with imperialism. Strikingly, those who did interest themselves in colonialism tended to oppose it in solidarity with Arab peoples: As Irwin writes, `There has been a marked tendency for Orientalists to be anti-imperialists, as their enthusiasm for Arab or Persian or Turkish culture often went hand in hand with a dislike of seeing those people defeated and dominated by the Italians, Russians, British or French' (p. 204). Such anti-imperialists included Leone Caetani, Edward Granville Browne, Louis Massignon, Jacques Berque, Vincent Monteil, and Claude Cahen, to name just a few. To be sure, some Orientalists were imperialists - Christian Snouck Hurgronje, who worked as an adviser to the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies, being a prominent example - but they tended to be exceptions to the rule.
With relation to Islam, Irwin argues that, contrary to Said's contention, Christians did not see it as a monstrous `Other', the anathema against which Christianity sought to define itself. True, many clerical Orientalists did engage in personal attacks on the Prophet Muhammad, portraying him as a sex-mad epileptic. However, this was not motivated by racism, but rather by religion: Muhammad was slandered thus because he was seen as an imposter, a heretic, a false prophet leading Arabs, Persians and Turks away from the true religion, Christianity. After all, such attacks were used against heretical movements in Europe itself. If Europeans had an `Other' at all, it was often other Europeans: for Catholics it was free-thinking Protestants; for the latter it was superstitious Papists.
Irwin devotes one chapter to critiquing Said's 'Orientalism' (1978). Refusing to beat around the bush, he describes the book as `a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations' (p. 4). Far from being a scholarly history of Orientalism, according to Irwin Said's book sought to blame the ills of the modern Middle East on Western imperialism by ascribing racist motives to the Orientalist scholarship - historical, religious, cultural, sociological - which Said alleges underpinned and motivated such colonialism. Moreover, Said alleges that this scholarship created the Orient in the first instance, for, he contends, the place has no objective reality. Subscribing to the pessimism of the intellect, a fashion that seems obligatory for any self-respecting leftie, Said dipped into the bleak theory of Michel Foucault to argue that Orientalism is an inescapable discourse, supplementing it with the work of Antonio Gramsci to argue that Orientalists willingly participate in the construction of `hegemonic' control. Said was oblivious to the fact that the theories of Foucault and Gramsci are contradictory. Indeed, Irwin has a good chuckle at the self-regarding abstruseness of the postmodern and postcolonial `theory' that informed Said's work.
Overall, Irwin's book is worth a read. It has its handicaps though. The main one is that, by focusing on the people rather than the scholarship, Irwin ends up writing a long Orientalist parade, with each scholar given a brief moment in the spotlight to impart a potted biography and a short synopsis of his scholarship. This approach can give rise to tedium and confusion. Nevertheless, it's a good book, reminding us of the existence of Islamic, as well as European, imperialism, with its attendant evils, such as slavery.
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on 30 July 2016
A highly readable and staggeringly erudite book which demonstrates a number of interrelated theses: (1) the study of Arabic, Persian and the Middle East" was a highly eccentric and oddball pastime in Europe before the late 20th century (2) those scholars who were active in this field got involved for personal reasons, usually hindering their own careers (3) there was very little connection between scholarly theories about the Middle East and colonial activities there (4) scholars writing and teaching in Europe about the Middle East did not in any way conform to the stereotypes created by Edward Said and others, but had diverse and individual perspectives. This book shows the best characteristics of modern scholarship at its disinterested, rigorous and unpartisan best.
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on 22 May 2015
A wonderful overview of a fascinating field of knowledge and the skirmishes and disputes between scholars from a vast range of traditions and perspectives. I will need a slower second reading and some more research to really absorb it all, but it's clearly written and full of surprises, eccentric characters and radiates a deep affinity and sympathy with the subject. Some kindle glitches mashed up words but nothing too bad.
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on 8 December 2008
The absurd one-star review of this brilliant book should not be allowed to stand as Amazon's only review. Superbly reviewed by the Guardian and the Telegraph, by the Spectator and the Independent, and by dozens of others across the world, this is a fair and balanced, rich and passionate defence of those from the Western tradition who have sought to understand the Orient. It demolishes Said's discredited thesis and provides a masterly analysis of the subject. It is a worthy companion to Ibn Warraq's Defending the West.
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on 11 January 2015
Delivery time a little late, despite additional cost, but the book was brand new and will take pride of place on my bookshelf. An excellent intellectual history of studies into the 'Orient', very readable, fascinating and erudite. Only just started it, but looking forward to reading the rest!
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on 29 April 2006
... and hilarious! Mr. Irwin has authored several novels, and, no doubts, his non-fiction writing has only been improved by that.

So far, I found just a couple of rather strange ... aberrations? (I guess it is appropriate to use that word for a book populated by so many eccentrics). Mr. Irwin writes (pp. 19-20), "For reasons that remain misterious, the new conquerors [i.e., Arabs] were referred to in the earliest Latin sources either as 'Hagarenes' or as 'Saracens'." I've always thought there's nothing misterious about that: it's an old tradition of calling an ethnos by a name or place known to classical authors, or by a legendary ancestor. Hagar was mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, hence Hagarians. Saraceni were nomads mentioned by the late Greek authors, so here you go ...

Another example (p. 181): "It always rankled with [Edward] Palmer that he did not succeed to [William] Wright's professorship when the latter died." Something isn't right here. Palmer was murdered in 1882, Wright was succeeded by their mutual friend William Robertson Smith after Wright's death in 1889. With all Orientalists' eccentricity, it seems rather unusual for Palmer to be irritated by a fact that his friend and colleague outlived him.

Despite these minor editorial omissions, I wish could give more than five stars to this book.

As for the sad case of Said's "Orientalism," Mr. Irwin yet again "tore that book to pieces," which, naturally, will have no effect on Said's admirers. As any critique never had and never will on supporters of the "Black Athena," or on believers in the less known here in the West so called "New Chronology."
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on 25 January 2010
Superb distillation of arguments in favour of a profound western fascination for the orient, utterly absorbing, penetrating, entering deeply into its subject, an intellectual feast.
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on 31 March 2015
Great counterweight to postmodernist and 'orientalist' critiques.
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on 25 June 2011
I think this useful and interesting book should be read by anyone with a broad interest in Asian, particularly Middle Eastern history. Most of the book is a description of how Oriental Studies developed in Europe and North America. It is logically set-out, interesting well-written and fully annoted. Although its scope in time and subject matter is very wide, there is no sense that Irwin is superficial, rather that he has mastered the subject. These chapters lead up to a criticism of Said's "Orientalism", which Irwin wisely confines to one chapter.

I read "Orientalism" some years ago and thought it over-generalised and biased. However, as it was the personal view of a literary critic with no claim to be an historian, I found it tolerable. What is less acceptable is its widespread and uncritical use by anthropoligists and social historians writing on India or Northeast Africa, as though a mere reference to Said validated their point.

Irwin rightly attacks this, but I found this chapter on Said's book less interesting than the rest, as constant criticism (however justified) can be monotonous. Irwin's dilema is whether to attack Said in the same vein as Said attacked Orientalists or whether to be more moderate and scholarly. On balance, I think that Irwin is too comabitive and personal. However, his book is a useful antidote to the canonisation of Said's work
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