Encountering Islam

By Algis Valiunas
Claremont Review of Books, May 7, 2007


Edited by Andy Ross

In 1978, Edward Said published Orientalism, a study that condemns virtually all Western literature and scholarship on Islamic matters as an instrument of imperialism.

Yesterday's Clash of Civilizations

François-Auguste-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, said the Arabs may live "in the Orient whence all the arts, all the sciences, all the religions emerged," but they are little better than primitives now: "with the American Indian everything declares that the savage has never reached the state of civilization, while with the Arab everything indicates that the civilized man has fallen back into a state of savagery." Further: "Accustomed to follow the fortunes of a master, they have no law that connects them to ideas of order and political moderation: to kill, when one is the stronger, seems to them a legitimate right; they exercise that right or submit to it with the same indifference. They don't know liberty; they have no property rights; force is their God." In Said's view, these are all calumnies.

Rule Over the Muslim

Alexis de Tocqueville, whose writings on Algeria Said does not mention, tells a different story. In his two Letters on Algeria (1837) he praises the Kabyles: they love their freedom so much that should "you wish to visit them in their mountains, even if you came with the best intentions in the world, even if you had no aim but to speak about morality, civilization, fine arts, political economy, or philosophy, they would assuredly cut off your head." The coastal Arabs "love war, pomp, and tumult above all." In his First Report on Algeria (1847) he deplores the colonial administration: "Muslim society in Africa was not uncivilized; it was merely a backward and imperfect civilization." Although Tocqueville does not doubt that France should have an empire in Muslim lands, his moderation and delicacy seek to transform the bloody clash of civilizations into a relatively gentle reconciliation. Said has no place for him in his rogues' gallery of Oriental travelers.

Sympathy and Disgust

Edward William Lane was author of An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836, revised 1860), translator of The Thousand and One Nights, and compiler of the Arabic-English Lexicon. Said typically faults him as overbearing, presumptuously encyclopedic, and unable to establish a human connection with his Egyptian subjects. But in fact Lane writes with an appealing sense of human comedy, as in the description of the Egyptian child's religious upbringing: "He receives also lessons of religious pride, and learns to hate the Christians, and all other sects but his own, as thoroughly as does the Muslim in advanced age." Of those whom the Muslim hates, Jews enjoy pride of place: "It is common to hear an Arab abuse his jaded ass, and, after applying to him various opprobrious epithets, end by calling the beast a Jew."

John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837) also wields a skeptical intelligence lightly in his encounters with Muslim superstition: "It was strange to be brought into such immediate contact with the disciples of fatalism. If we did not reach the point we were aiming at, God willed it; if it rained, God willed it; and I suppose that, if they had happened to lay their black hands upon my throat, and stripped me of everything I possessed, they would have piously raised their eyes to heaven, and cried, ‘God wills it.'" Stephens finds much in his travels to offend him, and his composure is often strained to the breaking point.

In Gustave Flaubert's record of his journey to Egypt in 1849-1850, he gambols through Egypt as a sex tourist. Upon leaving the bed of the celebrated courtesan Kuchuk Hanem, Flaubert roars, "I felt like a tiger." The caterwauling of dervishes in rapture also has its appeal for the traveler: "Just the evening before, we had been in a monastery of dervishes where we saw one fall into convulsions from shouting 'Allah!' These are very fine sights, which would have brought many a good laugh from M. de Voltaire. Imagine his remarks about the poor old human mind! About fanaticism! Superstition! None of it made me laugh in the slightest, and it is all too absorbing to be appalling. The most terrible thing is their music." It is the preposterous human mind that most bemuses Flaubert.

Humor and Hypocrisy

In The Innocents Abroad (1869), Mark Twain manages to be simultaneously amused and appalled, and by things that are mostly just appalling. In the Valley of Lebanon he remarks on the startling absence of technological advancement, the woeful persistence of pig-ignorance. "The plows these people use are simply a sharpened stick, such as Abraham plowed with, and they still winnow their wheat as he did — they pile it on the house-top, and then toss it by shovel-fulls into the air until the wind has blown all the chaff away. They never invent anything, never learn anything." The varied tone of Twain's book captures the American ambivalence toward the Muslim world that persists to this day.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nonpareil linguist, inspired translator of The Arabian Nights, and author of Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (1855), enjoys a reputation as one of the travelers most sympathetic to the Muslim world. As an "amateur barbarian," he posed as an Indian Muslim doctor and made the hajj to Mecca and Medina. He also said many flattering things about the Islamic world: the "Moslem may be more tolerant, more enlightened, more charitable, than many societies of self-styled Christians." Burton's regard for the Orient extended only so far. He ultimately held European civilization not only superior, but fit to rule the East for its own good. He does not hesitate to call the outlandish aspects of the Muslim faith what they are: "The same tongue which is employed in blessing Allah is, it is conceived, doing its work equally well in cursing Allah's enemies. Wherefore the Kafir is denounced by every sex, age, class, and condition, by the man of the world, as by the boy at school; and out of, as well as in, the Mosque."

The most famous description of the higher and lower Muslim natures comes in Charles M. Doughty's classic, Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). Doughty made his way into the Arabian desert without attempting to hide the fact that he was a Nasrany — a Nazarene, a Christian — whose very presence most Arabs regarded as "a calamity in their land." Doughty pays the price: he is beaten, robbed, imprisoned, and threatened with death, all for what one tormentor calls his "misreligion." The true enemy, he cries, is the religion that is a "Chimaera of human self-love, malice, and fear!" When a friendly Arab advises him to avoid this tribulation by nominally converting to Islam, Doughty's Christian fatalism is as obdurate as the Muslim's usually is. Doughty's encounter shows the clash of civilizations as a mortal danger.

Going Native

T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, hoped that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire would produce free Arab nations. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1926), Lawrence calls the struggle, in which he was the chief hero, an "Arab war waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia." The book shows him instructing his Arab charges in the practice of civilized warfare, which requires a cool head. Lawrence teaches the men whom he leads, and whom he professes to serve, how to unite their disparate forces and conduct war not for blood-anger or trifling prizes, but for their freedom. Yet guilt for his failure to secure Arab freedom nearly breaks Lawrence: "In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only."

In The Valleys of the Assassins (1934), Freya Stark, whose Times (of London) obituary called her "the last of the Romantic Travellers," goes in quest of the heirs to the medieval Persian sect known as the Assassins, an offshoot of the Ismaili, a Shia branch famed for its learning. Not unexpectedly, she finds no worthy successors. What she does find is the imbecile inertia that seems standard in those parts. A friend refuses a doctor's help for his seriously ill daughter, who would be violated if a man were to see her; the girl of course dies. An opium-smoking doctor shrugs when she observes that his habit will kill him, showing the "melancholy fatalism which is all that the East promises to retain in the absence of religion." ...

Robert Byron, author of The Road to Oxiana (1937), searches for a bygone Muslim epoch of light. In Afghanistan of all places, in the city of Herat, now "but a name and a ghost," there occurred the superb efflorescence of a Muslim civilization that truly knew how to live: the Timurid Renascence of the 15th century. The flower of Islamic humanism is long wilted. An Afghan consul in Persia tells Byron that Balkh is "a historical city, the Home of the Aryan Race." This fevered claim relieves the ignominy of what these people actually are now.

Wilfred Thesiger, whose journeys through the Empty Quarter of Arabia in 1945-1950 are recounted in Arabian Sands (1959), mourns the demise of the Bedouin way of life even as he honors its putative glory. The "Arabian Nightmare," the new world introduced by the oil prospectors in 1950, essentially renders Bedouin life extinct. He idealizes the fierce manliness of the Bedu: "Among no other people have I felt the same sense of personal inferiority." Thesiger goggles rapturously at their most flagrant barbarities. He tells an awful tale in which a Saar herdsman fired at a gang of camel rustlers and killed a teenaged boy; the next day the dead boy's father and his men come upon a 14-year-old Saar boy and stab him to death. "Vindictive as this age-old law of a life for a life and a tooth for a tooth might be, I realized none the less that it alone prevented wholesale murder among a people who were subject to no outside authority, and who had little regard for human life."

Today's Clash of Civilizations

When Ryszard Kapuscinski, the late Polish author of Shah of Shahs (1982), goes among the brutes, he knows where he is. Iran had intense 20th-century longings for civilization, but no decent regime ever came out alive. Shah Reza Khan rubbed the Allies the wrong way, and in 1941 the British solicited his abdication in favor of his 22-year-old son, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. The new shah justified his terror as necessary protection for his project of building a "Great Civilization" in Iran. In 1973, flush with oil money, he promised that in ten years Iranian living standards would equal Western Europe's. But no Great Civilization was to come from an Islamic revolution. Kapuscinski shuddered at the spectacle of a million people praying en masse in Tehran's great square.

V.S. Naipaul writes of Iran in Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). The revolutionary order is founded by men "without political doctrine, only with resentments." What he sees wherever he goes in Iran is rage, directed principally against all things Western and modern. A student informs him that "Islam was the only thing that made humans human." A Malaysian confidently tells Naipaul "if you know the Koran you know everything." This wretched fundamentalism dooms any hope of genuine spiritual and material advancement. The only hope Naipaul sees is in the adoption of modern ways. In Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998), he allows just the glimmer of a possibility that religious barbarism might have proven so self-destructive that for some the despised universal civilization seems the only wise alternative.

The Travelers' Truth

Someone who reads only Edward Said may come away convinced that his argument is true. But to read in the travel literature he disparages is to see how wrong he is. The travelers' tales do not originate in malevolent prejudice or issue in gross distortion; rather they are drawn from carefully observed reality. Of the travelers, Chateaubriand is really alone in the depth of his loathing for Islam. Among the others, even those who are justly horrified by the barbarities they witness, a moderate and sensible spirit prevails, while some of the 20th-century travelers feel as much at home in Arabia or Afghanistan as in England. But they and their fellow writers also show that the clash of civilizations is real and that the conflict will not be over any time soon.

Defending the West

By Rebecca Bynum
New English Review, December 2007


Edited by Andy Ross

Edward Said viewed reality through the prism of Muslim culture and applied this worldview to his study of history resulting in a reductionist and simplistic thesis.

Ibn Warraq demonstrates in scholarly detail the flaws in Said's assumptions and methods. At the bottom of Said's failures lies a stubborn unwillingness to comprehend the core of western thought.

The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is taken for granted in western society. Yet this most basic aspect of western civilization is continually miscomprehended by the Muslim world.

For the Islamic mind, good is defined as what is good for Islam or good for the Muslim community. Goodness as a concept apart from Islam does not exist, much less as a transcendent value which can be realized in the soul. Therefore knowledge is only good if it advances Islamic societal goals.

Said seems to think Western study of the East had no purpose but the further conquest and humiliation of the East.

Ibn Warraq has dared to throw off the mental shackles of Islam. His study of Islam is motivated by simple love of the truth.