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June 22, 2004 No.
733

Progressive Kuwaiti Author On 'The Favor Western Orientalists Did Muslims'

In an op-ed titled "The Favor Western Orientalists Did Muslims," in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, progressive Kuwaiti author Ahmad Al-Baghdadi criticized the Arab academic attitude to Western Orientalism. The following is the column: [1]

"When I was studying for my Ph.D. in Islamic political thought at Edinburgh University, I decided that my dissertation would be on the political thought of Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mawardi. [2] Were I to rewrite this dissertation today, I would add to it no less than another 50%, because of the scholarly materials available now that I could not explore at the time - especially in regard to methodological criticism of that very political thought.

"What is important to note is that studying in the West with French [sic] professors gives the student a unique opportunity, on both the scholarly and the personal level. On the personal level, it allows the [Arab] scholarship student who is overseas a great deal of time for reading. On the scholarly level, it enables him to present what he has learned by his reading to outstanding professors who are highly qualified to criticize academic texts.

"I mean to say that unlike the people of the East, Westerners have an [academic] tradition; they do not agree [to rely] on any text unless it has been methodologically dissected and rationally analyzed so they can get to the very substance of the text.

"At the time [of their studying in the West], the students - that is, the students from Muslim countries - are divided into two groups. The unfortunate ones, who return to their countries intending to apply what they have learned, are shocked by the great extent of the natural and deliberate ignorance in their countries. Their hopes shatter on the rocks of reality, and evaporate into the aridity of ignorance. The fortunate ones, those guided by Allah to remain in the West, continue developing intellectually; their methodological capabilities mature, and they become productive in their specialized scholarly fields.

"What is important during the period [of study] is that when they read, the students are given an opportunity to compare the complexities of Western thought with the primitive nature of Arab and Islamic thought, as compiled by the scholars on each side. On top of this, they [the Arab and Muslim students] come to know the enormous body of scholarship by [Western] Orientalists in Islamic and [Arabic] literary studies, [which these Orientalists accomplished] by way of translation, or by exact scholarly philological editing, or by critical methodology.

"For a simple proof of this, let any serious reader take any book about Islamic civilization by an Arab Muslim author and a book by one of the Western scholars - say, 'Al-Hadara Al-Islam' [Islamic Civilization] by Grunebaum. [3] Or compare any book on the history of the Islamic state with books such as those by Wellhausen and Brockelman. [4] Even in writing about Islamic jurisprudence, they [i.e., Western scholars] are much better than the Muslim experts in Islamic jurisprudence, on both the analytical and the critical level.

"Regarding the area of my own research, I found that the book 'The Rules of Government'('Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah') by Al-Mawardi was discovered by a German Orientalist, and that libraries in the Western world contain unique Arabic and Islamic manuscripts, well-catalogued so that the researcher can easily locate the information. [These libraries also contain] many books of our heritage, which, were it not for the West and the efforts of the Orientalists, the Muslims would never know exist. Thanks to this intellectual heritage, the West was able to master the East, as it still does.

"When Orientalist scholarship emerged, there emerged no Occidentalist scholarship among Muslim Arabs - except for the incomparable volume by the scholar Dr. Hasan Hanafi, which, unfortunately, and unlike the books of the Orientalists, does not make enjoyable reading despite the immense effort [Hanafi] put into compiling it. [5]

"Unfortunately, the decline of Orientalist scholarship, which was due to reasons related to circumstances in the West, was accompanied by a decline in interest in this [Orientalist] scholarship, most notably in the contemporary American Orientalism but also in the [once-]impressive German Orientalism.

"If Arab scholarly institutions had an inkling of sense, there would be serious contacts and efforts to translate [into Arabic] many of the impressive volumes in the field of Islamic and [Arabic] literature studies. Unfortunately, however, this is prevented by the religious oppression on the part of the Ministries of Awqaf [i.e., religious endowments] and religious associations and institutions that prevent the translation of many impressive scholarly studies.

"In short, we are talking to the ignoramus graduates of religious educational institutions or Arab universities that are devoid of learning - those [graduates] who cover up their ignorance by accusing Orientalism of conspiring against Islam or distorting its image. [We are telling these ignoramuses] that had it not been for the efforts of a group of Orientalists in religious, literary, and historical studies, we would never have known much of the heritage in which we take pride - and without making any effort to discover it. Nay, it has come to us readymade, on a silver platter, thanks to the efforts of those Orientalists. We don't have to look far for an example.

"Let us ask ourselves: How much effort have the Arabs expended in deciphering the Pharaonic Rosetta Stone, and how much effort have the Orientalists expended on this? Were it not for the efforts of those Orientalists who were fascinated by Pharaonic civilization, the world would never have known how to read hieroglyphics.

"The problem of the Arabs is that they suffer from a compounded ignorance - namely, they are ignorant of their own ignorance.

"In a world in which religious thought rules, the efforts of the Orientalist scholars cannot possibly revive the civilization of this dead Orient."


[1] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), April 20, 2004.

[2] Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mawardi was a Muslim jurist (972-1058 CE), who wrote on the laws of government and ethics. He is best known for his book Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah ("The Rules of Government").

[3] Gustave E. Von Grunebaum, d. 1972. Al-Baghdadi is referring to Grunebaum's Medieval Islam; a study in cultural orientation. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1953.

[4] Julius Wellhausen (d. 1918), Das arabische Reich un sein Sturz, 1902(Published in English as The Arab Kingdom And Its Fall); Carl Brockelman, Geschichte der Islamischen Volder und Staaten, 1939 (published in English as History of the Islamic Peoples, 1949).

[5] Dr. Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) an Egyptian scholar and head of the philosophy department at Cairo University, and a prolific writer. The book referred to here is his 630-page Muqaddima Fi 'Ilm Al-Istghrab ("Introduction to the Science of Occidentalism"), 2001.