An Unfettered Mind

by Rebecca Bynum (Dec. 2007)


Defending The West: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism
By Ibn Warraq
Prometheus Books, 2007, 500pp.


Ibn Warraq is probably the most learned and articulate Muslim apostate of our generation. He has studied Islam in more depth than any other and his exegetical work on the Koran is unparalleled. Ibn Warraq is concerned with the truth, the truth of how the Koran and Islam came into existence and the truth about Islamic civilization’s interaction with the rest of humanity. In his current book, Ibn Warraq explores the truth about the much maligned Orientalists and colonialists of the Western world and their study and interaction with Eastern world, both Muslim and Hindu, and he specifically critiques Edward Said’s Orientalism which has poisoned the minds of a generation of Middle East scholars against the scholarship of the great Orientalists of the past, especially those of the 19th Century, though Warraq goes well beyond this and surveys the long history of Western scholars’ attitudes and study and artists' depiction of the Eastern world, from the ancient Greeks to the modern day.

Edward Said often described himself as “a Christian wrapped in a Muslim culture,” and this is an apt description, for Edward Said indeed viewed reality through the prism of Muslim culture and applied this worldview to his study of history resulting in a reductionist and simplistic thesis which, unsurprisingly, found fertile ground in the environs of modern American academia. Oftentimes, in the history of western intellectual development, a man comes along, not of great genius, but one who expresses the zeitgeist in such a way as to synthesize a trend and as a result leaves his mark upon an entire generation. Such a man was Edward Said.

Fortunately, Ibn Warraq, joining Ernest Geller, Bernard Lewis, Albert Hourani, Robert G. Irwin, and Nikki Keddie, adds to his already considerable critique of Said in this latest book, Defending The West. Ibn Warraq demonstrates in minute, scholarly detail the flaws in both Said’s assumptions and his methods. At the bottom of Said's failures lies a failure to understand the western mind, born of western culture. And ironically, whereas Warraq demonstrates in example after example of celebrated Orientalists, a genuine willingness to enter into non-western cultures (both in Hindu and Muslim examples) Said, despite having been educated in Western schools and having lived most of his life in America (he attended both Princeton and Harvard and then joined the faculty at Columbia in 1963), shows a stubborn unwillingness to comprehend the core of western thought, instead subjecting the West to a crude reductionism bordering on caricature. Said writes:


I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries which was never far from their status in his mind as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact – and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. (Orientalism, pg. 11)

Western culture was created a result of the synthesis of two great strains in the history of thought, Hellenism and Hebraism, as Matthew Arnold noted long ago. On one side are the ancient Greeks, who thought very deeply about sociology, politics, science and philosophy, but neglected religion, and on the other side are the Hebrews who thought deeply about the nature of God and morality and took religion very seriously. The record of their reflections created the most advanced body of religious thought the world has ever known.

When this religious thought, further enlarged by the last of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, was subsequently Hellenized, the resulting synthesis created a body of thought that one might regard as a new social order, one intensely focused on individualism - individual salvation and individual self-realization. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, as part of the process of individual self-actualization is taken for granted in western society and yet this most basic aspect of western civilization is continually miscomprehended by the Muslim world because the goal of Muslim society is in diametric opposition to individualism. It focuses instead on the communal perfecting, defending and enlarging the system of Islam, which seems to have no other purpose than its own self-perpetuation. Those brought up in Muslim society routinely mistake simple Western intellectual curiosity as having an underlying scheme for defending and enlarging the scope of the West. This is a major misunderstanding which Dr. Said was in a unique position to try to correct, but instead viewed himself as one more defender of the Muslim East against the rapacious and unrelenting assault of the West.  He was a defender of Muslim culture and its view of a perpetually divided humanity, and thus a defender of Islam.


Criticizing Said in reference to another of his books, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, author Martin Kramer notes that the revised edition of that book includes a contemptuous reference by Said to media “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners, and poison water supplies.” However when commercial airliners were used to blow up the World Trade Center four years later, Said withdrew from public view and declined to answer his phone. (see Martin Kramer’s review of Robert Irwin’s Dangerous Knowledge)


That society’s goal should be the nurture of the individual, and that it should regard knowledge as crucial to the fulfillment of the individual, is a foreign concept to the Islamic mind for which good is defined as what is good for Islam or good for the Muslim community as a whole. 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 does not exist as a good in itself. Knowledge is only good if it advances Islamic societal goals.

Said seems to have internalized this concept so completely that he could not conceive of men studying the Orient simply to gain knowledge and to expand their minds and sympathies as a function of self-realization, or that colonialists could possibly have had altruistic motives. For him, Western study of the East had no purpose but the further conquest and humiliation of the East. Therefore, all the Orientalist scholars working in the days before Edward Said arrived on the scene, that is, those who worked in a pre-politically correct atmosphere and who told the unvarnished truth about Islam and Islamic societies, according to the Saidists should be totally disregarded and their histories re-written along Saidian lines. Said even goes so far as to misrepresent the work of Richard W. Southern and Raymond Schwab as being supportive of him when in fact, as demonstrated by Ibn Warraq, their work refutes Said’s thesis from beginning to end.

Ibn Warraq performs a great service as he patiently and with great care. and in great detail, recounts the history of those Orientalists throughout Western history who were constantly engaged in studying non-Western cultures and specifically the Islamic culture from its earliest days. Their own words give us insight into individuals both curious about, but also very sympathetic to, the lives of the “other,” that is to say, those human beings who lived independent existences within different cultures. Whereas Said portrays these Western writings about the Orient as depicting it as irrational, weak, feminized and only capable of reaction to the West, never action on its own. He claimed that the West constructed the differences between East and West and attributes them to immutable essences that therefore cannot be bridged in order to justify its exploitation of the East.
Irfan Khawaja, a teacher of philosophy and apostate, argued at a conference in 2005

“that Said is committed to an incoherent set of claims about whether or not doctrines have essences. One the one hand, he is committed by the nature of this thesis to the claim that Orientalism has an essence. On the other hand, he indicts Orientalism for the claim that Islam has an essence. The first claim commits Said to the belief that doctrines have essences. The second commits him to the belief that they cannot. The combination is obviously inconsistent, but both claims are central to his thesis. Given their inconsistency, Said is obliged, logically, to give up on one claim. But given the nature of his thesis, he cannot disavow either claim without disavowing the thesis of his book. The book is therefore an obvious intellectual failure. To add insult to injury, Said explicitly admits that he “designed the book to be theoretically inconsistent.” It follows that the book is an avowed failure. To add yet further insult to injury, Said has the audacity of accusing Orientalism of violating the laws of logic – a criticism that can be described, at best, as a lifelong act of hypocrisy.” (Defending The West pg. 269)

The charge that the early Orientalists were motivated by Colonial greed is as specious as the current claim that those who study Islam and Islamic culture today are motivated by hatred or fear. Those who throw the term “Islamophobia” around have little or no understanding of the breadth and depth of these scholars or their work. Anyone perusing these pages will come away impressed with the depth of awareness, the sympathy and understanding of both the earlier Orientalists toward Muslim societies and their modern counterparts in scholars such as Ibn Warraq. Here he proposes that there are in fact three Islams:

Islam 1 is what the Prophet taught, that is, his teachings as contained in the Koran: Islam 2 is the religion as expounded, interpreted and developed through the Traditions (hadith) by the theologians and jurists, and includes the sharia, Islamic law, and the corpus of dogmatic theology: Islam 3 is what Muslims actually did do and achieved, that is to say, Islamic civilization, as known to us in history, roughly equivalent to Christendom. (Defending The West pg. 284)

The Orientalists surveyed in this book run the gamut in their attitudes toward Islam 1 and 2, from implacable hostility to conversion to Islam, but they uniformly display a remarkable sympathy toward Islam 3, the Muslims themselves. It is terribly unfair for commentators to use the term “Islamophobe” to describe those who, like the anti-communists of the 20th Century, are motivated not by hatred of human beings, but by simple opposition to totalitarianism. One could argue that anti-communists were more concerned with their fellows who were caught in totalitarian systems than were those who by showing sympathy to the communist system, did great injustice to its victims.

Who were the real friends of the victims of communism? Certainly not those who told us communism was the hope of the future, or who counseled appeasement of, and “constructive engagement” with, the communist states. Who are the real friends of Muslims today, those who appease their totalitarian system by pretending all is sweetness and light, or those who oppose it on humanitarian grounds?

Ibn Warraq is a an intellectual in the truest sense, who, at great personal risk, has dared to throw off the mental shackles of Islam and to recognize and embrace the best of the Western world; its art, its literature, its mental and spiritual freedom. His study of the Koran and of Islam is not so much motivated by hatred of a flawed system, but rather by simple love of the truth. He is a man who can move between two worlds with understanding and compassion for both. His work should be heeded at the highest levels of government and of culture, for his is a truly unfettered mind.

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