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For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and…

For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies

by Robert Irwin

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It’s infrequently I regret I read a book, but I think I do in this case. Because I’ve admired Robert Irwin: I hugely enjoyed his Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, I read one of his novels (an Orientalist fantasy; it was fine) and a Mamluk history; he’s been deeply involved in Dedalus’s decadent collection. I admired his range and I liked his style.

But this one is a tirade. And as another reviewer says, he misses the point. He thinks Said says quite other things than what Said said. If you like scholarship as combat you might enjoy this bout. But he excuses himself that Said got personal first, and at least in Orientalism, Said didn’t. Irwin sees no virtue whatsoever in Said's book, which he regards as a polemic (it isn't. On the other hand...) In brief, defensive.

I can’t star this one, I’m afraid. It wouldn’t be pretty.
  Jakujin | Sep 29, 2016 |
In Dangerous Knowledge Robert Irwin provides a very full history of an intellectual discipline: the study of Arabic and Islam in Western scholarship, which has customarily gone under the name of "Orientalism." In some measure, Irwin's book is a response and rebuttal to Edward Said's Orientalism, which indicts the entire Orientalist effort as having been an instrument of imperialist ambitions to degrade and dominate the Muslim East. Working largely through a host of thumbnail biographies of individual scholars, Irwin shows the motives and affections of the researchers to have been very diverse, and while geopolitical ambitions may have resulted in a (particularly 20th-century) relative surge of funding for Orientalist research, the researchers and the funders do not seem to have had any reliable overlap in sentiment. Amidst this diversity, Irwin observes the various chains of scholarly transmission, comparing them appropriately to the Sufi concept of silsila.

While Irwin (far from the first to do so) criticizes Said's Orientalism for lacking or contradicting the actual facts about Orientalist academics and their work, Dangerous Knowledge suffers in some respects from a complementary difficulty. It is decidedly more trees than forest, and by emphasizing the many and admittedly interestingly various individuals and details, it may leave the reader groping for a "big picture." The effect is somewhat paradoxical: Irwin is obviously opinionated, and clearly loyal to what he sees as the valuable elements of the Orientalist tradition, but the stress on objective, heterogeneous fact almost conveys a sense of dispassion. The prose style is accessible, and not encumbered with academicisms; anyone with an interest in the subject matter should find the book enjoyable and worthwhile.
4 vote paradoxosalpha | May 17, 2014 |
Interesting research and interesting writing but a little bit defensive against the definition or Orientalism by Edward SAID and a little bit nostalgic about 'the time of his father' Ch8 'the all too brief heyday of Orientalism' and Ch9 'an enquiry into the Nature of Certain Twentieth-century polemic' almost tell the story ( )
  Dettingmeijer | Oct 26, 2009 |
Even though it's written as a response to Edward Said's Orientalism, Robert Irwin's Dangerous Knowledge is a good introduction to the history of Orientalism through the centuries - and especially, an introduction to the fascinating characters that have populated the field from its informal inception in Medieval travel writings to the more formal establishment as a field of study in the last couple of centuries. I'm not very familiar with Arabic studies or Orientalism in general, but thoroughly enjoyed the history and personal sketches. The final chapters on Said and other critics of Orientalism were well done so that a novice (I'm definitely one!) could easily get a sense of the controversy and the ongoing discussion. All-in-all, an interesting read. ( )
1 vote drneutron | Sep 15, 2009 |
Irwin sets out to examine the effect that Edward Said's work, Orientalism, has had on studies of Islam. He routinely surveys academic studies over the centuries before ending his book on the strangest sentence which undercuts any objectivity he may claim to have. He states: "As for Islam, a religion that embodies essential truths about the nature of the universe and man's relation to God has nothing to fear from the most advanced techniques of Western textual criticism" (p. 330). Since when can scholars claim such immunity from rational discussion and scientific inquiry?

This is not to suggest the book is without value. He helpfully notes the importance of The Sectarian Milieu: Content And Composition of Islamic Salvation History by John Wansbrough, and, Quranic Studies: Sources and Methods of Scriptural Interpretation by John Wansbrough. "Noting that none of the Arabic sources for the life of Muhammed are contemporary ones, Wansbrough argued that the final text of the Qur'an was put together some two hundred years after its supposed revelation" (p. 269). In fact, most of the book was collected in a polemic against Judaism and Christianity. The Qur'an and related materials "are not straightforward historical sources and were never intended to be" (p. 269).
  gmicksmith | Jul 27, 2008 |
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Robert Irwin pursues two goals in his book [Dangerous Knowledge]: first, to convey the intricacies of Orientalist scholarship from antiquity to the present; and thereby defend academic Orientalism; and second, to unmask Edward Said's Orientalism as "a work of malignant charlatanry" (Irwin 2006:4). The direct attack on Said's theories is confined to one long chapter near the end of the book, and so the greater part of Irwin's study is a gallery of portraits of both obscure and well-known Islam scholars, from St. John of Damascus (d.749) to Bernard Lewis. Although Irwin may recognize that 'Orientalism' can be applied to the study of all Asian cultures, his principal focus (like that of Said) is on Islam and Arabic, and thus not on e.g. Turkish, Persian, or Sanskrit....

...[Irwin] also reminds us that Germany's academic supremacy [in Orientalist studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries] counters Said's argument that Orientalism was "the product of the three great empires--British, French, American": Germany was not in possession of any Oriental colonies. In fact, Irwin's disparate band of learned and eccentric academicians, with their widely different visions of Arab culture and Islamic religion, demonstrates the absurdity of the idea that they all could have been motivated by subliminal imperialism. Irwin acknowledges that the study of Orientalism was always an arena in which prejudices and agendas were pursued, from Christian evangelism to racism (e.g. Ernest Renan [1823-92] and Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau [1816-82] [Irwin 2006:166-74]). But from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, in his view, Orientalism became the discipline in which extraordinarily gifted scholars did make major contributions to learning--these persons were the true 'Orientalists', those "...who made a special study of Asian (and North African) languages and cultures" (Irwin 2006:6).
added by eowynfaramir | editJournal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Harriet Zurndorfer (Jan 1, 2008)

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In attacking [Said's Orientalism] I fear that I shall alienate some of my friends: on the other hand I shall certainly also infuriate old enemies and I shall take great pleasure in that. (p. 4)
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[UK title] For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies; [US title] Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents
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