With the 1978 publication of Orientalism, Edward Said launched a critique of Western scholarship on the Middle East that still reverberates through academia and government. By characterizing Middle Eastern cultures as incapable of adapting to modern life, the early Orientalists, in Said’s view, hid their colonial, and indeed racist, biases. In the process, he suggested, Orientalists fooled themselves—and Westerners generally—into believing that their studies were undertaken with total neutrality. Said particularly attacked Bernard Lewis as the contemporary exemplar of this entrenched view. In a series of exchanges, Said argued that such scholarly bias contributed to the failure of the West to recognize Palestinians as a distinct people or to value Middle Eastern nations except for their oil. While Said did not live to see how Lewis’s views would influence the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq, the terms of his critique still divide scholars. Despite decades of controversy, however, neither Said’s most recent supporters, such as Juan Cole and Rashid Khalidi, nor his most ardent critics, Raphael Patai and Daniel Pipes, have succeeded in subjecting Said’s concerns to a serious analysis that might address the central question: Can scholarship on the Middle East ever be freed from its political context?

To address this question ourselves, we must return to Said’s book. Here, in the final section (“The Latest Phase”), the controversy begins. Even someone with only a passing acquaintance with the works Said attacks may find reason to be skeptical. For it is here, describing the work of his contemporaries, that Said was the most obviously selective, exaggerating, and intemperate, mixing time periods, suggesting that those who actually interview Arabs secretly regard them as “despised heretic[s],” and hinting at covert sexual fantasy just because a scholar notes that the root for the Arabic word for “revolution” refers to a camel “rising up.”

Said argued that throughout Western history, writers on the Middle East, regardless of the somewhat varying attitudes of their day, reinforced an image of Arabs and Muslims as uniform, incompetent, and unreflective. But to Said, “the Orient” was a creation of the Western imagination; Orientalism was “a kind of Western projection onto and will to govern over the Orient.” The vision cast up by Orientalists gave authority to attitudes and actions they willingly or unwittingly supported. Following Foucault, Said saw the Orientalists of each era attributing the same features to Arabs—racial inferiority, Islamic fanaticism, unbridled sexuality, craven acquiescence to power—which yielded a caricatured East from which the West has never shaken free. Asserting that “Orientalism has historically been one department . . . of liberal humanism,” he argued more broadly that “the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally non-political . . . obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced.” “Representations,” he concluded, “have purposes . . . [they] are formations . . . deformations.”

Robert Irwin, defending his discipline in his new book Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents, pulls no punches: “That book seems to me to be a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations.” Irwin, building on our misgivings from the last chapter of Orientalism, writes that if Said was wrong about the present, his account of earlier Orientalists might be equally suspect. Then, like Said, Irwin takes us through the history of Western writings on the East, appraising the work of some famous scholars and some so obscure they may be unfamiliar even to specialists. Irwin probes for these writers’ foibles and eccentricities. Thus Guillaume Postel (born 1510), “the first true Orientalist,” was “a complete lunatic” who thought everyone needed to return to speaking Hebrew; Abraham Wheelocke (c. 1593–1653), holder of the first chair in Arabic at Cambridge, was interested in sea monsters and mermaids; and Athanasius Kircher (1601–80), to whom “the torch of mad linguistics passed,” “devised a vomiting machine and eavesdropping statues, as well as a kind of piano powered by screeching cats.”

But Irwin has a larger story to tell. Those who may fairly be called Orientalists certainly were, in his view, men (and, very rarely, women) of their times, but they were devoted to studying the languages of the region and establishing the relation of Islam and its history to Jewish and Christian sources. They were not overtly political, he says, nor, except in rare and more recent times, even involved in conversation with policymakers. Irwin’s characteristic way of dealing with the inveterate racists is simply to read them out of the category of Orientalists. Thus, Ernest Renan’s (1823–92) hostility to Semites suggests he was not a real scholar; and like-minded writers “did not need to have Orientalists invent racism for them.” He concludes that “racist attitudes in any period or region are the product of the natural tendency to think in generalities.” But this etiology of opinions avoids an essential point—not well expressed by Said—about consequences: whatever their origins and purposes, students of the region often set the terms of subsequent discussions. If Orientalists claimed that the East was a linguistically exceptional and theologically undeveloped culture with highly elaborate legal strictures, their framing had repercussions for political no less than common discourse. One does not have to be a policymaker to affect policy.

It is not enough, then, to complain—as Irwin does—about the banality of observing that scholars are not always objective. Irwin treats texts as if they had no political effects, as if (in earlier periods) salvation were the concern and attachments to royalists or mercantilism were incidental, and as if the explication of a text did not in itself imply unstated criteria. In thus evading Said’s larger and more difficult question about the political and intellectual effects of scholarly analysis——such as the constant references to the Prophet Muhammed as lascivious—Irwin retreats to the assumptions that continue to inform so much of Orientalist study.

While Said and his critics disagree about the existence of a hidden, malignant political agenda written into the entire course of Orientalist scholarship, both fail to analyze fully the foundations of Orientalist scholarship, assumptions that may or may not entail prejudice toward the peoples and cultures of the region. When Said says that “the core of Orientalist dogma persists”—that it “flourishes today in the forms I have tried to describe”—he fails to consider whether assumptions about language, textual analysis, and social dynamics may be capable of a substantial degree of autonomy or whether, as he uncritically assumes, they necessarily lead to adverse judgments of those studied.

So Irwin thinks that Orientalist approaches can always be divorced from negative views of the region, and Said thinks they are inextricably linked. A more helpful project would be to explore without prior judgment some of the Orientalists’ intellectual assumptions and consider whether they can be teased apart from political implications. Sorting the academic assumptions from their potential bias and latent import will highlight why the analyses offered by both Said and Irwin have serious limitations. Any such list of assumptions would have to include the following:

Etymology is destiny. For a very long time philology was at the heart of the Orientalist enterprise. While some used it as a sort of linguistic astrology—a way of determining humanity’s fate through the discovery of root languages or the design of the Biblical voice—the European philologists could simultaneously embrace and distance themselves from actual speakers. Irwin cites Abbé Barthélémy’s statement that “one does not learn these languages to speak them”—nor, by implication, to speak with “them.” In the 20th century, philology simply got transmogrified. No self-respecting contemporary Orientalist comments on a text or a word without showing its “original” meaning, commonly implying that, whatever accretions may have attached themselves over the centuries, the word’s true meaning is its first meaning. This is the attitude, for example, of Bernard Lewis in The Political Language of Islam and almost every entry in The Encyclopedia of Islam. Rather than seeing language in its living—to say nothing of psychological—context, it is thought all but sufficient to access its earliest meaning to grasp its timeless essence. This focus on has allowed the philological enterprise to be carried along—without the need for interdisciplinary insight—into the ongoing appraisal of texts. This approach does not necessitate, as Said would have it, a biased view of the mentalités of modern Arabic speakers, but it can certainly perpetuate the assumption that the scholar knows better than the speaker the true meaning of his or her expression.

Linguistic exceptionalism. Arabists to this day remark on the extraordinary difficulty of the language—its vast vocabulary, its nuanced meanings, its challenge to the human voice box. When, however, Irwin says that Thomas van Erpe (1584–1625) was accused of magic because he learned Arabic so easily and then makes note of his own difficulties in learning the language, his conceit is doubled: what geniuses some of these Orientalists were to grasp this complex language, and how talented must those, like himself, be who have finally conquered it! Indeed, one still encounters Orientalists whose enunciation is so hypercorrect that it may be wondered of them, as it was said of David Margoliouth, the sometime Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, that his Arabic was so pure no Arab could understand him.

This linguistic mystification nurtures the idea that the thoughts of speakers of these languages must be quite different from those of other language users, that only those scholars vested with full control of the language can appraise its attendant cultures, and that a very long apprenticeship is required for such mastery. This mystification is carried over into popular works, such as Jonathan Raban’s Arabia Through the Looking Glass and Karen Armstrong’s Islam, where Arabic is again made to appear vastly complex and elusive. Once again, the Orientalists’ change in assumptions reinforces key elements of the earlier pattern. If linguistic exceptionalism was once the demonstration of how Middle Eastern languages formed the common denominator for Semitic thought, now the very differences among languages validate the specialists’ knowledge and the claim that with linguistic competence no further need exists for interdisciplinary training or extraneous theorizing. The resulting division of knowledge between departments of Middle Eastern studies and various disciplines—more than the biases that Said saw in Westerners’ attitude toward the East and that Irwin writes out of the field—may be the single greatest contributor to Orientalism’s limitations.

Change is slow and destabilizing. To most Orientalists everything has been downhill for Muslims since the Abbasids (750–1258), or since the late medieval period, or indeed since the advent of Islam. Change is often equated with instability, and the proper measure of any period or institution is the distance it has strayed from some “original” moment. For example, one reads in work such as Kurt Vikør’s Between God and the Sultan how Islamic law is now a pale reflection of its formative self, and almost nothing can be learned from its current operation that would be useful in understanding its past. At a recent gathering of Islamic-law scholars I could not find one who had set foot in a present-day Muslim court or who, like the onetime dean of Islamic-law studies in the West, Joseph Schacht, could see the advantage in refining questions for their own periods by doing so. Even such fine scholars as Wael Hallaq and Baber Johansen, by their exclusive emphasis on texts, perpetuate the unsupported presumption (as Noel Coulson said) that the chair is not only more comfortable but more influential than the bench. Instead of seeing Islamic law as a kind of common-law variant—in which power is dispersed to the local level and changing social concepts are brought up through local institutions—even Orientalists with no training in law continue to accept unreflectively that the sharia is a legal system well-suited to the analytic categories of continental law. Whether in studies of Arab science or literature or architecture, Orientalists similarly possess a nostalgia that exceeds the sensibility of even the most jaded Cairene. The resultant bias against the value of present thought is not one of hegemonic prejudice in Said’s sense but one of intellectual assumptions that have become blinders.

Facts speak for themselves. This phrasing, which can still be heard in lectures by such influential Orientalists of our day as Michael Cook and Patricia Crone, serves both as a measure of status in the field (“I know more than you”) and as a bulwark against the intrusion of other disciplines. Orientalists are splitters, not lumpers: they delight in collecting the particular and regard as natural the compartments of knowledge into which they divide their studies. Thus, law and custom are distinct, and a specialist in the sharia is unlikely to see important connections for his work in poetry, the logic of architectural design, or everyday concepts of time and space. As a result, the kinds of popular source material scholars of early modern Europe or the history of India, China, or Japan would regard as no less useful than diplomatic or scholarly writings simply do not form a significant part of the contemporary Orientalists’ textual base.

Comparison and theorizing also drop out when the sheer weight of “facts” is accumulated. Irwin, who has little positive to say about current Orientalist scholarship, is tone-deaf to the work of social scientists. Just as the earlier Orientalists saw no merit in talking to “the natives,” Irwin ignores the contributions of field-based studies, many of which are deeply respectful of the historical work of Orientalists. Other commentators (such as Zachary Lockman, in Contending Visions of the Middle East) can cite very few examples to back the claim that Said influenced a line of subsequent Middle Eastern scholarship, and as the incoming president of the Middle East Studies Association, Lockman (like Irwin) should know that it was founded to get away from constant focus on the Arab-Israeli dispute and that for many years only the president of the association, rotated yearly between a pro-Arab and a pro-Israeli scholar (in what was quaintly thought of as “the Lebanese solution”), made sustained judgmental comments on the conflict at the meeting’s annual banquet. Nevertheless, after initial involvement with the organization many social scientists dropped out simply because regional interests could not overcome the Orientalists’ lack of involvement in discipline-based issues. While Irwin gives welcome attention to Russian and Israeli Orientalists, as well as Muslim critics of Said, neither he nor Said consider how theories always inform the choice of facts, and hence the impossibility of facts ever speaking with utter neutrality for themselves.

Orientalists as mullahs manqués. Many of the Orientalists in Irwin’s account act as though they know the true reading of Muslim texts better than the believers themselves. If, in their rarefied post-philological studies, they sometimes act like cultural cannibals—endeavoring to express what their subjects cannot say well for themselves—at other times they act like cultural game wardens—preserving and shepherding the misguided to the correct solutions. Hence, it is still no more necessary than it was for earlier Orientalists to consult with living Arabs, Persians, or Turks, or to see how such contact might lead scholars to new ideas and sources that could inform their own historical interpretations. That Irwin can point to very few Orientalists, even at present, who evince sincere respect for the people of the region is not unrelated to the belief that, since the texts are central and Orientalists know the texts, Orientalists know best.

The disputes engendered by Said’s work may seem an academic spat that should be restricted to seminars and department cocktail parties. But two very important considerations suggest otherwise. First, the Orientalists’ expertise, whether situated in the academy or the think tank, has great influence on the terms by which non-specialists address the region. If Orientalists convince others that Arabic requires either brilliant linguistic skills or decades for mastery, one may end up, as we have, with only a half dozen State Department employees certified in the language at the highest level. Sir Hamilton Gibbs’s assertion in the 1950s that “upon the Arab mind the impact of artistic speech is immediate; the words [pass] through no filter of logic or reflection” is no more ill-informed than Thomas L. Friedman’s that if you want people in the Middle East to trust your reporting, “if you can’t explain something with a conspiracy theory then don’t try to explain it at all.” Thus, secondly, choosing terms that suggest there is such a thing as “the Arab mind” or that all change in the region has been a form of cultural entropy, can have, even without direct consultation, a dramatic effect on national attitudes and policies.

Sherlock Holmes once said to his companion, “’Pon my word, Watson, you are coming along wonderfully. . . . It is true that you have missed everything of importance, but you have hit upon the method.” To this day Orientalists have confounded Holmes’s assertion: they have produced much accurate information even though their methods are crabbed and antiquated. Said got much of the substance wrong, but his method—looking at discourse as an artifact of its writers’ contexts—was basically sound. Before his death in 2003 Said spoke of his attachment to “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” If encounters with the Muslim world are to achieve a balance of insight and respect, it is precisely in embracing such orientations that we can hope to be moved to reconsider whether our assumptions are leading us to conclusions no one could possibly commend.