Middle East Resources

Orientalism’s Great Achievements

Bassam Michael Madany

The in-depth study of Asian societies in the 18th and 19th Centuries came to be known as Orientalism and the scholars who worked in the field known as Orientalists. It was a large undertaking by many eminent scholars in Western countries. By the second half of the 20th Century Orientalists came under attack by some in the academic community They were accused of being agents of Western Imperialism.

Encyclopedia Britannica’s definition of Orientalism begins with an objective and factual statement about the works of Western Orientalists; but then it brings into its definition the controversial scholar Edward Said who was the main academic leading the charge that the scholarly research and conclusions by such Orientalists were suspect because all such Orientalists served the interests of Western Imperialism:

Orientalism, Western scholarly discipline of the 18th and 19th centuries that encompassed the study of the languages, literatures, religions, philosophies, histories, art, and laws of Asian societies, especially ancient ones. More recently, mainly through the work of the Palestinian American scholar Edward Said, the term has been used disparagingly to refer to the allegedly simplistic, stereotyped, and demeaning conceptions of Arab and Asian cultures generally held by Western scholars.”i

Said’s highly influential book “Orientalism” published in 1978, was an extremely biased work. The late Malcolm Hooper Kerrii,  himself an Orientalist, wrote a review of the work. Here are passages from the review that pointed to Edward Said’s faulty views:

“[Edward Said’s] conviction [was] that Orientalist scholarship has acted as a servant of imperialism …Thus conceived, Said's selection of European authors leaves out a veritable army of luminaries familiar to every graduate student in Islamics: Goldziher, Snouck Hurgronje, Becker, Nöldeke, Wellhausen, Gabrieli, Levi Della Vida, Schacht, Rosenthal, and Goitein… also omitted are the most distinguished contemporary Oriental scholars even in Britain and France: Arberry, Hourani, Watt, Coulson, Gellner, Evans-Pritchard, Cahen, Brunschwig, Le Tourneau, Laoust, Gardet, Rodinson, Miquel, and Berque, which is rather a lot. In the United States, where he assails the Middle East studies establishment for propping up American neocolonial interests in the Muslim world, he confines his citations to a handful of figures, such as Bernard Lewis and Gustave von Grunebaum (both of them European emigrants), along with Morroe Berger, Manfred Halpern, and Leonard Binder as well as an irrelevant sprinkling of Israelis—Patai,  Harkabi—to establish the presence of an anti-Muslim or anti-Arab animus.”

Despite Edward Said’s attempt to denigrate the highly valuable studies undertaken by the Western Orientalists their research and conclusions about the societies they studied have been of immense help to all those interested in Oriental cultures. One such scholar in particular was the German Orientalist, Theodor Nöldeke. His study of the Arab Islamic civilization resulted in a book entitled “The History of the Qurʾān.”iii
Several other books by Orientalists have been of particular interest to me. The first one is authored by Bat Ye’or whose field of research has been the study of Eastern Christianity under Islamic rule. “The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.” iv

Here are some pertinent quotes from the Introduction of her book:

“This is not a book about Islam; it examines neither its expansion nor its civilization.  Its object is to study the large number of peoples subjugated by Islam and to determine, as far as possible, the complex processes – both endogenous and exogenous – that brought about their gradual extinction. A phenomenon of dissolution, when all is said and done, which is hardly exceptional and part and parcel of the evolutionary cycles of human societies.

“These dhimmi peoples – that is to say, ‘protected peoples’ – represent those populations, custodians of scriptural revelations, who were conquered by Islam.  In Iran and the Mediterranean basin, these populations englobed Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews.

“I am indebted to Bashir Gemayelv  for the term "dhimmitude", which he mentioned on two occasions.  This word could not better express the actual subject of my research (begun in 1971), on the manifold and contradictory aspects of a human experience which millions of individuals endured over the centuries, sometimes for more than a millennium. The specific world of dhimmitude emerged from the documents, and the book itself – with its thematic reflections, landmarks and stages – was constructed in relation to, and with the aid of, the sources.  If they differ somewhat on the chronology of dates – often dubious – they nevertheless agree on essential points.  If witnesses, in different contexts and at different periods, describe certain facts based on the special provisions of jurist-theologians, such as the regulations concerning dress, these data can be regarded as a constant element in the status of the dhimmi.”

As important as these words are in understanding the plight of Eastern Christians and others under Islamic dhimmitude, it is noteworthy that the author is Jewish and was born and brought up in Egypt. Her father was of Italian origin, while her mother was French. She adopted the pen name, Bat Ye’or (Daughter of the Nile.) The family was forced out of Egypt in 1957 during the Nasser era, and lived as stateless refugees in Britain. By marrying David Littman, Bat Ye’or became a British citizen. Eventually, the couple moved to Switzerland and continued to write on topics relating to the status and treatment of Jews and Christians in Islamic lands.

The second work of importance to me is by the Orientalist Dr. Harvey Staal, entitled “MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151.” 

At the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, is found the imposing St. Catherine's Monastery founded by the Emperor St. Justinian the Great in AD 527. Its library contains thousands of precious manuscripts. Among them is the MT SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151. It has been microfilmed by a team of experts and is available at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

When Dr. Harvey Staal, a Reformed Church missionary in the Middle East, was taking advanced Arabic studies, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, one of his professors was Dr. Aziz Suriyal Atiya. Prof. Atiya was closely associated with the microfilming of the manuscripts, which was completed in the 1950s. Sensing that he had a potential scholar on his hands, Prof. Atiya encouraged Harvey Staal to work on the Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151.

Thus, began a lifetime project which culminated in the publication in 1985 of the manuscript in a two-volume work (English and Arabic).  Printed in Louvain, Belgium, the new volumes are part of a renowned series of Christian Oriental texts.

The Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151 was indeed a most exciting discovery.  It appears to be the oldest Arabic translation of the New Testament in existence.  The original manuscript was completed in Damascus, Syria, some 1000 years before the Smith/Van Dyck translation of the Bible appeared in Beirut in 1865.  Codex 151 consists of the Book of Acts, the Pauline and the General Epistles. The translator was Bishr Ibn Al Sirri, an Eastern Christian living in Damascus.  It is truly amazing to contemplate that segments of an Arabic manuscript of portions of the Christian scriptures from the 9th Century have now become available for translation into other languages. . Al Sirri chose to start the translation with Romans. 

In his introduction to the English translation of Codex 151, Dr. Staal makes the following observation:

“This has been a most interesting, inspiring, and profitable study, especially from two aspects—word study and interpretation.  There are several translations of individual words that add additional insight to our understanding of some of our basic Christian concepts.  It is also most interesting to read the comments made by Middle Eastern Christians of a thousand years ago, reflecting the theology of people from a cultural background very similar to that of our Lord.”  

Dr. Staal recalls that he needed two hours to decipher just two lines when he first started on Philippians.  “It was like working with a code. The dots, which ordinarily distinguish various letters of the Arabic alphabet, were omitted.  Evidently, they were not considered necessary for people educated enough to read the Bible! For an example, consider that one particular mark ("stroke" in Arabic) like the bottom half of a circle could be taken for the letter "n", "b", "t", "th", or "y" according to where the dots were placed.  The translation work became easier only after Harvey became completely familiar with Al Sirri's script.”

He spoke with great appreciation of the invaluable help of Dr. Jibrail S. Jabbur, of the American University of Beirut, who joined him in the labor of proofreading every word.  Dr. Jabbur was able to help him greatly with some almost undecipherable words.

The Al Sirri manuscript from A.D. 867 takes on immense importance by revealing the tremendous roots of Middle Eastern Christianity. Thoughts of Eastern Christians living under Islamic rule can be gleaned from the comments on the NT passages in the footnotes. It should be a boost to the self-image of Eastern Christians as they face overwhelming problems, especially in Syria, where the Civil War has been going on unabated, since March 2011! 

ISBN 0-87950-003-4 By Permission of Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, Germany

The dictionary’s original content is by the Germain Orientalist, Hans Wehr. An English edition has served as an excellent and indispensable tool in translating modern written Arabic, (known also as Classical Arabic,) into English. 

The three above-mentioned works represent a small fraction of the books produced by Western Orientalists whose concern has been the spread of accurate information. They were not harboring any imperialistic motif, as claimed by the late Edward Said.

Finally, I would like to point to a new development in the field that was traditionally a domain of Western Orientalists. A new generation of Arab scholars are contributing serious works in the field of Islamics, notably the Tunisian, Héla Ouardi, the Moroccan, Muhammad Al-Musayeh, and the German-Egyptian, Hamed Abdel-Samad.

Dr. Héla Ouardi earned her degree at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France. She has specialized in the early History of Islam. One of her books, Les Derniers Jours de Muhammad, relates details of Muhammad’s last days.

Dr. Héla Ouardi delivered a keynote address at the International Qur’anic Studies Association's International Qur'an Conference in 2019 hosted by the Tangier Global Forum at the University of New England’s Tangier Campus in Morocco. Her subject was. “The Orientalists and the Qur’an: Four Centuries of its Translation into Western Languages” (Lecture was delivered in French)


The Moroccan scholar, Muhammad Al-Musayeh, published in October 2017 “An Introduction to the Manuscripts of the Qur’an” The 324-pages work is in Arabic and represents the latest information on the various manuscripts of the sacred text of Islam. 

In the Introduction to the book, he acknowledges with gratitude his indebtedness to his family and to the scholars under whom he did his studies: Dr. Christoph Luxenberg, Dr. Gerd Puin, Dr. Elizabeth Puin, Dr. François Déroche, professor at the Collège de France, and the Moroccan scholar Sheikh Muhammad ben Ahmed Mellouli (1920-1992) of Fes.

This work is indispensable for the study of the history of the manuscripts of the Qur’an. The traditional account claims that the third Caliph, Uthman (644-652,) gathered the various manuscripts, choosing one and destroyed the rest; leaving one official “Textus Receptus.” In fact, other manuscripts did exist, and have survived to the present day. Professor Al-Musayeh’s book deals with this subject and with sundry matters connected with the evolution of the Arabic script over the years.

Information in English, on the various Qur’anic manuscripts, is available online. 

“What may be the world's oldest fragments of the Koran have been found by the University of Birmingham. Radiocarbon dating found the manuscript to be at least 1,370 years old, making it among the earliest in existence. The pages of the Muslim holy text had remained unrecognised in the university library for almost a century.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jowQond7_UE

Another example is Hamed Abdel-Samad, a German-Egyptian political scientist who has written and lectured a great deal, about Islam, its history, beliefs, and its impact on the world today. He distinguishes himself from Héla Ouardi and Muhammad Al-Musayeh, by assuming a highly polemical approach vis-à-vis Islam.

“Speaking at a conference held by the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights,  Hamed Abdel-Samad called on members of the organization to stop trying to please the Islamists and said that ‘whoever wants to embrace the heritage, along with its representatives and theoreticians, and to incorporate them in the enlightenment game is perpetrating a crime.’ He enumerated the principles of enlightenment and said that solutions should not be sought within jurisprudence as these are ‘nothing but plastic surgery for a lifeless corpse.’ It is like an elastic band, he said. ‘We pull away with our thinking, but then we are pulled back by our fear, of taboos, our fear of prohibitions, and our fear of being punished by the law or by society. There can be no enlightenment where there is fear.’" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA6v1Z1zuuA


i https://www.britannica.com/science/Orientalism-cultural-field-of-study

ii Dr. Kerr served as President of the American University of Beirut (1931 – 1984) until he was assassinated by an Islamist terrorist, reviewed Said’s book “Orientalism” for International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 12 (December 1980), pp. 544-547. 

iii The History of the Qur’an,  by Theodor Nöldeke, Texts and Studies on the Qurʾān, Volume: 8
Authors: Theodor Nöldeke, Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträßer and Otto Pretzl
This first complete translation of Theodor Nöldeke’s The History of the Qurʾān offers a foundational work of modern Qurʾānic studies to the English-speaking public. Nöldeke’s original publication, as revised and expanded over nearly three quarters of a century by his scholarly successors, Friedrich Schwally, Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl, remains an indispensable resource for any scholarly work on the text of the Qurʾān. Nöldeke’s segmentation of the surahs into three Meccan periods and a Medinan one has shaped all subsequent discussions of the chronology of the Qurʾān. The revisions and expansions of Nöldeke’s initial discussions of the orthography and variant readings of the text have found a new audience among those contemporary scholars who seek to create a more sophisticated understanding of the Qurʾān’s textual development.

iv The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude. By Bat Ye’or, 1996, Forward by Jacques Ellul. Associated University Presses, 440 Forsgate Drive, Cranbury NJ 08512.

v Bashir Gemayel was assassinated in September 1982, soon after being elected as President of Lebanon. In a speech he delivered in Beirut, he had used the term “Dhimmitude” derived from an Arabic term, “Dhimmi” that referred to Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule.