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Muhammad Ali Pasha: A Pioneer Orientalist

May 05, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany

Muhammad Ali Pasha: A Pioneer Orientalist

Bassam Michael Madany

7 January 2022

Near the end of the 18th century, France was at war with Great Britain. In order to disrupt its trade routes with India, Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. In September 1801, the French forces left Egypt due to disturbances in the country coupled with British attacks on their forces.

With the European powers out of the eastern Mediterranean, the Ottoman forces returned to Egypt under the command of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Before long he became the autonomous ruler of Egypt. His family dynasty ruled Egypt until July 1952, when his great-great grandson King Farouk was ousted in a coup headed by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Army Officers. 

Muhammad Ali was possessed with unique qualities that enhanced his ability to rule Egypt. His life and rule was the subject covered in an Interview Ahmed Saad Zayed had with Dr. Hela Ghonim, a professor at Philipps University of Marburg where she held a prominent position in the Department of Islamics.i Her special interest was the importance of the Arts in the Diplomacy of Muhammad Ali, both internal and external. In the Interviewii as she began explaining her findings, she made it clear that her views of Western scholars were antithetical to Edward Said in his book “Orientalism.”  Said was a highly influential scholar whose ideas dominated the discourse about Middle Eastern peoples.  While some anti-Western scholars have entertained negative views about Orientalism, there are experts in the field who have faulted Edward Said’s thesis. For instance, the late president of the American University of Beirut, Dr. Malcom Kerr, himself an accomplished Orientalist. Here is an excerpt from his review of Said’s book:

“The book contains many excellent sections and scores many telling points, but it is spoiled by overzealous prosecutorial argument in which Professor Said, in his eagerness to spin too large a web, leaps at conclusions and tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a preconceived frame of analysis. In charging the entire tradition of European and American Oriental studies with the sins of reductionism and caricature, he commits precisely the same error.”

The Anglican bishop Kenneth Cragg’s View of Edward Said is well-expressed in his book, “The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East.” Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991

“The most erudite and forthright example is Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House,1978)."There is, it would seem, a degree of Palestinian nationalism in Edward Said's approach. He insists that all knowledge turns on power and there is no western orientalism not funded by political, commercial, or imperialist interests. It would seem, on this count, that only insiders to it can know a culture, seeing that all outsiders bring unsurmountable prejudice. The dishonesty lies in propounding this view from within an eastern insidership, which has so eminently demonstrated a capacity to know the West and its ethos and literature on the part of one, by origin an outsider. It would have been generous to acknowledge similar capacities in reverse on the part of those orientalists, e.g., Hamilton Gibb, whom he mostly castigates." P. 302

Dr. Hela Ghonim went on to explain that Muhammad Ali did not hesitate to use European artists to provide him with portraits of Mid-Eastern people. He participated in the final results of the portraits by offering his comments and suggestions. He, as a well-informed leader who had studied the lives of European monarchs like Louis XIV of France, planned to use the portraits of Egyptians as visual lessons in governance. Unlike Said, neither Ahmad Saad Zayed nor Hela Ghonim entertained a suspicious attitude vis-à-vis Westerner scholars writing about Eastern (Oriental) people. Muhammad Ali Pasha used the talents of the British artist, Sir David Willkie for some of his portraits.iii

Dr. Ghonim was quite enthusiastic in her description of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s efforts to invigorate Egyptian society through his reforms.  His recruitment of European artists to reach his goal, may qualify him as an early Orientalist, who would never regard European Orientalists as facilitators of Western Imperialism, as Edward Said would charge 150 years later. 

I’ve always been puzzled by Edward Said, a Levantine Christian whose fame is associated with his critique of Western Imperialism. This was a relatively brief episode in history. In reality the Arab/Islamic colonialism has been total and irreversible. The British author V. S. Naipaul described it succinctly:

“Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert must turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away must be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of the converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can be easily set on the boil.” P. xi
“Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among Converted People,” Vintage Books in 1998.


i Philipps-University is a public university in Marburg, Germany.
The Philipps University of Marburg was founded in 1527 by Philip I, Landgrave of Hesse, which makes it one of Germany's oldest universities and the oldest still operating Protestant university in the world. It is now a public university of the state of Hesse, without religious affiliation. 

ii A Dialogue by Ahmed Saad Zayed with Dr. Hela Ghonim

iiiDavid Willkie — THE SULTAN GALLERY
Sir David Wilkie | Artist | Royal Academy of Arts




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