Critical notes on Edward Said

Issue: 108

Irfan Habib

The writer and critic Edward Said who died last year was admired by the whole anti-imperialist left for his courageous defence of Palestinian rights. The image of this successful, western-educated, frail academic throwing a token stone against the Israeli forces in occupation of his land of birth is one that few will forget. So it is not surprising that many take his writings, especially his early work Orientalism, as the standard reference point for examining the impact of imperialism on culture.

One, central, claim of the book is that that all western scholarship dealing with Asia and North Africa (the orient) since the time of the Ancient Greeks, including the work of Marx, suffers from the same irredeemable, invalidating prejudice, ‘Orientalism’. But can this claim be justified? Irfan Habib argues not. He has been involved recently in his own struggle against prejudice in India, confronting the former Hindu chauvinist BJP government’s attempts to rewrite the country’s history and to justify the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya. He was formerly professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.

In 1978 the late Edward W Said published his influential work, Orientalism. He subtitled it Western Conceptions of the Orient, thereby calling for an altogether new conception of Orientalism. ‘Orientalism’, as understood till then, meant scholarship and learning in eastern languages and cultures (OED, sv ‘Orientalism’). Such learning was not necessarily confined to western scholarship of the Orient, as Said assumes. Moreover, Orientalism went much further than a mere body of conceptions; it chiefly encompassed, in Said’s own words (p203), ‘the work of innumerable devoted scholars who edited texts and translated them, codified grammars, wrote dictionaries, reconstructed dead epochs, [and] produced positivistically verifiable learning’.

But such basic work is only incidental to Said’s definition of Orientalism, which has its scope enlarged to take in the discourse of anyone ‘who teaches about, or researches the Orient—and this applies whether the person is an anthropologist, sociologist, historian or philologist—either in its specific or general aspects’, and such a person is deemed ‘an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism’ (p2). Soon enough Said forgets the professional boundaries of teacher and researcher. Journalists, novelists and politicians appear with quiet ease on his pages as ‘Orientalists’ wherever they have a statement to make that Said wishes to attribute to ‘Orientalism’. (Henceforth in these notes, the words ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Orientalist’ as understood by Said appear within single inverted commas; without these marks, the words represent their ordinary, or pre-Said, senses.) And, then, of course, there is the restriction which by a curious slip he forgets in the definition just quoted. The ‘Orientalist’ is exclusively a western person, and it is thus assumed that there are no corresponding teachers and researchers in subjects Oriental within the Orient itself. This being so, Said does not have to face the embarrassment of considering how western and eastern Orientalists interact with each other; and how this interaction could influence the thought of both. Indeed, he assumes—and selects only such Orientalists as fulfil this requirement—that Orientalists write only for western audiences (‘Afterword’, p336).

There is yet another, and an equally less justifiable, restriction. Said limits his study of ‘Orientalism’ to the British and French traditions, and German and other European Orientalists are excluded (pp3-4). The reason given for this exclusion is that since Britain and France had major colonial engagements with the East, their Orientalist scholarship was different from that of other European countries. But such a priori slicing up of European Orientalism needs to be given a better and more convincing reason. For the part of Orientalism Said closes his eyes to includes such extremely influential figures as I Goldziher (a Hungarian, incidentally, not a German—contra Said, p18) who would hardly fit Said’s perception of an ‘Orientalist’. Classical master of hadis-criticism, Goldziher was an anti-Zionist Jew, who received his ‘post-graduate’ education at al-Azhar and professed the same critical respect for Islam as for Judaism and Christianity. Where would such a man be placed in Said’s scheme? But, then, by what definition has Joseph Needham been excluded from Said’s ranks of Orientalists? He was, after all, British; and his Science and Civilisation in China volumes have not only focused on China’s scientific and technological achievements, but are rich in similar achievements of the Arab-Islamic civilisation and of India. There is no hint in his work too of any intrinsic superiority of the West over the East—the presence of which Said regards as central to ‘Orientalism’.


I would not take more space to press the point that Said’s concept of ‘Orientalism’ is both far too general and far too restricted, and the limits of his definition are so set and the actual selection so executed that his conclusions are thereby simply predetermined. I would also not go into the other fundamental questions that Aijaz Ahmad has raised about Said’s method in his essay, ‘Orientalism and After’ (In Theory, Delhi, 1994, pp159-220). But one further problem with Said that needs certainly to be taken up is his notable lack of rigour in terms of documentation and logic; and I illustrate this by the treatment he metes out to Karl Marx.

On a preliminary page of his Orientalism, Said puts two short quotations, the first of which is from Marx: ‘They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.’ An innocent reader will surely assume that Marx is here implying that Oriental peoples are incapable of representing themselves, and so Europeans (better still, European Orientalists) must speak for them. And, indeed, on p21, quoting Marx’s words in original German, Said explicitly furnishes this precise context for his words.

There is a double sense in which this use of the quotation is unethical and irresponsible. The quoted words are taken from a passage in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, where he speaks not of the position of Eastern peoples, but of the poverty-stricken smallholding peasants of France at a particular juncture in the mid-19th century. Since these peasants could not unite, they were ‘incapable of enforcing their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or through a convention. They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master…’ (K Marx and F Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1950, vol I, p303).

Not only does Said thus coolly substitute eastern peoples for French peasants; by a sleight of hand he also converts Marx’s word ‘representation’, meaning political representation, into ‘depiction’ (The Oriental people cannot depict themselves, and so the Orientalists’ ‘representation does the job’—p21). The exploitation of Marx’s quotation does not even end with this double misuse. On p293, Said makes the still more audacious statement that Marx had used the quoted phrase ‘for Louis Napoleon’, as if Louis Napoleon had made any claims to represent or depict Orientals. Further on, quite forgetting what context he had given to Marx’s quotation on p21, Said alleges in the ‘Afterword’ to the 1995 edition (p335), that by putting the quotation as one of the book’s epigraphs, he, on his part, meant to refer to ‘the subjective truth insinuated by Marx…which is that if you feel you have been denied the chance to speak your truth, you will try extremely hard to get that chance!’ One fears to voice the suspicion that Said had never cared to read the original passage of the Eighteenth Brumaire, and had just picked up the quotation from some secondary source. Even so, the range of manifestly wrong meanings so confidently ascribed to the same words, on different spurs of the moment, is incredible.

So much for the short ‘epigraph’. Marx as a subject of Said’s study (pp153-156) also offers further examples of the cavalier way in which Said can stuff anyone he dislikes or wishes to belittle into his nasty basket of ‘Orientalists’. Much has already been said on this matter by Aijaz Ahmad in his essay, ‘Marx on India: a Clarification’ (In Theory, as above, pp221-242). He shows that Said builds his interpretation on just two passages taken from Marx’s two articles published in the New York Tribune in 1853, and seems to be unacquainted with what Marx wrote elsewhere on India. Here it must be added that while Marx necessarily relied on (the quite extensive) European reports on India, the picture that he drew out of it, of the social and economic devastation that British rule caused in India, was largely his own—and this was hardly an ‘Orientalist’ enterprise under Said’s definition. Moreover even in Marx’s second essay, apparently consulted by Said, there is a passage looking forward to the Indians overthrowing ‘the English yoke’ (K Marx and F Engels, Collected Works, vol 12, Moscow, 1979, p221). Marx also writes in the very same article of ‘the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation [which] lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies where it goes naked.’ And yet, again and again in his book, Said sneers at Marx as being, at the end of the day, a pro-colonial ‘Orientalist’. So we are told, ‘This Orientalism can accommodate Aeschylus, say, and Victor Hugo, Dante and Karl Marx’ (p3). The view that ‘Indians were civilisationally, if not racially, inferior’ is indirectly ascribed to Marx on page 14. On page 102 Said goes so far as to put Marx among those writers who could use all the following ‘generalities unquestioningly’: ‘An Oriental lives in the Orient, he lives a life of Oriental ease, in a state of Oriental despotism, and sensuality, imbued with a feeling of Oriental fatalism.’ The italicised words constitute a fantastic misrepresentation of Karl Marx’s writings on Asia. But Said does not still stop here. On p231 he puts Marx among those who held that ‘an Oriental man was first an Oriental and only second a man’—a meaningless formula seemingly coined simply to belittle Marx.


Such reckless rhetoric cannot but create grave suspicions about Said’s general credibility. Here it must be made clear that it cannot be any serious critic’s case that colonialism and imperialism have not promoted a particular kind of writing about the East; the real point of criticism is that not only does Said unreasonably use the term ‘Orientalism’ to represent only this particular class of writing, but he also goes on to tar with the same brush the entire corpus of learned writing on the Orient, which in common parlance constitutes the product of Orientalism. This is a clever device, and verve and verbosity tend to conceal the resort to a verbal confusion pure and simple. Said himself tells us (‘Afterword’, pp341-342) that the late Professor Albert Hourani, while agreeing with much of his criticism of a part of the writing on the Orient, protested that the criticism was not applicable to a large part of Orientalist writing, and yet now after Said’s Orientalism, the very word Orientalism has ‘become a term of abuse’.

How much Said has been successful here was borne upon me while reading a recent article by a western ‘Orientalist’, Carl W Ernst. This author claims credit, without any sense of embarrassment, for ‘foreign scholars who alone had the resources and the motivation’ to analyse an Islamicised Yogic text. The claim has all the marks of a self-satisfied sense of western superiority that Said treats as the trademark of ‘Orientalism’. Yet Ernst himself dubs early theories of a possible Indian origin of Sufism as ‘early Orientalist theories’ (‘The Islamicisation of Yoga in the Amrtakunda Translations’, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, vol 13, part 2, London, 2003, p226, italics mine). ‘Orientalist’ here just does duty for what one thinks is wrong: otherwise, how can there be any indication of western superiority in an ‘Orientalist’ theory that places the source of Islamic sufism in early Indian beliefs rather than, say, Christian mysticism? ‘Orientalism’ as a word has thus been so degraded that anyone can use it for anything one disapproves of, even when the disapprover may himself be a dyed in the wool ‘Orientalist’!

Despite Said’s denials that it was not his intention to protect chauvinistic or conservative beliefs in Asia, especially in relation to Islam, one can see that any critical or historical view of any aspect of Islam by any western scholar is yet taken by him as reflective of a sense of western superiority and so a kind of ‘Orientalist’, colonial discourse. The hypersensitivity goes to such an extent that the word ‘Mohammedan’, used in place of ‘Islamic’, as in ‘Mohammedan Law’, is held to be an ‘insulting’ designation (p66): Said obviously forgets that innumerable Muslim scholars down the centuries have also spoken (in Persian) of Din-i Muhammadi (Muhammedan faith), or Shari‘at-i Muhammadi (Muhammedan law), without at all being conscious of any insult implied in such use of the Prophet’s name. But with the aggressive stance of modern Islamic ‘orthodoxy’, the word ‘Mohammedan’ is quickly disappearing from books, and even from titles of works by authors long dead: thus Goldziher’s Mohammedanische Studien and H A R Gibb’s Mohammedanism now reappear in print respectively as Muslim Studies (English translation) and Islam in editions by established academic publishers. An innocent designation becomes disreputable the moment it is found to be tainted through association with that pernicious weed, ‘Orientalism’.


One should not naturally be greatly concerned about the fate of individual words, but the substance of the theory that has brought about their downfall needs attention. The essential weakness of Edward Said and those who follow him and speak of ‘Orientalism’ and ‘colonial discourse’ in the same breath lies in the failure to see that colonialism (including imperialism, neocolonialism, etc) does not form the only major influence over Oriental scholarship in the west or in the Orient. There is too easy a readiness on their part to assume that such ideas as those of gender and racial equality, and of nation and democracy, that arose in the West in modern times, and obtained popular acceptance through upheavals like the French Revolution of 1789 and the Soviet Revolution of 1917, have exercised no influence at all on modern studies of Oriental societies. Yet who can read Wellhausen’s Arab Kingdom and its Fall without being convinced that his analysis of the Umayyid Caliphate, as structured on distinct classes based on political and economic dominance and subjugation, is derived from ideas that social democracy had introduced in the Germany of his time. In India D D Kosambi, drawing quite firmly on the Orientalist tradition of scholarship, aimed at reconstructing ancient Indian history through the application of Marxist concepts. Modern democratic, as against colonial, notions have thus created an increasing belief that Oriental societies, like all human societies, are susceptible to the same methods of study—indeed, with the same essential assumptions—as the history of western societies. There has accordingly developed within Oriental learning almost parallel, but ultimately conflicting, trends based respectively on colonial and what may be called universalist approaches. The dichotomy can be seen even in individuals. We can see this in the voluminous writings of A B Keith, for example, as when he did duty as a semi-official expert on the constitutional history of British India and when he wrote as a critical but sympathetic scholar on the religion and philosophy of the Vedas or on the history of Sanskrit literature.

There is also a third element within modern Oriental learning that cannot be dismissed as casually as Said and his followers tend to do: the application of increasingly complex scientific methods to expand our knowledge. When, on page 203, Said concedes that the work of ‘innumerable’ Orientalists has consisted in editing and translating texts, codifying grammars, establishing lexical meanings, and reconstructing ‘dead epochs’, he fails to recognise that this very work, irrespective of the conservative or liberal views of the individual scholars concerned, results in continuously altering our fundamental notions of the past as well as the present. What were hitherto regarded as unchanging or insular societies may by archaeological discoveries or closer studies of sources, or intensive field-work, turn into changing and outward-looking ones. One cannot simply imagine how much our understanding of historical ancient India has been influenced by the discovery and decipherment of Asoka’s inscriptions, including those in Aramaic and Greek. That such expansion of ‘positivistically verifiable’ knowledge of the Orient should make no difference to the currency of prior prejudices is in itself prejudice pure and simple. Said can cite no better authority in running down the impact of such discoveries on our mind than Nietzsche, the notorious father of Fascism, with his notions of ‘truths’ as ‘illusions’ (p203). Between the time Said wrote his book and his ‘Afterword’ western archaeologists and geneticists established that Africa is the most likely original homeland of succeeding hominid species, including the anatomically modern man. No racial ‘truths’ of Nietzsche and Co, however deeply rooted in one’s mind, can possibly accommodate this discovery created out of the work of persons, many of whom individually possibly had no great motivation to undermine the widespread racial prejudice against African peoples.

It is true that colonialism does not cease to be an influence on authors’ ideas just because Oriental learning receives other ideological influences as well and continuously develops through scientific discoveries. In many ways, one fears, Said’s rhetoric and sweep itself has brought into discredit the rigour and precision of older scholarship and so opened the doors to new forms of neo-colonial influences. Such scholars might indeed put themselves forward as critics of ‘Eurocentrism’, of ‘Orientalist appropriations’, and of ‘colonial discourse’, but this rhetoric is often found to be of little relevance when the actual substance of their work is considered. A trend of this kind, which Said greatly applauds in his ‘Afterword’, is that of the Subaltern group, whose main target of attack has been Indian nationalism. Indeed, Said himself acknowledges the possibility that the Subalterns’ ‘mostly academic work’ is ‘easily co-optable and complicit with “transnational” neo-colonialism’ (p352). One cannot improve on this insight into the historiographic situation of Subalternism; but surely Said should have considered why neo-colonialism cannot as easily co-opt old-fashioned anti-imperialist writing, whether bourgeois or Marxist. If he had pondered on it, he might have found that there is much more to the Orientalist tradition of scholarship than can be detected through selective literary criticism. As we have said, ideas of nationalism and democracy wrestle, within Oriental scholarship, with colonialism and neo-colonialism; and science gradually but surely reduces the area of bias and prejudice. Good robust Orientalism, with reason and rigour guiding it, may still have the last laugh when many of the present post-modernist fashions, with their fuzzy terminologies and neo-colonial potentialities, have departed.

A version of this article was first published in the Indian journal Social Scientist, vol 33, no 1-2 (January-February 2005).