Orientalism and Religion

By Lucy K. Pick | Senior Lecturer in the History of Christianity Divinity School - University of Chicago | Apr 20, 2012
Justin McIntosh, August 2004
Justin McIntosh, August 2004
Orientalism and Religion

Originally posted September 2009

A decade or so ago, when I first wrote about Edward Said’s Orientalism in the preface to a series of papers on Orientalism and Medieval Studies — collected by myself and edited by Larry J. Simon in the journal Medieval Encounters[1] — I was most preoccupied by the possibility of applying Said’s three modes of Orientalism — academic, imaginative, and modern — to Medieval phenomena. Said himself argued that academic Orientalism had its formal beginning in the Middle Ages, in the establishment of chairs of Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca at the Council of Vienne in 1312.[2] However, I see this moment not as a beginning, but as a high water mark of Western Christian interest in Arabic and Hebrew texts, both scientific and theological, that had begun some two centuries earlier.

Imaginative Orientalism, Said’s most slippery category, can be identified in a wide array of Medieval texts. Even Said’s so-called “modern” Orientalism, defined by him as “a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient ... a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient,”[3] has medieval manifestations. I have argued elsewhere that the Cathedral of Toledo under Archbishop Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada became such a corporation in the 13th century, and that his interest in the translation of Arabic and Islamic texts must be understood as part of a program of crusade, conquest, and colonization of Islamic Spain which includes the same kinds of categorizations of peoples and accumulations of knowledge and territory that Said claims for modern Orientalism.[4]

I want to dwell in this essay on Said’s modern Orientalism, not to amass more instances of how this category was manifest in the un-modern Middle Ages, though that would certainly be possible. Rather, I ask why it is so crucial for Said to label the phenomenon of a categorizing, imperializing Orientalism as “modern?” What strategies does he use for constructing this label? And what does this mean for the continuing utility of his model for understanding how the West constitutes itself and the rest of the world in its construction and representation of the “Orient?”

For Said, religion is the central factor that differentiates his modern Orientalism from whatever representations of the East were deployed during the Middle Ages. Modern Orientalism is indeed a “set of structures inherited from the past,” but these structures have been secularized, rationalized, and given a scientific terminology. Said places the moment of this rupture between the Medieval and the modern in the post-Enlightenment period of Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798) and the scholarly careers of Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) and Ernst Renan (1823-1892). The effect of this move is to orientalize the Middle Ages in much the same way Said claims the West orientalizes the East, projecting onto an imagined Medieval past all that the modern world claims to reject. Like the West, the modern is scientific, rational, and enlightened, while like the Orient, the Medieval is superstitious, irrational, and dark — requiring specialized knowledge and philological skills to understand. It is an awkward move for Said to make, because, as he recognizes, many of the features of Orientalism have deep roots, so modern Orientalism must keep reaching back into the past for content, while at the same time never fully escaping its religious origins, becoming instead a “naturalized supernaturalism.”[5]

I am certainly not the first to notice the awkward place that the religious and the Medieval hold in Said’s work. William Hart notes the disjuncture between modern Orientalism as a discourse created in the post-Enlightenment period and Said’s discussion of how premodern thinkers like Dante “orientalize” Islam and Muslims.[6] The problem emerges, Hart suggests, because Said fails to fully recognize that religion itself becomes a discourse, a “distinctively Western way of thinking.” For Hart, what Said might call Medieval Orientalism is just religious discourse. Thus Islam is an object of religious discourse, and only secondarily an object of Orientalist discourse; Christian representations of Islam are better explained as simple products of interreligious conflict than as manifestations of Orientalism.[7] Hart’s solution is for Said to restrict his analysis of Islam to the way it was represented beginning in the 8th century, leaving the Medieval past behind him. For Hart, the rupture between Medieval and modern is not wide enough and the solution is to create an even bigger fissure between the two. I disagree, and to explain why, we need to consider what work the rupture does for Said in the first place.

Why does Said take such pains then to emphasize this break? Why is it so important for Said that his “modern” Orientalism be so decidedly modern? I think Said describes modern Orientalism as essentially and necessarily secular for political reasons. If Said had described Orientalism simply as a discourse that emerged within a particular Medieval religious climate and evolved as scholarship evolved in the Enlightenment, altering with shifting geo-political realities, it would be too easy for his readers, academics, and statesmen simply to disavow his interpretation of their representations. “I have no religious or apologetic interests,” they could say, “So I am not an Orientalist.” By situating Orientalism in the heart of modernity, Said compels us to take a look at ourselves and to question our understanding of the world around us. This is well worth doing. But Said’s own hunch is clearly that Orientalism has significant pre-modern roots, despite his political need to emphasize its scientific and rational aspects.

At the same time, beginning the conversation about Orientalism only in the 18th century not only takes away from medievalists a useful analytic tool but also, of more general interest and concern, weakens our conversation about the very modern phenomena Said intends to describe. Seeing Orientalism as a continuum (though one reinvented and reinscribed in each generation) allows us to levy a more pointed critique against its representations, because one of the consequences of Said’s separation of Orientalism from religion is that his explanatory model has become, to a degree, anachronistic. Said, writing in the mid-1970s, viewed American Orientalism as the most “modern” Orientalism, and also as the least religious, the least seduced by the images of the Orientalist literature, the most social scientific — divorced even from traditional modern Orientalism.[8] But anyone paying attention to American orientalizing discourses, at least in the past decade, will recognize that Orientalism at the highest levels of American policy has been, above all, religious — we have only to recall President George W. Bush’s description on September 16, 2001 of the battle against the terrorists as a “crusade.” Said’s theory as written leaves us poorly equipped to discuss this strange eruption of seemingly Medieval speech in a modern president, except to call it Medieval. According to Said, this religious discourse shouldn’t be part of modern Orientalism, but it is. Nor is religious language and symbolism confined to American Orientalism. Many were shocked when Spain’s army joined the “coalition of the willing” wearing the cross of Santiago, the emblem of the Medieval military religious order dedicated to ridding the Iberian peninsula of Muslims. However, Bush’s “crusade” is not the same as that of Pope Urban II in the 11th century, and the Spanish military is not merely the Order of Santiago reborn; we need ways of making full sense of these phenomena.

The Danish anti-Islamic cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005 are an area where we can understand more fully the significance of representations of Muhammad and Muslims when we admit that the Orientalist discourse that the cartoonists participate in originates first in the Middle Ages, not the Enlightenment. Western international reaction to the cartoons has tended to see them as bigoted, perhaps, but as exemplifying valuable and worthy post-Enlightenment ideals of free speech. But foreshortening the historical context of the cartoons to merely the Enlightenment conceals the degree to which, far from being a bold and innovative defence of Western values, they are instead the latest manifestation of a long medieval European tradition of seeking out martyrdom by deliberately insulting Islam in general and the Prophet Muhammad in particular. Among possible precedents, I would point to the Christians in 9th-century Córdoba who cursed Muhammad and insulted Islam before the qadi, knowing that by doing this they would achieve martyrdom. There were also similar activities by 13th century Franciscans and Ramon Llull, who agonized about whether his destiny was to convert Muslims or to die a martyr. The title of the Jyllands-Posten piece, “Muhammeds ansigt [Muhammad’s Face]” shows that the publication of the cartoons had no point other than to provoke a reaction by breaking known taboos — indeed without the title, it would be hard to know that the cartoons were supposed to be representing Muhammad specifically.

Finally, and most recently, we find Nicholas Sarkozy wishing to restrict Muslim practice in the name of secularism, Muslim women in France from wearing the burqa out in public. But are his objectives as secular as he claims? In a speech on Monday, June 22, 2009, Sarkozy said, “The burqa is not a religious sign. It is a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement.” Here we have the spectacle of a “secular” French president asserting the “religious” authority to determine what is and what is not an authentic Islamic sign, claiming the role of qadi as it were. This follows hot on the heels of the 2004 law that prevented Muslim girls from wearing hijab in public schools and also restricted the Jewish kippah, but prohibited only “outsized” Christian crosses in a school system that still has no difficulty organizing itself around the Christian calendar.

These four examples are more than just “naturalized supernaturalism,” science itself become myth, and to comprehend them, we need to recuperate and understand the religious content of modern Orientalism. Each of these examples dates from after September 11, 2001, and we may come to view this date as a turning point when religious Orientalism, never entirely absent, finally came back out of modernity’s closet. Said had good reasons for stressing the secular side of modern Orientalism. But it is past time to recognize that this is just one side, albeit a crucial one. By reincorporating religious discourse as a mode among others of contemporary Orientalizing discourses, we can better understand both our past and our present.



[1]. Lucy K. Pick, “Edward Said, Orientalism, and the Middle Ages,” Medieval Encounters Vol. 5 (1999), pp. 265-71.


[2]. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random, 1978), reprinted with a new afterword, 1994, pp. 49-50.


[3]. Said, Orientalism, p. 3.


[4]. Lucy K. Pick, Conflict and Coexistence: Archbishop Rodrigo and the Muslims and Jews of Thirteenth-Century Spain (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004), pp. 19-20.


[5]. Said, Orientalism, p. 121; William D. Hart, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 63; and Darren E. Dahl, “Criticizing ‘Secular Criticism’: Reading Religion in Edward Said and Kathryn Tanner,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses, Vol. 31 (2002), pp. 361.


[6]. William D. Hart, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture, p. 70.


[7]. William D. Hart, Edward Said and the Religious Effects of Culture, pp. 83, 85.


[8]. Said, Orientalism, p. 290-91


Like the West, the modern is scientific...while like the Orient, the Medieval is superstitious...

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