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22 September 2017
13 June 2015

Islam and Orientalism

Islam and Orientalism

Orientalist scholars have contributed heavily to shape a negative image of Islam in the West. The professor of the Republic University of Sivas in Turkey is reflecting on this issue in his blog. The key points of the discussion are given below.

Although orientalism as a phenomenon (the term is used to depict aspects such as languages, religion, literature and history of the Eastern cultures) has existed for about a thousand years, the term itself has been used for the first time at the end of the 18th century. The Crusades sparked interest towards Islam and Muslim traditions in the Western countries. Further establishment of the colonial empires made it crucial to study the religion, customs, moral and material standards of the people living in these empires. At the same time, the West aimed at learning their weak and strong points, as only this way, it could manipulate them. Missionary work performed by the West should not be ignored too.

The first translations of Quran in Europe appeared in the 12th century. The Europeans started to study the history of Islam, kalam, fiqh, Islamic philosophy, tasavvuf and hadiths. However, their research seems to be quite one-sided. For instance, the purpose of the Quran research was to find what kind of impacts pre-Islamic traditions of the Arabs, Christianity and Judaism had on it. Quran was proclaimed to be a summary of the Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, personal opinions.

Although Thomas Erpenius (1584-1624) considered Quran to be the peak of the linguistic perfection, he believed it to be a “ludicrous imitation of the Bible” in terms of its content.

When studying the hadiths, the orientalists focused on proving that the collection of the Prophet’s, peace be upon him, statements have been put together in a non-systematic way depending on the contemporary political situation. They also questioned the hadiths’ authenticity. The researchers, such as Ignaz Goldziher and Josef Schacht, declared that most hadiths of the major collections including Bukhari are not reliable.

Islam and Orientalism

In his work «Early Development of İslam», D.S. Margolius (1858-1940) asserted that Muhammad, peace be upon him, brought only Quran. According to him, the Sunnah is somewhat adopted in the light of Quran pre-Islamic traditions and customs of the Arabs. D.S. Margolius supposed that the term “Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad” was coined after the Prophet’s, peace be upon him, death in order to raise his profile and make the hadiths legitimate.

When studying Islam, the orientalist scholars focus only on its external aspects, such as the way it was founded and its history. They appear to ignore the Islamic concept of faith all together. Cultural aspects seem to be more important for the orientalists than the essence of the religion. They do not consider the connection of Islam history with Allah. From such point of view, Islam, first of all, does not have any advantages as a religion. Secondly, it is not peculiar enough as a historical phenomenon.

This approach naturally leads to the conclusion that Islam needs to be reformed. It is worth pointing out that the very way the orientalists and Muslims understand the term “reforms” differ considerably. Muslims believe that reforms are efforts made in order to live according to the orders of Allah. As opposed to this, orientalists think that Islam needs to be reformed so that to retain its power in a political, economic and social life. They believe that to make Islam “successful”, some of its principles should be changed. The orientalist scholars seem to quite often promote the idea of changing Islam to suit Western values.

Dr Cragg maintains that Islam is the least suitable religion for the modern life. According to him, technology and science facilitate people’s life considerably and therefore, affection for God loses its significance. Consequently, Islam needs to be updated.
This is quite natural that the orientalists and Muslims have completely contradictory points of view with regard to Islam. It is unlikely that this might change. We should not expect the Western orientalists to admit that Islam is the last religion sent by God, that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the last Prophet and Quran is the revelation (wahi). Admitting this, they will become Muslims. However, I think that when studying and making conclusions about Islam, the orientalists should follow the principles of the reliable science used for historic research. This is quite fair and every Muslim has the right to demand this. Regrettably, nowadays we are witnessing how some lie is firstly proclaimed to be true and later, the conclusions drawn from it are used to question the faith principles and some historic events.

Jemal Agirman,