Orientalism (book)


Cover of the first edition, showing part of The Snake Charmer (1880), an Orientalist painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904)
Author Edward W. Saïd
Country United States
Language English
Subject Orientalism
Publisher Pantheon Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 368
ISBN 978-0-394-42814-7
OCLC 4004102
LC Class DS12 .S24 1979

Orientalism is a 1978 book by Edward W. Said, in which Said studies the cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism, the West's patronizing perceptions and fictional depictions of "The East" — the societies and peoples who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Orientalism, the Western scholarship about the Eastern World, was and remains inextricably tied to the imperialist societies who produced it, which makes much Orientalist work inherently political and servile to power, and thus intellectually suspect.[1]

In the Middle East, the social, economic, and cultural practices of the ruling Arab élites indicate they are imperial satraps who have internalized the romanticized "Arab Culture" created by French, British and, later, American Orientalists; the examples include critical analyses of the colonial literature of Joseph Conrad, which conflates a people, a time, and a place into a narrative of incident and adventure in an exotic land.[2]

The critical application of post-structuralism in the scholarship of Orientalism influenced the development of literary theory, cultural criticism, and the field of Middle Eastern studies, especially regarding how academics practice their intellectual enquiry when examining, describing, and explaining the Middle East.[3] The scope of Said's scholarship established Orientalism as a foundation text in the field of Post-colonial Culture Studies, which examines the denotations and connotations of Orientalism, and the history of a country's post-colonial period.[4]

As a public intellectual, Edward Said debated Orientalism with historians and scholars of area studies, notably, the Orientalist and historian Bernard Lewis, who said that the thesis of Orientalism was “anti-Western”.[5] For subsequent editions of Orientalism, Said wrote an "Afterword" (1995)[6] and a "Preface" (2003)[7] addressing criticisms of the content, substance, and style of the work as cultural criticism.


Orientalism is the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western superiority, and the application of clichéd analytical models for perceiving the Oriental world .[8] As such, Orientalism is the source of the inaccurate, cultural representations that are the foundations of Western thought and perception of the Eastern world, specifically about the region of the Middle East. The principal characteristic of Orientalism is a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab–Islamic peoples and their culture”, which prejudice derives from Western images of what is Oriental (cultural representations) that reduce the Orient to the fictional essences of “Oriental peoples” and “the places of the Orient”; such cultural representations dominate the communications (discourse) of Western peoples with non–Western peoples.[9]

Cultural background

In practice, the imperial and colonial enterprises of the West are facilitated by collaborating régimes of Europeanized Arab élites who have internalized the fictional, romanticized representations of Arabic culture — the Orientalism invented by French and English Orientalists, and continued in the twentieth century by American Orientalists.[10] As such, Orientalist stereotypes of the cultures of the Eastern world have served, and continue to serve, as implicit justifications for the colonial ambitions and the imperial endeavours of the U.S. and the European powers. In that vein, about contemporary Orientalist stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, Said said:

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab–Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
"Islam Through Western Eyes" (1980) The Nation magazine.[11]
Thesis of Representation

Orientalism (1978) proposes that much of the Western study of Islamic civilization was an exercise in political intellectualism; a psychological exercise in the self-affirmation of “European identity”; not an objective exercise of intellectual enquiry and the academic study of Eastern cultures. Therefore, Orientalism was a method of practical and cultural discrimination that was applied to non-European societies and peoples in order to establish European imperial domination. In justification of empire, the Orientalist claims to know more — essential and definitive knowledge — about the Orient than do the Orientals.[12] That Western writings about the Orient, the perceptions of the East presented in Orientalism, cannot be taken at face value, because they are cultural representations based upon fictional, Western images of the Orient. That the history of European colonial rule and political domination of Eastern civilizations, distorts the intellectual objectivity of even the most knowledgeable, well-meaning, and culturally sympathetic Western Orientalist; thus did the term "Orientalism" become a pejorative word regarding non–Western peoples and cultures:[13]

I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India, or Egypt, in the later nineteenth century, took an interest in those countries, which was never far from their status, in his mind, as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, the gross political fact — and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism.
Orientalism (1978) p. 11.[14]
Occidental and Oriental origins
The Græco–Persian Wars: The Sea Battle at Salamis (1868, Wilhelm von Kaulbach), depicts the East–West clash of civilisations.
The romanticized Orient: The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus (1511) depicts the "Arabic culture" of 16th-century Syria.

Said said that the Western world dominated the Eastern world for more than 2,000 years, since Classical antiquity (8th c. BC – AD 6th c.), the time of the play The Persians (472 BC), by Aeschylus, which celebrates a Greek victory (Battle of Salamis, 480 BC) against the Persians in the course of the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) — imperial conflict between the Greek West and the Persian East.[15][16] Europe's long, military domination of Asia (empire and hegemony) made unreliable most Western texts about the Eastern world, because of the implicit cultural bias that permeates most Orientalism, which was not recognized by most Western scholars.

In the course of empire, after the physical-and-political conquest, there followed the intellectual conquest of a people, whereby Western scholars appropriated for themselves (as European intellectual property) the interpretation and translation of Oriental languages, and the critical study of the cultures and histories of the Oriental world.[17] In that way, by using Orientalism as the intellectual norm for cultural judgement, Europeans wrote the history of Asia, and invented the "exotic East" and the "inscrutable Orient", which are cultural representations of peoples and things considered inferior to the peoples and things of the West.[18]

The Other

Orientalism concluded that "Western knowledge of the Eastern world", i.e. Orientalism fictionally depicts the Orient as an irrational, psychologically weak, and feminized, non-European Other, which is negatively contrasted with the rational, psychologically strong, and masculine West. Such a binary relation, in a hierarchy of weakness and strength, derives from the European psychological need to create a difference of cultural inequality, between West and East, which inequality is attributable to "immutable cultural essences" inherent to Oriental peoples and things.[19]

The binary relationship of strong-West-and-weak-East reinforces the cultural stereotypes invented with literary, cultural, and historical texts that are more fictitious than factual; yet, which give the reader of Orientalist texts (history, travelogue, anthropology, etc.) a limited understanding of life in the Middle East, because Orientalism conflates the different societies of the Eastern world, into the homogeneous world of "the Orient".[20]

Geopolitics and cultural hierarchy

The contemporary, historical impact of Orientalism (1978) was in explaining the How? and the Why? of imperial impotence; in the 1970s, to journalists, academics, and Orientalists, the Yom Kippur war (6–25 October 1973) and the OPEC petroleum embargo (October 1973 – March 1974) were recent modern history. The Western world had been surprised, by the pro-active and decisive actions of non–Western peoples, whom the ideology of Orientalism had defined as essentially weak societies and impotent countries. The geopolitical reality of their actions, of military and economic warfare, voided the fictional nature of Orientalist representations, attitudes, and opinions about the non-Western Other self.[21]

The academy

The greatest intellectual impact of Orientalism (1978) was upon the fields of literary theory, cultural studies, and human geography, by way of which originated the field of Post-colonial studies. Edward Said's method of post-structuralist analysis derived from the analytic techniques of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault; and the perspectives to Orientalism presented by Abdul Latif Tibawi,[22] Anouar Abdel-Malek,[23] Maxime Rodinson,[24] and Richard William Southern.[25]


The philosopher and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote the essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" which also is a foundational document of the field of Post-colonialism
The Eastern world depicted in The Snake Charmer (1880), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, illustrates the sensuous beauty and cultural mystery of the fiction that is “the exotic Orient”.
The Oriental threat to Eastern Europe: the Ottoman Wars (1299–1922) of Muslim imperial expansion.
Post-colonial Culture Studies

As a work of cultural criticism, Orientalism (1978) is the foundation document of the field of Post-colonialism, because the thesis proved historically factual, true, and accurate for the periods studied; and for the How? and the Why? of the cultural representations of “Orientals”, “The Orient”, and “The Eastern world” as presented in the mass communications media of the Western world.[26]

Post-colonial theory studies the power and the continued dominance of Western ways of intellectual enquiry and the production of knowledge in the academic, intellectual, and cultural spheres of the de-colonised country. Said's survey concentrated upon the British and the French varieties of Orientalism that supported the British Empire and the French Empire as commercial enterprises constructed from colonialism, and gave perfunctory coverage, discussion, and analyses of German Orientalist scholarship.

Such disproportional investigation provoked criticism from opponents and embarrassment for supporters of Said, who, in “Orientalism Reconsidered” (1985), said that no-one opponent provided a rationale, by which limited coverage of German Orientalism limits either the scholarly value or the practical application of Orientalism as a cultural study.[27] In the Afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism, Said presented follow-up refutations of the criticisms that the Orientalist and historian Bernard Lewis made against the book's first edition (1978).[28][29]

Literary Criticism

In the fields of literary criticism and of cultural studies, the notable Indian scholars of post-colonialism were Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, 1987) whose essay Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988) also became a foundation text of Post-colonial culture stuies,[30] Homi K. Bhabha (Nation and Narration, 1990),[31] Ronald Inden (Imagining India, 1990),[32] Gyan Prakash ("Writing Post–Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography", 1990),[33] Nicholas Dirks (Castes of Mind, 2001),[34] and Hamid Dabashi (Iran: A People Interrupted, 2007).

In White Mythologies: Writing History and the West (1990), Robert J. C. Young reported Post-colonial explanations of the "How?" and the "Why?" of the nature of the post-colonial world, the peoples, and their discontents;[35][36] which verify the efficacy of the critical method applied in Orientalism (1978), especially in the field of Middle Eastern studies.[3]

In the late 1970s, the survey range of Orientalism (1978) did not include the genre of Orientalist painting or any other visual arts, despite the book-cover featuring a detail-image of The Snake Charmer (1880), a popular, 19th-century Orientalist painting — to which the writer Linda Nochlin applied Said's method of critical analysis "with uneven results".[37] In the field of epistemological studies, Orientalism is an extended application of methods of critical analysis developed by the philosopher Michel Foucault.[38] The anthropologist Talal Asad said that the book Orientalism is:

not only a catalogue of Western prejudices about and misrepresentations of Arabs and Muslims" . . . [but an investigation and analysis of the] authoritative structure of Orientalist discourse — the closed, self-evident, self-confirming character of that distinctive discourse, which is reproduced, again and again, through scholarly texts, travelogues, literary works of imagination, and the obiter dicta of public men-of-affairs.[39]

The historian Gyan Prakash said that Orientalism describes how "the hallowed image of the Orientalist, as an austere figure, unconcerned with the world and immersed in the mystery of foreign scripts and languages, has acquired a dark hue as the murky business of ruling other peoples, now forms the essential and enabling background of his or her scholarship" about the Orient; without colonial imperialism, there would be no Orientalism.[40]

Oriental Europe

In Eastern Europe, Milica Bakić-Hayden developed the concept of Nesting Orientalisms (1992), based upon and derived from the work of the historian Larry Wolff (Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment, 1994), and the ideas Edward Said presented in Orientalism (1978).[41]

The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova (Imagining the Balkans, 1997) presented her ethnologic concept of Nesting Balkanisms (Ethnologia Balkanica,1997), which is thematically extended and theoretically derived from Milica Bakić-Hayden's Nesting Orientalisms.[42]

Moreover, in “A Stereotype, Wrapped in a Cliché, Inside a Caricature: Russian Foreign Policy and Orientalism” (2010), James D. J. Brown said that Western stereotypes of Russia, Russianness, and things Russian are cultural representations derived from the literature of “Russian studies”, which is a field of enquiry little afflicted with the misconceptions of Russia-as-the-Other, but does display the characteristics of Orientalism — the exaggeration of difference, the presumption of Western cultural superiority, and the application of cliché in analytical models. That overcoming such intellectual malaise requires that area scholars choose to break their “mind-forg’d manacles” and deeply reflect upon the basic cultural assumptions of their area-studies scholarship.[43]


Orientalism (1978), an academic study of cultural imperialism, by Prof. Edward W. Said, proved intellectually, professionally, and personally controversial. The thesis, content, substance, and style were much criticised by Orientalist academics, such as Albert Hourani (A History of the Arab Peoples, 1991), Robert Graham Irwin (For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, 2006), Nikki Keddie (An Islamic Response to Imperialism, 1968), and Bernard Lewis ("The Question of Orientalism", Islam and the West, 1993).[44][45][46]

In the book-review article "Enough Said" (2007), about Dangerous Knowledge (2007), by Robert Irwin, in the preface paragraphs, Martin Kramer recapitulates the professional trials and tribulations of and repercussions to Orientalists caused by Orientalism (1978):

The Good Orientalist: Edward William Lane, the translator and lexicographer who compiled the Arabic–English Lexicon (1863–93).
the British historian Robert Irwin is the sort of scholar who, in times past, would have been proud to call himself an Orientalist . . . someone who mastered difficult languages, like Arabic and Persian, and then spent years bent over manuscripts, in heroic efforts of decipherment and interpretation. In Dangerous Knowledge, Irwin relates that the 19th-century English Arabist Edward William Lane, compiler of the great Arabic-English Lexicon [1840], "used to complain that he had become so used to the cursive calligraphy of his Arabic manuscripts that he found Western print a great strain on his eyes."

Orientalism, in its heyday, was a branch of knowledge as demanding and rigorous as its near cousin, Egyptology. The first International Congress of Orientalists met in 1873; its name was not changed until a full century later. But there are no self-declared Orientalists today. The reason is that the late Edward Said turned the word into a pejorative. In his 1978 book Orientalism, the Palestinian-born Said, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, claimed that an endemic Western prejudice against the East had congealed into a modern ideology of racist supremacy — a kind of anti-Semitism directed against Arabs and Muslims. Throughout Europe's history, announced Said, "every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric."

In a semantic sleight of hand, Said appropriated the term "Orientalism", as a label for the ideological prejudice he described, thereby, neatly implicating the scholars who called themselves Orientalists. At best, charged Said, the work of these scholars was biased, so as to confirm the inferiority of Islam. At worst, Orientalists had directly served European empires, showing proconsuls how best to conquer and control Muslims. To substantiate his indictment, Said cherry-picked evidence, ignored whatever contradicted his thesis, and filled the gaps with conspiracy theories.

"Enough Said", Commentary magazine (March 2007)

Nonetheless, the literary critic Paul De Man said that, as a literary critic, "Said took a step further than any other modern scholar of his time, something I dare not do. I remain in the safety of rhetorical analysis, where criticism is the second-best thing I do."[47]

The Oriental threat in the 17th century: the Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent, in 1683.

In the book review, "The Mightier Pen? Edward Said and the Double Standards of Inside-out Colonialism: a review of Culture and Imperialism, by Edward Said" (1993), Ernest Gellner said that Said's contention of Western domination of the Eastern world for more than 2,000 years was unsupportable, because, until the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) was a realistic military, cultural, and religious threat to (Western) Europe.[48]

In "Disraeli as an Orientalist: The Polemical Errors of Edward Said" (2005), Mark Proudman noted incorrect 19th-century history in Orientalism, that the geographic extent of the British Empire was not from Egypt to India in the 1880s, because the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire in that time intervened between those poles of empire.[49] Moreover, at the zenith of the imperial era, European colonial power in the Eastern world never was absolute, it was relative and much dependent upon local collaborators — princes, rajahs, and warlords — who nonetheless often subverted the imperial and hegemonic aims of the colonialist power.[50]

In For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006), Robert Irwin said that Said's concentrating the scope of Orientalism to the Middle East, especially Palestine and Egypt, was a mistake, because the Mandate of Palestine (1920–1948) and British Egypt (1882–1956) only were under direct European control for a short time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; thus are poor examples for Said's theory of Western cultural imperialism. That Orientalism should have concentrated upon good examples of imperialism and cultural hegemony, such as the British Raj of India (1858–1947) and Russia's dominions in Asia (1721–1917), but he did not, because, as a public intellectual, Prof. Edward Said was more interested in making political points about the politics of the Middle East, in general, and of Palestine, in particular.[51] Moreover, that by unduly concentrating on British and French Orientalism, Said ignored the domination of 19th century Oriental studies by German and Hungarian academics and intellectuals, whose countries did not possess an Eastern empire.[52] Irwin's book was later criticized by Amir Taheri, writing in Asharq Al-Awsat, when he listed a number of factual and editing errors that Irwin makes in the book, also noting a number of prominent Orientalists left unmentioned. [53]

The geographic extent of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. (1948 – to date)

In the article "Said's Splash" (2001), Martin Kramer said that, fifteen years after publication of Orientalism (1978), the UCLA historian Nikki Keddie — whose work Said praised in Covering Islam (1981) — who originally had praised Orientalism as an 'important, and, in many ways, positive' book, had changed her mind. In Approaches to the History of the Middle East (1994), Keddie criticised Said's work on Orientalism, for the unfortunate consequences upon her profession as an historian:

"I think that there has been a tendency in the Middle East field to adopt the word 'orientalism' as a generalized swear-word, essentially referring to people who take the 'wrong' position on the Arab–Israeli dispute, or to people who are judged too 'conservative'. It has nothing to do with whether they are good or not good in their disciplines. So, 'orientalism', for many people, is a word that substitutes for thought and enables people to dismiss certain scholars and their works. I think that is too bad. It may not have been what Edward Said meant at all, but the term has become a kind of slogan."
"Said's Splash", Ivory Towers on Sand (2001)[54]

In the article, "Edward Said's Shadowy Legacy" (2008), Robert Irwin said that Said ineffectively distinguished among writers of different centuries and genres of Orientalist literature. That the disparate examples, such as the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) who never travelled to the Orient; the French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880) who briefly toured Egypt; the French Orientalist Ernest Renan (1823–1892), whose anti-Semitism voided his work; and the British Arabist Edward William Lane (1801–1876), who compiled the Arabic–English Lexicon (1863–93) — did not constitute a comprehensive scope of investigation or critical comparison.[55] In that vein, in Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism (2007), Ibn Warraq earlier had said that in Orientalism (1978) Said had constructed a binary-opposite representation, a fictional European stereotype that would counter-weigh the Oriental stereotype. Being European is the only common trait among such a temporally and stylistically disparate group of literary Orientalists.[56]

The British Mandate of Palestine (1922).

In The Asiatic Society of Bengal and the Discovery of India's Past (1988) O.P. Kejariwal said that with the creation of a monolithic Occidentalism to oppose the Orientalism of Western discourse with the Eastern world, Said had failed to distinguish, between the paradigms of Romanticism and the Enlightenment, and ignored the differences among Orientalists; and that he failed to acknowledge the positive contributions of Orientalists who sought kinship, between the worlds of the East and the West, rather than to create an artificial "difference" of cultural inferiority and superiority; such a man was William Jones (1746–1794), the British philologist–lexicographer who proposed that Indo–European languages are interrelated.[57]


In the sociological article, "Review: Who is Afraid of Edward Said?" (1999) Biswamoy Pati said that in making ethnicity and cultural background the tests of moral authority and intellectual objectivity in studying the Oriental world, Prof. Edward Wadie Said drew attention to his personal identity as a Palestinian and as a Subaltern of the British Empire, in the Near East.[58] Therefore, from the perspective of the Orientalist academic, Said's personal background might, arguably, exclude him from writing about the Oriental world, hindered by an upper-class birth, an Anglophone upbringing, a British-school education in Cairo, residency in the U.S., a university-professor job; and categorical statements, such as: "any and all representations . . . are embedded, first, in the language, and then, in the culture, institutions, and political ambience of the representer . . . [the cultural representations are] interwoven with a great many other things, besides 'the Truth', which is, itself, a representation."[59]

Hence, in the article "Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire", D.A. Washbrook said that Said and his academic cohort indulge in excessive cultural relativism, which intellectual excess traps them in a "web of solipsism", which limits conversation exclusively to "cultural representations" and to denying the existence of any objective truth.[60] That Said and his followers fail to distinguish between the types and degrees of Orientalism represented by the news media and popular culture (e.g. the light Orientalism of the children's movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, 1984), and heavy academic Orientalism about the language and literature, history and culture of the peoples of the Eastern world.[61][62]

In article "Orientalism Now" (1995), the historian Gyan Prakash said that Edward Said had explored fields of Orientalism already surveyed by his predecessors and contemporaries, such as V. G. Kiernan, Bernard S. Cohn, and Anwar Abdel Malek, who also had studied, reported, and interpreted the social relationship that makes the practice of imperialism intellectually, psychologically, and ethically feasible; that is, the relationship between European imperial rule and European representations of the non-European Other self, the colonised people.[63] That, as an academic investigator, Said already had been preceded in the critical analysis of the production of Orientalist knowledge and about Western methods of Orientalist scholarship, because, in the 18th century, "Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti [1753–1825], the Egyptian chronicler, and a witness to Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, for example, had no doubt that the expedition was as much an epistemological as military conquest". Nonetheless, George Landow, of Brown University, who criticized Said's scholarship and contested his conclusions, acknowledged that Orientalism is a major work of cultural criticism.[64]


In the event, in October 2003, one month after the death of Edward W. Said (1935–2003), a professor of comparative literature, the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star recognized the intellectual import of the book Orientalism (1978), and said that "Said's critics agree with his admirers that he has single-handedly effected a revolution in Middle Eastern studies in the U.S." and that "U.S. Middle Eastern Studies were taken over, by Edward Said's postcolonial studies paradigm", Orientalism.[65]

See also


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  3. 1 2 Stephen Howe, "Dangerous mind?", New Humanist, Vol. 123, November/December 2008
  4. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, Third Edition (1994), pp. 642–43, 581–83
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  58. Biswamoy Pati, "Review: Who Is Afraid of Edward Said?". Social Scientist, Vol. 27. No. 9/10 (Sept.–Oct. 1999), pp. 79.
  59. Orientalism: p. 272
  60. D.A. Washbrook, "Orients and Occidents: Colonial Discourse Theory and the Historiography of the British Empire", in "Historiography, vol. 5 of The Oxford History of the British Empire p. 607.
  61. Said, Edward, "Afterword", Orientalism (1978) 1995 ed. p. 347.
  62. Kaizaad Navroze Kotwal, "Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as Virtual Reality: The Orientalist and Colonial Legacies of Gunga Din," The Film Journal no. 12, April 2005.
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  64. Edward W. Said's Orientalism
  65. Daily Star, 20 October 2003

Further reading


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