Confrontation with Orientalism: Origins, Trends, and Outcomes

By Rasul Jafariyan1

The selection of this title is due to the noteworthy attention given to scholarly exchanges among researchers, both domestic and foreign, in the aforementioned summer classes.

In my history of written activities, I have concurrently engaged in authorship, editing, and translation. Some of the translations have pertained to works produced in the West, with my authorial efforts leaning towards incorporating external perspectives to varying degrees. This interconnection has been more pronounced in my Safavid studies. I have endeavored to, based on these interactions, articulate my own experiences regarding this matter and the thoughts that come to mind on its periphery.

Reflection and Development in Islamic Studies

Regarding the objectives pursued by Inekas, three points have been raised: firstly, “creating a groundwork for the advancement of academic activities in the field of Islamic studies in Iran”; secondly, “facilitating effective communication between Iranian scholars active in Islamic studies and professors outside Iran”; and thirdly, “familiarizing Iranian students and researchers with the latest and most significant academic research in the field of Islamic studies.”

In recent years, some programs, including those initiated by Inekas, have been effective in achieving these goals.

In this intellectual exchange, two issues are noteworthy:

Firstly, the research, works, and outcomes emerging from recent studies have increased the depth of Islamic studies compared to the past and acquainted us with newer data.

Secondly, the methods and research approaches, when used generally, can assist students and researchers on the path of investigating new topics and provide a fresh perspective on their research.

The ability to bring research methods closer together, foster interdisciplinary activities to strengthen these studies, and share questions and answers in this field is of significant importance.

Currently, with the increase in technical capabilities, we find ourselves in a highly conducive and cost-effective environment for scientific collaboration, a situation that was not present in the past. Managing these activities will, of course, be a worthy endeavor, a mission that Inekas has pursued over the past three years.

I commend Inekas for two initiatives:

First, organizing summer classes to familiarize researchers with new ideas and research in a specific field.

Second, providing regular and continuous reports on the latest articles and books by other professors.

These efforts will lead us to the previously mentioned objectives, and in the near future, we will witness the serious growth in the field of Islamic studies as a result of this collaboration.

Firstly, the research and works, along with their outcomes, presented in recent studies have deepened the field of Islamic studies, acquainting us with more recent data compared to the past.

Secondly, the research methods and approaches that, in general, can assist students and researchers in their pursuit of new subjects and give a fresh perspective to their research endeavors.

The Need for Understanding the Growth Trajectory of Oriental Studies Over the Past Three Centuries and Grasping Its History

A crucial need for us is to comprehend the existing Western approaches to the world of Islam and its broader issues and topics. Specifically, it is essential to understand how Western scholars have approached Islamic studies in various periods, including their perspectives and methodologies.

We encounter two key issues here:

Firstly, while we have consistently engaged with the content of books related to Islam and the Islamic world, we lack a precise historical account of the formation of “Oriental Studies.” Unfortunately, there are very few books in Arabic and a limited number in Persian that shed light on the knowledge of Orientalists, and they generally contain minimal information.

I intend to understand the stages of confrontation between traditional and modern Western thought with Islam and Islamic studies, also known as the dialectical literature between Christian West and Islamic East. We need to comprehend the accurate evolution of Oriental Studies over centuries during which Islam and Christianity have interacted. This entails recognizing the stages of this interaction, the contexts in which these works have emerged, and the foundations and research methods used in the West to identify Islamic East. These studies have developed under specific conditions of encounter, with the West facing the Islamic East in each period, influenced by its prevailing ideologies, political and social circumstances.

This requirement demands extensive research, a substantial part of which we have yet to explore.

Secondly, understanding the individuals who have been active in this field is essential. This involves identifying these individuals, their affiliations with academic institutions, and the interests, professions, and ideas that have shaped their lives. While we often possess biographical information about Orientalists, we lack precise knowledge about their life experiences, thoughts, and backgrounds. This is a necessary endeavor.

A few attempts have been made to compile biographical dictionaries for Orientalists in Iran, but there has never been a serious and scholarly effort in this field.

We Have Always Been Concerned with Oriental Studies

Our concern regarding Oriental studies has been present almost from the very beginning when these investigations entered our world. Our perception of these studies is distinct from our engagement with other Western products, and it is notably more sensitive. In general, we have been wary of “Western knowledge” and have consistently approached it with caution.

Despite our concerns, the issue has been justifiable for us, albeit with some delay. In this context, the realm of mathematics and engineering, among others, has been included. Resistance against mathematical sciences has been minimal, but when it comes to certain branches of natural sciences such as medicine and biology, our questions have been more pronounced. An example of this is the resistance to Darwin’s theories, which have yet to gain acceptance among many Muslims.

However, when it comes to certain areas, including history, this sensitivity has been even more pronounced and continues to be so to this day. In Iran, and I believe in many parts of the Islamic world, there exists a negative perception of these fields within the broader society.

Concerns related to religious studies have been persistent, always serving as a source of encouragement.

A common thread among these concerns is that, while we acknowledge the merits of their works and find their scientific aspects valuable, we have always been worried about the impact they might have on our identity, religion, civilization, and culture.

Despite these concerns, engaging in this field is challenging. Firstly, we must understand the factors behind these concerns, and secondly, we need solutions to alleviate them. Research and study within this atmosphere of concern can have negative consequences and, in many instances, lead to self-censorship.

Our Concern with Western Knowledge in the Field of Islam

We have consistently positioned ourselves as defenders of knowledge and have considered ourselves proponents of rationality. However, when Greek philosophy arrived, and later when Western thought made its way into our domain, we struggled to define the boundaries.

In fact, three significant points have been at play here:

1) The Scientific Aspect: Some of the research has been of a scientific nature, often leaving us convinced and occasionally in awe. A notable portion of Oriental studies is fundamentally scientific or purely linguistic, such as the correction of many Arabic or Persian works, and similar endeavors like cataloging manuscript copies. We have always made use of these. Many of them have been offset in Baghdad, Beirut, and Tehran.

2) The Notable Negative Effects: A significant number of writings by Orientalists have had notable negative effects on our identity, culture, and religion, which has deeply concerned us. Doubts have arisen regarding the authenticity of revelation, prophethood, and related matters. Questions have emerged, such as whether Islam has roots in Judaism or Christianity, whether there was a historical Prophet, or even the recent claim that Mecca was not originally the Qibla for Muslims.

3) Philosophical and Scientific Foundations of the West: These have always been a significant concern when examining religious concepts. Prominent examples include the works of Russian Orientalists and Communists who openly denied all religious concepts, considering them entirely artificial and products of discourse arising from production relations.

In the last two areas of concern, the hostility towards Oriental studies has been very serious. Whenever something is written, for a nation that feels its religion is under threat, such as their homeland, anti-Orientalist discourse has been highly appealing.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a precise way to academically distinguish between the outputs of Oriental studies, determining what is correct and what is incorrect. We could only generally advise trying to approach these issues with an “academic” perspective, although even the definition of “academic” and its level have differed in these cases and have been influenced to some extent by other foundations. Much of our religious knowledge is comprehended solely through the language of religion, a perspective that cannot be entirely viewed through the lens of Western scientific concepts. Thus, a Westerner doesn’t understand our religious language, just as understanding their discourse can be challenging for us. In any case, this general recommendation doesn’t resolve the problem significantly, and it is only “patience,” progress in work, and time that will, to some extent, align us with the current situation.

Three Periods in Western Islamic Studies

I believe there has been a critical shift in the research of early Islam, marking the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. After a long period of travelogues and reports from the Islamic East, we can discern three distinct periods in Islamic studies:

1) Revival of Arabic Texts and Histories: This era peaked in the 19th century, focusing on the revival of Arabic texts, histories, diwans, and significant works. It had both precursors and successors.

2) Encyclopedia-oriented Research: Alongside this, as we progressed, we encountered encyclopedia-oriented research, with most of it centered on Islamic encyclopedias. Distinguished researchers emerged during this period, but they were few in number. Of course, they were all Westerners. Up until this point, Muslims had no participation in Western endeavors. Islamic encyclopedias bear witness to this claim.

3) A New Movement to Understand the East: This is the contemporary phase, a revival of interest in the past while concurrently examining the present. Various factors have contributed to this, including the Palestinian issue, ancient confrontations between the Islamic East and Christian West, colonialism and its aftermath, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and subsequent movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS that have forced the West to delve deeper into Islam. Some aspects of this research resemble the model of research in Hebrew studies, where insights from the sacred book are applied to other areas. Regarding Indology, the portion related to the Persian language and Islam is connected to the period of the British East India Company’s rule. At this stage, even Muslims residing in the West are actively involved in research.

Whatever it is, now the attractions have increased, and as new works emerge, many enthusiasts are interested in getting to know Islamic countries, the history of Islam, Islamic art, and many other aspects.

Criticism of New Islamic Studies in the West Is Our Right

It is our natural right to have a critical stance towards the new research emerging in the West in the field of Islamic studies. This is both academically desirable and, considering that we are Muslims, if a topic related to our religion is published, it is normal to have a greater motivation for critique. When they express opinions about us and our religious and cultural assets, we must critique. We can say that from certain perspectives, we have a better internal understanding of Islam, something they are deprived of, and until recently, they were unwilling to accept.

There is just one issue; in these criticisms, we will be accused of critiquing out of bias. Experience has shown that many of our critiques stem from religious biases and our prevalent beliefs (just as their research is influenced by their beliefs in the field of research and the humanities). Ultimately, we live in Iran, believe in Islam and Shiism, and they also have aspects that we will criticize. The important thing is to distinguish between academic criticism and religious and belief-based criticism. This is a challenge we must face. The results will become clear. Either they will be proven wrong or we will realize our own mistakes. In any case, we will stand tall, provided we engage in academic work and approach it with the same seriousness as they do.

Let me provide three examples:

A: When the book “Islam in Iran” by Petrushevsky was published, despite the perception that there were no restrictions on publishing such works during the Shah’s era, the book could not be published without criticism. Aqa Hakimi wrote some critiques of it, which are included at the end of the book.

B: When the book “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empires” by Gibbon was published, the chapter related to Islam and the Prophet, Chapter Fifty, was not translated. This is despite the fact that this section, in comparison to officially Sunni texts, was written in a Shia manner. Gibbon, before mentioning Abu Bakr’s caliphate, dedicated an introduction to the character of Imam Ali, wrote very important and positive points, and explicitly states: “The Prophet, during his illness, was in the company of Aisha, the intelligent daughter of Abu Bakr, who was an opponent of Ali.”

C: About a decade ago, when the translation of the book “Shi’ism” by Heinz Halm was published, I attached nearly seventy footnotes to it for the Foundation for Islamic Studies to consider for publication. Critique is undoubtedly a valuable endeavor, and since works like these are important to us, we should critique Western works. However, this critique should be academic and systematic. The book “The Succession to Muhammad” also faced difficulties in publication and the publisher had to add footnotes and explanations. Eventually, a book critiquing it was written (Imam Ali: the Successor of the Messenger of Allah, by Hossein Abdolmohammadi), and the publisher, who was under pressure, decided to include it in the book’s introduction, allowing for its independent publication.

Understanding that Orientalism is Intended for Muslim and Non-Muslim Audiences

In essence, we must comprehend how these works have been written and on what foundations. We need to identify the methods they have used and the ways we can critique them. Here are a few points to consider:

Firstly, it’s crucial for Muslim readers to recognize that while the recipients of our writings here may be believers who accept many of our assumptions, their audience worldwide consists of individuals who are not necessarily believers. Grasping this concept requires reflection from us and all Muslim readers. Unfortunately, ordinary people and even many critics of Orientalist works lack this understanding.

Secondly, their research methods differ from ours. We need to familiarize ourselves with their methodologies and critique them based on those methods. We might find faults in their approach. The key is to understand the research methods they employ. These could be traditional methods, phenomenological approaches, or other methodologies rooted in different fields like linguistics (philology) and the like. We must take this into account and critique them on the same path. We need to cultivate the ability within ourselves to engage in critique. Generally, we possess traditional research methods and are less acquainted with modern research methods.

Thirdly, alongside avoiding bias in research, we must steer clear of being overly “zealous” and engaging in “biased” behavior, meaning we should avoid extremes in our approach. We are confronted with a Quranic verse: [5:8] “Do not let the hatred of a people lead you to injustice.” This verse encompasses both behavioral and intellectual aspects.

Deep intellectual and historical divides between Western Christianity and the Islamic East

The roots of our negative view of Oriental Studies have a history as deep as the emergence of Islam itself. This historical context, which is quite evident, can be summarized as follows:

Firstly, Islam arose during the reformulation of Christianity and Judaism. In fact, Islam grew in the rejection of Judaism and Christianity. Additionally, Islam replaced Christianity in the Levant and North Africa. The Quran’s slogan was “We were not Jews or Christians” and many verses were revealed criticizing and reforming Christianity and Judaism. After the Prophet’s passing, Islam engaged most significantly with Christianity. In Syria and North Africa, it took control of regions under Christian influence. This situation continued until the Crusades.

Secondly, with the onset of Western colonialism and the proliferation of contentious literature between Islam and Christianity, the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert Muslims in all these lands led to the revival of previous debates. Europeans did not have this situation in non-Muslim traditional Africa, but in the Middle East, the subcontinent, and Muslim North Africa, not only were many Muslim lands occupied by “Western Christians,” but efforts were made to “Christianize Muslims.” It seems natural to say that this issue had a significant impact on Oriental Studies and our criticisms as Muslims of their works.

Thirdly, the growth of Oriental Studies in the West during the Enlightenment era, along with the emergence of the new science of history, the utilization of novel research methods, extensive linguistic work, and new philosophical debates, placed “religious beliefs” under scrutiny. Similar to this situation in the West, it subjected Christianity and Judaism to intense scrutiny and dissected the bones of these two religions. In fact, the Enlightenment era was critical of religion and religious beliefs, and this had an impact on Oriental Studies and Islamic Studies. The result is that our approach to Oriental Studies has been largely negative for the past two hundred years, and these roots trace back to the developments in these three periods.

Oriental Studies, Knowledge, and Pseudo-Knowledge

The scientific approach has a somewhat clear definition. It helps distinguish what is scientific knowledge from what is not. The knowledge being presented is subject to whether it is scientific or pseudo-scientific. This depends on many factors, and we know that there is a lot of variation in this regard. However, regardless of these differences, the level of acceptance of results within a broad, diverse community should be maximized.

The knowledge produced in the field of Oriental Studies must also follow this path. It should be determined whether top scholars have written it or whether it comes from market-driven or non-professional individuals, who also exist in abundance. It should be determined if it was written with bias or impartiality, whether academic methods were adhered to or not, and whether their opinions have gained maximum acceptance within a diverse range of communities and groups.

In the field of Islamic Studies, we also have both academic and pseudo-academic. Sometimes, individuals who lean towards extremism, for whatever reason, muddy the waters in this domain. It’s crucial to clarify where the scientific discussion lies and where extremism and exaggeration exist. Asking questions is good; questioning forms the foundation of academic progress. A single question or accusation can lead to extensive research, revealing many insights. Western research is not uniform; it can be academic or pseudo-academic. There have been numerous works and diverse opinions that have disappeared over time. Here, we must differentiate between questions that help us conduct further research and baseless theories that only cloud the issue. In any case, we must be advocates for research and strive to engage in research and move it forward.

Before, it was emphasized that in the West, a considerable amount of non-academic material has been presented in the field of Oriental Studies, especially during a time when the recent advancements had not yet occurred. It is clear that academic research is always evolving and changing in all fields. However, sometimes unconventional steps are taken, which, if met with an academic community, are promptly addressed. Examples of astonishing and different views include some of Gobineau’s writings, which, according to Robert Irwin, started reading Iranian cuneiform inscriptions by creating a fusion of Aryan languages and the origins of the cuneiform script, among other things, and compiled speculations that were ridiculed and mocked by other Orientalists. Gobineau was more interested in establishing his particular racial theory, which later led to the crisis of fascism in Europe. However, here the focus is on his Orientalist fabrications in the field of cuneiform.

In our time, there are also groups of Western researchers known as skeptics who provide bizarre theories. These individuals sometimes create waves of doubt, but when we have chosen to live in the realm of academic discourse, we must patiently confront such opinions. Knowledge and academic methods have their own filters for distinguishing the credible from the incredible. It’s better to trust these methods.

It’s necessary to mention that in recent decades, some Iranians in the Western sphere have written openly anti-religious works against Islam and the Prophet (p). Many of these works are well-known. The atmosphere created by these works, and the type of cherry-picking of Western methods, albeit of an extreme kind, has completely inflamed the atmosphere of confrontation on this side. Almost every year, several such works are published. We have no doubt that these works should be outside the scope of Oriental Studies, but general judgment does not always accept these recommendations.

Another challenge we face is a collection of narrative works against Islam written in Iran that has kept some of our scholars busy responding to them. Once upon a time, there was Zabihollah Mansouri, and his translation of Constantin Virgil’s book “Mohammed, a Prophet Who Must Be Known Again”. Then, in Qom, Aqa Mohammad Ali Ansari wrote a refutation of the book: “Muhammad, the Recognized Prophet.” This was also the case regarding Mansouri’s works on Imam Sadiq (a), with translations in Persian and later in Arabic and Urdu.

Oriental Studies Under the Shadow of Interreligious Hatreds

The accusation of being Jewish, one of the worst accusations in the Islamic world, still holds considerable weight. Accusations that a particular individual is Jewish or of Jewish descent, or that a particular religious sect has Jewish roots, fall into this category. This shadow of accusation can also be seen in Oriental Studies. Here, two issues are at play:

The first point is that in the field of Islamic studies, a significant number of Jewish researchers are a matter of concern. This has caused doubt and suspicion among Muslims and has repeatedly raised questions. It has been said that the reason for this is that these individuals are Jews who have entered the field of historical research through philology, drawn to this field due to the connection between Arabic and Hebrew languages. In reality, they were trying to better understand the sacred texts by learning ancient languages. Another aspect of this connection lies in the relationship between various Semitic languages and, on the other hand, their inclusion in a broader family of ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Sumerian, and others. Even if this justification is partly accurate, which it certainly is to some extent, it remains a sensitive issue for Muslims. From a Muslim perspective, Jews are considered more hostile than Christians, and if a Muslim knows that someone is Jewish, even if they are reading a book written by a Westerner, they may immediately apply the brakes and scrutinize it more closely.

The second part of this saga, in the modern era, Oriental Studies has become linked with the issue of Palestine and Zionism. The Palestinian issue and the clash between Islam and Judaism from this perspective have reinforced the suspicion that Jewish Oriental studies aim to undermine Islam and ridicule it. We know that Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian and undoubtedly the most famous Orientalist critic, emphasized the work of Goldziher (d. 1921) as a Zionist researcher in Arab countries and also in Iran. His book, titled “Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” has faced criticism and condemnation. This book has never been allowed to be published in Iran. The book “The Trial of Goldziher the Zionist” by Muhammad Ghazali from Egypt was translated by Sadr Balaghi and published by the Islamic Propagation Office, probably before 1363 (1984).

The third point is that, nevertheless, the origins of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are religiously, foundationally, and conceptually close. The accusation that the Quran is derived from Jewish teachings has always troubled Muslims. However, the common linguistic and religious roots are a matter of interest to many researchers in the field of Quranic science and jurisprudence. These similarities are part of research that is currently being conducted, known as “Biblical-Quranic studies.”

The Acceleration of Islamic Studies in the West in Recent Years

In a new era of research in the field of Islamic studies, we are witnessing a fresh wave of expansion in this field. This phenomenon has several reasons, including:

Firstly, Islam plays a more active role in the world, which is due to various factors. However, what matters to us is the significance of this issue in the expansion of Islamic studies. Islamic countries are on a path of growth, and the West has no choice but to engage with them in various activities.

Secondly, the migration of a large number of Muslims to the West, which has followed the major migrations from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, as well as Iraqi Arabs, has provided the groundwork for this participation. Many of these individuals are young and devout. They are also familiar with modern education. They have assimilated part of Western culture and naturally look at issues through modern methodologies. They are interested in developing Islamic studies. Examples include institutions like Al-Azhar, Saudi institutions, and numerous individuals who, apart from these institutions, are in various universities.

Thirdly, Western-style universities or branches of major European and American universities in Qatar, the Emirates, and Beirut exist where graduates work with modern methodologies. In the past, these graduates primarily came from the American University of Beirut, but today, closer ties in this field have developed, contributing to the expansion of Islamic research with Western methodologies.

Fourthly, the virtual space and the widespread adoption of the English language by Muslims have led even Muslims in their own countries to engage with Western methodologies in these fields. Some want to know what Westerners are saying, others are interested in critiquing them, and some simply have a fascination with Western approaches. In any case, research in these areas is expanding in these countries. Translation of new works, albeit to a limited extent, is helping to develop these studies.

In any case, over the past half-century, scientific exchanges through translation, scientific conferences, Iranian and Islamic encyclopedias, the expansion of scholarly research articles, and the publication of articles in foreign journals have all, in one way or another, contributed to collaboration in creating a new intellectual space.

The Difference in the Level of Research Between Us and Them

We must acknowledge that there is a difference in the level of research between the works produced in the Islamic East and what exists in Western studies about the Islamic world. Various factors are likely responsible for this difference that need to be addressed to overcome weaknesses. It is not our intention to delve into this here, but it is clear that one of the reasons for our weaknesses lies in our utilization of research methods and methodologies. We used to think more deeply and systematically in the third to sixth centuries. In the subsequent eras, we have produced substantial works. However, overall, we are plagued by a methodological weakness.

Another point is the growth of social theories, which have made it easier to understand the course of history. Do you understand history better with the help of Ibn Khaldun or without it? It is quite clear that it is with it. This is one of our serious problems, and we must address it. Mr. Firouzehi understood the Constitutional Revolution with Foucault, and, of course, better than many others did.

Another point is our text-reading, or rather, non-reading. This text-reading requires preliminary prerequisites. A significant part of research focuses on understanding a language, its vocabulary, the history of the language, and the discussion of linguistic jurisprudence. We neither read a significant number of ancient texts nor understand them correctly. A substantial portion of Oriental Studies has been carried out through the lens of philology and linguistic jurisprudence, which is where our weakness lies.

We need to become text-readers both quantitatively and qualitatively. We should delve into words and combinations, the roots of words, the connections between sentences, and the diversity and evolution of meanings. We need to make new discoveries by confronting them. We possess valuable texts, of which we have not even used ten percent to understand the Islamic culture in the past. Especially us Iranians, who also have a linguistic challenge. Another point is that reading texts with new technological capabilities, most likely, will soon undergo a profound transformation.

Furthermore, we often read the early history of Islam for ethical, political, and social justifications. Not only us, but also previous generations have been doing the same. In today’s terms, we ideologically engage in understanding a set. We have presumptions. This kind of research does not progress, and we are always lagging behind. Even if we do have it, the goal of research should be “accurate understanding,” not “proving something beforehand.”

For this reason, despite having thousands of theology students in various religious fields including jurisprudence and law, Quranic and Hadith sciences, and jurisprudence, we have not achieved good qualitative output. My question is: what is the way to address this issue? It’s clear that there are other problems as well, but the lack of method in this generation and the absence of supervision by professors who are themselves experts in the field have contributed to this poor quality situation.

Praise for Prophet Muhammad in 18th and 19th Century European Works and Its Reflection in Iran

In this year’s summer class in Inekas, the subject of study is the prophetic biography and the knowledge of the Prophet (p). I wanted to discuss a point I made in my recent work, which is the discourse on Islamic civilization during the Pahlavi period. In the past hundred years, we have encountered a discourse about the Prophet (p) in the works of Muslims, in the form of translations and original writings, which draw upon the writings of orientalists, or Western scholars in general, about the personality of the Prophet. In fact, we are witnessing a phase in Western research that views Islam and the Prophet positively, and this is a product of specific circumstances that occurred during the Enlightenment period. Minou Reeves’s book, “Muhammad in Europe,” explains this phenomenon and its reasons. Farhad Ghodossi’s explanations also indicate that further studies have been conducted in this regard. Several factors may explain why this approach emerged in the West:

Firstly, a form of gradual moderation and tolerance in confronting religions and cultures has emerged, leading to a reduction in extreme biases, and at the very least, if something positive is observed, it is reported. In fact, the dust of prejudice has gradually settled.

Secondly, most of the recent research is conducted by authors who do not have affiliations with the Church and may even be critical of it. They seek to praise what is non-Christian. Prophet Muhammad (p) and Islam have been historical rivals and possess the potential for such praise. In their research, they praise Islam more rationally and admire it when compared to Christianity. Their new definition of religion was not confined to Christianity but included major religions, and they attempted to praise it to some extent. In other words, as the field of Orientalism became more secular, it was, to a certain extent, in favor of Islam because certain aspects of it were praised from this perspective in contrast to Christianity.

Thirdly, it can be said that a movement towards reform in the West during the 18th and 19th centuries aimed at replacing some religious, legal, and moral issues for the new European life. Their approach in studying other civilizations could have led to this result, and thus they became interested in certain Islamic issues, including some aspects of Prophet Muhammad’s character, and wrote about them.

Some of these 19th-century writings in this field were translated into Arabic, Urdu, and from there into Persian, creating a wave of joy among Muslims. Books and articles about the positive views of Western writers on Islam were written.

One of the most famous of these, which was translated into Arabic and Persian and printed multiple times, was a part of Thomas Carlyle’s book “On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in History,” which he wrote about the lives of historical heroes, including a section about Prophet Muhammad (p). This book was translated into Persian by a well-known Iranian scholar named Abu Abdullah Zanjani and was published in the year 1312 SH.

Voltaire also contributed a plethora of such materials, which Javad Haddidi compiled in the book “Voltaire and Islam.”

This path continued until recently when works by Annemarie Schimmel about Prophet Muhammad were published. She is remembered as someone who deeply admired Prophet Muhammad and her defense of reports surrounding him, even touching on issues related to his private life, is noteworthy.

In contrast, what has concerned Muslims is the multitude of issues, from denying the historical existence of Prophet Muhammad to what has been said about him, his attributes, life, and character. Here, you can see a plethora of issues that clearly contradict Islamic beliefs. This is a trend that is currently being followed by Western extremists, and from time to time, they introduce new ideas that are clearly at odds with these beliefs. While they inspire many to expand their research, they also create concerns and intense opposition against such research and writings. The least of its effects internally is a sense of pessimism and a reluctance to approach these topics.

Accusations of Westernization and Oriental Studies

In Iranian literature, from the late Qajar period onwards, we have a genre known as the struggle against Westernization, Westoxification, or even a term like “Farangi.” These writings are produced by individuals who tend to have a traditionalist or conservative inclination and oppose the manifestations of Westernization at various levels. Part of these Western influences includes Oriental studies, whether related to Islam, Iran, history, or culture and civilization. Oriental studies are viewed with suspicion by these individuals and are sometimes ridiculed, with them finding various ways to criticize Oriental research. In Arab countries, some are recognized as enemies of Orientalists. For example, Muhammad Kurd Ali can be mentioned, who strongly criticizes them in his book “al-Islam wa al-Hadarah al-Arabiyah” (Islam and Arab Civilization).

In Iran, examples of such sentiments can be found in the writings of Ahmad Kasravi, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, and even Shariati. Jalal Al-e-Ahmad states, “The Faculty of Literature, like the others, is afflicted by Westoxification,” and he adds, “The greatest evidence of the ugliness of Westoxification is in the references that our professors make to the statements of Orientalists.” (Westoxification, p. 184-185) In another place, he speaks against Oriental studies, saying, “The eminent Orientalists, who have compiled an encyclopaedia out of every divine scripture and a culture out of every bit of hair.” (p. 185).

The result of this perspective and the output of these writings has been a lingering skepticism towards these studies. Some of their errors have also been ridiculed. Their sarcastic references to the Iranian race, or to Islam, or similar themes have quickly become known. Sometimes, their research has been mocked on the grounds that they do not address serious issues of the people and that their research is superficial. Examples of these cases can be seen in Jalal Al-e-Ahmad’s book “Westoxification.”

This can be seen as a form of cultural anti-colonialism. The origin of this literature lies in a reformist tendency to modernize society by eliminating foreign elements, and it is natural that confronting Oriental studies is part of this process. In reality, we are caught up in a dislike for the West, which prevents us from correctly understanding and appreciating what they say, whether we need to accept it or provide academic criticism.

The Concept of Islamic Civilization and Extensive Research First Emerged in Oriental Studies

For at least two centuries, we have had panegyric literature from Islamic scholars about Islamic civilization, Islamic sciences, or knowledge in the Islamic world, among other aspects. I have even read that the concept of Islamic architecture or, more precisely, the “Islamic city,” originated in the minds of French Orientalists in North Africa.

A portion of these studies, especially those in the field of the history of science, involve Westerners attributing value to the history of science, even in minor details, such as solving an equation or discovering an important element. Bibliographies of works produced in the Islamic world, such as Brockelmann’s “History of the Arabic Written Tradition,” were compiled.

It is natural for someone to write about the history of science or its advancements in our past era. They have developed the field of history of science, and at times, this literature takes on a somewhat celebratory tone. This can be attributed to the enthusiasm and inclination of a Western writer, just as it can arise from other motivations, where the writer finds interest in a phenomenon from the East. Generally, I don’t have any criticism of these writings, but I would like to point out a side effect of them in the Islamic world. They tend to diminish our spirit of self-critique. While this condition has been more prevalent in the past, it continues even today. Here, a misconception emerges for us, that they also acknowledge that we have been very significant individuals. These statements, in and of themselves, are not problematic, but the issue lies in why we should emphasize our erroneous beliefs based on these praises and perceive our history as more significant, while downplaying the advancements in new knowledge. It is as if we constantly resort to Western statements to bolster our own self-importance, which is not devoid of issues.

How Can We Reconcile Belief and Research?

It is quite clear that religious and faith-based beliefs inherently entail a certain rigidity in perspectives. This natural tendency is not specific to Islam but is prevalent in Middle Eastern religions, albeit more seriously in some of them.

We often discuss the presence of bias and how, in any case, to preserve our beliefs, we are compelled to suppress certain research, prevent the publication of certain works, or respond to criticism with obstinacy.

It’s evident that in many religious matters, we must rely on “tradition,” and the possibility of scientific transparency that non-religious audiences might accept is less common. Sometimes, it’s not even acceptable to Muslims themselves, and we often find ourselves saying that a particular hadith is fabricated, another hadith comes from Isra’iliyat, and another belief was developed later and did not exist previously, among other justifications.

Is it possible to entrust a portion of religious beliefs to the realm of research while maintaining another portion in the realm of faith, or simultaneously hold a faithful perspective on religion and, from another angle, a research-oriented approach? We must contemplate what solutions might exist in this regard.

Perhaps it can be said that God has endowed us with the spirit to maintain dual mental and faith-based worlds for ourselves.

In any case, it is a challenging matter, and until a solution is found, our struggles persist, and in many sensitive cases, scientific transparency will not be achievable. Until a better solution is reached, we must make use of this approach of having a dual perspective – mental and faith-based.

We know that many scholars say that everything can be researched. This is a good point that should be preserved and pursued.

Sometimes the atmosphere becomes very intense. I’ll give you a final example:

Nonetheless, we are aware, and it has been mentioned before, that there is a significant difference between researching religious texts within Islamic lands and outside of them. Here, the majority of writings and what could possibly be referred to as research are directed towards utilizing sacred texts for the guidance of society. This approach comes with its own presumption, that you interpret the text or extract principles from the prevailing context in a way that can be used for guidance. Such an approach does not exist in Western research, which is generally non-religious or, in other words, an external perspective on texts.

This can be examined in many cases, and the results of these two approaches can be demonstrated. Moreover, it is a prerequisite in research within a religious community that the outcome does not lead to disbelief, and nothing is brought forth that could be deemed heretical. This practice has currently even directed Western research along a certain path, and they also take this into consideration. The assumption is that with this method, how much academic progress can we achieve? Is there a solution that can safely guide us from the precipice?

The Future of Islamic Studies in the West Will be Even More Astonishing than Before

Research fields in Islamic studies in the West, or institutions affiliated with the West, are expanding to such an extent that sooner or later, a significant amount of work will be generated from this area. Currently, this work encompasses fields such as culture, history, society, and economics, and gradually, it will not only expand in these areas but also lead to new research in emerging topics. For instance, I can cite the field of jurisprudence (fiqh) as an example. If research in this area is widely opened up due to its intriguing subject matter, it will yield abundant results. When Michael Cook wrote the book “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought” and had it published through the efforts of the Mashad Research Foundation, it was possible to anticipate that a transformation in research in a new style of jurisprudential matters would occur, although in my opinion, this hasn’t fully materialized yet. Particularly, it pertains to the jurisprudential system of Sunni Islam, which has very broad dimensions.

In any case, one of the particular aspects of new research is the opening of the door to study entirely new fields. Topics that were previously thought to be suitable for only a few pages of writing are now becoming subjects for entire books. This expansion is a product of a unique perspective on historical subjects and, in essence, the growth of historical research fields and an addition to the field of historical sciences.

Has Our Tolerance Toward Some Criticisms by Orientalists Increased?

Can we say that some of the issues that used to cause negative sensitivity towards Oriental studies in the past have gradually become more ordinary? The world has moved towards tolerance, and we have also developed a more commonplace understanding of certain issues.

Issues that arose in Europe regarding Christianity, and were once considered a threat that would soon undermine Christianity, have now become commonplace. If time passes, our situation will more or less become the same. This process will certainly be gradual.

In my opinion, to some extent, it’s a positive response. We used to think that some issues would weaken our faith, but gradually it has become clear that the skin of religion is thicker than these criticisms:

Firstly, people’s faith is of a different nature and is not related to these issues, nor does it waver because of them. In fact, in the face of these criticisms, one can deal with them in a way that makes their faith even stronger.

Secondly, some of these issues are problems that even if they are correct, they do not necessarily have to undermine the foundation of the religion. The reason is that these studies, just as they raise criticisms, also provide solutions. For example, it used to be thought that saying some issues in the Quran were references to contemporary issues and beliefs would weaken the beliefs of Muslims, but now there are other linguistic justifications that shift the issue in another direction and do not create any disruption in our beliefs as it has not done so in recent years.

Orientalism, Orientalists and Colonialism

The association of Orientalism with colonialism and its related factors has been one of the most significant reasons for our aversion to the outcomes of these studies. Muslims couldn’t simultaneously tolerate the colonizers who, with power, suppression, warships, and artillery, looted their countries, like in Algeria or India, and have a positive view of Westerners who wrote books and articles about Islam and the Islamic civilization. This pertains to a period that can be explicitly labeled as the era of direct colonization. The history of Orientalism from this perspective is fraught with issues, which critics often point to.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that in the records of these individuals, there’s often a history of collaboration with the foreign ministries or military and security organizations of their home countries. Critiques frequently focus on these matters.

Of course, there have been scholars in these countries who, regardless of these issues, engaged in scientific collaboration with them. However, whenever criticism was raised about Orientalism, the emphasis was often placed on these concerns. For instance, in Iran, the cooperation of scholars like Taqizadeh or Ghazvini with a group of Orientalists was considered normal, and normalizing this collaboration served to minimize concerns. Nevertheless, doubts and suspicions persisted, and these individuals were also criticized periodically for these reasons.

However, a crucial issue for us as Muslims, especially Iranians, is the occupation of Orientalists, particularly their collaboration with colonial institutions. It is often argued that Orientalism emerged alongside, and even within, colonialism, and many of these individuals, either initially coming with the institutions of other countries to the Middle East or other Islamic lands like Egypt and North Africa, after learning Arabic or Persian and gaining expertise in understanding the East, were employed by Western intelligence, military, and propaganda institutions.

This matter has gone to such an extent that when it came to taking stronger stances against Zionism in this field, Irwin writes, “When Louis Massignon died in 1962 … he believed that Christians should learn a lot about true monotheism, the nature of worship, and many other things from Muslims” (Dangerous Knowledge, pp. 271-272). Regarding Hamilton Gibb, whom Edward Said criticizes in Orientalism, he states, “He was a critic of British policies in the Arab and Palestinian issue.”

Concerning Algar, who wrote early works about the Iranian revolution, some skeptical individuals even claimed that Edward Granville Browne was the intellectual mastermind behind the Iranian Constitutional Revolution.

The issue of collaboration with governments, espionage, or providing guidance to them may have different interpretations in various cultures and countries. However, for us Iranians, who have been under foreign influence for at least two centuries, it carries a particularly negative connotation.

Perhaps in recent years, the situation has changed, and Western researchers’ academic independence has increased. If that’s the case, it may have some positive impact on mitigating negative perceptions.

Sometimes our knowledge of Orientalists is limited. Consider this sentence from Robert Irwin: “In general, a remarkable number of French Orientalists of the twentieth century were anti-imperialists, including Jacques Berque, Vincent Monteil, André Julien, Roger Blachère, Claude Cahen, and Maxime Rodinson” (p. 272).

Nevertheless, the story of colonialism and orientalism itself is quite extensive, and its effects on our perception of this phenomenon and the credibility and respect we have for its intellectual productions have been far-reaching. One of the most famous Orientalists, who, over more than seventy years, aligned his scientific activities with political positions, professional conduct, and an approach against Muslims, was Bernard Lewis. He openly spoke in alignment with Israeli policies and analyzed them. Doctoral dissertations have been written about him both in Iran and Saudi Arabia, attempting to clarify the roots of his positions. Such instances are black marks that have cast doubt on the record of Orientalism.

However, what the European monarchs and later the modern governments there were doing has many justifications. In one of these cases, after World War I, it is mentioned that following England’s successive failures in the Far East, a committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Lord Scarbrough, the former governor of Bombay, to “examine the facilities offered by universities and other educational institutions in Great Britain for the study of Eastern, Slavic, Eastern European, and African languages and cultures, and to determine what benefits can be derived from these facilities and provide recommendations for their improvement” (p. 282). The recommendation of this committee, due to the backwardness of Oriental studies in Britain, led to a substantial allocation of funds for the development of Oriental studies.

Russian Orientalism: The Most Biased Form of Oriental Studies

Perhaps one of the worst forms of Oriental studies, which also significantly influences Iranian studies, is Russian Orientalism. This Orientalism, from its inception, was ideological and based on materialist philosophy. In comparison to religious thought, it had an entirely atheistic foundation, and each step of it could be provocative. There are numerous examples of this. When the book “Islam in Iran” by Petrovsky was published, it was accompanied by extensive criticism and commentary to prevent potential consequences.

Irwin mentions an article by Liutsian Klimovich with the title “Did Muhammad Exist?” and, of course, its answer was negative (p. 277). He cites other writings by the same person who claimed that there are references in the Quran indicating that this text, the Quran, was written in the 11th century AD (p. 277). Nevertheless, under no circumstances should any kind of research that can help shed light on some aspects of Islamic culture be ignored.

Is the Expansion of Western Studies Dangerous?

The fact that a generation of our young researchers today is fully engaged in Western research with new methods is a point of merit. Some may be pessimistic, especially when it comes to criticisms of some of their findings, but when we have confidence in academic and its critical power, we can consider these developments as a positive step and, in fact, a significant contribution to academic advancement in our society.

Currently, we have books and articles in the field of Islamic and Iranian studies that, in terms of research methodology, are on par with the ongoing work in Western academic institutes. Even if there are criticisms of them, such as the critiques and criticisms written about works of this kind, they are part of the scholarly discourse.

We have another problem in Iran, and to some extent in the Islamic world. The problem is that sometimes Western writings get caught up in the political developments and daily issues. The acceptance of an idea or theory is driven purely by the fact that a certain political movement has engaged in actions that opponents consider contrary to the prevailing ideology, and they move towards it. In other words, some Western theories that, in some way, do not align with the ideology prevailing in some political systems in Iran, Saudi Arabia, or elsewhere, are embraced and promoted by one group or criticized by another. We should, as far as possible, maintain the dignity of academic methods and academic discourse and dialogues.

Dangerous Knowledge by Robert Irwin

It can be said that this book, “Dangerous Knowledge” by Robert Irwin, is the most important work that focuses on the issue of Orientalism and the perspectives that Muslims or Christians have on it, following Edward Said’s Orientalism. The debate between Edward Said and Robert Irwin in “Orientalism” and “Dangerous Knowledge” contains interesting reports on the confrontation of these two viewpoints.

A part of Irwin’s book discusses the “Enemies of Orientalism,” including others. Regarding the recent individual, he mentions that this person has a book on Orientalism, Islam, and Islamists and criticizes Gibb, even though he is not a Muslim, for believing he has the right to speak about Islam.

Irwin often demonstrates that these individuals are influenced by specific ideologies that essentially make them disregard historical facts about the Orientalist movement and follow their own biased view of Orientalism with hostility.

The point here is not that Irwin is wrong. He himself knows that some Orientalists are heavily influenced by Western and Christian beliefs. However, as I mentioned elsewhere, we need to have a more historically accurate perspective on the development of Orientalism on one hand and a better understanding of the prominent figures in this field.

Oriental Studies Still Faces Accusations

Currently, entering the field of Islamic studies remains challenging, and the grounds for accusations are still present. In such a way that if a Western or Eastern researcher is influenced by these methods, they can still face the same issues as in the past when being accused. In some cases, prejudices may have even intensified.

In recent years, with the improvement of the financial situation in Arab countries, they support research conducted within European countries in the field of Islam. Their goal is to defend Islam, especially Salafi Islam. However, while much of this research is valuable and useful, it requires attention to the potential biases in these studies. Western concerns may be that some of these Muslims openly intend to influence this research.

Among those involved in these discussions is Aqa Majid Daneshgar, who had a conversation on this topic with Aqa Zaher Mir Karimi. As far as I understand, in his view, there is a danger of ideological tendencies entering research in the field of Quranic studies, and anyone entering this field should be vigilant against such influences. He is concerned about the confrontations of some anti-Orientalist Muslim scholars who label new research in Islamic studies as neo-colonialism and may hinder Quranic studies with their activities, which they refer to as a form of political action and advocacy. His criticisms of Edward Said are particularly noteworthy.

Another point to consider is that the heritage of Orientalists in fields that are not inherently ideological is significant. We should always pay attention to the immense volume of work and the role it has played in reviving Islamic culture. These studies encompass language, lexicography, history, text editing, and many other subjects that could be neglected and overlooked in this debate.

It’s interesting to note that some works written by Western scholars about Islamic civilization have an admiring tone towards Islamic culture, which has always been attractive to Muslims. At least three books of this kind have been translated into Persian during the Pahlavi era and have been used by Iranian Muslim authors.

Let us remember that we never dedicated ourselves to studying any culture other than our own when the Europeans were busy studying and understanding Islamic culture from the 17th to the 20th centuries. What were the motivations behind these activities? Orientalist adversaries have always focused on political, hegemonic, and colonial motivations, which have undoubtedly existed. However, the love for understanding the East, both for diversity and, importantly, as an addition to Western knowledge, has been one of the most significant motivations. Without this love, the work wouldn’t have reached this level.

No matter how many recommendations are made, it can be considered a presumption that Muslims still maintain a cautious attitude towards Western productions. They are as happy with the publication of a text that has a favorable attitude towards their faith as they are indifferent to other issues, or if it contains criticism, they may not be willing to accept it. It may take years for them to feel that a belief is tolerable and justifiable, but overall, this difficulty will persist, and its consequences will also be waiting.


  1. This paper was presented at the opening keynote speech by Rasul Jafariyan for the Third Inekas Summer School titled, Muhammad: Life, Society, and Legacy. For more information on the event, click here.