Impossible histories —Edward Said

These excerpts from Said’s articles are being posted due to the torrent of comments posted here by some of our visitors. They tend to take a simplistic view of Islam and Muslims and repeat the same mantra over and over again. Therefore, we hope that Edward Said’s exceptionally nuanced comment will add value to the ill-informed rants posted on PTH. Raza Rumi

As a religious idea, Islam goes back to seventh-century Arabia and to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), God’s Messenger, whose book of divine revelations is collected in the prose-poetic surahs of the Quran. Having said that, however, one is only at the very beginning, and even primitive, level of what Islam is.

Islam is a world of many histories, many peoples, many languages, traditions, schools of interpretation, proliferating developments, disputations, cultures, and countries. A vast world of more than 1.2 billion people stretched out over every continent, north and south, including now the Americas, it cannot adequately be apprehended or understood simply as “Islam”.

The history of trying to come to terms with this somewhat fictionalised (or at least constructed) Islam in Europe and later in the US has always been marked by crisis and conflict, rather than by calm, mutual exchange. … In my book Orientalism, I argued that the original reason for European attempts to deal with Islam as if it were one giant entity was polemical — that is, Islam was considered a threat to Christian Europe and had to be fixed ideologically. Later, as the European empires developed over time, knowledge of Islam was associated with control, with power, with the need to understand the “mind” and ultimate nature of a rebellious and somehow resistant culture as a way of dealing administratively with an alien being at the heart of the expanding empires, especially those of Britain and France.

During the Cold War, as the US vied with the Soviet Union for dominance, Islam quickly became a national-security concern in the US, though until the Iranian revolution (and even after it, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) the US followed a path of encouraging and actually supporting Islamic political groups, which by definition were also anti-Communist and tended to be useful in opposing radical nationalist movements supported by the Soviets. After the Cold War ended and the US became the “world’s only superpower”, it soon became evident that in the search for new world-scale, outside enemies, Islam was a prime candidate, thus quickly reviving all the old religiously based clichés about violent, anti-modernist, and monolithic Islam. These clichés were useful to Israel and its political and academic supporters in the US, particularly because of the emergence of Islamic resistance movements to Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Suddenly a rush of what appeared to be respectably expert material spouted up in the periodical press, most of it purporting to link “Islam” as a whole to such absurdly reductive passions as rage, anti-modernism, anti-Americanism, anti-rationalism, violence, and terror. Quite unsurprisingly, when Samuel Huntington’s vastly overrated article on the clash of civilisations appeared in 1993, the core of its belligerent (and dishearteningly ignorant) thesis was the battle between the “west” and “Islam” (which he sagely warned would become even more dangerous when it was allied with Confucianism).

…Huntington’s title and theme were borrowed from a phrase in an essay, written in 1990 by an energetically self-repeating and self-winding British academic, entitled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’. Its author, Bernard Lewis, made his name 40 years ago as an expert on modern Turkey, but came to the US in the mid-70s and was quickly drafted into service as a Cold Warrior, applying his traditional Orientalist training to larger and larger questions, which had as their immediate aim an ideological portrait of “Islam” and the Arabs that suited dominant pro-imperial and pro-Zionist strands in US foreign policy.

…His view of history is a crudely Darwinian one in which powers and cultures vie for dominance, some rising, some sinking. Lewis’s notions (they are scarcely ideas) seem also to have a vague Spenglerian cast to them, but he has not got any of Spengler’s philosophic ambition or scope. There is not much left to what Lewis says, therefore, than that cultures can be measured in their most appallingly simplified terms (my culture is stronger — i.e. has better trains, guns, symphony orchestras — than yours). For obvious reasons, then, his last book, What Went Wrong? which was written before but published after September 11,… fills a need felt by many Americans: to have it confirmed for them why “Islam” attacked them so violently and so wantonly on September 11, and why what is “wrong” with Islam deserves unrelieved opprobrium and revulsion.

… the book is in fact an intellectual and moral disaster, the terribly faded rasp of a pretentious academic voice, completely removed from any direct experience of Islam, rehashing and recycling tired Orientalist half (or less than half) truths. Remember that Lewis claims to be discussing all of “Islam”, not just the mad militants of Afghanistan or Egypt or Iran. All of Islam. He tries to argue that it all went “wrong”, as if the whole thing — people, languages, cultures — could really be pronounced upon categorically by a godlike creature who seems never to have experienced a single living human Muslim (except for a small handful of Turkish authors), as if history were a simple matter of right as defined by power, or wrong, by not having it…

Of course one can learn about and understand Islam, but not in general and not, as far too many of our expert authors propose, in so unsituated a way. To understand anything about human history, it is necessary to see it from the point of view of those who made it, not to treat it as a packaged commodity or as an instrument of aggression. Why should the world of Islam be any different?

Above all, “we” cannot go on pretending that “we” live in a world of our own; certainly, as Americans, our government is deployed literally all over the globe — militarily, politically, economically. So why do we suppose that what we say and do is neutral, when in fact it is full of consequences for the rest of the human race? In our encounters with other cultures and religions, therefore, it would seem that the best way to proceed is not to think like governments or armies or corporations but rather to remember and act on the individual experiences that really shape our lives and those of others. To think humanistically and concretely rather than formulaically and abstractly, it is always best to read literature capable of dispelling the ideological fogs that so often obscure people from each other. Avoid the trots and the manuals, give a wide berth to security experts and formulators of the us-versus-them dogma, and, above all, look with the deepest suspicion on anyone who wants to tell you the real truth about Islam and terrorism, fundamentalism, militancy, fanaticism, etc. You would have heard it all before, anyway, and even if you had not, you could predict its claims. Why not look for the expression of different kinds of human experience instead, and leave those great non-subjects to the experts, their think tanks, government departments, and policy intellectuals, who get us into one unsuccessful and wasteful war after the other?

(This extract is taken from Said’s article ‘Impossible Histories: Why the Many Islams Cannot be Simplified’, published in Harper’s Magazine, July 2002) – reprinted here

Edward Said was a literary theorist, cultural critic and political activist for Palestine. A founding figure in post-colonialism, he wrote dozens of books, lectures, and essays


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4 responses to “Impossible histories —Edward Said

  1. Thanks for posting this. I needed a bit of Said to clarify my mind again 🙂

  2. Yup, Great Discussion !

  3. “Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), whose bookof divine revelations is collected in the prose-poetic surahs of the Quran.”
    Lets call spade a spade!
    Google Anwar Shaikh and view results

  4. T.S. Bokhari

    “To think humanistically and concretely rather than formulaically and abstractly, it is always best to read literature capable of dispelling the ideological fogs that so often obscure people from each other.”

    A good formulation indeed but what about the Quran, the fundamental manual for the Muslims, which contains every thing from Sura Maun to Baqra, to think concretely and then on top of it all is Sura Fateha. And historically Islam phases from its Maki, a humanistic stage, to Madni, a political stage and now Talibani, a barbaric stage (?). How can we describe Islam ideologically in a concrete form? Is it not as an Urdu poet said:

    “Yih tawaaham ka karkhaanah he
    Yaan woh hi he jo ehtibaar kia”?