A New History of Orientalism

Richard Calis on Alexander Bevilacqua, Noel Malcolm, Simon Mills, and Jürgen Osterhammel

How did Europeans conceptualize the peoples, cultures, and religions of the Middle East? One of the most influential answers to this timeless question was formulated by a university professor who straddled both worlds.

Edward Said was born in Palestine, named after the Prince of Wales, and brought up in an affluent, Arabic-speaking Protestant household. He was educated, first, at British and American schools in Cairo and Jerusalem and, later, at a boarding school in Massachusetts. Princeton became his alma mater; Harvard granted him his PhD; Columbia was where he made his career. The land of his childhood memories spans Palestine, Egypt, and Lebanon. Fluent in English and Arabic, he felt at home in neither.

Few now will be intimately familiar with his first book, a superb study of the fiction and autobiographical writings of Joseph Conrad, whose experiences of exile and displacement resonated strongly with Said, whose memoirs, published in 1999 and as moving as they are revealing, unfold how he spent much of his life feeling out of place. Said’s masterpiece, Orientalism (1978), narrates in dramatic fashion how much of what Europeans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries wrote about the people, cultures, and religions of the ‘Orient’ consisted essentially of “a set of representative figures, or tropes”, a fictional and dangerous discourse untethered from reality but imperial in nature and repeatedly used to legitimize Europe’s colonial projects.

Said’s highly acclaimed and equally controversial study has lost none of its fire today. But the last four decades have also witnessed the publication of numerous studies that tell a different story. Four of them are discussed here. They take us back to the early modern period, before the apogee of Europe’s imperial aggression, when the balance of power had not yet shifted to the colonial powers, and where we find a moment of intercultural possibility that is now all but forgotten.

For there is much early modern European writing on Middle Eastern cultures, languages, and religions that is not dominated by fictional tropes of an Oriental Other. On the contrary: generations of European scholars produced deeply learned works on these topics through collaboration with colleagues living in the Middle East and in dialogue with the latter’s various intellectual traditions.

Alexander Bevilacqua. The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. pp.368 $37.00 (hardcover)

The great number of Western scholars who devoted themselves to the study of the great Islamic empires populate Alexander Bevilacqua’s fabulous The Republic of Arabic Letters. Bevilacqua narrates in lucid prose how the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a transformation in European knowledge of Islam and its peoples. Older stereotypes “gave way to a vast and diverse set of translations, insights and interpretations” and Muslims were no longer seen by Europeans “as deeply alien.”

There was Antoine Galland, for instance, now famous mostly for being the translator of The Thousand and One Nights but also a scholar who amassed massive collections of books and manuscripts and organized them in Oriental libraries. The Roman clergyman Lodovico Marracci studied and translated the Qur’an as did a London solicitor by the name of George Sale. The German Arabist Johann Jacob Reiske, another scholar now only known to a handful of specialists, revolutionized the study of Islamic history. The philological efforts of these and other scholars prompted the establishment of chairs of oriental languages in different European universities. And in many cases—if not most—this research was conducted by scholars looking to shore up their own religious principles.

But their beliefs did not simply cloud their vision. Nor did they work in isolation. One of Bevilacqua’s most important insights is that such research often rested on deep knowledge of different Islamic intellectual traditions.

Edward Pococke’s revolutionary Specimen Historiae Arabum (1650), for instance, which sought to elevate Arabic literature and endow it “with the same dignity traditionally afforded to that of the Greeks and Romans”, was essentially a reworking of a thirteenth-century Arabic chronicle by the Syriac Christian Gregory Bar Hebraeus. The Bibliothèque orientale (1697) by the French Orientalist Barthélemy d’Herbelot embodies a similarly poignant encounter. The more than 8,000 alphabetically-organized entries of this hugely influential reference work offered its readers the period’s most ambitious guide to the arts, history, literature, and religion of different Muslim peoples. It was based on deep research: d’Herbelot, although he never left Europe, had read extensively in the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources available to him. Interestingly, the Bibliothèque orientale is one of the few early modern sources discussed by Said, who argued that d’Herbelot was subjecting the East’s great many cultural achievements to a certain Orientalizing disciplinary order. Said stressed how d’Herbelot’s choice to present his material alphabetically essentially reduced the immense fecundity of the East to nothing but a list. Yet, as Bevilacqua shows, it was not d’Herbelot’s imagination, but a bibliography compiled by the leading Ottoman scholar Kâtip Çelebi—a text that d’Herbelot had read intimately—that lay behind this alphabetical arrangement. European knowledge of the Middle East thus took shape through interactions and conversations with Muslim scholarship.

One salutary lesson that The Republic of Arabic Letters teaches us is that numerous Enlightenment scholars took these Middle Eastern intellectual traditions seriously. Bevilacqua is too sharp a reader to deny that entrenched stereotypes about Muhammed and Islam persisted throughout the early modern period. He, too, attends to the polemics that European scholarship on the Qur’an could serve. But alongside such polemics there were those who, like Pococke and d’Herbelot, saw Muslim intellectuals “as members of the selfsame community of humankind to which he and his readers likewise belonged.” Far from embodying Said’s Orientalism, European writers like d’Herbelot gave their sources and their readers “the gift of humanity.”


Simon Mills’ A Commerce of Knowledge revolves around a similar cast of characters: three generations of chaplains who served the English Levant Company in Aleppo during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Following the signing of the peace treaty between England and the Ottoman Empire (1580), the important trade hub of Aleppo attracted a throng of buccaneering Englishmen in search of manuscripts and the unknown. Mills’ primary goal is to reconstruct the ways in which scholarship and commerce intersected and to illuminate the local booksellers, priests, rabbis, scribes, and sheikhs who aided Europeans in their scholarly endeavors. For in order to get the information and documents that they wanted, the English “were obliged to tap into existing markets for manuscripts and antiquities, and depended on the expertise or the protection of local guides.”

Simon Mills. A Commerce of Knowledge: Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, 1600-1760. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. pp.352 $83 (hardcover)

Few such ‘guides’ did more for scholarship than Aḥmad al-Gulshanī, a Sunni Muslim from Aleppo connected to a local dervish lodge (a tekke), who introduced Pococke to the topic that would make him famous: Arabic poetry. Pococke had originally come to Aleppo looking for materials that fitted the categories that an earlier generation of European orientalists had created. But al-Gulshanī copied for his English guest numerous Arabic poems and commentaries or bought him manuscripts containing these treasured texts. And in that way Pococke “found some of the sources he would mine deeply in the project that secured his fame across Europe as an Arabist.” For centuries the efforts of brokers such as al-Gulshanī were either conveniently forgotten or deliberately erased from the historical record. But they stood at the heart of the kind of Arabic scholarship that flowered in early modern Europe.

Such collaborations were often transactional. Robert Huntington, who arrived in Aleppo in 1671, was able to compile a great collection of manuscripts both for himself and for others back home through the efforts of local brokers. One of them was Istịfān al-Duwayhī, a Maronite Christian who had been elected Patriarch of the Maronite Church shortly before Huntington’s arrival in Syria. Huntington asked al-Duwayhī for books and manuscripts, specifically those that could illuminate the history of the early Church—a primary concern for both Catholic and Protestant scholars looking to prove that their own version of Christianity was the correct one. In return for supplying Huntington with the requested materials, al-Duwayhī received financial aid and possible political support from the Aleppo factory.

For publishing their newfound manuscripts Europeans also relied on the local knowledge of their ‘Eastern’ collaborators. The eighteenth-century Arabic Bible produced by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge is a case in point. Although it was conceived by scholars and merchants from Europe, their Middle Eastern colleagues made its completion possible. Butṛus al-Tūlāwī, the Arabic tutor of one of the Aleppo merchants involved in the project, was consulted to resolve the dispute over whether to print Arabic diacritical markings; a Greek priest was hired to read the proofs for typographical errors; the Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius III Dabbās, was asked to compare the Arabic text with the Greek; and a local Maronite priest was requested to do the same against the Latin Vulgate. Their contribution demonstrates—as do the other forms of collaboration excavated by Mills—that much early modern oriental scholarship was not simply orientalist but a reflection of a much deeper story of encounter and interaction.


Over time Europeans set out to places all over the Asian continent. These journeys and their ramifications for the European Enlightenment form the subject of Jürgen Osterhammel’s monumental Unfabling the East. His argument is as plausible as it is provocative. Europe, according to Osterhammel, had in the early modern period not yet settled into that Orientalist gaze made famous by Said. Early modernity was not “a mere incubation period of Orientalism.” On the contrary: some of the most important philosophical disputes of the early modern period were inflected by the work of those who had either travelled to Asia or made its cultures their special subject of study. Early modern Europeans were thus not simply blinded by their biases but found in Asia—a catch-all category not clearly defined—a mirror, whose examination prompted remarkable levels of self-reflection.

Jürgen Osterhammel. Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia. Translated by Robert Savage. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. pp. 696 $35.00 (hardback)

Osterhammel develops his arguments through analyses of a selection of European travelers and their writings too copious to be discussed in any detail here. These individuals, though, were united, not in the uniformity but in the variety of their observations. For one conclusion that emerges again and again from reading Unfabling the East is that Europe’s long eighteenth century (1680-1820) saw Asia’s magnificent civilizations in more than one way. European ideas about what they called ‘Oriental Despotism’ are a case in point. No early modern writer did more to conceptualize this form of government than the French political philosopher Montesquieu, whose The Spirit of the Laws (1748) offered its readers the definitive definition of despotism. Montesquieu had read his history and knew that any monarchy, even European ones, could slide into despotism. Yet, as he wrote in The Spirit of the Laws, “the part of the world where despotism had been, so to say, naturalized, is Asia.” One of his arguments sounds as misguided now as it was compelling then: Asia’s hot climate allegedly turned its inhabitants into a docile and servile people prone to be governed by an authoritarian regime. Montesquieu’s comparative political sociology was tremendously influential and his creation of an ideal type of despotism would be empirically tested by numerous others who followed in his wake and compared Europe to other civilizations.

Yet Montesquieu’s views, however influential, did not go uncontested. Take the French Indologist Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, who had lived in India for six years and sought to refute with rigorous empirical evidence what he deemed was Montesquieu’s gross misrepresentation of oriental despotism. Osterhammel explains in unforgettable prose how in the Législation Orientale (1778) “Anquetil-Duperron chases his opponents’ arguments up hill and down dale, firing a barrage of quotations and learned commentary in their direction until they have been all but shot to pieces. By the end, the strict opposition of East and West has been transformed into a multitude of finely graded political and social possibilities. Having been dramatized and exorcized by Montesquieu and his ilk, oriental politics is now hauled back into the sphere of experience and common sense.” For Anquetil-Duperron theories claiming general validity of the kind that Montesquieu espoused would never be able to capture reality the way firsthand observation and experience would.

Osterhammel’s book is full of such contrasting portraits. The resulting narrative is one in which an equilibrium between different cultural worlds was slowly flattened into a binary—East vs. West. Osterhammel encourages us not to see in this transition a shift from a ‘positive’ to a ‘negative’ image of Asia but “as a slow movement from an inclusive Eurocentrism, which regarded European superiority as a working hypothesis subject to correction in individual cases, to an exclusive Eurocentrism that took such superiority as axiomatic.”


The willingness of certain European scholars to bring new knowledge about other cultures to bear on the organization of their own social, political and cultural lives forms the organizational principle of Noel Malcolm’s magnificent Useful Enemies as well. Like Osterhammel’s tour de force, this, too, is a hefty tome that examines an extraordinary range of published and unpublished materials in countless languages. The numerous vignettes that enrich the book demonstrate once more that early modern European thinking on Islam and the Ottoman Empire was more diverse and complex than Said’s notion of Orientalism suggests. True, medieval stereotypes that considered Islam a false religion and Muhammed an imposter prone to venality “persisted for an extraordinarily long time in Western writing”. And, yes, for many early modern scholars—including, as we have seen, Montesquieu—the Ottoman Empire was a textbook example of oriental despotism. But alongside these almost ingrained assumptions a new paradigm developed that offered more positive assessments of Ottoman government and society.

Noel Malcolm. Useful Enemies: Islam and The Ottoman Empire in Western Political Thought, 1450-1750. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. pp.512 $34.95 (hardcover)

The French linguist Guillaume Postel, for instance, who travelled to Istanbul in the sixteenth century to help broker an alliance between the French King and the Ottoman Sultan, emphasized the diligence of Ottoman administration of justice. He also praised the piety and charity towards the poor that he observed in the Ottoman Empire. Soon others followed in his wake. This new vision of Ottoman life was in no small part possible through increased contact and travel as well as cultural exchange across political, cultural, and imperial borders.

But Malcolm cautions us against seeing in such depictions a form of “Turcophilia” or a certain admiration for Islam. On the contrary: those who praised aspects of Ottoman civil life often did so to induct shame in their compatriots and adversaries or to provoke a sense of contrition. That is to say that when European writers drew attention to the virtues to be found among the Ottomans they were essentially advocating for a program of moral and spiritual reform back home—not unlike Osterhammel’s mirror. It is this implicit rhetoric that according to Malcolm underlies much of the writing produced in the early modern period about Islam and the Ottoman Empire. Some writers deployed it subversively and implicitly, eager to point out deficiencies in the organization of their political and religious life. Others were more outspoken in their critiques. But Malcolm shows again and again how most European work that sought to engage with the Ottomans as a political phenomenon was inspired by ulterior motives and belonged to political debates internal to the West.

Yet in time the unintended consequences of such “praise-shaming” were profound. By the end of the eighteenth century, European colonial powers did not only tap into that well-entrenched rhetoric about the Orient made famous by Said. The Ottoman Empire had also become a subject worthy of serious study and, at times, even admiration. It is no coincidence that Useful Enemies culminates in a discussion of Anquetil-Duperron: his critique of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of Law and his attempt at “closing an intellectual chapter where the old theory of ‘oriental despotism’ was concerned” also opened “a new one, in which some of the cultural assumptions of Western imperial and colonial power would be contested on principled grounds.” No longer was writing about the East only aimed at moral improvement of the West. The new realities of Europe’s imperial expansion were also beginning to take hold on scholarship.


It is the diversity and complexity of early modern European responses to the arrival of Islam and the Ottomans in the Mediterranean that these four books excavate in great and granular detail. But they also caution us not to see these exchanges through rose-colored spectacles: “it would be wrong”, Mills insists, “to idealize the relationships between the Europeans and the native Aleppines.” For examining the chaplaincies of Pococke, Huntington, and others reveals not only stories of friendship and collaboration but also, he emphasizes, “broken promises and deceptions.” Osterhammel makes it clear that his book should not be read as a one-dimensional apology for the Enlightenment and Europe’s imperial expansion. For he, too, sees the “aggressive colonialism and sense of superiority so prevalent in the nineteenth century.”  Knowledge of the Other, he helpfully reminds us, “and appropriation of what belonged to the Other” often went hand in hand. Indeed: individuals like Anquetil-Duperron, who knew from firsthand experience what harm misguided stereotypes and Europe’s colonialism did to local populations, were in many ways exceptions.

And yet, these four books show that questions that were closed in the nineteenth century were still very much open in earlier centuries. Categories were not yet as fixed then as they would later become. On the contrary: early modern globalization brought different intellectual traditions into closer contact than ever before, and this profoundly shaped the way Europeans thought about other cultures.

Knowledge of Islam entered European scholarly circles through various bookish and personal encounters and was not always based on entrenched stereotypes that simply refused to die. Indeed: the discourses that to this very day dominate thinking and discussion about East and West, and that Said and others in his wake have exposed, have a history that is far richer and far more unexpected than this modern dichotomy implies.

Early modern Europeans were more attentive to religious and societal difference and more open to the possibility of other cultural realities than the straitjacket of Orientalism suggests. Our early modern European ancestors did undeniably perpetuate tropes about the Oriental Other and they often applied their knowledge to further colonial projects and ensure the subjugation of various civilizations. But they also knew that understanding other peoples and religions—even or especially if you wanted to refute them—started by reading their writing and hearing their voices. 

Richard Calis is a Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge. His interests lie in the cultural, intellectual, and religious history of the early modern world. Tweets @richardcalis