Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
There's no doubt, then, that Dangerous Knowledge will be hotly argued about in departments of literature and Middle Eastern studies for some time to come. Still, like Irwin, I strongly believe that most scholars work hard to discover and tell us the truth. Dangerous Knowledge is a paean to that noble purpose.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Almost 30 years ago, in his classic Orientalism, the late cultural critic Edward Said published a scathing denunciation of Oriental studies, blaming the field for the rise of Western imperialism and racist views about Arabs and other Eastern peoples. British historian Irwin (The Alhambra) fiercely condemns Said's misinterpretation, offering both a brilliant defense of Orientalism and a masterful intellectual history of the Orientalists and their work, which opened windows on the world of Asia in general and Islam in particular, providing the West with glimpses of the social and religious practices of these cultures. Irwin surveys the history of Orientalism from the Greeks through the Middle Ages to its height in the 18th and 19th centuries. He chronicles the lives and works of the men who introduced the ideas of Islamic and Asian culture to the West. Many of these men were biblical critics whose command of Hebrew allowed them to move easily to Arabic and to explore the Koran. In the 17th century, the dragomans, or translators, moved the study of Islam forward by providing translations of Turkish, Arabic and Persian texts. Irwin's wide-ranging study splendidly captures a time when intellectual polymaths traversed foreign territories in search of new and compelling ideas. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Irwin has done everything right in this masterly study of Orientalist scholarship from the Renaissance to the present. The book is at once a history of the scholarly study of Arabic culture by Westerners and a thorough and levelheaded rebuttal of Edward Said's argument, in his influential Orientalism, that these scholars frequently misrepresented or demeaned the very culture they were studying. Irwin, who has taught Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Oxford and Cambridge, reclaims this scholarship, using strong language when he characterizes Said's book as "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from willful misrepresentations." After taking a bow to the Greeks, Romans, and medieval scholars, Irwin moves from the time of the first great Orientalist, Guillaume Postel (d. 1581), through modern days. He takes a subject that could be deadly dull and makes it live: he possesses magisterial familiarity with the sources (more than two millennia's worth), his judgments are measured and urbane, and he delivers his numerous asides with a sly sense of humor. A serious work of scholarship that is a delight to read from start to finish; enthusiastically recommended for academic collections. David Keymer, Modesto, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Oriental studies once came wrapped in a dreariness dull enough to make its practitioners envy economists. Thanks to Edward Said, though, Irwin has a lively fight on his hands. Orientalists, as students of Asian languages and cultures were once collectively called, had several motivations for their work, among them the hope of gaining past-through-the-present insight into the cultures of the Bible, the search for lost classical knowledge that had passed from the Greeks to the Arabs and not reemerged in Europe and the quest for expanded economic and political contact with Asia. Irwin (The Arabian Nights, 1994, etc.) here ushers several classical authors into the Orientalist ranks, including Herodotus, who "seems to have been singularly free of racial prejudice," and Aristotle, who contrarily inclined to the view that Asians "tolerate despotic rule without resentment," as if born to subjugation. Later generations of Orientalists, from Spain and Italy, but more famously from Germany and England, tended to see contemporary Asians as fallen from the great cultural heights of the past. While Irwin gives short shrift to the best-known Orientalists, particularly T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia, whom he considers a "fantasist"), he introduces general readers to others whom they may well never have heard of, such as the Hungarian scholar Ignaz Goldziher. All of this comes by way of prologue to Irwin's extended argument against the late soi-disant Palestinian scholar Said, who charged that Orientalism was a species of cultural imperialism, if not an instrument of imperialism outright. Irwin disagrees-vehemently so-noting especially (1) the contributions of actual Asians to Asian studies, particularly in theMiddle East; and (2) that many of the best-known Western students and interpreters of Asian cultures were vigorously anti-imperialist in outlook. Latter-day Orientalists and students of intellectual history will benefit greatly from this study, but so also will others charting the discourse between East and West.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781585678358
  • Publisher: The Overlook Press
  • Publication date: 11/2/2006
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.22 (h) x 1.32 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Irwin, the eminent Arabist, is the author of The Middle East in the Middle Ages, The Arabian Nights: A Companion, and Islamic Art, as well as six novels.

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