In the 19th century, a fad for the Orient appeared. The artists were inspired by its luxury, its mystery and of course, the supernatural that surrounded this part of the world. But this new craze for Orientalism was also the reflection of several historical events such as:
-the Egyptian campaign (1798-1799)
-the Greek war for Independence (1821-1829)
-the conquest of Algiers by the French (1830)
-the opening of the Suez Canal (1869)
-the progressive dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire because of rivalries and of colonial ambitions.
1- Definition of the term “Orientalism”
Orientalism is the study of Near and Far-Eastern societies and cultures by westerners (first meaning).
But it can also refer to the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists (second meaning).
The first meaning of the term is mainly used to refer to the study of the East during the period of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, when we talk about “Orientalism”, it is mainly with regard to its second meaning, that is to say “Orientalism” as a pictorial genre.
2- Who were the first “Orientalists”?
The first “Orientalists” were 19th century scholars who translated the writings of the Orient into English, based on the supposition that an effective colonial conquest required knowledge of the conquered peoples. This is the idea of knowledge as a power exposed by Said (a Palestinian scholar). Said thinks that by knowing the Orient, the West came to own it. There is the image of the Orient as passive while the West was active. So according to Said, it is imperialism which motivated Orientalism. Without imperialism, westerners would never have study Near and Far-Eastern societies and culture.
3- Examples of Orientalism in the arts
It is first through literature that depictions of the Orient appeared. Indeed, in 1704, Antoine Galland published the first French translation of The Arabian Nights. And in 1721, the Persian Letters by Montesquieu drew the public’s attention to the East. But the depictions of the Orient that we can find in literature are sometimes romanticized and convey a false image to the Westerners.
It is for example the case with a poem of Samuel Taylor Coleridge called Kubla Khan (1816). Kubla Khan describes the beauty and the sacredness of an eastern city, Xanadu, thanks to rich, sensual and exotic images. In the first stanza of the poem, we can find a lot of reference to nature: “sacred river”, “sea”, “fertile ground”, “gardens”, “rills”, “tree”, “forests”, “hills”, and “spots of greenery”. There is a dominant impression of light (“bright”, “sunny”) but with strangeness due to element of darkness (“sunless sea”, “caverns”). We find also elements of religion, sacredness: “Alph, the sacred river”, “incense”. We have the impression to be in an imaginative country. So the vocabulary used throughout this stanza and throughout the poem by Coleridge helps to convey an atmosphere of mystery and supernatural. It also helps to convey an image of the East as both fascinating, luxurious and frightful.
In painting too, the Orient is often represented with many distortions. The oriental men are often depicted as feminine and weak, yet strangely dangerous. It is for example the case with the painting of Eugène Delacroix, Arabe sellant son cheval, or with the one of Jean-Léon Gérôme, La Prière dans la maison. We can see that even alone or praying the Arabs are depicting with arms, knives, which makes them appear as threatening.
As for the representation of oriental women, they are both eager to be dominated and strikingly exotic. An interesting thing to notice is that the word “harem” comes from the Arabic word, “haram”, that means “which is forbidden”. In the orientalist paintings, this meaning seems to have been totally forgotten. The women are very often naked in the paintings as it is the case in Odalisque by Delacroix and in Bain dans le harem by Gérôme for example. By seeing these paintings, we have the feeling that if we go to the East, it would be easy to go in harems and to see sensual naked women everywhere, which is obviously not the case. So, the orientalist art contributed to spread a false and sometimes negative image of the East and that is what Edward Said criticizes.
C- Edward Said and Orientalism:
1- Said’s ideas
Despite the westerners’ “romanticized” and distorted vision of the East in the 19th century, the word “Orientalism” carried no negative connotations. “Oriental” was simply understood as the opposite of “occidental”. The word began to develop negative connotations following the publication of the work Orientalism by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the “Orient” was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. He studied many works of European scholars and writers specialized in the peoples of the Middle East in order to denounce the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in their texts. His book Orientalism is one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993).
MARYAM JAMILAH AND ORIENTALISM
In 1980, Maryam Jamilah wrote a book, titled as Islam and Orientalism. She made clear in her introduction of the book, that the reason she wrote the book was to help rescue the modern educated Muslims from the fallacy of accepting these unscrupulous scholars as the supreme authorities on Islam. She also admitted that her book was intended to show the Muslim reader how the West sees us (Muslims).
Is Orientalism then totally evil? The answer is a qualified no. A few outstanding Western scholars have devoted their lives to Islamic studies because of their sincere interests in them. Were it not for their industry, much valuable knowledge found in ancient Islamic manuscripts would have been lost or lying forgotten in obscurity. English Orientalists like the late Reynold Nicholson and the late Arthur Arberry accomplished notable work in field of translating classics of Islamic literature and making them available to the general reader for the first time in a European language.
In this case, Maryam Jamilah appreciated the work of European Orientalists like Nicholson and Arberry who were far from the colonialization interest.
Maryam Jamilah suggested that Orientalists do their best work in the field of translation. She might suggest that because the field of translation does not interfere with the content of the text or perhaps try to impose their (Orientalists) authority in presenting Islam. Maryam Jamilah was very sensitive with the superior attitude of the West over Muslims.
To conclude, it is important to say that the East began to fascinate Westerners and became a new source of inspiration for the artists. A new artistic movement, Orientalism, was born from this fascination. However, Orientalism in the 19th century was not always representative of what and how the East really was. Many distortions and stereotypes existed, as we saw, and led to some criticisms from scholars like Edward Said. So, the Orient lost its mystery for a long time now, but it continues to fascinate since it is still in the heart of the debate nowadays.