A Critique of Orientalism and the Christian Western View of Islam

Dr. Abdolrahim Gavahi

I would like to thank the host, the Embassy of Islamic Republic of Iran in Zagreb and especially my dear friend Ambassador Sharif-Khodai, Mr. Jamshidi, the cultural representative of Iran in Zagreb, officials of the Faculty of Politics at Zagreb University, and finally all the scholars and students attending this session for their kind invitation, hospitality, and presence.

I sincerely hope that during this session, and future similar sessions both in Zagreb and Tehran, we can reach to a better mutual understanding, thus laying the ground for a better cooperation of our two cultures and nations in the international arena.

During my half a century academic endeavor and close to fourty-five years encounter with the Christian West, and lecturing in the Western institutes, one of the main issues which has always attached my attention has been the way the Western academic-scientific circles view the East and the Eastern religions, specifically Islam.

1. Orientalism and the Western/Christian view of Islam

In spite of the fact that there have been some unbiased & impartial Christian Orientalists such as Louis Massign on Reynolds Nicholson, Montgomery Watt, Helmut Ritter, Henry Corbin, Annemarie Schimmel and others, altogether, it can well be stated that the view of the Christian West towards Islam has been rather negative, one-sided, pessimistic, and far from justice and impartiality.

According to Annemarie Schimmel, the famous contemporary Islamologist and Orientalist: „Among all the religions which Christianity had to confront and deal with, Islam was both misunderstood and attacked most intensely. For more than a millennium Islam seemed to be a major-if not the major-threat for the people of Europe, and this feeling has contributed to the fact that Islam and those who confessed it, the Muslims, were regarded as arch enemies of Christianity and western civilization“.[2]

Unfortunately, this rather distorted, irrational, and brutal image of Islam is noticed in many books written about Islam in the West, especially after the terrorist attack of September 11, books such as „Islam Unveiled“ or „The Myth of the Islamic Tolerance“ by Robert Spencer[3] and the like. Although, in this same period, we have also witnessed the appearance of „The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization“[4]  which is a very fair and thought-provoking book, and the very fine books of Professor Schimmel.[5]

2. Orientalism and the Western view of the East

Regarding the historical Orientalism and the biased, illusionary, despotic, and arrogant view of the Christian West towards East, I believe referring to only one profound work, the Orientalism of Edward Said should be more than sufficient. [6]

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[1] Paper presented by Dr. Abdolrahim Gavahi, research fellow, lecturer on comparative religious studies, and the president of World Religions Research Center at the Faculty of Political Science, Zagreb University, Dec. 20, 2011.

[2] Schimmel, Annemarie, Islam: an Introduction, State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y., 1992, P.1.

[3] Prometheus Books, N.Y., U.S.A., 2004.

[4] Columbia University Press, New York, 2004.

[5] Prof. Schimmel has authored about 100 books and a few hundred articles on Islam of which I have translated three of her books into Persion.

[6] Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London, 1978.