Orientalism Theory by Edward Said

Table of Contents


Islam, Christianity and Judaism are all considered as religions with a common root – different versions of a generic religion (of Abraham) and they all share many traditions together such as having a “high god, a sacred book, a religious teleology and a lineage of charismatic prophets” (Turner 1). Christianity, in particular is a religion whose theological roots are firmly placed in Judaism. Judaism has a prophetic tradition of radical monotheism and it is a religion that originated among the Near Eastern countries (Turner 2). The Eastern countries are viewed with prejudice by the Western countries. The West views the East as the “forbidden other” with both attractive and repulsive qualities. This differential perception is the foundation of the theory of Orientalism.

Main text

Edward Said, an American-Palestinian professor of literature is an authority on the theory of Orientalism. Said defines Orientalism in three ways: as an academic discipline, a style of thought and a corporate institution for dealing with the Orient. As an academic discipline, Orientalism appeared in the late eighteenth century and in this form it has helped nurture the study of the East from the Western perspective. This is the textual part of Orientalism.

It has assembled an archive of knowledge in that context. As a style of thought it is based upon the theoretical differences between the Orient and the Occident. It deals with how the West looks down upon the East as a part of the world without any history of its own. The East is generally seen in isolation in this style of thought. The third definition of Orientalism as a corporate institution is demonstrative of its powerful capabilities as a structure used to dominate and rule the Orient.

The first two definitions are illustrative of the textual creation of the Orient while the latter definition illustrates how Orientalism has been utilized to explain the domination of Western countries over the Eastern ones (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 57). The three definitions are interrelated, particularly since the domination aspect of the West is justified by the textual aspect of the Orient (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 57). The colonization of the East by the West is explained by the theory of Orientalism and thus the meaning held in the third definition is reliant upon and justified by the textual establishment of the Orient. This textual establishment of the Orient is built on the academic and imaginative definitions of Orientalism (Turner, 3).

In the words of Said, Orientalism is a “way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western Experience”(Said 1); the Orient is one that defines the West as “its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Said 2). Finally, Orientalism is “the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient” (Said 3).

The book that made Said famous was Orientalism, published in 1978. His book makes three major claims. The first is that Orientalism provided the means through which Europeans could take over Oriental lands. Said is quite clear about how this happens (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 56). He says: “Colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact” (Said 79). “The Orient” is positioned in western ideology as a permanent and enduring object of knowledge in opposition to the Occident as its negative and alternative pole. Orientalism creates a stationary East that is studied as a unitary object for the study of western literacy and scientific discourse, despite its diversity (Said, 2003).

While the Occident is seen to develop through history, the Orient exists outside of history. The Orient, in Said’s perspective, is basically created or etched out by the historical formation of power between the Occident and the Orient, namely through the history of imperialism and colonial expansion. In the late twentieth century, this theory helps in understanding American power in the Middle East and helps in arguing for the cause of what Said calls “the Zionist invasion and colonization of Palestine” (Said, 2003).

His second claim is that Orientalism helped define Europe’s self-image. The construction of identity in every age and every society, Said maintains, involves establishing opposites and “Others.” This happens because “the development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another different and competing alter ego” (Said 39). Orientalism led the West to see Islamic culture as static in both time and place, as “eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself” (Said 172).

Said quotes Chateaubriand: “Of liberty, they know nothing; of propriety, they have none: force is their god” (Said 172). This relationship between the self-defined in the context of the other is very much evident in the lives of the peoples in the Middle East and especially in the case of Palestinians (Khalidi 10). This comparative self-identity formation gave Europe a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority. The West consequently saw itself as a dynamic, innovative, expanding culture, as well as “the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior” (Said 109).

This became part of its imperial conceit. The second claim of Said is based on the Foucaldian argument that discursive formations are constructed around both positive and negative contrasts. This implies that Islam can be understood only through a series of contrasts. Orientalism produces a balance sheet or an audit of negativities between West and East in which the Orient is defined by a series of characteristics:

“the absence of revolutionary change, the missing middle class, the erosion or denial of active citizenship, the failure of participatory democracy, the absence of autonomous cities, the lack of ascetic disciplines and the limitations of instrumental rationality as the critical culture of natural science, industrial capitalism and rational government”(Turner 3).

Thus, Islam in the Oriental context is studied in the context of the assumptions behind classical Orientalism. The Orient is seen with a negative orientation by the West (Turner 3). The West sees the East as one that is incapable of self-government as it has been mostly under despotic rule as seen in the case of the rise and fall of Arab dynasties. Moreover, the history of the Assassins, the mystical nature of Sufism, the limitations of Islamic philosophy, the conservative nature of Islamic law are all seen in a negative light by the West. This helps the West to have a positive image of its own says Said according to this theory of Orientalism.

Thirdly, Said argues that Orientalism has produced a false description of Arabs and Islamic culture and stereotypes them into a fixed model that has not evolved across time. This happened primarily because of the essentialist nature of the enterprise–that is, the belief that it was possible to define the essential qualities of Arab peoples and Islamic culture as stereotypes. These stereotypes were seen in uniformly negative terms, he says. The Orient was defined as a place that did not witness or contribute towards the progress of mankind through the sciences, arts and commerce (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 57).

This negative stereotyping becomes dangerous when, Said says, it begins to believe that there could be such a thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche apart from the negative one they already know. Where Orientalism goes even further astray, he claims, is its assumption that Islam has possessed a unity since the seventh century, which can be read, via the Koran, into every facet of Islamic nations such as Egypt or Algeria (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 58).

This idea that the Muslims of all Muslim nations are the same is basically wrong and also the assumption that the Muslims have retained the same image and characteristics across the ages. These two assumptions seem to imply that Muslims suffer from arrested development and are also not influenced by recent experiences of colonialism, imperialism, and, even, ordinary politics (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 58). These two assumptions arising because of Orientalism are totally false says Said and they have distorted the way the world views Islam.

Orientalism cannot be totally rejected because it would mean the rejection of existing realities such as biological, cultural, racial and religious differences. Said does not call for a rejection of the Orientalists’ thinking. But he questions the assumptions. The West is different from the East. But Said argues for the use of “narrative” rather than “vision” in studying the East. According to him, a historian and a scholar should engage in a focused and complex type of history that will allow scope for including diversity and that can be done by studying smaller culturally consistent regions. Said is widely regarded by students of literature and cultural studies as one of the founders of the postcolonial movement in criticism and of multiculturalism in politics.

Edward Said was influenced by the works of the Coptic socialist author Anwar Abdel Malek, who wrote in France using the then-latest Parisian versions of Freudian and Marxist theory and also by the writings of Michel Foucault, especially his notion that academic disciplines do not simply produce knowledge but also generate power. Said uses Foucault to argue that Orientalism helped produce European imperialism. He also borrowed from Foucault the notion of a “discourse” the ideological framework within which the concept of Orientalism takes place.

Said’s theory of Orientalism could explain some issues. It explained why European travel writers and journalists who visited the Orient quickly developed an ill-informed opinion of the Arabs and their religion. Even historians Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Burckhardt have agreed with such negative views of the Orient. Joseph Arthur Gobineau, whose Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races later provided the Nazis with a rationale espoused such views.

Said accuses Karl Marx’s idea of capitalism of being the main offender. Marx had said: “ We must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies”(Marx 88). He explained this statement by saying that England in India sought two things: one was the annihilation of the Asiatic Society and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.

Said’s theory of Orientalism can be shown to be flawed in all of its three claims. According to Said, Orientalist essentialism is not knowledge, but a series of beliefs that are both distorted and out of date. Surely, though, if these beliefs are wrong, they would have contributed to poor judgment, bad estimates, and mistaken policies. Hence the political power of Western imperialism must have been gained despite them, not because of them.

The two people on whose writings Said based his theory are basically in conflict. Abdel Malek’s analysis of the essentialist failings of Oriental scholarship and Foucault’s thesis that knowledge always generates power are quite incompatible. If, as Malek and Said claim, Orientalism’s picture of the Arabs is false, then it is difficult to see how it could have been the source of the knowledge that led to the European imperial domination of the region. Said provides no support at all for his contention that “colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism” (39) because he fails to cite evidence about the actual causal sequence that led to the annexation of any of the territories occupied by England or France in the nineteenth century (Said 39).

Moreover, there has been one country that was an exception to Said’s theory of Orientalism: Germany. The Germans were prominent Orientalists, yet Germany never went on to become an imperial power in any of the Oriental countries of North Africa or the Middle East. For the Germans, knowledge did not generate power in the way that Foucault’s theory said it should. Said conveniently omits Germany from his survey (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 67).

The second part of Said’s thesis is that he said that Western culture has needed an “Other” to define its own identity. He argues that, from its origins, the West’s self-concept was defined by its opposition to Asia (Said 45). This is based on the Freudian theory according to which an individual’s self-image is based on his singularity that arises relative to others. But Europeans do not identify themselves relative to the Orient.

Europeans identify themselves as joint-heirs of classical Greece and Christianity, each influenced by several periods of historical and cultural changes such as the periods of medieval scholasticism, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism (Turner 5). In other words, Western identity is overwhelmingly defined by historical references to earlier periods of change, rather than by geographical comparisons with others.

The final component of Said’s thesis, the allegedly false essentialism of Orientalism, can also be refuted. Said complains that Western ideas about Islamic peoples were confined solely to stereotypes derived from their founding texts and early history. But practically, the Muslims are no longer seen as hostile tribes, but as a civilized population following a distinctive religion. Their prophet has been universally accepted as the founder of an independent and historically significant religious community (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia).

In other words, rather than being limited in its thinking, the Orientalism approach has opened the European mind to the whole of humanity. Moreover, study of the origins of a religion is not totally wrong. This is especially so in the case of Islam where the founding book, the Koran, is taken much more seriously but its followers than the Bible is taken by many Christians today. In others, like Egypt and Algeria, there are political movements prepared to resort to terrorism to have it made the basis of national law and authority. Moreover, one could not understand the most bitter division in the modern Islamic world, that between Shi’ites and Sunnis, without knowing its origins in the conflicts over succession after the death of Muhammed (Ashcroft and Ahluwalia 67).


Orientalism has been extended by Third World critics and like-minded theorists so that it may have some practical application in the real world today (Turner 5). Homi Bhabha saw Said’s analysis as central to colonial discourse analysis. Mahmut Mutman also seeks to extend Said’s analysis, recognizing that the very debate on Orientalism is one that has been made possible by Said’s book. Mutman engages in a critical dialogue with Said. He does not try to give his own alternatives to the theory of Orientalism. Rather, the tries to show how the Orientalist constructions of Islam should be studied within a global perspective and understood from a local context (Mutman 10).


Ashcroft, Bill and Ahluwalia, Pal (2001). Edward Said. Routledge Publishers. New York.

Khalidi, Rashid (1997). Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. Columbia University Press.

Marx, Karl (1968). The British Rule in India: Colonialism and Modernization. Doubleday and Company. Garden City1968.

Mutman, Mahmut (1993). Under the Sign of Orientalism: The West vs. Islam. Cultural Critique. 1992-93. 23:194-195.

Said, Edward (2003). On Orientalism. MEG Publishers.

Said, W. Edward (1978). Orientalism. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Turner, Stanley Bryan (2000). Orientalism: Early Sources. Taylor and Francis.

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