Orientalism and Islam

Daniel Martin Varisco

in Islamic Studies

ISBN: 9780195390155
Published online December 2009 | | DOI:
Orientalism and Islam

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The term “Orientalism,” later known as “Oriental Studies,” began in reference to the study of languages and cultures of the so-called Orient. Although initially focused on the ancient and modern Near East, the term “Orient” was indiscriminately used for all of the Asian civilizations encountered by Europeans in their eastward imperial and colonial expansion. The term is derived from the Latin oriens, in reference to the direction of the rising sun or the east. The study of Islam and Muslim cultures during the medieval period in Europe was primarily apologetic. By the 17th century, Arabic and other Oriental languages began to be taught in universities. The Thomas Adams Chair of Arabic, for example, was established at Cambridge University in 1632. Orientalist scholars translated religious, historical and literary texts from Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and Chinese, but most of these translations are not considered critical editions. Modern Orientalism in an academic sense begins at the end of the 18th century. Napoleon's expeditionary force that invaded Egypt in 1797 included scholars who recorded ancient Egyptian texts and monuments as well as contemporary Islamic architecture. The British presence in India, most notably in the work of the philologist William James, led to a field of study formally called “Orientalism.” The first academic society devoted to the study of the Orient was the French Société Asiatique, founded in 1821. This was followed by the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1823) and the American Oriental Society (1842). In 1873 the first International Congress of Orientalists was held in Paris. With a few notable exceptions, most Orientalist scholars held negative views of Islam until the middle of the 20th century. By 1973 the term “Orientalist” was abandoned by the International Congress of Orientalists, recognizing that specialty disciplines were more significant than the vague geographical notion of an “Orient.”

Article.  7852 words. 

Subjects: Islam

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