A schism has divided the world of Oriental scholarship into two adversarial camps for a whole generation. Robert Irwin's new book has not been designed to add oil to these troubled waters: it is more like a petrol-bomb lobbed into the flames of dissent. For Lust of Knowing is a self-confessedly partisan document which at times glows red with polemic, so much that in the last chapter it seems in danger of consuming itself in a spontaneous combustion of zeal. Whether you agree or disagree, there is no mistaking the passion that underpins the scholarship, nor the myriad ideas that sparkle within it.
Irwin is the only man alive who could have carried it off. He has taken on the Herculean task of reviewing 3,000 years of Western scholarship about the East not as a drier-than-dust biographical dictionary or annotated bibliography, but as a narrative which breathes life into these decidedly odd and quirky figures. For as well as his day job as an Islamic scholar, Irwin is also a novelist. Here he time and again investigates the frail dividing line between creativity and madness, genius and obsession. The Orientalists are paraded for our inspection, their motives and prejudices examined by Irwin the novelist and their achievements rated by Irwin the scholar.
He is no counsel for the defence of all Oriental scholars. I grieved for many of my heroes, as William Muir's histories are shown to have been infected by the horrors he witnessed in the Indian Mutiny, Massignon's obsession with the martyrdom of al-Hajaj is traced back to the suicide of his Spanish boyfriend; while the great Arabist grammarian De Sacy, honoured by Napoleon and the Bourbons, never once put a foot in the Middle East. So I was relieved to find that William "Oriental" Jones, Persian Browne, Lane of Cairo and Ignaz Goldziher (one of the many Hungarian Jews of linguistic genius) survived the examination and can keep their place in the pantheon of scholar-heroes.
Among all this formidable erudition there is much discursive entertainment: where Shelley first saw Ozymandias, which tome Dr Frankenstein would have read, and how dinner with Arminius Vambary gave Bram Stoker his nightmare vision of Dracula. We also get a nodding acquaintanceship with the passing fads of the scholars, like squaring the circle, polyglot Bibles, and the search for the pre-Babel primal tongue. In its richness and fullness of life, For Lust for Knowing stands beside Aubrey's Brief Lives.
That, however, is only a small part of Irwin's project. Its central objective is to destroy the influence and reputation of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), which Irwin considers "a work of malignant charlatanry in which it is hard to distinguish honest mistakes from wilful misrepresentations". He does confess that it would have made a good novel, for "it is exciting, packed with sinister villains and a richly imagined world".
Said's Orientalism is an extraordinary book: one of the few works of literary criticism to have become a bestseller, translated into 35 languages. Yet at times it is virtually unreadable, with its elongated sentence structure and dangerous pile-ups of multiple clauses. Said put forward the idea that Western academics, explorers, artists and writers had over the centuries created a self-defining delusion, an innately prejudiced method of thinking about the Arabs and Islam. They had collectively built up an image of the East designed to belittle, pacify and feminise it, which would legitimise its cultural and political domination by the West. In short, he argued that Western historians have only been gathering knowledge in order to conquer.
This concept has launched thousands of critical reviews of accepted texts and assumptions. It has offered a tectonic shift in perspective, and a worldwide challenge to indigenous historians to become the chroniclers, editors and translators of their own past. The downside has been a tendency to "nationalise" history, a sad ingratitude towards the brilliant labours of selfless historians (while privately using them) and an erosion in scholarship. Irwin, on behalf of the living and the dead, has decided it is time to reply. As one gallops through his gallery of scholars, the idea of any sort of European-wide consensus - let alone an interlocking conspiracy - among these quarrelsome individualists does not seem possible.
Irwin does not forgo the opportunity to hammer, and hammer again, at the many invalid assumptions, omissions, errors and mistranslations within Orientalism. He points out the distortions of Said's work because he concentrated on the French and British, and excluded the better-travelled Italian and Spanish scholars, let alone the more innovative Germans or state-directed Russians. He points out the dangers of making assumptions from Said's chosen area of central Arabia, without balancing it with Persia, Turkey, India or North Africa. He reminds us that before 1699, Europe's primary relation with Islam was not of predatory superiority but ingrained fear, reinforced by ecclesiastical concern that the Qu'ran must not be translated - lest it eclipse the Gospels.
After all this accomplished Said-bashing, the reader is left in no doubt that the original premise of Orientalism is highly flawed - though in my case, there is an itching desire to read it again. Irwin has won this battle, but what about the war? He concentrates deliberately on the scholarly high ground of linguistics, philology and history. It is much more difficult to disprove the orientalising tendencies in the swamp ground of opinion-makers: all the half-educated journalists, diplomats, administrators, artists, film-makers and popular historians who have entered the field. And as for the really creative Orientalists: Flaubert, T E Lawrence, Disraeli, Delacroix... volume two of For Lust for Knowing is going to be uphill work.
Something of the emotional intensity behind Orientalism needs to be acknowledged as well. Said was writing not just as a critic but as a Palestinian in defence of his homeland, when Israel had won a fourth war and emerged as the decisive military power in the Middle East. He shared in the Arab world's sense of betrayal. Instead of leading opposition to the destruction of Palestine, the Oriental scholars of the day were seen to be stabbing the Islamic world in the back. For instance, professors Lewis and Grunebaum argued that the Muslim world had been in decay since the 11th century and must submit to Westernisation if it were ever to revive.
There is also a highly personal element embedded in Orientalism. It has long been thought that Bernard Lewis - wartime intelligence officer, professor at Soas, a brilliant linguist and a wonderfully fluent historian - was Said's real target. Now, Lewis's acknowledged role as a strategic adviser to both US and Israeli presidents, and as the eminence grise behind the neo-cons, makes you doubt that Orientalism can ever be considered totally wrong.
Barnaby Rogerson's 'Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad' is published by Little, BrownReuse content