05 January 2021



Orientalism by Edward W. Said
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been looking for this book for 20 years, and at last found a copy in a 2nd-hand bookshop. Since hundreds of people must have reviewed it in that period, I won't even attempt to write a review, which would simply be repeating what hundreds of other people have said. Rather I will comment on a few of the things that stuck me about it, and that I've learnt from it. 

In his book Edward Said examines the Western academic discipline of Orientalism, or, as it is sometimes called, Oriental Studies. He notes that it is entirely a Western discipline. It is a study of the way the people of "the West" study the people of "the Orient", which is that part of the world that lies to the East of "the West". In other words, it is all subjective. 

Said also looks at some of the terms the West uses to describe "the Orient" -- Near East, Middle East and Far East. Because they are subjective, these terms are rather vague, and can have different meanings at different times. Like so many subjective terms they tell you more about the people who use and devise them than it does about the people they purport to describe. If someone speaks of a place as "the Near East", that tells you little about the Near East, but tells you a bit more about the person wo whom the Near East is nearer than the Far East. To a person living in India, the "Near East" is actually the "Middle West".

Because of this particular viewpoint, therefore, the people of "the Orient" never get to talk about themselves. In "Oriental Studies" they are described and discussed as seen by outsiders. Actually, as Said points out, Orientalism was originally not much concerned with people at all; it was mainly concerned with literature and manuscripts. 

Much of what Said says in this book rang a lot of bells for me, though they are not directly related to the content of the book, which is why I'm writing about them in a blog post instead of in a review on GoodReads.

My own academic field is Missiology, the study of Christian mission, and one of my particular interests in that field is African Independent Churches (AICs). African Independent Churches were studied and defined by academics who belonged to Christian denominations that had been founded by Western Christian missionaries, and therefore, like Said's Orientals, had been studied from the outside and defined from the outside -- see African Independent Churches: Judgement through Terminology.

I wrote that article before I had even heard of Edward Said's book, but what I said in it, it seems to me, is reinforced in many ways by what Said  says in his book, even though he is writing about Muslims and I was writing about African Christians.

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