Published online by Cambridge University Press: 14 February 2002
Islam has commanded European attention ever since Muhammad first preached his message of submission to the will of God. Scholars, theologians, travellers, politicians and theorists have produced a multiplicity of judgements on Islam as religious, political, cultural, social, economic, military and historical phenomenon, and continue to do so in the present. In 1978, Edward Said proposed a new historical paradigm for understanding post-Enlightenment Western conceptions of Islam, whereby orientalist ideology provided ‘a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western experience’. ‘Orientalism’, once simply the academic study of ‘the East’, was thus defined as a composite set of Western methods for dominating the Orient. Said's challenge to the Western humanist tradition has provoked fierce historical and historiographical debate over both his theoretical framework and intellectual techniques. His opponents have condemned his binary discourse as ahistorical and monolithic, accused him of imprecise analysis and narrow literary focus, and pointed out theoretical inconsistencies, while supporters have hailed his work as an emancipatory prototype to transcend ‘the politics of difference’. As a result, the orientalist paradigm has been carried beyond literary analysis into multiple historical disciplines.
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