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Il: Shilsm And The Orientalists


When the Egyptian writer, Muhammad Qutb named his book Islam: the Misunderstood Religion, he was politely expressing the Muslim sentiment about the way the orientalists have treated Islam and Muslims in general. The word 'misunderstood' implies that at least a genuine attempt was made to understand Islam. However, a more blunt criticism of orientalism, shared by the majority of the Muslims, comes from Edward Said: 'The hardest thing to get most academic experts on Islam to admit is that what they say and do as scholars is set in a profoundly, and in some ways an offensively, political context. Everything about the study of Islam in the contemporary west is saturated with political importance, but hardly any writers on Islam, whether expert or general, admit the fact in what they say. Objectivity is assumed to be inherent in learned discourse about other societies, despite the long history of political, moral and religious concern felt in all societies, western or Islamic, about the alien, the strange and the different. In Europe, for example, the orientalists have traditionally been affiliated directly with 

colonial offices.1

Instead of assuming that objectivity is inherent in learned discourses, the western scholarship has to realize that pre-commitment to a political or religious tradition, on a conscious or subconscious level, can lead to biased judgment. As Marshall Hudgson writes: 'Bias comes especially in the questions he poses and in the type of category he uses, where indeed, bias is especially hard to track down because it is hard to suspect the very terms one uses, which seem so innocently neutral ...'2 The Muslim reaction to the image portrayed of them by the western scholarship is beginning to get its due attention. In 1979 the highly respected orientalist Albert Hourani said: 'The voices of those from the Middle East and North Africa telling us that they do not recognize themselves in the image we have formed of them are too numerous and insistent to be explained in terms of academic rivalry or national pride.'3 This was about Islam and Muslims vis-a-vis the orientalists.

However, when we focus on the study of Shi`ism by the orientalists, the word 'misunderstood' is not strong enough, rather it is an understatement. Not only is Shi'ism misunderstood, it has been ignored, misrepresented and studied mostly through the heresiographic literature of its opponents. It seems as if the Shi`as had no scholars and literature of their own. To borrow an expression from Marx: 'They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented,' and that also by their adversaries!

The reason for this state of affairs lies in the paths through which the western scholars entered the fields of Islamic studies. Hodgson, in his excellent review of western scholarship, writes: 


1 Edward W Said, Covering Islam, New York: Pantheon Books, 1981, p xvii.


2 Marshall G S Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol 1, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974, p 27.


3 Albert Hourani, 'Islamic History, Middle Eastern History, Modern,' in M H Kerr (ed), Islamic Studies: A Tradition and Its Problems, California: Undena Publications, 1979, p 10. 


'First, there were those who studied the Ottoman empire, which played so major a role in modern Europe. They came to it usually in the first instance from the viewpoint of European diplomatic history. Such scholars tended to see the whole of Islamdom from the political perspective of Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. Second, there were those, normally British, who entered Islamic studies in India so as to master Persian as good civil servants, or at least they were inspired by Indian interests. For them, the imperial transition of Delhi tended to be the culmination of Islamicate history. Third, there were the Semitists, often interested primarily in Hebrew studies, who were lured into Arabic. For them, headquarters tended to be Cairo, the most vital of Arabic-using cities in the nineteenth century, though some turned to Syria or the Maghrib. They were commonly philogians rather than historians, and they learned to see Islamicate culture through the eyes of the late Egyptian and Syrian Sunni writers most in vogue in Cairo. Other paths - that of the Spaniards and some Frenchmen who focused on the Muslims in Medieval Spain, that of the Russians who focused on the northern Muslims - were generally less important.4 It is quite obvious that none of these paths would have led western scholars to the centers of Shia learning or literature. The majority of what they studied about Shi`ism was channeled through non-Shia sources. Hodgson says: 'Ah path were at one in paying relatively little attention to the central areas or the Fertile Crescent and Iran, with their tendency towards Shi'ism; areas that tended to be most remote from western penetration.'5 And after the First World War, 'the Cairene path to Islamic studies became the Islamicist's path par excellence, while other paths to Islamic studies came to be looked on as of more local relevance.'6


Therefore, whenever an orientalist studied Shi`ism through 


4 Hodgson, op. cit., pp 39-40.


5 Ibid.


6 Ibid. 


Uthmaniyyah, Cairene or Indian paths, it was quite natural for him to be biased against Shia Islam. 'The Muslim historians of doctrine [who are mostly Sunni] always tried to show that all other schools of thought than their own were not only false but, if possible, less than truly Muslim. Their works describe innumerable "firqahs" in terms which readily misled modern scholars into supposing they were referring to so many "heretical sects".7 And so we see that until very recently, western scholars easily described Sunnism as 'orthodox Islam' and Shi'ism as a `heretical sect.' After categorizing Shi'ism as a heretical sect of Islam, it became 'innocently natural' for western scholars to absorb the Sunni scepticism concerning the early Shia literature. Even the concept of taqiyya was blown out of proportion and it was assumed that every statement of a Shi`i scholar had a hidden meaning. And, consequently, whenever an orientalist found time to study Shi'ism, his precommitment to the Judeo-Christian tradition of the west was compounded with the Sunni bias against Shi'ism. One of the best examples of this compounded bias is found in the way the event of Ghadir Khum was approached by the orientalists.

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