Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 2)

Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 2)


The second category of writers dominating the Orientalist landscape is comprised of Neo-Orientalists “whose writings clearly post-date the linguistic turn and the beginnings of the critique of orientalist methodology” (Volpi, 2010:30). Many of these Neo-Orientalists are former students of prominent traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie. Neo-Orientalism, much like its predecessor, takes as self-evident Muslim societies’ resistance to democratization. They claim that through idiosyncratic cultural factors proper to Islam, its incompatibility with Democracy can not only be uncovered but also explained. This reinforces the idea that two incompatible ethics and perspectives are colliding in the Muslim world: the anarchical ethos of a social organization based on religious kinship, and the universalism of democratic and liberal values. “The legitimacy of the politics of the nation-state is hence understood as too particularistic for loyalty to the divine, and, alternatively, seen as undermined by the particularism of kinship-based ideological localism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This depiction of Muslim societies as either too weak or too unruly, and Muslims as too particularistic on one hand, and on the other hand not particularistic enough, “represents a continuity from Orientalist to Neo-Orientalist thought” (Tuastad, 2003, 594).

Daniel Pipes—one of the main advocates of Neo-Orientalism—despite his modest visibility in the academic field remains popular in the policy-making community through his ties to the Republican Party, as well as his work for the US State Department. Inspired greatly by Bernard Lewis, he defines and distinguishes Islam from Christianity by putting the emphasis on the politicized nature of Islam as predicated in traditional Orientalist thought. Islam unlike Christianity, which concerns itself solely with matters of grand moral instructions, offers a “script for political action” (Pipes, 1983:11).

“Along with faith in Allah comes a sacred law to guide Muslims in all times and places. That law, called the Shari’a, establishes the context for Islam as a political force. However diverse Muslim public life may be, it always takes places in the framework of Shari’a ideals. Adjusting realities to the Shari’a is the key to Islam’s role in human relations. Hence, this analysis emphasizes the role of sacred law, the mother force of Islam in politics” (Pipes, 1983:11).

As a chief proponent of the war on terrorism, Pipes traces back what he qualifies of Islam’s hostility toward the West to ‘premodern Muslims’ disdain toward Europeans’. “The Qur’an predisposed Muslims to pay scant attention to Christians; then the actual behavior of West Europeans repulsed the umma even further” (Pipes, 1983:78). Much like Lewis, he believes that Islamism represents the latest expression of Islam’s inherent and customary antagonism toward Western civilization. In the advent of Europe’s success as a civilization imbued with military power, Islam’s resentment toward the West grew. Today, it mostly “represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force” (Pipes, 2015: 181). He states that contrary to the “politically correct narrative” that emerged in the post 9/11 context, asserting that militant Islamic violence is a fringe phenomenon rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, the masses in the Muslim world are in fact supportive of the Islamists’ cause. According to Pipes, the Western World’s greatest nemesis in the person of Osama bin Laden, enjoyed wide and deep support in Muslim countries. “With the exception of one government staged anti-bin Laden demonstration in Pakistan and very few prominent Islamic scholars, hardly anyone publicly denounces him” (Pipes, 2004:58). While Pipes rejects as fallacious any criticism highlighting the essentialist nature of his analysis, he remains nonetheless committed to depicting Islam as profoundly antithetical to democracy and modernity.

Traditional Orientalism speculated that Islamic orthodoxy and weak Muslim societies tend to promote political quietism. “Islamic submission favored fatalism, a lack of critique, and despotism” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). This would explain why Muslim communities—unlike their Western counterparts—did not develop the kind of civil societies conducive to sound politics, progress, and modernity. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979, which led to the birth of an Islamic State, shattered these Orientalist assertions pertaining to the supposed weakness of Muslim societies. “The revolution in Iran has brought a moribund Islam back to political center-stage after a lengthy absence” (Kramer, 1980:13). It became imperative to provide a renewed and reformed explanation of how societies previously thought to be weak could generate a revolution capable of defeating state power. “An influential thesis was delivered by Patricia Crone, who has been described as the most persuasive and rigorous of the neo-Orientalists” (Tuastad, 2003, 594). According to Crone, Islamic civilization was unique in the way that it refused to legitimize political authority.

“The ulema defined God’s law as haqq al-‘arab, the law of the Arabs, just as they identified his language as the lisan al-‘arab, the normative language of the Bedouins, the consensus being that where God had not explicitly modified tribal law, he had endorsed it. This resulted in a tribal vision of sacred politics where kings were rejected and God’s community was envisaged as an egalitarian one unencumbered by profane or religious structures of power below the caliph, who was himself assigned the duty of minimal government” (Crone, 1980:62).

This argument implies that the Iranian revolution, which triggered the sociopolitical phenomenon known as Political Islam in the 20th century, was not the result of an organized civil society expressing its political will through revolutionary means, but rather the inevitable outcome of Muslim societies’ inherent instability. The political norms of Islam as established by Sharia law produce an environment in which it is virtually impossible for any government to survive (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Sooner or later every regime comes to be seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the Muslim masses. Islamism simply provided an outlet through which they could strip all legitimacy from existing political authorities, while simultaneously calling for the restoration of an “all-encompassing Islamic law, based upon the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (…)” (Kramer, 1996:147).

This generates a setting where the elaboration of a contract between state and society becomes all but impossible. “That society withholds its support from political authority not only makes the state unstable but also obstructs the development of a true civil society, as no ‘organic state’ has been able to emerge in the Arab world” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). By reiterating the idea of a lack of basis for constitutional and representative government in Muslim societies, scholars such as Crone and Kramer are demonstrating the undeniable continuity between Neo-Orientalism and traditional Orientalism.

Crone’s allegation that Islam is devoid of the fundamentals of constitutional and representative governance crucial to societal development echoes back to Kedourie’s claim that the precepts of democracy are essentially alien to Muslim political traditions. In the Neo-Orientalist paradigm, Islamism is essentially the result of weak democratic traditions in the Muslim world. Kramer argues that in its discourse on democracy, authenticity, women, minorities, and pluralism, Political Islam is essentially “a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology” (Kramer, 1997:163). Its advent is reminiscent of the surge of ultra-nationalist movements throughout East Europe in the wake of the Soviet bloc’s breakup. “By any reading, this discourse evokes not Havel or Walela, but Le Pen and Zhirinovsky” (Kramer, 1997:163).

Islamic movements are, in Kramer’s critique of Political Islam, more about national liberation and power, than individual liberties and politics (Kramer, 1997:163). Islamism’s contention is that Islam offers a system of belief that could do what no foreign/alien doctrine ever could; mobilize the believers, inculcate discipline into their ranks, and inspire them to make the necessary changes and sacrifices (Ajami, 1992:62). He draws an even closer link between Islamism and the national right in Europe, by indicating that they both use populism in the form of mass mobilizations generated by anger and despair, in order to drive their respective movements to the forefront of the political landscape.

“It is generally agreed that Islamism arose from the failure of Arab (and Iranian and Turkish) nationalism. Not only is this obvious, one might go further: Islamism represents a remake of nationalism as Islamic ideology. Nationalism, leavened by religion, thus becomes a hyper-nationalism” (Kramer, 1997:163).

Both traditional Orientalism and Neo Orientalism ignore largely the influence of colonialism and imperialism on Muslim societies. Instead what is put forward is a reductionist and essentialist portrayal of Islam as an entity possessing an “anti-modern core (….) that doomed any further political development of the world’s fastest growing religion” (Tuastad, 2003, 595). Neo-Orientalism’s penchant for explaining polity and political phenomena through cultural binaries resonates quite well with the current political atmosphere. The assumption that certain cultures are inherently chaotic and violent is an integral part of the Neo-Orientalist exceptionalist thesis proclaiming Islam to be the antithesis of Western civilization, and a potential civilizational threat.

“The intrusion of political Islam into Europe is contributing to turning it into a battlefield between the secular and the divine in the course of the return of the sacred. It is perplexing to watch the contradictory reality of Europeans abandoning their faith while the global religionization of politics and conflict enters Europe under conditions of Islamic immigration”(Tibi, 2014:153).


III) Critical Neo-Orientalism

Unlike Neo-Orientalists who simply reject the criticism leveled against their field of study, critical Neo-Orientalists recognize the legitimacy of such criticism, while still remaining convinced that Orientalism is by far the best possible approach to the study of the Orient and Islam. Critical Neo-Orientalism is based on the idea of undertaking a constructive engagement with Orientalism through a reform of the problematization of Islam as it was traditionally conceptualized in Orientalist thought. This approach represents an effort to try and distance the field of Islamic studies from rigid analytical frameworks, and Orientalism’s natural penchant toward “textual and historical over-determination” (Volpi, 2010:42). “The exegesis of the Quran (…) thus often replaces socio-economic and socio-historical investigation” (Burgat, 2003:6). Instead it is the “hermeneutic character of the Islamic tradition” that is being highlighted, which according to critical Neo-Orientalists allows for the flexibility and the openness of current politico-theological discussions (Volpi, 2010:42).

The proponents of this new form of Orientalism wish to reiterate the complexity and diversity of the socio-historical contexts of Muslim societies. The obsession with uncovering a model Islamic society imbued with a Muslim Mind has rendered Orientalism blind to the non-textual traditions influencing and shaping contemporary Islamism. It is this oversight that critical Neo-Orientalism hopes to address through new interpretive efforts attempting to make sense of the present in the light of the past, without however becoming obsessively beholden to the past.

“Disoriented by this experience, Western intellectuals have tended to take refuge behind a kind of Maginot Line of enlightened rationalism. From these entrenched positions they excoriate ‘fanaticism’, ‘backwardness, and ‘Muslim fundamentalism’. The West, they seem to be saying has gone beyond all that: let it now go its own way and let Islam—irretrievably alien, intellectually inaccessible, and repugnant—wallow in its barbarism” (Kepel, 2005:19).

While   traditional Orientalism emphasized the impact of Oriental despotism on Islamic polity, with a powerful state and unorganized society, Ernest Gellner adheres instead to a different notion of Islamic polity. Much like the Neo-Orientalist Patricia Crone, Gellner “present the opposite picture of a weak state, short on legitimacy and vulnerable to internal threats from a solidary community under ulama[1] leadership and to external threats of the tribes” (Zubaida, 1995: 153). Ernest Gellner—renowned philosopher, social theorist, and anthropologist—was probably the most famous and articulated proponent of critical Neo-Orientalism. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive understanding of Muslim politics, he developed a coherent model of Muslim society. Eager to avoid any ethnocentric bias susceptible of influencing his endeavor, he built his model “against a wide canvas of philosophical, theoretical, and cross-historical references (…)” (Zubaida, 1995: 152). Gellner’s model is not only historical in nature; it also has the advantage of being sociological. The historical component of his model draws a great deal from the work of Ibn Khaldun, the fourteenth-century Arab historian.

Following in his footsteps, he constructed a dialectic between city and tribe “each with its own peculiar form of religion, and the dominance within the urban form of ulama leading a solidary community based on scripture and Divine Law” (Zubaida, 1995: 155). Gellner’s Muslim society is characterized by a weak state and a strong culture. The state is simultaneously threatened by the intractability of the tribes (pastoral nomadic/Bedouin society), and the ability of the urban and sedentary society to “withhold the symbols of legitimacy” (Gellner, 1983:55). Culture however is strong since it is entrenched in urban society where it is instrumental in forging “the bonds of community based on the Law and on the authority and leadership of the ulama” (Gellner, 1983:55).

He analyzes Political Islam through a similar historical perspective, and formulates a more nuanced analysis—than the Neo-Orientalists—attentive to the complexity of this phenomenon and the challenges it poses (Gellner, 1983:55). Militant Islam according to him possesses a “historical undercurrent, which lately acquired special significance to the Muslim masses because of the frustration of religio-nationalist hopes (…)” (Abun Nasr, 1985:73). The Islamists’ project is to reject the political authority of the nationalist elites, while calling for the production of a new kind of orthodoxy. These same militants are also rejecting the traditional religious authority of the ulama criticizing them vehemently for their willingness to serve the same national structures “which curtail the application of the prescription of the shari’a to acts of devotion and norms of family life” (Abun Nasr, 1985:85).

The influence of what came to be dubbed the French School (Roy, Kepel, Burgat, etc.…) is also quite noticeable in critical Neo-Orientalism. They are mostly known for their body of work dedicated to examining the failure of nationalism in the Muslim world and the rise of Political Islam. As an alternative to traditional Orientalist approaches, they chose to explain the strength and resilience of Islamism through the “mechanism of path-dependency” (Volpi, 2010:42). What characterizes their approach “is a progression of the theorizing of the emergence of Islamism from the local to the global” (Volpi, 2010:42). Each one focuses on a specific region—Roy (Afghanistan), Kepel (Egypt)—and develops his expertise on that basis (Volpi, 2010:42). In order to avoid falling into the predictable essentialist construction of Islam so prevalent in Orientalism, they presented instead new and refined narratives attempting to explain the multiple processes through which Islamism is socially constructed.

“To measure its full impact we need to identify its many dimensions and investigate the different periods of gestation, the networks, the line of communication (…) and ideas that composed it (…)” (Kepel, 2002:62).

In his argument against modern versions of Orientalism—such as Neo-Orientalism—Roy states, “historical and cultural paradigms are misleading to the extent that they do not help us to understand what is new” (Roy, 2004:15). However, there are important downsides to path-dependency approaches since they also exhibit some of the same flaws plaguing previous Orientalist narratives. If the central thesis of his famous book The failure of Political Islam (1994) was indeed to demonstrate the collapse of the Islamist project, then one cannot ignore Roy’s complete disregard of the many other forms of Islamism not linked to the rather violent brand of this phenomenon.

Many other strands of Islamism blossomed in the twentieth century, rejecting completely armed militancy. Movements focusing on “Wahhabi rigourism, Tablighi pietism, and Salafi puritanism grew in strength quite independently from these militant political movements” (Volpi, 2010:43). What Roy has effectively showcased is not the failure of Islamism as a whole, but rather a particular strand of Political Islam predicated on violent militancy. By making the militant and revolutionist branch of Islamism the central component of his analysis—at the detriment of all the other developments of Political Islam in the twentieth century—Roy recreated the same grand narrative he was attempting to transcend.

“The ultimate experience is of course jihad, which for the Islamists, means armed battle against communists (Afghanistan), or Zionists (Palestine), or for the radicals, against renegades and the impious” (Roy, 1994:15).

What ensures the perennity of Orientalism in the study of Islam is the reciprocal relationship that exists between this field of expertise and a theoretical main interpretation of the Islamic tradition (Volpi, 2010:43). It cements the notion that through historical and textual readings of Islam, contextualized by Western intellectuals, every trend, event, and development in the Muslim world will be understood. It reinforces the reliance on a Muslim Mind—as theorized by traditional Orientalism—to be uncovered through “an appreciation of history and the Scriptures” (Volpi, 2010:43). The assertion that Orientalism is a cordoned off tradition that not only relies on self-validation, but is also resistant to any sort of criticism (internal or external) remains very apropos (Turner, 1994:31). The continued reliance on rehashed Orientalist clichés ensures the semantic and historical continuity between critical Neo-Orientalism and the previous forms of Orientalism.


[1] Arabic word meaning scholars. This term is mostly used for scholars specialized in Islamic theology.


Understanding Orientalism Series:

Understanding Orientalism and its Genesis: Read here

Orientalist Discourse and the Concept of Islamism (part 1): Read here



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  • Ajami, Fouad (1992). The Arab Predicament. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burgat, Francois (2003). Face to face with Political Islam. London: IB Tauris.
  • Gellner, Ernest (1983). Muslim Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kepel, Gilles (2005). The Roots of Political Islam. London: Saqi.
  • Kepel, Gilles; Roberts Anthony, F (2002). The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Kramer, Martin (1980). Political Islam. London; Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
  • Kramer, Martin (1996). Arab Awakenings and Islamic Revival: the politics of ideas in the Middle East. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Kramer, Martin (1997). The Mismeasure of Political Islam. In Martin Kramer (ed.), The Islamism Debate, pp. 161-173. Tel Aviv; The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv.
  • Kramer, Martin (2003). Coming to terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists? Middle East Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 2, pp.65-77.
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  • Pipes, Daniel (2004). Miniatures. Views of Islamic and Middle Eastern Politics. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Pipes, Daniel (2015). Nothing Abides. Perspectives On The Middle East And Islam. New Brunswick; London: Transaction Publishers.
  • Roy, Olivier (1994). The failure of Political Islam. London: L.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.
  • Roy, Olivier (2004). Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Ummah. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Tibi, Bassam (2014). Political Islam, World Politics and Europe. From Jihadist to Institutional Islamism. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Tuastad, Dag (2003). Neo-Orientalism and the new barbarism thesis: Aspects of symbolic violence in the Middle East Conflict(s). Third World Quarterly, Vol.24, No.4, pp. 591-599.
  • Turner, Bryan (1994). Orientalism, Postmodernism And Globalism. London: Routledge.
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Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 1)

Orientalist Discoure and the Concept of Islamism (Part 1)

According to Olivier Roy—the renowned political scientist—the study of Islam has always represented a substantial challenge for Western academia. One aspect however that always lent itself readily to analysis was the political dimension of Islam. The political element of this phenomenon offered a component susceptible of “being analyzed separately from the other processes” (Volpi, 2010: 1). This focus on the politicized nature of Islam gained traction in Western academia, and Islam came to be described “as a political religion, a religion in which politics and religion are difficult to separate” (Mutman, 2014:1). This exclusion of all the other features in favor of its political characteristics led to the prevalence of Political Islam as a favorite topic in the study of Islam within Western academia.

“It is commonplace, particularly in Western analysis, to associate the emergence of Islamism with an “Islamic revival” that began to gather force in the 1970s, reaching its zenith with the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.” (Mandaville, 2007:58). Western literature devoted to Political Islam or Islamism often reiterates three major assumptions. “These are, first, that the intermingling of religion and politics is unique to Islam; second, that political Islam, much like Islam itself, is monolithic; and third, that political Islam or Islamism is inherently violent” (Ayoob, 2008:1). Western thinkers writing on the subject have frequently been accused by their critics of reducing Political Islam to a “despotic oriental foil” to Western liberal democracies, as well as modernity itself.

One of the main reproaches leveled against this body of knowledge is its reliance on an Orientalist Grand Narrative. An essential Orientalist bias central to these contemporary readings of political Islam is the “binary opposition between Islam and the West” (Volpi, 2010:32). In this rather Manichaean worldview, the West represents modernity, secularism and democracy, while the Muslim world embodies stagnation, orthodoxy, and despotism. This idea of a cleavage between a Christian West and a Muslim East is not only one that defines Orientalism, it also introduced amongst Western notions about Islam the idea that an Islamic civilization can only inspire undemocratic governments. “This idea has a pedigree of many centuries, and the classic term for what it refers to is oriental despotism” (Kalmar, 2012:1). It is said that Western contemporary readings on political Islam approach the subject of politics in Islam from an Orientalist perspective in which they try to build a comprehensive and systematic picture of what constitutes an Islamic civilization, while at the same time analyzing and explaining it “through the lenses of western concepts and methodologies” (Volpi, 2009:22).

In the following essay, we will explore the challenges faced historically when discussing religion and politics in the context of Islam within Western academia, and particularly the historical advent of Orientalism. By taking a closer look at some of the major works often used as a reference in the study of political Islam, we will examine how Orientalist discourse influenced and shaped current Western literature on Islamism. We will analyze the three main tendencies found in contemporary readings of political Islam—traditional Orientalism, Neo-Orientalism, critical Neo-Orientalism—in an attempt to understand how each one attempts to provide a unique analytical perspective, while struggling with serious epistemological obstacles.

What is Islamism?

The term islamisme first appeared in the French language in the mid-eighteenth century. It was used at first as a synonym to mahométisme, which referred to the “religion professed and taught by the Prophet Muhammad” (Kramer, 2003:65). The usage of mahométisme became pervasive across Europe in the early seventeenth century. While the term reflected a desire to recognize Islam as a religious system akin to Christianity, it nonetheless rested “upon the erroneous presumption that Muhammad stood in relation to Islam as Christ stood in relation to Christianity” (Kramer, 2003:65). In 1734, George Sale wrote in his English translation of the Qur’an: “It is certainly one of the most convincing proofs that Mohammedism was no other than a human invention, that it owed its progress and establishment almost entirely to the sword” (Daniel, 1960:300).

According to Martin Kramer, by the eighteenth century attitudes toward Islam had shifted drastically. The term Mahommedism was rapidly falling out of favor as more scholars in Europe sought to use the term utilized by native Muslims when referring to their religion. “Western study of Islam made enormous strides, and polemical denigration no longer informed every Western pronouncement” (Kramer, 2003:66). The thinkers of the enlightenment wanted to devise a term susceptible of classifying Islam as “a religion appreciated in its own terms” (Kramer, 2003:66). Voltaire who had a lifelong interest in Islam found a solution to this issue by coining the term islamisme. He rectified the previous understanding of Prophet Muhammad’s role in Islam by stating: “this religion is called islamisme” (Versaille, 1994). Throughout the nineteenth century, this new term gained in popularity. While islamisme did not completely displace the usage of the term mahométisme in scholarly writings, it nonetheless established Islam as being the religious system to which Muslims adhere. In fact, both Alexis de Tocqueville and Ernest Renan chose to use islamisme in their works pertaining to Islam. “But Islamism also began to disappear from the lexicon from about the turn of the twentieth century” (Kramer, 2003:67). Islam steadily started to replace islamisme as many scholars showed a preference for this “shorter and purely Arabic term” (Kramer, 2003:67).

“In 1946, the British Orientalist H.A.R. Gibb wrote an introduction to Islam in the same series that had included Margoliouth’s Mohammedanism thirty-five years earlier. The publisher wished to keep the same title. Gibb assented, but he was quick to disavow the title on the very first page (…) In the text that followed, Gibb referred to the believers as Muslims and to the faith as Islam” (Kramer, 2003:67)

Much like its initial birth, the resurrection of the concept of islamisme in the late 1970s occurred in France. While its nineteenth century iteration did not refer to the political utilization of Islam, it was now in the twentieth century being used primarily as a way of addressing the emergence of an Islamic political program. Grappling with the advent of Islamic movements throughout the Muslim World, French scholars found in this term not only a concept possessing “a venerable French pedigree going back to Voltaire” (Kramer, 2003:71), but also one that could be retrieved and deployed to describe these newly emerging movements.

Maxime Rodinson was one of the few French scholars who criticized the rehashing of the term islamisme. According to him, if one chooses this term, the reader may become confused between a fanatic who wishes to kill everyone and a rational person who believes in God in the Muslim manner (Burgat, 1988:14). Instead, he favored the term intégrisme, which offered a greater nuance in its distinction between Islam and a more fundamentalist fringe of extremist religious fervor. By the late 1980s, islamisme came to be understood as only one thing: “Islam as a modern ideology and a political program” (Kramer, 2003:71). It even gained traction in the English language where it gained popularity at the expanse of the previously used Islamic fundamentalism.

“In the foreign affairs community, we often use the term “Political Islam” to refer to the movements and groups within the broader fundamentalist revival with a specific political agenda. “Islamists” are Muslims with political goals. We view these terms as analytical, not normative. They do not refer to phenomena that are necessarily sinister: there are many legitimate, socially responsible Muslim groups with political goals. However, there are also Islamists who operate outside the law. Groups or individuals who operate outside the law— who espouse violence to achieve their aims—are properly called extremists” (Pelletreau, 1994:2).

Political Islam or Islamism—that is Islam as a political ideology instead of a religion or theology—is a relatively contemporary phenomenon in the history of the Muslim World. Although Western Academia coined the term, the distinctive forms of Muslim politics that later came to define Islamism emerged in the nineteenth-century as European colonial incursions into Muslim territories increased. These encounters with “European domination” sparked fierce reactions amongst Muslim populations toward what they perceived as “subjugation by infidel powers” (Ayoob, 2008:9). “It is no wonder, then, that political Islam speaks the language of resistance to foreign domination not only in the political but in the cultural and economic spheres as well” (Ayoob, 2008:9).

Broadly speaking Political Islam refers to “those ideologies and movements that strive to establish some kind of an “Islamic order”—a religious state, shari‘a law, and moral codes in Muslim societies and communities” (Bayat, 2013:4). For those movements who adopt an Islamist agenda, religion is regarded as “a holistic, totalizing system whose prescriptions permeate every aspect of daily life” (Mandaville, 2007:57). However, despite having a common goal these groups often differ in their strategies. While some prefer to adopt a gradual approach toward their primary goal, others tend to be more revolutionary.

“Islamism covers a broad spectrum of convictions. At one extreme are those who would merely like to see Islam accorded proper recognition in national life in terms of national symbols. At the other extreme are those who want to see the radical transformation of society and politics, by whatever means, into an absolute theocracy” (Barton, 2005:28).

Political Islam could also be described as an instrumentalization of religion by certain individuals and groups pursuing specific political aims. In this perspective, Islamism seeks to provide “political responses to today’s societal challenges by imagining a future, the foundations for which rest on reappropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from the Islamic tradition” (Denoeux, 2002:61). The intense focus of Islamist groups on concepts such as the Islamic state arose from a need to provide a response to the proliferation of autocratic regimes in the Muslim World.

Since the twentieth century, Political Islam has mainly been characterized by the quest for an “Islamic public normativity within the context of modern nation-states” (Mandaville, 2007:58). As such, it can be argued that the advent of nation-states in Muslim lands triggered the rise of Islamism in the Muslim political landscape (Mandaville, 2007:58). The emphasis of contemporary Islamism on the significance of the state as “the instrument of God’s (and the Islamists’) will sets the Islamists apart from Muslim traditionalists, who are usually wary of too much state interference in matters of religion” (Ayoob, 2008:10).

The Orientalist narrative in contemporary readings of Political Islam 

The goal of Orientalist accounts pertaining to Muslims and Islam is to provide a comprehensive and systematic picture of Muslim societies’ historical evolution “in relation to a relatively unchanging Islamic theological core” (Volpi, 2010:26). Islamology endeavors to provide a reliable hermeneutic link between past and present Islamic tradition. “As Mahmood Mamdani put it succinctly, orientalist scholars assume that every culture has a tangible essence which defines it, and then explain politics as a consequence of that essence” (Volpi, 2010:26). Despite the diversity intrinsic to Islam, Orientalists seek to uncover the “one Muslim mind, always lurking in the background and shaping the evolution of Muslim societies” (Volpi, 2010:25).

In order to unearth the inner workings of this Muslim mind, Orientalist scholars use Islamic history to interpret Islamic theology. This approach reiterates the idea that one can consistently attribute specific features of Muslim societies—in different historical contexts—to existing quintessential characteristics of Islam. “This argument, it seems has littled evolved despite an increasing sophistication between the time when Ernest Renan wrote his essay on ‘Islam and Science’ and the present-day views detailed in Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong” (Volpi, 2010:25). The end of the cold war revitalized Orientalist scholarship particularly in the political field. Three main tendencies dominate today the Orientalist landscape: traditional Orientalism, neo-Orientalism, and critical neo-Orientalism. The first and oldest of the three is comprised of traditional Orientalists.

“The most emblematic figure in the field today is probably Bernard Lewis, who began to write on this topic in the 1950s and who has hardly deviated from his initial political analysis of a civilizational struggle ever since” (Volpi, 2010:29).

I) Traditional Orientalism

In the early days of social science research of the Middle East, it is undeniable that traditional Orientalists possessed a vast and “sophisticated knowledge of many aspects of the fields they studied” (Volpi, 2009:22). This rendered difficult any attempt made to move beyond Orientalism. The breakdown of the Grand Narrative—a distinctive feature of postmodern approaches—sweeping through Western academia from the 1980s onwards, triggered amongst Orientalists in the field of Islamic studies a fierce resistance to the demise of the Orientalist Grand Narrative (Volpi, 2010:30). Traditional Orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and Elie Kedourie have largely contributed to the survival of this narrative. Lewis particularly has been instrumental in repositioning Orientalist assertions about Islam “at the forefront of the intellectual debate due to the propitious circumstances created for them by 9/11” (Volpi, 2010:32). As historians, Lewis and Kedourie have used their knowledge of Islamic history to reiterate the cultural paradigms of the Orientalist Grand Narrative, especially the binary opposition between Islam and the West.

Lewis specialized in Islam and the history of the Ottoman Empire. By the 1960s, he emerged as an authority on the issues of the modern Middle East. In his analysis of contemporary political issues pertaining to the region, he remained faithful to the traditional Orientalist narrative when describing Muslims and Muslim civilization. Much like Hegel, he attributed the West’s rise to hard work, while ascribing the decline of Muslim civilization to the lack of similar dedication and labor. “For many centuries, while Europe was rising to greater and greater heights of achievements, the East was sinking in the comfortable torpor of decay (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42). Lewis maintained that by the nineteenth century, any illusions of superiority and sovereignty fostered by Muslim societies were shattered by Western colonial incursions threatening “their countries, their resources, their civilizations, their very souls (…)” (Lewis, 1994:42).

Therefore, the previously dazzling Muslim civilization was now being subjugated by a rich and powerful Europe that had successfully developed a Weltgeist through the intense work undertaken since the middle ages in order to form a European political and cultural consciousness. According to Lewis, even Muslim resistance to Western domination was shaped by “the lessons of liberty and human self-respect that the West had taught” (Lewis, 1994:43). Lewis created a problematic West vs. Islam dichotomy in practically every aspects of his historical analysis. When explaining the success of Western incursions into Muslim territories, he often mentioned the weakness of the Ottoman military when confronted with the advances of Europeans in matters of warfare, without however specifying what these advances were, or what prevented the Ottomans from adjusting to these changes.

“At about that time, we have an Ottoman document (…) in which Muslim and Christian methods of warfare are compared, to the advantage of the latter, and the previously unthinkable suggestion is advanced that the true believers should follow the infidels in military organization and the conduct of warfare.” (Lewis, 2003:20).

Yet, contrary to Lewis’ assumption of innate European military superiority, comparative historians have long stated that Western Europe’s innovations in warfare technology during this period was due to the constant warring between small states vying for power and influence within Europe, while the Ottomans remained more complacent because they faced fewer powerful challenges susceptible of triggering an arms race in the region (Ansary, 2010:220). The European penetration of Muslim lands was a slow and complex process, and not so much the ferocious military onslaught Lewis presented in his analysis. “The process was so slow, however, and so pervasive and so complex that it was hard for anyone going through the history of it all day by day to make a connection between the European encroachment and the burgeoning decay” (Ansary, 2010:220).

The Ottoman Empire did not go down in flames to conquering European armies. Despite an increasing European penetration and the growing military, economic, and administrative challenges facing them by the end of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire remained a military and political giant (Hanioglu, 2008:42). In fact, “long after the empire was totally moribund, long after it was little more than a virtual carcass for vultures to pick over, the Ottomans could still muster damaging military strength” (Ansary, 2010:221).

When it comes to Political Islam, Bernard Lewis stated that it owes much of its success and perseverance to the long tradition of undemocratic governments in Muslim societies. “In the struggle between democracy and fundamentalism for power in Muslim lands, the democrats suffer from a very serious disadvantage” (Lewis, 2011:13). Since islamists dispose of a vast political vocabulary that is both familiar and intelligible to Muslim populations who are—according to Lewis—still unaccustomed to the precepts of democracy, it is not surprising that they are more likely to heed a message calling for a return to the original, authentic way of Islam, than the programs proposed by the “exponents of democracy” (Lewis, 2011:10). An Arabic loanword like dimuqratiyya (democracy) will always lack the resonance of something far more familiar like shari’a” (Lewis, 2011:11).

For Lewis, Islamism is simply the latest phase in an ongoing clash between the West and Islam. From the moment of its birth the latter adopted a belligerent attitude toward Christendom, seizing vast lands from Christian nations and integrating them into Dar-al Islam (the realm of Islam) (Lewis, 2011:13). Therefore, the crusades and even the Reconquista became in Lewis’ historical analysis reactions to Muslim belligerence and their continuous encroachment into Christian lands. “After several centuries, Christianity—a religion with a pacifist core—at last reacted with a jihad of its own, variously known as the Reconquest and the Crusades” (Lewis, 2011:13). He posited that contemporary “Muslim triumphalism and militancy” could trigger a new reaction from not only Christianity but also other religions (Lewis, 2011:12). “A triumph of Islamic fundamentalism would have far reaching consequences outside as well as inside the region and would evoke sharp responses from other religions” (Lewis, 2011:12).

Lewis views Christendom and Islam as civilizations that have been in perpetual collision ever since the advent of Islam in the 7th century. Ignoring the often long and rich history of peaceful contacts between Europe and the Muslim World, he reduced Muslim sentiment toward the West to an attitude marred with hostility and hatred. “But most of all, the wave of hostility was due to the crisis of a civilization reacting at last against the impact of alien forces that had dominated, dislocated, and transformed it” (Lewis, 2003:20). In his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage (1990), he argued that this perpetual struggle between the West and Islam was gaining in strength. It was in that essay that he coined the phrase “clash of civilizations”, which later inspired Samuel Huntington.

Elie Kedourie—much like Lewis—specialized in the history of the Middle East, and took on an Orientalist posture to study the region. When speaking about political culture in the Middle East, he stated that the very idea of constitutional and representative government is anathema to the political traditions of the Arab and Muslim World. “What is remarkable about it is that there is nothing in the political traditions of the Arab world—which are the political traditions of Islam—which might make familiar, or indeed intelligible, the organizing ideas of constitutional and representative government” (Kedourie, 1994:5). In a nutshell, the precepts of democracy are in essence “profoundly alien to the Muslim political tradition” (Kedourie, 1994:6). Remaining faithful to the traditional Orientalist Grand Narrative that deems despotism to be the default setting of the Orient in matters of politics and governance, Kedourie posited that the “ancient traditions of Oriental despotism (…) served immeasurably to magnify the position of the Muslim ruler (…)” (Kedourie, 1994:7). Much like Aristotle who claimed that surrender to the tyrant is a deeply ingrained custom amongst Orientals, Kedourie postulated that passive obedience to the ruler is akin to religious duty amongst Muslims who fear anarchy more than tyranny.

“In the political theory of Islam, as it has remained to the present day, the caliph is the sole political and military authority within the umma, and all civil officials and military officers are his servants and derive their powers solely from this, the highest public office in Islam. The reason for such an injunction is that anarchy is to be feared above all else, since anarchy makes impossible the pursuit of a godly life, and thus endangers eternal salvation which is the ultimate goal of all human endeavor” (Kedourie, 1994:7).

Traditional Orientalists remain firmly rooted in classical Orientalism, which attributes the troubles of Muslim societies to Orthodox Islam’s natural penchant for political quietism. In other words, by promoting the abandonment of one’s own will as a form of religious edict, and encouraging the submission of Muslim masses to the will of the ruler, Islam favors fatalism, lack of critique, and most of all despotism. This argument is often the cornerstone of traditional Orientalists’ claims pertaining not only to Islam’s inability to foster the development of vibrant civil societies and sound political traditions, but also its supposed incompatibility with modernity. The influence of Lewis and Kedourie was instrumental in propagating these Orientalist assertions about Islam beyond the field of Islamic studies, and can be felt today in the work of authors such as Huntington and Barber.

Samuel Huntington is amongst the scholars who in the 1990s “sought to propose new over-arching paradigms and who found comfort in the stability that orientalists proposed in their cultural paradigms” (Volpi, 2010:31). In fact, his notion of clash of civilization is connected to and inspired by Lewis’ earlier argument pertaining to the ongoing struggle between The West and Islam. Huntington suggests, that when cultural groups are thriving they almost always try to use their power to “extend their values, practices, and institutions to other societies” (Huntington, 1996:91). During the nineteenth century, the blossoming of European culture and economy led to European colonialism and the consolidation of Western hegemony politically, culturally, economically, and militarily. However, in a post-Cold War world where non-Western societies are emerging as economic and political rivals, there is an increasing movement in their part to generate “the revival of non-Western cultures throughout the world” (Huntington, 1996:91).

What Huntington refers to as the indigenization effect is a desire on the part of non-Western societies to revert back to “their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress, and beliefs” (Huntington, 1996:93). He postulates that indigenization has been increasingly taking place all over the world since the 1980s and 1990s, and has since increased in its intensity and scope. In the Muslim World, the resurgence of Islam often based on the question of the re-Islamisation of Muslim societies has been “the prevailing trend in the rejection of Western forms and values” (Huntington, 1996:94). Indigenization and the resurgence of religion throughout the world are the leading causes of the civilizational dynamics at play since the last quarter of the twentieth century. Asia and Islam (the Muslim World) represent in Huntington’s view two cases of strong cultural assertiveness and challenge toward Western civilization. “The Islamic challenge is manifest in the pervasive cultural, social, and political resurgence of Islam in the Muslim world and the accompanying rejection of Western values and institution” (Huntington, 1996:102). The advent of Islamism, via the appearance of transnational Islamic networks and political parties validated, in Huntington’s eyes, the existence of an Islamic challenge to the very ideals of Western civilization.

“Benjamin R. Barber’s explanatory scheme in Jihad vs. MacWorld is also organized on some grand binary division of tradition and modernity” (Volpi, 2010:31). Much like Kedourie, he adheres to an exceptionalist thesis in which Islam is incapable of fostering the “values, culture, and institutions that make up liberal society” (Barber, 1996:206). Since Islam rests on a worldview where the Islamic faith and the Islamic state it inspires are deemed sacred and indivisible, it leaves very little space for secular ideals to emerge. This, according to Barber, creates in predominantly Muslim societies an environment detrimental to the advent of democracy and human rights. While he recognizes that fundamentalist tendencies can be found in every major world religion, he nevertheless believes that “in Islam such tendencies have played a leading political role since the eighteenth century” (Barber, 1996:206). After all, nothing proves more the lack of affinity between Islam and democracy than the repeated failed attempts throughout the Muslim World at creating democratic regimes (Barber, 1996:207). Much like Lewis and Kedourie, Barber reiterates the notion of Oriental despotism by asserting that Islam creates a unique environment in which democracy, liberal values, as well as the very idea of enlightenment are all but impossible.

Feminist scholarship was another field throughout the 1990s that surprisingly embraced the Orientalist Grand Narrative when tackling issues pertaining to Islam and gender (Volpi, 2010:32). The very first Western representations of the Muslim experience came primarily from travelers, adventurers, and crusaders whose depictions of the Muslim world formed the bedrock of Western ideas about Muslims and Islam (Curtis, 2009: 15). These representations often reiterated the strangeness of these far away lands, their cultures, and peoples. It is not surprising that the colonial narrative borrowed—and based—much of its depiction of Islam as the “ultimate inferior other” from these pre-existing impressions. In the colonial context, feminism was frequently used to illustrate the specific inferiority of colonized cultures. In the case of the Muslim world “the thesis of the new colonial discourse of Islam centered on women” (Ahmed, 1992:151). This new centrality given to the issue of women was yet another way of showcasing the innate and immutable nature of Islam as an oppressive force to women. The veil and the segregation of the sexes particularly were cited as examples epitomizing this oppression.

In the 1990s Western feminism recreated these artificial clashes between the oppressed women and the oppressive tradition by focusing on practices inherent to Islam but deemed detrimental to women’s rights by feminist standards (Volpi, 2010:32). Blanketed statements about Islam being unfavorable to the emancipation of women became pervasive both in feminist literature and the policy-making community. Despite the rise of intersectional feminism, the idea that certain customs are the primary reason for the “backwardness of Muslim societies” continued to endure in feminist thought. After all, “the peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam” (Ahmed, 1992:149).

It was not only the Orient or the Muslim World that were deemed problematic, but also Muslim communities in the West who were often seen as an extension of the Orient itself. The veil or Hijab, seen as a primary marker of Muslim identity and values, has often been the object of feminist ire as the supposed symbol of female oppression. “In the late 1980s, for example, a sharp public controversy erupted in France about whether Magrebin girls could attend school wearing the traditional Muslim head scarves regarded as proper attire for post pubescent young women” (Okin, 1999:9). The same debate re-emerged again in 2003 and eventually culminated in the enactment of a law officially banning the hijab (and other conspicuous religious signs) in public schools (Fernando, 2010:19).

The Burkini debacle of 2016 in France is a prime example of the persistence of this narrative affirming the veil to be a symbol of Islam’s inherent oppression and degradation of women. A central Orientalist prejudice found in many of the debates amongst feminist scholars is often rooted in the binary dichotomy between Islam and the West. The latter is said to be progressive and represents an advanced stage of women emancipation, while the Muslim World is essentially seen as hostile to women’s advancements. Muslim women particularly are depicted “as passive agents and victims of socio-political transformations and not as productive agents of change” (Volpi, 2010:32).

“While virtually all of the world’s cultures have distinctly patriarchal pasts, some—mostly, though by no means exclusively, Western liberal cultures—have departed far further from them than others” (Okin, 1999:16).

Although the origins of the narrative pertaining to the supposed primitive treatment of women in Islam can be traced back to the colonial context of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it has experienced somewhat of a rebirth in the context of the war on terror. This new framework rests on the Manichean representation of the Muslim world as a barbaric and misogynistic entity that must be civilized by a liberal and enlightened West. Feminist discourse played a major role in the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of Liberal imperialism. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was widely framed as a righteous war to liberate Afghan women from oppression (Ahmed, 2012).


Understanding Orientalism Series

Understanding Orientalism and its genesis: Read here



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  • Ahmed, Leila (2012). A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, From The Middle East To America. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Ansary, Tamim (2010). Destiny Disrupted. A History Of The World Through Islamic Eyes. New York: Public Affairs.
  • Ayoob, Mohammed (2008). The Many Faces of Political Islam. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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  • Barber, Benjamin R. (1996). Jihad vs McWorld. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Barton, Greg (2005). Jeemah Islamiyah: Radical Islamism In Indonesia. Singapore: Ridge Books.
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  • Curtis, Michael (2009). Orientalism and Islam. European Thinkers on Oriental Despotism in the Middle East and India. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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  • Fernando, Mayanthi L. (2010). Reconfiguring Freedom: Muslim piety and the limits of secular law and public discourse in France. American Ethnologist, Vol.37, No.1, pp. 19-35.
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  • Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Touchstone.
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  • Lewis, Bernard (1994). The Shaping of the Modern Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lewis, Bernard. (2003). What went wrong? The clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. New York: Perennial.
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Understanding Orientalism and its genesis

Understanding Orientalism and its genesis

The Orient occupies a singular place in the “European Western experience” (Said, 1979:1). It is a place that intrigues as much as it frightens. The Orient is not only a cryptic neighbor perceived as alien to Europe, it is also the location of Europe’s oldest colonies, “the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other” (Said, 1979:1). In many ways, Europe defined itself in direct contrast to the Orient. Orientalist thought emerged primarily as a discourse seeking to describe this imagined Orient through a unique set of vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, and doctrine.

Although, it was readily accepted at one point as an academic designation for those who researched, taught, or wrote about the Orient, “it is true that the term Orientalism is less preferred by specialists today (…)” (Said, 1979:2). For some the term is too vague, while for others it is too closely linked to “the high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century European colonialism” (Said, 1979:2). This by no means should be taken as an indication that Orientalism is no longer relevant in academia. In fact, it continues to produce an impressive body of knowledge focusing on the Orient under newer academic designations such as Oriental studies, Middle Eastern studies, or Islamic studies. “The point is that even if it does not survive as it once did, Orientalism lives on academically through its doctrines and theses about the Orient and the Oriental” (Said, 1979:2).

According to Edward Said, Orientalist thought introduced an ontological and epistemological distinction between the Orient and the Occident (Said, 1979:2). This premise has served as a starting point for “elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on” (Said, 1979:2). By the eighteenth century, what is known today as Orientalism had become an intricate part of the European colonial project. By describing and teaching about the Orient, it provided ways of settling it and ruling over it. Through its expertise it produced methods to facilitate the domination, restructuring, and overall control of the Orient (Said, 1979:3).

Said suggested that in order to fully understand Orientalism’s impact, one has to examine it first and foremost as a discourse which played an important part in the colonization and subsequent management of the Orient as a colonized and subjugated body. The Orient was no longer “a free object of thought or action” (Said, 1979:3), but rather an imagined entity produced politically, sociologically, ideologically, scientifically, and militarily to be managed by European culture.

“The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to the be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be—that is, submitted to being—made Oriental” (Said, 1979:6).

Denys Hay reiterated the hegemonic aspect of Orientalism by correlating it with the very idea of Europe. The notion of “us” Europeans against all “those” non-Europeans is an important element of European culture that made it a hegemonic entity both inside and outside its own borders (Said, 1979:7). The success of the European colonial project did not only reiterate the idea of European superiority, it also cemented the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient. Thus, the contrast between a supposed European superiority and “Oriental backwardness|” became the main dichotomy on which the entire relationship between West and East is predicated.

“Under the general heading of knowledge of the Orient, and within the umbrella of Western hegemony over the Orient during the period from the end of the eighteenth century, there emerged a complex Orient suitable for study in the academy, for display in the museum, for reconstruction in the colonial office, for theoretical illustration in anthropological, biological, linguistic, racial, and historical theses about mankind and the universe, for instances of economic and sociological theories of development, revolution, cultural personality, national or religious character.” (Said, 1979:7).

The idea of an Orient imagined as Muslim and a West imagined as Christian emerged from the cleavage between East and West introduced by Orientalist thought. Although, the epistemological and ontological distinction between the two entities started emerging only after the late fourteen century—and was later exacerbated by the colonial expansion of Europe toward the Orient—it is nevertheless undeniable that a certain proto-Orientalism existed beforehand, and can be traced back to the very beginnings of Western civilization.

In more ways than one, the vocabulary of Renaissance Orientalism is inherited from the proto-Orientalism of the ancient Greeks which left an indelible impression on the European mind through the classic texts that later became indispensable in European Christian education (Kalmar, 2012:30). In the medieval proto-Orientalism that emerged afterwards, the Europeans of the Middle Ages could only picture the Orient in eschatological terms as a mystical location and the theatre of the most wondrous biblical events (Kalmar, 2012:30). These depictions of the Orient continue to influence the very discourses that shape the relationship between East and West to this day.


I) Ancient Greek proto-Orientalism

Antique Greek pottery depicting a Greek soldier fighting a Persian warrior.

 The oldest roots of Orientalism can be traced back to the image of the Persian Empire common amongst ancient Greeks. The Persian invasions of Greece in 490 and 480-479 BCE were traumatic events leading to the exacerbation of long held fears and mistrust toward Persians (Kalmar, 2012:30). In the ancient Greeks imaginary, the Persian enemy became the “bearer of an alien, barbarian civilization, characterized above all by its soulless subservience to a divinized emperor” (Kalmar, 2012:30). This depiction of Persians was later extended to all the peoples of Asia, and the East was declared the land of tyranny and slavery. The idea of Asia as an entirely different entity from Greece became a staple in Greek literature and political thought. The contrast between the two was said to be the difference between a country with a responsible government under the leadership of free men and “the land of god-like despots served by an undifferentiated mass of slaves” (Kalmar, 2012:31).

While Plato was more subtle than Aristotle in his comparison between Greece and its neighbors to the East, the same kind of dichotomy was nonetheless present in his political thought. “When Plato opposed monarchy to democracy, he suggested that the Persian government was an extreme form of monarchy, just as the government of Athens was the extreme form of democracy” (Kalmar, 2012:31). Aristotle on the other hand was far less sympathetic toward the Persian enemy. Although he recognized that tyranny could also be found in Greece, he nevertheless believed that “the ideal freedom of Man was far less corrupted in the Greeks than in the barbarians” (Kalmar, 2012:31). In other words, the Greeks natural state was one of freedom, while the barbarians could never really escape the pull of slavery. The difference between Greeks and barbarians resided, according to Aristotle, in the expression of their respective characters as natural masters and natural slaves. “Aristotle thought that in a more perfect society, men’s nature to be free would make tyranny impossible. In order to assert their nature, men would eventually rebel against it” (Kalmar, 2012:31). While the barbarians’ natural corruption made them inclined to servitude, amongst the Greeks such tyranny would never be tolerated and would eventually be overthrown.

Aristotle posited that in the despotic states of the East, to be treated like slaves is in perfect concordance with the barbarians’ natural inclinations, and their accepted traditions. “In essence, the tyrant respects their most deeply ingrained customs: the unconditional surrender of the slave to his master” (Kalmar, 2012:32). This outlook on the East in which the barbarian is naturally inferior to the Greek justified as “natural” the idea of a Greek rule over Asian peoples and lands. After all, “ they, who naturally desire to be slaves, will be better governed when they get as their Master one who was meant by Nature to govern, rather than serve” (Kalmar, 2012:32).

Although one can notice certain similarities in the comparison between Greeks and barbarians in Aristotelian thought, and the comparison between Europeans and non-Europeans in modern Orientalist thought, they are nevertheless profoundly different. While this notion of “the barbarian of the East” endured and was later inherited by political philosophers like Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Greek proto-Orientalism was bereft of “the fundamental quasi-geographic foundation of real Orientalism” (Kalmar, 2012:32). The perceived civilizational clash in the eyes of the ancient Greeks was not between Europeans and barbarians, but rather between Greeks and barbarians.

“To the Greeks, the East may have appeared as an inferior Other, but it is not very likely that the collective Self facing this other was imagined as a “West” rather than just Greece” (Kalmar, 2012:32).


II) Renaissance Orientalism

The famous Orloj of Prague dating back to the fifteenth century. The figurines of the “Turks” was a synonym for “Muslims”. These figurines are meant to symbolize the futility of science without faith, since the Muslim scholars despite their knowledge remained outside of the real of Christianity.

During the Middle Ages, the medieval Christian West did not perceive the Orient as an alien civilization as did the Ancient Greeks. In fact one could say that their imaginative space “owed more to the Romans than to the Greeks” (Kalmar, 2012:34). Whereas the Greeks deemed the East to be the land of barbarians, the Romans considered the Hellenistic space created in the East by Alexander the Great’s conquests, as well as Greece itself, to be their East (Kalmar, 2012:34). They regarded this Hellenized East—including Greece—not as an inferior entity but rather as a “kind of classic model of their own civilization” (Kalmar, 2012:34). This view of the Orient is what medieval Europe inherited.

The rise of Islam in the seventh century CE did not immediately trigger a cleavage of the world into a Christian West and a Muslim East. Although each religion was primarily associated with “a separate, loosely organized yet real network of political, economic, and military relations, and regarded the other with considerable mistrust” (Kalmar, 2012:33), the two shared nevertheless a relationship mostly based on trade, cultural exchanges, and even at times political alliances that defied religious divides. The contrast between Christianity and Islam in Renaissance Orientalism was still far from the one found within Modern Orientalist discourse. Neither religion had yet carved for itself any specific parts of the known world as its own exclusive realm. Despite the fact that both religions competed on every level, neither had developed at that point a concrete geographic presence. “There were Christian states in Asia as there were Muslim realms in Europe (and Africa)” (Kalmar, 2012:33).

When in 634 Jerusalem fell into Muslim hands, for many Christians the very status of Christianity as the “universal religion of a universal empire” (Kalmar, 2012:36) was being challenged by the newly expanded Muslim Caliphate. While Edward Said argued that the European encounter with the Orient resulted in the depiction of Islam as the ultimate outsider in the Western world’s collective imaginary (Said, 1979:70), Ivan Kalmar posits instead that when Islam was born, “Prophet Muhammad was widely regarded not as an alien but as and “impostor”, a heretical Christian with pretensions of being a new Christ” (Kalmar, 2012:38). Hence, the advent of Islam was not interpreted as a schism between Europe and “its outsiders; but rather as a crack within a single, Christian-Muslim edifice” (Kalmar, 2012:39).

            The previous status quo changed drastically when the Ottoman Empire won the battle of Kosovo and gained an important foothold in Europe by 1388 (Kalmar, 2012:40).

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 exacerbated existing tensions and irrevocably altered the previous relationship between Islam and Christianity. The capture of Constantinople by Muslims marked the beginning of Europe’s creation “as a continent with a distinctive religious and cultural tradition” (Kalmar, 2012:41). To ensure the integrity of what was now seen as a purely Christian realm, the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella launched the Reconquista and expulsed Muslims and Jews from Spain and Portugal. The conquest of Constantinople and the Reconquista allocated to each religion a solid geographic presence. In the Christian West’s Weltanschauung, Christianity found its abode in the West, while the Orient became irretrievably Muslim.

“It was the absolute precondition for orientalism as the mental division of the world into East and West conceived of as civilizational opposites, with Africa and newly discovered America relegated to an imagined state of nature beyond civilization” (Kalmar, 2012:41).


III) Enlightenment Orientalism

Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886) The Pasha and His Harem
Francois Gabriel Guillaume Lepaulle (French artist, 1804-1886) The Pasha and his Harem.

While Ottoman power weakened in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Europe was in its ascendancy. Britain, the Netherlands, and France had steadily replaced Spain and Portugal as “the economic engine of Europe” (Kalmar, 2012:69). Russia also became a major imperial power increasing its Asian possessions at the detriment of the Ottomans. Each imperialist power proclaimed to act on behalf of “Christendom and civilization, convinced that it had a singular role in shouldering what Kipling would later call the white man’s burden” (Kalmar, 2012:69).

However, it is in Britain that capitalist economy and imperial power were at their height. The British Empire’s ability to compete with fellow European countries, and increase its colonial realm by winning and conserving colonies, confirmed its status as a major imperial power. It became customary in the eighteenth century for young Britons to travel throughout the continent and sometimes to “Turkish-ruled Greece, to Jerusalem, and even Egypt” (Kalmar, 2012:69). These grand tours were meant to display British intellectual and cultural hegemony, whilst at the same time “asserting a proto-colonial hegemony stemming from the possession of biblical and ancient oriental knowledge” (Kalmar, 2012:70).

Hegel, the philosopher of the late enlightenment compared the Oriental Empire of Islam to the Germanic World in his lectures on the Philosophy of History. It may seem at first glance that he intended to highlight the splendor of the Muslim Empire in contrast to the brutish character of the Germanic World. However, what Hegel was in fact arguing was that this contrast between a seemingly civilized Muslim World and a barbarous medieval Europe “should not be misread as a permanent defect” (Kalmar, 2012:82). The Muslim civilization, despite its phenomenal rise, was fundamentally based according to him on “shoddy workmanship” and would not last (Kalmar, 2012:82). In his analysis, he sought to underline the long-term process through which Europe was to develop distinct national spirits. He perceived the brutish medieval period in Europe as a simple “phase of germination” in the long process that would inevitably lead to an authentic form of true human freedom (Hegel, 1956:355).

“The killing, raping, and pillaging of the medieval Germans was, it turns out only the superficial manifestation of a deeper process whereby the hard-working spirit would become concrete at long last, in Hegel’s nineteenth century.” (Kalmar, 2012:82).

Hegel sought to create a link between the idea of Germanness and hard work. He posited that contrary to the unostentatious but conscientious Germans, the fickle and extravagant Orientals “took the easy path and created a brilliant empire almost instantaneously” (Kalmar, 2012:82). Therefore, as splendid as the Muslim civilization was, it still remained the product of a hasty and shoddy work destined to crumble. From a Hegelian perspective, the Orient was devoid of Volkgeist or specific ethnic and national spirits (Hegel, 1956:355). To Hegel, Islam was essentially a reaction to the medieval West’s progression toward a Weltgeist or “world spirit” (Hegel, 1956:355). It is the intense work undertaken in Medieval Europe to form a European world, in which each nation developed a distinct national spirit, that precipitated Islam’s spectacular, albeit hasty rise.

Different Oriental peoples had a somewhat different understanding of Geist, it is true, but none of them saw it differentiated into particular ethnic-national varieties (Kalmar, 2012:82).


IV) Modern Orientalism

Orientalism in the colonial era

According to Said, modern Orientalism is the product of the main currents that shaped eighteenth century Western thought: expansion, historical confrontation, sympathy, and classification (Said, 1979:120). These elements had the merit of liberating the study of the Orient in general—and Islam in particular—from the confines of the religious Christian scrutiny previously so pervasive in the field. In contrast to earlier manifestations of Orientalism, its modern iteration found its inspiration in the secularizing elements of eighteenth-century European culture (Said, 1979:120). By expanding the very idea of the Orient beyond the near East and toward China, India, and Japan, the established biblical framework—with Christianity and Judaism as main references—was transcended.

Another important transformation ushering in modern Orientalism was taking place in the field of history. By dealing with non-Europeans and non-Judeo-Christian cultures “history itself was conceived of more radically than before (…)” (Said, 1979:120). The previous belief centered on the idea of Europe as the abode of “embattled believers facing hordes of barbarians” (Said, 1979:120) was rapidly being abandoned for broader notions of humanity and human experience. Race, origin, color, and temperament replaced, and in many ways surpassed, the usual distinction between Christians and everyone else. Newer classifications of mankind were being devised and used “beyond the categories of what Vico called gentile and sacred nations (…)” (Said, 1979:120).

However, these tendencies toward secularization didn’t completely destroy the previous religious models of human history and destiny. On the contrary: they were simply “reconstructed, redeployed and redistributed” in these new secular frameworks (Said, 1979:121). By the end of the eighteenth century, Orientalism sought to supply the vocabulary, the concepts, and the techniques to study and examine the Orient and the Oriental. Still, despite its tendency toward the broader waves of secularization in Europe, Orientalism retained a certain “reconstructed religious impulse, a naturalized supernaturalism” (Said, 1979:121). Those who dedicated themselves to the study of the Orient were to do so in keeping with these revised frameworks constantly vacillating between a new secular mindset and the traditional paradigms of Christianity.

The new era of modernization with its new scientific and advanced techniques reshaped disciplines such as philology and anthropology. Orientalism, as well as the Orient itself, were brought into the fold and modernized. The ideas, works, and discourse that later came to define Orientalism originated from this attempt to transport and transplant the Orient firmly into modernity. Henceforth, the modern Orientalist’s mission was to save the Orient from obscurity by shattering the strangeness that alienated it from civilization. Silvestre de Sacy, Ernest Renan, and Edward William Lane became the progenitors and builders of this new field. By creating a unique and specific set of vocabulary and ideas, they rooted Orientalism in a scientific and rational premise that “put into cultural circulation a form of discursive currency by whose presence the Orient henceforth would be spoken for (…)” (Said, 1979:122). As European colonialism encroached further into the Orient, Orientalism’s popularity grew and gained in influence. Its transformation however was not merely intellectual and theoretical; it was also one that greatly altered its intent. By losing its previous precolonial consciousness, it gained—through its effectiveness, usefulness, and the authority it conferred—a place of choice in the European colonial project.

“To reconstruct a dead or lost Oriental language meant ultimately to reconstruct a dead or neglected Orient; it also meant that reconstructive precision, science, even imagination could prepare the way for what armies, administrations, and bureaucracies would later do on the ground, in the Orient” (Said, 1979:123).


V) Islamic Orientalism

Orientalist ideas and depictions of Islam in the media

Until the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman peril represented in the European imaginary the constant danger threatening to overtake all of Christian civilization. The idea of Islam as an existential threat, a source of terror and devastation, became an important component of European lore. This perception of Islam as an enemy and a threat to the very existence of Christian Western civilization continues to shape the relationship between the West and the Muslim World. Although Orientalism sought to encompass the Orient as a whole in its scope of study, it is undeniable that a specific form of Orientalism focusing on Islam emerged by the nineteenth century (Said, 1979:160).

Throughout the nineteenth century, feelings of antipathy toward Islam as well as a growing sentiment of European superiority became pervasive in Orientalism. Islam was seen as a “degraded (and usually, a virulently dangerous) representative” of the Orient’s inherent backwardness (Said, 1979:260). Said stated that despite the wave of secularization of the late eighteenth century, European scholars continued analyzing the Near Orient through a religious perspective often reiterating the biblical references used in previous centuries.

“Given its special relationship to both Christianity and Judaism, Islam remained forever the Orientalist’s idea (or type) of original cultural effrontery, aggravated naturally by the fear that Islamic civilization originally (as well as contemporaneously) continued to stand somehow opposed to the Christian West” (Said, 1979:260).

Islamic Orientalism gained in popularity between the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. More than any other branch of Orientalism, it encompasses a rather hostile vision of Islam (Said, 1979:209). It embodies to this day a “peculiarly polemical religious attitude” (Said, 1979:260) that shapes the methodological perspective in which it remains rooted. According to Islamic Orientalists, the problems plaguing mankind are to be divided into two distinct categories called Oriental and Occidental. In such a perspective, what characterizes Islam and differentiates it from the Occident is its resistance to change. The entire Muslim civilization is said to be opposed to changes—such as the transition of men and women out of archaic institutions, modernity and secularization—that have come to define the modern Western World (Said, 1979:263). This narrative however is not unusual in its rather negative outlook on Muslims. It adopts the broader description of non-Western people in colonial discourse as being “fundamentally hostile to modernity and incompatible with modernization” (Mirsepassi, 2000:2).

Islamic Orientalism remained for the most part impervious to any theoretical or historical revisions susceptible of challenging the broad assumptions it often makes about Islam and/or Islamic civilization (Said, 1979:263). Its primary discourse incorporated the Muslim World into a modern system based on highly supremacist relations. It reiterated a “hierarchical taxonomy of civilizations, religions, and cultures” (Samman and Al-Zo’by, 2008: 3) in which the Western World’s religion, race, and culture are believed to possess some unique traits that produced superior features. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial, Political, and Scientific Revolutions were not only cited as evidence of the West’s inherent superiority, but also as an indication of the Muslim World’s intrinsic cultural and political backwardness (Samman and Al-Zo’by, 2008: 3). Political Islam particularly, is often used by Islamic Orientalists to illustrate features that they deem inherent to Islam such as: Oriental despotism, aversion to modernity, and misogyny. More than other iteration of this phenomenon, Islamic Orientalism is the one that feeds the present-day Islamophobic narrative championed by the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher.



  • Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1956). Lectures on the philosophy of history. New York: Dover Publications.
  • Kalmar, Ivan (2012). Early Orientalism. Imagined Islam and the notion of sublime power. London; New York: Routledge.
  • Mirsepassi, Ali (2002). Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.
  • Said, Edward (1994). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Samman, Khaldoun; Al-Zo’by, Mazhar (2008). Islam, Orientalism, and the Modern World System. In Khaldoun Samman and Mazhar Al-Zo’by (eds.), Islam And The Orientalist World-System, pp. 3-22. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

20 Influential Medieval/Early Modern Muslim Women


This is the second part of a previous post on the subject (https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/15-important-muslim-women-in-history/), which sought to highlight the important role of women in the influencing the political, social, intellectual and military developments in the Islamic world during the medieval and early modern era. This post, like the previous one, is an attempt to introduce readers to the names of a few women who made their mark in Islamic (and world) history while providing a few sources for those interested in learning more about each. 

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This is the Muslim tradition of sci-fi and speculative fiction

This is the Muslim tradition of sci-fi and speculative fiction

Original article by: Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

Think invisible men, time travel, flying machines and journeys to other planets are the product of the European or ‘Western’ imagination? Open One Thousand and One Nights – a collection of folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, from the 8th to the 13th centuries CE – and you will find it stuffed full of these narratives, and more.

Western readers often overlook the Muslim world’s speculative fiction. I use the term quite broadly, to capture any story that imagines the implications of real or imagined cultural or scientific advances. Some of the first forays into the genre were the utopias dreamt up during the cultural flowering of the Golden Age. As the Islamic empire expanded from the Arabian peninsula to capture territories spanning from Spain to India, literature addressed the problem of how to integrate such a vast array of cultures and people. The Virtuous City (al-Madina al-fadila), written in the 9th century by the scholar Al-Farabi, was one of the earliest great texts produced by the nascent Muslim civilisation. It was written under the influence of Plato’s Republic, and envisioned a perfect society ruled by Muslim philosophers – a template for governance in the Islamic world.

As well as political philosophy, debates about the value of reason were a hallmark of Muslim writing at this time. The first Arabic novel, The Self-Taught Philosopher (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, literally Alive, Son of Awake), was composed by Ibn Tufail, a Muslim physician from 12th-century Spain. The plot is a kind of Arabic Robinson Crusoe, and can be read as a thought experiment in how a rational being might learn about the universe with no outside influence. It concerns a lone child, raised by a gazelle on a remote island, who has no access to human culture or religion until he meets a human castaway. Many of the themes in the book – human nature, empiricism, the meaning of life, the role of the individual in society – echo the preoccupations of later Enlightenment-era philosophers, including John Locke and Immanuel Kant.

Read the rest of this article here

The Passenger: Part 2 (Short Story)

The Passenger: Part 2 (Short Story)

Date: 3965 (10 years before the galactic war)

Location: Planet Tuva

Tuva the green, the jewel of the Sabah system was the fiefdom of the Tej family, a prominent member of the Oligarchy. Tucked away in the far-flung reaches of the galaxy, Tuva has always been a land of contradiction. Known primarily for its lush agricultural farmland, it was also—for the privileged few—the private playground of the Oligarchy. Beautiful villages peppered the deep verdant green of its hills and mountains. The distinctive Tuvan architecture gave their elaborate minarets an almost ethereal beauty. The valleys were covered with a kaleidoscope of colours during the flowering season, while its prairies—long converted into farmland—fed the greater part of the system. Tuva the green, the jewel of the Sabah system, was in the eyes of its inhabitants a miracle and as close as one could get to paradise in this universe.

According to the Tuvan tourism ministry, members of the Oligarchy flocked to their planet for its beauty and the restorative qualities of its natural springs. Tuvans would see them walking in the streets of their villages looking for trinkets to buy as souvenirs. Their colourful and opulent clothes spoke of riches, status, and power. They were in any conceivable way the very opposite of the Tuvans with their modest traditional garb and little to no power outside of their communities. Life was for the most part as idyllic and wholesome as many Tuvans believed. But there were rumours, unspeakable tales whispered in great secrecy of mysterious ongoings on the ancestral land of the Tej family perched high on Mount Ilya.

The beginning of the harvest season was always marked in Tuva by five days of celebration. It symbolized the beginning of a new cycle of life, a time to bury the past and embrace the future with hope and anticipation. The village squares would fill with people buying, selling, eating, singing, and playing games, while the clear Tuvan sky—usually unspoiled—filled with multi-colored fireworks displaying the respective colours of each village.

That year however, on the second day of the harvest celebration, a stealth cruiser dropped out of FTL near Tuva. While it remained in orbit, a shuttlecraft left the ship and entered the planet’s atmosphere. Equipped with the same stealth technology as the cruiser, no one saw it descending toward Mount Ilya and heading directly toward the land of the Tej.


A young man enters hastily in a greenhouse located behind Tej Manor, and clears his throat to signal his presence to the old man lovingly tending to his flowers.

“Father, our guests have arrived”

“Excellent. Make sure they are confortable”

“Yes father”

As he traversed the beautifully maintained lawn, someone barrelled into him and they both went down hard. Surprised and somewhat bewildered he looked at the young woman already scrambling to get up on her feet.

“I’m sorry I didn’t see you coming and….wait, who are you?”

He had never seen her before and she wasn’t wearing the usual uniform of the servants. In fact she seemed rather out of place and somewhat terrified. Wearing what looked like a hospital gown, barefoot, and disheveled, the young woman only uttered the word “please” before shaking her head and resuming her mad dash toward the dense forest surrounding the property. She kept glancing behind her as if she was expecting to be pursued. Before he could react, a scream of pure agony resonated through the air and he watched her drop to the ground unable to break her fall. Getting up to help the clearly injured young woman, he heard coming from behind him the sound of heavy boots stomping the ground. Three men ran past him rushing toward the unconscious woman. Not wearing any distinctive insignia on their uniform, he nonetheless deduced from their stance and alertness that they were most likely military. Taken aback by their presence, he contemplated for a second calling the manor’s guards to intercept them. Before he could do so however a hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly.

“Glad to see you are not injured son. Now, run along and return to the manor”, his father urged him gently.

Surprised by his father’s sudden appearance, he blinked slowly trying to make sense of what was happening. “Father, who are these men? Where did the girl come from? What’s going on?”

“My apologies young Master Tej. I hope she hasn’t spoiled your jacket. These creatures can be so filthy”, said the man accompanying his father. Everything about him was unsettling; from his vibrant green eyes, to his tone of voice, to the mysterious insignia on his uniform. What branch of the army is that? He was holding in his right hand what appeared to be a modified version of the stun guns he had seen carried by their own guards. Placing nonchalantly his weapon in his leg holster, he looked toward the three men standing around the young woman still sprawled on the ground. He swiftly signaled to them with a nod of the head before turning his attention once more toward the young man looking now more confused than ever.

“Come now son, go back to the house and change your attire before diner”, his father said.

He could hear fear and concern in the old man’s voice. Deciding to heed his father’s silent plea, he started walking toward the manor. Looking once more behind him, he saw the men carrying the obviously pregnant and unconscious young woman toward parts unknown. A feeling of dread coiled deep in his guts as the young man wondered what was to become of her.

“Should we go back inside Colonel Jalil now that this unfortunate situation has been handled?”

“Of course Master Tej, lead the way. And please, call me Mustafa”, said the man smiling as if nothing happened.

That was the very first time Hassan Tej—eldest son of Tej Effendi—heard the name Mustafa Jalil. A name he later came to associate with a deep sense of terror.


Read part 1 of this story here



Salamu Aleikum Wa Rahmatullahi Wa Barakat my dear friends,

Tonight is the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. To all of you who will embark on this journey, I would like to wish you all a blessed Ramadan filled with peace and tranquility. May this be an occasion for us all to strengthen our Iman (faith) and renew our covenant with Allah ‘aza wajal. May this be a time when we all (whatever our faiths might be) engage in self reflection and spread love, compassion, and understanding in a world that desperately needs it.

Let us also remember to pray and make duas for ALL those who suffer in this world: the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the injured, the exiled, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. As  the nation of Rasulullah (saw), our love of humanity should be one predicated on the very idea that we are ALL the children of Adam (as) and Hawa (Eve), and not on the arbitrary kinship of nationalism, classism, tribalism, or any other ism.  So, we ask Allah ‘aza wajal to heal this world of ours, bless our beloved humanity, and keep us all on the straight path. Ameen.