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.

15 thoughts on “Understanding Orientalism and its genesis

  1. SubhanAllah, I started reading Said’s ‘Orientalism’ quite recently and you’ve written an amazing blog post about the topic of Orientalism. Thank you. I will be forwarding this to my friends 🙂 Would you be able to share the references that you have quoted in this post? I’d love to read up on them. So interesting! Can’t wait for your next post about this topic. Keep ’em coming sister!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment sister hilalraile. I will add the references to the post, I was a little afraid the post was super long already and wasn’t sure if anyone would read it lool. I’m glad it has been beneficial to you. I will definitively post more on the subject soon. Jazak’Allah Khair for your feedback, and please feel free to share any of my posts with your friends.


  2. Is this a small portion of a larger work? I want to read more, Geeky! I need to read some of Kalmar’s work. I haven’t heard of him before. I wonder how far things have come since Said’s ground-breaking piece. Obviously, we see the remnants of Orientalism in many public figures, but is it still pervasive in the academy? When I was doing my Master’s, I took one really great class that acknowledged this re-writing of history, if you will. Also, I did not that about Hegel. Not surprised of course. But that one book that I was supposed to have ready for Philosophy class did not mention this about Hegel. Hmmm. I’m starting to rebel against all forms of standardized history and literature as it is presented in the West. Thanks for sharing this! ❤

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it Rafia. Yes, it is part of a larger body of work. I will post the rest soon. Orientalism is still very pervasive in Western academia. There are different strands of Orientalist narrative: traditional Orientalism, Neo-Orientalism, Critical Neo-Orientalism. I will post more on that soon. Honestly, we should all be weary of the standardized history that is being taught within the Western academy. So much has been erased, re-written, and propagandized. People like Syed Farid Alatas, who is a sociologist from Singapore, are openly calling for a decolonization of knowledge. Which essentially means, revisiting the canons of all fields of knowledge.

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    2. Oh and yes Hegel was quite a “charming” person when it came to non-European peoples and cultures. Other than all the “lovely” things he said about Muslims, he also essentially called Africans and the native populations of the Americas uncivilized and said they are foreign to the very concept of civilization. Yet, within Western academia they go through a great length to revise his work by basically omitting all these things he said about the rest of humanity. But he isn’t the only one, they were all equally as horrid toward non-European peoples. Montesquieu is another one whose work is constantly being revised to erase all those “wonderful” observations he made about Arabs, Africans etc….

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