Critical Examination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

Here’s a little Q & A on Said’s now seminal and foundational text Orientalism.

Orientalism is a book published in 1978 by Edward Said that has been highly influential and controversial in postcolonial studies and other fields. In the book, Said effectively redefined the term “Orientalism” to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East. This body of scholarship is marked by a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture.” He argued that a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for European and the American colonial and imperial ambitions. Just as fiercely, he denounced the practice of Arab elites who internalized the US and British orientalists’ ideas of Arabic culture.

So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.
—Edward Said

A central idea of Orientalism is that Western knowledge about the East is not generated from facts or reality, but from preconceived archetypes that envision all “Eastern” societies as fundamentally similar to one another, and fundamentally dissimilar to “Western” societies. This a priori knowledge establishes “the East” as antithetical to “the West.” Such Eastern knowledge is constructed with literary texts and historical records that often are of limited understanding of the facts of life in the Middle East.

Following the ideas of Michel Foucault, Said emphasized the relationship between power and knowledge in scholarly and popular thinking, in particular regarding European views of the Islamic Arab world. Said argued that Orient and Occident worked as oppositional terms, so that the “Orient” was constructed as a negative inversion of Western culture. The work of another thinker, Antonio Gramsci, was also important in shaping Edward Said’s analysis in this area. In particular, Said can be seen to have been influenced by Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in understanding the pervasiveness of Orientalist constructs and representations in Western scholarship and reporting, and their relation to the exercise of power over the “Orient”.

Although Edward Said limited his discussion to academic study of Middle Eastern, African and Asian history and culture, he asserted that “Orientalism is, and does not merely represent, a significant dimension of modern political and intellectual culture.” (53) Said’s discussion of academic Orientalism is almost entirely limited to late 19th and early 20th century scholarship. Most academic Area Studies departments had already abandoned an imperialist or colonialist paradigm of scholarship. He names the work of Bernard Lewis as an example of the continued existence of this paradigm, but acknowledges that it was already somewhat of an exception by the time of his writing (1977). The idea of an “Orient” is a crucial aspect of attempts to define “the West.” Thus, histories of the Greco–Persian Wars may contrast the monarchical government of the Persian Empire with the democratic tradition of Athens, as a way to make a more general comparison between the Greeks and the Persians, and between “the West” and “the East,” or “Europe” and “Asia,” but make no mention of the other Greek city states, most of which were not ruled democratically.

Taking a comparative and historical literary review of European, mainly British and French, scholars and writers looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the peoples of the Middle East, Said sought to lay bare the relations of power between the colonizer and the colonized in those texts. Said’s writings have had far-reaching implications beyond area studies in Middle East, to studies of imperialist Western attitudes to India, China and elsewhere. It was one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies. Said later developed and modified his ideas in his book Culture and Imperialism (1993, another must read).

Edward Said, was a Palestinian American literary theorist and advocate for Palestinian rights. He was a University professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a founding figure in Post-Colonial Studies. He died in September 2003 after a long battle with cancer.

Many scholars now use Said’s work to attempt to overturn long-held, often taken-for-granted Western ideological biases regarding non-Westerners in scholarly thought. Some post-colonial scholars would even say that the West’s idea of itself was constructed largely by saying what others were not. If “Europe” evolved out of “Christendom” as the “not-Byzantium,” early modern Europe in the late 16th century (see Battle of Lepanto, 1571) defined itself as the “not-Turkey.”

Said puts forward several definitions of “Orientalism” in the introduction to Orientalism. Some of these have been more widely quoted and influential than others:

  • “A way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience.” (1)
  • “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’.” (2)
  • “A Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” (3)
  • “…particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient.” (6)
  • “A distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts.” (12)

In his Preface to the 2003 edition of Orientalism, Said also warned against the “falsely unifying rubrics that invent collective identities,” citing such terms as “America,” “The West,” and “Islam,” which were leading to what he felt was a manufactured “clash of civilisations.”

Here’s a little critical “Q&A” to guide you through the central arguments (the first 100 or so pages) of the text.

Question One: 

Said starts his first chapter with a quote from Fourier in the Description de l’Egypte, “le genie inquiet et ambitieux de (sic) Europeens… impatient d’employer les nouveaux instruments de leur puissance, ” which roughly translates as, “the ambitious and anxious spirit of the Europeans.. eager to use the new tools of their power.”  Explain the sentence and comment on why it is the opening quote for this chapter.


Though, Said notes, feelings of Orientalism and demarcation of an European “us” and an Oriental “them” were long in the making, the middle of the eighteenth century brought about two principal elements in the relationship between the West and the East: “growing systematic knowledge in Europe of the Orient, and Europe’s position of strength [read: domination].” (39-40)

This emerging body of literature is what, according to Said, constituted European knowledge of the Orient and is what gave them control of the region – knowledge is power, Said writes, taking from Foucault. (34, 36, and 40) Said structures this paradigm of knowledge in the following manner: “England knows Egypt, Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs; foreign occupation therefore becomes “the very basis” of contemporary Egyptian civilization; Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation.” (34)

As such, England’s age of discovery, which preceded this period of domination and government, produced a body of knowledge that allowed them to witness Egypt’s inabilities to self-govern and thus fed into England’s occupation. This timeline presented by Said is the thrust of the first chapter – that is to say that the emergent feelings of colonialism stem from systematic knowledge flooding Europe which place European culture and knowledge above that of the Orient and create a hierarchy of power between the West and the East. The tools of Europe’s power, the tools mentioned in the quote at the beginning of the chapter are these aforementioned tools of knowledge. The knowledge gathered during the Age of Discovery was harnessed in the mid-eighteenth century to serve racial and geographic paradigms of power.  This construct of knowledge feeds into Said pivotal phrase – “Orientalism orientalizes the Orient” – meaning that the Orient (and the Occident for that matter) is man made constructs built out of the systematic knowledge gathered in Europe at this time. The Orient is only the Orient when placed in opposition to the Occident.

Question Two:

Comment on Said’s question which is central to his entire book: “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” (45) Is this simply a rhetorical question or a statement about a much more difficult and unresolved issue.


Ideally, Said’s book aims to answer this question though in this context (placed in the first chapter) the question is asked rhetorically. Does this statement have to be either a rhetorical question or an unresolved issue? Can it not be both? In the first chapter it is meant to be rhetorical – it is meant to make that reader believe that the author will attempt to answer the question or that the reader will be able to answer the question come the end of the book. In the context of the whole book however, it is a statement of deeply unresolved issues of race and superiority and how each and every individual defines themselves and those around them. Is Said not saying with this statement that while we [the collective human race] wish not to admit such things, we all define ourselves in opposition to others? (I am I because I am not you…so on and so forth) Can discussing such practices and their roots ever make the practice cease? I don’t think Said had an answer, try as he might to find one in the process of this book.

Question Three:

Explain what Said means by: “As a discipline representing institutionalized Western knowledge of the Orient, Orientalism comes to exert a three-way force, on the Orient, on the Orientalist, and on the Western “consumer” of Orientalism” (67) What do you think about Said’s implied position about the constitution and growth of knowledge?


This statement, on page 67, harkens to the phase mentioned in the response to the first question – “Orientalism orientalizes the Orient.” Orientalism, as a practice, penalizes the Orient for not being Europe. In the process of penalizing the Orient, the Occident is orientalizing the Orient by implementing a set of constraints, limitations upon the Orient (these constraints are apart of Said’s description of the practice of Orientalism on page 41). In this process that Occident receives that it believes to be “truths” of the Orient, but in reality the “truths” they are ingesting are learned judgments of the Orient built upon the power dynamic established. Thus the process of Orientalism is as destructive to the West as it is to the East, for as mentioned above (response to question 1) both operate under false senses of themselves and the other.

Question Four:

Said argues that there are two major reasons which favor a “textual attitude” [accepting the authority of texts] over direct human encounters: one has to do with the human need for the comfort of textual authority when confronted with “something relatively unknown, threatening and previously distant”, the second has to do with “the appearance of success” (93) Explain his point in relation to Orientalism.


Said writes that all things, all experiences and places, cane be described as a book. Therefore, all reality can be described and thus descriptions garner authority as sources of reality. His over simplified example of the man who reads of a fierce lion, encounters a fierce lion, believes in the authority of the author about lions and thus subsequently about all other realities that he or she might write on is apropos.

The written word garners power because of its relationship (even if only perceived relationship) to reality. This relationship that Said constructs of how an individual will take a written account as authentic over or in place of a personal account is a large piece of both Said’s and Foucault’s arguments on the power of both language and knowledge. This is essential to the Orientalist dialectic because the power relationship between East and West, Orient and Occident, is built upon power (read: language and knowledge). If the West has more knowledge they have more power, then get more knowledge through language (written word), thus power is imbued into written accounts of travels in the Orient and encounters with the Orient. Thus the written account will trump the personal account.

This book and its main arguments serves as the basis for a paper I wrote on Orientalist painting and Napoleon’s explorations in Egypt and Greater Syria, here.


Filed under Culture, History, Middle East

3 responses to “Critical Examination of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

  1. Kim

    Hmm. The written word you say trumps the personal experience, however with written you do not have dynamics, only what you perceive to be possible what the author meant, hence your own personal interpretation of the written words. Likewise, the Bible and many thousands of priests, ministers, etc. who interpret it daily/weekly. They put forth their ideas with the written word. Also this written word, so many moons ago, seems to be very wise. written by wise men at the time, however, growth and movement must accompany these ancient times. We don’t live in ancient times therefore, we must move forward, spirituality is growth! Repeat we don’t live in ancient times and the written word should be challenged and not taken word for word. It’s just information and we should use our own reasoning to make sure it’s true. We should always challenge it. An old wives tale is a wonderful thing but we don’t live on that alone. In my estimation, the time is right for giving to each other and teaching each other to learn and bring out the best so we can all grow and MOVE forward. A willingness so to speak, so we must open to each other and not be closed off. On my street alone we have East and West, the children will be the ones to unite. This year(5 months) has opened up many eyeballs, who would have thought all this would have happened, freedom for many.
    I wish the journalists and TV would make it easier to understand the middle east as it is so complex. They work it all the time and many of us just clump it all together and hope for the best and trust our leaders to do the right thing. Repression and Hunger/well I just thought we would have rid those problems by now.

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  3. An enjoyable read Orientalism by Edward Said . loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by “to read” list.

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