Roots of Misconception: The 19th Century Perceptions of Islam: From the Pilgrim to the Orientalist

Ibrahim Kalin

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The 19th Century Perceptions of Islam:
From Pilgrim to Orientalist

Ibrahim Kalin

Outside the world of theology, philosophy and literature, there were many Europeans whose thirst and curiosity for the Orient was not to be quenched by reading books.  So they went to the Islamic world and produced a sizeable literature of travel accounts about Muslim countries, their customs, cities, etc. These were the European travelers of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries whose ranks included such people as Burton, Scott, Kinglake, Disraeli, Curzon, Warburton, Nerval, Chardin, Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Lamartine, Pierre Loti, and Tavernier.(47) The wealth of information they brought back to Europe contributed to the popular, if not academic, perceptions of Islam and Muslims whereby the impenetrable world of the Saracens and Orientals was now disclosed for many Europeans through the imaginative discourse of the travelers. In some curious ways, these travel accounts had an impact similar to that of the Crusades almost seven centuries before: a first hand experience of the Orient was made available for public consumption in Europe and it was entrenched not in the religious concerns and hostilities of Christian theologians but in the new mission of the Occident to civilizeђ the Orient the celebrated mission civilisatrice of the colonial period.(48) Perhaps the most elegant and radical expression of this view came from Andr֩ Gide, the famous French poet and writer and the recipient of Nobel Prize in literature in 1947. In his famous Journals, Gide gives an account of his journey to Turkey in 1914, which turns out to be an utter disappointment for him:

Constantinople justifies all my prejudices and joins Venice in my personal hell. As soon as you admire some bit of architecture, the surface of a mosque, you learn (and you suspected already) that it is Albanian or PersianThe Turkish costume is the ugliest you can imagine; and the race, to tell the truth, deserves it. [Ņ]  For too long I believed (out of love of exoticism, out of fear of chauvinistic self-satisfaction, and perhaps out of modesty), for too long I thought that there was more than one civilization, more than one culture that could rightfully claim our love and deserve our enthusiasm Now I know our Occidental (I was about to say French) civilization is not only the most beautiful; I believe, I know that it is the only one Ŗ yes, the very civilization of Greece, of which we are the only heirs.(49)

Like their intellectual peers in the 17th and 18th centuries, most of these travelers were interested in the worldlyђ qualities of Islamdom, perhaps with a good intention of dispelling some long-standing misgivings about a world in which Europe had now a vital interest. Their narrations, ranging from recondite and arid inventories of names and places to spirited depictions and imaginary ruminations, were based not so much on a genuine interest in penetrating into the Islamic world as reflecting and constructing it through the eyes of an upper class European writer. A somewhat crude indication of this is the fact that many of those travelers, notwithstanding such notable exceptions as Sir Richard Burton(50), did not learn any of the Islamic languages or make any serious study of the beliefs and practices of Muslims other than what was available to them in Europe as common knowledge. In his celebrated travelogue, Travels in Persia 1673-1677, Sir John Chardin makes a number of observations on the Persians and displays a mixed feeling towards them. Speaking of the temper, manners, and customs of the Persiansђ, he says:

They are courtly, civil, complisant, and well-bred; they have naturally an eager bent to Voluptuousness, Luxury, Extravagancy, and Profuseness; for which Reason, they are ignorant both of Frugality and Trade. In a Word, they are born with as good natural Parts as any other People, but few abuse them so much as they do. [] 
Ņbesides those Vices which the Persian are generally addicted to, they are Lyers in the highest Degree; they speak, swear, and make false Depositions upon the least Consideration; they borrow and pay not; and if they can Cheat, they seldom lose the Opportunity; they are not to be trusted in Service, nor in all other Engagements; without Honesty in their Trading, wherein they overreach one so ingeniously, that one cannot help but being bubbld; greedy of Riches, and of vain Glory, of Respect and Reputation, which they endeavour to gain by all Means possible.(51)

An important outcome of this literature is what Edward Said calls ґOrientalizing the Orient,(52) viz., the further romanticizing and vilification of Muslim peoples. In its more artistic and literary manifestations, Orinetalism reinforces the mystique of the Orient by evoking such fixed identities and stereotypes as the exotic harem, the sensuous East, the Oriental man and his concubines, city streets immersed in mystery, all of which are to be seen vividly in the naturalistic European paintings of the Orient in the 19th century. These images of the Orient are still alive in the European mind and continue to be an inexhaustible resource for Hollywood constructions of Islam and Muslims in America. Movies such as True Lies (1994) and Executive Decision (1996), which depict Arabs as mindless criminals and violent psychopaths, are part of our recent memory and their historical genealogy can be traced back to the ґmystique of Islam created in 19th century Europe. 

It would not be a stretch to say that the 19th century is the longest period in the history Islam and the West. It was in this century that the academic study of Islam exploded more than any one in Europe could have imagined before. The new interest in Islam was closely tied to the political, economic and, most importantly, colonial circumstances of the 19th century, during which time a handful of European countries had occupied a good part of the Islamic world. As we can see from the long list of Orientalist scholars, the 19th century witnessed a sudden and dramatic rise in the study of Islam, surpassing both qualitatively and quantitatively the work of the last millennium over a period of seventy years: Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the father of French Orientalism; E. W. Lane (1801-1876) whose Arabic-English Lexicon is still a classic;(53) Karl Pfander, a German missionary working in India and famous for his controversy with Indian Muslim scholars; J. von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856), known for his meticulous studies on Ottoman history and Arabic, Persian and Turkish poetry; William Muir mentioned earlier, F. D. Maurice (1805-1872), a prominent theologian of the Church of England and the author of The Religions of the World and Their Relations with Christianity, a key text for the understanding of Christian perspectives on Islam in the 19th century; Ernest Renan (1823-1892) whose famous lecture at the Sorbonne on Islam and science incited a long controversy and elicited the responses of a number of Muslim intellectuals of the time including Jamal al-Din Afghani and Namik Kemal.(54)

These and many other figures writing on Islam and the Islamic world in the 19th century unearthed a new terrain for the study of Islam and crafted new modes of perception vis-Ҡ-vis the Islamic world. The contributions of these scholars to the shaping of the modern Western images of Islam were manifold. First, they were the direct conduits for satisfying the curiosity of the European populace about the Islamic world that was now, after centuries of menacing presence and bewildering success, under the political, military and economic dominance of the West. In this limited sense, the concept of Islam articulated in the works of these scholars was intractably tied to the new colonial identity of Western Europe. Secondly, the torrent of information about the Muslim world, its history, beliefs, schools of thought, languages, geography, and ethnic texture served scholarship as much as power. It can hardly escape our attention that a good number of scholars, travelers, and translators of the 19th century, credited duly with relative expertise, were colonial officers sent to the Orient with clear and detailed job descriptions. The third and, for our purposes, the most important legacy of this period was the completion of the groundwork for the full-fledged establishment of what came to be known as Orientalism a new set of categories, typologies, classifications, terminologies, and methods of coming to terms with things Oriental and Islamic.

Orientalism reached a climax in the second half of the 19th and the first part of the 20th century,(55) and a truly impressive and ambitious venture was set in motion by a dozen or so European academics who were to mould the modern study of Islam in Western universities. With all of their ambitions, fervor, differences, scholastic diligence, and distinctly Western identities, such names as Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921), Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), Duncan Black Macdonald (1863-1943), Carl Becker (1876-1933), David Samuel Margoliouth (1858-1940), Edward Granville Browne (1862-1926), Reynold Alleyne Nicholson (1868-1945), Louis Massignon (1883-1962), and Sir Hamilton A. R. Gibb (1895-1971) became, inter alia, the towering figures of the Orientalist study of Islam(56). By producing a massive body of books, journals, articles, translations, critical editions, reports, and academic posts for the study of Islam, the Orientalist scholars generated an enduring legacy that has shaped the parameters of the modern study of Islam and the Muslim world up to our own day. The Orientalist journey in the path of representing Islam, however, contributed very little to the amelioration of the mystique of Islam and the Orient inherited from the pre-modern era. Some of the Western students of Islam were simply not interested in such an enterprise and focused their energies on their solitary work. In other cases, the dark image of Islam as a decadent and dying civilization, a backward, irrational and sensual world was reinforced and made its ways into popular culture through fictions, TV images, Hollywood productions, and media reporting. In this regard, Arberry֒s conciliatory remark that the seven British scholars of Islam, including Arberry himself, whom he analyzes in his Oriental Essays, have striven, consciously or unconsciously, by the exercise of somewhat specialized skills to help build a bridge between the peoples and cultures of Asia and EuropeӔ(57)  appears to state no more than an unfinished project and unfulfilled will. Beyond the individual proclivities of Orientalist scholars, Orientalism was marred by a number of structural and methodological problems, some of which are still operative in the current representations of Islam. It is thus crucial to identify them in order to understand the ways in which Islam is constructed as the eerie otherђ at best and as the enemy at worst. Without claiming to be exhaustive, we can briefly highlight some of these issues.

In its early stages, Orientalism functioned within the matrix of the 19th century European mindset.  Currents of thought, from Romanticism and rationalism to historical criticism and hermeneutics, that had shaped Western humanities and the new colonial order were at work in the remaking of the picture of Islam.  Yet the Orientalists showed little interest in overcoming the limitations of studying another culture with categories that were patently Western.  It was within this framework that the perennial search for correspondencesђ, homogenous structures, and orthodoxies in the Islamic tradition became a hallmark of the Orientalist tradition, whether ones field of study was popular Sufism, political history, science, or jurisprudence.(58) Inevitably, this has led to such grotesque generalizations as ґIslamic orthodoxy, popular Islam versus high Islam, or Sufism versus religious law, often couched in the abstract language of academic parlance, that have been no less inhibiting and essentializing than the medieval conceptions of Islam Җ conceptions that continue to play out in popular images of Islam in the West today. Secondly, the Orientalist tendency was to analyze the Islamic world as a decaying civilization whose only import, at least for the Western student of Islam, was either its obscure textual tradition or the variegated responses of Muslim intellectuals to the challenges of the modern world. All of the leading figures of classical Orientalism, for instance, were unanimous in presenting Islamic philosophy and sciences as no more than a port for the transmission of Greek lore to Europe.  In reading such classical works of Orientalism as Solomon Munks Mҩlanges de philosophie juive et arabe (1859) or De Boers Geschichte der Philosophie im Islam (1903), one gets the impression that Islamic philosophy, if this name was allowed at all, was essentially a long commentary in Arabic on Greek and Hellenistic thought taking the forms of either Aristotelianism or neo-Platonism.(59) The best compliment one could accord the Islamic intellectual tradition was, in the words of von Grunebaum, ғcreative borrowing,(60) and within this framework the obsessive search for ԑoriginality in Islamic thought was destined to fail.

Thus Islam, having lost its universal appeal and vitality, was seen not as a living tradition with a human face but as an object of study to be historicized and relativized. At this point, it is important to note that the fascination of the 19th and early 20th century scholars of Islam resulted in a number of studies on ґmodern Islam dealing exclusively with figures and movements that had come into contact with the modern West on intellectual and political grounds while neglecting or simply ignoring a large part of the Islamic world, namely the traditional ulama, Sufis, and their followers,  who had not felt a need to respond to the West in ways that would have attracted the attention of Western scholars. It was only after the 60s and 70s when classical Orientalism was called into question that we began to see works dealing with the traditional world of Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries. There remains, however, a long list of names yet to be studied including Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi, Shaykh Ahmad al-ґAlawi, Ahmad ibn Idris, Hajji Mulla Sabziwari, Babanzade Ahmed Hilmi, and Mustafa Sabri Efendi, the last Shaykh al-Islam of the Ottomans. In this sense, the Orientalist enterprise of mapping out the Islamic world has turned out to be an unfinished, if not failed, project with the disturbing result of presenting to lay Western readers an incomplete picture of the Islamic world and its diverse history.
47. Cf. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. 166-197.

48. This is not to suggest that the inherited religious biases against Islam were absent in the narrations of the humanistђ travelers of Europe. George Sandys Relation of a Journey, mentioned above, is a case in point. SandysҒ accounts of Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land, and Italy clearly reveal the extent to which the 17th century humanists of Europe were under the influence of Christian polemics against Islam. Cf. Jonathan Haynes, The Humanist as Traveler: George Sandyss Relation of a Journey, pp. 65-81.

49. Andre Gide, Journals 1889-1949, tr. by Justin OҒBrien (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), Vol. I, p. 177, 181.

50. Burton was so much engaged in assuming a local identity that he presented himself as a Muslim doctor of Indian descent. His Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madinah and Meccah (1855-1856) bears testimony to his knowledge of Arabic language and Islamic culture.

51. Sir John Chardin, Travels in Persia 1673-1677 (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1988), pp. 184 and 187.

52. Edward Said, Orientalism, p. 49ff.

53. Lanes An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, published first in 1836, is even more important than his Lexicon in revealing his approach to the Arab-Islamic world.

54. Albert Hourani provides a very fine analysis of these and other minor figures in his Islam in European Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 18-34.

55. According to one estimate quoted by Said, close to 60,000 thousand books about the New Orient were written between 1800 and 1950. Cf. E. Said, Orientalism, p. 204.

56. For I. Goldziher, C. S. Hurgronje, C. H. Becker, D. B. Macdonald, L. Massignon, see Jean Jacques Waardenburg, L’Islam dans le miroir de l’Occident. Comment quelques orientalistes occidentaux se sont penches sur l’Islam et se sont forme une image de cette religion, (Paris, Mouton, 1963). See also A. J. Arberry, Oriental Essays: Portraits of Seven Scholars (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997; first published in 1960) and Maxime Rodinson, Europe and the Mystique of Islam (Seattle/London: University of Washington Press, 1987), pp. 83-129.

57. A. J. Arberry, Oriental Essays (Great Britain: Curzon Press, 1997; first published in 1960), p. 7.

58. A classical example of the Orientalist construction of an Islamic orthodoxy is I. GoldziherҒs Stellung der alten islamichen Orthodoxie zu den antiken Wissenchaften,Ӕ Abhandlungen der Koniglich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenchaften, Jahrgang, 1915 (Berlin: Verlag der Akademie, 1916) where Goldziher establishes the kalam and fiqh critiques of philosophy especially by the Hanbalite scholars as the official position of Islamic orthodoxyђ against the pre-Islamic traditions. This article has been translated into English by M. L. Swartz in his Studies on Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 185-215.

59. T. J. De Boers work has been translated into English by E. R. Jones as The History of Philosophy in Islam (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967).

60. Gustave E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam, p. 294. This theme is further articulated in a collection of essays edited by von Grunebaum as Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955).


Originally published in “Roots of Misconception: Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After September 11th” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition ed. by Joseph Lumbard (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 143-187

First published online at

This article may be found on the webpage of Ibrahim Kalin at 

Ibrahim Kalin is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA


Roots of Misconception (Introduction and 4 parts), Ibrahim Kalin:

Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After 9/11 - INTRODUCTION
From Theological Rivalry to Cultural Differentiation: Perceptions of Islam During the Middle Ages
From the Middle Ages through the Modern Period: The European Discovery of Islam as a World Culture
The 19th Century Perceptions of Islam: From the Pilgrim to the Orientalist
The Legacy of Orientalism and the New World: Islam as the Other呒 of America?