Restating Orientalism – Wael Hallaq (2018)

Not quite what I expected (or hoped for). I thought this would be a book showing new methods of an orientalist approach. In a way it is, but not about orientalism as a ‘method’, but about orientalism as a subject.

The “Orientalism” from the subject, is mostly a reference to the 1978 book of that title written by Edward Said (1935-2003) who on his turn leaned heavily on Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Said was quite radical in his critique on orientalism as an academic discipline.

Where Foucault theorised about knowledge and power, Said described how orientalists basically supported colonialism. It was not as much as that orientalists tried (try) to describe the orient (whether near or far), but their descriptions serve the purpose of the western occupying forces.

Hallaq sees much in the ideas of Said, but he also has a lot to say about it and, indeed, restate Said’s theories. This results in very dry and academic writing about the role of the west, politics and “a critique of modern knowledge”.

With regard to the latter, a surprising name pops up: René Guénon (1886-1951), which is probably the reason I heard about Hallaq’s book in the first place. Guénon is presented as an “orientalist” and not as an “islamologist” which is ironic, since an often heard critique on Guénon is that his far eastern knowledge came from books, while he lived as a Muslim half his life. Be that as it may, Hallaq praises Guénon’s fierce criticism on western thinking and finds his work in parts clearer than those of Said. The part about Guénon is about the only part which is somewhat about ideas and theories.

I found “Restating Orientalism” a tough read. It is interesting to read how orientalists started to work out the countless varieties of eastern oral laws to bend it to the wests on purposes, but, as mentioned, most of the book is not about such subjects, but about how orientalism too often serves the dominating politics of the west.

Hallaq does propose alternative views, mostly based on Islam and it is in these sparse passages that the book comes near to what I had hoped it would be.

2018 Columbia University Press, isbn 0231187629

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