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Orientalism and knowledgeable ignorance

Sep 20,2022 - Last updated at Sep 20,2022

The term “knowledgeable ignorance” is used by the authors of a book titled “Why do People Hate America” to refer to Western view of Islam and Muslims. A view based on a body of orientalists’ researches and writings characterised by representing an erroneous image of the East in general and the Arab Islamic culture in particular.

In this article I am going to examine and expose some of the most flagrant examples of orientalists’ misrepresentations of Islamic doctrines and values. In his book Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity, Gustave von Grunebaum writes:

It is essential to realise that Muslim civilisation is a cultural entity that does not share our primary aspirations. It is not vitally interested in the structural study of other cultures, either as on in itself or as a means towards clearer understanding of its own character and history.

Grunebaum’s thesis that Muslim civilisation is not interested in the study of other cultures, which is, unfortunately, considered an authoritative statement on Islam, betrays stark ignorance of a cardinal Koranic doctrine encapsulated in the a verse from surat Al Hujurat: ”Oh mankind! We created you from a single pair, of a male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you, and God has full knowledge and is well acquainted.”

Equally misguided, Bernard Lewis, in a context related to jihad in Islam, maintains that Islam endorses jihad as a holy war: “The crusades could more accurately be described as a limited, belated and in the last analysis, ineffectual response to jihad- a failed attempt to recover by a Christian holy war what had been lost to a Muslim holy war.” Obviously, for Lewis, jihad is associated with the concept of a holy war that is waged in the name of God against unbelievers. The Koran and the Hadith emphasise that Muslims may fight those who fight them, but they also insist that Muslims may not transgress. One may cite a large number of verses to this effect. Yet, it is a well-established fact that Islamic tradition does not have a notion of holy war. 

As the Islamic scholar Khaled Abou Al Fadl rightly observes, in Islamic religion war is never holy; it is either justified or not. 

Inspired by orientalists, Western historians, journalists and politicians are all involved in a kind of an orchestrated campaign to portray a distorted image of Islam. For example, in an article entitled “History and September 11”, Francis Fukuyama writes: “The Islamic world differs from other cultures today in one important respect. In recent years it alone has repeatedly produced significant radical movements that reject not just Western policies but the most basic principle of modernity itself, that of religious tolerance.” The last part of this statement provides another latent example of ignorance of Islam, especially its remarkable emphasis on tolerance and freedom of faith. In surat Al Baqara, for instance, we read: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error.” Another important verse in Surat Yunus stresses further the notion of the freedom of religious belief: If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!”

In the light of these two verses, the claim that Islam does not embrace tolerance falls to the ground.

To cite a final example of misconception of Islam, John Aschroft former Us attorney general, maintains: “Islam is a religion in which God required you to send your son to die. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” This ill-advised remark betrays a sheer misconception of the reality of Islam which more than any other religion celebrates the sanctity of human life. The Koran abounds in verses which emphasise the sacredness of human life. One of these verses in Surah Maida goes so far as to state that the killing of one person tantamounts to slaying the whole of mankind: “… if any one slew a person- unless it be for murder of for spreading mischief in the land  —  it would be as if he slew the whole people: And if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” Had Aschcroft realised this fact, he perhaps would not have made his unthoughtful remark.   


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