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Muslim Response to Orientalism

May 13th, 2008 | by Abu Saif |


The term Orientalism generally refers to the study of the Eastern Civilization. Even though the term covers all aspect of the ‘East of Europe’ societies, including Near East and Far East, Orientalism was and always very much associated with the European interest in studying the immediate East of Europe and that refers to the Middle East, the Arab World and Islam.

Even though the tradition of Orientalism was to certain extend derived from the curiosity of the European to the fascinating life of their neighbor, the study could not escape from its association with the Western domination over their ‘Others’, beginning with the authoritative language of Middle Age Churches, continued by the Imperialists idea of ‘White’s Man Burden’. The domination was demonstrated through the Colonialism which gave different dimension to the connotation of Orientalism from a solid academic orientation as it general be in Germany and some other European countries, to the political dimension of Western Imperialism.

This viewpoint was most notably popularized by Edward Said in his controversial 1978 book Orientalism, which was addressed to criticize the current trend of Orientalists and Orientalism, with the Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis, as the main subject.


When the colonialization type of Orientalism dominated the field, this is not to suggest that every Orientalist was a conscious agent of imperialism or that all researches done in this field served to justify the legitimate colonialism. There was never an entirely monolithic European stance toward Islam, Muslims, the Orient or colonialism<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[1]<!--[endif]-->. But Muslims are the direct ‘victims’ of many of the Western countries’ foreign policies which took it shape from the expertise of the Orientalists.

For this reason, it is not easy to find among the Muslims who response to the Orientalism in an objective and academic manner. Orientalism became a taboo to them which led to the extensive approach of generalizing all those whom their views are against Islamic values to be considered as Orientalists. In general, the common response from Muslims is in the language of victim and defensive manner.

In order for us to do justice to the discussion, we would like to suggest the Muslim response to Orientalism to be divided into two major categories:

Response given by Muslim scholars and preachers and other prominent figures from the background of Islamic Studies.

Response given by Muslim scholars and other influential figures from the background of Human Sciences and other disciplines outside the field of Islamic Studies.

This categorization is not intended to generalize the many type of Muslim responses but more or less, to offer a better treatment to the subject within the limit.

Muslim scholars from the background of the Islamic Studies were very much bothered by the fact that many of the Orientalists gave the wrong presentation of Islam from their study. This was due to the fact that the Orientalists were trying to express Islam within their own understanding which might not be compatible with the dualism of Islam world view. Either the shortcoming emerged from their lack of appropriate methodology to study Islam, or simply because of the devilish idea against Islam.

Due to this reason, we found that Muslim scholars were in general gave a strong rejection against Orientalism. This idea is very much accepted by the preachers and laymen because they were observing the social and intellectual illness occurred among the Muslim society members, which Orientalism fits the criteria to take the blame.

The pattern was significantly different from the approach taken by the Muslims who came from the background of Human Sciences’ discipline. Many viewed Orientalism in a more objective way and carefully distinguish the Orientalists who served the colonial authorities and those who study the East simply because of their admiration to the neighboring civilizations. This is also due to the fact that many of the contemporary Human Sciences disciplines like psychology, sociology, anthropology and history emerged from the tradition of the West. Orientalism as an academic discourse which claimed by Bernard Lewis to be emerged from the humanism tradition of the Enlightenment, is more familiar to the Muslim social scientists compared to those who solely came from the background of Islamic Revealed Knowledge.

Maryam Jamilah as a figure for us to study within the subject, would be suggested to be among the first category of Muslim responses towards Orientalism as due to her association with the Muslims in Pakistan after her acceptance of Islam. Even though she recognized some of the positive sides of Orientalism, but many or the majority of her works would fall within the first category. She gave the most unsympathetic treatment against the Orientalism which can be viewed from many of her writing such as Islam and Orientalism, Islam Versus the West and others.


Maryam Jamilah (formerly known as Margaret Marcus) was born in 1934 into a pleasant and prosperous suburb near New York City. Her ancestry was Germany and her great grandparents had migrated from Germany between 1841 until 1861 seeking brighter economic opportunity. Although of Jewish origin, she claimed that neither of her both parents were observant and their Jewishness being purely nominal.

After a long journey of discovering the relation between Arab and Jews, Maryam Jamilah proclaimed his faith in Islam in Brooklyn, New York in the hand of Sheikh Dawud Ahmed Faisal who suggested her to change her name from Margaret Marcus to Maryam Jamilah.

Maryam Jamilah was a prolific author who wrote about her view in almost every prominent American magazine during the 1950’s. She was also actively corresponded with many Muslim scholars all around the world and the most famous dialogue was between her and Abu al-A’la al-Maududi which took place between 1960 until 1962. During the spring season of 1962, Abu al-A’la al-Maududi invited Mayram Jamilah to migrate to Pakistan and al-Maududi accepted her like a member of his own family. Maryam Jamilah accepted the invitation. She migrated to Pakistan and married Muhammad Yusof Khan, one of the prominent Jamaat Islami figures. They were granted 4 children. Not like the particular practice among the Pakistani women of that time, Maryam Jamilah did not limit herself to concentrate on her private life but she actively continues her writing.


In 1980, Maryam Jamilah wrote a book, titled as Islam and Orientalism. She made clear in her introduction of the book, that the reason she wrote the book was to help rescue the modern educated Muslims from the fallacy of accepting these unscrupulous scholars as the supreme authorities on Islam. She also admitted that her book was intended to show the Muslim reader how the West sees us (Muslims).

Firstly, Maryam Jamilah did not reject the tradition of Orientalism as a whole. She acknowledged some positive contributions produced by some Orientalists. She said:

Is Orientalism then totally evil? The answer is a qualified no. A few outstanding Western scholars have devoted their lives to Islamic studies because of their sincere interests in them. Were it not for their industry, much valuable knowledge found in ancient Islamic manuscripts would have been lost or lying forgotten in obscurity. English Orientalists like the late Reynold Nicholson and the late Arthur Arberry accomplished notable work in field of translating classics of Islamic literature and making them available to the general reader for the first time in a European language.

In this case, Maryam Jamilah appreciated the work of European Orientalists like Nicholson and Arberry who were far from the colonialization interest.

Maryam Jamilah suggested that Orientalists do their best work in the field of translation. She might suggest that because the field of translation does not interfere with the content of the text or perhaps try to impose their (Orientalists) authority in presenting Islam. Maryam Jamilah was very sensitive with the superior attitude of the West over Muslims.

But in the entire book of Islam and Orientalism, Maryam Jamilah did not highlight any study case which supported her recognition of the positive side of Orientalism. In order to give justice to her, we would suggest that Maryam Jamilah did not draw attention to this exception because the negative impact of Orientalism against Islam was much more significant to be present compared to the benefits, from her point of view. The works of Maryam Jamilah were mainly produced during the time when the Americanization process took its most active shape to be imposed over Muslims all around the world. This led to the defensive approach of her.


Maryam Jamilah emphasized in her Introduction that the only way to crush a false idea is with a better idea based in logical and persuasive reasoning<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[2]<!--[endif]-->.

This is a very important suggestion given by Maryam Jamilah to the attention of those who want to defend Islam from Orientalism. The tradition of Orientalism emerged in the West particularly during and after the Renaissance as a systematic field of study and had its own way in dealing with the subjects. Muslims cannot face Orientalism with slogans and rhetoric but they need to offer a better idea based on good and well structured form of intellectual qualification.

For this reason, Muslims need to develop a kind of discipline to counter the idea of Orientalism. If Orientalism is a Western way of presenting Islam, from the Western perspective, Muslims should lead the intellectual movement to build the field of Occidentalism, and that is to present the West from Eastern and perhaps Islamic point of view.  

Maryam Jamilah also urged all Islam-loving scholars to assert the absolute eternity, universality, self sufficiency and total independence of Islam from man made philosophies<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[3]<!--[endif]-->.

This led to a very complicated issue regarding the need of Islamic methodology in Social Sciences. In order for Islam to stand independently from the Western framework, Muslims need to dig out their legacy in historiography, and many other field in Human Sciences and presenting them in the contemporary well documented format. The challenge is huge and perhaps Muslims should move forward from simply reactively refuting the Orientalists, from one issue to another, to produce a genuine interpretation of the issue dealt. Muslims should work on building the methodology which can be applied to study the West and global issue from Islamic values and points of view.

Perhaps this is the reason why Maryam Jamilah encouraged Muslim scholars to produce an entire library on history, sociology, anthropology, psychology and biology from the Islamic viewpoint and expose the fallacies and defective scholarship of the Orientalists.

Maryam Jamilah also disagreed with the approach taken by Muslim authorities to ban materials of the Orientalists from Muslims hand. She viewed that banning books will only make forbidden fruit more alluring. Such purely negative measures are not only futile and ineffective but by making these inaccessible to mature intellectuals, writers and leaders, they defeat their own purpose by keeping them ignorant of what is being thought and done in the West. Thus, encourages an attitude of isolationism, complacency and apathy.

Even though Maryam Jamilah gave many good suggestions to the readers regarding the proactive approach in dealing with Orientalism, she only focused on attacking the Orientalists of whom she described at deviating, without giving any example on how the good side of Orientalism could be appreciated.

For instance, she questioned the reader, “what progress has been achieved since the European Renaissance and the so-called “Enlightenment”? Philosophers for the last three centuries have promised us through the replacement of religious superstition with scientific rationalism, to transform this world into an earthy paradise<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[4]<!--[endif]-->.

The statement is a kind of generalization in rejecting the Renaissance and the achievement of the Enlightenment. To certain extend, the political, social and economic status of Europe are very much improved since the emergence of the Enlightenment but Muslims are far behind their ability to create an equal condition among themselves. There are indeed many positive achievements contributed by the Renaissance and rejecting the entire idea of the Enlightenment will not help Muslim to achieve anything.

In our opinion, Maryam Jamilah was quite unsympathetic to anything that comes from the West because of her strong rejection of the Western superior attitude. She emphasized a lot in many part of her writing, matters related to Western obsession towards the authority and imposing it to ‘the Others’.

She urged Muslim to produce a better work compared to the book of Phillip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs. Otherwise, no matter how prejudice the book was, it cannot be dislodged as the standard works preference on the subject by mere Government decree. In her point of view, the standard of Hitti’s work will continue to be regarded as the final authorities.

On the other hand, she believed that Muslims are those who have the authority to stand against the Western values. She urged in her book that all those ‘self appointed’ ‘reformers’ to undermine the validity of any of these concepts, should be straight forwardly condemned by the Ulama in an official Fatwa as heretical, if not tantamount to apostasy<!--[if !supportFootnotes]-->[5]<!--[endif]-->.

The authoritative approach taken by Maryam Jamilah can be related to her experience lived as the forth generation of Jewish immigrants in New York who was trapped between her high acknowledgement to the Judo tradition, but the image was badly damaged by the arrogant attitude of the Rabbis and the Jewish community leaders who believed that they are supreme.


In our opinion, even though Maryam Jamilah offered a genuine analysis of Orientalists’ work in her book, Islam and Orientalism, but she failed to significantly imposed her analysis among the academician because of her intolerant approach towards Orientalism. Her complete rejection of everything that originated from the Western Values, made her contribution to the field of comparative study between Islam and Orientalism becoming less and less significant to the current world that need a more objective study.

We believe that Muslims should carefully examine the historical background of Orientalism in order to understand the source of its influence and significance to the world affair. How did Orientalism gain such kind of reputation? This need to be carefully studied as an early step to suggest Occidentalism as an independent and respected field of academic study to offer a genuine Islamic interpretation of World civilization today.


Maryam Jamilah, Islam Versus the West, Lahore: Muhammad Yusuf Khan and Sons Publication, 1984.

Maryam Jamilah, Islam and Orientalism, New Delhi: Adam Publishers and Distributors, 2007.

Maryam Jamilah, Al-Rasa’il al-Mutabadilah Bayna Abu Al-Ali Al-Maududi wa Maryam Jamilah, Cairo: Al-Mukhtar Al-Islami li al-Nashr wa al-Tauzi’ wa al-Tasdir, 1992.

Muhammad Bahauddin Hussein Ahmad, Haqiqah al-Istishraq wa Mauqifuhu min al-Islam mundzu Dhuhurihi ila Nihayah al-Alfiyyah al-Tsaniyyah, Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia Publication, 2003.

Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politis of Orientalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, page 74./a>

Maryam Jamilah, Islam and Orientalism, New Delhi: Adam Publishers & Distributors, 2007, page 21.


Ibid page 146.

Ibid page 21.

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