'Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers'
A distinctive contribution to the postcolonial debate
Reviewer: Hélène de Burgh
Muhammed Al-Da'mi's new publication Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers: Nineteenth-century Literary Approaches to Arab-Islamic History signals a further contribution to the ongoing postcolonial discourse. His work evaluates particular literary/historical responses from nineteenth-century Western writers to the Arabic heritage. He investigates their admiring, yet anxious, responses to Arabic history. Da'mi identifies these apparent Western ambivalences in accordance with a Saidian critique of nineteenth-century European orientalist practices. Much of the analytical criticism Da'mi levels at the Western authors finds its theoretical origins in the Saidian framework. Said himself largely uses Orientalism as a term of reference for the positioning of the Orient as a productive site of myth by the West, which refers us to the constructive effects of the corpus of descriptions and images that constitute the idea of the East in the Western imagination. Da'mi extends the parameters of this historical/mythical perspective on the East beyond the nineteenth-century, arguing that "the nineteenth-century revival of interest in the Arab-Islamic Orient derives from a complex tradition which is partly historical and partly mythical, and which is identifiable since the Middle Ages to the present day."(1) Although Said and Da'mi both focus their attention largely on the nineteenth-century, Da'mi's contention that the cultural attitudes and tendencies manifested in the nineteenth-century were pre-existent and carried over to the present day substantially enhances his investigation of the historical orientalist texts, since he attaches nineteenth-century representations to a broader context.
Many nineteenth-century authors, including those discussed by Da'mi, contributed to the creation of a literary or imagined Orient by repeatedly using the same motifs and descriptions of peoples and their cultures, thereby formalising in the Western mind a fictional and contrived image of the East. As Dai'ai comments "the nineteenth-century approaches to Arab-Islamic history are illuminating, not only for their individual perspectives, but also for the light they throw on the major complexities and dilemmas of the age"(xviii) since much of the Western response to the East was driven by its own positionality and anxiety. The point that Said and many other post-colonial theorists strive to emphasise is that, in accordance with its own perspective, the so-called study and knowledge of the Orient was based on Western conceptions born of a Western experience. Said suggests that:
Orientalism overrode the Orient. As a system of thought about the Orient, it always rose from the specifically human detail to the general transhuman one; an observation about a tenth-century Arab poet multiplied itself into a policy towards (and about) the Oriental mentality in Egypt, Iraq or Arabia. Similarly a verse from the Koran would be considered the best evidence of an ineradicable Muslin sensuality. Orientalism assumed an unchanging Orient, absolutely different (the reasons change from epoch to epoch) from the West. (Orientalism: 16)
The postcolonial interrogation and de-stabilisation of the centralised historical Western subject has meant that most "orientalist" writers have been dismissed as imposing a discursive regime of oppression on the colonised subject. Although Da'mi identifies certain positive attributes in the writings of the chosen authors, his work ultimately endorses this postcolonial view:
Any careful reading of the nineteenth-century literary texts on Arab-Islamic history
would not fail to reveal a will to use, re-present and interpret this history under the
light of a predominant compulsion to contain and annex its legacy, as an ancillary to what they thought to be their own Western zenith of human civilisation. In spite of all their expressions of admiration, and their colourful presentations, those texts were undermined by a subtextual belief in the misconceptions and stereotypes of the previous centuries. (195)
Da'mi's choice of authors further enriches the theoretical foundations of his work. The text comprises seven chapters, commencing with an introduction and an historiographical chapter on the general nineteenth-century reception of Arab-Islamic history. Da'mi then moves to a specific discussion of key authors and their different evocations of the Arab-Islamic past. The third chapter is devoted to a discussion of British literary figure Thomas Carlyle. Drawing on several of Carlyle's works, Da'mi identifies the particular way in which Carlyle conceived of Arabic history. Da'mi shows how themes of heroism, prophecy and the "idea of universal history as a battlefield witnessing a fierce war between faith and doubt" (69) frame Carlyle's understanding and combine to produce a more sensitive reading of Islamic history. Unlike many of his nineteenth-century counterparts, Carlyle, according to Da'mi, demonstrated a greater comprehension of his subject matter and presented a more insightful rendition of the Arab-Islamic past.
The fourth chapter, devoted to Cardinal Newman's Historical Sketches I, provides a sharp contrast to the preceding chapter. Da'mi argues that Newman, unlike Carlyle, offers little insight into or comprehension of Arab-Islamic history, despite an apparent interest in religious history and evolution:
Unlike Carlyle who weaved Arab-Islamic history into his future of a heroic leadership and a heroic citizenship, Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) presents a history of the Islamic Orient not only to implement his Catholic approach to the past, but also to envision a new world order in which a spiritually reformed Europe guides and governs an essentially barbarian East.(99)
Da'mi's reading positions Newman as the most stereotypical and negative of the selected authors. Equally, according to Da'mi, Newman's perpetual antagonism towards the Turkish caliphate taints his broader approach to Islam. Da'mi argues that Newman is primarily concerned with the redemption of Europe, a redemption that would assist in re-asserting a moral and political superiority over other faiths and, presumably, other regions. Although Da'mi points to the occasional indications that Newman could, for instance, appreciate the cultural and intellectual products of Arabic history, such as mathematics, botany and astronomy, it is limited praise typically followed by criticism. As Da'mi points out "Newman ascribes the decline of the Arab caliphate to the Arab's very predilection for the intellectual and the controversial,"(121) thus undermining his supposed appreciation. Da'mi's reading finally suggests that Newman essentially "approached the past as a continuous conflict between barbarism (the Other, the North, the East, the Turk) and civilization (the Self, the South, the West, the Christian)."(128) This reading inscribes Newman largely as a conformist to the most limited, negative form of Orientalism. According to Da'mi, Newman's writing offers a narrow and biased representation of the Arab past, obscured by personal antagonisms and prejudices.
The final author, Washington Irving, provides a further diversity and texture to Da'mi's work. The discussion of Irving's work constitutes two chapters, thus providing an American contrast to the preceding British writers. The cultural and geographical variances between Irving and the other writers included in the study create an effective shift in the analytical and intellectual parameters of Da'mi's work. The fourth chapter focuses on Irving's Mahomet and His Successors, and the fifth chapter investigates Irving's Moorish series. Da'mi identifies recurrent themes in Irving's work. Just as he shows Carlyle to be pre-occupied with themes of heroism, prophecy and universal history, Da'mi shows Irving to be concerned with 'Rise and Decline' and the lessons young America could learn from the successes and failures of the Arab-Islamic past:
Like Carlyle, Washington Irving (1783-1859) took up Arab past [sic.] and the foundation of the caliphate as an instructive instrument which could indirectly mirror the development of the young American republic and project the hopes and fears of its future.(129)
Likewise, Irving's work on Islamic Spain portrayed many of the same sentiments of rise and decline, emphasising once again the links between Islamic pasts and American futures:
The poetical and romantic qualities of Spain, its people and history, testified to Irving's notion of a marriage of East and West. The result of this rare combination of the hemispheres of the ancient world was, according to Irving, bound to manifest itself in 'the brave new world' of America.(173)
Thus, Da'mi illuminates three vastly different approaches to the Arab-Islamic past in the nineteenth century Western imagination, simultaneously revealing certain contrasts and methodological or intellectual similarities.
Although Da'mi's argument only occasionally goes beyond a conventional postcolonial reading of these nineteenth-century texts and pays little attention to contemporary scholarly movements which have greatly complexified and probed the nuances of the cross-cultural encounter inherent in nineteenth-century Orientalism, his work nonetheless constitutes a significant contribution to the postcolonial debate. The most striking strength of Dai'ai's work is suggested by the author himself in the introduction: "one should measure the attitudes of the liberal writers not only from a Western perspective, but also from the perspective of the Arab and Muslim 'Other,' whose attitude to his own history constitutes a future vision rather than an idle memory."(23) In one respect, it is disappointing that Da'mi's self-identified status as a voice from within the Other does not give rise to a more insightful and specific analysis of Western responses to Islamic history, since his discursive positionality is unique, even within postcolonialism. The potential for fresh insight is compromised by the use of established postcolonial critiques, rather than generating new, culturally informed methodologies.
Nonetheless, Da'mi has offered an eclectic and exciting corpus of texts for analysis and has effectively investigated the impact of orientalist tropes on these texts. Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers promises to make a distinctive contribution to the postcolonial debate.
(1) Muhammed A. Al-Da'mi, Arabian Mirrors and Western Soothsayers: Nineteenth Century Literary Approaches to Arab Islamic History (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 1.
(2) Ibid., xviii.
(3) Edward Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978) 16.
(4) Da'mi, 195.
(5) Ibid., 69
(6) Ibid., 99.
(7) Ibid., 121.
(8) Ibid., 128.
(9) Ibid., 129.
(10) Ibid., 173.
(11) Ibid., 23.