Edward W. Said was a Palestinian scholar, two of whose books — Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism — shook Western intellectual circles. His interpretation of Orientalism as a discipline raised eyebrows because of the relationship he found between European intellectual efforts and the geopolitical lens through which European — mostly French and British — scholars looked at the East.
It all began with Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Egypt, and there is no doubt Bonaparte laid the foundation of Egyptology and established in France research institutions which specialised in the phenomenon that Egypt was — and is.
The British — inveterate enemies of the French — didn’t believe that civilisation began and ended with Egypt. There was India, they said, and thus began a new era in the study of the mysterious Orient. When American scholars also entered the field, Orientalism, according to Said, “became a sign of European-Atlantic power” rather than a “veridic discourse about the Orient (which is what, in its academic or scholarship form, it claims to be).”
Said taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities and wrote for some leading newspapers, but earned the hostility of the Zionist lobby for his forceful advocacy of his people’s cause.
Muhammad Ali Siddiqi continues combing through his library for those books to which he keeps returning
He analyses the reasons for Western scholars’ obsession with Islam and how unconsciously their prejudices creep into their writing. “Doubtless,” he says, “Islam was a real provocation in many ways. It lay uneasily close to Christianity, geographically and culturally. It grew on the Judo-Hellenic traditions, it borrowed creatively from Christianity, it could boast of unrivalled military and political success … That Islam outstripped and outshone Rome cannot have been absent from the mind of any European past or present.”
The cumulative effect of all this, says Said, can be seen in modern Western literature and journalism. For no other ethnic or religious group “is it true that virtually anything can be written or said about it, without challenge or demurral.” He quotes from an article in Harper’s Magazine which says that “Arabs are basically murderers and that violence and deceit are carried in the Arab genes.”
While Orientalism is a classic, some of his finest quotes about Palestine can be seen in From Oslo to Iraq and the Roadmap. Some essays from this collection were also published in Dawn. Mass murderer and former prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, says Said, was “monstrously abetted in his grotesque lies by his chorus of advisers and philosophers and generals, as well as by his faithful American servants.”
Said was also a great admirer of Pakistan’s Dr Eqbal Ahmad, whom he called one of the most “brilliant analysts of contemporary history and politics.”
Said died in 2003, so there is no doubt he must have read one of the most fascinating books about the country and the city he was born in.
Authored by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre — the American-French duo also wrote Freedom at Midnight and Is Paris Burning? — the monumental 600-page tome, O Jerusalem!, makes you cry as well as proud.
You cry over the decadence of Arab courts, the jealousies among Arab rulers, the absence of a well-integrated war plan and the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in the 1948-9 war, while you raise your head with pride — and perhaps cry again — over the way the ill-equipped and leaderless Palestinian people fought back to save their land from enslavement by foreign settlers.
The book is a saga of the Palestinian people’s fight for freedom and, as it later turned out, for their very survival. While the Arab states often mixed their national interests with the war against the Zionists, the motive for the Palestinians was an unadulterated commitment to their country, to their hearths and homes, to their orchards and vineyards, to their fruit gardens and olive groves and to the glistening waters of the river Jordan fed by the melting snows of Mount Hermon.
But before I switch over to another of my evergreen books, let me record that O Jerusalem! was gifted to me by my late friend Fatehyab Ali Khan, a political science colleague at the University of Karachi.
The next evergreen I shall talk about is Islamic Culture by Marmaduke Pickthall, known for Glorious Quran, his translation of the Holy Quran into English. Pickthall was one of the many great minds that adorned Osmania University, one of the greatest institutions of higher learning in undivided India.
These great minds included Dr Raziuddin Siddiqui, a mathematician whose name was recommended to the Nobel committee; Professor Hamidullah, the list of whose publications runs into a booklet; Khalifa Abdul Hakim, who was recommended by Allama Muhammad Iqbal as head of the philosophy department; Maulvi Abdul Haq, chief of Anjuman-i-Taraqqi-i-Urdu, and a galaxy of scholars — Dagh Dehlavi, Syed Sibte Hasan, Fani Badayuni and others — who flocked to the Hyderabad state.
One quote from Islamic Culture that should be read by the crusaders for a Single National Curriculum concerns the contents of what was considered ‘education’ in the early caliphate. There was, says Pickthall, no distinction between secular education and religious education in the great days of Islam. All education was brought into the religious sphere.
Pickthall doesn’t name the European writer who said: “it was
the glory of Islam that it gave to other sciences the same footing which it gave to the study of Quran and Hadith and Fiqh … a place in the mosque.”
Pickthall adds: “Lectures on chemistry and physics, botany, medicine and astronomy were given in the mosque equally with lectures on the above-named subjects; for the mosques were the University of Islam in the great days and it deserved the name of university since it welcomed to its precincts all the knowledge of the age from every quarter.”
Another of my evergreens is S. Hashim Raza’s Mountbatten and Pakistan. Raza, who acted briefly as governor of East Pakistan in 1961, was more than a bureaucrat. He was a poet and scholar and proud of being Pakistani. He would flare up if someone called him Mohajir and snap back: “others may be Mohajir; I am not. I opted for Pakistan.”
For the uninitiated: as Partition approached, all employees of the British Indian government were given options: would they continue to work where they were then, or would they go over to the other side? Raza opted for Pakistan. Hence his aversion to the word Mohajir.
Mountbatten and Pakistan is testimony to his patriotism and is a book of invaluable research material. It consists, first, of correspondence between Raza and Louis Mountbatten, viceroy of India. Second, an article by Ahmad E.H. Jaffar, who was a scholar, parliamentarian and one of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s associates. Third, an article by A.T. Chaudhri, a great journalist and scholar who was my senior at the now defunct The Sun.
Also in the book is a well-researched piece on Pakistan and India having a common governor general, by that doyen of scholars on the Pakistan movement, Sharif al Mujahid. For a 32-page article, Mujahid quotes over 140 books, journals and newspapers.
As for the quality of Raza’s correspondence with Mountbatten, Mujahid says Raza backed his views by quoting such authorities on the Pakistan movement as Rushbrook Williams, Ian Stephens, Durga Das, R.C. Majumdar, H.T. Lambrick, Leonard Mosley and Sir Conrad Cornfield.
Since a lot of misunderstanding existed in Pakistan about Mountbatten’s role, Raza showed his sense of justice by asking Britain’s last viceroy to give the reader his version. Mountbatten obliged, with his views — Chapter 5 — spanning 32 pages.
The Raza book revives the memories of Yehia Syed, Dawn’s London correspondent, two of whose columns show his knowledge of the freedom movement. The book has a large number of priceless letters published in Dawn’s letters to the editor section with a high degree of logic and argument.
Next: Pity the Nation
The writer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 22nd, 2022