Robert Irwin (1946 – 2024): Anti anti-orientalist

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 Jul 2024

News of the death of the British Arabist Robert Irwin in London last week will have saddened his many admirers worldwide, writes David Tresilian

Robert Irwin


The author of a good dozen books on the Arab world, some directed at a wide audience and others on academic themes, as well as many accomplished novels, Irwin was a complex character who was not afraid to court controversy. An acknowledged expert on Egypt’s mediaeval Mameluke Sultanate and the author of widely praised accounts of the Arabian Nights, classical Arabic Literature in translation, and the writings of the 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun, Irwin also waded into the polemics surrounding the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said’s 1977 book Orientalism on the contributions of mostly French and British scholars studying the Arab world.

Irwin spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on one of his occasional forays into French academic life in 2011 – he was a sought-after figure in several French graduate schools – and shortly after the publication of his memoir Memoirs of a Dervish and account of orientalism For Lust of Knowing; the Orientalists and their Enemies (published as Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents in the US). The interview, published in the Weekly in November 2011, appears below.

The projected second volume of his account of orientalism, signaled at the end of the 2011 interview, in fact never appeared. Perhaps a draft of it can be found among his papers. However, the last decade or so of Irwin’s life was nevertheless characteristically productive. He managed to produce another four novels to add to his earlier success with titles such as The Arabian Nightmare and The Mysteries of Algiers (1983 and 1988) and a biography of Ibn Khaldoun (reviewed in the Weekly in 2018).

He also managed to persuade Malcolm Lyons, formerly Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University in the UK, to undertake a new English translation (with Ursula Lyons) of the Arabian Nights in three hefty volumes. Irwin contributed characteristically penetrating introductions and notes.


The author of many books on the Arab world and of a defence of European orientalism, the British writer Robert Irwin has recently published an intriguing autobiography.

At an age when many people are beginning to think about writing their memoirs, the British writer on the Arab world Robert Irwin, who is also a well-known journalist, academic and novelist, still keeps a very full schedule. Though Irwin’s memoirs, entitled Memoirs of a Dervish and a record of his early life, spent, among other places, in Algeria, in fact appeared earlier this year, he must surely have enough material for many other volumes.

Irwin has published a number of other books over recent years, most relating to the Arab world, his field of study and a subject on which he has achieved considerable expertise. He is regularly called upon as a reviewer and commentator on Arab literature and culture for various international publications, and his characteristic mix of scholarship and hard-won clarity tend to make his writings first ports of call for English-speaking readers looking for guidance on topics as diverse as the Arabian Nights, the subject of a book-length introduction published in 1994, classical Arabic literature, a 1999 anthology of extracts in translation, and the modern history of Islam.

Such has Irwin’s success been in introducing Arab culture to general audiences in the English-speaking world that it has been almost possible to forget his previous, and second, career as an academic. Volume Four of the New Cambridge History of Islam, covering Islamic cultures and societies to the end of the 18th century and edited by Irwin, appeared late last year. Before that there was Irwin’s own Early Mameluke Sultanate, 1250-1382, a scholarly investigation first published in 1977 and still in print.

In addition to being an accomplished academic, journalist and novelist, Irwin has recently emerged as a polemicist, notably on the thorny subject of European orientalism. Ever since the publication of the late Palestinian- American writer and academic Edward Said’s book on the subject, entitled simply Orientalism, over three decades ago, many people, perhaps particularly in the Arab world, have been prepared to accept Said’s characterisation of the work of the European orientalists -- past European writers, scholars and commentators on Islam and the Arab world -- as having been vitiated by colonialist attitudes and complicity in the European colonisation of Arab societies.

This is an argument that Irwin strenuously rejected in his own book on the history of European orientalism, entitled For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies and published in 2006. In part designed as a rebuttal of Said’s views, the book argued that European orientalism, pace Said, cannot be seen as a kind of blanket discourse that falsely represented its field of study. Far from being a sinister or monolithic affair connected to power and domination, it could in fact just as accurately be characterised for at least portions of its history as the harmless pastime of other-worldly clergyman.

Somewhere near the beginning of his book, Irwin warns that those coming to For Lust of Knowing in search of some general thesis on the historical relations between east and west may well be disappointed. Orientalism, in Irwin’s view, bears more relation to academic disciplines like classics than it does to US-style geopolitics or area studies, and as a result much of it consists of worthy, if unexciting, activities such as “cataloguing the coins of Fatimid Egypt, or establishing the chronology of Harun al-Rashid’s military campaigns against Byzantium.” These are undoubtedly fascinating endeavours, but they do not seem obviously related to European colonialism.

Speaking to the Al-Ahram Weekly on his way to give a lecture on the “true discourse of orientalism” in Paris recently, Irwin elaborated on his disagreements with Said, explaining why he, at least, is happy to be called an orientalist in the original, pre-Saidian sense of the word.

What Said did in Orientalism, Irwin says, was “consistently to misrepresent and effectively libel people, putting forward an essentially false picture of the study of the Middle East and Islam as it was conducted in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries in Europe. Even from a more positive point of view, Said’s book does not open up an area of enquiry. What it does is to narrow the area of enquiry, such that we miss important aspects of how the West in fact interpreted the Middle East, including in terms of issues such as class and money – terribly important when we are considering who traveled in the Middle East and what they saw when they went there.”

For Lust of Knowing might more accurately be described as a history of European orientalists than of European orientalism, and Irwin’s book contains many details of the research programmes, and sometimes of the personal habits, of most of its leading figures. The “sombre, severe and polemical figure” of the Frenchman Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, for example (“founder of modern orientalism”), is described in detail, de Sacy having been the first professor of Arabic at the Ecole spéciale des langues orientales vivantes when it was founded in Paris in 1795, as are later figures such as the Hungarian Ignaz Goldziher (“greatest of the orientalists”) and, from the last century, well-known French orientalists like Louis Massignon (a “holy madman”), Jacques Berque (“fanatically francophone”), and Maxime Rodinson (“reacting against Massignon’s flamboyant spirituality,” he published “a series of articles on mediaeval Arab cookery”), among others.

This emphasis on individual figures rather than on the field of study to which they belonged also characterises Irwin’s spoken discourse, and in person he is eager to explain how Said, in “back-projecting from the concerns of contemporary academia,” often missed what in fact motivated the European orientalists. For these people, often clergyman, always members of the educated elite, and, especially in the English case, usually dependent on leisured or aristocratic patrons, the East was very far from being “a career,” as the epigraph, quoted by Said, to one of the 19th-century British novelist, and later prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli’s novels puts it.

Far from looking to advance European political or economic control of the Middle East in their investigations of Arab and Middle Eastern culture or advance their own careers, Europeans who traveled in the Arab world in past centuries could often more accurately be described as having been in the grip of an all-consuming hobby. Most often, they were interested in “adventure, romance and colour,” Irwin says. Academic orientalists may very well have had peculiar interests of their own, even obsessions in the case of the early 20th-century British orientalist David Margoliouth, “who treated everything in Arabic studies as a kind of Times crossword,” but these interests were not necessarily related to advancing the political or other interests of the countries from which they came.

“Some people went out to the Middle East, it could even have been true of me, in search of material for a good book,” Irwin comments. “One’s always looking for a pretext for a book that will read interestingly. One’s looking for material that people will want to read.”

While Irwin’s writings on Arab culture may have become familiar to the English-speaking public over only the past two decades or so, his autobiography shows that he has been involved in Arab studies and the Middle East for far longer than that. In Memoirs of a Dervish, Irwin describes studying Arabic at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies in the early 1970s, where his thesis on Egypt’s mediaeval Mameluke sultanate was supervised by the well-known Anglo-American academic Bernard Lewis, a target of Said’s criticisms in Orientalism.

Irwin’s descriptions of university and student life, first at Oxford in the late 1960s and then in London in the 1970s, are likely to strike contemporary readers as almost pre-lapsarian in character, with students, not burdened by the prospect of enormous debt, studying subjects that interested them, as opposed to what they had to study in order to establish themselves in a career, and professors, apparently not pressed to “publish or perish,” having the time to interest themselves in the work of students.

Commenting on how public attitudes to the Arab world and Middle East have developed since then, Irwin says that one of the greatest changes has been in the expansion of possibilities for serious study of the Arab world. “When I published my book on the Mamelukes, people asked why we needed another book on the subject, as there was already a book in German from the 1860s,” he says.

“Mine was the first proper history of the Mamelukes in English, but now Mameluke studies have exploded at universities worldwide. They are very big in the United States, where Chicago is a centre. There’s been an explosion in this area, and the same has been true to a lesser extent for Abbasid studies, Fatimid studies, Qajar studies and so on. There are now academic journals and regular conferences. The situation has been totally transformed from what it was, when there was just one scholar dealing with the subject in any given country.”

Irwin also sees increases in the knowledge the wider European public has of the Arab world, as well as in Arab efforts to draw closer to Europe, notably through increased translation. “There has been a lot of effort to get Arabic novels translated, and publishers are enquiring what modern works they should be translating, as well as what classical Arabic works should appear in modern translations. However, at the moment there may be more interest among publishers than among the reading public, as sales can be disappointing: with the exception of Naguib Mahfouz, few Arab authors have done well in English translation, though Alaa al-Aswany did very well indeed [with the English translation of The Yacoubian Building].”

“There is no doubt -- the statistics are there -- that more Arabic titles are being translated into English every year than used to be the case,” Irwin continues. “But one of the problems the British reading public may have with Arabic fiction is that so much of it is heavily politicised: so much of it is veiled or open criticism of despotic Arab regimes, or of the oppression of women in the Middle East, or of the Palestine problem. On the whole, British fiction is not political. The British public likes a good plot, and what is being offered instead by Arab writers is disguised polemic.”

One exception to this trend may be in classical Arabic literature, and particularly the Arabian Nights, where the interest of western readers has “come on wonderfully from what it was only two decades ago,” Irwin says, partly as a result of improved translations. “I keep telling publishers they should do Jahiz,” the polymath Abbasid writer, as “he’s so witty and so interesting, or the pre-Islamic poets -- wonderful, bleak landscapes -- but they are not very receptive. They are interested in Sufi writers, but otherwise I think they don’t really know where to start as far as the classical Arab writers are concerned. When I suggest Jahiz, people look blank.”

“Some of the existing translations are also amazingly archaic, which doesn’t help. When I did my anthology of classical Arabic literature for Penguin Books, my remit was to bring together extracts from existing translations -- I had no money to commission new translations, apart from those I did myself.”

Of his recent memoir, which describes an undergraduate life spent between studying history at Oxford and vacations at a Sufi lodge in eastern Algeria, Irwin comments that “I wanted to recapture my youth and the period for people who weren’t there. I’d got rather fed up of memoirs by people who were at the centre of the hippy scene in the 1960s, and I thought I’d like to do a memoir that wasn’t purely secular. I became aware that what I was doing was a memoir of spiritual failure, a mystical quest that came unstuck.”

Whatever it was that Irwin may have been looking for among the Sufis in Algeria, it was not necessarily the same as what other Western young people of his generation were looking for elsewhere at the same time, spurred on by the counter-culture of the period and what Irwin describes in his book as “ghastly iconic sixties people” like Yoko Ono, Herbert Marcuse, and R.D. Laing.

“The Arabs didn’t stand for anything very much for European young people in the sixties. The truth was that almost everyone was going to India, and very few people chose the Arab option. To go down the Sufi line was rare. Also, the Arab world was very different in the 1960s to what it is today. Those were the days of nationalism and secularism and of Nasser and Bourguiba. It was a different world. Islam was marginalised, and Sufis were persecuted in Algeria by the ruling FLN,” the Front de libération nationale which had successfully fought the country’s war of independence against French colonial rule.

“Muslims were not in the news in the 1960s in western countries, as they are now, sometimes negatively,” Irwin comments, adding that in his view in Britain today there is “no serious Islamophobia, no serious anti-Islamic movement, as there may be in European countries like Holland, Switzerland, or France, where even some mainstream politicians have taken stands against Islam.”

Irwin is supportive of the Arab Spring (“I’m looking forward to it”), though he is worried that its progress, at least in some countries, may have become stalled. He is planning to continue his career as a mediator between the Arab and the English-speaking worlds through further lectures, books, and articles. A lecture course on western views of the Arab world is planned for the prestigious Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, a graduate school, in Paris in the spring, to be followed by a book-length second installment of his account of orientalism.

The first volume, For Lust of Knowing, only dealt with academic orientalism. The second volume, planned for 2013, will take in the history of the dealings of European artists, writers, filmmakers and poets with the Arab world. It is sure to be eagerly awaited.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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