ORIENTALISM | The Problem of Outsiders in Islamic Studies

The relation between Islam and the west has passed away a long historical plot. The most popular issue has been discussed is the Crusade which effects remain felt up till now. The both sides of the war were keeping the psychological biases in viewing each other. On one side, they tended to forget the big tragedy to get a better relationship between one to another, but on the other side, a certain suspicions obsessed them.

One of the psychological impacts appeared at the Islamic studies that were performed by the west-Christians to the east-Islam. On the time, Islam was viewed as a heretical form of Christianity. This point of view was perpetually constructed and inherited from generation to generation that the gap between Islam and Christians gets wider and, in the aftermath, appears so many biased writings about Islam. At this phase, the image of Islam pictured upon religious biases.

Furthermore, some westerners began to study Islam, although the image of Islam didn’t yet take a favorable turn. At this phase, Islam was understood as a part of its adherers, that is, a still primitive and uncivilized community. So, this image of Islam was contaminated by ethnical and cultural biases. This phase was marked by the spreading colonialization and imperialism performed by the European to its colonies (Muslih, 2003).

At the further phase, the biased understanding concerning Islam was institutionalized in a scientific discipline called “Orientalism”, viz. a study which positions the western “regions” as the subject and the eastern “regions” as the object of the study (Said, 2001). Up till now, the problem of Orientalism is still frequently discussed, especially since Edward Said publishes his controversial book, Orientalism. According to Said, the Orientalism is not a free-value scientific discipline because the ideological biases of the west to embed its power over the east still remains covering the discipline.

Based on the above brief explanation on the development of study of Islam in the West, appears the problem concerning “Islamic Studies” as a scientific discipline. Is it possible to the orientalist observers to understand Islam sufficiently, without any subjective biases? If so, what kind of approach to be used in order of that purpose? Otherwise, how the problem of orientalism could be solved? Before we step up a little farther, this paper will explain briefly the problem of Islam as object of a study.


In studying Islam from scientific point of view, appears an unavoidable problem, especially in the Muslims themselves, viz. the amalgam and overlap of Islam as a rationally untouched religion and Islam as observable and understandable object to study. The former is usually called the sacral aspect and the later is called the profane aspect of religion. Such an amalgam and overlap is constructed in a very long duration and, hence, becomes so complicated and complex (Amin Abdullah, 2000).

For the sake of the Islamic Studies, classifying both the sacral and profane aspect of religion is necessary in order to bridge that amalgam and overlap. The classification is performed by emphasizing the approach to every domain which is intended to study. Atho’ Muzhar, for example, classified Islam as a revelation and as a social phenomenon (Muzhar, 1998), or Amin Abdullah classifies it into normative and historical one (Amin Abdullah, 2002).  Moreover, the classification is performed in order to enable objective and rational attitude in studying Islam and not fall into trap of apologetic and dogmatic attitude as well as maintaining truth claim.

All those indicate that the approach of “historians” (mu‘arrikh) and of “believers” (mu’min) have a different conclusion in understanding Islam. In the later approach, the dimension of historicity is frequently disregarded. The believers approach usually understands uncritically the texts of religion which are written in a certain historical situation. Otherwise, the former approach insists the critical and analytical side in understanding the phenomena of Islamic religion, because, in this approach, Islam is viewed as a historical phenomenon (Amin Abdullah, 1995).

Indeed, Islam is God’s revelation descended to The Prophet Muhammad in order to be disseminated to all humankind. And it is undeniable that the process of revelation requires a direct interaction with the local culture in which it descends. It is in this domain that Islam is able to be studied, because an interaction necessitates certain conditions in order that being understood by the objects of it. Those conditions are the scope of Islamic Studies. Moreover when Islam has passed away such a long historical plot, the comprehension and internalization of its adherers are definitely also inescapable from historical process.

Thus, it is possible to perform a multidisciplinary study to Islam as a mean in understanding the various dimensions of Islam (Thahir, 2003). Those dimensions of Islam could be the either relation between God and humankind or the manifestations of Islam in human life. The most appropriate example of such study of various dimensions of Islam in Indonesian literature is Prof. Dr. Harun Nasution’s work, Islam Ditinjau dari Berbagai Aspeknya. So that the approaches and methods in understanding Islam do not identical with the traditional ones which are monolithic and textual in character, but also able to use the approaches and methods of the recently developing social sciences.


Despite of those all, as being discussed above, the Islamic Studies performed by the West keep various problems to solve. One of them is the problem of western observers or Orientalist as the outsider in understanding Islam. This problem wouldn’t be belittled because some orientalist’s works need to be solved in Muslims’ point of view. Muhammad Abdul-Rauf, for example, discusses this critically. (Abdul-Rauf, 1989). Even though acknowledging some fair-minded orientalists deserving in studying Islam, as Henri Corbin’s defense of Islamic philosophy in Persia, but Abdul-Rauf can’t compromise the outsiders who penetrate the limits of Islamic faiths. He says,

… but, it will be dangerous if, in the name of science, the origin of Islam is explained as appears from economical or cultural phenomena. Whatever could be said about Islam in correlation with space and time in which it appears, and its uniqueness and truth claim before its adherers cannot be explained. (Abdul-Rauf, 1989)

The Abdul-Rauf’s demand indicates the need for a new and more appropriate approach in understanding Islam, considering that history has shown us how unseemly those Orientalists observe Islam. These can be traced in stereotypes of Islam in the name of science.

On the one side, an outsider observer has to get a complete and valid understanding about Islam, according to the comprehension and sensation of its adherers (insiders), but in the other side, he has to convey and inform their observation publicly (generally to the western society who know Islam a little bit) in a commonly reported manner. Here, appear the unavoidable cultural biases in the process of the communication. Those who receive the information from the outsider’s observation will understand it in their cultural presumptions.

The above problem doesn’t go on farther, however; that is how those observers get the appropriate information about Islam. Of course, a solipsistic answer won’t appropriate to this crucial question, considering that instead the outsiders understand it better than the insiders or, in another words, orientalists could understand some aspects of Islam better than muslims themselves. As a matter of fact, it is proven that orientalists contribute a very huge one to the Islamic Studies, such as to show the influence of Islamic civilization to the western civilization.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith offers a unique approach in understanding Islam, viz. everything he said about Islam as a religion are valid as far as affirmed by muslims (Roff, 1989). Smith’s approach, which in social theories is known as Interpretivism (Fay, 2002), enables observers to understand Islam better because it tries to eliminate every subjective presumptions of the observer. Unfortunately, this approach is difficult —not to say impossible— to be conducted because of its annihilating the plurality within Islam. It is possible that the observer’s finding is affirmed by a Muslim community and, at the same time, rejected by other Muslim community. Furthermore, this approach wholly gives the observer no space of criticism against its object.

Fazlur Rahman shows that the outsider’s failure in understanding Islam is basically because of bad presumptions against the object. Instead, Rahman stresses, it is possible that the outsider would understand Islam sufficiently that he gets interest, sympathy and good presumption, either in term of religious, cultural or intellectual one, to the object. The another thing has to be noticed as a prerequisite for understanding Islam is the historical reductionism, that is when, for example, a scholar explains the origin of Islam in reference to Judaic, Christian, or other influences (Rahmah, 2000).

Karel A. Steenbrink recognized that an orientalist as an observer of Islam usually fails in understanding Islam because of three things: first, christianistic presumptions, such as when they try to understand the Holy book of Islam, Al-Qur’an, they construct it in their mind as a holy book like the Christians understand Bible. It of course will blur the meaning of Al-Qur’an out before Muslims, because the both holy books are clearly comprehended differently by the Christians and Muslims. Second, historisism, that is a view that religious phenomena are constructed from the surrounding social realities. Third, racial superiority. This is clearly defined in stereotypes toward east worlds, such as primitive, undemocratic, indolent, etc. In short, the image of the east is constructed in such a manner to show that the culture and race of the west are better. It is the thing that Edward Said refuses in his controversial book (Muslih, 2003)

In this case, Muslim Scholars have offered the approach of Islamic Studies and it is to be explained here. The offerings still stand on the historian approach as have been told above. In the following, some samples and a brief explanation of them will be presented at once.

Fazlur Rahman acquainted the idea of Double Movement (Gerak Ganda) in understanding and interpreting Al-Qur’an. This idea was such called because of the necessity of double “historical jumps”. The first jump is an effort to understand the historical context, either micro or macro historical, in which Al-Qur’an was descended. The result is the original meaning of divine revelation around social and moral context of the prophet. Those studies and understandings will lead to a coherent formula of the narratives or doctrines of Al-Qur’an, concerning the general, systematic principles as well as the values base various normative imperatives on. The second jump is an effort to apply the systematic principles and values in the context of contemporary reader of Al-Qur’an (Rahman, 1982). Here, flavorsome Gadamerian hermeneutics, in spite of the differences between the two. The question is, however, how are we able to perform the historical jump to get an original meaning of Al-Qur’an?

To answer this question, Muhamed Arkoun proposed the observer of Islam to use the recently developing social theories, the so-called postpositive theories. In understanding the historicity of Islam, it is needed a sufficient instruments in order not to fall into rigid positivism which had been the mainstream in Islamic Studies by Orientalists. In his research, Arkoun uses ideas of scholars such as Michel Foucault (Archeology), Jeaques Derrida (Deconstruction), Pierre Boudieu (Cultural Capital), Rolland Barthes (Semiotics), and others. And as a consequence, Arkoun doesn’t seek original meanings of Al-Qur’an anymore, but how the reality (historicity) of Islam (including the meaning of AL-Qur’an itself) is constructed in history (Arkoun, 1999).

In short, the outsider observers have tried to improve their study of Islam. This makes a novelty, instead, in the developing Islamic Studies, in Muslim or non-Muslim scholarship sphere. In practical level, those developments are a new round of the relation between Islam and the west.[]


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