Summer Reading Reviews, Part 5:
Europe and the Mystique of Islam
Maxime Rodinson. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. 1980. Tr. Roger Venius. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987. Pp xv, 163. Paper, $26.95.
Maxime Rodinson's Europe and the Mystique of Islam is a work in two parts. The first is an examination of the origins of Orientalism, especially the medieval fascination with and fear of their Muslim neighbors. The second is a call to change in Oriental studies. Both parts evoke and enter into a dialog with Said's Orientalism, and overall, by taking a longer historical view, Rodinson improves on Said's classic investigation, especially in Orientalism's origins with and applications for the medieval. Rodinson notes that "the image of Islam was not drawn simply from the crusades, as some have maintained, but rather from the Latin Christian world's gradually developing ideological unity" (7). He traces various contacts between the Muslim and Christian worlds, then argues that a gradual change from fear to fascination came about in the West's perception of Islam, derived from "the increase in factual information about Islam and the Muslim world, the steady growth of actual contacts through both political and commercial relations, and even the mutual respect that was the occasional result of these experiences" (24). He also roots some notions of tolerance in the encounter with the Mongols, another, even less Christian people beyond Islam. Thus, in the mid-13th century, "the feeling that Islam shared the same basic concept of religious monotheism with Christianity was reinforced; it was a notion that recurred earlier only fleetingly" (28-9).
Rodinson argues that the eventual shift away from European intolerance toward the Muslim resulted in a gradual rise in the interest for "the Orient" as a thing to be studied. This in turn led to the rise of Orientalism, which in seeking to understand or quantify Muslim behavior, slowly dehumanized its object of study. In a certain sense, then, this relativism is unfortunate, for it led to the idea that the studied may be controlled—and thus to imperialism. So it goes.
One gets the sense, watching Rodinson sift through the differing western interpretations of Islam, that "the Orient," or indeed "Islam," changes depending on who is looking at it; much like Terry Eagleton's discussion of "the aesthetic" as a discreet category, "all that is solid melts into air," and we are left to face the idea that any human creation is constantly being recreated. This is an unexpected moment of Post-structuralist navel-gazing, but not surprising for a book originally written in the late 70's in France. What such a notion—"The Orient" is a flexible category—tells us is that the Orient is never a thing in itself, but a speculum societatis, no more real than yet just as polemical as Tacitius' Germans or Harriot's Virginians.
Unfortunately, the majority of these moments occur in the first half of the book; the second half of the book is interesting largely to professional Orientalists, and may in fact be out-of-date in some areas; after all, the call to action he provides is a quarter-century old, and surely in a field that contains such critics as Maria Rosa Menocal, some work has been done toward change.