Orientalists: there when you need them

Edward Said famously omitted any discussion of German orientalists from his book Orientalism, and he skipped the Italians too. So I rejoice whenever I see one of these remote figures resurrected, and all the more so when it’s done by Arabs, now grateful for the work of those dead white Europeans who devoted their lives to Islamic studies, and who escaped Said’s scattershot indictment.

My latest satisfaction is prompted by a ceremony held the other week at the National Library in Algiers. It celebrated the recent publication of an Arabic translation of the monumental history of Muslim-ruled Sicily written by the Sicilian orientalist Michele Amari (1806-1889). Amari, the founder of Islamic studies in Italy, spent 30 years researching and writing Sicily’s history during the island’s two-plus centuries under Muslim rule (9th-11th centuries). His Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia was a work of the highest scholarship, but it had a political purpose too: Amari wanted to prove that Sicilians didn’t need tutoring from northern Europeans about democracy and freedom, because they had lived for over two hundred years under Islamic law. That’s right: his work was a paean to the syncretic “social democracy” of Islamic rule. That wouldn’t have fit very well under any of the chapter headings of Said’s Orientalism.

For Muslim historians, Sicily was a sideshow, and the Arabic sources are scattered. Thanks to this new Arabic translation, produced by a team of Egyptian and Italian scholars, many Arabic readers will learn for the first time of this chapter in Islamic-Christian relations. Of course, in the present climate, it may also stimulate a call by Muslim extremists for the return of Sicily to Muslim rule. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.