Sadiq al Azm on Edward Said: Correspondence

Apropos of our recent discussion on Edward Said’s Orientalism: having held onto this letter some eleven years–and given the deaths of both principals–I thought I’d post it for whatever historical interest it may or may not have.  Sadiq al Azm passed away this past December (December 11, 2016). Edward Said died on September 25, 2003.  The letter, from Al Azm to me about Said, more or less speaks for itself.

Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences
Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
October 24, 2006

Dear Irfan,

This is, first, to thank you for sending me your paper on Edward Said[1] and, second, to apologize for the delay in writing. The paper went first to Princeton, then to Beirut, by then I arrived in Holland, and the paper was forwarded to me again to where I am right now after the war.[2] We will be at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies until Xmas, then back to Beirut and Damascus for a while.

I am elated that someone like you has finally come forward to say these things about Edward’s book, bluntly, directly and without being restrained by the usual political baggage and considerations that imperceptibly affected all those who criticized the book, including myself. The introductory logical paper of the paper could in effect stand on its own and get developed into a rescuing of a form of “Essentialism” which does not end up in a reification of essences as often happens and avoid the epistemological nihilism of the postmodernists, postcolonialists, etc. at the same time. Orientalism’s blatant and manifest absurdities, inconsistencies and contradictions that you have come to put your finger on so well—do not deserve a theory of “essences” first to knock them down.

You are right about criticizing some of the credit that I gave the book—but then I was being cautious, I did now want to seem like overstating my case. Edward was a close personal friend and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt wherever I could. Still my primary gut feeling was, even when writing the review-essay, very near to what you diagnose and show in your paper. After that review, Edward broke all relations [with me] and never spoke to me again. It appeared in Khamsine [sic],[3] because Edward as Editor of The Arab Studies Review [sic], in those days, refused to publish my article and actually sent me a very nasty letter for having criticized him, dealing with the matter as a personal betrayal. I replied to him in a different vein and invited him to carry on a debate in the open with me and others on the issue, but he never answered and this is why he never discusses my criticisms of his book. If this side of the matter interests you we can pursue it. The Arab version of my article was also rejected for publication in the 1st issue of Al-Karmel magazine being issued then by Mahmoud Darwish [written in Arabic] and Elias Khoury [written in Arabic] in Beirut in the very early eighties.

I am sending you my new piece on “Orientalism and Conspiracy”[4] which overlaps with themes and directions you touch in your paper. I would be curious to know your view of what I say about why Edward did the book in the first place—as this is a question you raise as well.

I am also taking the liberty of enclosing my article on Rushdie[,] which in the beginning deals with the Orientalism phenomenon from a globalization perspective.[5] For all I know, you may be familiar with it already. Stay in touch [and] let me give you my e-mail address:

[e-mail address omitted]

Best wishes and finest salams.

Sadik [in English]

Sadik [in Arabic]


[1] Irfan Khawaja, Essentialism, Consistency, and Islam: A Critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism,” Israel Affairs 13:4 (2007), pp. 689-713. Online access:  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13537120701444961?journalCode=fisa20.

[2] Meaning the Israel-Lebanon War of July-September 2006.

[3] Sadik J. al Azm, “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse,” originally published in Khamsin (Beirut), vol. 8 (1980). Online access: http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article20360

[4] “Orientalism and Conspiracy,” An Address by Sadik J. Al-Azm, delivered at the Asia-Africa Institute of the University of Hamburg, June 23, 2005, on the occasion of receiving an Honorary Doctorate from the Faculty of the University. Published version in Arndt Graf, Schirin Fathi, and Ludwig Paul eds., Orientalism and Conspiracy: Politics and Conspiracy Theory in the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010), pp. 3-28.

[5] Sadik J. Al-Azm, “The Satanic Verses Post Festum: The Global, The Local, The Literary,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 20:1-2 (2000), pp. 44-78

3 thoughts on “Sadiq al Azm on Edward Said: Correspondence

  1. Al Azm writes of “a form of “Essentialism” which does not end up in a reification of essences as often happens.” I not infrequently encounter claims like this. I infrequently understand what they mean. When I think I do, I usually think “reification of essences” is not the right way to put the thought. What does Al Azm mean, do you think? What is it to “reify essences,” and why is it objectionable?

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    • Addendum: “as often happens” strikes me as an important part of the thought. If it’s a true thought, “reification of essences” had better not end up being akin to the textbook version of Plato’s theory of Forms, say, because it does not “often happen” that philosophers, ordinary people, or anyone in between regard essences as mind-independent universals that are ontologically prior to their instantiations and exist eternally and unchangingly. I don’t think even that view can be lightly dismissed, but it’s not a view that has been widely held even if we take the entire history of Western philosophy in view.

      So, the better way to put my question might be: what is it to “reify essences” such that it is something that “often happens,” and why is it objectionable? Any insight into what Al Azm had in mind?

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