Beyond Orientalism

As a novelty, coffee was initially the object of some suspicion, as Nabil Matar shows in an inspired chapter of his Islam in Britain. While some claimed miraculous benefits from it, among its feared consequences were that it “causeth vertiginous headheach, and maketh lean much, occasioneth waking, and the Emirods, and asswages lust, and sometimes breeds melancholly.”

Though its forms and outcomes may be unpredictable and unstable, intercultural exchange is not a practical impossibility.

Jean Etienne Liotard. Portrait of Marie Adelaide of France en robe turque (1753). Oil on canvas, 24.44 x 18.9". From commons.wikimedia.org.
  • Nabil I. Matar. Islam in Britain, 1558-1685, Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Alastair Hamilton and Francis Richard. André du Ryer and Oriental Studies in Seventeenth-Century France. Oxford University Press, April 2004.
  • Paula Sutter Fichtner. Terror and Toleration: The Habsburg Empire Confronts Islam, 1526-1850. Reaktion, February 2008.
  • Ziad Elmarsafy. The Enlightenment Qur’an: The Politics of Translation and the Construction of Islam. Oneworld, May 2009.
  • Jürgen Osterhammel. Die Entzauberung Asiens: Europa und die asiatischen Reiche im 18. Jahrhundert C.H. Beck, 1998.

Hard as it is to imagine today, there was a time before coffee. Native neither to European nor American soil, the coffee plant is originally Ethiopian. By the Renaissance, Sufi mystics were consuming coffee in Yemen, and soon the drink became popular throughout the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. In the 16th century, Ottoman Turks discovered the beverage when merchants from Aleppo and Damascus founded the first coffeehouses of Istanbul. Gradually, and in a manner that was anything but inevitable, coffeehouses opened in Europe too—first in Oxford, then in London, then on the continent. By the end of the 17th century, Europeans had learned to love this strange new concoction. Yet, as anyone who remembers recoiling from the beverage in youth knows, drinking coffee is an acquired habit. How did so many Europeans come to develop a taste for the dark and bitter brew?

Although some have suggested that a caffeine revolution helped fuel the Protestant work ethic, the historical record does not support such chemical determinism. In fact, much of the answer lies in the social role of the drink. At the time of a 1669 Ottoman diplomatic visit to Louis XIV, distinguished Parisians were served coffee in the Ottoman manner. They found the ritual enchanting. A contemporary wrote: “If a Frenchman, to please the ladies, had presented to them his black and bitter liquor, he would be rendered for ever ridiculous. But the beverage was served by a Turk—a gallant Turk—and this was sufficient to give it inestimable value.” In other words, the beverage appealed initially not because of any intrinsic qualities but because it was accompanied by a prestigious foreign ritual of sociability and refinement.

The European desire to mimic Turkish social rituals fits none of our handy models of Christian and Muslim relations. It is instead part of a broad cultural moment when Europeans adopted Near Eastern and Asian customs, traveled to the Levant and to Asia, and developed the scholarly study of Near Eastern societies.[1] None of these fits into a framework of predestined conflict and mutual misunderstanding whose most visible episodes are the Crusades, the Renaissance battles with the Turks on land and sea, the corsairing of the Barbary states, or the modern era of European colonialism in North Africa and the Near East.

Many readers have been introduced to European–Near East relations by the books of Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, both of whom, albeit in very different ways, emphasized the missed opportunities and the lack of commensurability between European and Arab and Muslim societies. Despite decades of both sober criticism and seething polemic, the most frequently cited critical paradigm for examining East-West relations remains that of Said’s Orientalism (1978). Whatever Orientalism’s merits in explaining the 19th and 20th centuries, which are the book’s primary focus, for the period from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, Said’s model of intercultural relations is not a helpful or accurate explanatory device. In the early modern era, the balance of power had not yet tipped in Europe’s favor, and 19th- and 20th-century events were far from foreseeable. Today, thanks to several recent investigations by historians, it is possible to perceive a richer and more complex history, one that acknowledges both the animosities and the mutual attractions that brought Europeans and Ottomans into contact and exchange. Alongside the great military engagements of the early modern era, and before the very different ones of the 19th century, curiosity, imitation, and translation flowered.


Temporarily putting aside the vast number of written sources, we can find in objects a fresh perspective on the past. A huge number of commodities reached Europe from the Near East between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: no longer just the spices that Arab merchants had provided in the Middle Ages but new goods like brocades, tulips, Iznik ceramics, Anatolian and Safavid carpets. Whatever the volume of trade, the new kinds of goods that were exchanged bespeak an underlying creativity and cultural vibrancy. The Oriental rugs under the feet of Madonnas by Van Eyck and Memling, or in genre scenes by Vermeer, have long testified to this history of luxury trade with the East, an association that predates the early modern period by virtually two millennia.  Yet many of these Eastern luxuries were, like coffee, entirely modern.

As a novelty, coffee was initially the object of some suspicion, as Nabil Matar shows in an inspired chapter of his Islam in Britain. While some claimed miraculous benefits from it, among its feared consequences were that it “causeth vertiginous headheach, and maketh lean much, occasioneth waking, and the Emirods, and asswages lust, and sometimes breeds melancholly.” Moreover, the foreignness of the drink did not appeal to all, and one pamphleteer connected coffee’s arrival to the first English translation of the Qur’an, by Alexander Ross, in 1649: “When coffee once was vended here,/the Alc’ron shortly did appear.” The links to Levantine culture were obvious to all: to understand the properties of coffee, some scholars translated Arabic medical and botanical treatments of the plant. A commodity never travels alone: it is accompanied by ideas and customs, in this case about how it should be prepared and consumed.

More broadly, Europeans responded to these new, modern imports from the Ottoman lands with a panoply of depictions in literature, paintings, masquerades, music, and the decorative arts. Turkish culture had attracted some Europeans in the Renaissance, but the scale and the quality of the manifestations of cultural infatuation changed dramatically in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Turqueries, as they are known, range from Mademoiselle de Scudèry’s novel Ibrahim ou l’illustre bassa (1641) to Boucher’s paintings of Madame du Pompadour as a sultana and Mozart’s Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), his most popular opera during his lifetime. Written with the discerning Viennese audience in mind, the opera is not just set in the Ottoman Empire, but features cymbals and the like to recall the mehter, or Janissary band. By Mozart’s day, European composers had made a version of the mehter into a familiar and popular sound—the first time that European music had sought to imitate the sonority of a non-Western musical tradition.

Why turqueries came into fashion at all owes less to a supposed vague attraction to the “exotic” and more to changes in power relations between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Examining the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, Paula Fichtner identifies a significant change after the failed Second Siege of Vienna in 1683. After 1699, European–Ottoman political relations were regulated by treaties; Ottoman expansion had come to a halt. “Once the Turkish threat truly subsided,” Ficthner explains, “it was easier to spread the habit of looking at the Ottoman Empire more coolly, even generously.” Fichtner structures her study as an answer to the question: How do people change their minds after long eras of negatively representing another society? The freshness of this approach allows her to give new meaning to the turqueries, to see them as products of the particular political situation and cultural ideals of their era.

The turqueries can be better understood by recognizing an underappreciated fact about 18th-century Europe. In this period, new forms of consumption were intimately bound up in moral ideas about how to live well. Journals such as Addison and Steele’s Spectator were directed at this new audience of consumers aspiring to gentility. As is often remembered today, moral philosophers from Mandeville to Rousseau condemned the fanciful idea that consumption could somehow be moral, and at the level of philosophical discourse virtue and commerce continued to appear antithetical. Until the day of Adam Smith and beyond, the heavily moralizing term “luxury” hung over any modern form of consumption. Yet outside of the community of moralists, the idea that civility could be embodied in such things as coffee cups held enormous appeal. What did not hold up to philosophical scrutiny still helped direct many men and women’s activities and their consumption. During the 17th and 18th centuries, when civility and gentility were reinterpreted as forms of noble behavior accessible to all, it seems that, at least to many Europeans, Ottomans and Persians offered a model of how to live. As Lady Montagu wrote upon her visit to Istanbul in 1718: “‘Tis true their magnificence is of a different taste from ours, and perhaps of a better. I am almost of the opinion that they have a right notion of life, while they consume it in music, gardens, wine, and delicate eating, while we are tormenting our brains with some scheme of politics or studying some science to which we can never attain.”


The lure of new commodities was not the only catalyst for cross-cultural understanding; old-fashioned intellectual effort played just as important a role. In our secular age it is easy to forget that in the eyes of Europeans, the Near East was not first and foremost the abode of Islam but rather the Holy Land, birthplace of Christianity, and the stage on which the history of salvation had played out, from the Garden of Eden, located somewhere in Mesopotamia, to the Incarnation of Christ. Every Christian was acquainted with the geography of the life of Jesus. And the many Renaissance calls for a Crusade show that the ideal of Crusading had not died out with the Middle Ages.

If only in the interest of theological polemic, some knowledge of Islam had to be cultivated. The aspect of Muslim theology most salient and threatening to Christians was its denial of the Trinity. Islam stood for unitarianism, so much so that when Adam Neuser, a 16th-century German theologian, came to doubt the Trinity, he fled to Istanbul and converted to Islam. Neuser’s decision suggests that for many Europeans, Islam appeared more akin to Christian heresy than to a pagan or heathen belief system. Eventually, some would come to argue or imply that Islam was a religion more rational than Christianity because it did not demand belief in such intellectually challenging mysteries as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection.

The most significant lesson of recent scholarship, however, is that one can hardly generalize about what “Christians” or “Europeans” thought about “Muslims.” Matar reminds us that different parts of Europe experienced contact with different parts of the Mediterranean world. If the Venetians or the Austrians were mainly concerned with the Ottomans, then the English experienced Muslims mainly in the person of North Africans. Europeans did not collapse all Asians into a big Oriental muddle, but were—to varying degrees—aware of different Asian peoples, and even of differences between Muslims: Persians, Moors, Mughals and Turks each conjured their own set of associations.

Matar has revealed the remarkable extent to which even the common people of 17th-century England were acquainted with Islamic matters. He ranges widely across English society to show the extent and diversity of knowledge, whether of scholars or of popular playwrights. As he points out, the frequency of early modern theological polemics against Islam suggests that something about the faith must have spoken to Christians—else why the constant attempts to prevent them from converting? Indeed, the appeal of Islam in early modern Europe is worth considering. Matar reminds us that European Christians converted to Islam by the thousands in the 16th and 17th centuries, often because as Muslims they had more chances to better their social condition.

Learned traditions flourished alongside popular ones. Seemingly in step with the polite fashions, the study of Turkish intensified in the latter half of the 17th century. Fichtner explains that by the 18th century, the increasing political and diplomatic need for more knowledge about the Ottomans provided a mandate for Austrian scholarship about the Ottomans. Imperial administrators realized that “a fact-based understanding of [their] enemy—his language, his institutions and his general culture—w[as] more useful in conducting relations with the Turks… than were simplistic stereotypes and faith alone.” This change finally begat Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, a scholar of unprecedented learning in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, whose scholarly goals reached far more widely than the requirements of his patrons. Fichtner argues that he could both serve his country and be a genuine admirer of the societies he studied, seeking a deeper understanding of them. And she suggests that Hammer-Purgstall’s approach was not anomalous, but rather emerged from the changed Austrian perception of the Ottomans.

As much as he was an extraordinary scholar, Hammer-Purgstall was not, however, the founder of European study of the Near East. Rather, he was preceded by several centuries of attempts to understand the history, religion, and even the literature of Arabs, Turks, and Persians. In the early 17th century, Oxford, Cambridge and Leiden all founded chairs of Arabic. While knowledge of Arabic was auxiliary to biblical research, the opportunities offered by trade and diplomacy supported the development of its study, and increased knowledge of Turkish as well. This intersection of the intellectual and the worldly is well captured in the figure who is the focus of Alastair Hamilton and Francis Richard’s book, the French diplomat and translator André du Ryer (ca. 1580-1660). Du Ryer brings into sight the connections between polite fashions, scholarship and commercial and diplomatic travel in the 17th century. A worldly man, he testifies to the interest of Europeans in Near Eastern societies, both Turkish and Persian, at this time. He translated from both Persian and Arabic, giving Europeans a version of the Qur’an in the French of polite society, as well as of Sa’adi’s Rose-Garden (Gülistan), a masterpiece of medieval Persian poetry. Du Ryer’s Gülistan launched a fashion for all things Persian that would repeatedly sweep across Europe. Hamilton and Richard’s book masterfully shows an important intersection between scholarly and polite concerns.

Reductive or generalizing assertions are certainly to be found in early modern philosophical, literary, and scholarly documents, but one should be wary of generalizing about them, instead of examining the motivations and agenda of each one, as Ziad Elmarsafy’s admirable study The Enlightenment Qur’an convincingly shows. Elmarsafy takes a close-up look at several 18th-century scholarly and intellectual confrontations with Islam and its foundational text, the Qur’an. His careful dissections reveal a wide variety of opinions. Ever attentive to the stakes of what he calls “the most political art,” translation, the author shows the wide variety of positions that were taken in Enlightenment Europe with respect to Islam.

Most importantly, he demonstrates that the central question for those translating the Qur’an was not how to defeat Islam but rather who owned the representation of Islam. Each interpreter claimed to be the foremost authority to describe the religion by stating that he represented “the best Arabic authorities.” These struggles reflected confessional divides within Europe, with both Catholics and Protestants claiming to be uniquely situated to understand this foreign faith. Although Elmarsafy also discusses more familiar figures such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Goethe, the most extraordinary person to emerge from his discussion is the English lawyer George Sale, who produced an outstanding version of the Qur’an in English in 1734, after the Italian priest Ludovico Marracci had completed a Latin translation in 1698.

George Sale was not a scholar in the conventional sense. He justified his interest in the study of Islam by writing that “to be acquainted with the various laws and constitutions of civilized nations, especially those who flourish in our own time, is, perhaps, the most useful part of knowledge.” His powerful Qur’anic translation, accompanied by a discussion of the ambiguities of the text and by summaries of the most prominent Arabic Qur’anic commentators, provided an immensely important tool to Europeans at large. Sale’s translation was less literal than Marracci’s but, in Elmarsafy’s judgment, more “faithful.” The reason for this lies in Sale’s sympathy for the Qur’an, whose formal qualities he admired as Marracci had not. Indeed, the stylistic excellence of the Qur’an supported Sale’s argument that Islam had been
spread not with the sword, as Marracci had argued, but through the power of its word.

Sale’s translation had its own politics. Its author sought to minimize the differences between Islam and Christianity by stressing their points of contact. The impulse seems to have sprung from an irenic, perhaps deist attitude to religions. Critical readers of today may find such a lumping together of the obviously different troubling, for it suggests that to make the foreign understandable, Sale needed to equate it with the known. Yet Sale’s approach is typical of his age, in which people mostly sought the firm equivalences and legible patterns they believed lay beneath the many manifestations of mankind’s diversity. Unlike an earlier generation of scholars, Elmarsafy resists the temptation to classify the attitudes he encounters under the generic rubrics of various “isms,” be they racism, exoticism, “Orientalism” or something else. His inquiry is informed by a desire to understand the mental categories a thinker brought to the work of translation, rather than a wish to celebrate or condemn any particular effort.


Though Fichtner’s study examines the transition to a more open-minded, less distorting perception of another society, it is also true that the century of Sale and Hammer-Purgstall did not conclude on a happy note. By the final quarter of the 18th century, Europeans increasingly perceived theirs as the most civilized nations of the world. The term “civilization,” coined in France in the 1760s, quickly caught on as a term of distinction. In 1798, Napoleon used the civilizing mission to justify his ill-fated expedition to Egypt. A new era had begun. It was not that Near Eastern societies lost their cultural power over Europeans—for they continued to appeal to everyone from Ingres to Flaubert—but this European attraction produced manifestations that were, in comparison to those of the early Enlightenment, more superficial, more insincere and more exoticizing, as the art historian Walter Denny has argued. Meanwhile, the popular interest parted ways with the scholarly one, as the study of Oriental culture became a genuine academic discipline, with highly specialized journals and fields of study.

How to explain this closing of European minds? A period so rife with a sense of new cultural possibilities ended with concepts of cultural superiority that were soon to become the underpinnings of political and economic subjugation. The more promising insights of the flourishing erudite and philosophical traditions of Europe were overpowered by ideological constructions and specious distinctions. An extraordinary book by German historian Jürgen Osterhammel, published twelve years ago yet hardly known in the Anglophone world, puts European relations with the Levant in the 18th century in a richly textured intellectual context. For one thing, Osterhammel’s The Disenchantment of Asia shows that, although it has often been taken as such in the wake of Said’s work, the Ottoman case was not paradigmatic of European relations with Asian societies. Though Europeans viewed Egypt virtually until the end of the 18th century as a land of antiquities, they were greatly interested in the contemporary condition of Siam, Korea, Japan, and Formosa, as well as of Persia and China.

Osterhammel also seeks to diagnose how the intellectual possibilities of the 18th century became the restrictive ideologies of the 19th. He portrays early modern Europe as a society centered on knowledge and learning, with a uniquely comparative approach to many intellectual problems. This cosmopolitan approach was lost by the 19th century, when disciplines like political economy, history, and political theory stopped being so comparative and focused only on Europe, even as Europeans intervened ever more in the politics of Asian societies. By that time, Asian societies had lost their multiplicity of meaning to Europeans, which in turn impeded the experiences of border crossing that had earlier been possible. This interpretation has been strengthened recently by Guy Stroumsa, who in A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason shows how early modern scholars developed the global comparative study of religion, and how in turn this approach was abandoned with the formation of the modern disciplines in the 19th century and the attendant loss of the fundamentally interdisciplinary and cosmopolitan character of earlier inquiries. While 18th-century culture elaborated notions that were later to harden into ideologies of civilizational and even racial superiority, Osterhammel does not blame the earlier era for these later outgrowths. The age advanced no single point of view, but rather a general spirit of criticism and dissent. Osterhammel’s nuanced and erudite discussion of early modern Europe and Asia is an important precursor to the current spate of Anglophone histories on extra-European relations. May it find the translator it deserves.

Recent work on early modern Euro-Levantine relations makes a convincing case that European fascination with the cultures of the Near East can be reduced neither to a will-to-power nor to trivial and sloppy appropriations, but rather represents a significant chapter in cultural history. It was a chapter fleeting enough to be long forgotten. Yet traces of it survive in the global popularity of coffee, the ideal of the coffeehouse, the percussion section of classical orchestras, and the name of furniture pieces from sofas and divans to ottomans. There is something much greater at stake, however. This era of cultural exchange is worthy of study not because political correctness requires that we unearth a rosy version of the past; the point is not to emphasize peaceful contacts over conflict. Rather, it is precisely because intercultural exchange existed alongside religious difference, military conflict, and economic competition that its history proves that human culture is protean and rarely pure, monolithic, or incommensurable. Culture exists in no facile relationship to political power, which it can express or subvert in equal measure.

Though its forms and outcomes may be unpredictable and unstable, intercultural exchange is not a practical impossibility. On the contrary, it has been a major factor in the history of a globalizing world from the Renaissance onwards. To neglect this is to make the past seem more provincial and more unlike our own globalizing world than it was, comfortably condemnable and alien, rather than a demanding challenge to our self-understanding. Historians have rightfully emphasized the misrepresentations and misunderstandings that were generated when different peoples came into contact, and the history of conflict and empire is crucial to explaining the world in which we now live. But to see only conflict is to lose sight not just of the past, but likewise of the possibility of a world in which one might want to live.

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