Orientalism was defined by the late Columbia University Prof. Edward Said in his 1978 book of the same title as "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture" in the course of academic study. The term was turned into a pejorative by Said during his long critique of Near Eastern studies and the apparent stereotyping of Arab and Islamic peoples.
Said criticized the West for projecting its views of the East in order not only to study the pitfalls and potentially exploitable aspects of its culture, but also to justify the entire foundation of an imperialist endeavor. By projecting the helplessness of such countries and, in Said's view, their "feminine" elements, the "masculine" West could in a way save the East from its cultural destitution. As Western countries asserted themselves in Islamic territories, specifically as the Ottoman Empire declined, Western scholars developed more hubris in their attitudes. Earlier projections of Eastern weakness were apparently affirmed, further justifying a line of research that diminished the status of the conquered peoples.
Said pointed to the art from the age to back up his contentions. In these artworks, Eastern women are often portrayed in kings' courts as vulnerable yet willing sexual objects. In kind, the men are portrayed as uncivilized and carnal, unable to control their lust. Images of Biblical stories, portraying Jewish figures who by Semitic ties are linked with their Jewish descendants and contemporary Arabs, also portray a propensity to promiscuity -- for instance, the image of Judah and Tamar. It has been suggested that there is a connection between this attitude and the rise of risque art in Europe, which constituted an early form of pictorial pornography in Western culture.
While Said's points are taken into account largely by all scholars of the Middle East, the extent to which he took them is often and vehemently opposed by contemporaries and many observers of the Middle East, probably including a large contingent of those who disagree with his political views. A major criticism of the book itself is its apparent lack of cohesion and comprehensibility. Additionally, Said made several allusions in the treatise that critics like to point out are not backed up, at least not clearly, anywhere afterward. Additionally, he was taken to task for making references without mentioning sources.
Ibn Warraq has criticized Said as projecting infallibility, thereby presenting a risk to those critiquing him. Warraq also said Said charged that Arabs and Muslims bore the brunt of Western scholarship, but did not consider the existence of other ethnic and religious groups that were and have been contemporaneous with Arabs and Muslims.
The most important critic of Edward Said, who is criticized heavily in the book, is Bernard Lewis. Said dismissed Lewis as condescending, especially in a passage where Lewis compares the linguistic root for the Arabic term for "revolution" to the same root's usage in the expression for rising up off a camel. Lewis fired back in 1982 with a long critique of Said's work in the New York Times Review of Books, and ridiculed the idea that scholarship of the Middle East was born out of imperial ambition. He points to scholarship on Islam taking place in the 16th and 17th centuries in areas where imperial conquest of Islamic lands was far from the goals of Europeans. He further cited scholarship of ancient Egypt as having absolutely no useful connection to the conquest of Egypt, and said that the deciphering of the ancient Egyptian language is paramount proof that major endeavors in the field had no connection to Said's assertions.
Lewis' rebuttal to Said in 1982 opened with a comparison to the idea that non-Greeks should not teach the classics, Greek political or military history or Greek philosophy. His point was the notion that non-Muslims and non-Arabs were ill-equipped to study the peoples they did not belong to, inferring the views of Edward Said. Remarkably, Lewis later expanded on his explanation of the origin of the term "orientalist" and brought up the earlier criticisms of Middle Eastern studies emanating from Pakistan and Germany, where the lack of sufficient German scholarship and inclusion of a Jew on the editorial board on the major work The Encyclopedia of Islam invited stinging criticism. He then went on to describe other great scholars of the Middle East who were Christian or Jewish, whose motives for academic study were rejected as suspect by Muslims because they did not value the objective study of other religions. Lewis contended that Said was still viewing Middle Eastern studies and their impact on world affairs through the lens of Christian leaders, who had learned Islam in order to strengthen their resolve to convert Muslims, a concept Lewis argued was long irrelevant.