PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND SCIENCE: The Encyclopaedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition Vol. 1-9 (A-S)

By Safi, Omid | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2004 | Go to article overview

PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND SCIENCE: The Encyclopaedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition Vol. 1-9 (A-S)


Safi, Omid, The Middle East Journal


The Encyclopaedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition Vol. 1-9 (A-S), ed. by Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003. $550.

With the mad proliferation of books on Islam and the Middle East, most of them of dubious academic merit, words such as "definitive" and "essential" are bandied about far too frequently. That is particularly the case for the many new reference works on Islamic and Middle East studies that have appeared. Given the high cost of these sources, it is vital for research libraries and individual scholars to make prudent choices. The recent CD-ROM edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam is a resource that no serious scholar of Islam should be without. Yet, this reference work is nonetheless in some ways flawed, and needs to be supplemented by other resources.

In order to grasp the above critique, it is important to recall the origins of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. The roots of these academic disciplines in the West go back to 19"'-century Europe, which featured a heavy investment in philological and textual studies of Islamic texts. That focus, famously identified by Edward Said as Orientalism, tended to privilege "classical" Islam, which was understood/imagined almost exclusively through a study of 8th to 10th-century Arabic texts, mostly of the legal and theological backgrounds. In many ways, Islam was constructed at that time as a "Semitic" tradition bereft of any philosophy, mysticism, poetry, arts, etc. Arabic was understood as the only legitimate language of Islam (due to its placement in the Semitic language family), and other languages such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu were neglected. Leading scholars such as H.A.R. Gibb stated that the Qur'anic emphasis on tawhid (Divine unity) also meant that the Islamic civilization as a whole was characterized by unity and uniformity. Indeed, it has long been a trope, repeated by recent experts such as Bernard Lewis (one of the editors of the EI), to state that any move in the direction of change, adaptation, and reform can only happen either through a betrayal of the tradition or by abandoning Islam and adopting a secular Western discourse instead. Even when scholars would acknowledge the glory of the medieval Islamic civilization in Baghdad and elsewhere, that majesty was always depicted as a "Golden Age," which soon passed and relinquished science and philosophy to their "proper" heirs (i.e., Europe). Having helped awaken Europe from its not so gentle slumber, Islamdom could plunge head-first into stagnation and decline.

Over the course of the last generation, scholars of Islam have striven to offer a more balanced and historically accurate depiction of Islam. …

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