BOOK REVIEW Constructing the Oriental image The Sum of All Heresies by Frederick Quinn
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
In the views of post-modernity, the construction of an image of a country or
region is nothing but the way one group of people exhibits its power over
others. Edward Said, the well-known scholar of the Orient at Columbia
University, held in his famous book, Orientalism, that it was the
Europeans' ability to construct the image of the Orient as submissive and
backward that helped Europeans win domination over the Muslim world.
One, of course, questions the assumption that the image of a particular region
is the key to ensuring domination over it. Still, the connection between
politics, or, to be precise, geopolitics, and the image of distant lands and
regions is apparent. This is
definitely the case with the Muslim world, which fascinated Europeans for
The Sum of All Heresies provides a broad picture of the evolution of the
image of the Middle East from near antiquity to the present. As the author
holds, the image of the people of the Middle East as the embodiment of
barbarity could be traced back to Roman times, when the empire started to
employ people from the Middle East as mercenaries. For the Romans, Middle
Easterners became the symbol of animalistic behavior. The Romans considered
even the Germanic warriors as more civilized, for at least they did not drink
the blood of wounded enemies.
This stereotype continued throughout the Middle Ages when Islam became the
dominant religion of the region. Those who dealt with the Muslims during the
Middle Ages, mostly during the time of the Crusades, described them as vicious
heathens. Still, the Christian army could master the Muslims, they said. The
situation started to change with the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which
Europeans soon began to view as a mortal threat.
Turkish advances in the Balkans were viewed with great apprehension, regardless
of the fact that Catholic Europe had centuries-long quarrels with the Orthodox
East and, in fact, did not even regard the Orthodox as bonafide Christians. Yet
Turkish advances in the Balkans were terrifying, and the Turks emerged as the
ultimate evil. One could add that the Christians' fear of the Turks was so
great that the Europeans were delighted that Baiazid, the Turkish sultan, was
defeated by Timur, creator of the huge Central Asian empire and known for his
almost pathological cruelty.
The fear of the Ottomans was intensified even more after they took
Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. As the author noted, this
provided the Europeans with the final key to construct their image of the
Muslim world as a region populated by ferocious brutes that ravaged peaceful
and helpless Europe.
It was at this time that Europe acquired the characteristics that would in the
future contribute to the overall image of 19th century Orientalism - that
Europe was a voluptuous and submissive female ravaged by the virile Muslim
Orient. This image emerged in a variety of ways. It came in ballads describing
the ravaging of Constantinople by the Turks, who engaged in rape and murder
even in the churches. It could be a symbol of the powerless Byzantine Empire.
As the Turks continued their advances in the 16th and 17th centuries, the
picture did not change.
The image of the Turks as a mortal threat to Europe was enhanced not just by
the Ottoman conquest but also by their role as a maritime power and even more
so by their piracy. Quinn draws the reader's attention to a little-known aspect
of the emerging slave trade. It is accepted almost as an axiom that slaves in
modern Europe were all non-European. But in the early modern era there were
just as many European slaves - victims of Mediterranean pirates - in the hands
of Muslims as there were blacks, if not more.
In fact, there were several million European slaves. It is not surprising then
that the image of European slaves was firmly imbedded in the European image of
the Muslim Orient. It became a popular subject of artwork. One such piece,
presented in this book, represents the Ottoman Turks on horseback and a
European couple, a man and woman, being dragged by a rope as powerless slaves.
This image of the Muslim Orient - Muslims as brutal predators and Europeans as
powerless victims - dominated the European imagination from the late Middle
Ages to the early modern era. It was also supplemented by another negative
image. The Orient was not only brutal and uncivilized but also had no
attraction for Europe as a trading partner. Quinn quoted European merchants who
became quite disappointed in their encounters with the Orient. They found no
marketable goods and reported that the natives were hardly helpful.
While the negative image of the Orient had dominated the Europeans mind, it was
not the only view. For emerging European science, it was a source of mysterious
and exotic knowledge. By the 18th century, the image of the Muslim Orient had
undergone profound changes. It was mostly due, as Quinn rightfully admits, to
changes in the geopolitical order. At the very end of the 17th century, the
Turks had been defeated near the gates of Vienna; from then on, it was not the
Turks who moved from one victory to another but their European enemies. It was
also at this time that the modern image of the Orient - Orientalism in
Edwardian terms - started to be formed.
The Muslim Orient began to emerge not as a threat but as a submissive, exotic
and, in a way, attractive place. It was a time when some aspects of Turkic life
were incorporated in the daily life of Europeans. This was, first of all, the
case with Turkish cafes. The Ottomans also became the subject of plays and
operas, often with an erotic context. The following 19th century and first half
of the 20th century, as the author implies in his narrative, had, in a way,
synthesized the images of the 16th and 17th centuries with the images of the
On one hand, the Orient continued to be a place of attraction - the image of
voluptuous odalisques in harems implied the attractiveness and submissiveness
of the Orient. On the other hand, the Orient was still brutal, uncultivated and
understood only force. Social Darwinism gave this image of the Orient a sort of
Orientals were seen as permanently inferior to Europeans, needing to be
controlled and exploited by them. This image of the Orient was a
cultural/intellectual backdrop for European colonial expansion. This expansion
made the Muslim Orient not only quite a popular subject of art and other
cultural outputs but also of serious science. By the 19th-20th century, the
study of the Muslim Orient had finally been incorporated in academia, and Quinn
provides succulent sketches of the development of Oriental studies in various
parts of the Western world.
The reviewed book has several important attractions. First, it clearly
demonstrates that Saidian "Orientalism" - the image of the Orient as
voluptuously submissive - was not just a fixed product of the Western mind but
was, indeed, historically constructed. In the early modern era, the West
visualized itself in a sort of Orientalist fashion - weak, voluptuous and
submissive. And only later did the image of the Orient-West relationship start
to be reversed. Second, besides the important conclusions that one could deduce
from the narrative, the book is full of significant data. Short in size and
crisp in narrative, it should be a good read for anyone who is interested in
the image of the Orient.
The Sum of All Heresies: The Image of Islam in Western Thought by
Frederick Quinn. Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (November 21, 2007).
ISBN-10: 019532563X. Price US$29.95, 232 pages.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. He is author of
East Against West: The First Encounter - The Life of Themistocles, 2005.