On Colonial Aphasia in the Study of German Orientalism

By Zubair Ahmad

This article is part of the TRAFO Series  “40 Years After Orientalism”.


Humanists have too often confined their attention to departmentalized topics of research. They have neither watched nor learned from disciplines like Orientalism whose unremitting ambition was to master all of a world, not some easily delimited part of it such as an author or a collection of texts.

(Said 2003, 109)

What could one possibly say about Edward Said’s Orientalism that has not already been uttered in one way or the other? Published in 1978, the book has been an important contribution on questions regarding cultural representation, knowledge production as well as governing the colonial and post-colonial Other. In attempting to trace the “infinity of traces” upon himself, Said helped us to understand the very “historical process” constituting both the “Orient” and the “Oriental subject”. The following intervention is concerned with the study of German orientalism and the absence of the nexus of power-knowledge. Specifically, I am troubled by the way the study of German orientalism has emerged and evolved as a terrain of scholarship unreflective of and disentangled from questions of power. Furthermore, it seems to me that the study of German orientalism has been unable to incorporate an understanding of power which points beyond the level of the individual subject, i.e. towards epistemes, ontologies, and relations of power, which not only have been disseminating in the field but have been affecting its registers of inquiry too. Said’s Orientalism offers a point in case to think through and reflect upon such dynamics of scholarship, most visible when it comes to the place accredited to German colonialism in the study of German orientalism. Although recent years have seen a number of studies on German colonialism and German orientalism, their discussion within one single analytical frame still remains aloof. To put it more neatly: The study of German orientalism is marked by what Ann Stoler (2011, 125) has come to describe as “colonial aphasia,” which is to say, “an occlusion of knowledge” and hence a “difficulty” to generate “a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things.” Thus, an appropriate understanding of the coming together of power-knowledge, that is to say, of the relationship between German orientalism and German colonialism remains haunted. In doing so, the study of German orientalism has been occluding the very traces that German colonialism has inscribed upon some of German orientalism’s (re-)configurations.

Decoupling Things Colonial From Things Oriental

To think of Orientalism as inaugurating the decoupling of things colonial and things oriental for Germany might be a farfetched argument to make, but Said’s study certainly helped to proliferate such a division. Given its focus on Oriental Studies, Said tackled the question of Germany from the very outset. Setting the Eurocentric idea of the Orient not only as an epistemological but also geographic limit, as well as considering the first “two-thirds of the nineteenth century” as significant a period for the development of Orientalism, Said excluded German orientalists (and their knowledge production) from the very outset:

 “Yet at no time in German scholarship during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century could a close partnership have developed between Orientalists and a protracted, sustained national interest in the Orient. There was nothing in Germany to correspond to the Anglo-French presence in India, the Levant, North Africa. Moreover, the German Orient was almost exclusively a scholarly, or at least a classical, Orient: it was made the subject of lyrics, fantasies, and even novels, but it was never actual, the way Egypt and Syria were actual for Chateaubriand, Lane, Lamartine, Burton, Disraeli, or Nerval. There is some significance in the fact that the two most renowned German works on the Orient, Goethe’s West-östlicher Diwan and Friedrich Schlegel’s Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier, were based respectively on a Rhine journey and on hours spent in Paris libraries.” (19)

Instead, what German orientalism did, while the British and the French were colonizing minds, bodies, and lands, was “to refine and elaborate techniques whose application was to texts, myths, ideas, and languages” and which were “literally gathered from the Orient by imperial Britain and France.” (19) Since German scholarship on the Orient was lacking both “close partnership” and a “sustained national interest in the Orient” during much of 19th century, Said suggested, German writings on the Orient, or on the Oriental for that matter, could only remain imaginative and scholarly.

Of course, numerous reviewers reproached Said for his omission in regard to Germany, doing injustice to his genealogical rather than encyclopedic approach to the material under investigation. For example, Michael Beard (1979, 10) wrote that one “wants to know (…) whether German Orientalism – an extensive academic tradition in a nation without colonies – differs from French and British Orientalism, and how [one] might measure that difference.” To another reviewer, C.F. Beckingham (1979, 562), Said could only make his claims because he “distorts his account of orientalism by omitting German scholarship.” Both Said’s argument for excluding German orientalism from his study and the reproach of Said’s work afterwards, among other factors, hardened the decoupling and division between things colonial and things oriental. From the very outset of the book’s publication, then, one either pursued the configuration of Orientalism, or one embarked on a journey to understand German orientalism’s formation as a uniquely cultural and intellectual endeavor. In this, Germany served as a kind of litmus test for both Said’s publication and the discipline of Oriental Studies more broadly. Even seven years after the book’s publication, in 1985, Said still would need to say that “no one has given any reason (…) to have included” Germany in his investigation and that critiques pointing toward the absence of Germany in his study had “struck” him as “superficial or trivial” and that “there seems no point in even responding to them.” (1985, 90)

The Study of German Orientalism and the Analytics of the “Nation”

As we know, for Said, it was not only the emphasis of a colonial-imperial context, in which the production of knowledge and the governing of “subject races” took place but the colony as a specific and productive site of power relations and power’s engagement. Whether we think of what he marks as the beginning of Orientalism, which is the paradigmatic case of the Napoleonic invasion to Egypt, or of Balfour or Cromer’s colonial regimes, Egypt is significant as a colony. It is with the terrain of the colony that Said’s configuration of Orientalism becomes complete, as Said’s Napoleon, Balfour, and Cromer brought closer the nexus of power and knowledge. Within the study of German orientalism, however, quite the opposite had been the case. Rather than the colony, the nation had been the central grid for understanding German orientalism. An early and influential example of a nation-centered focus is the landmark contribution by the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock. In his 1993 essay, Deep Orientalism?, Pollock suggested that, in the case of Germany, orientalism “as a complex of knowledge-power” was “vectored not outward to the Orient but inward to Europe itself,” constructing the conception of a historical German essence and to defining Germany’s place in Europe’s destiny.” (Pollock 1993, 83) As an analytical and interpretative framework, the nation still remains significant. In consequence, the colony, as a critical and productive site of engagement, remains not only peripheral but actually never appears. Studies of German orientalism, from Oriental and Islamic Studies to Literary and Cultural Studies, have been occluding a knowledge of the colony and thereby limiting the very vocabulary through which we come to conceptualize and understand the beast of German orientalism – which always seems to be conceptualized in difference to Said’s configuration (not colonial but national; not so much political as imaginative-cultural). This is not to say that the colony has not been referenced occasionally but that this significance has been left aside for further interrogation. For example, in his influential historical study, Baber Johansen (1990) mentions Carl Heinrich Becker’s outspokenness about keeping “colonial administrations informed” but never ceases to ask what this political linkage indicates or what the epistemological effects of such a linkage might be. The same can be said about Sabine Mangold’s and Ursula Wokoeck’s work. While Mangold certainly points toward Becker’s interest in Germany’s colonies in Africa, but without interrogating the colony more seriously, Wokoeck has nothing at all to say about either the context of German imperialism nor about the German colonies, although she explicitly addresses the emergence of modern Islamic Studies through Carl Heinrich Becker. And while Suzanne Marchand’s contribution to the ongoing conversation on German orientalism, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (2009), does reference German colonies, they never seem to become central or in anyway important as a site of engagement, not even in cases where knowledge production might have been entangled with German colonies – such as in the cases of Martin Hartmann or Carl Heinrich Becker, thinkers she discusses at length. So how could German orientalism could be addressed if analyzed and thought from the colony rather than the nation?

Towards an Analytics of the Colony

One way to characterize the configuration of Orientalism is to pay attention to the limits it sets and formulates. And it is this very question – the question of limits – which looms large in Said’s seminal study. So “authoritative a position did Orientalism have,” Said would come to suggest from the outset, that “no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism.” (2003, 3, emphasis added) According to Said then, neither the Orient nor the Oriental were free subjects of thought and action but their inquiry was surrounded by “fences;” a term used by Said to precisely address the curtailed vocabulary and imagery through which and by which Orientalists gave birth and would come to know the Orient and the Oriental. Hence, Orientalism, Said suggested, “is better grasped as a set of constraints upon and limitation of thought rather than (…) as a positive doctrine. (…) The reception of Islam in the West is a perfect case in point”. (2003, 42, 60)

One of the problems with what I have been discussing so far is that scholarship on Orientalism has assumed that Orientalism and its effects have been operating in relation to the Orient only – a limitation reproduced by Said as well as by the abundant scholarship after his book. In a way, implicitly rather than explicitly, the Eurocentric construction of the Orient that Said and others have been analyzing, has been serving as Orientalism’s proper ground and limit of engagement – due to how, if we are to recall, Said excluded Germany from his investigation. Consequently, while Said and many others were analyzing the fences put up by Orientalism’s curtailing thought, they equally seem to have been curtailed themselves by limiting Orientalism’s configuration of power to the very Eurocentric construction they were attempting to decolonize: namely, limiting Orientalism to the Orient. In effect, the geographic Orient has not only been the prime site for Orientalism’s investigation but the latter’s power has been rendered somewhat immobile and tied to the imaginative geography of the Orient. But if Orientalism’s “unremitting ambition was to master all of a world,” as Said (2003, 109) puts it, how would Orientalism come to expand its reach and depth and, by doing so, would come to incorporate places and populations initially not covered nor characterized as belonging to the Orient? And if this would be the case, how would this change our understanding of German orientalism?

Importantly, much of the 19th century explorations of Islam took place not only by limiting themselves to the Orient but by excluding and delegitimizing geographies other than the Orient as valuable sources for an understanding of Islam. Hence, Orientalism’s limit upon thought and action not only turned Islam into a “Semitic religion,” as Tomoko Masuzawa’s (2005) work has shown, considered to be the product of an “Arab genuis,” as Rudolph Ware has it. Rather, Orientalists regarded versions of Islam which were distant “from its cradle,” as the French colonial administrator Paul Marty had it, as a deformation and therefore “no more than vulgar forgeries of the religion and state of the sublime Qur’an.” (cited from Ware 2014). German Orientalists as well as colonial administrators operated on these assumptions too, who were still in need to develop a vocabulary and imagery to understand Islam beyond its proper borders, namely the Orient. For Oskar Karstedt, colonial administrator in German East Africa, for example, Islam in the German colonies was nothing more than a “pseudo Islam,” (1913) manifested in the body of the racialized figure of the N-word, whose “animalistic drive” did not let develop means to resonate with religion. With the intensification of German colonialism, the colony would come to be identified through concrete colonial populations that German colonialists had not paid attention to initially. In 1910, Carl Heinrich Becker came to hold that:

(…) the problem of Islam was separated quite late from the native problem and, accordingly, the interest in Islam developed very slowly. Even today, you can find thousands of Germans for whom the problem of Islam does not exist among so many other colonial problems. In the beginning, the [colonial] administration addressed the Negroes as Negroes, whether they were Mohammedans or not. (…) [T]he Muhammedans were used or fought against not in their capacity as Mohammedans but on the basis of the idea of their economic usefulness or the danger their competition posed. Only in recent years has the attention of the public opinion been directed to the Islamic problem (…), which suddenly made it appear in a new light.

(Becker 1932 [1910])

But what consequence would the appearance of Islam, an appearance outside of what Eurocentrism construed as its proper geography, namely the Orient, would mean for German orientalism? It is here that we need to pay attention to the questions raised by German Orientalists as well as the issues they tackled, the methods they employed, and the audiences they addressed. Maybe Becker’s case is the most illuminating in order to think through the im/possibility of an altered conceptualization of German orientalism, one which desires to know in order to govern and therefore has some family resemblances with what Said described in his work. In comparison to others, for example, Becker has been accredited with shifting the modes of Orientalist inquiries from philological to historical-cultural-sociological investigations. Additionally, in the longer citation just mentioned, the audience of Becker’s is not an academic one but one assembled at the Union Coloniale Francaise, raising and addressing the “Islam Question [Islamfrage]”, as Becker called it, in the colony. Questions and questionnaires developed and were sometimes also conducted in order to understand Islam and Muslims, to construct and construe their distinctive characteristics and divisions, among themselves but also vis-á-vis Europe. Whatever the finer nuances and differences within the colonial discourse, Islam and Muslims appeared as dangerous tropes in the German colonies. And although danger would come to be evaluated differently, there was no doubt that, as Becker had it (1909), “we must, at least, do everything possible that Muslims do not get fanaticized”.

An epistemological consequence of such inquiries and political elaborations was precisely the very expansion of the boundaries of Orientalism as a configuration of power. As Orientalists entered the unexplored geography of Africa, along with colonial administrators, jurists, and others, this helped expand the usual boundaries of German Oriental Studies. It was not a coincidence, then, that for some time, both the Eurocentric constructions of Orient and Africa came closer and could be assembled together, as Becker suggested in 1914: “The German flag is waving on African soil as it is in the Far East. This tremendous development of our national and economic expansion,” which is to say of German imperialism in general and German colonialism more particularly, “could not have been without any effect for Oriental Studies.” In doing so, Becker himself related political and epistemological endeavors by linking the colonial with the disciplines concerned with the Orient, which now included Africa.

To conclude, we may start with recognizing that the reach, spread, and depth of Orientalism (and the history of its formation) should not be exhausted by scrutinizing the Eurocentric construction of the Orient, the Oriental, and the limited vocabularies and imageries uttered in their direction. Instead, Orientalism’s history and effects point beyond the Orient and the Oriental – particularly if one considers what Said took as an excellent case in point vis-á-vis the operations of Orientalism, namely Islam. In terms of German orientalism, this certainly means that the latter’s history and knowledge is not as neatly tied to the constructed geography of the Orient, but finds itself operating on other geographies as well; geographies equally constructed through violent epistemological and political means. The colonization of Africa is a case in point, where the history of Orientalism converges with other othered histories as well as othering disciplines such as Anthropology, Ethnology, or Geography. Finally, focusing on Islam, then, could help us to trace the neglected histories of German orientalism. These are histories that would help us understand that German orientalism, too, had ambitions to master a world beyond the Orient, and that, in order to better understand the nexus between power and knowledge, one certainly needs to turn towards the colony. Furthermore, another layer of analysis could be added to understand the simultaneous play of not only the taxonomical impulse of the category of religion but its entanglement with race, continuously dehumanizing and devaluing the N-Word and discrediting his religiosity as “pseudo Islam”.

Finally, and most importantly, the presence of a colonial aphasia in regard to German orientalism, then, has been equally barricading the possibility of viewing Orientalism’s violence within our present. For how can we address and conceptualize its epistemicide within the German present if its inauguratory moments and a better understanding of its evolvement and continuity as power-knowledge still remain subjugated?

Further Readings

Beard, Michael. “Between West and World”. Diacritics 9, No. 4 (1979): 2-12.

Becker, Carl Heinrich: Der Islam als Problem. In: Der Islam 1 (1910), 1-21; Islamstudien. Vom Wesen und Werden der islamischen Welt. Leipzig: Quelle und Meyer, 1932.

Beckingham, C. F. Review of Orientalism by Edward W. Said. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 42, no. 3 (1979): 562-64.

Johansen, Baber. “Politics and Scholarship: The Development of Islamic Studies in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In: Tareq Y. Ismael (ed.) Middle East Studies: International Perspectives on the State of the Art. New York: Praeger, 1990: 71-130.

Karstedt, Oskar. “Zur Beurteilung des Islam in Deutsch-Ostafrika.” In: Koloniale Rundschau, Heft 12 (1913), 728-736.

Marchand, Suzanne L. German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship. Publications of the German Historical Institute. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Pollock, Sheldon. “Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and Power Beyond the Raj”. In Breckenridge, Carol A., van der Veer, Peter (eds.). Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament, 115-6. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism [1973]. London: Penguin, 2003.

Said, Edward W. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Cultural Critique, No. 1 (1985): 89-107.

Stoler, A.L. “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France”. Public Culture 23, No. 1 (2011): 121-56.

Ware, Rudolph T. III. The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Zubair Ahmad studied Political Science, Religious Studies and Psychoanalysis at the Goethe University Frankfurt and the Institut d’études politiques in Lyon. After research stays at the University of Johannesburg, Columbia University, and the Cluster of Excellence “Normative Orders”, he joined the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies as a doctoral fellow in 2015. His PhD project problematizes the taken-for-grantedness as well as the lack of historicity regarding the governing of Muslims and Islam in present-day Germany. In turning toward Germany’s colonial history, Zubair excavates the colonial birth of Germany’s governing of Muslims and Islam as well as the Orientalist and racist discourses that are part and parcel of such politics. Zubair’s first monograph, entitled Political Theory, Religion, and Postcolonial Critique, was recently published with Tectum Press. His other (including upcoming) publications are with Campus Verlag, Barbara Budrichs Publishers, InterDisciplines: Journal for History and Sociology, Religious Studies Review, and Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Further Articles in the TRAFO Series “40 Years After Orientalism”:

Schirin Amir-Moazami, Introduction: 40 Years After Orientalism, 7 May 2020.

Wendy Shaw, Reenchantment: From the Facts of Orientalism to the Sustenance of Storytelling, 7 May 2020.

Citation: Zubair Ahmad, On Colonial Aphasia in the Study of German Orientalism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24098.

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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