Orientalism and the uncivilized world

An ongoing stereotype of Asia, specifically, the Middle East.


Edward Said, a Palestinian American professor of literature at Columbia University, a public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies developed the word orientalism. Said defines orientalism as the West’s representations of “The East” — the societies and people who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and specifically the Middle East. Upon reading his book “Orientalism”, I came across how the “Orient” originated in the first place. “The Orient was almost a European invention and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories, landscapes, and remarkable experiences. Unlike the Americans, the French and the British — less so the Germans, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, and Swiss — have had a long tradition of what I shall be calling Orientalism” (Said 1).

This stereotype of the Middle East drew my attention to the Golden Age and the advanced fields of algebra, biology, medicine, astronomy, and other fields. Upon digging in history, and how we ended up in this advanced, effortless, and uncomplicated world I found no trace to start from but the late 8th Century. Unsurprisingly, the inventions and efforts of Muslim scholars led to the advancements and prosperity of today’s world.

The Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden age (8th — 14th Century) is a historical periodization that took place in Baghdad. This period began during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. Which turned Baghdad into an important if not the most important area for trade and exchange of ideas and innovation. During his reign (786–809), Baghdad flourished culturally, economically, and scientifically. Many thinkers, innovators, and scientists proved themselves and flourished while flourishing Baghdad and today’s world.

Golden Age By Juan Carlos Barquet

Surgery & Medicine

Around the year 1000 CE, Al Zahrawi, published a 1,500 page illustrated encyclopedia of surgery that was used in Europe as a medical reference for the next 500 years. Among his many inventions, Zahrawi discovered the use of dissolving cat gut to stitch wounds — beforehand a second surgery had to be performed to remove sutures. He also reportedly performed the first cesarean operation and created the first pair of forceps. (Sterns 2010)

Al-Razi (Rhazes) was a physician, chemist, and teacher, who wrote many important medical works later translated to Latin and Greek. (Bustinza 2016) According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Al-Razi was among the first to use humoral theory (a system of medicine detailing the makeup and workings of the human body) to distinguish contagious diseases.

Ibn Sina, often known in the west as Avicenna and the father of early modern medicine was the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era. As Edmund F. Robertson, a professor of mathematics at the University of St Andrews mentioned: “of the 450 works he is believed to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.”


Shaping a huge portion of many people’s dose of energy, Coffee was first brewed in Yemen in the 9th Century. In its earliest days, coffee helped Sufis stay up during late nights of devotion. Later brought to Cairo by a group of students, the coffee buzz soon caught on around the empire. By the 13th century it reached Turkey, but not until the 16th century did the beans start boiling in Europe, brought to Italy by a Venetian trader. (Sterns 2010)

Flying machine

“Abbas ibn Firnas was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly,” said Hassani. In the 9th century, he designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba in Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back. His designs would undoubtedly have been an inspiration for famed Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci’s hundreds of years later, said Hassani. (Sterns 2010)

Leonardo da Vinci’s Ornithopter

Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480s. Inspired by ibn Firnas, da Vinci had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight. The Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. It was a design that Leonardo da Vinci created to show how a man could fly. The modern-day helicopter is based on this concept. (NASA) This later led to the Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane in 1903, recognized as “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight.


The University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded by Fatima al-Firhi in 859 is the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world. Located in Fez, Morocco, the University of al-Qarawiyyin became a place of religious instruction and Quran memorization, Arabic grammar, mathematics, music, chemistry, Islamic legislation, Sufism, medicines, astronomy, as well to study political debate and lessons focusing mainly on the natural sciences. In the Middle Ages, the University of al-Qarawiyyin played a significant role in the mediation of culture and knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. In the fourteenth century, 8000 students from the Maghreb and Egypt were trained in Fez. (Arbaoui 2012)

DeAgostini/Getty Images

The library is home to over 4,000 texts, including some that are exceedingly rare, such as a 9th-century Quran written in Kufic script on camel skin. The restoration includes a state-of-the-art lab that can digitize and restore these texts, as well as mend holes in ancient paper rolls, and prevent cracks in scrolls. (Carrington 2017)


Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a 9th-century Muslim mathematician and astronomer. He is known as the “father of algebra”, a word derived from the title of his book, Kitab al-Jabr. (Aljazeera 2015) Al-Khwarizmi wrote “al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala” which translates to “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”. A book that solved and explained the roots of polynomial equations.

Algebraic thinking underwent a substantial reform following the advancement by scholars of Islam’s Golden Age. Until this point, the civilizations that inherited Babylonian mathematics practiced algebra in progressively elaborate “procedural methods.” Sesiano further explains: A “student needed to memorize a small number of mathematical identities, and the art of solving these problems then consisted of transforming each problem into a standard form and calculating the solution. (Coolman 2015)

Orientalism is a term used to misrepresent Asia (the Middle East specifically). A term that only emerged after inventions led by Arabian scholars and cultural advancements. Making it questionable as to why the term wasn’t used before Islamic advancements. The key take away from the term and book “Orientalism” is simple. As described by Edward Said, Western people fabricated conceptions of Eastern states, convincing myths in ways that would benefit Western states.

“1001 inventions Muslim heritage in our world” is an exhibition, movie, and a book that traces how the Muslim civilization has influenced science for the last 1000 years. As the British scientist, Prof. Chris Rapley CBE mentioned: “In the West, we went through the dark ages, if you like the candle of human knowledge and understanding was carried by the Islamic world”. 1001 inventions is a global educational initiative, but shock remains to be the first impression when one hears that the Islamic civilization invented and advanced many of our everyday needs in today’s effortless world.

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