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Robert Graham Irwin


Robert Graham Irwin

Robert Irwin
Born (1946-08-23) August 23, 1946 (age 67)
Occupation Novelist, historian, Arabist
Language English
Nationality British
Alma mater University of Oxford
Period 1983–present

For other people with the same name, see Robert Irwin (disambiguation)

Robert Graham Irwin (born 23 August 1946) is a British historian, novelist, and writer on Arabic literature.


Irwin read modern history at the University of Oxford, and did graduate research at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) under the supervision of Bernard Lewis. His thesis was on the Mamluk reconquest of the Crusader states, but he failed to complete it.[1] From 1972 he was a lecturer in medieval history at the University of St. Andrews.[1] He gave up academic life in 1977 in order to write fiction, while continuing to lecture part-time at Oxford, Cambridge and SOAS.[1] Irwin is currently a Research Associate at SOAS,[2] and the Middle East editor of The Times Literary Supplement. He has published a history of Orientalism and is an acknowledged expert on The Arabian Nights.[3]

Many of Irwin's novels focus on Arabic themes. This includes his first, the acclaimed dark fantasy novel The Arabian Nightmare, which was inspired by Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.[4][5] Later novels would focus on diverse subjects, such as British Surrealism (Exquisite Corpse) and Satanism in Swinging London (Satan Wants Me). A character from Satan Wants Me, the Satanist Charlie Felton, has a cameo in the 1969 episode of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic.[6] Alan Moore, the comic's creator, has described Irwin as a "fantastic writer".[7]


Main article: For Lust of Knowing

In 2006, Irwin published For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and their Enemies, his critique of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978). Among various points, he maintains that Said focused his attention on the British and French in his critique of Orientalism, while it was German scholars who made the original contributions. He notes that Said linked the academic Orientalism in those countries with imperialist designs on the Middle East, yet, by the 19th and the early 20th centuries, it was more proper to regard Russia as an empire having imperialist designs on the Caucasus region and Central Asia. Irwin maintains that the issue of Russia's actual imperialist designs is avoided by Said.[8] Another of Irwin's key points is that oriental scholarship, or "Orientalism", "owes more to Muslim scholarship than most Muslims realise."[9]

Maya Jasanoff in the London Review of Books argued: "...Irwin's factual corrections, however salutary, do not so much knock down the theoretical claims of Orientalism as chip away at single bricks. They also do nothing to discount the fertility of Orientalism for other academics. The most thought-provoking works it has inspired have not blindly accepted Said's propositions, but have expanded and modified them."[10]

Published works


  • The Arabian Nightmare (Dedalus 1983)
  • The Limits of Vision (Dedalus 1986)
  • The Mysteries of Algiers (Dedalus 1988)
  • Exquisite Corpse (Dedalus 1995)
  • Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh (Dedalus 1997)
  • Satan Wants Me (Dedalus 1999)



During the Rushdie case, the leader of the largest Buddhist organisation in Britain was asked how Buddhists would react to blasphemy, and he answered: "We support it, because it makes people think." – That was well said. I don't know how to react, but it strikes me that Muhammed is increasingly given a divine status which he didn't have in original Islam. Muhammed is no god. He is a human being making mistakes which, by the way, is evident from the authorised accounts about his life.[11]
On Edward Said's work Orientalism:
I am a medievalist, but he hates the Middle Ages. Altogether he loathes the past, he does not have the ability to enter into the spirit of other ages. He lies about European novelists and twists their words; I am myself a novelist with great sympathy for some of those whom he denounces in his book. Finally, I am an orientalist, too, and his book is a long and persevering polemic against my subject, so I need to ask: is there anything at all to like in Said's book? – No. It is written far too quickly and carelessly. It abounds with misprints and mis-spelled names. It is an extremely polemic book, and throughout time many polemic books for or against Islam and the Muslim world have been written, but none have been taken seriously in the same way as Said.[11]
On Edward Said:
The fact is that researchers cannot build anything on Said's thoughts-dead-end. ... He has made it difficult for Westerners to say anything critical about Islam and the Muslim world. You cannot do that because then you run the risk of getting denounced as an orientalist, i.e. a racist, an imperialist and other terrible things.[11]

See also


External links

  • at Dedalus Books

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