It is the fate of most scholarly books to be read only by a small audience, largely consisting of academics plowing the same narrow field. A few such books, however, make their mark on an entire generation. They are endlessly assigned, endlessly cited. They are read or at least browsed by everyone who wants to keep current with the Zeitgeist. Their vocabulary is picked up and given general circulation.

One such phenomenon is Edward Said's Orientalism, published in 1978. Said, who died in 2003, was a distinguished literary critic, a connoisseur of classical music, and—from his longtime base at Columbia University—the most prominent public advocate for the Palestinian cause. He wrote many books. Orientalism was by far the most influential.

The "Orient" of Said's title is not the Far East of China and Japan. Instead, it is the Middle East and in particular the "Arab heartland," as Robert Irwin puts it. Said attacked Western scholars who specialized in this area, especially from the late 18th century onward. He characterized their work as "essentialist, racialist, patronizing, and ideologically motivated," in Irwin's summary. Moreover, Said charged, these distortions shape virtually everything that is said or even thought about the Arab world in the West, including in large segments of the mission community.

Since Orientalism was first published, many scholars—including a number of Arab scholars—have pointed out serious errors and contradictions. But only now, with Irwin's Dangerous Knowledge, has the definitive rebuttal appeared. Irwin has taught Arabic and Middle Eastern history at Oxford and Cambridge. He is a superb writer: lucid, witty, fair-minded, with a wicked sense of irony. He is not writing to give ...

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