Robert Graham Irwin (born 1946) is a British historian, novelist, and writer on Arabic literature.
He read modern history at the University of Oxford, and did graduate research at SOAS. From 1972 he was a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of St. Andrews. He gave up the academic life in 1977, to write. Irwin is currently a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and the Middle East editor of The Times Literary Supplement.
In addition to his historical work, Irwin has written several works of fiction, including the acclaimed novelThe Arabian Nightmare.
In 2006 his critique of Edward Said's Orientalism, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents, was published. Among his various critiques, he maintains that Said focused his attention on the British and the French in his critique of Orientalism, while, in fact, 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. Another of Irwin's key points is that oriental scholarship or 'Orientalism' "owes more to Muslim scholarship than most Muslims realize."
Maya Jasanoff criticized the book in a review in the London Review of Books: "...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."
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.
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.
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.