By Natalie Fowler
Contributing Writer


The renowned French painter, Delacroix, traveled to Morocco in 1832 and produced a dearth of work depicting his findings. However, his descriptions were not entirely accurate, often depicting romantic scenes that bears an eerie resemblance to the imagination invoked by the ancient Eastern story, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In another example of romanticized artistic depictions of Eastern lands, Gauguin traveled to Tahiti in the late nineteenth century in search of exotic inspiration for his works. What he instead found was that Tahiti, being a French colony, had “been thoroughly Christianized. The women were not walking around half-naked. … They tended to be wearing … Christian missionary gowns” (Stamberg, 2011). In spite of his actual findings, Gauguin produced forty-four paintings of half-naked women in exotic, richly colored garb against the backdrop of native landscapes untouched by modernity. When art critics called him a “liar,” Gauguin admitted his fault. “I am a savage,” he wrote, “and civilized people suspect this” (Stamberg, 2011).

Later, Edward Said identified romantic but inaccurate imagery, such as Delacroix’s and Gauguin’s, as a larger phenomenon of artistic, philosophical, literary, scientific and religious depictions by the West of the East. He referred to this as “Orientalism.” With respect to this early repertoire of imagery, the West can largely be understood as Western Europe, and its history of commerce, travel, and colonization from roughly the 16th century forward. Conversely, the East, also known as the “Orient,” was primarily understood as what we today identify as Northern Africa, the Middle East, and the Asian continent. From the mid-20th century forward, North America in combination with Western Europe became classified as the West. Today, Orientalism is loosely understood to be the wealthy “first world” countries of the West depicting the less wealthy “third world” countries of the East as inferior, unchanging, and uncivilized.

Depictions by the West of the East took on positive or negative forms and varied based on the different motives of the Orientalist. For example, early Orientalist depictions stemmed from curiosity, religious agendas, commerce, travel interests, and appreciation of the past, to name a few (Curtis 39). Later Orientalist depictions were primarily associated with a political agenda that aimed to validate the West’s colonization of the East by assuming political, intellectual, cultural, and moral superiority (Said 12). According to Said, this repertoire of imagery “was quite consistent with itself, but actually had very little to do with the people they portrayed.” Some early Orientalists had never traveled to the Eastern regions they depicted, and those “who had actually been there… didn’t change their representation much” (Jhally). As was clear through Gauguin’s work, his interest in producing compelling artwork superseded his obligation to accurately depict Tahiti. It is likely some Orientalists, such as Delacroix, were unaware of the scope of inaccuracy in their Orientalist depictions.

In retrospect, the scope of Orientalist depictions has been magnificent. When Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, was published in 1978, it brought attention to reproductions of centuries of misrepresentation of the East. Orientalism has been translated into twenty-six different languages and is currently the book most widely read across academic disciplines (Jhally). Its publication has prompted a reconceptualization of the historical and current states of relations between the West and the East.

The West misrepresents the East as static, unchanging, and unhistorical. Additionally, through this repertoire of imagery, the East is exotic, romantic, and mysterious. As a result, cultures of the East are depicted as the ‘Other,’ effectively separating the West from the ‘rest.’ Such Orientalist depictions largely ‘Othered’ Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Beginning with the dearth of travelogues published by wealthy travelers and merchants during the sixteenth century, the West’s initial perceptions of Islam were shaped and further developed during the following centuries. As described above, Orientalist depictions varied based on differing agendas. ‘Othering’ of Islam was used for political and social ends at some times, and for scientific ends at other times. Leading up to the Enlightenment period, Montesquieu, the founder of political science, played a crucial role in shaping Western perceptions of the Koran, the Prophet, the Arab people, and the entire Orient (Curtis 78). Although Montesquieu’s depictions of the East were problematic, they represented a fundamental departure from prior Orientalists. Most importantly, Montesquieu’s approach to understanding other people was the first to apply Enlightenment principles of logic and reasoning in the analysis. In this way, he denigrated causal, unfounded interpretations of the ‘Other.’ Even though he is widely criticized for making casual, unfounded arguments, his approach embeds his analysis in a scientific methodology. This had two crucial effects. Firstly, it set a precedent for future social theorist, making a reasons-based methodology a necessity. Secondly, it ignited a debate among Enlightenment intellectuals about the relationship between science and philosophy. Thus, in spite of his reductionist analysis, Montesquieu’s Orientalism was a rupture in social theory, establishing an overall positive blueprint for future depictions of Islam and the Koran.

Early Orientalist Depictions of the Koran

As commerce and travel expanded during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, contact between Europeans and the Ottoman Empire shaped Western perceptions of Islam. A body of literature, primarily travelogues, provided Western readers with exotic, romantic notions of the Arabs. Additionally, early translations of the Koran played a key role in shaping Western perceptions of Islam. With the invention of the printing press in 1534, the translated Koran was widely distributed. However, these translations were largely inaccurate and vilified Islam. Martin Luther, the German Priest who initiated the Protestant Reformation, argued that the Koran should be read only for the purpose of better understanding the Christianity’s enemies (Rahimi). Similarly, the influential Italian priest, Ludovico Maracci, published a Latin translation of the Koran that depicted Muhammad as a false prophet and Islam as an evil religion that was simply another version of the Protestant faith (Loop 455-488).

George Sale’s translation of the Koran, commonly referred to as the Alcoran of Muhammed, was the first accurate depiction of Islam (Curtis, 33). In his introduction, Sale states that, “institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge… [and] it is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared,” harbor misconceptions of the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran (Sale, A2). Unlike previous Orientalist depictions, Sale argues that Muhammed was not a false profit, but was actually similar to the Israelite profits (Rahimi). Thus, Sale is the first to question negative portrayals of the Koran that pit Islam as the enemy of Christianity. Sale instead depicts Muhammad as a logical lawgiver and founder of an empire that spanned a “greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of” (Sale, A2). Additionally, Sale argued that expansion of Islam was not achieved “through the sword alone” (Sale, A2).

Montesquieu’s West and East Comparative Theory

In establishing principles of individual freedoms and original political ideals that later segued to 20th century democracies, Montesquieu relied heavily on a comparative political analysis of the East. He was the first intellectual to apply Enlightenment tools, such as reasoning, to an in-depth comparison of political, cultural, and religious models. After partaking in a three-year tour throughout Europe, he venerated travel as a necessary means for better understanding one’s own socio-political context by comparing it with those of others. Thus, his primary methodology for establishing these original theories was through a comparative analysis between Western and Eastern societies. For example, in The Spirit of Letters, Montesquieu correlates one’s climate to their socio-political identity, placing “humankind within an objective environment which acts upon the bodies of individuals” (Jones 41). With respect to the Orient, contemporary social, political, cultural, and religious positions of the West and the East were a result of their differing climates. This reductionist approach separated societies throughout the world into two opposing poles: the “West” and the “East,” “us” and “them.” In this analysis, everything Western was progressive, moral, and civilized. The cold climate of the West provided an environment to which the development of “moderate” and freer government was innate. Conversely, the East was exotic, immoral, politically apathetic, intellectually regressive, and uncivilized. The warm climate of the East was an environment in which the development of despotism was innate. To Montesquieu, the contemporary political, religious, and cultural structure of Western Europe in contrast to that of the East was proof of his theory. His casual argument advanced his Orientalist theories cyclically.

In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu states that “cold air constringes the extremities of the external fibres of the body; this increases their elasticity, and favors the return of the blood from the extremities to the heart. It constricts those very fibres; consequentially, it increases their force. On the contrary a warm air relaxes and lengthens the extremes of the fibres; of course it diminishes their force and elasticity (Montesquieu 242).” According to this argument, people in cold climates were more “vigorous,” “freer towards the heart,” “courageous,” “more frank, less suspicious,” more polite, and “cunning” (Montesquieu 244). Conversely, hot climates “enervate the body” making people slothful, politically apathetic, timid of their masters, fearful of their gods, apt to superstition, and “naturally cowardly” (Montesquieu 244). Montesquieu’s analysis relied on his empirical observations of the behavior and actions of people in different places. Overall, his assessment argued that “northern countries” were the way they were due to the cold weather. Conversely, “southern countries” were the way they were as a result of their warm climate.

This is the very first empirical or methodological analysis of climate-related human development. When read in its historical and cultural context, Montesquieu’s work can be seen as a progressive piece for its time. Earlier Orientalists depicted Eastern inferiority and stagnation as qualities innate in the individual and collective culture. Many depictions, such as Marraci’s, went further, vilifying the Eastern ‘Other’ as a threatening, uncivilized, enemy. Montesquieu’s theory represented a departure from the prior Orientalist depictions in two major ways. Firstly, he rejected unfounded assumptions that cultural superiority and inferiority were innate qualities. Instead, he asserted that inferior Eastern qualities were a product of the individual’s environment. If, for example, “northern people [were] transplanted into southern countries,” they would not have fared as well, or achieved as much (Montesquieu 244). In this way, the stagnation and backwardness of the Orient is depicted as a feature of the environment, not the people themselves. Secondly, his theory applied a scientific methodology. Although his approach was problematic, his mere application of a methodology set a crucial precedent: he established that social and political theories must be embedded within a scientific approach. Thus, unfounded observations, like Marraci’s, were demoted due to their lack of scientific support. In this way, Montesquieu’s explanation of Oriental inferiority was an improvement within the social and cultural context of his time. Furthermore, his specific depictions of Islam, the Koran, and Mohammad were more positive than prior Orientalist depictions, with the exception of Sale. However, the positive aspects of these depictions are limited, contentious, and even contradictory.

Montesquieu on Islam, Muhammad, and the Koran

Applying his climate-theory, Montesquieu considers the Koranic teachings within its geographic context. He maintains that the Islamic prohibition of alcoholic consumption was a “law of the climate,” because “in warm countries the relaxing of the fibres produce[d] a great evacuation of the liquids, but the solid parts [were] less transpired” (Montesquieu 252-253). In this way, Montesquieu depicts the Koran as a logical law for ruling people in warm climates; as such, he depicted Muhammad in a positive light.

Overall, Montesquieu depicts Muhammad not as a false prophet, but as a wise ruler. The following excerpt is particularly telling of Montesquieu’s perception of Mohammad and the Arabs:

Religion ought to produce many ways of reconciliation. The Arabs, a people addicted to robbery, are frequently guilty of doing injury and injustice. Muhammad enacted this law: “if any one forgives the blood of his brother, he may pursue the malefactor for damages and interest: but he who shall injure the wicked, after having received satisfaction, shall in the day of judgment, suffer the most grievous torments. (Montesquieu 131)

Unlike other Orientalists of the time, Montesquieu highlights not the violent despotism of Islam, but the logical nature of the law enacted by Islam. Additionally, he emphasized Mohammad’s sensible rule over the Arab people. But, at the same time, Montesquieu stated that the Arabs were “a people addicted to robbery.” Here, he grouped together the entire “Arab peoples” as one entity prone to all the same faults. In his depiction, the “Arab peoples” were associated with the violence, deception, and weakness of character. This is a highly potent example of Orientalist ‘Othering.’

Montesquieu’s vilification of the Arab people in tandem with his promotion of Mohammad as a logical leader has merely shifted the focus of Orientalism from Islam and Muhammad to the Arab people. In this way, all of the qualities of ‘Othering’ are still at-work; they simply shifted focus to the people. In Montesquieu’s depiction, Muhammad was only accepted because he was believed to be a logical leader, civilizing the backwards, villainous Arab ‘Other.’ Similarly, Montequieu accepted Islam as a sensible legal institution that tamed the Arabs. In this way, Muhammad and Islam were only acceptable insofar as they resembled the West and serve Western aims. In other words, they appeared to be more progressive, civilized, and logical. Thus, Islam and Muhammad resembled positive Western institutions and furthered Western aims of civilizing the East. In this, we clearly see the ethnocentricism of Orientalism: it was conceived by the West, about the East, in relation to the West. Intellectual thinkers at the time were utterly unable to conceive of the Orient in any accurate form because they could only think of it in relation to themselves. They could not understand it in its own proper cultural relativity.


Due to his accessible, relevant, and largely original writing, as well as his social and political clout, Montesquieu’s works were highly respected and received wide readership. However, this does not mean his works went unchallenged. Most prominent among his critics was Anquetil-Duperron, calling attention to specific factual inaccuracies and lack of clarity (Curtis 78).

Anquetil-Duperron was an avid linguist. Living in India from 1755 to 1761 he learned Persian, Sandskrit, Zend, Avestan, and Phalavi, and is renowned for first introducing Europe to Zoroastrian texts through his translations (“A.-H. Anquetil-Duperron”). He criticized Montesquieu’s reliance on early European travelogues and identified specific errors and misunderstandings in his work. Anquetil-Duperron maintained that Montesquieu’s accusations of pure arbitrary power were not justified (Curtis 64). He admitted the existence of tyranny and abuses of power in Eastern countries, but argued that this should not be described as despotism because in all systems there are abuses (Curtis 64). Additionally, Anquetil-Duperron argued Islam and the Koran actually contribute to restrains on despotic power in the East by establishing laws and moral codes that effectively engendered individual responsibilities.


Considering the context in which Montesquieu published his theories in comparative politics, it is unquestionable that he was an avant-garde intellectual, introducing cutting-edge ideas and calling into question the traditional relationship between science and philosophy. Montesquieu’s works were, in many ways, a response to scholars, intellectuals, and political and religious figures who preceded him. Conversely, his analysis ignited a dialogue among intellectuals who preceded him.

As described above, Orientalist depictions varied based on differing agendas. ‘Othering’ of Islam was used for political and social ends at some times, and for scientific ends at other times. However, what seems to be clear is that Islam and the Koran were portrayed most accurately when the interest of the Orientalist was rooted in portraying the East accurately. For example, both Sale and Anquetil-Duperron were prompted to travel extensively throughout the Eastern world and become fluent in Eastern languages. As a result, Sale’s translation of the Koran, and Anquetil-Duperron’s criticism of Montesquieu were primarily made to correcting prior inaccuracies by depicting the reality of Islam and the East. Contrarily, Montesquieu’s depictions of Islam, Muhammad, and the Koran were concern with accuracy, but his primary interest was establishing his socio-political climate theory as a viable explanation for differences between the West and the East. In his desire for accuracy, Montesquieu clearly established a more accurate and more positive depiction of Islam and Muhammad than those of other Orientalists at the time. Additionally, his application of a methodology to social analysis represented a rupture in science, as is clear by the ensuring debate among intellectuals, as well as the current existence of political science as an academic field. While Montesquieu’s depictions were a perfect illustration of Said’s Orientalism, his improved, positive depictions of Islam and Muhammad, as well as the precedent he established for future social theorists, cannot be denied.

Works Cited

“A.-H. Anquetil-Duperron.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 08 Aug. 2012.

Curtis, Michael. Orientalism and Islam: European Thinkers on Oriental Despotism in the Middle East and India. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 39. Print.

Jhally, Sut, dir. On Orientalism. Media Education Foundation, 1998. DVD. 8 Aug 2012.

Jones, Christopher. “Politicizing Travel and Climitazing Philosophy: Watsuji, Motesquieu and the European Tour.” Japan Forum. 14.1 (2002): 41. Print.

Loop, Jan. “Divine Poetry? Early Modern European Orientalists on The Beauty of the Koran.” Church History and Religious Culture. 89.4 (2009): 455-488. Print.

Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, translated by David Wallace Carrithers. The Spirit of Laws. Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 1943. 244. Print.

Rahe, Paul. “The Enlightenment Indicted: Rousseau’s Response to Montisquieu.” Journal of the Historical Society. 8.2 (2008): 273. Print.

Rahimi, Babak. “Islamic Texts.” Texts and Context: The Holy Book of Islam. University of California San Diego. CA, La Jolla. 24 February 2011. Lecture.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. 12. Print.

Sale, George. Koran: Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed, Tr. Into English Immediately From the Original Arabic; With Explanatory Notes, Taken From the Most Approved Commentators. To Which Is Prefixed a Preliminary Discourse. London: Printed by C. Ackers for J. Wilcox, 1734.

Stamberg, Susan. “Gauguin’s Tahitians Give the Wrong Impression.” National Public Radio. 15 March 2011: n. page. Web. 8 Aug. 2012.

Photo by Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology


  1. Montesquieu’s embrace of the climatological hypothesis to explain different outcomes across societies is fascinating. What is most interesting is that non-empirical versions of the climate hypothesis have been used for both racist (the popular 18th century attribution of the “Protestant work ethic” to the northern European climate by Social Darwinists) and non-racist (presumably Montesquieu, at least by historical standards; though I haven’t read him) for these different outcomes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

  You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

  You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

  You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

  You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s