The rise of Islam and Muslim conquests in the seventh century established a sharp opposition, or even a sense of polarity, between medieval European Christendom and the medieval Islamic world (which stretched from the Middle East and Central Asia to North Africa and Andalusia). During the Middle Ages, Muslims were considered the "alien" enemies of Christendom. Popular medieval European knowledge of cultures farther to the East was poor, dependent on the wildly fictionalised travels of Sir John Mandeville and legends of Prester John, although the equally famous, and much longer, account by Marco Polo was a good deal more accurate.
Scholarly work was initially very largely linguistic in nature, with primarily a religious focus on understanding both Biblical Hebrew and languages like Syriac with early Christian literature, but also from a wish to understand Greek and Arabic works on medicine, philosophy and science. This effort existed sporadically throughout the Middle Ages, and the "Renaissance of the 12th century" witnessed a particular growth in translations of Arabic texts into Latin, with figures like Constantine the African, who translated 37 books, mostly medical texts, from Arabic to Latin, and Herman of Carinthia, one of the translators of the Qur'an. The earliest translation of the Qur'an into Latin was completed in 1143, although little use was made of it until it was printed in 1543, after which it was translated into other European languages. Gerard of Cremona and others based themselves in Al-Andaluz to take advantage of the Arabic libraries and scholars there. Later, with the Christian Reconquista in full progress, such contacts became rarer in Spain.
There was vague but increasing knowledge of the complex civilizations extant in China and India, from which luxury goods (notably cotton and silk textiles as well as ceramics) were imported. Although the Crusades produced relatively little in the way of scholarly interchange, the eruption of the Mongol Empire had strategic implications for both the Crusader kingdoms and Europe itself, and led to extended diplomatic contacts. From the Age of Exploration, European interest in mapping Asia, and especially the sea-routes, became intense, though mostly pursued outside the universities. As European exploration and colonisation occurred, the distinction between illiterate peoples (i.e. in sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas) and the literate cultures of the East became entrenched.
University Oriental studies became systematic during the Renaissance, with the linguistic and religious aspects initially continuing to dominate. There was also a political dimension, as translations for diplomatic purposes were needed, even before the West engaged actively with the East beyond the Ottoman Empire. A landmark was the publication in Spain in 1514 of the first Polyglot Bible, containing the complete existing texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as Greek and Latin. At Cambridge University there has been a Regius Professor of Hebrew since 1540 (the fifth oldest regular chair there), and the chair in Arabic was founded in about 1643. Oxford followed for Hebrew in 1546 (both chairs were established by Henry VIII). Distinguished scholars included Edmund Castell, who published his Lexicon Heptaglotton Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Samaritanum, Aethiopicum, Arabicum, et Persicum in 1669, whilst some scholars like Edward Pococke had travelled to the East and wrote also on the modern history and society of Eastern peoples. The University of Salamanca had Professors of Oriental Languages from at least the 1570s. In France, Colbert initiated a training programme for "Les Jeunes de langues", young linguists with the diplomatic service, like François Pétis de la Croix, who like his father and his son served as Arabic interpreter to the King. Study of the Far East was pioneered by missionaries, especially Matteo Ricci and others in the Jesuit China missions, and missionary motives were to remain important, at least in linguistic studies.
During the eighteenth century Western scholars reached a reasonable basic level of understanding of the geography and most of the history of the region, though knowledge of the areas least accessible to Western travellers, like Japan and Tibet, and their languages, remained limited. Enlightenment thinkers characterised aspects of the pagan East as superior to the Christian West, in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes or Voltaire's ironic promotion of Zoroastrianism; others, like Edward Gibbon, praised the relative religious tolerance of the Islamic East as opposed to the intolerant Christian West, and many, including Diderot and Voltaire, the high social status of scholarship in Mandarin China.
The end of the century saw the beginnings in the great increase in study of the archaeology of the period, which was to be an ever-more important aspect of the field through the next century. Egyptology led the way, and as with many other ancient cultures, provided the linguists with new material for decypherment and study.
With a great increase in knowledge of Asia among Western specialists, increasing political and economic involvement in the region, and in particular the realisation of the existence of close relations between Indian and European languages, by William Jones, there emerged more complex intellectual connections between the early history of Eastern and Western cultures. Some of these developments occurred in the context of Franco–British rivalry for control of India. Liberal economists, such as James Mill, denigrated Eastern civilizations as static and corrupt. Karl Marx characterised the Asiatic mode of production as unchanging, because of the economic narrowness of village economies and the State's role in production. Oriental despotism was generally regarded in Europe as a major factor in the relative failure ro progress of Eastern societies. The study of Islam was central to the field since the majority of people living in the geographical area termed 'the Orient' were Muslims. Interest in understanding Islam was partly fuelled by economic considerations of growing trade in the Mediterranean region and the changing cultural and intellectual climate of the time.
In the course of the century Western archaeology spread across the Middle East and Asia, with spectacular results. The new national museums provided a setting for the finds, most of which were in this period bought back to Europe, and put Orientalists in the public spotlight as never before.
The first, serious European studies of Buddhism and Hinduism were by scholars Eugene Burnouf and Max Müller. In that time, the academic study of Islam also developed, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, Oriental Studies was a well-established academic discipline in most European counties, especially those with imperial interests in the region. Yet, while scholastic study expanded, so did racist attitudes and stereotypes of "inscrutable", "wily" Orientals. Scholarship often was intertwined with prejudicial racist and religious presumptions, to which the new biological sciences tended to contribute until the middle of the following century.
Symbolic of this type of response to the end of the Cold War was the popularisation of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis. This particular idea of a fundamental conflict between East and West was first advanced by Bernard Lewis in an article entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage", written in 1990. Again, this was seen as a way of accounting for new forms and lines of division in post-Cold War international society. The 'clash of civilisations' approach involved another characteristic of Orientalist thought; namely, the tendency to see the region as being one, homogenous 'civilisation', rather than as comprising various different and diverse cultures and strands. It was an idea that was taken on more famously by Samuel Huntington in his 1993 article in Foreign Affairs, called "The Clash of Civilisations?".
The term Orientalism has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters and is interpreted to refer to the study of the East by Westerners shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. When used in this sense, it often implies prejudiced, outsider-caricatured interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples. This viewpoint was most famously articulated and propagated by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978), a critical history of this scholarly tradition. In contrast, the term has also been used by some modern scholars to refer to writers of the Imperialist era who had pro-Eastern attitudes, as opposed to those who saw nothing of value in non-Western cultures.
Like the term Orient, Orientalism derives from the Latin word oriens (rising) and, equally likely, from the Greek word ('he'oros', the direction of the rising sun). "Orient" is the opposite of Occident. In terms of The Old World, Europe was considered The Occident (The West), and its farthest-known extreme The Orient (The East). Dating from the Roman Empire until the Middle Ages, what is now, in the West, considered 'the Middle East' was then considered 'the Orient'. However, use of the various terms and senses derived from "Orient" has greatly declined in the twentieth century, not least as trans-Pacific links between Asia and America have grown; nowadays, Asia usually arrives at the USA from the West.
In most North American universities, Oriental Studies has now been replaced by Asian Studies localised to specific regions, such as, Middle Eastern or Near Eastern Studies, South Asian studies, and East Asian Studies. This reflects the fact that the Orient is not a single, monolithic region but rather a broad area encompassing multiple civilisations. The generic concept of Oriental Studies, to its opponents, has lost any use it may have once had and is perceived as obstructing changes in departmental structures to reflect actual patterns of modern scholarship. In many universities, like Chicago, the faculties and institutions have divided; the Biblical languages may be linked with theological institutes, and the study of ancient civilisations in the region may come under a different faculty to studies of modern periods.
In 2007 the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Cambridge University was renamed the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, but Oxford still has its Faculty for Oriental Studies, as do Chicago, Rome, London (covering African studies also), and other universities. Various explanations for the change to "Asian studies" are offered; a growing number of professional scholars and students of Asian Studies are themselves Asian or from groups of Asian origin (like Asian Americans). This change of labelling may be correlated in some cases to the fact that sensitivity to the term "Oriental" has been heightened in a more politically correct atmosphere, although it began earlier: Bernard Lewis' own department at Princeton University was renamed a decade before Said wrote his book, a detail that Said gets wrong. By some, the term "Oriental" has come to be thought offensive to non-Westerners. Area studies that incorporate not only philological pursuits but identity politics may also account for the hestitation to use the term "Oriental".
Supporters of "Oriental Studies" counter that the term "Asian" is just as encompassing as "Oriental," and may well have originally had the same meaning, were it derived from an Akkadian word for "East" (a more common derivation is from one or both of two Anatolian proper names.). Replacing one word with another is to confuse historically objectional opinions about the East with the concept of "the East" itself. The terms Oriental/Eastern and Occidental/Western are both inclusive concepts that usefully identify large-scale cultural differences. Such general concepts do not preclude or deny more specific ones.