Robert Irwin, Arabist scholar and novelist who took on Edward Said and became a dervish – obituary

Robert Irwin in 2008
Robert Irwin in 2008 - Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto

Robert Irwin, who has died aged 77, was a distinguished scholar of the history and literature of the Islamic world, an acclaimed novelist, author of a withering critique of the Edward Said school of “Orientalism” – and one-time whirling dervish.

Irwin published scholarly and readable studies of Islamic history and other books on Near Eastern subjects, as well as literary anthologies. In For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (2006) he put decades of learning to good use in a scrupulous and detailed demolition of the theories propounded by Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism – “a work of malignant charlatanry” according to Irwin.

Said, the doyen of Arab-American intellectuals and post-colonial studies, argued that the long tradition of Western scholarship about the Orient (especially the Islamic world), was essentially ideological, and that the ideology was the imperialism and racism of the colonial powers – above all, Britain and France.

Western scholarship about the Orient was imperialist not just overtly, but tacitly: even the most seemingly disinterested antiquarian researcher – a linguist classifying Hittite verbs or elucidating obscure texts in classical Arabic or Persian – was compromised by the imperialist will to control and reduce the conquered to patronising stereotypes. “As a cultural apparatus, Orientalism is all aggression, activity, judgment, will-to-truth, and knowledge,” Said maintained.

Irwin was not on a vendetta (“I have no significant disagreements with what Said has written about Palestine, Israel, Kipling’s Kim, or Glenn Gould’s piano-playing”), but his book was devastating in its defence of the centuries of careful scholarship that Said denounced.

Irwin's book in which he took on Edward Said
Irwin's book in which he took on Edward Said

As Irwin showed, there were many Orientalists, with many different worldviews. Indeed, historically, there had been “a marked tendency for Orientalists to be anti-imperialists, as their enthusiasm for Arab or Persian or Turkish culture often went hand in hand with a dislike of seeing those people defeated and dominated by the Italians, Russians, British, or French”. What is more, much of what Said castigated had its origins in Muslim scholarship. “Said,” Irwin wrote, “libelled generations of scholars who were for the most part good and honourable men.”

In 2011 Irwin published a candid memoir, Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties, in which he introduced his nascent interest in Islam in an arresting opening line: “It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to be a Muslim saint”.

Robert Graham Irwin was born on August 23 1946 in Guildford, the son of Joseph Irwin, a psychiatrist and superintendent at Holloway Sanatorium, and Wilhelmina. He was educated at Epsom College, by his account an austere and oppressive institution which he said “destroyed” his childhood, with its ritualised beatings, bullying, tribalism and general privations (“lack of privacy on the toilet, bad food”).

There the “torpid, joyless” tedium of chapel every morning (and twice on Sundays) fuelled his quest for “the Meaning of Life”, reading sci-fi and works on Zen Buddhism, which he understood as “a religion for atheists” with the added attraction of exoticism.

His search continued at Merton College, Oxford, where he won a scholarship to read modern history and arrived in 1964. “I was pale and thin and my hands shook from unfocused intensity,” he recalled. He was also “lonely, unconfident, sex-starved and somewhat mad”.

Satan Wants Me (2007) was described as 'Adrian Mole amongst the satanists'
Satan Wants Me (2007) was described as 'Adrian Mole amongst the satanists'

The Sixties were starting to swing, but Irwin never felt part of the “scene”: “To be really part of it, one had to be young, beautiful and successful. I was only young... Mostly I stood outside the gates of Paradise looking in.”

Later he was to satirise the whackier side of the decade, including “amphetamines, weird sex and devil-worship”, in the novel Satan Wants Me (2007), which takes the form of apprentice sorcerer Peter’s diary detailing his attempts to find a virgin to seduce and sacrifice. The FT’s critic described it as “Adrian Mole amongst the satanists” and Channel 4 bought the film rights, but sadly the movie was never made.

In his continuing search for enlightenment, Irwin dabbled in yoga and existentialism, wrote bad poetry, read Jack Kerouac, joined the university Buddhist Society (which he found more interested in anarchism and drugs), spent hours on the floor of his room trying to get his “astral self” to lift itself out of his physical body, and spent a night walking barefoot round the college quad reciting “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” – “until the dawn chorus, when I went to bed unenlightened and unimproved”.

Much of his time, however, was spent “hunched by a two-bar electric fire with a mug of instant coffee”, he said. “I was lonely and fearful and also bored.”

A turning point came during his first long vacation when, instead of following the psychedelic hippie trail to Tan­gier, Formentera or Kathmandu, he hitchhiked across North Africa to Algeria, where a military coup was taking place, and pitched up on the doorstep of a zawiya (a kind of Sufi monastery) in the port city of Mostaganem. There, he followed an austere discipline under the direction of a Sufi master. He converted to Islam and was initiated as a faqir in the Alawi Order.

Irwin's fable about the rise to stardom of an actress during the Nazi era
Irwin's fable about the rise to stardom of an actress during the Nazi era

Through engaging in wild communal dancing and chanting ritual litanies, he experienced “ecstasies” – “like being eaten out from the inside” – and such marvels as being able to see fellow believers before they reached his room, watching a small bird vanish into a wall and observing smoke rising from his hands as he clapped out the beat of a dance.

Back in England, he continued to drift well into his thirties, “possessed by a horrible energy, but going nowhere”. To the accompaniment of Velvet Underground and Donovan, he experimented with amphetamines and LSD, read RD Laing, dabbled in the occult and sought wisdom at the feet of assorted gurus and charlatans.

He enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to learn classical Arabic then struggled for years with a doctoral thesis on the Mamluk reconquest of the Crusader states that he never finished.

He never renounced the belief that it was at Mostaganem that he had “found the truth” and he remained grateful to Sufism for nourishing the spiritual side of his life. But he found that, as he grew older, “the world seemed to become more solid” under “the vast gravitational pull of every day, of work, of marriage”.

In 1972 he became a lecturer in medieval history at the University of St Andrews, but in 1977 gave up academic life to write fiction, while continuing to lecture part-time at Oxford, Cambridge and SOAS.

The opening line of Irwin's candid memoir reads: 'It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to be a Muslim saint'
The opening line of Irwin's candid memoir reads: 'It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided I wanted to be a Muslim saint'

His first novel, The Arabian Nightmare (its title a take on The Arabian Nights), was a convoluted tale chronicling the trials of Balian of Norwich, a spy for the French king sent to Mamluk Cairo in 1486, as he drifts ever deeper into the complexities of a city choked with magicians, courtesans, thieves, beggars and bards and such characters as Yoll the Storyteller, Fatima the Deathly and the Father of Cats.

Balian descends into the horrors of a dream-filled existence and is haunted, in particular, by the “Arabian Nightmare” – a condition no one can be conscious of while awake, but which subjects the dreamer to an infinity of suffering.

Several British publishers turned down the manuscript before Irwin founded a small firm with some colleagues called Dedalus to launch the book in 1983. It rapidly became a cult classic and Viking took notice, picking up his second novel, The Limits of Vision (1986), and releasing it in Britain and in America.

It was also at about this time that Irwin took up roller-skating, explaining that Freud had once said that the only pleasure in life comes from “fulfilling in adulthood the desires one wasn’t able to satisfy as a child… In my case it is roller-skating, easily the most delightful discovery since sex.”

In the late 1990s, when the Right-wing historian David Irving was interviewed on television, propounding his revisionist views about the Nazi era, a bearded figure stole the show by roller-skating across the background, waving two fingers at the goings-on in front. “Frankly, I’m rather a good skater,” Irwin explained. “TV crews often film me.”

He also became a fellow of the London Institute of Pataphysics, dedicated to what has been described as “the science of imaginary solutions”.

Irwin went on to write another eight novels, all, he claimed “about madness of one kind or another – obsession, delusion, drunkenness”. AS Byatt praised him as an author who “in some countries would be taught as their major writer”.

At the same time he carved out an interlinked career in Arabic studies, beginning with The Middle East in the Middle Ages: the Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250–1382 (1986). The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994), was a tour de force of scholarship in which he discussed the mysteries surrounding its origins, the history of its translations, what it reveals about medieval Arab life, how people have interpreted the tales and their influence on western literature.

Other books included The Arabic Beast Fable (1992); Islamic Art (1997); Night and Horses and the Desert: The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature (1999); The Alhambra (2004); Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights (2011) and Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography (2018).

In later life Irwin was a research associate at SOAS and the Middle East editor of The Times Literary Supplement.

In 1972 he married Helen Taylor, later Principal Clerk (Clerk of Committees) at the House of Commons, to whom he dedicated his memoir of the 1960s as the person “who rescued me from myself”. She survives him with their daughter.

Robert Irwin, born August 23 1946, died June 28 2024