Last night the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland was delighted to present the RAS Medal to Robert Irwin for his outstanding contribution to scholarship in the field of Asian Studies.
Robert was initially nominated for the Society’s Burton medal by RAS Librarian Dr Edward Weech. Given the scope and quality of Robert’s work, it was decided that the Society should rather award him the 2023 RAS Medal in recognition of his achievements. Below is Dr Weech’s original letter of recommendation for the Burton medal, which provides an overview of Robert’s life and work.
Robert Irwin is an outstanding historian and scholar of Arabic, whose academic work has done much to advance our understanding of the rich diversity of Arabic literary traditions. His scholarly engagement with Arabic and Islamic literature has been based not only on rigorous and extensive knowledge of primary sources, but also on deep personal experience of the living reality of the Arab and Islamic world.
Robert has published several influential academic works, most recently his well-received intellectual biography of Ibn Khaldun (Princeton University Press, 2018). But he has also done more than most scholars to advance the public awareness of Arabic culture within British society at large. Like Sir Richard Burton himself, Robert has inspired interest about Arabic history, language, and culture outside the academic community. With Allen Lane, he published an anthology of classical Arabian literature, as well as an authoritative introduction and new translation of the One Thousand and One Nights (also, famously, translated by Burton himself). This has been perhaps Robert’s single most prominent contribution to Anglophone literary culture. But he has also published numerous works of literary fiction in English engaging with places, themes, and situations from Arab history.
Robert’s sustained impact on intellectual life in Britain and beyond has been achieved not only through his scholarly and imaginative works, but also through his essays, reviews, and interviews. His persistent efforts to infuse an awareness of Arabic learning into the intellectual culture of the Anglosphere – during decades which often provided a challenging political climate – places him alongside courageous advocates of the merits of Asian learning in times past.
With his influential text For Lust of Knowing, Robert provided a robust and learned defence of the history of Oriental scholarship in the West. Besides advocating the merits and achievements of past Orientalist scholars (many of whom were associated with this Society), For Lust of Knowing also provided the most readable survey of the history of Orientalism which has been produced. This included a thorough analysis of the complexity and diversity of interests, motives, and outcomes among scholars in the past.
Where the establishment of his day was concerned, Burton earned the status of “outsider”, thanks to his criticisms of British colonial policy and his rejection of Victorian social mores. Like Burton, Robert Irwin has also been something of a maverick. While Robert has been an admired and respected teacher within academic institutions over many years, he has not had a typical academic career, completing much of his research and writing outside the modern academy. The RAS, as an independent institution uniquely invested in the history of Oriental studies, is perfectly placed to acknowledge Robert’s distinctive and singular achievements. These pertain, first and foremost, to our contemporary cultural life; but they are also deeply involved with the historical legacy of Oriental studies – a legacy with which the RAS, and Burton himself, are inextricably connected.
– Dr Edward Weech FRAS
Last night’s event can now be viewed on YouTube: