Original by: Wael Hallaq
Reviewed by; Usaama al-Azami, Princeton University
To describe this book as revisionist is to gravely understate its ambition, and it certainly deserves a far more substantive engagement than this short review can hope to provide. The central contention of the work, starkly announced in its title, also forms the short first paragraph of the works introduction. Hallaq states (p. ix), “The argument of this book is fairly simple: The “Islamic State,” judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both impossibility and a contradiction in terms.” For him, the modern state, defined in detail in the second chapter of the work, is inherently antithetical to Islam’s moral universe.
A short introduction briefly outlines the argument and structure of the work and is followed by seven audacious and impressively learned chapters. The first chapter, “Premises,” introduces and defines some of Hallaq’s terminology, and pre-emptively responds to the accusation of “nostalgia” that is often leveled at projects of the sort that the author is embarking upon. Chapter 2, “The Modern State,” presents his definition of the modern state while acknowledging that “there are nearly as many ideas of what the state is as there are prominent scholars writing about it” (p. 20). He dismisses all this variety as mere perspectivism.
Chapter 3, “Separation of Powers,” argues that the modern nation-state does not actually uphold this doctrine in any real sense. Rather Hallaq avers that it is in effect more faithfully upheld by pre-modern “paradigmatic” manifestations of Islamic governance based on the Sharı‘a. The fourth chapter, “The Legal, the Political, and the Moral,” considers philosophically the relationship between law and morality in both the Islamic and the modern Western paradigms, and its implications for the state and society.
Chapter 5, “The Political Subject and Moral Technologies of the Self” uses the ideas of Foucault to explain how the modern state and Islamic governance engender contradictory subjectivities in their respective subjects. The latter part of this relatively long chapter briefly describes the technologies of the self that formed Muslim subjects over “the several centuries of middle Islam [. . .] overshadowed by Ghazalianism” (p. 129). The sixth and penultimate chapter, “Beleaguering Globalization and Moral Economy,” critiques the global capitalist order using resources from the Islamic tradition.
The concluding seventh chapter, “The Central Domain of the Moral,” reasserts the innumerable incompatibilities between the modern state and Islamic values, but suggests that “a way out” might be possible through Muslims’ engaging with Western philosophers who are also concerned with the malaise of modernity. In this work, Wael Hallaq, writing at what is probably his intellectual peak, offers us a bracing critique primarily of Western modernity, but also of the Islamist emulation of aspects of this modernity. In many ways, this is a very different monograph to those usually produced in Western Islamic studies—one with a normative outlook that is also incisively critical of the very academy in which it was produced. There is much I agree with in this work, but here I focus on some aspects I found particularly problematic.
Firstly, Hallaq’s substantive engagement with modern Muslim scholars, specifically from the Arab world, appears almost non-existent. One gets no sense as to the breadth and depth of the recent Muslim scholarly engagement with modernity from this work, or indeed Hallaq’s own familiarity with this engagement, with the exception of his citation of several works of a single Moroccan philosopher,Taha ‘Abd al-Rahman (b. 1944), in a solitary footnote (p. 175, n. 49). Even here, no specific pages from the philosopher’s works are cited, and his name does not make it to the index.
Some of the most important Islamist ‘ulama’ writing on Islamic political theory over the last three decades do not make an appearance in this work, despite Islamist bearing the brunt of Hallaq’s criticism directed at Muslims. There is no sign of Yusuf al-Qaradawı (b. 1926), perhaps the most influential Islamist scholar writing today; nor the Salafı ‘liberal’ theorist, Hakim al-Mutayrı (b. 1964); nor even the prolific Egyptian intellectuals ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Masırı (d. 2008), Tawfıq al-Shawı(d. 2009) and Muh·ammad ‘Umara (b. 1931) who have written extensively on the topics addressed in The Impossible State. Rather, Hallaq’s most substantive critiques seem to be directed at practitioners (e.g., pp. x-xi, 152) often in the form of popular Islamist activists, rather than the intellectuals and scholars they draw on.
His concerns are, perhaps, more meaningfully compared with those of the latter; and they would certainly make for more capable interlocutors. For political movements and parties like the Muslim Brothers, his highly theoretical critiques do very little to address their immediate needs. Nor are his practical proposals clear when he subjects them to rather withering criticism both explicitly and implicitly throughout this work. Under such circumstances, one wonders if in this, at times, normatively Islamic work he is advocating the placing of all Islamic political activism on hold until the appropriate theorization has been completed. If he is encouraging something more practical, it does not appear to me to be stated.
Hallaq is entirely fair to home in on the anachronistic use of the idea of the “state” (dawla) in the writings of Islamist activists characterizing the medieval Islamic polity (e.g., pp. 155, 172). But he completely ignores the fact that on some level these activists are merely trying to articulate a notion analogous to the one he intends when he uses the expression “Islamic governance” throughout his work. Of course, the activists do this in a manner that is admittedly simple-minded when compared to an Ivy League professor, but that is not their fault. Quentin Skinner has shown in his perceptive “A Genealogy of the Modern State” that the historically contentious term, “state,” only came to be used in the everyday sense we are familiar with in recent centuries. But modern historians routinely speak of city states from antiquity and states from the medieval era; and it is difficult to fault them for it until scholars like Skinner and Hallaq enrich our discussions with their insights, and provide alternative terminologies. As with ex post facto laws, it seems entirely unfair to judge earlier scholars too harshly based on the findings of later ones.
This would seem to apply a fortiori to non-academics like H· asan al-Banna(d.1949), or later people who, like the present-day Salafı al-Nur party (p. 172), have very little likelihood of being able to benefit from these Western academic insights.
On a slightly different note, while this work is a trenchant critique of modernity, at times Hallaq appears to present a somewhat idealized picture of Islamic history and pre-modern Islamic governance that would seem more plausible if it were backed up with more substantial citations (e.g., pp. 69–70, 161, 175 n. 43). While he briefly acknowledges that this history was not perfect (pp. 11, 70), the near idealization may lead to it appearing less convincing to the skeptical reader than it otherwise might.
Additionally, on occasion, his seemingly normative idealization of the pre-modern Islamic order seems to limit or even delegitimize the possibilities of innovative Muslim ijtiha¯d in corresponding arenas in our own day. Whether one agrees with him or not, with the publication of this work, no scholar in the fields of Islamic governance, Islamic political theory, or even Islamic modernity can afford to write without situating themselves vis-à-vis Hallaq’s Impossible State.
But this ambitious work of comparative political theory and intellectual history truly deserves a wider readership and critique. Taking aim squarely at Euro-American modernity, and written by one of the most respected Western scholars of Islamic law, the wide-ranging critiques in this work deserve the attention and response of leading scholars, both Western and Middle Eastern, on intellectual history and moral and political philosophy.
It may be argued that a classic is not a work that presents irrefutable arguments with incontestable clarity, but rather one that boldly states a thesis, often in a revisionist manner, that necessarily forces all the participants in a discursive field to reassess their assumptions, and tread more carefully over the academic terrain concerned. Such was the effect of extremely controversial works like Said’s Orientalism, and Cook and Crone’s Hagarism. Though their bold theses have tended to be considerably qualified by subsequent scholarship — more in the case of the latter than the former — these works inaugurated new debates where previously there were but limited, and often incoherent, murmurings.
Hallaq, in The Impossible State, brings his considerable erudition and scholarly versatility to bear upon this subject with remarkable audacity of a kind rarely seen in the field of Islamic studies. A translation of the work into Arabic would doubtless give rise to considerable debate in that language, and given the work’s normative tone, that is perhaps where some of Hallaq’s most interesting interlocutors may be found.
Hallaq may have had this in mind since, unlike his last work, here he uses the first person plural pronoun “we” whenever he refers to his own views on a given matter. Although this seems jarring to my Anglo-American academic sensibilities, it is entirely in keeping with the conventions of Arabic scholarly writing. Certainly the contribution of this work would raise the bar of theoretical and philosophical sophistication in the intellectual discourse on Islamic governance in modern Arabophone scholarship, and I can only hope that the work is indeed translated into the language.
Another review by Lama Abu Odeh of George Town University