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New Texts Out Now: Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament

[Cover of Wael Hallaq, [Cover of Wael Hallaq, "The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament"]

Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.

[This is a special edition of NEWTON that coincides with the upcoming launch of Jadaliyya's Critical Currents of Islam page. CCI aims to engage with a range of topics related to Islam as it is interpreted, practiced, and contested in political, cultural, and economic arenas throughout the world. The page is a place for fresh and critical perspectives on many of the issues that have defined internal discussions within Muslim societies and a space for highlighting new directions and discussions.]

Jadaliyya (J):  What made you write this book?

Wael Hallaq (WH): When I was finishing my book Shari‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (published by Cambridge University Press in 2009), I realized that the two hundred pages I dedicated to the modern period in that book left a deficit in the coverage of the state. I had also realized that we scholars have not given due attention to the role of the state in fashioning our lives and world-views. We have taken the state for granted, as if it were almost a natural phenomenon. I became convinced that a whole book was needed to explain at least the relationship between the Shari‘a and the modern state, not only in terms of what the latter did to the former, but also to examine the general structural relationship between the two. I thought it was important to understand how the two systems—as methods of governance—worked.

So the initial motive behind my decision to write such a book was to articulate why the Shari‘a came to be restructured—indeed refashioned—at the hands of the modern state. I had already answered the question “how it was restructured,” in Part III of my long work Shari‘a. So I thought it more pertinent—and even more of an exciting scholarly project—if I were to frame my enquiry in terms of compatibility, rather than as a mere comparison. Since I already knew very well that the two systems were utterly incompatible, the remaining task was to frame my final question: Is an Islamic state possible? Such an approach, it seemed to me, would appeal to people’s concerns more directly. In light of the events in the Arab world today, the book couldn’t have been more timely.

J: Could you give us a brief overview of the main topics of the book?

WH: I have written two so-called introductory chapters with the aim of making clear what my language and terms mean throughout the book. These were not a matter of scholarly routine, but foundational to the arguments of my book. I discuss the doctrine of progress, nostalgia, and—very importantly—the theory of paradigm. Thus far, some readers have failed to reflect enough on the relationship between these two chapters and the rest of the book. For a proper understanding, these initial chapters should be read more closely so that the core concepts can be properly understood in the context of the material in the rest of the book.

Chapter three compares the constitutional structures of Islam, as they have operated throughout one thousand years of practice (until the advent of European colonialism), with those of Euro-America at present, concluding that the former system is more robust that the latter. This was not a difficult conclusion to reach, although it bears tremendous significance that is without doubt far-reaching (and, I want to emphasize, so relevant to any thinking in the midst of the current Arab uprisings). Chapter four argues that there are profound differences in the very legal, political, and moral concepts of what I call Islamic governance and its Shari‘a, on the one hand, and the modern state, on the other. In other words, they represent two very different conceptions and worldviews. Chapter five is central to my overall thesis, and argues that Islamic governance and the modern state produce two very different subjectivities, if not two different types of human beings. The next chapter deals with the capitalist and corporate challenges to any form of truly Islamic governance. In the final chapter, I provide concluding remarks drawn from moral philosophy and offer reflections on the need to create a particular dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and leaders (mainly Western) so as to consolidate their actions against the dominant but very destructive practices of modernity.

J: In which field or academic specialization does this book fall?

WH: It seems that some reviewers took the opening sentence in the book literally—and in a very limited way, fixating on it and refusing to see anything beyond it. There I wrote: “The argument of this book is fairly simple: The ‘Islamic state,’ judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both an impossibility and a contradiction in terms.” The book certainly takes this issue very seriously, and it would not have been written this way had the question been anything less than central and leading. In order to effectively engage this question, the book made other ancillary arguments. So the book has other rather important purposes (declared and undeclared), which made it necessary for me to engage in a variety of specializations and fields.

Therefore, I worked through three main fields and several subfields. The first is the field of law and its various sub-areas, ranging from studies on legal systems, legal philosophy, and legal theory, to constitutions and constitutionalism (incidentally, this latter issue commanded the whole of chapter three). The second field is politics, political theory, and political philosophy. As expected, such concepts as the citizen, nationalism, and the fictional character of the modern state were my core concerns. The third and last major field is philosophy in general and moral philosophy in particular. Here I combine the analysis of the political concepts of citizen and nationalism with the “technologies” that fashion the moral subject. The book is also partly informed by anthropology and sociology, two disciplines that I have been interested in for the last decade and a half.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

WH: There seems to be some misunderstanding on the part of certain scholars that I took a turn in my course of research and scholarly work when I published my book Shari‘a (and its twin, Introduction to Islamic Law) in 2009. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the same can be said of the Impossible State. These books simply expand the purview of my interests, which were, admittedly, geared toward the empirical and philological until 2005, and now have acquired a theoretical dimension that perhaps reflects a new need or a new goal in my intellectual quest. Having ploughed the discursive fields of the Islamic heritage for about three decades, it is time to harvest the implications of what I have learned with regard to the burning issues of today. The Impossible State therefore does not depart from my previous work, but merely expands it and gives it a more pronounced theoretical prop. I must emphasize that the substance of the prop was in existence nearly from the beginning, but it is becoming increasingly necessary to bring it out (or unleash it, if you will) for particular reasons.

J: What are these reasons?

WH: As I said, the book brings together and deals with at least three fields of enquiry: law, politics, and philosophy. The purpose of the Impossible State (which I also made abundantly clear) was to bring the Islamic intellectual and philosophical-ethical agenda to the table of Western academia, that is, to engage western scholars in a debate that would include issues so latent—but so vibrant—in Islamic culture and history, be it political, legal, or philosophical. And yet, this is not the whole story. The book is also an attempt to open up the door for a discussion about modernity and the modern condition. Any intelligent reader will realize this, although unfortunately—though not surprisingly—some legal scholars and other academicians have managed to miss the point.

So inasmuch as the book is about the impossibility of the Islamic state, it is also pronouncedly a sustained critique of modernity. And without theory, you simply cannot access scholars in the western fields of political theory, moral philosophy, and law. It is the only way you can get them interested, if at all. One must realize that even the leading figures of the Western intelligentsia (those whom we expect to have a wider scope of knowledge) not only know little about Islam and its intellectual, legal, political, or cultural heritage; they shy away from anything to do with it, as if Islam were an intellectual disease. This book is a modest attempt to change this situation. It is an attempt to challenge them, and to bring them out of their narrow intellectual holes.

Finally, and no less important, is the resounding message that the book is trying to convey: namely, when all things have been said and done, the native Islamic heritage provides as good an example and model for constructing forms of Islamic governance as any Western model, if not even better. While no one can bring back history and historical institutions and concepts (if this is even desirable at all), retrieving from history certain constructive values is certainly possible and desirable. As chapter three of the book shows, for example, the traditional Islamic model of the rule of law is far more convincing than the Euro-American one. The whole book offers similar insights with regard to aspects of moral and political philosophy.

J: So who are your intended readers, and what sort of impact would you like the book to have?

WH: Scholars in the fields of law, politics, and philosophy are the chief targets, but the book was written in a way so as to make it accessible to all those in the humanities and the social sciences (and even those thoughtful minds in the professional fields, who unfortunately are not very many).

As for the second part of your question, I must say that we come to an extraordinarily important point. I want to repeat that the book is primarily a critique of modernity, and tries to push the limits of our thinking about so many important things we seem to have taken for granted and thing we have left dormant. There is nothing I find more dangerous than the habituation of the mind, that is, when a state of affairs becomes normal and unquestioned just because we ceased to see, or refused to consider, anything else. The modern condition is unsustainable, and we will do well to start thinking about substitutes and structural solutions now. One of the offshoots of this vision is for Muslims to begin to think about governance—I mean political and legal governance—in their own, independent ways, instead of just blindly copying the Euro-American system. I am now thoroughly convinced that that system is bankrupt. As I have shown in the book, the fundamental constitutional structures of Euro-America are highly problematic and are unfit for any society that truly wants to accomplish good governance. It is a bit ironic that while many Euro-American thinkers and scholars are aware of their countries’ serious political and constitutional problems, the Muslim leadership in general (be it liberal or, often, Islamist) goes on assuming that the only viable model available lies in Euro-America. I think this is a grave mistake.

J:  What is it like to have the book published during a period of tremendous contention over the possibility and desirability of an Islamic State?   

WH: The book happened indeed to be very timely. In fact, it was noticed within a month from the date of its publication and was seized upon for translation into a number of languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Bahasa Indonesian, and of course Arabic (and now possibly Italian). The Arabic translation has been completed and is due to appear in print in several months. However, the timeliness may also be a disadvantage. We are obviously living through tumultuous times, and conflict and intense feelings are at a high pitch. Emotionalism and political outrage do not combine well with reading a book such as the one I have written. It requires what I call a “deep reading,” one that is consistent with the textures I have attempted to give it. This is not a political document, meaning that my solutions are not political in the common use of the term. This book is about rethinking alternatives. It is—if you will—about the very epistemology of rethinking. It challenges the reader to shed her or his comfortable assumptions that have become a matter of habituation (hence the importance of the first two chapters and their linkage to the rest of the book). In other words, reading the book properly requires intellectual courage. It is not for the fainthearted, because they are not likely to digest it.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

There are at least three projects (perhaps each will require a separate book) that continue the intellectual path I have started in the Impossible State. I do not wish to discuss all of them now, but I can say that at present I am writing a book on the Qur’an. In the first parts of the book I discuss and, in fact, attempt to rescue this founding Book from the clutches of Orientalist scholarship in the twentieth century. Yet, while doing so, I introduce various issues that prepare for the second major part of the book. In this part, I aim to situate the Qur’an within revisionist scholarship and postmodern thought. In a nutshell, I want to show through engaging—yet again—western moral philosophy and law that the Qur’an, when read properly, and consistently with the early MUFASSIRUN, is an eminently post-modern discourse. That is to say, while it faced serious obstacles in modernity, both at home and at the hands of the Orientalists, the Qur’an may be reasonably read as one of the most rational expressions of a post-modern condition, one that would avoid the paradigmatic and structural problems of the modern condition. So obviously the main argument in this book is not necessarily religious (whatever that means), but one that is exclusively committed to the bottom line of rational enquiry. I do not think this has been done before; hence my excitement about this project.

Excerpt from The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament

The proposition that a modern Islamic state is impossible and even a contradiction in terms contains at least two hidden questions that must be stated at the outset. First, if this state is inconceivable, then, one might ask, how did Muslims, having in the past commanded a great civilization and built many empires, rule themselves? What form of governance did they practice? And second, with this impossibility in mind, what type of political rule are Muslims presently adopting or likely to adopt in the future? The second part of the latter question, with the predictions it involves, is not integral to our argument and constitutes a separate field of enquiry for another book and decidedly another author. But the question also makes reference to the present, representing the culmination of nearly two centuries’ worth of history shot through with colonial rule and postcolonial nationalist reaction and continuity.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that the postcolonial nationalist elites maintained the structures of power they had inherited from the colonial experience and that, as a rule and after gaining so-called independence for their countries, they often aggressively pursued the very same colonial policies they had fiercely fought against during the colonial period.[1] They inherited from Europe a readymade nation-state (with its constitutive power structures) for which the existing social formations had not been adequately prepared. The paradigmatic concept of the citizen, without which no state can last, has been slow in coming,[2] and the political lacunae left after the collapse of the traditional structures have not been properly filled. The nation-state thus sits uncomfortably in the Muslim world, as evidenced in the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran, where the state apparatus has subordinated and disfigured Shari‘a’s norms of governance, leading to the failure of both Islamic governance and the modern state as political projects. Nor have the other Muslim countries fared any better, because the political organization they adopted from—and after—colonialism has been and remains authoritarian and oppressive and because their integration of Shari‘a as a mode of governance has hardly paid anything more than lip service to the original. The failure, in other words, has shown itself at nearly all levels.

We are therefore compelled to dismiss the modern experiment in the Muslim world as a massive political and legal failure from which no lessons can be positively learned as to how Muslims may govern themselves properly. Their states have not successfully met any serious challenge, while the “Shari‘a” that they often constitutionally enshrine as “a” or “the” source of law has proven, as I suggested elsewhere, institutionally dead and politically abused.[3] To take the present day call for a restored Shari‘a seriously, we cannot look at present-day legal and political practices as worthy of consideration, as a model or a discursive field that can instruct. The modern state in the Muslim world can hardly inspire, and its so-called Shari‘a is in shambles.[4] We therefore would do well to overlook the modern Islamic experiment with the Shari‘a, leaving it entirely out of consideration and focusing instead on what the Shari‘a meant for Muslims throughout the twelve centuries before the colonialist period, when it existed as a paradigmatic phenomenon. The Shari‘a practices of the modern states in Islamic countries are simply irrelevant to the arguments of this book and cannot—and thus must not—be invoked as a measure by which pre-modern paradigmatic Shari‘a is understood, evaluated, or judged.[5]

We are therefore left with the first question that we posed above. How did Muslims rule themselves during twelve centuries of pre-colonial history? If it is our argument that a modern Islamic state is impossible, then any such form of governance in pre-modern Islamic history must be deemed never to have existed; it would be a fortiori precluded as a conceptual possibility. This preclusion would rest on the obvious fact—whose implications we will discuss in the next chapter—that the modern state’s genealogy is exclusively European. For given the geographic, systemic, and epistemic genealogy of the modern state, then it could not have, ipso facto, been Islamic. But the preclusion is also determined by a non-historical consideration, namely, that there was a qualitative difference between even pre-modern prototypical “states” and pre-modern Islamic forms of governance. To see these Islamic forms, as some political scientists have,[6] as belonging to an indistinctly grouped constellation of pre-modern “states” is not only to engage in uneducated guesses but also to be unaware of the driving, paradigmatic forces that gave form and content to what we will henceforth call “Islamic Governance.”

The political, legal, and cultural struggles of today’s Muslims stem from a certain measure of dissonance between their moral and cultural aspirations, on the one hand, and the moral realities of a modern world, on the other—realities with which they must live but which were not of their own making. In one sense, the entirety of this book seeks to substantiate this claim. The West (by which I mean here mainly Euro-America) lives somewhat more comfortably in a present that locates itself within a historical process that has been of its own creation. It lives in an age dictated by the terms of the Enlightenment, the industrial and technological revolutions, modern science, nationalism, capitalism, and the American-French constitutional tradition, all of which, and much more, have been organically and internally grown products. The rest of the world has followed or, if not, has felt the pressure to do so. There is in effect no other history but that of Euro-America, not even pre-Enlightenment European history.[7] Minor segments of earlier history may have been rescued or “retrieved”—e.g., Greek “democracy,” Aristotle, the Magna Carta, etc.—but these remain subservient, if not instrumental, to the imperatives of the modern historical narrative and to the progress of “Western civilization.” Africa and Asia, in most cases, continue to struggle in order to catch up, in the process not only foregoing the privilege of drawing on their own traditions and historical experiences that shaped who they were and, partly, who they have become but also letting themselves be drawn into devastating wars, poverty, disease, and the destruction of their natural environment. Modernity, whose hegemonic discourse is determined by the institutions and intellectuals of the powerful modern West, has not offered a fair shake to two-thirds of world population, who have lost their history and, with it, their organic ways of existence.[8]

But this is not all. Even if we accept, for the sake of argument, the modernists’ claim that poverty, disease, and famine have been the lot of humanity since time immemorial, these same advocates of the virtues of the modern project must face two, possibly three, counter-claims. The first and least evincive of the three is that whereas poverty, famine, and disease were in pre-modernity mostly the work of nature and therefore could not be helped, they are nowadays mostly manmade.[9] Capitalism, industrialism, and the resultant destruction of natural habitat are not the work of nature; they are the effects of so-called “progress.” The second, a more secure counter-claim, is the modern fragmentation—within a system of state capitalism—of what were once organic and familial social structures.[10] There is no denying that the collapse of the traditional family and community has in part created the disenchanted, fragmented, and narcissistic individual, the subject of commentary by so many a modern thinker, sociologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher.[11] This collapse is integral to the modern project and is one that defines it in fundamental ways.[12] Third, and most importantly, there can be no question whatsoever of the disastrous effects of the modern project on the natural world we live in, an unprecedented project that is, in the strongest sense, the “Ultimate Measure of Man.” Perhaps there is nothing more damning of modern man and woman than this Project of Destruction. It is a disaster for which we must all be judged, not as a scientifically determined homo economicus or merely irresponsible consumers but as morally accountable beings.[13] The moral and other implications of this project are quintessentially epistemological, for they bear upon and interrogate our philosophies, sociologies, sciences, technologies, politics, and everything we do. To insist that this Project of Destruction be evaluated on a moral and ethical basis is to cut, in profound epistemological ways, through politics, economics, law, and much else.

None of these substantive counterarguments is inseparable from our constitution as moral subjects, and all three must, in the final analysis, rest on moral accountability. Therefore, and as we will see in the final chapter, ethical and moral human responsibility cannot, even by Enlightenment standards, and especially by their Islamic counterparts, be abdicated. On account of social injustice, social fragmentation, and the Project of Destruction, the modernists are left with little choice but to accept that if ethical human agency is to be retained, as the Enlightenment has preached and as the long history of Islam has insisted, then that agency did not—and could not—give rise to these three consequences in the pre-modern world. I say “could not,” because a proper definition of morality is not simply to treat a person—who is unknown to you and whom you are not likely to meet again—as you would treat yourself, but, more importantly, it is being unable to commit or refrain from committing an act, not because you intrinsically cannot but because you cannot live with—or cannot allow yourself to face—its consequences. This latter definition, widely neglected, sums up the problematic of the modern project and one that constituted the paradigm of the pre-modern world, including that of Islam. As we shall see in due course,[14] the relegation of the moral imperative to a secondary status and its being largely divorced from science, economics, law, and much else has been at the core of the modern project, leading us to promote or ignore poverty, social disintegration, and the deplorable destruction of the very earth that nourishes humankind, in terms of both material exploitation and value. And let us state the obvious, though it need not be stated: that in this project, the state has been a most significant player.[15]


[1] Hallaq, Shari‘a, 443-99. For an insightful analysis in this context, see Massad, Colonial Effects.

[2] An index of this is the absence in modern Islamic discourse of such conversations as those reflected in Balibar, “Subjection and Subjectivation.”

[3] Hallaq, “Can the Shari‘a Be Restored?”

[4] For a background and further readings on this issue, see Hallaq, Shari‘a, Part III.

[5] Such an approach as that of K. Vikør (“Sharia and the Nation State,” especially at 231-50) is precisely what this book tries hard to avoid.

[6] Hall and Ikenberry, State, 23-34; see also Gill’s critical commentary, Nature and Development, 184-91.

[7] Dawson, Making of Europe, 19.

[8] For a similar critique from a different angle, see Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake. See also Amin, Liberal Virus, 32 and passim.

[9] See, for instance, Stiglitz, Globalization and its Discontents.

[10] Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 144-208.

[11] On this, briefly, see chapter 5, section 1, below. See also Lasch, Minimal Self; Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 7-9, 171-74; Touraine, Critique of Modernity.

[12] Bourdieu, Practical Reason, 71. See also n. 21, Chapter 5, below.

[13] See, in this context, Bookchin and Foreman, Defending the Earth; Gorke, Death of Our Planet’s Species. See also n. 69, Chapter 2, below.

[14] Mainly in chapter 5, below, but also passim.

[15] Mann, “Has Globalization Ended…?” 489-90.

[Excerpted from The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, by Wael Hallaq, by permission of the author. © 2013 by Columbia University Press. For more information, or to buy this book, click here.]

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