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Knowledge as Politics by Other Means: An Interview with Wael Hallaq (Part One)

[Wael Hallaq.] [Wael Hallaq.]

Throughout the last three decades, Wael Hallaq has emerged as one of the leading scholars of Islamic law in Western academia. He has made major contributions not only to the study of the theory and practice of Islamic law, but to the development of a methodology through which Islamic scholars have been able to confront challenges facing the Islamic legal tradition. Hallaq is thus uniquely placed to address broader questions concerning the moral and intellectual foundations of competing modern projects. With his most recent work, The Impossible StateHallaq lays bare the power dynamics and political processes at the root of phenomena that are otherwise often examined purely through the lens of the legal. In this interview, the first of a two-part series with him, Hallaq expands upon some of the implications of those arguments and the challenges they pose for the future of intellectual engagements across various traditions. In particular, he addresses the failure of Western intellectuals to engage with scholars in Islamic societies as well as the intellectual and structural challenges facing Muslim scholars. Hallaq also critiques the underlying hegemonic project of Western liberalism and the uncritical adoption of it by some Muslim thinkers.

Hasan Azad (HA): One of the debates raging nowadays has been about the inattention that Muslim intellectuals receive in the West. One can say that, with relatively minor exceptions, the modern Muslim presence in, or contribution to, the intellectual world of the West is near nil. In the closing pages of your Impossible State, you have pointed out that a robust intellectual engagement between Muslim thinkers and their Western counterparts is essential, not only for the sake of better Western understanding of Islam, but also for the sake of enlarging the scope of intellectual possibilities in the midst of Euro-American thought. Your argument, I believe, meant to convey the idea that there is much that the Islamic worldview and heritage can contribute toward enriching our reflections on the modern project, in the West no less than in the East. What is that contribution, and why is it not happening? What are the obstacles standing in the way?

Wael Hallaq (WA): To speak of the potential contributions of Islam to a critique and restructuring of the modern project is a tall order, one that should come subsequent to a diagnosis of the present modern condition and its causes. The obstacles you alluded to are numerous and multilayered, and originate in both sides of the divide. If there are any failings—and there are many indeed—they cannot be located on one side only. The first, and most obvious of course, is the linguistic obstacle, the only means to communicating ideas. The West (by which I here mean Europe, its Enlightenment, distinctively modern institutions and culture and the spread of all these mainly to North America), has seen it sufficient to consider its two or three major languages so universal as not to care to learn other languages well, if at all. Even Orientalism, as an academic discipline, has not been successful in producing sustained command of Islamic languages, despite the fact that it did produce individuals whose linguistic competence even in more than one Islamic language was no less than masterful. It remains the case however that those who can navigate an Islamic language or text are a miniscule—in fact insignificant—minority in Western societies.

But there is a larger sense to Orientalism involved here. In many ways, the field of Orientalism is surrounded by an outer, immensely extensive layer; that is, countless numbers of influential voices who really never bothered to do any of the hard intellectual and philological work on Islam; yet, they feel quite justified and confident to pronounce on the “Orient,” both within the classrooms of academia or as so-called “experts” in mass media. This “peripheral” Orientalism usually escapes our common definitions of that discipline, but it forms the bulk of common and popular Western knowledge about the rest of the world, especially Islam. In any case, this is roughly the linguistic obstacle.

HA: Would you say that this is a technical obstacle, one of logistics and of overcoming linguistic-pedagogical venues of transmitting ideas?

WH: It may begin as a technical issue of course, but in reality it is much more than that. Accessing another culture through language is a choice, which Western powers and their intellectual elites effectively exercised at one point in the service of their colonial causes. Here, accessing the Islamic languages did not constitute a major difficulty, much less a technical one. Colonialism required the production of classical orientalism, for without the former the latter would not have come into existence in the way and shape it has finally acquired and continues to develop. In the same vein, failure to access a language is fundamentally a substantive matter, not strictly a technical one. For example, my decision to write in English and not Indian or Chinese–if that is my decision at all–is a complex substantive matter that ties in directly to the relationship between power and knowledge, between my background as a colonized subject and the makers of that colonial history. And there is nothing more telling about the substantive complexity of the issue of language than the Western university professor who reproduces “Islam” without feeling the need to understand “it” through a close textual, sociological, or–among others–anthropological study of that phenomenon. And all of these academic endeavors, to be genuinely engaged, require a decent command of one or another Islamic language, even speaking and living it. This professor’s choice not to bother with any of these requirements (which seem to be taken for granted in nearly any other context) is a matter to do with the constitution and structure of power, not with mere personal incompetence to master a language.

HA: What would be another central obstacle?

WH: Another very important obstacle to note is that, with rare exceptions, Muslim thinkers begin with fundamentally different premises from those that Western writers start from, however much they consciously or unconsciously emulate Western thought and philosophical writing. Even the “utilitarianists” or “quasi-utilitarianists” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–the likes of Muhammad Abduh and especially Rashid Rida–thought in a framework that assumed as a starting point two things: (a) a religious context from which they can talk, and which defines the limits, if not contours, of their narratives, and (b) a historical context or, more precisely, a substantive frame of history that continues to be a source of authority for legitimating forms of modern life. And when I say “history” or “historical” here, I mean a fairly committed historical engagement that calls upon many bygone centuries as a source of knowledge and guidance, trying to retrieve from this history, or through it, an interpretation that conforms to living in the modern world (this of course entailed considerable problems that I hope I can address later). Or, one could put it differently and say that little in the way of engaging with the modern could be accomplished without bringing that history and those religious texts to bear on a particular–very particular–interpretation, namely, that which is specifically modern. And these two interconnected commitments–the religious one in particular–stood and continue to stand in violation of a sacred principle in the modern Western intellectual milieu (and I use “sacred” advisedly). To be taken seriously in this intellectual milieu of ours today, you cannot presuppose–as your founding premise–a traditional metaphysic, however intellectually sophisticated it may be, and no matter the extent to which it endorses liberal doctrines and practices (if any, this will involve you in compounded problems). And even if you attempt so much (as some surely have done), your argument would have no hearing unless it is seriously subjected to the discursive terms of a “secular-rationalist” narrative. The natural law defenders in today’s West are an excellent case in point, but this particular lot faces relatively fewer and less substantial obstacles than their Muslim counterparts.

Second, the Enlightenment concept of history (one with which we continue to live today), though itself still deeply historical, paradoxically denies certain aspects of history. For example, there is a contradiction within the Western theory of progress itself–of invoking a particular brand of history while simultaneously pitting itself against, if not undermining, what we call today traditional history (which the Enlightenment and its progress theory created in the first place!). So history has always been a problematic issue in a modernity that insists on the paradigmatic adoption of a theory of progress. The Muslim intellectual elite, on the other hand, has only recently begun to relate to the deeper significations of this worldview, which–in the particular way it has been done–is not, in my opinion, a welcome step. The concept of progress itself is a deeply problematic one, and Muslim intellectuals and historians alike have not been able so far to dissect its inner ideological structures. And we can see the effects of this failure in at least one important sphere. During the past two or three decades, a new trend has emerged in the Muslim world that tends to condemn Islamic history as “dark and abusive,” replicating almost exactly the European narrative of condemning the violations of the Catholic Church and monarchical absolutism. The trend (almost entirely ignorant of its own intellectual heritage and history) began to show faint signs early on in the twentieth century, but it did not gain momentum until more than half a century later. Like much of liberal values and doctrines, with which the theory of progress organically coalesced, it took some time to internalize them into what has become a “native discourse.” Although the historical worlds of diverse and multifaceted Islam and Europe could not have been more different, “Islamic history” is gradually beginning to look like the European dark ages. As histories of oppression and of political and “legal” abuse, they, unsurprisingly, emerge as a near identity. Perhaps a little later I will explain how this plays out regarding the subject of our concern. 

Nonetheless, the insistence on historical and religious narratives as constituting a legitimized and legitimizing tradition remains the fundamental feature that continues to separate and pit apart the Western-Enlightenment thinkers from their Muslim counterparts (not to mention the notorious epistemic, political, and ideological difficulties to which this feature has given rise). The former declare (perceived) abstracted “reason” as the tool of human guidance par excellence, whereas the latter, even the most liberal amongst them, invoke that historico-religious narrative at nearly every turn, even when they condemn it. Just consider the likes of Muhammad Arkoun, M. Abed al-Jabiri, Ali Harb, Hasan Hanafi, Muhammad Shahrur, even the Christian George Tarabishi, and numerous others from the Iranian, Malayan, and Sub-Continental Indian worlds (these and their ilk who form most of the category I refer to as Muslim intellectuals). At the end of the day, they are unable to do without the Quran, to say the least. Which is also to say that these writers can never appeal to a secular, radically non-scripturalist tradition as that of mainstream Enlightenment/Western thought.

HA: It seems to me, judging from some of your lectures, that what you said about scriptural foundations is merely the tip of the iceberg. Would you care to dwell a little more on this theme?

WH: Of course. I should also note that the discursive manner in which modern Muslim thinkers articulated and continue to articulate themselves is not likely to attract the attention–and thus engagement–of either Western academia or Western thought at large. Let me explain why. Roughly (very roughly) speaking, there are two camps or trends within modern Islamic and Islamist thought (for my specific purposes here, “Islamic” and “Islamist” are not very distinguishable from each other). One is a great majority that has been for too long bidding for a losing venture, both internally and externally; namely, the venture of rationalizing Islam (in nearly all of its aspects) in terms of liberal philosophy and liberal categories of thought. A deep understanding of this project will reveal major reasons for its ineluctable failure, but this is not my concern today. Instead, I want to stress that as a system of thought and practice, liberalism has yet to be digested by the leading intellectuals of the Muslim world–notable rare exceptions notwithstanding.

This failure to understand is in fact a double one: Muslim intellectuals have yet to understand and appreciate the trenchant–and at times radical–critique of liberalism from within the Euro-American tradition itself, whether liberal or not. (And here as elsewhere, “Euro-American” includes the Australian, among other places, as these have also made some significant contributions in this regard).

The other trend or camp in modern Islamic thought is a thin one, and is emerging slowly but hopefully steadily and surely. This is the Islamic critical school spearheaded by the Moroccan language, logic, and moral philosopher Taha Abdurrahman, who has not succumbed to the Enlightenment modes of thought. His critical-constructive approach signals a promising innovating beginning from which a new path of thinking and re-articulation can begin. 

Now, my point is this: neither camp is likely in the short term to attract the attention of Western thinkers partly because the “Muslim liberals” (who are the overwhelming majority) would be deemed by their Western counterparts as second, if not third-rate, intellectuals, and emulators of sorts. There is nothing in the thought and practice of these Muslim liberals that is of value to the vigorous debate about liberalism raging in the West (however problematic and self-absorbed it may be). If anything, their collective position effectively represents an endorsement of liberal claims and values, a fact that has the unavoidable effect of, first, strengthening these claims and rendering them resilient in the face of criticism, and second, of bestowing justification upon liberal states to continue to molest Islamic countries without remorse. Furthermore, the fate of these emulators will inevitably resemble the disdain with which the pre-modern Muslim mujtahids and quasi-mujtahids regarded the muqallidun. And in this, no one should blame the Western thinkers. As a matter of legal-moral practice, taqlid may have been valuable if not necessary, but in the domain of critical thought and analysis, it can never gain any respect. A muqallid is simply someone who has nothing to say, however much babble he or she may utter.

And the fate of the second camp will not fare any better, at least in the short or foreseeable run. However, I stake much on the attractiveness of this camp in the long run, because I see it as one expression of a promising change. I find the oppositions between the general path of Western intelligentsia and such approaches as that of Abdurrahman to be too great (although in the case of this philosopher, one must find it significant that he arrived at his system of thought after having digested much of the European philosophical tradition). So even if mainstream Western thought were to notice or access the works of the Moroccan philosopher and his likes, I am not sure it will know what to do with them. Language barriers or not, the challenges that this camp puts forth are formidable by any standard. Perhaps they will be relegated to the shelf of curious “Oriental” objects, as has been done with so much of Islamic phenomena. Abdurrahman’s deep moral challenge is simply indigestible by the current Western mainstream.

HA: This sounds like a deadlock. Where do we go from here?

WH: So far, it has been a deadlock, but only in the sense that the two camps have not yet met. The engagement is yet to take place, and then we can see if a real deadlock will take place. But so far, not even a beginning of an exchange is taking places. I do not see a Michael Sandel, an Alasdair MacIntyre, a Charles Taylor, or anyone of their caliber or leanings dialoging with, say, Taha Abdurrahman or anyone else for that matter. Most probably, these philosophers have never heard of him, and frankly, I doubt that even the likes of Taylor will emerge out of their immediate intellectual worlds and interests to put forward such an effort. And if such a group of philosophers is not likely to engage in a dialogue, then there is little hope of others joining. In The Impossible State I tried to frame some of the questions the Muslim world is dealing with in a way that is–I hope–digestible to the Western intellectual. And I called–at the end of the book–on Muslim intellectuals also to try to come at least one step forward with a view to formulating their issues in ways that a Western audience, or Western intellectuals, can relate to.

But this in itself is certainly not enough. As I said earlier, there must be a qualitatively different and critical body of thought, pulling behind it enough weight to make Western intellectuals listen. The challenge is stupendous. We academicians and intellectuals do everything we can to ennoble the image of knowledge as a sublime pursuit, but this is one of the biggest modern myths we live. I understand and accept the veracity of this image in a context in which knowledge was pursued for moral ends, that is, for practical ethics, the way, for example, Ghazalian or Aquinian ethics was constructed and construed in its own environment. But the transformations in the modern world, and the unprecedented complicity between knowledge and power (which turns out at the end to be the power of the Schmittian political) make this the myth that I see. If politics is war by other means, and undoubtedly it is, then knowledge–including academia–is politics-cum-war by other means. The appearance of knowledge’s form as the business of soft-handed professors and bearded older scholars, with eager students who are on a “quest to know,” should never mask or change this sober reality. In fact, it is one of the greatest modern deceptions. Muslim intellectuals and an infinite number of many others have yet to digest the power of this physically crushing metaphor.

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