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Muslims and the Path of Intellectual Slavery: An Interview with Wael Hallaq (Part Two)

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This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Wael Hallaq (click here for Part 1). In this second, Hallaq expounds upon the conflict he sees in the relationship between scholars in the Muslim world and the tradition of Western knowledge production. In particular, he identifies an uncritical adoption of Western intellectual categories and modes of knowledge transmission along what he terms “the path of intellectual slavery.” Such a course, Hallaq argues, has far-reaching implications, from the construction of particularly damaging historical narratives—such as the "Bayt al-Hikma phenomenon"—to the tendency to place value on maintaining rigid intellectual hierarchies and categories while denying the dynamism and free thought that marked prior eras. As in the previous installment, Hallaq's critiques center on challenging the roots of this pre-existing arrangement rather than proposing ways to resolve its most problematic contradictions using its own internal logic.

Hasan Azad (HA): You have discussed the failure of intellectuals in the Muslim world to digest the changing relationship between knowledge and power during the modern era.  What about the Western intellectuals’ share of responsibility?

Wael Hallaq (WH): Of course. The leading Western intellectuals have done little, if anything, so far (although, as we all know, a number of scholars have done their share in presenting Islam and its traditions as a fertile place for intellectual engagement).  But for these leading intellectuals, the non-Euro-American continues, in the vein of the nineteenth century, not to count for much. For Euro-America (to speak at large and paradigmatically), the world remains about Euro-America, the Rest being some footnotes or marginalia. It would be naïve and daft of us to forget that the same patterns of thinking in the Western liberal world continue virtually uninterrupted since the seventeenth century. It remains an astounding fact that Europeans and Americans would dissect countless aspects of liberty and freedom, and fight off their monarchs tooth and nail, and while doing all this, they (and perhaps the hypocritical John Locke and the “neo-Roman jurists” standing at the top) gave not a single gesture or consideration to the very people they were engaged in oppressing in the colonies and at home. Locke unabashedly continued to invest his personal wealth in the slave-trade business and to vigorously speak of liberty and freedom, simultaneously! And were not many of the American founders the same? An isolated voice or two aside, none of the Enlightenment thinkers understood human rights and political liberties to extend to the people they oppressed, as if these were not humans at all. And we see the patterns repeated as I speak, however different in form they may appear nowadays.

This is merely the background. An offshoot of this background is the astounding inattention–perhaps inability–on the part of Western intellectuals to see the “enemy in the mirror,” as Roxanne Euben brilliantly put it.  They continue to spin around such tired concepts as “religion,” “religious,” and “metaphysics” without seeing their own entanglements in the very metaphysics which they themselves have created over the last three centuries or so. Not only that Islam (as a defined “historical” phenomenon) is seen as merely and essentially “another-worldly” entity, distanced from human (read: rational) concerns, but they have lacked the ability to distance themselves from their own reality and founding assumptions. They have, paradigmatically speaking, made the familiar and habitual a part of their analytical repertoire, lodging themselves in the most entrenched circular analysis: namely, analyzing a phenomenon from within the very assumptions that that phenomenon created. Their analytical flaws become all the more evident when we realize how they treat the same questions in non-Western traditions: their paradigmatic assumptions are carried over to those traditions, thereby creating an analytical double standard. The study of the modern state and secularism are only two compelling cases in point. [Editor’s note: The reader may wish to view Hallaq’s lecture on secularism] 

There is a lot that can be said of this issue. To put it as briefly as possible, and paradigmatically speaking, the Western intellectual tradition has not engaged with other traditions–especially the Islamic–in any serious or half-serious way. Instead, its three-centuries history has been one of dismissing such an engagement, while passing an off-hand condemnatory judgment whenever an encounter–however brief and unthreatening–is forced upon it. To say that the reaction to Islam is downright irrational is of course not to exhaust analysis, but it is certainly on the mark. This is extremely ironic in view of the fact that Western culture has defined itself as the abode of reason and rational enquiry par excellence!

HA: Some might argue that the lack of originality in modern Muslim thought (as you yourself just told us) may justify the Western intellectuals’ neglect to engage with the Muslim world. What would you say to that?

WH: I would give the shortest of answers. The “Muslim world” is exceedingly larger than its modern Muslim intellectuals. It is much richer and far more complex than that part of it we call “modern Islam.” I would say that my Impossible State is a heuristic example of what I mean.

HA: Obviously then both sides have much to do if they wish for a genuine dialogue, but are they both equally accountable? 

WH: I am not sure if the matter can be put to quantitative analysis or measurement. But I would say that the Western side has to fulfill a monumental moral obligation which it has miserably shirked on (and the analytical reasons for this will fill many pages). On the other hand, the Muslim intellectual side has equally miserably failed to find its own voice and identity in the world, and our world is smaller than ever nowadays. Today’s Muslim thinkers (and non-thinkers) who violently attack Islamic history and tradition as lacking in reason and rational creativity are little aware of how much taqlidic mimicry they have allowed themselves. I find it ironic that they should criticize “medieval reason” or rather “lack thereof” when they could do no better than imitate, among countless others, Foucault, Derrida, or that which has become fashionable in the West at any point of time. But worst of all is when they mimic liberalism without any evidence of critical and deeply scrutinizing thought on their part. They have not (notwithstanding isolated exceptions) stopped to ask whether the system of thought they are blindly imitating stands to critical scrutiny. They have not asked whether the system they are emulating would remain functional or beneficial in different environments, especially their environments. They have not asked hard questions about the system’s implications and effects on our lives, East and West. They have put themselves in the very position in which they unfairly put Muslim intellectuals of the bygone centuries.  This is an extreme irony.

I can live with some ironies, but not all. There are so many of them around us today that one has no choice but to ignore those most innocuous of them. But some ironies can become dangerous, however. The Muslim intellectuals of the distant past could see implications much more clearly and perceptively than the multitudes of critics and intellectuals writing today in the Muslim world, and indeed in the West as well. For example, and this one bears profound implications, the Islamic so-called “legal” and intellectual traditions have repeatedly, and throughout many centuries, faced one of the most formidable questions that human societies have had to deal with for millennia; that is, the extent of moral responsibility to which the natural individual can and should bear.  In every case, the Muslim jurists and their fellow (“non-legal”) intellectuals, remained committed to a view that bars the waiving of moral responsibility from the individual. If the individual is the bearer of ultimate responsibility for living life, he or she must bear the onus of consequences. The severing of this link in the Western world has led to severe and now cruel consequences: for one example, the multinational corporation(s?) that rules our lives. Not that the English Parliament of old did not fully understand the unethical practices of companies of limited liability. It did. In fact, shortly after legalizing this juridical personality for the first time in human history, they reversed their legislation and barred it, the reasoning behind the rejection being its immoral character and consequences. But then–and this is resoundingly telling–it was brought back to the realm of legality again, in London but mainly in Delaware, only to end up ruling the world and wreaking havoc with it. The sharia jurists always insisted on moral (read now: legal) accountability, although their technical and substantive reasoning could have easily accommodated a law of corporation (which could have been developed along the lines of thought that created the waqf system, for example). Few people nowadays realize that the sharia’s techniques of legal reasoning a thousand years ago were at least as sophisticated as any legal reasoning that we know today.  But the corporation and much else that allows fictitious bodies to escape legal liability were ontologically aborted at the pre-embryonic stage.

This farsightedness is absent today, both in the Western legal milieu and the Islamic intellectual world. Indeed, I would not hesitate to say that shortsightedness is the middle name of modernity at large. So perhaps we will forgive the otherwise learned Ali Harb when he critiques Pierre Bourdieu, accusing him of “reactionary vision.” Harb misses an opportunity not only to understand why Bourdieu trenchantly critiques certain modern practices and institutions, but also to deepen Bourdieu’s critical gaze through what I would like to call “the science of ramifications.” Like Sayyid Qutb some sixty years ago, Harb does not want to understand that you cannot separate value from its source, and that accepting one entails accepting the other.  Value can be said to inhabit, if not saturate, its own genealogy (provided, of course, that one performs proper genealogical digging).

Accepting and glorifying, say, technology and at once condemning the value system that it produces is nothing but stark nonsense. This is precisely what Qutb had done. And more problematically, it is the failure to understand the distant and far-reaching implications of such values that distresses–and renders incoherent–the thinking of Harb and writers like him (countless to be sure). Nowhere to be found is a proper understanding of the implications of the basic values that Muslim thinkers are calling for adoption from the West.  To my knowledge, none has subjected to scrutiny the deep ramifications of the concept of liberty (especially in its negative form) for (a) the impossibility of a sustainable way of life; (b) its indispensability for the development of uncontrollable and destructive capitalism; (c) its role in the disintegration of communal and family structures; (d) the creation of a drifting, morally uncertain individual; and much else. Admittedly, these topics are surely not on the minds of the Western mainstream either, at best receiving spotted treatments here and there. But Muslim intellectuals must be held equally responsible to engage these issues seriously, in fact taking the lead in demonstrating to their Western counterparts the structural fallacies and destructive ramifications of central liberal concepts and practices. That none of this is to be had is evidence of intellectual bankruptcy, one that has not so far been unfiled in the Arab and Muslim world, and one that continues to affect mainstream Western thought. Unquestioned and domineering liberal thought and (more importantly) practice has been the century-old slave driver under whose command the crowds of Muslim thinkers continue to march.

There are two final points that I need to stress in this context. First is that indulging in the study of the science of ramifications obviously has intrinsic value and, considering the critical crises of the modern world, it has become–I believe–a moral duty incumbent on all intellectuals. The science of ramification is that which studies, critiques, and unravels the hidden structures between minutest phenomenon and the cosmic act, that which ties and makes intelligible the relationship between an ephemeral human act and the constancy of a cosmological structure that will never come under our control, one that will always escape what Scheler called the West’s (and now all of modernity’s) innate drive and obsession to dominate and control. Considering the extremely rich, centuries-old intellectual tradition under their noses, Muslim thinkers ought to digest this tradition and its obsessions as preparation for an up-to-date vigorous critique of modern practices, especially liberal ones. They owe this to the world, like everyone else.  And one can now happily refer to the formidable work of Taha Abdurrahman as a first step in this direction.

Second, as a matter of asserting their intellectual presence, and deriving from the urgency of the first consideration, Muslim intellectuals would continue to stand–and wait–at the backstage of theater if they continue to rehearse, and often poorly at that, the intellectual melodies of Euro-America. To gain attention, and more importantly, to lead themselves and hopefully others into a more promising intellectual future, they need to integrate the imperatives of the first consideration within a massive intellectual assault, one that looks into the deepest foundations of the Enlightenment and how these foundations led to the critical–if not massively destructive–fragility of modern life. What is astonishing in all this is that with rare exceptions (again, Taha Abdurrahman), the heuristic value of the Muslim tradition has been nearly entirely dismissed. The taqlid of the Muslim moderns has acquired nearly unbounded new meanings. 

HA: What about the Western intellectuals?

WH: Well, I do not think they have done anywhere near enough. Being participants in a colonizing tradition and heirs of colonizers, they bear an ethical responsibility for rehabilitating the colonies they destroyed. The moral burden is yet to be recognized, but this failure of recognition will not diminish the burden by even a tiny fraction.  As an epistemic collectivity, and as an integral part of the knowledge/power system that destroyed so much of the world, they must bear such an ethical load. They bear the distinct moral responsibility of listening carefully, and engaging modestly and thoughtfully. A bit of humility will go a long way, assuming that they wish to go the extra mile. Perhaps I am expecting too much.

HA: I am sure many of these intellectuals would declare their innocence of any colonial project, and will tell you that they are critical of their government’s practices, etc. They will tell you that they empathize with the oppressed and the weak, Muslim or not. 

WH: This is very true, but hardly harms my argument. The subject is complex, and I would refer you to a longish piece I have written in response to one of my critics, precisely on this point. It was published in Islamic Law and Society in 2011.

HA: What kinds of restrictions has modern, Western thought placed upon Islamic thought?

WH: In the domain of thinking and rational enquiry, ideas become actually restrictive only insofar as we conceptually allow them to exist as such. Shaking off your master’s iron shackles is an external act, and evident to the powerful master who might wield his devastating weapons against you. But not so mental activities. They are hidden. One can be physically in bondage, but mentally free. That is, free to think and make out the world as he or she wishes. So the short answer to your question is that the intellectual domination of the West over the Rest has no justification whatsoever. I understand the difficulties in ridding oneself of the physical constraints of a massive colonial power (for example, the United States in Afghanistan or Israel in Gaza). But I cannot understand mental and intellectual slavery. So no matter how hard the Euro-Americans worked and continue to work to enslave the minds of Muslims, Africans, and others, these latter have no excuse whatsoever. As I already said, to the exception of rare and minor voices, the Muslim writers have so far chosen the path of intellectual slavery. Let us remember one of the oldest discussions in the world: a slave is he who is dependent on the will of another. If one is taught to will the details, the actions, the structures, and paradigms of the master’s teachings and conduct, then one is a slave. And I have no evidence that the overall constitution of the Muslim intellectual world has proven matters to be otherwise.

HA: What is your response to those who give the example of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun and his Bayt al-Hikma and its role in translating ancient Greek texts, and their incorporation into much of Islamic philosophy, metaphysics, and so forth, as an example of how Muslim thinkers made use of foreign sources of knowledge as a means of enriching their own thought in the past, and in so doing the argument that is made is that Muslim thinkers should do the same with regard to modern, Western thought and philosophy?

WH: This is an important question, one I am asked rather frequently.  Let me begin by saying that the narrative of Bayt al-Hikma in nineteenth and twentieth century discourse is essentially an Orientalist one, a central topos that has been repeated infinitely and in different ways.  I am not questioning the actual historicity of the “event” or phenomenon called Bayt al-Hikma, but am rather speaking of how it was fitted into a new interpretation of history, and therefore into a particular identity. This narrative has many more parallels, all of which go to the same effect–meaning, to construct a narrative of “cultural borrowing” that eviscerates an independent and non-colonial identity.  For example, Joseph Schacht performed the same narrative in the field of law. He argued that “Islamic law” was borrowed from the Roman, Byzantine, and Jewish laws, which are seen in their aggregate as a Western product (a fiction in the first place). In other words, Islam is constructed as having “learned” or borrowed its legal culture (which is, in his words, the “core and kernel” of the civilization) from others, invariably European. Now, the narrative continues, things have again changed with modernity, and the “old” Islam is no longer acceptable in this new world. Muslims should therefore look once again to the West and learn, as they have done so well twelve or thirteen centuries ago. The latent (subliminal?) Orientalist wisdom is that Muslims have always learned from the West, so why not now? The narrative of Bayt al-Hikma plays the same music with different tunes.

But this is not all. There is no denial that Muslims–since at least the eighth century–have been intensely interested in others, whether Indians, ancient Iranians, or Greeks. Indeed, they translated their works and integrated into their “intellectual soil” much that they considered useful to them. The assimilation was so sophisticated that it is nearly impossible to separate the components of what is, say, “Greek” from the Islamic. But I cannot emphasize enough that this assimilation was done on the terms of the native epistemic systems. That which was digestible was incorporated, but much was not, and thus was rejected. The Hazmian, Ghazalian, and Taymiyyan projects, among countless others, are powerful testimonials. This has also been my thirty-year experience with a branch of legal knowledge called Usul al-Fiqh, among others. This exquisitely complex legal science is saturated with intellectual influences whose provenance is multiple. Yet, it is a unique science in the world, and resembles nothing known from other cultures or intellectual formations. It surely benefitted from several disciples, but I do not think any serious scholar would argue that it does not have a particular Islamic identity, serving the independently conceived needs of Islamic fiqh and law in their own environment.

My point here is that inasmuch as Muslim intellectuals must shun the taqlid of Euro-America and its Enlightenment, they must also carefully study their own tradition with its massive sub-traditions, as they ought to look at and examine other cultures as well, especially those of Asia (Buddhist, Hindu, etc.). In fact, it is eminently arguable that South and East Asia have more to offer than Euro-America. Bayt al-Hikma must be the world at large, a world that begins in one’s mind and critical thinking. And its end cannot and should not be foretold. Yet, in embarking on all this, they absolutely must expend their highest critical energy, the key here being their own, independent thinking.


[Click here to read Part 1 of this two-part interview.]

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