Winter Book Reviews Part III: Wael Hallaq

The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq —

All these voices — Muslim and Christian, Eastern and Western — are responding to the same moral condition, however much their respective vocabularies and idioms may differ from each other. The paramount questions therefore remain: Can these forces, on all sides, transcend their ethnocentricity and join ranks in the interrogation of the modern project and its state? Can the Taylors summon enough intellectual courage to become MacIntyres? Can they all, Western and non-Western, dismantle the pernicious myth of a clash of civilizations? Can they dismantle their moral power so as to bring about a victory that installs the moral as the central domain of world cultures, irrespective of ‘civilizational’ variants? For, just as there can be no Islamic governance without such a victory, there will be no victory in the first place without modernity experiencing a moral awakening.

The Impossible State - Wael Hallaq

Philosophical, critical, moral, bold, and brilliant, Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State is, in one word, epic. An essential read for everyone — Muslim or not, “religious” or otherwise, whether you care about anything or nothing or just post-apocalyptic Twinkies (#ZombieLandAnyone?!) — so much so that no discussion about, well, anything, really, can be absent of at the very least a recognition of the arguments put forth in Hallaq’s latest book, whether you agree with him or not. “Modernity’s moral predicament,” as Hallaq calls it, penetrates to the core of everything we do, we are, we inhabit, we sense — politically, socially, psychologically, morally. Kinda like Ubik (#philipKdick #okNoOneActuallyGotThatReferenceDidThey?).

The Impossible State is about much more than Islamic law or Sharia — that’s a cool topic too, but this is not a history book or a work on a singular vein of legal thought. Rather, Hallaq questions the very bases upon which we live our lives and govern ourselves. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from Hobbes to Kant to Nietzsche to Foucault to Stiglitz to al-Ghazali to Asad to Abu El-Haj, The Impossible State is really about the underlying structure (weltanschauung) upon which our societies, economies, and politics operate. Hallaq demonstrates that morality (and its absence) is not some vague, phantasmal force but a very real, epistemic, and systemic source which manifests itself, deeply and interdependently, throughout our philosophy, psychology, science, society, economics, and politics. The problems Islam and Muslims face today are everyone’s problems, and they are not timeless: Hallaq takes apart our Western, modern conceptions of society and politics, right down to the Enlightenment itself. The state and its structures, Hallaq argues, should not be taken as a timeless given but instead as markers of a very young modern era in which economic, political, and narcissistic attitudes, more than justice and social harmony, persist as an integral part of our social and political structure.

For anyone concerned at all with the world’s continuing problems of violence and injustice, this is a necessary read. For anyone taking Columbia’s Core Curriculum, or something similar, this is the perfect supplement (or necessary ingredient) to your so-called “liberal” education (haha). For anyone interested in law, politics, and social theory, this is a must. For anyone studying the Arab Spring, Islamic law/Sharia, or interested in the application of Sharia today, you cannot miss this book.

Everyone needs to read The Impossible State, but although Hallaq says in the Intro that The Impossible State is for the “common reader,” be forewarned: it is “academic.” It’s a dense read (most of it consists of social/political/legal theory based on a wide range of comparative research) and it requires at least a cursory understanding of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers (and their critics) and a little bit of Islamic legal history (he tries to catch you up).

Hallaq rips apart the modern structures some of us may take for granted like Jack-Nicholson-turned-Wolf eats deer (#Wolf #okNoOneGotThatEither?), and for some this can be jarring. If at first you disagree with him, that’s awesome — but before answering your own questions about his work, first question why you are questioning yourself. Upon what assumptions (“paradigms”) do you do so?

***Rated R: for academic violence, intellectually bloody Enlightenment-bashing, and disturbing suggestions that our world today is so marvelously screwed in the head ***

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