The Islamic State on trial, an impossibility and a contradiction in terms

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Hallaq.jpgReview of Wael B. Hallaq, "The Impossible State. Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament", Columbia University Press, New York 2013.

“I am currently in Iraq waging jihad with my brothers to establish for Islam a homeland and for the Qur’an a state.” This statement by Al-Zarqawi, the “father” of Isis, is just another proof of a reality that Wael Hallaq, one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic law, summarises with admirable clarity: “Muslims today, including their leading intellectuals, have come to take the modern state for granted, accepting it as a natural reality. They often assume it not only to have existed throughout the long course of their history but also to have been sanctioned by no less an authority than the Qur’an itself” (p. x). Standing against this view, “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” (p. ix).

Hallaq is not the first to observe this contradiction: Olivier Roy had in fact come to similar conclusions in his L’échec de l’Islam politique (1992). But while the French scholar had adopted a predominantly sociological approach in asking how an Islamist or Jihadist movement works in practice, Hallaq poses the question in theoretical terms. In his view, there are five form-properties of the modern state: its conception of history; its peculiar metaphysics of sovereignty; its legislative monopoly; its bureaucratic machinery; and lastly, its cultural-hegemonic engagement in the social order. Chapter after chapter, each of these form-properties is compared to the model of classical Islamic law, showing its mutual incompatibility. The conclusion is foreshadowed in the introduction: “We are therefore compelled to dismiss the modern experiment in the Muslim world as a massive political and legal failure” (p. 2). It should be noted, however, that a theoretical failure does not mean any less danger in practice. Quite on the contrary, the Islamic state is leaving piles of rubble behind it in its impossible attempt at self-realisation.

It would be mistaken to think, however, that Hallaq’s book is merely limited to a critique of political Islam. On the contrary, the Impossible State mentioned in the title is above all the state resulting from Western modernity, which is subjected to close criticism, in particular through the use of Foucaultian categories. “Islam and its promise of Islamic governance do not have a monopoly over crisis” (p. 198) since “The most fundamental problems of modern Islam are not exclusively Islamic but are in fact equally integral to the modern project itself in the East and the West” (p. 163).

But if the crisis is a global one, what solution is possible? This is where things become less clear, and the author recognises this honestly. What is certain is that Hallaq is not advocating a return to a pre-modern golden age, although the Islamic governship evoked in the book is quite idealised in some of its aspects. Rather, the proposal seems to consist in an effort to rebuild the ethical foundations of politics. Hallaq establishes an explicit parallel between his attempts and those of authors such as Taylor, MacIntyre and Larmore, except, of course, that the inspiration for this moral reform should come to the Muslim world from a better understanding of sharia and not from Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas.

However, the author seems to yield more than once to the charm of the Ethical State, in which numerous modern distortions are corrected, but at the price of a strong suppression of individual freedom (the way in which the author reduces the problem of apostasy in classical Islam is particularly significant). Moreover, the critique of universal humanism to which the last pages are dedicated seems contradictory to the appeal to the recovery of “the moral as the central domain of world cultures, irrespective of ‘civilizational’ variants” (p. 169). And yet, despite these reservations, Hallaq’s proposals do not lose validity: “Muslims and their intellectual and political elites can and must engage their Western counterparts with respect to the necessity of positioning the moral as the central domain, which would in turn require Muslims to develop a vocabulary that these interlocutors can understand” (p. 169). It is the concept of mutual cultural relevance that – needless to say – is always bilateral.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Martino Diez, “The Chimera of a State for the Qur’an”, Oasis, year XI, n. 21, June 2015, pp. 130-131.

Online version:
Martino Diez, “The Chimera of a State for the Qur’an”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: