The Impossible State
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The Impossible State

Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament

Wael Hallaq

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eBook - ePub

The Impossible State

Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament

Wael Hallaq

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About This Book

Wael B. Hallaq boldly argues that the "Islamic state," judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both impossible and inherently self-contradictory. Comparing the legal, political, moral, and constitutional histories of premodern Islam and Euro-America, he finds the adoption and practice of the modern state to be highly problematic for modern Muslims. He also critiques more expansively modernity's moral predicament, which renders impossible any project resting solely on ethical foundations.

The modern state not only suffers from serious legal, political, and constitutional issues, Hallaq argues, but also, by its very nature, fashions a subject inconsistent with what it means to be, or to live as, a Muslim. By Islamic standards, the state's technologies of the self are severely lacking in moral substance, and today's Islamic state, as Hallaq shows, has done little to advance an acceptable form of genuine Shari'a governance. The Islamists' constitutional battles in Egypt and Pakistan, the Islamic legal and political failures of the Iranian Revolution, and similar disappointments underscore this fact. Nevertheless, the state remains the favored template of the Islamists and the ulama (Muslim clergymen).

Providing Muslims with a path toward realizing the good life, Hallaq turns to the rich moral resources of Islamic history. Along the way, he proves political and other "crises of Islam" are not unique to the Islamic world nor to the Muslim religion. These crises are integral to the modern condition of both East and West, and by acknowledging these parallels, Muslims can engage more productively with their Western counterparts.

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Premises
The paradigmatic case becomes such by suspending and, at the same time, exposing its belonging to the group, so that it is never possible to separate its exemplarity from its singularity. . . . The paradigmatic group is never presupposed by the paradigms; rather, it is immanent in them.
—Giorgio Agamben, The Signature of All Things
Humanism is not a science, but religion. . . . Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.
—John Gray, Straw Dogs
In a narcissistic society . . . the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but [also] the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. A society that has made “nostalgia” a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today. . . . Our culture’s indifference to the past—which easily shades over into active hostility and rejection—furnishes the most telling proof of that culture’s bankruptcy. The prevailing attitude, so cheerful and forward-looking on the surface, derives from a narcissistic impoverishment of the psyche.
—Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
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 Sharīʿa’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 Sharīʿa 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 “Sharīʿa” 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 Sharīʿa 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 Sharīʿa is in shambles.4 We therefore would do well to overlook the modern Islamic experiment with the Sharīʿa, leaving it entirely out of consideration and focusing instead on what the Sharīʿa meant for Muslims throughout the twelve centuries before the colonialist period, when it existed as a paradigmatic phenomenon. The Sharīʿa 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 premodern paradigmatic Sharīʿa 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 precolonial history? If it is our argument that a modern Islamic state is impossible, then any such form of governance in premodern 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 nonhistorical consideration, namely, that there was a qualitative difference between even premodern prototypical “states” and premodern Islamic forms of governance. To see these Islamic forms, as some political scientists have,6 as belonging to an indistinctly grouped constellation of premodern “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 that 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 the world’s 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, counterclaims. The first and least evincive of the three is that whereas poverty, famine, and disease were in premodernity 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 counterclaim, 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 as 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 premodern 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 your self 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 premodern 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
If this much, or any close approximation thereof, is accepted, then we have a good reason to search for moral resources in other traditions, resources that may support us in our social, economic, political, and legal ventures. The search for moral resources in the manner that we shall propose here is certainly not a new proposal but one that has been the constant preoccupation of a number of thinkers, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Charles Larmore, to cite only three.16 However, whereas these thinkers understandably limited themselves to the so-called European tradition,17 seeking answers to their queries in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and their like (as if Neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism were unfamiliar to premodern Muslims and as if Aquinas were not a thoroughgoing “student” of Averroes and other Muslim philosophers of his kind), we focus our enquiry here on the Muslim moral resources,18 by virtue of the fact that Muslims possess their own tradition—extensive, rich, and rooted in centuries of cultural achievement. The continuing deep effects of this tradition on modern Muslims lends credence to MacIntyre’s critique of the Enlightenment concept of autonomous rationality, where ethical values are assumed to issue from noumenal reason. Rational enquiry and thus ethical values are embedded, MacIntyre rightly observes, “in a tradition, a conception according to which the standards of rational justification themselves emerge from and are part of a history in which they are vindicated.”19
Accordingly, when all things have been said and done, the thematic similarities between our project and those of Taylor, Larmore, and especially MacIntyre will become patently evident.20 They may indeed turn out to be too evident, if only because the moral resources that we will unearth in the premodern Islamic tradition are not only reflective of shared theoretical and philosophical enquiry—as these three philosophers have undertaken—but also, and more significantly, of a paradigmatic way of living. In other words, while the traditions on which these philosophers have drawn consisted of theoretical and philosophical concepts (and some would say a notion of community that no one “has ever lived in”),21 the Islamic tradition on which the project of retrieval can draw is a composite one, combining the theoretical-philosophical with sociological, anthropological, legal, political, and economic phenomena that have emerged in Islamic history as paradigmatic beliefs and practices.22
To speak of this paradigmatic way of living as a full-fledged phenomenon is in effect to speak of paradigmatic Islamic governance. I employ the compound expression “Islamic governance” in order to draw a qualitative—but not necessarily quantitative—distinction between living life in, under, and with the modern state, on the one hand, and living life in, under, and with premodern Sharīʿa, on the other. These two modes of existence had a similar hegemonic range, hence our exclusion of the quantitative. However, they differed from each other dramatically in almost all other respects.
In order to speak of these two phenomena in a comparatively meaningful way, we must recognize what stands in them as paradigms, a recognition that can allow us to identify parallel systemic features whose comparison makes for a rationally valid undertaking. But paradigms also serve a more important function, namely, the identification within systems, relations, and conceptual structures of what...

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