Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
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 State, Hallaq 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?
The Immanent Frame recently began a forum for exploring the question of the Muslim world. The form asks some powerful questions for investigating the conception, construction, and reality of Muslims worlds:
"How has the notion of a “Muslim world” been utilized to mark civilizational and racial difference both historically and in the present? In what ways has the political calculus of the modern nation-state drawn upon idealized or demonized notions of “Muslim countries” and “Muslim actors” to enact its policies?"
No, this is not about ‘Perennialism’. ‘Perrenial’ is an adjective with its own independent meaning. Though I am using the word ‘perrenial’ here, I am not advocating the transcendent unity of religions. Thus, if your interest in reading this was only peaked by the polemic opportunity represented by that possibility, you might find the rest of this a waste of time.
Rather, I want to talk about an aspect of Muslim life in the modern world, which, in spite of how it may appear to we Muslims who experience it, is not, I would argue, entirely exclusive to our experience, but is only our experience of a moral challenge perennially faced by humanity at large.
In the history of philosophy, this challenge informs the context of the Platonic dialogues. He wrote at a time when increased commercial and political activity between various Greek city-states forced them to confront the fact of their diverse and often incompatible moral, religious, and social values, raising the question: Are any set of values universally valid, and if so, on what basis?
“Why are there no Muslim philosophers?” Sudipta Kaviraj posed this question to me while I was studying some critical Western texts of philosophy in the Fall of 2009 with him. Although this is a complicated question – which I do not simply take at face value, given that Kaviraj is himself an important postcolonial thinker – it does point to a significant failure of Muslim thinkers to engage their own intellectual tradition, together with the Western tradition of thought.
At the same time, Kaviraj’s question relates to another crucial question raised more recently by Hamid Dabashi, when he asks “Can Non-Europeans Think?”. In his article Dabashi highlights how non-European thought – Muslim thought for our present purposes – is cast by the academy. The problem now is not whether Muslims can or cannot think, but how their thought needs to be reshaped according to Western “styles” of thinking for it to be deemed “philosophy” by Western academics, and not something closer to mythology.
1. ‘Progress’ and ‘Tradition’
Perhaps nothing differentiates the moral ecology of the modern world from that of the pre-modern more than the issue of slavery. Once taken for granted as an ineradicable, though unfortunate, feature of human life, it has now been ‘abolished’, at least from the range of morally tolerable institutions. It has gone from being merely ‘a sad fact of life’ (as most of us now might view poverty), to an absolute wrong. It is common to hear the reminder that, ‘people long ago did not believe slavery was wrong, but now we know that it is.’ This describes a fundamental shift in moral framework, from one based on mere belief to one based on knowledge, and entails that the wrongfulness of slavery was a matter of fact all along, even when nobody (or very few) knew, just as the world was round even when everyone thought it was flat.
For that reason, we often find this observation used as a premise in an argument against moral relativism; that is, the view that morality is essentially a matter of collective convention, and therefore relative to the culture or society in question. What is right in one culture may be wrong in another, and there is no absolute fact about what is right or wrong for all. The argument against it is that, if moral relativism is true then slavery would have been right when the vast majority of people believed it was; but we know that slavery is always wrong for everyone, no matter what they or their culture believe about it. Therefore, moral relativism is false. Instead, the truth lies with moral objectivism: the belief that there are facts about what is morally right and wrong, that are independent of our collective opinions and so are true for all people and cultures, whatever their beliefs about the matter happen to be.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), considered by many to have been the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher, ends his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the following words: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Ray Monk, Wittgenstein scholar and biographer, notes the similarity between this final proposition of the Tractatus – the only book to be published in Wittgenstein’s lifetime, and which, somewhat ambitiously, was intended to settle the problems of philosophy once and for all – and the first line of the Tao Te Ching: “The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao.” In other words, language is incapable of expressing the highest truths. In order to do that, according to Wittgenstein, one must initially climb up the ladder of thought and language – as provided by his Tractatus – and ultimately throw it away.