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?
Wael Hallaq (WA): To speak of the potential contributions of Islam to a critique and restructuring of the modern project is a tall order, one that should come subsequent to a diagnosis of the present modern condition and its causes. The obstacles you alluded to are numerous and multilayered, and originate in both sides of the divide. If there are any failings—and there are many indeed—they cannot be located on one side only. The first, and most obvious of course, is the linguistic obstacle, the only means to communicating ideas. The West (by which I here mean Europe, its Enlightenment, distinctively modern institutions and culture and the spread of all these mainly to North America), has seen it sufficient to consider its two or three major languages so universal as not to care to learn other languages well, if at all. Even Orientalism, as an academic discipline, has not been successful in producing sustained command of Islamic languages, despite the fact that it did produce individuals whose linguistic competence even in more than one Islamic language was no less than masterful. It remains the case however that those who can navigate an Islamic language or text are a miniscule—in fact insignificant—minority in Western societies.
But there is a larger sense to Orientalism involved here. In many ways, the field of Orientalism is surrounded by an outer, immensely extensive layer; that is, countless numbers of influential voices who really never bothered to do any of the hard intellectual and philological work on Islam; yet, they feel quite justified and confident to pronounce on the “Orient,” both within the classrooms of academia or as so-called “experts” in mass media. This “peripheral” Orientalism usually escapes our common definitions of that discipline, but it forms the bulk of common and popular Western knowledge about the rest of the world, especially Islam. In any case, this is roughly the linguistic obstacle.
HA: Would you say that this is a technical obstacle, one of logistics and of overcoming linguistic-pedagogical venues of transmitting ideas?
WH: It may begin as a technical issue of course, but in reality it is much more than that. Accessing another culture through language is a choice, which Western powers and their intellectual elites effectively exercised at one point in the service of their colonial causes. Here, accessing the Islamic languages did not constitute a major difficulty, much less a technical one. Colonialism required the production of classical orientalism, for without the former the latter would not have come into existence in the way and shape it has finally acquired and continues to develop. In the same vein, failure to access a language is fundamentally a substantive matter, not strictly a technical one. For example, my decision to write in English and not Indian or Chinese–if that is my decision at all–is a complex substantive matter that ties in directly to the relationship between power and knowledge, between my background as a colonized subject and the makers of that colonial history. And there is nothing more telling about the substantive complexity of the issue of language than the Western university professor who reproduces “Islam” without feeling the need to understand “it” through a close textual, sociological, or–among others–anthropological study of that phenomenon. And all of these academic endeavors, to be genuinely engaged, require a decent command of one or another Islamic language, even speaking and living it. This professor’s choice not to bother with any of these requirements (which seem to be taken for granted in nearly any other context) is a matter to do with the constitution and structure of power, not with mere personal incompetence to master a language.
HA: What would be another central obstacle?
WH: Another very important obstacle to note is that, with rare exceptions, Muslim thinkers begin with fundamentally different premises from those that Western writers start from, however much they consciously or unconsciously emulate Western thought and philosophical writing. Even the “utilitarianists” or “quasi-utilitarianists” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–the likes of Muhammad Abduh and especially Rashid Rida–thought in a framework that assumed as a starting point two things: (a) a religious context from which they can talk, and which defines the limits, if not contours, of their narratives, and (b) a historical context or, more precisely, a substantive frame of history that continues to be a source of authority for legitimating forms of modern life. And when I say “history” or “historical” here, I mean a fairly committed historical engagement that calls upon many bygone centuries as a source of knowledge and guidance, trying to retrieve from this history, or through it, an interpretation that conforms to living in the modern world (this of course entailed considerable problems that I hope I can address later). Or, one could put it differently and say that little in the way of engaging with the modern could be accomplished without bringing that history and those religious texts to bear on a particular–very particular–interpretation, namely, that which is specifically modern. And these two interconnected commitments–the religious one in particular–stood and continue to stand in violation of a sacred principle in the modern Western intellectual milieu (and I use “sacred” advisedly). To be taken seriously in this intellectual milieu of ours today, you cannot presuppose–as your founding premise–a traditional metaphysic, however intellectually sophisticated it may be, and no matter the extent to which it endorses liberal doctrines and practices (if any, this will involve you in compounded problems). And even if you attempt so much (as some surely have done), your argument would have no hearing unless it is seriously subjected to the discursive terms of a “secular-rationalist” narrative. The natural law defenders in today’s West are an excellent case in point, but this particular lot faces relatively fewer and less substantial obstacles than their Muslim counterparts.
Second, the Enlightenment concept of history (one with which we continue to live today), though itself still deeply historical, paradoxically denies certain aspects of history. For example, there is a contradiction within the Western theory of progress itself–of invoking a particular brand of history while simultaneously pitting itself against, if not undermining, what we call today traditional history (which the Enlightenment and its progress theory created in the first place!). So history has always been a problematic issue in a modernity that insists on the paradigmatic adoption of a theory of progress. The Muslim intellectual elite, on the other hand, has only recently begun to relate to the deeper significations of this worldview, which–in the particular way it has been done–is not, in my opinion, a welcome step. The concept of progress itself is a deeply problematic one, and Muslim intellectuals and historians alike have not been able so far to dissect its inner ideological structures. And we can see the effects of this failure in at least one important sphere. During the past two or three decades, a new trend has emerged in the Muslim world that tends to condemn Islamic history as “dark and abusive,” replicating almost exactly the European narrative of condemning the violations of the Catholic Church and monarchical absolutism. The trend (almost entirely ignorant of its own intellectual heritage and history) began to show faint signs early on in the twentieth century, but it did not gain momentum until more than half a century later. Like much of liberal values and doctrines, with which the theory of progress organically coalesced, it took some time to internalize them into what has become a “native discourse.” Although the historical worlds of diverse and multifaceted Islam and Europe could not have been more different, “Islamic history” is gradually beginning to look like the European dark ages. As histories of oppression and of political and “legal” abuse, they, unsurprisingly, emerge as a near identity. Perhaps a little later I will explain how this plays out regarding the subject of our concern.
Nonetheless, the insistence on historical and religious narratives as constituting a legitimized and legitimizing tradition remains the fundamental feature that continues to separate and pit apart the Western-Enlightenment thinkers from their Muslim counterparts (not to mention the notorious epistemic, political, and ideological difficulties to which this feature has given rise). The former declare (perceived) abstracted “reason” as the tool of human guidance par excellence, whereas the latter, even the most liberal amongst them, invoke that historico-religious narrative at nearly every turn, even when they condemn it. Just consider the likes of Muhammad Arkoun, M. Abed al-Jabiri, Ali Harb, Hasan Hanafi, Muhammad Shahrur, even the Christian George Tarabishi, and numerous others from the Iranian, Malayan, and Sub-Continental Indian worlds (these and their ilk who form most of the category I refer to as Muslim intellectuals). At the end of the day, they are unable to do without the Quran, to say the least. Which is also to say that these writers can never appeal to a secular, radically non-scripturalist tradition as that of mainstream Enlightenment/Western thought.
HA: It seems to me, judging from some of your lectures, that what you said about scriptural foundations is merely the tip of the iceberg. Would you care to dwell a little more on this theme?
WH: Of course. I should also note that the discursive manner in which modern Muslim thinkers articulated and continue to articulate themselves is not likely to attract the attention–and thus engagement–of either Western academia or Western thought at large. Let me explain why. Roughly (very roughly) speaking, there are two camps or trends within modern Islamic and Islamist thought (for my specific purposes here, “Islamic” and “Islamist” are not very distinguishable from each other). One is a great majority that has been for too long bidding for a losing venture, both internally and externally; namely, the venture of rationalizing Islam (in nearly all of its aspects) in terms of liberal philosophy and liberal categories of thought. A deep understanding of this project will reveal major reasons for its ineluctable failure, but this is not my concern today. Instead, I want to stress that as a system of thought and practice, liberalism has yet to be digested by the leading intellectuals of the Muslim world–notable rare exceptions notwithstanding.
This failure to understand is in fact a double one: Muslim intellectuals have yet to understand and appreciate the trenchant–and at times radical–critique of liberalism from within the Euro-American tradition itself, whether liberal or not. (And here as elsewhere, “Euro-American” includes the Australian, among other places, as these have also made some significant contributions in this regard).
The other trend or camp in modern Islamic thought is a thin one, and is emerging slowly but hopefully steadily and surely. This is the Islamic critical school spearheaded by the Moroccan language, logic, and moral philosopher Taha Abdurrahman, who has not succumbed to the Enlightenment modes of thought. His critical-constructive approach signals a promising innovating beginning from which a new path of thinking and re-articulation can begin.
Now, my point is this: neither camp is likely in the short term to attract the attention of Western thinkers partly because the “Muslim liberals” (who are the overwhelming majority) would be deemed by their Western counterparts as second, if not third-rate, intellectuals, and emulators of sorts. There is nothing in the thought and practice of these Muslim liberals that is of value to the vigorous debate about liberalism raging in the West (however problematic and self-absorbed it may be). If anything, their collective position effectively represents an endorsement of liberal claims and values, a fact that has the unavoidable effect of, first, strengthening these claims and rendering them resilient in the face of criticism, and second, of bestowing justification upon liberal states to continue to molest Islamic countries without remorse. Furthermore, the fate of these emulators will inevitably resemble the disdain with which the pre-modern Muslim mujtahids and quasi-mujtahids regarded the muqallidun. And in this, no one should blame the Western thinkers. As a matter of legal-moral practice, taqlid may have been valuable if not necessary, but in the domain of critical thought and analysis, it can never gain any respect. A muqallid is simply someone who has nothing to say, however much babble he or she may utter.
And the fate of the second camp will not fare any better, at least in the short or foreseeable run. However, I stake much on the attractiveness of this camp in the long run, because I see it as one expression of a promising change. I find the oppositions between the general path of Western intelligentsia and such approaches as that of Abdurrahman to be too great (although in the case of this philosopher, one must find it significant that he arrived at his system of thought after having digested much of the European philosophical tradition). So even if mainstream Western thought were to notice or access the works of the Moroccan philosopher and his likes, I am not sure it will know what to do with them. Language barriers or not, the challenges that this camp puts forth are formidable by any standard. Perhaps they will be relegated to the shelf of curious “Oriental” objects, as has been done with so much of Islamic phenomena. Abdurrahman’s deep moral challenge is simply indigestible by the current Western mainstream.
HA: This sounds like a deadlock. Where do we go from here?
WH: So far, it has been a deadlock, but only in the sense that the two camps have not yet met. The engagement is yet to take place, and then we can see if a real deadlock will take place. But so far, not even a beginning of an exchange is taking places. I do not see a Michael Sandel, an Alasdair MacIntyre, a Charles Taylor, or anyone of their caliber or leanings dialoging with, say, Taha Abdurrahman or anyone else for that matter. Most probably, these philosophers have never heard of him, and frankly, I doubt that even the likes of Taylor will emerge out of their immediate intellectual worlds and interests to put forward such an effort. And if such a group of philosophers is not likely to engage in a dialogue, then there is little hope of others joining. In The Impossible State I tried to frame some of the questions the Muslim world is dealing with in a way that is–I hope–digestible to the Western intellectual. And I called–at the end of the book–on Muslim intellectuals also to try to come at least one step forward with a view to formulating their issues in ways that a Western audience, or Western intellectuals, can relate to.
But this in itself is certainly not enough. As I said earlier, there must be a qualitatively different and critical body of thought, pulling behind it enough weight to make Western intellectuals listen. The challenge is stupendous. We academicians and intellectuals do everything we can to ennoble the image of knowledge as a sublime pursuit, but this is one of the biggest modern myths we live. I understand and accept the veracity of this image in a context in which knowledge was pursued for moral ends, that is, for practical ethics, the way, for example, Ghazalian or Aquinian ethics was constructed and construed in its own environment. But the transformations in the modern world, and the unprecedented complicity between knowledge and power (which turns out at the end to be the power of the Schmittian political) make this the myth that I see. If politics is war by other means, and undoubtedly it is, then knowledge–including academia–is politics-cum-war by other means. The appearance of knowledge’s form as the business of soft-handed professors and bearded older scholars, with eager students who are on a “quest to know,” should never mask or change this sober reality. In fact, it is one of the greatest modern deceptions. Muslim intellectuals and an infinite number of many others have yet to digest the power of this physically crushing metaphor.
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 theirenvironments. 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 properunderstanding 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.