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The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament

The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity's Moral Predicament [Kindle Edition]

Wael B. Hallaq
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This is a bracing, erudite, and compelling account of the moral, political, and structural features of Islamic governance and the modern state, as well as of the multiple incongruities that hamper any attempt to establish one in terms of the other. Wael Hallaq delivers a welcome rejoinder to much of the dogmatic bluster swirling around the subject of shari'a and the Islamic state. At the same time, he brings into sharp focus the often overlooked resources for reconceptualizing 'the modern project' from within both Islamic and Euro-American traditions of moral and political thought. The historical, theoretical, and political richness of this account makes The Impossible State a new standard against which any claims about the possibility of establishing Islamic governance in the contemporary world must now be evaluated. -- Roxanne L. Euben, Wellesley College A provocative and wide-ranging rumination by one of the leading scholars of Islamic law, this book poses tough questions to champions and critics of shari'a alike. Wael Hallaq makes a powerful argument for the relevance of shari'a as a moral discourse while remaining critical of its compatibility with the modern state. The Impossible State is bound to elicit debate among scholars of Islam, moral philosophy, and modernity across the Western and non-Western divide. -- Saba Mahmood, author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject It is an important contribution to understanding the role and potential of the shari'a in the modern world. -- Mark D. Welton Middle East Journal Summer 2013 A philosophical and rhetorical tour de force. Choice 9/1/13

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Wael B. Hallaq boldly argues that the “Islamic state,” judged by any standard definition of what the modern state represents, is both an impossible and inherently self-contradictory concept. Comparing the legal, political, moral, and constitutional histories of pre-modern Islam and Euro-America, he finds the adoption and practice of the modern state to be highly problematic for modern Muslims. He then conducts a more expansive critique of 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 it 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 the Muslim 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 recognizing such parallels enables Muslims to engage more productively with their Western counterparts.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 909 KB
  • Print Length: 274 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0231162561
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (11 Dec 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #286,032 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Impossible State 8 May 2013
By Zubair
The thesis of this book is that "Islamic State" judged by any standard definition of modern state is `both an impossibility and a contradiction in terms'. It is asserted that moral-legal system based on divine sovereignty is essential for Islam as much as sovereignty is essential for the modern state. Therefore, there can be no Islamic state (p51). Hallaq argues that the paradigmatic `Islamic governance' does not differentiate between the legal, the moral, and the mystical. This makes it a misfit within the structure of not only the modern state but also the globalised world dominated by capitalism and corporations (pp137-8)

After setting its premises in chapter 1, chapter 2 sets out to define the Modern State. It is followed by chapter 3 which establishes contradiction and confusion in the theory of Separation of Powers in the first part of this chapter. In the second part, the author argues that the term "Islamic State" is anachronistic and rather prefers the use of "Islamic governance" for the historical phenomenon that has been described by other scholars as "Islamic State". He then describes the Islamic moral-legal system, which according to him, is based on complete separation of powers between the legislature and executive. He argues that Islamic "legislators"--muftīs represented the community and successfully put a check on rulers' powers. He challenges the thesis of Oriental despotism and ends this chapter with the assertion that "Shar`ī structures" provide for John Rawl's "well ordered society" in which citizens have a shared sense of justice (pp72-3).
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, bold, brilliant, epic -- A must read 15 Jan 2013
By Roode_Afzah - Published on
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 -- 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 society, economy, and politic operates. 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 ***
1.0 out of 5 stars Important but is it worth the effort? 16 Aug 2014
By A. Paolini - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This contention of this book has enormous implications plus describing concepts and their implications for nations with large Muslim populations and Western nations. The author is Wael B. Hallaq is a scholar of Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history. He is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. Obviously the editor of his book was too intimidated to suggest any changes to Hallaq's writing style which is so abstract and esoteric that one has to ponder almost every sentence to grasp its meaning. After a while, one's mind becomes numb and one questions whether continuing is worth the effort.
5.0 out of 5 stars A great book 11 Jun 2014
By Ryan Mahmoud - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Thus is a great book and explains the difference between Shariah and the modern and why they are incompatible. They are incompatible because the modern state lacks moral foundations needed for Islamic governance. There are a few issues in the final chapter which I have criticised. For a comprehensive review, follow the link below where I discuss the book in detail on my blog.
4.0 out of 5 stars Concept of State in Middle East 25 Oct 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
A very interesting analysis on the western concept of State and the flaws on its applicability to the political realities of the Middle East
3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars False Positives 20 Feb 2014
By L. King - Published on
I quite enjoyed one of Hallaq's previous books, The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law and was looking forward to this his most recent offering. Whereas the former was highly informative and descriptive, the prescriptive approach taken here quickly loses its academic appeal and evolves into an uninteresting invitation (dawa) to embrace an Islamic lifestyle.

Hallaq's premise is that the Western notion of a State based on representative democracy is incompatible with the traditional norms of Islamic governance. Democracy is based on human law not God's law, and is therefore amoral. He begins well enough with a brief summary of various philosophical views of the state, summarizing Hegel, Hobbes, Weber, Marx, Kelson, Gramsci and Foucault (pp20) but makes the mistake of settling on the formulations of Carl Schmidt as representative of the West. Schmidt was a central and primary Nazi philosopher. It goes downhill from there.

Aside from the use of Schmidt's paradigms, Hallaq will contradicts himself, even in the space of a few paragraphs. For example, on pp93 he claims that "Islam never knew the concept of conscription" yet in the next paragraph he describes how Jannisaries were purchased or snatched from Christian families and then raised as Muslims. On pp 104 he criticizes as "indoctrination" the use of education is to create good citizens and pp108 states that this means that the state exists to propagate itself , yet on page 112 he argues that Sharia is "the path to a good life... its purpose is our raison d'etre" - there's no difference. The ills of the West include colonialism and globalization however the aim in Islam is to colonize Dar al-Harb territories so that non-Muslims accept the moral precepts of Shari'a (pp49). He also believes that the overlapping responsibilities in a Westernized state between political, judicial and bureaucratic agencies is a major flaw by referencing in an unclear fashion the arbitrariness of government agencies. In doing so he misunderstands that the conflicts created by checks and balances are our strength. This from a professor who's spent most of his teaching life in Canada and the US!

By the end of the book he has concluded that the value of an individual is derived from their piety (pp50), that the purpose of citizenship is to create a moral community (pp140) and that education in science and the humanities should be constrained by the Sharia and that the Enlightenment (quoting John Gray) represented by the drive for emancipation through the growth of knowledge - must be abandoned. (pp170).

IMV it's just not that well argued. Hallaq offers a romantic mysticized and indistinct view of an unrealized Islamic past against a caricature of the present. Interesting to some extent, but so is a train wreck. Like most utopian fantasies not an appealing society, except for those who share the author's beliefs and values. For a well written contrast see Tarek Fatah's Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic lllusion of an Islamic State.
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