A Review on Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament

July 30, 2017 by Prof Karim Crow


1.Para1Professor Wael Hallaq is an outstanding scholar of Islamic legal studies with a solid corpus of works attesting to his erudition and productivity.[1] He has made major contributions to the study of Islamic traditions of logic, legal theory, and substantive law, in addition to developing a methodology enabling Islamic scholars to confront challenges facing the Islamic legal tradition.

Impossible State treats the essential incompatibility between the modern state and the Sharī‘a, and forms a sequel to his magisterial opus published in 2009 by Cambridge University Press, Sharī‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations.[2]

To grasp the issues treated and his audacious approach, these two books should actually be studied together, along with a third work being a simplified abridgement of Sharī‘a.[3] Among the many merits of Sharī‘a, its third section on modernity provides the best synthetic overview of the impact of European colonialism and nation-state institutions on the ‘pre-modern’ Sharī‘a found anywhere, which alone makes this work an indispensable aid for understanding contemporary Islamic intellectual and political projects.

Impossible State completes this overview from a moral-philosophic perspective.

Hallaq demonstrates in convincing detail what happened to the Sharī‘a over the last two centuries, and how its remnants were transformed into an oppressive regime wielded by the relatively new nation-state. The national state system imposed by imperialism was the most important factor in effectively dismantling the Sharī‘a and causing it to lose its autonomy and moral social agency in favor of the modern state.

Indeed, European colonialism intentionally targeted the Shar‘ī legal and institutional realms in order to command effective control over subject peoples and their resources. “Beginning in the nineteenth century, and at the hands of colonialist Europe, the socioeconomic and political system regulated by the Sharī‘a was structurally dismantled…reduced to providing no more than the raw materials for the legislation of personal status by the modern state.”[4]

2.Para7.RightHallaq shows how globalisation with its corollary militarism, irrefutable cultural intrusions, and massive liberal-capitalist world market consummates the eclipse of the moral domain within which Islamic governance had functioned, replacing it with the reign of the political and economic. Fact triumphs over value, and the externalist technologies of body replace interior moral character training and care of the self.

Naturally in this brief review we merely glance at a few basic ideas. Impossible State works on three levels involving major cognitive and institutional ruptures generated by the onset of modernity, through a comparative overview of law, political philosophy, and morality. We are taken on a ‘helicopter tour’ of major conceptual and institutional changes transforming West and East since the 18th century Enlightenment. Our modern condition joining Euromericans and contemporary Muslims has converged in perverse ways albeit along differing trajectories. Both now embrace techno-scientism, deploy positivist instrumental rationality for control and manipulation of self and nature, and employ violence (either coercive state militarism, or jihadist terror).

In our understanding, Hallaq has produced a unique blend of ‘moral philosophy’ cum ‘comparative civilizational analysis’ with an incisive critique of modernity, as the necessary prelude to a possible project of “moral retrieval”. Other thinkers performing a parallel task are the Moroccan francophone scholar Taha Abderrahmane (little known in the Anglo world), and in a more metaphysical vein Syed H. Nasr and William C. Chittick[5], or in a Confucian context Tu Weiming.

In his first two chapters Hallaq insists on the methodological utility of comparing the “paradigmatic structures” of these two utterly incompatible systems of modern nation State and the pre-modern Sharī‘a, convinced that only this level of analysis can show how and why the Sharī‘a came to be dramatically refashioned at the hands of the modern state. His reliance on ‘paradigm’ as a comparative analytical tool leaves him open to criticism.[6]

Now, is this comparison essentialist and overly abstracted, as several critics assert (Nathan Brown, Neguin Yavari)? Or as L. Abu-Odeh suggests, Hallaq is providing an illegitimate comparison: “to compare a “paradigm” (the Islamic) that prevailed before the advent of modernity and the spread of global capitalism and its imperialist arm that dismantled all pre-modern societies, European and otherwise, to a state model (the Western) that emerged in its aftermath, is surely like comparing, well, apples to oranges.”[7]

The response to this objection or dismissal depends largely upon our operative assumptions and ability to dispassionately appraise the prevailing systems and norms within which we move and breathe, to step outside our inherited world-view and cultural-intellectual traditions. If we insist that the proper comparison is to contrast the modern nation-state with contemporary Islamic societies, rather than the historically eclipsed Sharī‘a expressions of Islamic moral governance, then Hallaq might reply that would be comparing rotten apples with wormy apples, since almost all current Muslim majority polities are hybrids of the modern nation-state.

3.Para13This yields an even more unbalanced comparison, given the knowledge and power imbalance prevailing in the current world system. Nevertheless, for serving the author’s underlying ethical intent, the comparisons he forcefully and persuasively presents are compelling and indeed serve his purpose well.


Thus Hallaq’s critique of modernity is double edged.

One, he provides a comparison of the “paradigmatic structures” of Enlightenment liberal values propping up the modern nation-state, its devastating ramifications on the social, economic, political, and ecological orders―with the socio-economic and communitarian ethos of the Sharī‘a which for twelve centuries (until the 19th century) provided Muslims with a vital, adaptable and flexible moral domain that regulated and mitigated excesses and shortcomings by caliphs, sultans or amirs, in effect providing the veritable functioning sphere of Islamic governance.

4.Para16.RightChapter three contrasts the constitutional structures of Islam with the present nation-state. Chapter four examines legal, political and moral components of Islamic governance (which operated largely through the Sharī‘a) and the modern state. Chapter five demonstrates the two very different types of human being generated by these two civilizational forms with differing ‘technologies of the self’, while chapter six treats the capitalist corporate challenges mitigating any form of genuine Islamic governance.

Two. Hallaq’s other equally central criticism is the failure of intellectual and cultural elites (West and East) to adequately comprehend the real dimensions, modes of operation, and ensuing ramifications of this dichotomy (i.e. his comparative dissection of two incompatible ‘paradigmatic structures’). He highlights their mutual inability to initiate an effective response that might bridge this dichotomy―thereby possibly enriching both in reciprocal exchange. Such reciprocal recognition and understanding could potentially contribute to a new global era of multiple modernities facilitating civilizational flourishing.

His targets in this second critique are therefore twofold: First there are the bulk of Euromerican intelligentsia, academics, and policy makers; and secondly the contemporary Muslim intelligentsia (i.e. since the 1960s onward). Muslim thinkers today remain almost exclusively divided into two camps. (a) Those enthralled by the power and success of the liberal Euromerican ‘factive’ eclipse of Value, thus mimicking intellectual, economic and political fashions and institutions imported from outside. Or (b) the traditional religious-historical mentality, which idealizes and reifies its inherited civilizational resources yet actually is blind to the depths and efficacy of the (now emasculated and trivialized) Islamic Shari‘ī moral governance, while remaining uncomprehending of the true nature of the Euromerican project. He is dismissive of the prevailing Muslim intellectual enchantment with modern instrumentality and liberal political institutions, and their blindness to the moral and civilizational trap these embody.

In his final chapter, Hallaq expresses cautious optimism that possible convergence might transpire between fledgling circles of Western thinkers[8] who mount persuasive critiques of their own Enlightenment legacy with its globalising penetration; and the few Islamic thinkers who seek to mount a parallel critique while simultaneously affirming their difference by plumbing the depths of the shrinking moral domain the Sharī‘a mediated historically.

Nevertheless, Hallaq laments the heedless dis-interest of this tiny group of Western thinkers who refuse to engage with the possible riches of Islamic legacy; as well as the rarity of Islamic thinkers who possess requisite understanding of the real nature of the dominant liberal nation-state, joined with profound grasp of moral and spiritual dimensions of Shar‘ī governance.

For Hallaq, these two trends need to communicate with each other. In other words, awakening the moral domain as experienced and understood in the realm of the living Sharī‘a has the potential to correct the Euromerican inversion of value and bridge civilisations. This (admittedly remote) possibility could possibly help prepare for an emerging cosmopolitan order where diverse modernities co-exist harmoniously, for “the modern condition is unsustainable and must be made to pass.”

5.Para22His book provides no self-calming comforting illusions to lull any unease over our shared situation. It will be indigestible for the majority of western-educated Muslims who generally remain ignorant of their own social-intellectual history, and heedless of the ramifications of modernity driving them into the arms of marketised societies. In a recent interview he bitingly remarks: “Accepting and glorifying technology and at once condemning the value system that it produces is nothing but stark nonsense. …Nowhere to be found is a proper understanding of the implications of the basic values that Muslim thinkers are calling for adoption from the West.”[9]

Hallaq will be dismissed as heretical by most Euromerican intellectuals for his vigorous attack on the underlying structures and conceptions of the modern state, and for highlighting the nihilistic psycho-somatic degradation it has wrought on our globe. They will fob him off with the trivializing charge of nostalgia for his insistence on the pertinence and necessity of the ‘moral domain’. He argues 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. He thinks the unthinkable and awakens the unthought. We give him the last word:[10]

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 corporations that rule our lives. …

The Shari‘a jurists always insisted on moral 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 Shari‘a’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.

KarimCrowProfessor Karim Douglas Crow is currently Research Coordinator for the council for research in values and philosophy (RVP), as an authority on Islamic rationality and the Shi‘a-Sunni schism. He was Principal Fellow at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur for six years; prior to that he taught at ISTAC. Crow’s research focuses on ethical issues joining Muslim with Euro-American modernities. He is a longstanding affiliate of Nonviolence International (based in WDC), where he traveled Asia organizing seminars on Islamic peace studies with scholars, officials and activists. He remains active in a number of international and regional non-governmental peace building organizations from Palestine to Indonesia and Japan.


[1] Currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York City. He was named in 2009 among the 500 most influential Muslims in the world – despite his Christian Palestinian origin.

[2] Admittedly for advanced readers, the scope of Sharī‘a comprises three sections: I. The pre-modern Tradition (pp. 27–221); II. The Law: an Outline (pp. 223–353); III. The Sweep of Modernity (pp. 355–550). It is the most comprehensive and insightful work in its field.

[3] Wael Hallaq, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Cambridge University Press, 2009; 200pp); he eliminates all theoretical and technical discussions in an attempt to reach non-specialist readers. Introduction is a recapitulation and condensation of his more detailed and fully documented Sharī‘a, although chapter one (pp. 7–13) offers fresh material on rationality; it is ideal for classroom use.

[4] ‘Introduction’ to Impossible State.

[5] William C. Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007). Also see Umar Faruq Abd-Allah (2007), “Living Islam with Purpose”, at: www.nawawi.org.

[6] Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory of shifts in scientific theory has certainly been abused in the human sciences, especially when misapplied to religions. An instructive example of such distortion is Hans Küng, Islam: Past, Present & Future (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008; paperback 2009); see our critique “The Use and Abuse of ‘Paradigm’: From Thomas Kuhn to Hans Küng,” Hikmah [Amin Research Centre, Kuala Lumpur] vol. 1 no.1 (2011) pp. 107–149.

[7] Lama Abu-Odeh states, “Hallaq’s methodological assumption is that the norm (the paradigm) precedes the real in the sense that Islamic history can be summed up as the attempt to realize the norm.” For her review in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, go to:  http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2279&context=facpub .

[8] The likes of: Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Larmore, and John Gray, all of whom Hallaq draws upon in his work for ammunition in his crititque of modernity.

[9] Interview with Hallaq by Hasan Azad on Jadaliyya site, June 7th 2014, ‘Muslims and the Path of Intellectual Slavery’, at: http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/18036/muslims-and-the-path-of-intellectual-slavery_an-in.

[10] Ibid.